Letter from Lancaster 21

Gray’s Seat, Crook o’ Lune, an Hour before Sunset.

It is a stiff scramble up from the river to the road, then another climb, but this with form, a progress, a path curving intriguingly up through woods between a drystone wall thickly-velveted with bright green moss, and a palisade of upright flagstones, slender menhirs. Up, the path, towards a blank wall – then it curves suddenly left and opens into a small arena, a viewing area, with a semi-circular seat faux-rustically constructed from quartered tree trunks and morticed upright planks, facing, looking out over – trees. The view lost behind trees. Gray’s view, that I slighted in Letter 20, I now yearn for.
“Ingleborough, behind a variety of lesser mountains, makes a back-ground of the prospect: on each hand of the middle distance, rise two sloping hills; the left clothed in thick woods, the right with variegated rock and herbage: between them, in the most fertile of valleys, the Lune serpentizes for many a mile, and comes forth ample and clear, through a well-wooded and richly-pastured fore-ground.”

In my fore-ground, a dense barrier of dark trees. While through it in haloed fragments, and around it and above it at this magic hour, the air is expansive, the light golden. I imagine the hill to the right vivid emerald, to the left shadowed viridian. I imagine Ingleborough gold becoming pink, mauve then blue, and the river transmuting from gold to silver as day fades into night … Chop down the trees! Restore the view!!

Because my argument was with the fetishising of the view as static, framed, fixed, as against that come upon on one’s motion through the landscape and taken into the self. The artists of the Views would not just fix, frame and enclose in the eye, they would bring their Claude glasses and, sitting with back to the view, draw or paint the image reflected in the mirror.

For the mass market visitor to the View, there was the ready-made, the postcard. And with the coming of mass-market cameras, each could take their view that, when it was returned days later from the chemist, would displace the fading memory, become the view. With the digital camera, the image could be viewed immediately – but was quickly buried under the deluge of promiscuous clicking. Perhaps the polaroid was the one copy that enabled the symbiosis, the feedback relationship, that could enrich both; but the polaroid was always expensive, specialist. With the smart phone and the selfie, the maker again stands back to the view. But now the view is not the subject but a backdrop, like one of the painted backdrops in Victorian photographic studios, representing aspiration, a hoped-for destination. In the selfie, the figure is the subject, as in the Victorian studio portrait; the view represents arrival.

Ps. Gray was an advocate for and populariser of the Claude glass. “On one sightseeing trip he was so intent on the glass that he fell backwards into a “dirty lane” and broke his knuckles.” Wikipedia. Prefiguring the jokes (and in some cases the reality) of selfie-takers walking backwards over cliffs.

Letter from Lancaster 20

Walking the Lune: Lonsdale

At some time in the Ice Age the Lune emerged from the Gorge into a wide-spreading landscape, and onto the relict mile-wide bed of a great river that had flowed two million years before. Across which it now curves and meanders. It is like the track of a post-apocalypse tribe wandering on the lost highway of a great civilisation. On the geological map it is a blue line wiggling across a yellow stripe.

The Romans, with their thread of road and beads of camps and milestones – still there – followed the valley as their route north. As did the Normans, with their motte and bailey castles – also still there. But at some time the main road migrated west, to what became the A6, through Kendal and Penrith, instead of slipping up the Lune valley and through the Gorge, as the railway and M6 did later? I’ve no idea.

Anyway, it left Lonsdale – the name for the lower Lune valley – to pastoral farmers, and to wealthy incomers: dukes, bankers, industrialists, who amassed large estates and built big houses.



So this landowner can regulate passage along a seven-mile stretch of the river – groups only, no individual paddlers, ‘no access or egress is permitted to the river bank’, ‘Paddlers must not stop or play on the river’.








And this bridge, the most elaborate on the whole river, was built to connect the Hall to the estate fields, nothing else, while half a mile upstream farmers and villagers had to ford the river.IMG_6048

Since my cycling days here, the farming villages, like pearls along the thread of the Roman road, have been substantially gentrified, with many houses, even the smallest cottages, done up, and shops and pubs either closed or delicatessened and gastro-ised … but this is so everywhere.

And at some time in the eighteenth century the Lune emerged from the Gorge into consciousness. Or, rather, into our consciousness of landscape as an object to be viewed, and consumed, aesthetically. To be located within the shorthand of the Picturesque, the Beautiful and the Sublime. “Examine the face of the country by the rules of picturesque beauty,” William Gilpin commanded.

So in 1769, Thomas Gray, at Crook o’ Lune, three miles from Lancaster, wrote: “Here, Ingleborough, behind a variety of lesser mountains, makes the back-ground of the prospect: on each hand of the middle distance, rise two sloping hills; the left clothed with thick woods, the right with variegated rock and herbage: between them, in the most fertile of valleys, the Lune serpentizes for many a mile, and comes forth ample and clear, through a well-wooded and richly pastured fore-ground. Every feature which constitutes a perfect landscape of the extensive sort is here not only boldly marked, but in the best position.”

In 1820’s ‘L.E.L’, (Letitia Elizabeth Landon), the foremost popular poet of the day, wrote a celebration to accompany an engraving ‘Vale of Lonsdale’.

In 1875, Ruskin wrote: “The valley of the Lune at Kirkby Lonsdale is one of the loveliest scenes in England – therefore, in the world. Whatever moorland hill and sweet river can be, at their best, is gathered here; and chiefly seen from the steep bank which falls to the stream side from the upper part of the town itself. … I do not know in all my own country, still less in France or Italy, a place more naturally divine, or a more priceless possession of true ‘Holy Land.’”

But disengaged, from theorising and Views and from my unease at ownership possession and access, it is glorious walking upstream from Crook o’ Lune, moving through the landscape. Here the river winds in wide shining sweeps of freehand curves that I cannot resist in haptic echoes inscribing in the air. Here the river glitters over shingle as if alive with feeding fish. Here the river passes dark and slow under me as I scramble through the hanging woods, ancient woodland fragments from lost times, stilled with slowed time and yet alive with the after-vibration of outlaw rides, a place for adventures.

And all the time, seen or unseen, depending, but always there, Ingleborough. As distinctive as Mont St Victoire or Mount Fuji. Walking towards it I imagine a Cézanne accumulating image after image of it in every nuanced condition of weather and light; of a Hokusai depicting it unchanging in picture after picture of different landscapes. And, in privileged moments, as it is, Ingleborough.


Letter from Lancaster 19


1. The Picturedrome/Rex. 1911.IMG_6167 Lancaster’s first full-time cinema, converted from the Victoria Hall roller rink. The first film was The Siege of Calais, a French film (no need for sub-titles or dubbing, just change the intercaptions. My father recalled the jumble of voices as the slow readers spelled out the words and the literate read out the captions for the those who couldn’t read). Released in a colour-tinted version – did Lancaster see one of the first colour films? The cinema owner’s wife, Mrs Atroy, accompanied the films at the piano. Sound was installed in 1930. By the 1950s it was so rough we called it the Bug Hut. In 1958 it was renamed The Rex, and showed art house movies – mostly excuses for nudity, like Isle of Levant, but I saw Jazz on a Summer’s Day there, spinnakers like curved white steel, sunlit sparkling ocean, Anita O’Day, that hat, that voice, vulnerable, defiant, on a wet Wednesday when I should have been at Games, the only other person in the cinema a teacher from my school pretending not to see me. What if we had spoken, as two people…? It closed in 1960, became a Bingo Hall, and was demolished (along with our tripe shop) to build St Nicholas Arcade. It is now the entrance to the car park.


2. The Palladium. 1914. IMG_6159The town’s first purpose-built cinema, ‘The Palladium Picture House and Café Rendez-Vous’, with a dance café upstairs. I saw Seven Brides for Seven Brothers there, having missed it on its circuit release. Loved it – MGM colour! The barn-raising scene!! Julie Newmar, the future Cat Woman!!! But how did they find seven actors with red hair? I didn’t understand these things. The crippled man who sold The Lancashire Evening Post outside gave me a bread roll from inside his shirt, I said, ‘thank you very much’, went round the corner and threw it away, and felt guilty without knowing why. Closed in 1960, it became the Rio Bingo Club. In 1980 it was gutted for WH Smith’s, and now includes the Post Office.


3. The Hippodrome/County. 1923.IMG_6164 Built in 1798 as a Catholic church, converted to the Palatine Hall by the Abstinence Society in 1859, in 1906 became ‘The Hippodrome and Opera House’, with live acts and short films. 1923 became a full-time cinema, ‘The County’. Sound installed in 1930. What film was showing, what soundtrack was audible through the wall as Dr Ruxton murdered his wife and maid next door? His house was empty for years. The cinema closed in 1956. It is now Council offices, once more The Palatine Hall.


4. The Palace. 1929.IMG_6163 Opened as ‘The Palace Theatre’, but with no fly tower it was pure cinema. The first in town with sound. In 1937 it became an ABC cinema, one of the national chains. It had the ABC Minors on Saturday mornings, but it was too rough for us. I remember waiting outside trying to get into an ‘A’ picture – ‘Will you take us in, Mister?’ ‘Aye, if you pay for yourself, and don’t sit anywhere near me.’ We’d smuggle in bottles of squash, because cartons of Kia-Ora was too expensive; once I dropped the glass bottle, it smashed, and I ran and ran. It closed in 1974, became a disco, a bar, a children’s play area. It is now empty.



5. The Odeon. 1936.IMG_6161
One of Oscar Deutsch’s large, opulent, art deco cinemas (its name: ‘Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation’; in fact the name for a Greek theatre, and a common name for cinemas in Italy and France), designed to attract the middle class. My parents would go to no other cinema in town, for years went every week, regardless of the film. Taken over in 1941 by J Arthur Rank, he of the gong and the rhyming slang. I saw all the Cecil B de Mille epics on its vast Cinemascope screen – the screen widening before my eyes – and some 3D films, dodging the arrows. I went every week to Saturday Morning Pictures. (My two regrets on going to the grammar school: no soccer, and no Saturday Morning Pictures, because we had classes then. Both part of the project, I realise now, to separate ‘intelligent’ working-class kids from our roots, to co-opt us. But that’s another story.) Galloping home on Trigger, suddenly realising that the world I was riding through was more real but less meaningful, unsure what that meant but sure that it was important. In 1971 the stalls became a bingo hall, the circle was converted into two screens. Closed in 2004 when the multiplex opened. Demolished in 2010, replaced with a Travelodge hotel.

For all the decline in cinema-going, there are more films shown each week in Lancaster (15 this week at the Vue multiplex and Dukes Theatre) than ever before. What has gone is cinema as event.