Poet Wordsworth’s Chickens
“Behold the parent hen amid her brood...”
If you’ve ever heard the poem, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” you’ve heard poetry by William Wordsworth, an English Romantic Age poet who lived in the Lake District between 1770 and 1850. Wordsworth grew up in a house in Cockermouth, England, which today, is called Wordsworth House and Garden. The house is open to the public and they have chickens who live in the award-winning garden beside the River Derwent, described by Wordsworth as the “fairest of all rivers.”
The poet loved to observe nature, watch wildlife, and write about what he saw. He wrote about his hens in some of his poetry, observing hen parenting techniques and crediting them with “tenderness and love” towards their newborn chicks. “Behold the parent hen amid her brood…” he wrote.
Today, the hens that live at Wordsworth House and Garden are Orpingtons and Silkies. “They’re very popular with visitors of all ages,” says Alex Morgan, Communications Manager. “They are quite noisy, but they’re great listeners too! The staff and garden volunteers love them as much as the visitors.
“They used to live in a splendid house modeled on one from an 18th-century Thomas Bewick drawing, but floods put paid to that. They now have more modern, but equally commodious housing. There are handwritten vintage slates hung on the fencing around their pen, giving their names and personality traits.
“A few years back, one of our hens went missing for a couple of months. We had no idea what had happened to her. Then a passerby popped into our shop and said she’d looked through the window of the (now closed down) former art shop and printing museum next door and been surprised to see a chicken wandering around — did we know where it could have come from? We’ve no idea how the hen got out of the pen, over a 12-foot wall and into a locked building, but she was right as rain when the team borrowed the keys and went in to recapture her!”
Meet the Chicken Keeper!
The chickens are the responsibility of head gardener, Amanda Thackeray, and her volunteer team. Amanda was pleased to tell me about her role. “I don’t have a background in caring for hens,” she explains, “but when research revealed that William’s father John had kept them, it seemed the most natural thing to do. We investigated how an area for hens would have looked in the late 18th century and created our own. The chicken enclosure was constructed in 2010, and it’s surrounded by a split oak palisade (fence). Our original henhouse was made of oak boarding, Georgian in style, inspired by a henhouse in an old Thomas Bewick drawing.”
Visitors were enchanted as they watched the hens run around, but then disaster struck. In 2015, Cockermouth was flooded. “It was our second flood in six years, and it was devastating,” says Amanda. “The house and garden were already closed for the winter and, fortunately, we’d decided to send our mini flock of Scots Dumpy chickens off-site that year, so they were safe and dry at the home of one of our countryside rangers who keeps hens himself.
“The garden at Wordsworth House in Cockermouth was under several feet of water and the damage to the henhouse was so bad that we needed to replace it.”
New Chicken Accommodation
Amanda and her team sourced new accommodation for the hens, so they could return to Cockermouth in the spring, but over the winter period, the situation had changed. While the hens were living with the ranger, they formed a strong bond with his own flock.
“We didn’t have the heart to separate them,” says Amanda. “So, we bought two ‘Long-Legged Maggie’ hen houses, which are built on little stilts, and a new flock of Orpingtons and Silkies.”
The birds were all named after plants and things found in nature, so among the current flock, there’s a black Orpington called Brambles, a golden laced Orpington called Conker, a buff Orpington called Bracken, and a blue Orpington called Madame Thistle. They also have three white Silkies called Rowan, Holly, and Fern, and a hybrid called Ash, who’s a cross between a Polish and a Silkie.
There aren’t any cockerels at Wordsworth’s house. “We just have hens, as the small walled garden where they live is overlooked by a row of Victorian terraced houses and we wouldn’t want to disturb the occupants’ sleep,” says Amanda.
The hens bring much joy to Wordsworth’s House and Garden. “They’re always so happy to see you,” Amanda continues, “and the house staff frequently pop out to chat with them. They do tend to get spoilt by us all — and they have definite food preferences. They love mealworms and turn up their noses at normal vegetables, much preferring the Good King Henry we grow specifically for them (a leafy vegetable, like spinach, which you can eat with salads). In the autumn, as an added treat, we give them sunflower heads, which they love.”
The hens recognize Amanda’s voice and respond to her talking. “When I came back from a two-week holiday recently,” she says, “the first thing I had to do was lead a tour around the garden for a group of US visitors. When we reached the small walled garden, Madame Thistle was so pleased to hear me, she squawked and chuntered the whole time I was talking — it was hilarious!”
Visitors and the Hens
The hens are very popular with visitors to Wordsworth’s house. “Visitors love engaging with the hens,” says Amanda. When people are asked to give feedback on their visit, they often mention the hens as a highlight. Children, in particular, like to see the white Silkies. “The explorer Marco Polo said they look like a cross between a rabbit and chicken because they’re so furry!” she adds.
The hens’ eggs aren’t used in the tearooms, but they are used in the Georgian kitchen, where authentic Georgian recipes, like those the Wordsworth family might have eaten, are cooked. Actors in costume play out the roles of 18th-century servants, and it really helps to bring the period to life.
Visitors also enjoy reading the hand-written slates hung on the fencing around the chicken pen. “It provides the names of the hens and their personality traits — visitors like spotting which hen is which!” says Amanda.
What happens in the winter, I wonder? Amanda says, “Over the winter months when the property is shut, we have a rota of staff who pop in every day to check on and feed the hens.” They’re also entertained by a large flock of sparrows who perch on the fence and sing!
Originally published in the October/November 2019 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.