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.

Version 2IMG_6879

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 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.

Letter from Lancaster 18

The Lancaster Co-op

In 1860 workers from the Phoenix Foundry and Ridge Lane Silk Mill met to start a co-operative to sell groceries. Their aim was to break the monopoly of the existing grocers, and their use of the credit or trust system, which tied customers to a retailer and kept them in debt; the equivalent of today’s pay-day lending. (The slipperiness of accounting terms: to buy on credit means to be in debt; and trust could lead you to Lancaster’s new debtor’s prison.) ‘No Trust, No Tick’, read a sign. Indeed, as the co-op would be profit-sharing, members would receive, four times a year, as dividend, a percentage of what they had spent. They were following the example of The Rochdale Pioneers of 1844, and the many co-ops that followed. All this before working-man (much less woman) franchise, legalised trade unions, state elementary education. But, their minds unencumbered by these, they had ‘more time to think’. And they had their library at the Silk Mill.

With their motto: ‘Strive to increase the good of all. Thus only can the share of each increase’, they rented a shop in Penny Street, where ‘burly blacksmiths and mechanics weighed flour and sugar, cut up bacon and cheese, measured treacle, and dispensed groceries “like mad” on a Saturday.’ Men were allocated products to buy: meal, flour, rice and grain; tea, coffee, sugar, treacle; spices and tobacco; bacon and cheese. All this in their spare time. Soon they were breaking through the monopoly of existing traders and buying in the wholesale market. The Co-operative Wholesale Society, founded in 1863, helped.

Growth was remarkable. In 1861 branches were opened in Skerton and Galgate (a local village where the silk mill was manned by spinners from Rochdale). In 1865 they bought a shop in New Street which, extended many times, became the town’s only department store. In the first decade, brush, drapery, coal, millinery, boot & shoe and butchery departments were added. By 1867, sales were £20,000 a year (multiply by 100 for today’s equivalent). In 1885, £48,000, with a dividend paid of £5,500 between 2,700 members – an average £2 a member, a week’s wages.

Lancaster in 1860 had been stagnant since the end of the eighteenth-century maritime prosperity [see Letter 14]. It had shared none of South Lancashire’s cotton boom: in 1801 the population was 11,000, Oldham’s was 12,000; in 1861, 17,000 against 72,000. It was only in 1870s that Lancaster had its industrial boom, with linoleum, table baize and oil-cloth factories, and their ancillary cotton mills. In 1910, the population was 41,000. That’s a story for another blog.
This helped the co-op to grow – but at the same time it faced competition from T D Smith’s, and later the new multiples, Liptons, Maypole, Home & Colonial, Freeman, Hardy & Wills, Hepworth’s.

In spite of this new competition, in 1910 the Lancaster and District Co-operative Society had sales of £200,000, a fine new department store, twelve suburban shops, and eight out-of-town shops. It employed 240, at higher wages than other shops. It had built dozens of houses for sale and rent, and given mortgages to members to buy their own houses. It paid burial money. It spent £500 a year on education (remember to multiply by 100), had a lending library of 8,700 books, five reading rooms, gave WEA scholarships, and paid technical school fees. It paid 15% dividend.IMG_5187

The co-op model looked the ideal system to counter the capitalist model. It provided innovation, employment, service, value. Owned by the members, profits went to the members. I will ponder, in another blog, why the model faded in the twentieth century.

And why his mother, a working woman, disdained the co-op, would never go into their shops.
He was allowed into the department store once: to queue for Stanley Matthew’s autograph. He loved football, and Matthews was his favourite player – although he himself was a solid centre-half rather than a flamboyant winger.
After the initial over-excited pushing and shoving, the queue settled into a long snaking line of boredom, punctuated by flares of combat. He ignored all that because, as the line twisted its convoluted way through the, to him, enormous store, he was entranced by the system of copper tubes looping across the ceiling and down to the counters which, his brother explained, was a pneumatic system in which small canisters of orders and money were shot back and forth between counters and cashiers. His eyes followed the convolutions, his fingers traced the interconnections, the whoosh of air took his breath away. Head up, mind who knows where, he saw himself miniaturised inside his space canister, speeding through the convolutions, visiting each department as a secret presence, discovering ever more exotic worlds in the ramifying tubes, and with it, the vastness of inner space. By the time he arrived at the table behind which Stanley Matthews sat patiently signing his name, time after time, football had faded, and he was Jet Morgan, Pilot of Inner Space.

Note: the information and quotations come from Co-operative Congress Souvenir, Lancaster, 1916, by W A Smith.

This is my last blog for a while, as I take break to reconnect with my inner Jet Morgan. Best wishes.

Letter from Lancaster 17

Walking Across Lancaster Sands.

In the wide horizontals – the curves of the channel, the waves of estuarine sand, the flights of birds, the ranges of Lake District hills – the Arnside railway viaduct is a comb set on its teeth. Before the railway came in 1867, the way to Lancashire across the Sands – until 1974 Lancashire embraced the Bay, down to Barrow-in-Furness, up beyond Coniston – was across Lancaster Sands. Wordsworth walked it. Ruskin took the train. The right of way across the Sands is marked on OS maps with ‘Warning – seek local guidance’. 216137925The guidance is a guide, paid £15 a year by the crown, since 1963 Cedric Robinson, ‘sand pilot’, ‘man of the sands’, who has fished the Bay all his life. But never from a boat – cockling with jumbo board and rake, fishing with fixed nets to catch the tides, shrimping with horse and cart and then tractor. There’s no longer a full-time living, and it’s left to part-timers, and chancers like the gang-masters who kept the Chinese cockle pickers too late on the Sands in 2004, and 21 drowned.

There are many accounts of the caravanserais crossing the ‘wet Sahara’ – “oxen, sheep, horsemen, carriers, carts, chaises, gigs, all in close succession, instead of the dromedaries and turbaned inhabitants of the East”. And deaths are recorded from earliest times – being caught in the incoming tide, “swifter than a galloping horse”, or wheels trapped in quicksand, carriages overturned.

And then came the railway. And then a few recreational crossings. I crossed in the early 1950s, it must have been with William Burrow (“1950–1963. Died in office”.) A Sunday school outing? Not many in the party, anyway. Now there are 18 crossings a year. And today I and the other 499 sponsored walkers are wearing “Friends of The Lake District” tee shirts as we head down the coast from Arnside. It begins to rain.

Just short of where the Chinese cocklers died (the last skull was found by a fisherman who thought it was a pair of false teeth grinning up at him from the sand) we turn west and head out into the Bay. At the Keer crossing I take off my trainers – walking across ridged sand through ankle-deep tepid gently-flowing salt water is perfect foot therapy, and my feet are tingling at the other side.

Then a long walk across featureless sand. IMG_5894Surprisingly large ups and downs, like wet dunes; in the dips, the horizon disappears. How easy to go astray without landmarks, Arnside Knot, Heysham Power Station, the gap that is the Irish Sea, Barrow, Coniston Old Man, Grange-over-Sands promenade, bleached and softened by the rain.
Settle into the walk. The walkers. The silent, erect woman, remembering the husband she did this walk with forty years ago. The father and son, bonding. The two boys, eleven, best friends, dashing this way and that, chasing, hiding, splashing, laughing, giddy with the water and the vast space, the best day of their lives. Remembering that crossing so many years ago, the guide showing us how to tread for fluke, ‘shoes off, walk carefully through the water, feel the movement under your foot, press firmly, bend, hand under, thumb on top , there – a fish for your tea!’ Holds out the wriggling flat fish, I pull back, he drops it in his bag with a smile. And on a wide expanse of dry-looking sand, with rhythmic pressings of his feet setting the sand in motion, like a trampoline, so that soon it’s undulating, moving in waves, under my feet, making me giddy, I can still feel it. ‘Quicksand,’ he says, ‘break the surface and you’ll sink, straight down. You won’t be swallowed up, like in the films, but you’ll be stuck – it sets like concrete around you, so you drown in the next tide. So tread carefully.’ How I trod carefully!

The rain is steady. I’m wet through. The wind has come up. I’m cold. The sands are wide and empty. The shore is far away. We are shepherded between a tractor and a quad bike. But the walking is easy, and this is good, I’m crossing the Sands again after 65 years.

The main river, the Kent. A hundred yards wide, thigh deep, pushing through the thick water, against the strong side current, a sense, in the long, splashing crossing, of the scale and power of this alien environment, the grandeur and the jeopardy. The stream of people crossing is biblical.IMG_5910

Surprisingly quickly we’re splashing across the last channel and climbing up to the station at Kent’s Bank. Ced’s daughter as always is waiting, umbrella in hand for him to sign books under. As he signs, I thank him for Sand Pilot of Morecambe Bay say how much I enjoyed it, a gentle ‘thank you’, warm smile. Train, bike, home, dump everything in the bath, dry clothes, crumpets and tea. It won’t be my last crossing of the Sands.

Letter from Lancaster 16

The Heysham Labyrinth

“Heysham has one of only two possible examples of pre-Roman labyrinths in Britain”, wrote Dr George Nash, Bristol University archaeologist, in 2008.

An ancient labyrinth? At Heysham? I’m interested. I like labyrinths. I’ve written about a labyrinth in Crete1, a labyrinth in Amiens cathedral2. A friend made a turf labyrinth in Dorset that we walked.
A labyrinth is not a maze.There are many ways through a maze, you can get lost in it: it is a puzzle to solve. There is only one way through a labyrinth; it combines circle and spiral in a path that meanders but is purposeful: it is a path to follow. At Chartres it is called the Road to Jerusalem, the Road to Paradise. As a meditative practice it is the road to the self. As a religious artefact it is the portal to another realm.

From their origin in Crete (the Theseus and minotaur story is accepted to be a Greek distortion of a Minoan labyrinth ceremony conducted by a bull-masked priest), they spread along the Bronze Age trading routes the Greeks took in search of tin, to Iberia and then to the British Isles. Pytheas wrote of his 4th century BC journey to the Orkneys  – it is likely that the Ring of Brodgar is the ‘circular temple’ in which Apollo was worshipped. [Letter 13]. The other British labyrinth is at Tintagel, close to Cornish tin mines. And Heysham is on old Irish Sea trade routes – St Patrick is said to have visited, and the hogback stone in the church [Letter 10] is thought to be the grave marker of a Viking trader.

labyrinthThe Heysham labyrinth was discovered in 1996 by a local reporter, and a photograph printed in the Morecambe Visitor.
Working from the photograph, Nash concluded that the labyrinth had been pecked – rather than carved – consistent with pre-Historic petroglyphs. But when he visited in 2008, he found it smoothed and eroded. It was fading away. Time for me to find it.

It isn’t easy to find. I have a couple of photographs, but there are acres of sandstone ledges on the headland, pavements and cliffs, and I am looking for a faint carving eight inches across. It takes two visits. IMG_5958On my first visit I find a boat engraved into a rock face. On my second, from reference points on the photographs, I find the place. It is on a flat outcrop of rock, at high tide level, that would be submerged by the highest tides. It is on a wide ledge, next to the engraved boat.Version 2 Is the labyrinth here? I see it. I don’t see it. It is only when I photograph it that I fix it. But when I bring a friend the next day, neither of us can see it. It is in yesterday’s photograph. But I don’t see it now. Is it there?

What to do with this story? Perhaps it is from pre-History, having a significance, long covered but revealed by an exceptional storm, and we have from 1996 to the moment it finally disappears to resolve our relationship with it? Perhaps it is a hoax, like crop circles, created as bait for New Agers to fit into their theories? Perhaps it was created by a group as their talisman, a group I should be seeking out …? Or this:

‘On the day Ship arrived [Letter 10], she saw the identical figures facing away from each other to different worlds, and realised 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 …

The day he leaves, wandering the shore, she finds the engraved boat. And close by, as if directed to it, the labyrinth. All the times she and he clambered over, sat on, swam from this ledge, without seeing the boat, the labyrinth … This day, and from now on, the boat represents him; the labyrinth is hers.

She studies the labyrinth, each curve, in minutest detail. She wets her finger, touches the labyrinth, tastes the sandstone, the salt. She follows the curves with her fingertip, the involutions and evolutions, in to the centre, out to the edge. And sometimes, at the centre, through. Eyes closed, her fingertip reads the story, like braille. So many stories. Eyes closed, the walls of the groove rise high on either side as, like the needle in a vinyl record, she brings into existence its song. So many songs.
On sunny days at low tides she sits beside it and looks out over the vast tawny pelt of the Bay, smooth as chamois, and inscribes words, makes patterns, creates worlds upon the pelt.
On moonless nights at high tide she stands over it, the dark water lapping at the ledge, aware of the limitless surging ocean, is drawn to dive in; instead draws the ocean into herself, encompasses it.

The labyrinth in the stone fades. Her finger continues unerringly to follow its curves. The labyrinth in the stone erodes away, is erased. But it is there, she feels it, knows it, touches it, holds it to herself. While she lives, the labyrinth lives.’

1 Dionysos’ Island, p147-164.
2 In Search of France’s Green Meridian, p43.

Letter from Lancaster 15

Sambo’s Grave at Sunderland Point.

Close to Horizon Line Chamber (see Letter 11) is a grave in a rabbit warren in unconsecrated ground, under a stone slab with a bronze plate engraved:

Version 2

Here lies
A faithful Negro
(Attending his Master from the West Indies)
died on his arrival at Sunderland

Full sixty years the angry Winter’s Wave
Has thundering dash’d this bleak and barren Shore
Since SAMBO’s Head, laid in this lonely GRAVE,
Lies still and ne’er will hear the turmoil more.

Full many a Sand bird chirps upon the Sod
And many a Moonlight Elfin round him trips
Full many a teeming Cloud upon him drips
But still he sleeps – till the awakening Sounds
Of the Archangel’s Trump new Life impart
Then the GREAT JUDGE his approbation sounds
Not on a Man’s COLOR but his – WORTH OF HEART.
James Watson 1796

In those sixty years Lancaster changed: from a quiet country town, enlivened a little twice a year by the County Assizes and the public hangings that followed, dependant on a thrice-weekly market to sustain it as a local centre; into a thriving seaport of international trade, with all the ancillary businesses, including ship building, a thriving furniture-making industry, and its own banks. A quiet medieval town of wood and thatch became a busy Georgian town of stone and slate, with a developing retail trade, wealthy merchants, and a busy social season of horse-racing, music-making and theatrical entertainments. Everything fine in the townscape of Lancaster was built in that period: Skerton Bridge, the Aqueduct, Customs House, St George’s Quay, Music Room, Assembly Room, Town Hall, the new developments of Queens Square, Dalton Square, Castle Park, etc, etc. And all of it based on, derived from, paid for by, slavery.

Twenty per cent of Lancaster sailings were slaving voyages: in Lancaster ships, 35,000 captives left West Africa; 29,000 slaves arrived in the West Indies. Fifty per cent of its trade was with the West Indies, with additional trade to the slave states of North America – the first bale of American cotton to arrive in England is said to have been landed at Sunderland Point. There was also Baltic trade, and coastal trade including with Ireland, but the West Indies trade dominated, and was the most profitable. Lancaster merchants owned plantations – including the brother of James Watson, the poet of Sambo’s epitaph. Gillows imported Honduras mahogany, and transformed it into fine furniture, to ship back to the plantation owners and the Lancaster elite. As Dickens puts it, “Lancaster is a pleasant place, dropped in the middle of a charming landscape, a place with a fine fragment of a castle, a place of lovely walks, a place possessing staid old houses richly fitted with old Honduras mahogany, which has grown so dark with time that it seems to have got something of a retrospective mirror quality into itself and to show the visitor, in the depth of its grain, through all its polish, the hue of the wretched slaves who groaned long ago under the old Lancaster merchants …”

Watson was writing in, 1796, in the indignation of the anti-slavery movement. But writing with patronising sentimentality, at a time when there were dozens of ‘Blacks’ and ‘Negroes’ in the town, working as servants. In theory they were free, but over 800 advertisements for absconded ‘Negroes’ have been found in British newspapers of the time. One offered 5 guineas for the return of his ‘BLACK SLAVE, called CAESAR’. Another notes that the runaway is wearing a brass collar inscribed, ‘Gustavus Brown … his Negro’. Others were advertised as branded with their master’s initials. A sentimental gloss on the Sunderland story has ‘Sambo’ (not a personal name but generic, as my generation would refer to a ‘Paddy’) had pined away while waiting for his master. Like Greyfriars Bobby.

And Dickens was writing in the satisfaction of post-Abolition times.

And then slavery was forgotten. In my thesis on Lancaster written in 1966 I wrote, “1700 – 1790. As with Bristol this was a period of great prosperity based on trade with the West Indies.” It was only in the 1980s that it began to be written about. It is now acknowledged. But, with so much I find fine in the town derived from it, I have, living here, to live with a cognitive dissonance.

Note: Dickens, in The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices. The other ‘idle apprentice’ was Wilkie Collins. Dickens liked the King’s Arms Hotel, where they stayed, and corresponded with the proprietor for many years.

Letter from Lancaster 14

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.

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.