I spent the weekend at Cockley Moor, in the fells above Ullswater. The excellent Norman Nicholson Society had organised a Study Weekend and I was delighted to be asked to give a talk – not just because I love and admire Nicholson’s poetry but because I’ve always longed to get inside Cockley Moor, a house with a wonderful history.
Cockley Moor, an old farmhouse with many extensions – so that it now runs along the top of the fell for quite some way – was the centre, in the 1940s, 50s and early 60s, of an amazing circle of artists, writers and musicians. Helen Sutherland, a wealthy patron of the arts, moved there in 1939 and invited a galaxy of creative people to visit and stay, sometimes for long periods.
These included Ben Nicholson and his wife the painter Winifred Nicholson; sculptors Naum Gabo and Barbara Hepworth; poets Kathleen Raine, TS Eliot, and Norman Nicholson (no relation to the other Nicholsons); David Jones, who was both poet and artist; and the pianist Vera Moore, amongst others.
Helen Sutherland also had a fine art collection including Seurat, Hepworth, Jones, both Nicholsons, Brancusi (and Picasso, whose work she decided she didn’t like, so his two paintings were kept in a cupboard!).
The art collection has now been dispersed: Helen Sutherland died in 1965 and the house was later lived in by the astronomer and sci-fi novelist Fred Hoyle. But the house is still beautiful and atmospheric. And the weather was perfect: golden sunshine giving a warm radiance to the views across the fells.
It was lovely to be there with almost thirty lively, knowledgeable poetry enthusiasts to discuss Nicholson and the artistic heritage of Cockley Moor, with excellent talks by Val Corbett, photographer and author of the splendid book A Rhythm, a Rite and a Ceremony: Helen Sutherland at Cockley Moor; Philip Houghton on Norman Nicholson’s poem ‘Cockley Moor, Dockray, Penrith’; and Caroline Watson on Kathleen Raine. Also taking part was my friend Kathleen Jones, poet and biographer of Norman Nicholson. (I’ve borrowed this picture of the terrace discussion from her Facebook page – I hope you don’t mind, Kathy!).
After the closing session at Cockley Moor, Caroline Watson and I made a pilgrimage to the other side of Ullswater to visit Martindale Vicarage, where Kathleen Raine had lived during the war. The little house under the fell is still as beautiful, quiet and mysterious as Kathleen describes it in her memoir The Land Unknown.