Winter 2005-6

Geraldine Green

On The Passing Of Robert Samuel Woof
Dr. Robert Samuel Woof
Museum Director, The Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere
born April 20 1931; died November 7 2005

I'd already rang the Wordsworth Trust at Grasmere that morning, to check if there were contingency plans should more people attend Dr. Woof's funeral than anticipated. Yes, I was told, a marquee was being set up close to the church of St. Oswald's in Grasmere village.

A good thing it was they did.

On a cold day in late November people gathered from all corners of the country and from all walks of life to celebrate the life of Dr. Robert Woof. Local schoolchildren, tiny dots in their blue uniforms, looking shy and proud and glad to be part of it; people arriving on foot, by car, in a helicopter. Television crews were there and cameras flashed as we left the church.

Grasmere was filled yesterday with the presence of Robert Woof; his personality, charisma, commitment, stubbornness and verve was celebrated by the diverse collection of humanity, all there to give thanks for his life and work.

It was a day for tributes, paid from family and friends. Retired MP's, Cecil Parkinson and Chris Smith, of Conservative and Labour Parties respectively, read their touching, heartfelt memories of their close friend.

It was a day for moving readings from Wordsworth's, 'The Prelude' from Joyce’s 'Finnegan's Wake’, hymns sung with verve enough to shake the old rafters of the small, whitewashed walls of St. Oswald's Church, while outside the wind moaned round.

I imagined what it was like when Wordsworth was a lad and how fitting a full circle it was that Robert Woof - who has done so much for the Wordsworth Trust - be buried in his beloved Grasmere, beneath Helm Crag, locally know as 'The Lion and the Lamb' or 'The Old Lady playing the Organ' depending from which direction you approach it.

As I walked to the cemetery, I could have been walking in Wordsworth's footsteps.

Instead I was following other people's steps to pay last respects to a man who, as Chris Smith, the Rt. Hon. Lord Smith of Finsbury, PC, said, 'had done more for the Wordsworth Trust's vision than anyone else had in the last 150 years.'

Robert Woof was Museum Curator and Director of The Wordsworth Trust who ‘lovingly developed Wordsworth's legacy at Grasmere," noted Smith. He was born in Lancaster, educated at the Royal Lancaster Grammar School and, at the age of 18, in an echo of Wordsworth's own discovery a century and a half before, first saw Dove Cottage on a day out cycling. He later wrote: "By the time I got back home, it was burned into my imagination that there was such a place."

The aim of the founders of the Wordsworth Trust in 1890 was to secure Dove Cottage and its collection "for the eternal possession of those who love English poetry all over the world". Robert Woof did this and more. As Chris Smith said, ‘No one but Robert could have persuaded Michael Foot to open an exhibition on Hazlitt, Philip Pullman to do the honours for Milton and Blake, the Heritage Lottery Fund to help fund the acquisition of one of the most important collections of books from the Romantic period, Seamus Heaney to cut the ribbon for the new Collections Centre, the Huntington Library to lend a collection of Blake drawings not seen in Britain for a century, some 70 poets and writers to come and read their work, the Spooner collection of remarkable watercolours to come to Grasmere, and Sir Ian McKellen to make a recording of Wordsworth's entire Prelude, to mark its 200th anniversary.’

It was Robert Woof who began the major series of poetry readings and literary events that happen at Grasmere every year and bring contemporary poets and artists into residence at the Trust, linking the heritage of the past with the contemporary. And I had met him at the many poetry readings I've attended over these past few years since returning to my native Cumbria.

As a local poet, to be able to sit and listen to some of the greatest living poets today, poets such as Galway Kinnell, Les Murray, Jack Mapanje, Kate Clanchy, Maurice Riordan, Gillian Allnutt, C K Williams, was something that Robert made possible for myself and others to do. Talk with them. Sit next to them at dinner. Be a part of that long heritage stretching back to Wordsworth and his contemporaries, when what they were doing was innovative and exciting, and seen to be daring; speaking in the language of the 'common' people and not writing and reading in the tongues of the ruling class.

As a published Cumbrian poet, the opportunity to mix and mingle and share my art with colleagues in the region, and with those who come from abroad, has been enhanced and nourished through the insight, vision and belief of Robert Woof.

Cumbria for me is the most stimulating and inspiring place in which to live and write and learn and grow. I can well understand why Wordsworth felt nature was his nurse. There's a humility in being put into perspective by the elements and the presence of the ever rushing becks and high ranges of fells. And there's hidden talent in all corners of Cumbria; from Morecambe Bay to the Solway to the Eden Valley and tucked away in the forest around Hawkshead.

All this potential to explode into the world and to be showcased both in the region and outside it! It is like seeds growing in the dark, just waiting for the optimum time to burst into flower. Like Antoine de St Exupery's "seeds yearning for the sun."

In many ways, Robert Woof was that sun, in Cumbria. He was our gardener, nurturing talent, encouraging writers with his infectious optimism and determination.




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