Grevel Lindop

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

Lakeland’s Weirdest Monument?

On Saturday I finally found something I’d been looking for, on and off, for the past 20 years: Longmire’s Rocks. I’d heard they were somewhere on the eastern shore of Windermere, near Whitecross Bay, and I’d mentioned them in my Literary Guide to the Lake District, admitting that I hadn’t seen them myself, and suggesting that readers try to find them. But I’d never tracked them down, and no one else seemed to know where they were, or even if they still existed.

Carved rock. with wooden steps from Cragwood behind

The path from Cragwood comes down wooden steps at back; note carved rock in foreground

But with a revised Third Edition of my Literary Guide to prepare for publication this spring by Sigma Press, I decided to make one more effort. I put out a call for help, and it was former Lake Ranger Tony Hill who told me where to look. So on Saturday I went to see them. Longmire’s Rocks are a group of natural rock slabs on the lake shore. In the 1830s an eccentric stonemason from Troutbeck, John Longmire, used to spend his spare time carving beautifully-lettered inscriptions about all kinds of things into these rocks.

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You can just make out Wordsworth’s name, and what looks like ‘John Bolton, Storrs Hall’ on this rock

There are people’s names – poets (Wordsworth, John Wilson, Walter Scott), inventors (James Watt, Dr Jenner of vaccination fame), and political slogans about the national debt, the Corn Laws and other topics. All perfectly carved in letters as big as your hand or bigger but jumbled together higgledy-piggledy with no particular order. You get to them, it turns out, by taking the path towards the lake from the back of the car park at the Cragfoot Hotel (the owners don’t mind if you go quietly through the grounds following the path, but please park at Brockhole Visitor Centre unless you’re staying at the hotel). When you get to a low wall with a gap, take the left fork in the path and you will reach the lake shore by some wooden steps. The inscriptions are there.

'National Debt £800,000,000' - inscription with encroaching leaf debris

‘National Debt £800,000,000’! But you can see how the carvings vanish under leaves and debris. See lower down for Tony Hill’s photo of more of this rock, clarified with chalk!

Many of them are now covered with fallen leaves, moss and other natural debris, but you can still see enough to get the idea. A few volunteers with stiff brooms and carefully-wielded trowels could unearth a lot more, I’m sure. Apparently the rocks were quite a tourist attraction in the Victorian period but have been largely forgotten since. Anyway it was well worth the visit. Bizarre, beautiful and a bit eerie, these slightly crazy, lovingly stone-cut words in their lonely setting by the Lake are a strange and evocative sight. Let’s hope they are not completely forgotten, and that someone will occasionally give them a cleanup.

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Parry, the polar explorer, is commemorated here, along with poet John Wilson and others I couldn’t manage to read!

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The ‘National Debt’ rock, photo courtesy of Tony Hill, who added chalk to make it clearer. There is much more, but it is all gradually being buried by natural process.

 

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