Letter from Lancaster 24

The Lune through Lancaster (2): Skerton Weir

Skerton weir is the boundary between river and estuary. Although the corn mill was demolished in 1950s, the weir continued as a popular place of relaxation and play: to sit beside its pond-stillness and patterned cascade, to swim placidly or racily behind, walk adventurously along, slide riskily down, fish from, a place of informal gathering, social experience, rites of passage, where local kids did their growing up, Skerton beach. It was rebuilt in 1970s, “a nasty piece of engineering”, “extremely dangerous”, “lethal at high tide”, definitively separating two worlds, of Environment Agency and Port Commissioners, crossed only by diminishing numbers of salmon and the occasional errant jet skier. No one goes near it.

The average water level is 3 feet. At 12:15am, 6 December, 2015, it rose to 13 feet. A foot of rain had fallen in 24 hours, and the flow was the highest ever recorded on a UK river. Storm Desmond.

This evening the swans float perfectly reflected. Long ago, when everything was taken for granted, and looking back everything had significance, I watched one take off, and ‘a door open as it passed from a small dark room into a golden world of limitless possibility.’ [Letter 13.]

On the opposite bank 16 herons stand in a row, like grey and white umbrellas stuck in at the points, sometimes grooming, the occasional wing adjustment, but mostly standing still, as if time does not exist. In the trees above 20 cormorants, black as absence. They pass my window each morning, heading for the sea, flying fast, eager commuters.



The young man is walking by the river hand in hand with Angela. It is 3am. He has been to the Friday night dance in Morecambe with his brother, the only time, for they inhabit different worlds. His brother introduced him to Brenda and Angela, bouffant hair, petticoated dresses, stiletto heels. He danced with Angela as never before or after, she sparkled on the dance floor as if illuminated by the spinning mirror ball, light on her lightning feet, turning and swaying in perfect balance, leading all the time while moving backwards and appearing to be led, avoiding his mistakes adroitly and turning his errors into stylish moves, navigating them around the dance floor and between shuffling couples unerringly, round and round in a breathless whirl, as the music stops a big smile.  She is a burler and mender, a skilled trade. The guest group was the Beatles. In two weeks they will release “Love Me Do” and change music. In two weeks the young man will go to university and his life will change. His brother has shown him the panther he carved. It took his breath away. The curved surfaces he had to follow with the touch of the prints of his fingers, the muscled limbs tensed for action, the backbone taut as a bow, sinuous as a snake; motion stilled, distilled; a frame from a film and the whole film in that frame; ferocity caged and yet innocent energy; vitality trapped and yet freedom expressed. His brother should go to art school. At Christmas he will get engaged to Brenda and continue as a joiner, an excellent tradesman. The young man is walking with Angela, between weir and bridge, over the memory of the cottages they demolished to build the flats, Wimpey’s contribution to the International Style, ‘less is less’ commented his art teacher. ‘My Nan had one of the cottages,’ Angela says. ‘Just here.’ She stops. ‘I loved the river. Always different. We girls’d wade over when it was low, like now, skirts tucked in our knickers, for a dare, getting shouted at from the bridge, birds on the islands, sea birds I suppose, black and white, darting movements, long pink legs and sharp red beaks, as if they’d been rummaging in a corpse, we’d scare each other, ‘look out, you’re going to step in it!’ Next week full, like sliding lead, hardly getting under the bridge, going round the bend like a racing car, carrying tree trunks like battering rams, birds perched on them, expecting to see houses with people clinging to the chimneys, “Help! Help!”, like at the pictures. Sometimes it’d come through the cottage, in through the front out through the back. Never deep, we’d sweep it through, no lino, Nan quite liked it, “keeps the flags clean”. Broke her heart when they moved her into the flats. Tenth floor. Didn’t live long. On my own. Fourteen. Waking from dreams, looking out at – no, for – the river. Once, just once, in that luminous moment of just waking, caught it full to the brim, still as mercury, in the deepest silence of the night, at the moment it arrived at its highest point, like a breath held, before it let go, the beginning of its long flow out. I imagined myself lying on it, looking up at the full moon, being carried away to … Just once.’ Her voice far away. Her hand warm. They walk on.

Letter from Lancaster 23

The Lune through Lancaster (1): The Lune Aqueduct

The last weir is above Lancaster, between John Rennie’s aqueduct (1797) and Thomas Harrison’s bridge (1788) [Letter 7] .

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Built to power a corn mill, the weir created a three mile lake. William Bradshaw objected to the building of the aqueduct, fearing it would affect his salmon and trout fishing. But built it was. And on a grand scale.

The canal heading for Kendal had followed the 72ft contour from Preston; it is the longest lock-free canal in UK. It was built to generous dimensions, often 30 feet wide, taking barges of 14ft beam, as against the 7ft narrow boats of many canals. The plan was to cross the Ribble at Preston and run south to the Leeds – Liverpool canal, connecting Lancaster to the port, commercial and industrial South Lancashire, the Wigan coalfield, and the national network. There would be aqueducts over the Lune and the Ribble. The Lune aqueduct was built 1794 – 96. It was a disaster.

What? Grade 1 listed, “the finest and largest masonry aqueduct in UK”, “the outstanding aqueduct in NW England”, “John Rennie’s best work”, a disaster?

Economically. Costing £48,000 instead of the budgeted £18,000, it almost bankrupted the company.

 Why the cost overrun, when Skerton Bridge, the same length, the same five stone arches, cost £14,000, and the contemporary Poncysylite aqueduct, half as long again and twice as high, was built for £47,000?

The first mistake had been strategic – to choose to push the canal towards Kendal and risk running out of money instead of linking across the Ribble to the southern section then under construction, which would have generated income. Perhaps the worthies of Lancaster, used to their privileged eighteenth-century life of twice-yearly assizes and sea-born wealth, were not ready to throw in their lot with the industrial toil of south Lancashire.

The second was perhaps vanity – 9 of the 11 on the canal committee were from Lancaster, and the prospect of a fine prestige project, within walking distance of Lancaster – along “Ladies’ Walk”, no less – to match the great buildings of the town’s prosperity, was too much to resist. It is said that Rennie proposed brick. Such an idea! Having settled on Rennie’s “decidedly monumental” (Pevsner) design, building began.

What then went wrong? Although a noted engineer, this was Rennie’s first bridge, and, being cautious, he overbuilt. And perhaps the weir was the key. While Harrison had low tides and a daily near-dry riverbed to access the site, Rennie was building in a lake. It needed constant pumping with inefficient steam engines to drain the coffer dams. And rushing to be prepared for winter floods, work went on round the clock. The aqueduct completed, the money gone, work on the canal stopped. But not before a plaque was carved on the aqueduct, “To Public Prosperity”. As a report in 1819 stated, too much had been wasted “in ornamenting the town of Lancaster with a grand aqueduct upon which the water has lain stagnant for over 20 years”.

It meant the Ribble aqueduct was never built. Instead an inefficient tramway over the river was cobbled together. It soon fell out of use, and the canal south of Preston incorporated into the Leeds – Liverpool. Instead of a direct connection to the growing economies of south Lancashire to compensate for the town’s decline as the maritime trade and enterprising sons moved to Liverpool [Letter 15], it was left a ribbon lake, the “Black and White”, carrying coal north, and limestone south. Lancaster stagnated for 50 years. Until an entrepreneurial genius was born in the town. [Subject of a future Letter.]

For John Rennie it was career-making, and he became a trusted bridge builder. But his bridges carried a Lancaster imprint. Having studied Skerton Bridge, he adopted Harrison’s flat roadway and semi-elliptical arches on Kelso Bridge, Waterloo Bridge, and London Bridge. In his Waterloo Bridge, described as “the finest large masonry bridge ever built”, “the noblest bridge in the world”, and in London Bridge (now crossing a canal in a retirement village in Arizona), it is impossible not to see echoes, even images, of Harrison’s masterpiece.

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London Bridge                                                             Skerton Bridge

 

Letter from Lancaster 22

That day the river moved, just a little. How long had it been? There had been weeks of non-stop rain, weeks of sunshine every day. An equinox and a solstice, certainly. And several full moons. He had unpacked pictures and hung them. And set out his brother’s sculptures on a shelf.Version 2

He had painted two Van Gogh paintings, paint-by-numbers, 25 colours, 5,000 colour cells, “Don’t be intimidated eyeful of lines and colours”, the Instruction Leaflet had counselled; methodically he had built, colour by colour, over many tranquil hours, a simulacrum of the facture of Vincent’s paintings – themselves painted quickly, urgently, even desperately in the St Remy Asylum, each of the simulacra having a surprising vividness and vitality.

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He had read The Voyage, in which on p459, “The Voyage Begins”. One journey had been cancelled. And then a second. He was going nowhere. He had read, “did you ever think that roads are the only things that are endless? They are the serpents of eternity.” But now the serpents looped back on themselves, ate their own tails. He had read A Tour Around my Garden, in which the author, envious of a friend leaving on a grand tour, resolves to make his garden the world, and 58 letters later sees his friend return, “and before I have half finished my tour.” He had read Journey Around my Room, in which the passage from bed to chair becomes a grand adventure. He had read Espèces d’espaces, the first word “Space”, and he had fallen in and the space had grown around him so that there was only space, large, and himself, small, and all was still and silent. Then music had entered the silence, music like water rippling over glimpsed realms, like clouds forming ever-changing worlds, music entirely itself and flowing through him, restoring him to himself. That day the river moved, just a little.

The Voyage by Charles Morgan.
“Serpents of eternity” from Where There is Nothing  by WB Yeats.
A Tour Around my Garden by Alphonse Karr.
A Journey Around my Room by Xavier de Maistre.
Espèces d’espaces by Georges Perec.
Music: “Biesy” from Esja by Hania Rani.

Letter from Lancaster 13

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.

Letter from Lancaster 9

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.

Shaftesbury Fringe Festival

GMcardI’ll be introducing In Search of France’s Green Meridian, my new book, at Shaftesbury Arts Centre on Saturday 30 June, 3pm for 3:15pm.
See http://www.shaftesburyfringe.co.uk.

The interview I gave is at https://soundcloud.com/user-856659193/keith-walton-shaftesbury-fringe-podcast.

Here’s my publicity blurb:

 

In Search of France’s Green Meridian:
A serpentine cycle ride from Dunkirk to the Pyrenees

In 2000 the Paris Meridian was designated la Méridienne verte. Millennium markers were put up along it, 10,000 trees (that’s one every 100m) were to be planted, cycling and walking trails made. 

Intrigued to find out how this ‘green spine’, this new knitting-together of France marked by trees now fifteen years grown had developed, I cycled it, from Dunkirk to the Pyrenees.

I visited cathedral cities and battlefields, the broad fields and villages and soft-flowing rivers of la France profonde, barren uplands, to the burning South, and returned at last to the smallholding where, forty years ago, I tried to live a rural dream … exploring the birth of the Gothic, the many Centres of France, the sources of Le Grandes Meaulnes, the Albigensian crusade, and much more, on a 1350-mile road trip through the richness and variety of this ever-fascinating country. 

Please join me as I talk about some places, incidents and reflections on my journey. You’ll be able to choose what I talk about, and there’ll be plenty of opportunity for questions and discussion.

Shaftesbury Arts Centre, Saturday 30 June, 3:15 to 4:15pm.  Free.

My book of the trip will be available at the special Fringe Festival price of £5.