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Walking Lunesdale and the Lune Gorge.

Version 2The nymph Arethusa, fleeing from Alpheus, leaped into a stream in Greece, and emerged in a spring in Sicily. And this, poetically, is a resurgence [see Letter 6] – a stream that disappears in one place and reappears in another. When Claire de Lune, as I’ve taken to calling her, leaped into St Helen’s spring, what whisper, deep down, did she hear of its origin, of where it came from …? Before she emerged, weed-covered, silent, and set off towards the sea …

From the spring the stream once flowed unimpeded through the village, until the A685 was relocated onto the trackbed of the South Durham and Lancashire Union Railway (1862–1962) and extended to by-pass between spring and village. So that now it is culverted four times before it escapes under an old stone bridge, weed streaming like Ophelia’s hair. Heading west, it picks its way across the wide lumpy valley, through the till of clay and stones left by the last glacier. In the six miles to Tebay [see Letter 3] it grows from a two-foot stream to a twenty-foot river, fed by a dozen tributaries from the Howgills to the south. It is wide and shallow, flowing between white shingle; but with banks bulwarked with Cyclopean stones. IMG_5417
This fifteen-foot high pedestrian bridge was submerged by storm Desmond, the old farmer tells me. One tooth, dog glued to his calf, he worked fifteen years on the railway to buy his farm, hated every minute, now he’s up at four, bed at ten, his own man, knows every inch, every animal, proud of the otters that are back, even of the ducks, allows no shooting on his land, hates the fishing for salmon, ‘jerking them about – they’re pregnant!’ For the first time, hasn’t seen a single dead salmon (they spawn and then die) this year.

In Tebay, a man carries an armful of mannequin body parts out of the church. ‘I’ll not ask.’ ‘Best not.’ ‘More inside?’ ‘Plenty’, as he stacks them in the van.

Meeting the hard rock of the Westmorland Supergroup (definitely the name of my next band) (Ordovician, 450 million years old) of the Lake District massif at Tebay, the river turns sharp south, along the fault line of the Lune Gorge.
Two bridges together: one of stone, abutments growing out of the rock, forces contained and transferred, curving up to meet like the tips of steeple fingers; one of concrete, verticals and horizontals, forces defied and neutralised by contraries.
River, Roman road, A685, West Coast railway, M6 crammed into the gorge, the congestion eased visually by the long relaxed flank of the Howgills to the east, relief to the mile-weary eyes of train and motorway passengers, eroded rock softened by velvet grass, shadows of passing clouds like a smoothing hand.

 After wide open, bare grass Lunesdale, the Gorge is a narrow linear woodland of variety and dappling shade, on either side and over a river carved into rock, ever changing along its length. Here a deep pool, transparent as amber – or beer – with a shadowy trout deep down. Here it ripples, rattles, dazzles over and between white stones, creating miniature rapids – I imagine miniature people in miniature boats running them. Here a long stretch of dark water, with long jagged submerged rocks like prehistoric crocodiles. Terns, heron, a mewing buzzard, wagtails. A sudden spark of emerald/sapphire flashes bullet-like upstream, a kingfisher. There are narrow stone bridges that cars creep across, wing mirrors pulled in. This one has two arches like stern eyebrows.IMG_5060

 

 

 

 

 

And then:IMG_5446

It is huge, and unexpected, the Waterside Viaduct, 570 feet long, 100 feet high, stepping across the valley, three arches on each side of the river built of alien red Penrith sandstone, linked by a metal central arch. Hard to believe that this was built to carry a minor line from Ingleton to Lowgill near Tebay. Such was the railway mania of the 1850s. I resolve to map all the lost lines, imagine them today as cycle paths.

Now the valley opens out into Lonsdale. Enough for today.

Swans on the River

I don’t know where they came from. I saw the last one arrive, descending with an easy parachute grace, its great wings cupping the air as its splayed feet touched the water, entered, so it landed with barely a splash, folded its wings, settled with the others, afloat. There are twelve, dazzling as light, delineated as if cut from tin, their long necks flexible as snakes. Feeding, always feeding, their hose necks deep in the flow, bodies still as white stones, legs and feet working invisibly to keep them still, white islands pointing upstream that the river cuts around like bridge piers. Always feeding, as if they are storing up for some grand endeavour. And always the sense that, along with their vivid presence here, they have a bigger life, somewhere else.

I saw a swan take off from this river sixty, seventy years ago. I’m not sure I’ve seen one take off since, but so clear is the memory that it might have happened a moment ago.

It was the root, that taking off, the metaphor at the heart of a song of my youth, a song of liberation and loss: the ‘fair and perfect’ swan, ‘a living curve of whiteness, and so effortlessly free – but held down by the legs that you can’t see. So she hisses out in anger when she feels herself endangered, when you come too close for comfort and she feels herself less free.’ The swan about to fly, ‘as she leans into the water, her wings are beating faster, her feet are pounding madly and she’s straining to be free … and awkwardness the only thing you see – but the beauty of a creature that’s not swimming now nor flying yet, but reaching for the vision she can be.’ The swan in the sky, ‘the air all around her, the earth far beneath, her wings in perfect motion and her head stretched to the sun – and you’re thinking to yourself, what has she done …?’ And never knowing if she did, that girl, reach her vision.

And it was the root, the pivot point, that taking off, analogue for a story of the journey to the mid-point of life, where there is the possibility of passing from the given life to the discovered life, told as the tale of a swan that put all its energy, focus and actions into learning to fly, in a world in which swans did not fly. Pounding across the water, ‘his feet were suddenly released from the gluey grip of the water and the wind swept under his wings and he was in the air. A door opened and he passed from a small dark room into a golden world of limitless possibility – before hitting the water with such a crash that the old swan had to drag him out. “You started to dream, didn’t you?” he smiled. “Your attention must never waiver. Flying is not a pleasure to be enjoyed but a condition that can, at first, only be maintained by absolute concentration. It is freedom: not freedom from, but freedom to do. It happens when you become responsible for yourself.”’

Years without rivers, without swans. And then, old, on Delos, the island around which the Cyclades turn, I heard the myth of the birth there of Apollo, god of the bow and the lyre, who kills from afar and heals, who sends disease and leads the chorus of the muses, who is the god of a beauty ‘that is the beginning of a terror that we are just able to endure, and we adore because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.’ At the moment of his birth, the wandering island put down golden roots, the streams ran gold, and swans flew seven times round the island singing his praises. The same swans pulled his chariot through the sky to exile in Britain, where he was worshipped ‘in a circular temple’.

Metaphor, analogue, myth. Where they come from, where they go to, the bigger life of swans that I will remember when I watch them, their life, here. And hope that I will see one take off.

Note: the quotation, about beauty being the beginning of terror, is from Rilke’s First Duino Elegy.

The Last Tripe Shop in Lancaster

thick seam, thin seam, honeycomb,
brown tripe, weasand, elder,
cowheel, dripping, neatsfoot oil,
trotters

are what we sold at 25, St Nicholas Street (see Letter 3). The stomachs, udder, oesophagus and feet of cows. Boiled and bleached to an uncanny whiteness, by “tripe dressers”, the seams billowed like formless albino creatures in the vats of water in the yard, slithered on the marble slab in the sun-filled window.
We never ate it – ‘poverty food’, ‘invalid food’, my mother, who managed the shop in return for the accommodation behind and above the shop, called it.
I came upon a small factory processing tripe on my cycle ride across France, just a few miles from where I’d lived forty years before. The daughter had returned to the family farm ‘to devote myself to tripe’. They sell it canned. I wondered if their trotters came from the abattoir I’d worked in. In England tripe means rubbish, in France it means trickery. I decided that Hermes, the god of  travellers and trickery, who was the tutelary god of my journey, must also be the god of tripe-dressers, thought of  25, St Nicholas Street, cycled on.
I’ve eaten it once, brown tripe, peppery and hot, in a thick roll soaked in spicy liquor, in Florence, sheltering from a summer lightning storm, between Dante’s house and Beatrice’s church, touched by the overflow of notes to her, contemplating leaving my own question for her, for him, that tumultuous week. Delicious.
There is an Academmia della Trippa, that reprinted the 1932 recipe book, “Ninety-Nine Homely and Delicious Ways of Serving Tripe and Cowheel”. But apart from a few market stalls in south Lancashire, and in Chinese dim sum, British cows’ stomachs now disappear into pet food.

Tripe was always eaten, recorded from Homer on, mentioned in Shakespeare, enjoyed by Pepys – ‘a most excellent dish’, referenced in Barnaby Rudge. In 1832 an inn in Liverpool advertised, “Beef steaks, Chops, Cutlets and Tripe, served up in the first style at moderate charges.”
But it was in the 19th century, in industrialising south Lancashire, especially in the cotton mill towns, that it became a popular food, and specialist tripe shops opened. It was cheap protein, a quarter the price of beef. And it was ready to eat. Cold – popular in summer, honeycomb, with salad; and as street food – tripe pieces on skewers on a night out. Contrite men who had spent too long, and too much money at lunchtime in the two pubs on our street would buy a quarter of pieces, my mother’s cool civility and the bitterness of the malt vinegar dissolving their alcohol-fuelled cloud of public bar well-being as they ate it out of paper on their mazy way home. And hot – as the protein in a quick meal, tripe and onions a favourite, when many women worked in the mills and had an hour to get home, make a family meal, and get back to work.
In 1906 there were 260 tripe shops in Manchester. In 1924, Burnley had 52. In 1917, The Tripe de Luxe Restaurant was opened in Wigan, complete with palm trees, ladies’ orchestra, and “lavatory accommodation provided on the most scientific lines.” A company in Yorkshire canned tripe and sold it in Harrods.
The Depression, and meat rationing from 1940 to 1954 (tripe was not rationed), kept the trade going. There was often a queue outside our shop waiting for it to open in the late 1940s. But rising affluence, changing tastes, and the falling price of chicken did for it. Our shop closed in 1960 when the site was bulldozed for a shopping arcade, never reopened, the last tripe shop in Lancaster. For a several years there would be a tray of tripe in the corner of butchers’ windows, but they went as the tripe eaters died.

One day I will seek out one of those market tripe stalls, buy a pound of thin seam, cook one of the ninety-nine homely and delicious recipes, and find out what my mother deprived us of – or saved us from.

With thanks to my main source, Tripe: a Most Excellent Dish, by Marjory Houlihan.

Horizon Line Chamber at Sunderland Point.

I cycle downriver. Wind turbines turn in perfect synchrony, like slow cartwheeling acrobats. High wires crackle on pylons striding across the wide estuary from the nuclear power station. The causeway to Sunderland, a village cut off twice a day, is a ribbon of muddy tarmac between flats of salt marsh grass from which convexes of shining mud, their sea-smoothed surfaces impressed already with the cuneiform of bird footprints, curve down to trickling water. A curlew flies by. Its bill curves down; its call curves up: you take your pick. A flotilla of swans, dazzling as yachts, far out. I walk across to the Morecambe Bay side. The high blue nobbled back of the Lake District dragon on the horizon curves down, long neck low, to the head at Barrow, ready to breathe nuclear fire. Offshore from the mouth a haze, like breath, churning, indecipherable until binoculars reveal a vast array of wind turbines, turning slowly.

I’m here to visit a new art work. It is next to Sambo’s grave (more on that in a later letter). Horizon Line Chamber, by land artist Chris Drury, is a drystone, corbelled beehive, beautifully constructed, that looks like a high-spec hermit’s cell from an Irish island, or a reconstruction from Skara Brae. Odd, this heap of stone in a landscape of grass, mud, water, air. And deliberate, the sugarloaf hump that holds the eye that habitually sweeps across, following birds or carried on the prevailing wind. It is designed to stop, to still the restless eye. Perhaps to still the restless spirit. An oratory.

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Inside, in the darkness, within the density and thickness of stone, isolation. Except, on the wall, a circular image, dark above light. This cell is a camera obscura. A lens in the west wall draws the image of outside in, inverted (as the eye experiences images, which the brain then inverts – I’m seeing as the eye sees), and projects it on the east wall. Still as a photograph – and then birds fly across, the light changes as a cloud passes. I imagine watching the equinox sun setting. And yet. I feel like Plato’s man, his back to the ‘real’ world, experiencing only flickering shadows cast on a wall. I want to burst out, into our ‘real’ world! And yet. There is in confinement, in concentration, in single-point focus, an intensification of experience. As I leave I wonder if I will come to terms with it. I will return.

The Hogback Stone and Ship at Heysham, a fable.

They were inseparable. From childhood into adolescence they dressed the same, cut their hair the same, such that no stranger could tell who was girl, who was boy. The hogback, convex, massive, stone, covered in images, became their home,
IMG_5564IMG_5565 where they dwelled, safely guarded by the great beasts enclosing the ends. They pored over it in the church with eye and touch – her father was churchwarden, she had the key – sometimes at night, blindly, or in the mystery and clarity of moonlight. They endlessly talked about, made up stories, adventures in which they were the heroes. Entire sagas, if anyone had written them down. And the images on the stone changed as they grew. The man by the tree was Adam in the Garden, naming the animals – until one day she suddenly saw the serpent that had wreathed itself around the stone – where had it come from …? – and he became Sigurd the dragon-slayer. The stag, at first in the wild, with companion birds and beasts – even playfully carrying one on its back! – became the hunted, by wolves and then, worse, by men with dogs. The four men with raised arms were, for cowboy-mad he, in a hold-up, “Reach for the sky!”; as they learned, they became the dwarfs who hold up the sky in Norse legend. They puzzled over the lemur-like creatures with long curling tails – had they escaped long ago from Heysham Head Zoo, found refuge on the stone? The figures and beasts on the stone spoke to them, from a time when there were gods everywhere, and everything had a voice. They sought words to join themselves to the plants and animals, and beyond to the sea and stars. They asked, ‘what does the wave say?’

Then Ship arrived,
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beached on the shore, concave, slender, steel, empty. Standing in front of it, gazing through it to the sea and sky, he said, ‘when the modern era began, the exterior world, hitherto teeming with gods, muses, fairies and ghouls, became empty space.’ ‘No!’ she cried. ‘While the interior world became deep and rich beyond measure. Language changed from poetic to descriptive, men and women no longer spoke to the world but about it, replaced connection with control, named all things but did not sing them. It’s called progress.’ ‘NO!’ But she saw that the identical figures on Ship were facing away from each other, to different worlds. She saw that he would go far, naming, and doing great things. While she would stay, come again and again to experience the sea and sky cupped in the steel hull, and listen for what the wave says.

Notes:
1. I have incorporated texts from Homo Deus, by Yuval Harari, and The Broken Notebooks, by John Gilmore.

2. The hogback stone is a 10th century Norse/Saxon memorial to a Viking trader. It is in St Peter’s church on the cliffs at Heysham Head.

3. Ship is a new artwork, by Anna Gillespie, on the shore close to Heysham Harbour and the nuclear power stations.

Thomas Harrison’s Towers

Lancaster has its share of towers, spires and domes: the castle gatehouse and Priory church, of course; then the Ashton Memorial folly, the grandiose clock tower on the (new) Town Hall, the sublime skyrocket of the Catholic Cathedral, and the Prussian helmet on the Storey Institute.

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But my favourites bring me back to Thomas Harrison, architect of Skerton Bridge. (See Letter 7.)

From a standing start as a 38-year-old who had built nothing, Harrison quickly developed a busy practice, designing the Bridge Houses, laying out Green Ayre for housing, designing bridges in Derbyshire, Westmorland and Lonsdale, and a mansion for a plantation-owning, sugar-processing, and bank-owning local man: together with an ongoing programme of work to remodel the castle as a modern prison, in which for the first time men and women, felons and debtors were separated. By 1785 he had moved to Lancaster, married a local woman, and started a family.

But it was his clock tower and church tower that drew me as a child, knowing nothing of architecture or aesthetics, finding them, ‘friendly’, ‘reassuring’, regarding them with ‘affection’. And, later, admiring their beauty, while knowing nothing of their history – they were just ‘there’.

The new (now old) town hall had been built in 1782, overbearing in the small

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 market square with its double-height Doric columns, and heavy pediment. Harrison was commissioned to add a clock tower. He created a tall, intricate, light structure that draws the eye up, lifts weight from the facade. An octagon contains the clock, from which rises a rotunda with eight tall, slender Ionic columns around the bell chamber, above this a low dome decorated with garlands, capped with a little dome. It has such lightness that I see it in a landscaped garden of the time, a temple dedicated to the muses of music and dance.

For his next commission, a tower and spire for the solid, austere St John’s, home chapel IMG_5191IMG_5188 IMG_5190

of the borough Corporation, he matched the solidity and austerity of the chapel in the square clock tower to roof level. Then, in three cornice-separated phases, he took off. First is the belfry, a Palladian cube, lightened with wide openings and Tuscan aedicules (triangular-topped ‘houses’). Then comes a rotunda, shorter and more robust than on the Town Hall, with eight Doric half-columns and a frieze, open through and airy. Then a low dome decorated with garlands is the launch pad for a slender spire, with eight concave sides – something about the concavities accelerates the eye up to the pinnacle point. From four-square cube to the vanishing point of the tip of the spire, in three stages, that both transforms the existing church, and is itself an aesthetic delight from wherever in town I see it, reassuring in its beauty.

And, as with Skerton Bridge, behind his assured judgement and good taste was a knowledge of Classical models, and an ability to adapt them appropriately. Both towers are derived from the 4thc BC Choragic Monument to Lysicrates in Athens.Version 2
It had been ‘discovered’ in 1751, and a copy built in Staffordshire in 1771. But Harrison was the first British architect to use it as inspiration for new designs, rather than simply copying it. As seen in these very different structures. As with is other buildings in Lancaster, the Classical vibrates within, echoes through, connects them, through his good taste and great learning, to the root of European architecture.

Lancaster did not keep Harrison long: having added remodelling Chester Castle to his portfolio, he fell out with the Lancaster magistrates, and in 1795 moved to Chester. All his subsequent buildings are in Cheshire and South Lancashire. But at least he got his start in Lancaster, and we still have his buildings.

Note: All the facts above come from: ‘Thomas Harrison, Georgian Architect of Chester and Lancaster, 1744 – 1829’, by John Champness, an exemplary account of Harrison’s training and work.

1. Halcyon moment.

Returning from a hard bike ride I stop on Halton bridge, lounge with my elbow on warm riveted metal, gaze vacantly down on the glittering threads of water below the weir, at the newly-arrived swans with their looping necks feeding assiduously, dabbling ducks tipping up and back, black-headed gulls lifting and landing, when my eye is caught by a quiver, twenty feet from me, eye-level, a flicker of coloured lights. Hovering, twitching, hovering on barely-visible wings, blue green red, a humming bird from Portrait slipped through space-time, except no slip, this is here, real, now: iridescence vibrating green blue, plump rufous body, sharp beak – it drops, like a climber falling, through me, a tiny splash, then it shoulders out of the gluey water, fish in beak, streaks low across the water, up into the trees, gone. The river flows, the birds feed, it happened.
I know it is a kingfisher, that this is its normal behaviour, nothing special, “it dives, either from a perch or while hovering, to catch fish”, says my bird book. And yet. I have seen kingfishers four times, and I remember each time, place, who I was with, mood, circumstance, recall each perfectly, and in each a kingfisher.

Portrait is Tacita Dean’s film of David Warner and hummingbirds, in which both are hypnotic and memorable.

2. Water-skiing through Lancaster.

Bank holiday, high tide, crossing the bridge, coming closer is the whine and roar of a IMG_5315high-revving engine … and from round the bend under Greyhound Bridge bursts a speeding motor boat, followed by a figure on a single ski slaloming back and forth across the wake, whooping, under the bridge below me, and round the bend upstream. I think of the kids in Les Amants du Pont Neuf joyously water-skiing through Paris. Except this skier looks more like a supervillain.  Ten minutes later he reappears, shoots under the bridge, heads downriverIMG_5317 towards the mouth of the Lune, still whooping, is gone.