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!

 

Wordsworth’s Prelude – and remembering Robert Woof

Dr Robert Woof, with his wife, the Wordsworth scholar Dr Pamela Woof

In the current strange time of the Covid19 lockdown, one unexpected pleasure has been to hear – on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour, of all unexpected places – Sir Ian McKellen’s reading of passages from William Wordsworth’s autobiographical poem The Prelude.

It’s a fine reading, in McKellen’s thoughtful, resonant voice, of selected highlights – including the famous ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive’ passage about the poet’s youthful optimism regarding the French Revolution.

But for me, a completely unexpected pleasure – though a very poignant and almost shocking one – was to hear, all of a sudden, the episodes being introduced each time by a few brief words in the voice of my old friend Robert Woof, Director of the Wordsworth Trust and Dove Cottage, Grasmere.

Robert (1931-2005) was the world’s leading Wordsworth scholar, and also an extraordinary man: humorous, difficult, charming, eloquent, devious, generous, loveable and much more. It was his work, at the head of a matchless team of staff, that turned Dove Cottage, Wordsworth’s former home, from a minor ‘heritage’ destination into a powerhouse of scholarship and creativity, nationally recognised as an exemplary museum and centre of culture and creativity.

Robert was Director when I went in the late 1970s to research my biography of Thomas De Quincey; and it was his idea that I should assemble a team to edit De Quincey’s complete works – a project which came to fruition in a 21-volume edition from the London publisher Pickering and Chatto in 2000-2003.

Robert was a source of endless wise advice and friendly comfort through these difficult projects. His wry sense of humour and his endless knowledge were great resources. He taught me resilience and a lot about handling people (I had a team of ten co-editors to work with!).

He was, above all, a wonderful reader and interpreter of Wordsworth. His rich, gentle, slightly grainy Northern voice was exactly right, and his understanding of the poetry was second to none. In fact, if anyone could have read The Prelude better than Ian McKellen, it might have been Robert Woof.

Sadly, Robert died in 2005, just after the completion of the Wordsworth Trust’s new Collections Centre – the ‘Jerwood Centre’ – into which he’d put his heart and soul. Indeed, I think that, though seriously ill, he willed himself to live long enough to see it complete and open.

It was a complete shock to hear his voice introducing a passage of McKellen’s reading. The presenter didn’t mention his name, the announcer never credited him; since the reading was clearly from an archive, I wondered if anyone at the BBC knew who he was, or even realised that he was there alongside McKellen. I’ll admit that I shed a few tears when I heard my old friend’s voice so suddenly, with all his old clarity and thoughtful eloquence.

In these strange days, it was oddly like getting a message from a friend who is gone, in one sense; but who is in another way very much present for me, and will always be.

SAVE GRASMERE: please sign this petition!

We’re all appalled to hear that there are plans to put 10 hi-tech houseboats, with all the attendant infrastructure, noise and disruption, on the lake at Grasmere.

The plans are motivated purely by profit, and are the brainchild of the Lowther Estate, one of the largest and wealthiest landowners in the Lake District.

A petition to stop this greedy and ugly plan is already gathering signatures: please sign it now! – https://www.change.org/p/lowther-castle-and-gardens-houseboats-off-grasmere-save-our-lakes

The extraordinary idea – it’s hard to believe it’s not a nightmare – is to put no less than TEN large powered residential craft permanently onto the lake. Grasmere is one of the smaller lakes, and has always been particularly tranquil. You can hire a rowing boat there for a few hours, and you can fish or swim. But these large crowded permanent powered boats would change the character of the lake and the whole area very much for the worse.

The writer and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg has written to the press that the plan would ‘rip the heart out’ of the peace and beauty of Grasmere. ‘Should the estate get permission then I would argue that the Lake District could and should lose its status as a World Heritage Site’. The boats – to be used by well-heeled holidaymakers – would, he says, ‘end up as 24-hour music-throbbing discos’. They would also require all the support structures – access roads, charging terminals and many other things – which would destroy the tranquil margins of the lake.

The National Trust are firmly opposed to the plan but they need support as the legal position is unclear

UNESCO World Heritage status depends on the Lake District continuing as a living and working landscape but also preserving its environmental and aesthetic character as a traditional landscape. Its literary heritage has also to be preserved, and the plans would have a seriously negative impact on Town End, the lakeside part of Grasmere village where William and Dorothy Wordsworth lived after 1799.

Claims that opposition to the plans are ‘snobbery’ are totally misguided. For a start, the plans are hatched by Lakeland’s wealthiest private landowner purely for private gain. Secondly, it is important that the diverse character of the various lakes be preserved. Windermere already has a ferry, a year-round steamer service, pleasure boats and houseboats. Many of these features are also present on Derwentwater and Ullswater. That’s where this kind of plan belongs. The smaller and quieter lakes need to keep their separate and varied character, not be pressed into service as noisy, expensive playgrounds.

Grasmere has come into the line of fire simply because it belongs to the Lowther Estate. No doubt their accountants see it as an ‘asset’ that isn’t being properly ‘exploited’. If that attitude had prevailed in the past, we wouldn’t have the National Parks.

So please sign the petition, tell your friends, send them the link, and do all you can to oppose this unpleasant plan!

https://www.change.org/p/lowther-castle-and-gardens-houseboats-off-grasmere-save-our-lakes