Cockermouth is a market town with a 13th century charter on the banks of the River Derwent about half way between Keswick and Workington by the A66. The town’s name comes from the River Cocker which flows into the River Derwent here. It is probably best known as the poet William Wordsworth’s birthplace. Today there is a wide variety of accommodation in Cockermouth area, conveniently placed for exploring the Lake District and the West Cumbria coast.
Cockermouth Castle was built in the centuries immediately following the Norman conquest and first recorded in 1221 when the king ordered it to be besieged and destroyed during a rebellion. It appears to have been quickly rebuilt, and went through various phases of damage and reconstruction over the next couple of centuries. It was eventually allowed to fall into disrepair after the seventeenth century Civil War but was later restored as a residence. The castle is now part of the family estates of Lord Egremont (Leconfield Estates). It is not open to the public except on special occasions. Possibly the best photographic impressions of Cockermouth Castle on the web are to be found here. There are several pages on its history in Robert Hugill’s book, “Castles of Cumberland and Westmorland”
When tourists make their way to Cockermouth today it is very often to visit William Wordsworth’s birthplace. The town’s most famous son, the 19th century poet laureate, was born here in 1770. The Wordsworth House here along with Rydal Mount and Dove Cottage at Grasmere provide a trio of major Wordsworth visitor locations in the Lake District, each relating to a different stage of the poets’s life. His father was agent to Sir James Lowther, and as such had the most splendid house in the town, on Main Street with the River Derwent immediately behind it. The Wordsworth house is now in the care of the National Trust and open to the public.
Wordsworth lived here, with three brothers and a sister, until his mother died in 1778 and the family was split up. He went, aged nine, with his brothers into lodgings at Hawkshead where they attended the Grammar School. His father died five years later.
The poet periodically revisited Cockermouth, especially in later life when his son John was rector of nearby Brigham. He had fond memories of his early years at what is now known as Wordsworth House, In 1805, though, he was disappointed to find the terrace-walk behind the house where he played as a boy now overgrown with brambles. Childhood was not to be recovered. Today the property is lovingly cared for by the National Trust. Staff dressed in period costume often introduce visitors to life as it would have been lived at the time of Wordsworth’s childhood, including the kitchen and his father’s office. Regular harpsichord recitals are also given.
John Dalton: Cockermouth & ScienceJohn Dalton, one of the great scientists of the early 19th century, was born just outside Cockermouth in 1766. His interests ranged widely, including meteorology, colour blindness (known at one time as “Daltonism”) and the properties of gases (“Dalton’s Law”). His greatest claim to fame, however, was as the developer of the atomic theory of matter. Although most of the work for which he is famed was done in Manchester he never forgot his roots in Cockermouth and his early years as a school teacher in Kendal. He died in 1844 but his name lives on. (See also my article on the Around-England blog: Cockermouth: More Men of Science).
Mutiny on the Bounty
Another famous son of Cockermouth was Fletcher Christian, born just two years before John Dalton, at a farmhouse near the Cockermouth to Egremont road. He was educated at Cockermouth Grammar School and then joined the navy. Christian is said to have settled in the Pitcairn Islands after the mutiny, and his descendants are still there, but there are many unsubstantiated rumours as to what later became of him. Some say he was murdered by Tahitian tribesmen; others that he made his way back and lived incognito in England.
It is noteworthy that Cockermouth’s three most famous men were born here in one short period of less than six years in the late-eighteenth century.
The Cockermouth Floods of 2009
Severe flooding in November 2009 caused extensive damage to the lower-lying areas of the town including the main street and the Wordsworth House and garden. The renovation work is a credit to both the local authorities and the people of the town.
The annual “Woolfest”, organised by The Wool Clip cooperative, is held in June and attracts thousands of visitors to more than 150 displays of crafts, materials, techniques and equipment as well as animals and “all things wool”. See our report on the 2012 Woolfest.
If you are travelling from Cockermouth on the A66 to Keswick you will pass Bassenthwaite Lake. Other nearby lakes are Crummock Water, Loweswater and Buttermere. You can also take the A5086 south from Cockermouth to visit Ennerdale Water and Wastwater, and remember it is not far to the West Cumbrian Coast.
Click here for accommodation in the Cockermouth area.
And here are more heritage photos, map and books from Francis Frith.
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