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

Here Comes Herries!

Enjoyed a great evening at Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake on Thursday, for an on-stage conversation with Eric Robson about classic Keswick author Hugh Walpole.

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Hugh Walpole, 1884-1943

The Theatre will be premiering its new dramatisation of Walpole’s novel Rogue Herries on 23 March (full details from http://www.theatrebythelake.com/) and they kindly invited us over to talk about Walpole, his work, and why the reputation of this once leading novelist has faded, so that he’s now remembered, if at all, almost entirely for his Cumberland tetralogy.

Eric is a Walpole enthusiast and expert, with an impressive collection of rare volumes of his work. He has made a fine film, Herries Lakeland  introducing Walpole by way of the Cumbrian places he wrote about and lived in. Eric has also written the introductions to the recent reprints of the novels. He suggested that Walpole’s death in 1943 had been badly timed: writers who died during the war tended to be quickly forgotten and the paper shortage meant books weren’t reprinted. Walpole was also ridiculed in Maugham’s novel Cakes and Ale as a selfish social climbing opportunist – an unfair caricature of a far more complex (and generous) man.

I made the suggestion too that Walpole, as above all a teller of rattling good stories, doesn’t fit in with the Modernist narrative of the English novel – even though Virginia Woolf and Henry James were both his close friends. Walpole is a descendant of Scott and akin to Buchan – unpretentious but highly readable, a storyteller above all, with a cinematic imagination that made him a natural when he went to Hollywood in 1934 for a spell as a successful screen writer.

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Eric Robson – farmer, film-maker, writer, Walpole buff

Read the witch-drowning episode in Rogue Herries, the burning of Fell House in Vanessa  or the bleakly terrifying duel between Uhland and John Herries in The Fortress if you want to see Walpole at his dark and terrifying greatest. Or order Tarnhelm: The Best Supernatural Stories of Hugh Walpole from Tartarus Press.

I think we gave a lively and balanced view of Walpole, and we had great fun doing it, and meeting old friends and new upstairs in the Theatre bar afterwards. Do come if you can to see Rogue Herries at Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake. And if anyone from BBC or Granada TV is reading this, why don’t you think about a full-scale dramatisation of the Herries novels? The world’s best locations are there waiting for you, and you could have a Lakeland Downton on your hands.

Buy Walpole’s Brackenburn – but read his books too

Odd coincidence. I was just writing a chapter on Hugh Walpole, the Lakeland novelist, for the forthcoming third volume of Keswick Characters, edited by Patricia Howell and Brian Wilkinson, and I clicked on Google to find an image of Walpole’s house, Brackenburn, above Derwentwater. What came up was an estate agent’s picture: the house has just gone on the market. http://www.findaproperty.com/for-sale/property-12240824

Brackenburn, Hugh Walpole’s house, 1923-41: looking over the garden towards Derwentwater and Skiddaw

Built in 1909 of local stone and perched on the fellside near the south end of the lake, Brackenburn is a beautiful place, even if its design (like Walpole himself) has a slight touch of suburbia about it. Walpole moved there in 1923, and wrote his famous family saga, the Herries Chronicle, there – in between frquent trips to London to enjoy theatre and parties.

He enlarged the house and developed its fabulous gardens, which have been well cared for by the present owners, who I gather have had the house for 22 years.

Walpole’s reputation has flagged since his death in 1941, but his Herries novels are still worth reading. They have big faults, certainly: there is virtually no plot: the passage of generations of farmers, merchants and landowners with their accompanying feuds, obsessions and antagonisms generate a semblance of motivation, and that suffices. Historical accuracy is flouted: Walpole lacked the patience for research, consoling himself during the writing of Rogue Herries that ‘no one knows very much about the eighteenth century really, or only a few do. I can be venturous.’ But Walpole is a dab hand at fantasy, the horrific, the bizarre. In this realm his imagination is of splendid fertility, and he has a masterful gift for the visually grotesque.

One of his finest opassages is the horribly convincing crowd-scene in Rogue Herries, where Mrs Wilson, a mentally-confused and infirm old woman servant from Herries’s household, tries to visit a dying friend in a nearby village and is taken for a witch.

‘Men and women, close together as though for protection, were gathered together at the end of the cobbled path. They stood, huddled together, not speaking, staring at her. Although she could not see well and was so deeply frightened that it was though her heart were beating in her eyes, yet certain faces were very distinct to her.’

She is stripped, stoned and thrown into a river, where she dies. The episode is seen from the victim’s point of view and is cinematic in its constant restless movement and shaky, off-balance shifts of vision. Walpole was a natural screen-writer, enjoying a successful stint in Hollywood scripting David Copperfield and Little Lord Fauntleroy for David O. Selznick.

He demonstrates it repeatedly in the Herries novels, in both crowded set-pieces (feasts, fights, markets, travelling-theatre shows) and episodes of fast-moving, claustrophobic horror like the burning of Fell House in Vanessa, where Adam Paris, confused by smoke, searches on the wrong floor for his daughter’s room until the fire traps him.

Perhaps the finest scene in the Herries tetralogy is also the grimmest. It occurs in the third novel, The Fortress, where John and Uhland Herries, cousins who have cherished a lifelong loathing, make their separate ways through dense mist to meet at Skiddaw House, a desolate shepherd’s bothy on the north slope of the mountain. Uhland is lame, John crippled by an obsession with his own cowardice, which he overcomes to confront Uhland. Uhland shoots John, then turns the gun on himself. Walpole heightens the scene to a painful vividness by the use of banal detail – the dusty wax fruit on the windowsill of the neglected room, the child’s drawing on the back of the crumpled scrap of paper which is all Uhland can find for his suicide note. The result is a scene worthy of Conrad or Hardy.

Walpole still deserves to be read. And if you have £1,750,000 to spare you might like to buy his wonderful house and garden too. It really is quite a special place.