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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.

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Letter from Lancaster 7

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7. Thomas Harrison’s Bridge

There is a purity in Harrison’s early buildings in Lancaster that has run through me like a thread of spring water in a manifold river. I only realised this when I returned, looked afresh, lived next to his bridge, looked into his work.

Harrison was a 38-year-old unknown in 1782 when he won the competition to build a new bridge over the Lune from Skerton to Lancaster. But he had a backstory. Son of a joiner, from aged 25 to 32 he was in Rome, at the expense of Yorkshire’s richest man, Lawrence Dundas. There he studied the architecture, made many drawings, entered competitions (none of which he won). In 1776 he returned through France, studying and drawing. He then spent two years in London, trying to get noticed and taken up as an architect, but it was a bad time for building, he failed, and returned to Richmond.

Skerton bridge is mainly noted for being the first bridge in England with a level deck. It is a fine piece of engineering, so well designed and built that, unaltered, it carries 40-ton trucks. However, in what could easily have been a piece of practical bridge building, Harrison incorporated, hid in plain sight, elements from his years on the Continent. The level deck is taken from Perronet’s Pont de Neuilly bridge in Paris, opened in 1772 by the king to great fanfare. It is the same length, with the same five elliptical arches. Then into Perronet’s plain engineer’s design, Harrison incorporates elements from classical and contemporary architecture. The niches cut through above each pier derive from the Ponte Fabricio in Rome. Each is faced with an aedicule – the pointed house-like structure made to shelter an altar or god. He told the sponsors that they had the practical value of lightening the load on the piers, and relieving flood pressure; I see aesthetic decisions that allow the eye to flow through the bridge, and add a vertical contrast to the bridge’s horizontality. And the piers are rusticated (rough surfaced), in contrast to the ashlar (smooth-faced stone) of the bridge: this conforms to the Palladian epitome, contrasting basement with main building. In a practical bridge in a small Northern town he seamlessly incorporated Parisian bridge building, Roman design, Classical tradition, and Palladian ideal.

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There is a final element in this masterwork. The purpose of the level deck was to create a grand entrance into the town. Walk across in the centre of the road – traffic permitting! – and you see this intention. For you are walking towards the ensemble he built at the end of the bridge, built to the Palladian ideal of Classical house with two wings. (Although the fine house would serve simply as a customs house.) Again, this design came from his days in Rome, his competition entry for a grand entrance to the city. A grand avenue was opened from the bridge to the town centre, and the area by the river laid out for fine houses. It never happened. The ‘Green Ayre’ was first a shipyard, and then a railway station. For Lancaster’s port and prosperity were now in decline, the town entering its 70 years of stagnation.
So that when the ‘Little North Western’ railway was built on the Lancaster side of the river, the end of Harrison’s bridge was raised to bridge over it, ruining the connection of buildings and bridge. Subsequent road engineering and signage have further obscured the connection.

I will save my two favourite Harrison structures for another letter.

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.

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The source of the Lune

IMG_5387“She just jumped in, disappeared – it’s deep, no one knows how deep, dangerous, that’s why we’ve fenced it off now. Then popped up, her head and face covered in bright green weed, and set off swimming – well, paddling actually – towards Glasson Dock.”

He’s squatting outside his greenhouse, cutting a circle of green plastic an inch bigger than the metal disc lying on it. I’m intrigued, want to see what he’s making. But he’s happy to stop while he talks, resume when I’ve gone. He’s talking about the woman who swam the length of the Lune. “For charity, I suppose. She got a good send-off.”

The Lune’s source (source is French for spring) is a resurgence (another word from the French), a stream that disappears into the limestone rock and emerges elsewhere as a spring. I think of the résurgence at the foot of the Cathar stronghold of Montsegur, where the priestess hid the sacred head from the besieging French army. And of the fathomless Fontaine de Vaucluse, where Petrarch wrote his sonnets to Laura. Springs have mystical and spiritual significance. (In France I used to confuse sourcier, water diviner, with sorcier, magician. Why all this French? I am still finding my bearings, having connected Lune with lune.)

Among pagans, springs were access-points to the other-world – gifts, inscriptions, broken weapons were dropped in as dedications, falling to who knows what depth. For Christians they were places of transformation, healing, purification – each church has a font, which means spring.

This spring became St Helen’s Well, with a chapel, long gone, dedicated to the mother of Constantine, who brought Christianity to the Empire, discovered the True Cross under a temple to Venus she’d demolished, and built there the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The source of the Lune is a source named for the source of Christianity in the West.

There is a stream flowing from the spring, small but well incised. But the heroic woman must have walked a long way before the river was deep enough to swim in.

Far more water feeds the Lune from the streams flowing from the Howgill Fells to the south. And if the longest was included, it would lengthen the river. But this is the true source of the Lune. I make my dedication, and set off, towards Glasson Dock.

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Cycling along the canal

From the busy lane I scramble down into the sunlit calm of the canal. Brownian motion of insects in the dazzle. Three glowing galleon swans, imperturbable. A pair of geese graze near a heron that stands still as a carved stick of painted wood. Reeds combed vertical. Far fells lie supine. A duck lands in the water, heavily, as if thrown. A fish touches the surface and successions of rings expand across the curved underside of the stone bridge, fade, are gone. A duck shepherds eight ducklings across the water, away from me, tiny, balls of fluff, so light they seem in their sudden spurts and dashes to run across the surface – so light they don’t break the surface tension? Seven are brown, and disappear in the water-edge foliage; one is bright yellow, and glows. How long will it survive? The swans heave themselves onto the bank, all curves, ellipses, parabolas, hyperbolas, they quarrel briefly with beaks and flurried wings, then settle each into its space. Everywhere there is hawthorn blossom, in Hockneyesque profusion. Drawn by the alluring perfume I stop, look close into the flowers, see excited chattering fairy faces looking up, pull back, cycle on.

The canal turns this way and that, roundabout in its northern direction as it follows, lies upon, the 72 feet contour. It is water serpent, datum line, spirit level. Didn’t the Egyptians flood the land to establish the level for their pyramids? It lies across the landscape, a languid sinuous presence.

A smart motorboat chugs past. The couple, he bulky and white-haired, she bulky and blond, turn extravagantly away, as if on urgent business, to avoid eye contact. As I pass a man fishing by his boat he pulls in a wriggling fish. ‘Roach’, he says when I ask. ‘Is that your dinner?’ ‘I’d need a few of these,’ as he unhooks it, returns it to the water, adds, ‘hope he’ll tell his dad to come.’

Fields cut for silage, some bare, some with ridges of dark green as the machines buzz back and forth. The lanes are busy with tractors and trailers, there is grass in the air.

On Buena Vista a blond young man, lying back, feet over the side, plays Spanish music, light and melodious. On Moonwitch a dark girl, red hair, intense, plucks herbs from her onboard garden. I’m making up stories in my head. It’s time to climb up from the canal, up to the fine balustered bridge where the canal cuts through manicured parkland like a Picturesque set-piece, and return to the lanes and the traffic.

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Tenderfoot and Temperance

Tenderfoot was a tv Western series I watched avidly in the late 1950s. Tom Brewster was an innocent abroad in the Wild West of the 1870s, Hollywood’s version of it, the foundation myth established by John Ford. A self-taught law student, he combined ingenuousness and resourcefulness with guileless charm and a principled sense of right and wrong. In thirty minutes he confronted an injustice, righted it, and moved on. I liked Tom Brewster. And I had, I realise now, a schoolboy crush on Will Hutchins, who played him.
He would walk into the town bar, stand between tough drinkers, foot on the rail, hands on the bar, and order, ‘Sarsaparilla – with a dash of cherry.’ The bar would fall silent. I loved that moment. I have always wanted to walk into a bar and order, ‘Sarsaparilla – with a dash of cherry.’ And in Rawtenstall, I do.

Rawtenstall has the last of the many temperance bars that thrived in Lancashire around Tom Brewster’s time. The Temperance movement was launched in Preston in 1833. Members ‘signed the pledge’, were marked as ‘T (for temperance) Total’. Hence ‘Teetotal’. It was a response to the problems of drink, and the success of Methodism in Lancashire.
The Fitzpatricks were herbalists in Ireland who brought over their recipes for cordials, and soon had 24 temperance hotels and bars in Lancashire. They still make cordials, but Rawtenstall has the last bar.

No, says the friendly if bemused girl behind the bar, no one has ever asked for sarsaparilla and cherry. But she’s soon experimenting with mixes from the optics behind the bar, and comes up with a three to one combination.

It’s a lovely place. With its dark wood, row of colourful optics, bottles of cordials, shelves of spices, copper water boiler rescued from the Astoria ballroom, it’s a cross between a bar and an apothecary. It has excellent food – including a ‘high tea’ that would feed an army! – elaborate desserts, and friendly staff. A gem to be treasured.
As I’m eating my delicious hotpot, sipping my drink, I’m coming up with advertising campaigns – “Sarsaparilla, with a dash of cherry – the drink of cowboys!” Tasting evenings of endless mixes of cordials – cordial cocktails! – colour combinations, vast quantities drunk, and everyone drives home safely.
On reflection, delicious as it is, the drink needs less cherry – Tom was right with his ‘a dash’. I’ll be back soon, to try another mix. It may take a few visits, to get it right. Meanwhile, if you’re in East Lancashire, on the edge of the Moors, head for Rawtenstall, and Fitzpatricks. Tell them Tom Brewster sent you.

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Letters from Lancaster 3

Vignettes.

1 A flock of seagulls on the fast-flowing river. A hundred yards of gulls bobbing fast downstream in the sun glitter. Except the flock does not move; for when the lead gulls reach a certain point, they lift off on sharp wings, breasts flashing white, arc over the flock and land at the back, floating demure as bath ducks. This keeps happening. So that although each gull is being swept along at three miles an hour, the flock does not move. What is going on? There seems to be no purpose to it. It is hard not to see, in the arcing up and landing, in the churn, in the flurries within the flock, the exuberance and excited repetition of a game, a round, like giddy children on a slide.

2  A bright spring day, my first day following the river from its source. The last of the cherry blossom – in a breath of wind it falls like confetti at a wedding – the first of the hawthorn. There are bluebells and cowslips, primrose and orchids. A heron heaves up from the stream, then a pair of whirring synchronised mallard. A hare! Tall, alert, and then gone. There are sheep and lambs everywhere, heads up, stock still as I pass, lambs’ propeller ears twitching. I am quickly in Pre-Raphaelite allegories. This lamb, in the midst of sheep, commanding beyond its age, is Christ among the Doctors. That one, alone and blindingly white, is an image of the Transfiguration. There are lambs with tiny horns, like the satyrs in Botticelli’s ‘Venus and Mars’. A large brown horse with large shaggy hooves, as if it is wearing lamp shades. Two lapwing fly across, black, white. The path leads into a farmyard. The young farmer is holding the skinned body of a lamb, thin as a rabbit, guts hanging out, as he tussles to wrap the skin around a larger lamb, tying it on. He smears the thin body, blood and guts, onto the tied-on skin. The lamb bounds away. ‘Lost it this morning. Messy job, but it’s got to be done.’ I’ve read about it many times, never seen it. Fell farming. I walk on.

3  A black and white photograph, brown with age, ‘Mum and Dad in our street after Vets meeting 30.3.58’. They are on the tandem. ‘Vets’ is Veterans’ Cycling Club, for over-forties. They have just pulled up outside our shop. They are smiling. The street is empty. It is Sunday. Behind them are the Golden Ball and the Boar’s Head, the step up to the Unitarian Chapel, beyond that a street of shops, indistinct. ‘Our street’ is St Nicholas Street, one of the oldest in Lancaster. Gone now. If I had taken the photo from across the road, in front of Gorrills the drapers, our shop would have been in the picture. There are no photographs of our shop, our house. The only archive photograph is of the hoardings in front of the demolished buildings. The street disappeared under ‘St Nicholas Arcade’. Now, ‘St Nic’s’. I have lived in dozens of houses, with no interest in revisiting or reentering. But this building, 25 St Nicholas Street, I obsessively visualise, see myself walking into the shop, through to our living room, down into the cellar, up to the sitting room, up again to my bedroom, out into the yard, up the back. And having returned here after 56 years, I see myself going into Poundland, saying, ‘don’t mind me’, walking down steps, not into the underground car park but into our house, and finding the street there, all the buildings, and going into the shops and up to the flats and along alleys and into yards, and walking and walking, until …

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Letter 2: Projects

1.  Take a photo each day at 6am and 6pm GMT of the same river view from my window. A twice-daily juxtaposition of the solar and the lunar, both clocks and calendars. See what – Ideas? Actions? – comes from this.

2. Photograph each of Lancaster’s five cinemas. All now closed, photograph what is there now. Perhaps with a figure standing outside in typical cinema pose – with handbag in front of her, looking down the street, waiting for someone to arrive: will he come?; will he pay for her ticket?; will he steer her towards the back row? Or a lonely-looking man, self-erasing, waiting patiently in the queue. Or a child looking up at the six stills from the film each side of the cinema entrance, hoping he can escape into what he sees as the real world that exists somewhere, that is depicted in the film. (The film is real; ‘reality’ doesn’t make sense.) Films were only shown for one week, and then were gone forever. When there was an ‘A’ category film (“children must be accompanied by an adult”), we’d wait outside and ask single men, ‘will you take us in, Mister?’ ‘Aye, as long as you pay for yourselves and don’t sit near me.’

3. Photograph the eleven Lancaster and Skerton Cooperative Society shops. All now closed. The society was founded in 1860, a depressed time in Lancaster, before its late-century expansion with new industries. The Co-op thrived, built fine shops in the new residential areas of terraced houses, respectful of their solid working-class customers, with a carved beehive over the door to symbolise the strength of working together. They were still busy in my childhood. My mother, a working-class Tory, would never shop there, or allow us in them. T. D. Smith, a local grocer entrepreneur, who despised them, aimed at class-aspiration, often opened shops close to co-op branches. Hoteling’s Principle: in a competitive economy, businesses cluster together to maximise their market; in a cooperative economy, they are spread evenly, to minimise the customers’ travel. There is a story, perhaps a play (think Harold Brighouse, Walter Greenwood, J B Priestley …), in T.D. Smith versus the Co-op. Both foundered in the 1960s.

4. Describe an urban walk which, when traced on a street map of the town, spells ‘Lancaster’. Is it possible?

5. Cycle along the length of the Lancaster Canal, from Preston to Kendal, photographing every bridge. The canal is 57 miles long, there are around 200 bridges. Do the ride in one day – Midsummer? –  it will be a tough day, as the tow-path is often rough and uneven. There are no locks on the first 43 miles, the canal following the 72 feet contour along the western edge of the Pennines. The canal is a sinuous lake, 43 miles long, twenty feet wide, lying like a snake along the contour line. The bridges, one pattern, one size, do not change.

6. Walk the length of the River Lune, from source to mouth, 54 miles, photographing every bridge. The river, beginning as a barely-perceptible spring that bubbles, overflows, trickles, erodes a channel, draws other streams into it, captures them, creates its own fan-shaped catchment area, until it is big enough to be given a name, is all action. Its energy derives from gravity, the 800 feet fall from source to mouth, and from falling rain and snow. The canal exists in stasis, all the energy that made it expended in the few years of its construction 200 years ago. The river is kinetic, expressing and embodying energy. The river gets bigger, downstream. At what point is it the same ‘size’ (ie in cross-section containing the same amount of water) as the canal? And of course the bridges get bigger, become more distinctive. If not necessarily more distinguished. Do over several days: drive to the end point of each day’s walk, cycle to the start point, walk the section, drive to pick up the bike.

7. Photograph 24 clocks in Lancaster, one at each hour of the 24. Remembering how many public clocks there used to be, how I would run to school, my progress – lateness! – marked by accusing clock faces. Remembering the factory sirens to get the workers to work, the clocking-in clocks – five minutes late and you’d be ‘quartered’, ie have 15 minutes’ pay docked. I was after the time of ‘knockers-up’, by my childhood everyone had a cheap, noisy, tin alarm-clock. And a loud-ticking living-room clock, that on Sundays stretched the boredom to screaming point. I’ve hated ticking clocks ever since.

None of these ideas is original, referencing, eg, Paul Auster, Richard Long, Ed Ruscha, Christian Marclay. The intention is three-fold: to apply a practice from elsewhere to Lancaster; as an exercise in actually doing something, in going from intention to action, idea to practice; as a connection from ‘now’ to ‘then’. See what, if anything, develops from each Project. Can they be described as Art Works? If someone chooses to treat them as such. I should, at some point, find out if there is someone who will. Until then, they are Art Works in potentia.

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