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.’

Notes:
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
POOR SAMBOO
A faithful Negro
who
(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.

Letter from Lancaster 12

The Last Tripe Shop in Lancaster

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

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

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

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

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

Letter from Lancaster 11

Horizon Line Chamber at Sunderland Point.

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

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

IMG_4791IMG_4793

IMG_5653

 

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

Letter from Lancaster 10

The Hogback Stone and Ship at Heysham, a fable.

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

Then Ship arrived,
Version 2
beached on the shore, concave, slender, steel, empty. Standing in front of it, gazing through it to the sea and sky, he said, ‘when the modern era began, the exterior world, hitherto teeming with gods, muses, fairies and ghouls, became empty space.’ ‘No!’ she cried. ‘While the interior world became deep and rich beyond measure. Language changed from poetic to descriptive, men and women no longer spoke to the world but about it, replaced connection with control, named all things but did not sing them. It’s called progress.’ ‘NO!’ But she saw that the identical figures on Ship were facing away from each other, to different worlds. She saw that he would go far, naming, and doing great things. While she would stay, come again and again to experience the sea and sky cupped in the steel hull, and listen for what the wave says.

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

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

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

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.

IMG_5629IMG_5630IMG_5622IMG_5626IMG_5623IMG_5628

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

IMG_5189Version 2 Version 3

 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.

Letter from Lancaster 8

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.