Grevel Lindop

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

ODD MONUMENTS

In Cumbria recently, I visited two monuments which – it occurred to me – oddly have something in common.  I’ll get back to that.

Heading for the Maryport Literature & Arts festival in March, I stopped off at Penrith and walked up Penrith Beacon, a fine precipitous wooded hill (‘fell’ in local parlance) overlooking the town. It’s a steep climb up through birch and pine, on sandy soil and passing several of the sandstone quarries from which the blocks for Penrith’s red houses and public buildings were once carved out.

At the top is the ‘Beacon’ itself, a pointed stone building which people will tell you is where beacon fires were lit to warn the locals of marauding armies approaching from Scotland. I’m sceptical about this: for a start the existing building doesn’t look old enough – it could just conceivably have been built in 1745 after the last Jacobite rebellion, when a Scottish army did indeed come through here heading for defeat at Preston. But it’s surely no older than that.

More importantly, there’s no way you could light a beacon-fire in it: it has a roof on the top and only small openings. A real beacon would have been some sort of raised platform with a metal fire-basket on top.  And sure enough, in front of the tower there is a raised patch with the remains of some stone paving. That’s surely where the real beacon was. Meanwhile we have this attractive little tower – a folly really – into which past visitors have carved their wonderfully neat graffiti, in the days when perfect handwriting and manual skills were compulsory, and carving your name on a public monument was perfectly acceptable.

Last summer, Amanda and I came up here with the poet Keiron Winn and his wife (also called Amanda). We explored the Beacon, and Kieron got me to read the passage about Penrith Beacon from Wordsworth’s Prelude, describing his memory of getting lost in the mist there as a child, finding the site of an old gibbet where ‘A murderer had been hanged in iron chains’ and then, ‘Reascending the bare common, saw / A naked pool that lay beneath the hills’ and met ‘A Girl that bore a pitcher on her head’ – and recalled the whole experience as unutterably strange: ‘I should need / Colours and words that are unknown to man / To paint the visionary dreariness /Which…Invested moorland waste and naked pool…’ Dreary for the young Wordsworth, to us the excursion on the Beacon was the delightful occupation of a summer’s day.

THEN last week I went up to Ulverston to see my old friend, the poet Neil Curry. We had a good lunch at the Rose and Crown (huge portions, good beer) and after we parted again I decided to walk up Hoad Hill, to Sir John Barrow’s Monument.

Barrow (1804-45), born near Ulverston, was a Secretary to the Admiralty, and responsible for numerous polar exploration expeditions, many of which came to grief with serious loss of life.  In those days it was all seen as part of the glorious adventure of Empire, and Barrow was commemorated with a massive memorial. The Admiralty contributed to the cost, on condition that the monument be built so that it could be used as a lighthouse if ever needed.

It never was, so here it is: a handsome lighthouse with no light or function. It struck me that a ‘beacon’ that could never be lit, and a ‘lighthouse’ with no lamp, made a good pair. So here they are together!

KEATS’S FIRST WATERFALL

In Ambleside a few days ago to give a lecture, I decided to spend the afternoon walking up to Stockghyll Force, the lovely small waterfalls in the woods uphill behind Ambleside. The weather had been rainy so the Force was full and quite spectacular.

Stockghyll has always been a favourite of mine, and especially so because Keats wrote about it so wonderfully. He came here with his friend Brown, when they were on their walking tour to Scotland in 1818. In a  letter to his brother Tom, Keats wrote:

“The different falls have as different characters; the first darting down the slate-rock like an arrow; the second spreading out like a fan – the third dashed into a mist  –  and the one on the other side of the rock a sort of mixture of all these. We afterwards moved away a space, and saw nearly the whole more mild, streaming silverly through the trees. What astonishes me more than any thing is the tone, the coloring, the slate, the stone, the moss, the rock-weed; or, if I may so say, the intellect, the countenance of such places. The space, the magnitude of mountains and waterfalls are well imagined before one sees them; but this countenance or intellectual tone must surpass every imagination and defy any remembrance. I shall learn poetry here and shall henceforth write more than ever…”

What I had not realised until I revisited the passage is that Keats described this as ‘The first waterfall I ever saw’! He had been to the country around London before, and to Sussex, previously, but not travelled widely; and had never previously visited mountainous country. So Stockghyll Force was his ‘first waterfall’.

And I love the way the passage shows Keats feeling that the landscape is alive, that it speaks to him and has a consciousness: ‘the intellect, the countenance of such places’.

And the sense that the place, and nature itself as manifested here, will enable him to ‘learn poetry’. Coming from Keats, that is deeply impressive.

If you visit the Stockghyll yourself, you can see how your impressions of the falls compare with Keats’s. Their different ‘characters’: arrow…fan…mist…or however you see them for yourself. Keats is teaching us how to look!

Walking back from the main falls along the bank, I noticed a point where a smaller beck came out to join the main one, from under a mysterious archway in the rocks:

So I climbed up into the ‘tunnel’, fascinated to see where it would lead, even at the cost of getting some water in one of my boots. And guess what? Turned out the beck was just passing under the path I’d previously climbed, and I’d walked over the top of it half an hour before without noticing. Never mind, I had the excitement of seemingly exploring that mysterious tunnel into apparently mysterious unknown territory!

When you’re out for a walk, everything can be an adventure.

MARGARET CROPPER: REDISCOVERING A LAKELAND POET

Margaret Cropper (1886-1980) is a poet about whom I’ve long been enthusiastic. I discovered her work when I was preparing my Literary Guide to the Lake District – her poems turned up in the Manchester Central Library and I’d never heard of her.

I read her narrative poem Little Mary Crosbie and was stunned: it’s a vivid, moving account of the fostering of an eight-year-old girl from a Children’s Home and it gives a magnificent, compassionate account of her experience, and of the Local Authority’s almost-successful attempt to claw her back into the Home.

It’s full of compassion, tinged with dialect, and beautifully written.

Margaret Cropper lived in Burneside, Cumbria (formerly Westmoreland), and wrote a number of medium-length narrative poems about local life, as well as quite a number of short lyrics. Her poems were written in the 1930s, and deserve to be looked at alongside the socially-conscious left-wing poetry of the day – though Cropper herself was a Christian, and albeit a pacifist was not a Socialist as far as I can tell.

Her work was admired by Norman Nicholson and John Betjeman but she never found a major London publisher. The copy I have was published by Titus Wilson of Kendal.

I’m giving a lecture on her work at 6.30pm on Tuesday 6 February at Cumbria University, the Ambleside Campus (the one that used to be Charlotte Mason College). It’s free. Do come if you can.

Tickets from: www.ticketsource.co.uk/cultural-landscapes

In the current re-valuation of women’s writing, we need a Woman Lakeland Poet – and here she is! Margaret Cropper should be rediscovered, and I hope to begin the process with my lecture.

See you there!

 

SPRING IN MACCLESFIELD FOREST

I finally got out for a good walk yesterday – it’s been too long. I climbed Shutlingsloe – the odd little crooked pyramid that dominates the south-east corner of the Forest – after crossing the peaty moorland you can see in the photo. Not a great picture I’m afraid but at least it gives some sense of the spaciousness of the approach.

It was good to hear the almost continuous highpitched warbling cry of curlews – rare these days but the conservation efforts here must have been working because I could hear them almost all the time – and also the high pitched continuous tweeting of skylarks. I tried once to describe this in a poem as ‘larks scribbling their songs on the sky’ – the best I could do in words!

In the forest the bluebells were just starting to come out,  and there were a surprising number of peacock butterflies, though not the orange tips which are generally so common a little later in the year. 

Later I discovered this spring, which I think I’d missed in the past. The water was just emerging straight from the hillside. Such places give such a sense of elemental life it’s easy to understand how they can be felt as sacred. It was a delight to find this one. The photo can’t give the full sense of life, but at least it may communicate something.

 

 

 

 

In late afternoon I found this rough stone gatepost, probably pierced just so a pole could be put through the hole to meet a similar post on the other side of a gap or path – or maybe to take the hinge or fastening of a gate. The low angle of the sun brought out beautifully both the texture of the stone and especially (at lower right of the stone) the bench-mark so expertly carved into the rock during the making of the Ordnance Survey of Britain.

 

People talk about ‘benchmarks’ all the time in political discussions. I wonder how often they know what a bench-mark is? It’s actually a horizontal groove where the end of a surveying instrument was rested, plus an arrow beneath to indicate the line and what it is. It creates this beautiful hieroglyph which has quite a mysterious appearance. I love finding them – they’re all over the place, nearly always overlooked – including in cities. They’re always beautifully cut, and yet I’ve never seen any discussion of the expert stonemasons who must have accompanied the surveyors to cut them. This is a lovely one.

[27.04.23]

 

CHARLES WILLIAMS: The Novels Renewed!

I’m delighted today to receive three volumes of the new edition of the novels of Charles Williams being produced by the US publisher Apocryphile.  They’ve designed the covers beautifully, and these are really the first edition to do justice to these amazing books since they first appeared in the 1930s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was lucky enough to be invited to write new Introductions for these three – it was exciting to have the challenge of rereading and rethinking the books from a modern perspective and inviting new readers to enjoy them.

Charles Williams’s unique spiritual thrillers are unlike the work of any other writer. If you haven’t yet discovered them, you should give them a try, preferably in these elegant new editions.

I would recommend Many Dimensions as an ideal place to start, though opinions vary.

Williams’s unique blend of suspense and action with deep spiritual insight is unique. There’s no one else like him.  As T.S. Eliot wrote, ‘For him there was no frontier between the material and the spiritual world. ..To him the supernatural was perfectly natural, and the natural was also supernatural. And this…provides both the immediate thrill, and the permanent message of his novels.’