Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

A Walk to Skiddaw House

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Far Wescoe: apparently the cottage where poet WH Auden often stayed in the 1930s

A good walk on the lower slopes of Skiddaw this week. After driving up to Cumbria for work, I managed to fit in an afternoon on the fells – first time this year – and actually got some sunshine.

I decided to take a look at Wescoe, a hamlet centred on a large farm. There’s a literary connection because W.H. Auden’s parents had a cottage here and Auden took refuge in it when he got back from the Spanish Civil War in 1937. It was here that he wrote most of his famous poem ‘Spain’, as well as other excellent early poems such as ‘It was Easter as  I walked in the public gardens’.

As far as I can work out, the cottage must have been Far Wescoe – the white one opposite the post box. When I first came here back in the 1980s, looking for the house, I asked around and eventually met an old man who told me, yes, ‘Doctor Auden used to have a cottage here’. He’d never heard of the poet W.H. Auden, but he remembered Auden’s dad, the Birmingham G.P.! Oddly, that made me feel much closer to Auden himself.

From Wescoe I took the lane north-west – partially flooded in places, and I got the predictable bootful of water – which soon becomes a footpath heading due north parallel to the beautiful (and beautifully-named) Glendaratarra Beck, which is down in a deep wooded gorge but gradually comes up to meet the path as you go.

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The lane heading for Skiddaw House (Great Calva in the distance).

I didn’t have a huge amount of time so I simply carried on up to the small bridges over the beck (where someone has just built a new but not intrusive stone building housing, I think, some hydroelectric equipment which I hope isn’t going to interfere with the beck itself) and followed the path up to Skiddaw House.

Skiddaw House is one of the bleakest and most remote houses in the Lakes – a former bothy, now a Youth Hostel (it was closed when I got there so no chance of a cup of tea). It’s a wonderfully grim place, and the larches planted as wind protection have long been reduced to spindly skeletal remnants by the ceaseless prevailing wind.

Skiddaw House is the setting of just about my favourite episode in the whole of Hugh Walpole’s Herries Chronicles, the duel between John and Uhland Herries in The Fortress in which Uhland shoots John and then commits suicide – a horrific  scene but brilliantly written and very suitable for this grim, remote spot.

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Skiddaw House: bleak and lonely but weirdly romantic

 

Given more time, I’d have turned due West and returned via Skiddaw summit, but sadly time was limited and I just returned direct to Wescoe. The consolation was a wonderful view over to the Newlands valley and Causey Pike in front of me as I came down.

I haven’t done a lot of walking this winter owing to persistent minor ailments and family business, but I’m hoping to get up to the Lakes at least once a month henceforth and will try to post about where I go each time. And if you fancy a creative weekend in the Lakes in May 2014, take a look at www.lakelandwritingretreats.co.uk and think about joining Angela Locke and me for a stimulating break!

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Towards Newlands – Causey Pike just right of centre, late afternoon sunlight

DREAMS OF GREAT MEN

If your working life is much concerned with a famous person, it’s probably inevitable that you will occasionally dream about them.

images[1]A few years ago at the Dartington Festival, I bumped into Andrew Motion and we spent an evening chatting. Andrew was Laureate at the time, and somehow we got onto the subject of dreams. I asked him if he’d ever dreamed of previous Laureates.

Only once, he said. He’d dreamed he went out of his house, and parked by the kerb nearby was a white van. On the side of it was written:

WILLIAM WORDSWORTH: PLUMBER

Underneath was painted a neat image of a rainbow, and the motto:

The sounding cataract
Haunted him like a passion.

- lines adapted, of course, from ‘Tintern Abbey.’ Andrew later made a poem out of the dream.

images[1] (2)My dear friend Pete Laver, who died on Scafell aged 36 back in 1983, worked as Librarian at Dove Cottage. He too had his Wordsworth dream. Pete dreamed that he met the great poet (whose books and papers he spent his waking hours conserving and cataloguing) and asked him the question he’d always wanted to put: ‘Mr Wordsworth,’ he said – and you need to know that Pete wasn’t normally the deferential type, he was into punk rock and wore badges saying ‘Anarchy’ to work – ‘Mr Wordsworth, what is your personal favourite among your own poems?’

Wordsworth’s reply was: ‘Stanzas Suggested in a Steamboat off St Bee’s Head’ – which, as anyone who’s read their way through Wordsworth will know, is almost certainly his worst, and definitely his most boring poem.

‘And,’ said Pete, ‘I just couldn’t tell if he was joking!’

To complete a trio of dream encounters, when I was finishing my biography of Thomas De Quincey I dreamed that I met him. And I asked him something that had never crossed my mkind while I was awake: I asked him if he’d read Alice in Wonderland – not a bad question to put to the old opium-eater, I now think.

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De Quincey said ‘Yes, I’ve read it.’
‘And what did you think of it?’ I asked.
‘Well,’ said De Quincey, ‘I enjoyed it; but I learned nothing from it.’

And that was that. I’m still wondering what he meant.

NORMAN NICHOLSON – AN ESSENTIAL POET

I was in Millom on Monday, to record a conversation with Eric Robson (of Gardeners’ Question Time fame) about Cumbrian poet Norman Nicholson. We walked out on the nature reserve at Hodbarrow – former site of the Millom ironworks and the haematite (iron ore) mines that gave rise to them.

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Norman Nicholson

Eric is making a programme for BBC Radio 4, to go out in early January around the time of Norman Nicholson’s centenary. Nicholson (1913 – 1987) was certainly the most important Cumbrian poet of the twentieth century, but I’d say his writing was valuable and excellent in a wider perspective, whether you’re interested in Cumbria and the Lakes or not.

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Sidings and blast furnaces at Millom haematite works – now vanished.

He’s very much identified with the small coastal town of Millom – which from the 1850s until 1968 was a hub of heavy industry, with mining, iron smelting, and ships mooring at the quay to take pig-iron all over the world. Nicholson spent almost his whole life in the town, stubbornly (perhaps neurotically) refusing to move away. I say ‘almost’ because he had a couple of years down south in a TB sanatorium in his late teens. It may have been the experience of this frightening illness that led him to stay, lifelong, at home: that, and becoming somewhat institutionalised during those years when his airy hut at the sanatorium was his entire world and he was hardly allowed to get out of bed.


But he wrote about the town, its inhabitants, and the nearby landscape and geology of the Lakes in a unique way. Rather than  spreading wide, he dug deep, and he found a way of talking about the unyielding facts of the land and the rock, and the ultimate decline of the industry he had known, which is memorable and unique.

In ‘Millom Old Quarry’, he looks at a hole in the ground and, guided by an older inhabitant, sees the houses that were built from it:

 ‘They dug ten streets from that there hole,’ he said,

‘Hard on five hundred houses.’ He nodded

Down the set of the quarry and spat in the water

Making a moorhen cock her head

As if a fish had jumped. ‘Half the new town

Came out of yonder – King Street, Queen Street, all

The houses round the Green as far as the slagbank…’

Nicholson says ‘I saw the town’s black generations / Packed in their caves of rock’ – and he imagines it all going back again, buried once more:

All that was mortal in five thousand lives.

Nor did it seems a paradox to one

Who held quarry and query, turf and town

In the small lock of one recording brain.

During his lifetime people wondered why Nicholson didn’t move. His London publishers, Faber, were grudging about his work, and didn’t produce a Collected Poems until well after his death, when readers lobbied for it.

But now it’s evident that it was his artistic mission to function as that ‘one recording brain’. He did something no one else could have done, showing us a world that is now largely gone but remains fully human and valuable, and also chronicling its disappearance.

When Millom ironworks was finally demolished, Nicholson wrote

They cut up the carcase of the old ironworks

Like a fat beast in a slaughter-house: they shovelled my childhood

Onto a rubbish-heap. Here my father’s father

Foreman of the back furnace, unsluiced the metal lava

To slop in fiery gutters across the foundry floor

And boil round the workmen’s boots…

But Nicholson was also an environmentalist before the word existed. He wrote about the damage done to land and people by industrial exploitation; he believed that ultimately man must became ‘farmer rather than miner; cultivator rather than exploiter’. He wrote a protest poem about the Windscale nuclear accident (at the present-day Sellafield); and when they cleared away, too drastically he felt, the remains of Millom’s derelict industrial heritage, it wasn’t just the pits and foundries he lamented:

It’s hard to tell there ever was a mine: pit-heads

Demolished, pit-banks levelled, railway-lines ripped up,

Quarries choked an d flooded, and all the lovely resistance

Of blackberry, blackthorn, heather and willow grubbed up and flattened.

An expert botanist, he felt that nature could repair herself better than mankind could. Hating pollution and ugliness, he also believed the National Trust should preserve some mines, factories and pitheads, so that future generations could appreciate the achievements and struggles of the industrial age.

His little  prose book Provincial Pleasures is a miniature masterpiece: looking at the town in twelve essays, one for each month of the year, he shows the interconnected lives of the inhabitants, the wildlife, the daily work, the intrigue, the small psychological and spiritual dramas of a tiny provincial town in the late 1950s. Even as he wrote, supermarkets and chain stores were moving in and Britain’s first motorway was being built. He captured a world perfectly and delightfully.

But his work isn’t just a matter of nostalgia. Eric Robson asked me ‘Is Nicholson a great poet?’ No, I said. He isn’t Shakespeare or Dante. But he’s an important poet. He has vivid colloquial language, he has an extraordinary, individual and deep perspective – man in the environment, man living on, through and up against geology. He showed how a poet can take the most ordinary-seeming place and make it extraordinary – in such a way that every reader looks at his or her own place and sees it freshly and more vividly. Not a great poet then – but an essential poet.

A new biography – the first – is about to appear from Kathleen Jones; I’ve read it and it is excellent, so I’ll put in a link for it here, before I stop:

Grasmere with David Morrell and De Quincey

Just back from Grasmere, where the Wordsworth Trust hosted an evening with thriller-writer David Morrell. David (who created the character of JohnRambo in his first novel, aptly titled First Blood, the basis of the Sylvester Stallone movie franchise) recently published Murder as a Fine Art, a serial-killer thriller set in Victorian London, with Thomas De Quincey – the famous ‘Opium-Eater’ – as action hero and detective.

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With David Morrell and De Quincey and his family (pastel by James Archer) – and a big thankyou to Ali S. Karim for the photo

 

We had great fun presenting an evening ‘in conversation’ between biographer and novelist at the Wordsworth Trust’s Jerwood Centre, just a few yards from Dove Cottage where De Quincey lived and wrote for so many years in the 1820s and ’30s.

We were also able to spend a day exploring Grasmere and its surroundings. We walked around both lakes – Grasmere and Rydal Water – by way of Loughrigg Terrace, Rydal Cavern, Rydal Mount and the Coffin Path.

And the next day David and his wife Donna were able to walk up the fell opposite the village to see the view De Quincey might have had when he first tried to visit Wordsworth in 1806 – walking up from Coniston and gazing across the lake at Dove Cottage, but finding himself too shy to come any closer!

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Andrew Forster of the Wordsworth Trust also gave us a special tour of Dove Cottage and a viewing of De Quincey and Wordsworth manuscripts at the Jerwood Centre.

To find out more about David Morrell’s Murder as a Fine Art, click on the panel below.

And for David Morrell’s personal website, click on this link:

http://davidmorrell.net/

Alfred Heaton Cooper: A Painter’s Journey

Just back from Grasmere, where Amanda and I went for the opening of the exhibition ‘Alfred Heaton Cooper (1863-1929): A Painter’s Journey’ at the Heaton Cooper Studio.

Julian Cooper: behind him, W. Heaton Cooper's watercolour of the Hardanger Falls

Julian Cooper: behind him, W. Heaton Cooper’s watercolour of the Hardanger Falls

A. Heaton Cooper was a fine painter in both watercolour (where his work has something in common with  Turner and Ruskin) and in oils (where he approaches Post-Impressionism). He had a wonderful sense of colour and light, and was devoted to the landscapes of both Norway and the Lake District. But he was also an excellent, lively and tender portrayer of people.

He came from a poor background in Bolton, and made his own way and supported his family entirely by his own work. And he was the found of the Heaton Cooper dynasty – including his son W. Heaton Cooper, who illustrated so many classic books about the Lakes and whose watercolour landscapes are still hugely popular (though a bit bland for my taste) and grandson Julian Cooper, the adventurous and innovative painter of mountain forms and textures in Cumbria, the Himalayas, the Andes and elsewhere.

Some of the many sketchbooks and photographs on display

Some of the many sketchbooks and photographs on display

 

‘A Painter’s Journey’, mounted to mark Alfred’s 150th birthday, is a splendid show: one wall is full of his Lakeland work, the other of his Norwegian paintings, and there are fascinating displays of sketchbooks and photographs. The sketchbooks are a particular delight, offering spontaneous drawings of people and turn-of-the-century landscapes, including a wonderful, graphic and rapidly-sketched panorama of a charcoal-burners’ camp in the Westmoreland woods.

 

We met lots of old friends there: not only Julian and his wife, painter Linda Ryle, but also Angela Locke, the Cumbrian poet and novelist with whom I’m setting up Lakeland Writing Retreats, where from next May we’ll be offering creative writing courses in the Lakes. It was good to see novelist Chris Burns there too. Altogether a very happy occasion, and the next day we managed to get a good walk up to Easedale Tarn in cool but pleasant weather.

With poet and novelist Angela Locke: together we are setting up Lakeland Writing Retreats

With poet and novelist Angela Locke: together we are setting up Lakeland Writing Retreats

 

If you can get to Grasmere before 3 November, when the exhibition closes, do go and see it. It’s a very intimate and inspiring display of work by an underrated artist who is also an important part of Lakeland history.