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!

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

Not Just the Lake Poets!

I’ve recently updated my Literary Guide to the Lake District, so that this comprehensive and entertaining guide is now easier to use and more helpful than ever. One of the fullest and most readable guides to the Lakes, it now gives websites, where these exist – and they usually do – for all properties that are open to the public and that have literary connections.

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Castle Crag and Gowder Crag, Derwentwater between

Arranged in five easily-followed routes so that you can drive or walk to any location with a minimum of trouble, or simply check out places as you get to them, the book is a guide to the places in the Lakes where writers have lived, or that they’ve written about, from Roman times up to the present; and it goes far beyond what you’d expect.

Of course the usual suspects are there. The Guide will take you, if you like, to every place that Wordsworth, or Coleridge, or Beatrix Potter, or Arthur Ransome wrote significantly about. But did you know that Thomas Hardy went boating on Windermere, rather than waste his time attending George V’s coronation? That Oscar Wilde lectured on Beauty in the Cumbrian coastal town of Maryport? Or that James Joyce wrote, in Finnegans Wake, about a monument in Penrith Churchyard? Or that First World War poet Edward Thomas was a keen walker in the Lakes and wrote a poem about a friend’s house there?

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Greta Hall, Keswick – Coleridge’s home from 1800 to 1803

The literary connections of Lakeland are rich and incredible, and this book will open them up for you – as it did for me when I researched it! I’ve been over every mile of the Lakes on foot for many years, and exploring its writers, both famous and little-known.

To quote some reviews, ‘The book is a joy and will be my constant companion’ (Angela Locke, Cumbria Life); ‘Deserves to be a classic of its kind’ (City Life); ‘Packed with enjoyable stories and excellent pictures’ (Manchester Evening News); and from Melvyn Bragg (Sunday Times): ‘For those who know the area well, the book will be a treat. For those who never set foot there, Lindop provides a book-lover’s feast.’

To order A Literary Guide to the Lake District, just click on the cover-image at the right hand side of this page; or find my page on Amazon.

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.