Grevel Lindop

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

Alan Hankinson – Genial Author Who Scaled the Heights

Looking around for something to read recently, I spotted Alan Hankinson’s biography of Geoffrey Winthrop Young. It had been on my shelf for years and I didn’t even recall clearly who Young was. What the heck, I thought, I’ll give it a try.

It turned out to be totally gripping. Young had been a pioneer of mountaineering and a brilliant climbing writer, a heroic ambulance driver in World War I (where he lost a leg) and after the war pioneered mountaineering with an artificial leg. He had many German friends, and worked secretly with Germans opposed to Hitler to try and bring about the dictator’s downfall. His exploits were incredible, literally, and Hankinson’s book brought the whole thing to life, telling the story with such verve that I couldn’t stop reading.

But also the book reminded me of Alan. I first met him when I gave a talk on Thomas De Quincey in Cockermouth in 1981. Alan was a deep-voiced, jovial, lionlike chap with a mane of white hair: hugely well-read, deeply friendly, vastly intelligent and entirely likeable.

After that I bumped into him quite often around Cumbria (he lived in Skiddaw Street, Keswick); we talked about this project and that, and I was delighted when he won prizes for his wonderful book Coleridge Walks the Fells, in which he retraced the course of Coleridge’s great 1802 walk around the Western Lakes, comparing how places are now to how they were then. The book is a classic.

When I came to write my own Literary Guide to the Lake District he took a great interest – and showed it with practical help. One day I phoned him and asked if he remembered whether a particular plaque was still at the top of Grisedale Hause – because last time I was up there, I’d forgotten to check, and I needed to know for the book. There was something similar that I’d neglected at the summit of Great Gable too. The upshot was that Alan said ‘Don’t worry, I’ll go up and take a look, and let you know.’

When my book came out I was able to thank ‘Alan Hankinson, who with memorable generosity volunteered to climb both Grisedale Hause and Great Gable to find things I had forgotten to look for.’

Alan was himself of course a fine climber and The First Tigers, his history of the beginnings of british rock-climbing, is another classic and fascinating even if you’ve never set foot on a mountain. In fact, it’s hard not to keep throwing in the word ‘classic’ when writing about Alkan: he wrote so well, telling so many stories that needed to be told, and produced the perfect book on each one.

He was loyal too. Towards the end of his life he turned up more than once at poetry readings I gave at Dove Cottage and elsewhere, although he clearly wasn’t well and admitted that he was finding it difficult to write. And yet really I must have been someone he knew only peripherally, an occasional contact. But the thing about Alan was that when you met him his warmth and interest made you feel that you and he had always known each other.

Alan died, sadly, in 2007 and I didn’t hear about it until some time afterwards. Only when I read the obituaries and found out abaout his amazing career in TV, film, radio and journalism, and his war service with the Gurkhas, did I realise how many other aspects he had besides those I’d seen.

Earlier this year I was asked to run a course on English Literature for trainee Blue Badge Guides. It turned out that my predecessor in the job had been Alan. I felt proud, as well as a bit intimidated, to find I was stepping into his shoes. It certainly gave me something to live up to, though I didn’t do the job with a pint always at my elbow, as I’m told Alan used to!

Sadly his books (apart from two US publications on American Civil War battles – yes, he was an expert on that as well!) seem to be out of print. A bit of a scandal really when you know how good they are. Alan deserves to be better known. Some enterprising publisher should at least put out digital reprints of The First Tigers, Coleridge Walks the Fells, and his biography of Young. Meanwhile, I never go to Keswick without thinking of him and missing that deep-voiced laugh, and that encyclopedic knowledge of literature and the Lake District. Here’s to you, Alan, and thanks for telling so many great stories.

Cumbria Blue Badge Guides: A Surprise at the Swinside Inn

I spent Monday and Tuesday this week up in the Lakes for a reason I couldn’t have guessed in a million years.

The Swinside Inn: traditional Newlands pub with great food

I’d had an email, totally unexpected, to say that the Cumbria Blue Badge Guides were celebrating the 20th anniversary of the founding of their Association in the Swinside Inn, at Newlands near Keswick, where the organisation was originally set up. They were going to have a plaque to commemorate the occasion and they wanted me to unveil it!

What's the collective noun for a set of Blue Badgers?

I found this pretty hard to believe because I don’t see myself as the sort of person who goes around unveiling plaques. But it wasn’t a hoax. It turned out that the Guides (and no, they’re not Girl Guides, they’re the accredited tourist guides who take people on all kinds of tours, big and small, around the towns, villages, historic sites and mountains of Cumbria) have been using my Literary Guide to the Lake District as a resource, year in and year out. So they’d decided to invite me to do the business.

A clean slate. Plenty of space for the next 20 years

I met the Guides and their friends and partners, led by Nicky Godfrey-Evans, at the Swinside Inn around 6 pm. After drinks and talk, and a photo session outside the Inn, we got the plaque unveiled. It’s a fine slab of Cumberland slate, engraved with the ‘Blue Badge’ design and details of the date and the Association it commemorates.

I quickly found that the Guides are a remarkable group of people, from all sorts of backgrounds. Their training is rigorous and they’re all enthusiasts for Cumbria (and other parts of the North-West) with their own special interests and expertise. They take on everything from demanding fell walks to coach tours and (as you’d expect in the Lakes) every one is a strong and genial personality. So the bar was buzzing with energy, ideas and laughter.

What you see when you wake up

The Swinside Inn is under new management and George and Judy treated us to a superb meal – absolutely first rate traditional Cumbrian food with a good range of choice. I stayed resolutely mainstream and I couldn’t have done better. The steak-and-ale pie was quite definitely the best I have ever tasted – tender, beautifully cooked and full of flavour; and the sticky toffee pudding (I had it with ice cream) was utterly delicious, and a satisfyingly huge helping as well.

I stayed overnight and was greeted with a fabulous view up the Newlands Valley towards Causey Pike in golden morning sunshine. Fabulous.

Seathwaite Farm, heading for Grains Gill

With the weather so good I wasn’t going to stay in the valley, so I went up to Seathwaite and walked up Grains Gill, then climed Scafell Pike. The air on the summit was icy but the rain and cloud held off and there was the whole of the Lake District, the Solway and the west coast with the Isle of Man on the horizon: everything misty green, gold and purple under a radiant blue sky.

Stockley Bridge, towards Seathwaite

If you’re walking in Newlands, do check out the Swinside Inn. And let’s hope for lots more fresh, sunny days like that as spring turns into summer.

It was a lesirely drive home, not least because some sheep were being moved from field to field at Lodore. They got

Looking back from Grains Gill

away from the dog and spilled all along the road, up side paths and into other people’s fields. One driver (not me) got out to stand and watch. Finally the shepherd came down with his dog. Unabashed, he took one look at the motorist and remarked, pointing at the other side of the road, ‘If ye’d’ve stood theer, ye’d’ve done sum gud.’ Quintessential Cumbrian remark!

Pedestrians made it a leisurely journey home

Julian Cooper at Brantwood: Carrara Marble, Cumbrian Slate

While we’re all buried in snow, let’s catch up on some of the things I’ve wanted to write about while my internet connection has been down!

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Brantwood, home of John Ruskin

First place definitely goes to ‘Mother Lode’, the magnificent exhibition of landscape paintings by Julian Cooper, currently showing at Brantwood, Ruskin’s house overlooking Coniston Water in Cumbria. No chance of getting there through the snow at present, but I’d very strongly recommend a visit once the roads are clear.

Julian Cooper is probably Britain’s most original and accomplished landscape painter. His particular interest is in mountains and rock surfaces (naturally enough, since he’s a keen climber), and over recent years he has developed increasingly brilliant and intense techniques for painting the patterns, textures and – if I can put it like this – the meanings of rock, the way it communicates itself to the hand, the eye and the memory.

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Exhibition opening: Cooper with Amanda (left) and Cumbrian poet and novelist Angela Locke (right)

From open-air painting in the high Andes, he moved on in the 1990s to superb semi-abstract and highly-textured paintings of the Himalayas, often focusing not on the summits and profiles of mountains (which have been endlessly explored by previous artists) but rather on rock and snow faces, their textures, patterning and forms.

He’s now taken this a step further, to paint industrially-worked rockfaces which are literally the interface between man and nature. The Brantwood exhibition shows paintings from two such arenas: Cumbrian slate quarries from the Langdale and Coniston areas, and the Carrara marble quarries – the historic quarries from which Michelangelo took his marble and which are now quarried on a terrifyingly industrial scale.

Admiring 'Fantiscritti Portal', one of the most remarkable Carrara paintings

Admiring 'Fantiscritti Portal', one of the most remarkable Carrara paintings

Julian’s paintings are exhilarating and massively impressive. No one has ever painted rock like this before: the huge clefts and portals of vast stained marble surfaces, dwarfing tiny, insect-like industrial plant; the angled, many-coloured slate blocks, with angular light from a cave-mouth dripping over them. Julian’s work can look like realism, but compare it to any photograph and you see a miraculous added depth, an extra dimension of radiant experience. Looking at ‘Sawyers Wood’for example I can feel my own lifetime’s experience of scrambling around in and on such places, somehow embodied and singing out from the canvas.

Adventurously, some paintings are spotlit in a darkened room, which suits them perfectly. Cooper silhouetted here against 'Sawyer's Wood'

Adventurously, some paintings are spotlit in a darkened room, which suits them perfectly. Cooper silhouetted here against 'Sawyer's Wood'

The rock in these pictures speaks to us in its own strange language and asks us what we’re making of it – sensuously, industrially, envrionmentally. It has an ominous and seductive beauty.

This is a whole new take on landscape and if you love the Lakes, or nature, or painting, you should go over to Brantwood as soon as the snow clears and enjoy some of the best landscape painting of our time. Not to mention Brantwood’s excellent restaurant, and the fascinating memorabilia of Ruskin himself, the great Victorian artist, social activist, prophet of climate change and a deep thinker about the interconnections between geology and art.

The exhibition has been arranged in collaboration with Michael Richardson, director of Art Space Gallery, London, who represent Julian Cooper and where the exhibition can be seen during September, 2010. For further details contact mail@artspacegallery.co.uk or visit www.artspacegallery.co.uk

Brantwood sunset

Brantwood sunset