Paris. Wandering, with Zola, through Batignolles.

Image

Place Clichy. Lunchtime at the barrière. In Paris the universal punctuation mark is coffee, for me, on this grey Wednesday, this is the semi-colon of my day as a flâneur, around the village that is/was Batignolles. It’s nearly lunchtime, but a good place, and time, to call a temporary halt. Unlike the Parisians I really don’t ‘do’ Lunch, I find it an intrusive, and unnecessary, meal which almost terminates the day., in mid-stride. But, in this city of ‘lunchtime’, when in Paris . . . et.c, et.c.

The morning began as three of us left the Line 13 train at Brochart. A middle-aged man, briefcase with broken handle tucked under his arm, a Muslim woman pushing an empty pram, surely she hadn’t left the unfortunate child hurtling towards Port d’Asniere and myself, were decanted onto the Avenue de Clichy. This is not a tourist destination. There are no crowds or African geegaw vendors here. This is the ‘Paris’ of Paris. Not the only Parisian Paris, of course, I could have easily been in Belleville, Villette or Gentilly but, I’m not, I’m on the old borderland of the villages of Batignolles and Monceaux. The fallow fields and woodland were raped long ago, in the eighteenth century, by quarrymen, and then re-populated by a railway engine works. But I am in no doubt that I am in the countryside. I have just stepped down a narrow passage into, well, into the countryside. This frontier is now drawn by the Cité des Fleurs. This is a, grandly-named, paved street, wide enough for one car, or should that be one carriage, and one pedestrian on each pavement, which today is totally, and unconcernedly, blocked by a wagon delivering replacement paving slabs. The four cars, who ignored the ‘Men at Work’ sign, sit patiently, in a Parisian sort of way, waiting for the delivery to end. Diplomacy and discussion are redundant here. Job to be done! Surely this is the city equivalent of the ever slow-moving, patience-testing, tractor? They, those of the non-working variety, must wait, and wait they do. But they do it with an air which hovers between resignation and arrogant affrontery.

It’s the houses that have drawn me down this 200 metre long street. They all lie behind walls, hedges and gates, some, though, are more determined to protect their privacy than others. Some have ascending staircases to their doors, double staircases in places. Most have ornate architectural features, a swag here, a finial there. A glory of wrought ironwork everywhere, adorning their luscious whiteness. These were the houses of the rich in 1850. They were middle class dwellings in the 1950s. They are now back in the hands of those for whom they were built, the cycle continues. There’s every ‘neo’ imaginable here, neoclassical to neobaroque to neogothic. Built to satisfy the whims of their ‘proprietaires’, just as long as those same ‘proprietaires’ agreed to plant three trees in their garden, and also display two cast iron urns. I know, I didn’t get that one either.

But, notwithstanding the delivery wagon, this is a tranquil and green place, it is a place of flowers. Paris, though, has a habit, if you have eyes which see beyond the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe, of drawing you into its past. But here, (dare I say it?) the city has similarities with the good ol’ US of A. It has very little, some, but very little, evidence of its antiquity. For the US, with respect to the native Americans, it just hasn’t been around that long, but Paris had the archetypal town planner, Baron Haussmann, and Paris is still marching to his nineteenth century beat. On the Cité des Fleurs, alongside a gateway, is a garland of flowers, attached to a plaque. Here, in May 1944, the Resistance network ‘Plutus’ was raided by the Gestapo. Their primary task, in this house, was the forging of papers. Here, in the yard into which I’m looking, Colette Heilbronner was executed and, from here, six of her
co-Resistants were transported, to their deaths, in Germany. Here, they are still remembered. The surprise, for me, is that most of the names are Hebraic. This is practically two years after the notorious round-up of Jews, in the Vel d’Hiv, and there were still Jews, in 1944, in Paris, operating openly secretly. The lodge of ‘LE Guardien’ lies at the end of the street, bearing the rules and regulations. It seems unimportant that ‘LE Guardien’ is a woman. Similarities there with the new Mayor of Paris, Madame LE Maire. She is fighting hard to become LA Maire. Aargh, the vagaries of the gender of French nouns.

Retracing my steps, down the Cité, and across the traffic of the Avenue, onto the Rue des Moines, takes me from a verdant, village, suburb into the heart of the village. The shopping street. Here isn’t the rush of the motor car, here it is the bustle of footfall. People are not en route, they are there. The street is their target. Just an ordinary street, but with a cornucopia of fresh produce. The first five shops are an Italian delicatessen, a Greek deli, a mini-market, a North African grocery and a Chinese café. All are open to the street. A street full of parked cars. It’s August
on-street parking is free! There is a fromagerie, door closed but the smell, outside, is deliriously, gorgeously, cheesy. Cheese in abundance and cheese from Abondance. There are three boucheries and several fruit and veg. Emporia, all with their in-house, characterful, spieler. But wait. There’s something wrong here. I live in a Breton, rural idyll, and I shop at Super U. I buy what they provide, what they think is good for me. Here am I in the largest, most populous, city in France, on a street that groans with choice, in every culinary department. I can’t get this selection in Brittany, in fact, it seems to me, the supermarkets there are overseeing the end of French village culture. But French village culture is here, amongst the apartments and offices, and it is in rude , good health. Slightly dearer, I grant, but it’s there. The shopkeepers,wearing all manner of garish gear, from cowboy hats to fez, are calling the customers by their first names, and there are customers in every shop. The only things that you can’t buy here are miniature Eiffel Towers, ‘I love Paris’ T-shirts and Arc de Triomphe key rings. This ‘modern’ village concept is emphasised at the end of the street. On one side a pharmacy with a genuine 1900, wood and painted glass, frontage, but with an ultra-modern interior and, opposite, the ‘Batignolles Market’, a subterranean piece of Brueghalia. An extraordinary, and ordinary, place. It’s short of light down there, and some of the people descending the stairs, look a little dodgy and downtrodden, but it is a fully-functioning market, people are shopping, they are carrying bags, and, thankfully, not Super U bags.

The walk through Batignolles to Place de Clichy is through narrow streets, which, in no way inhibit the speed of either cars or motor scooters. And whose pavements provide little refuge from the impatient, urban, speedsters. The streets are lined by high apartment buildings, interspersed by the old, double-storey, remaining, village houses. This is, oddly, a great place for street Art. The narrow gable end of a house bears a 30 metre high tree, with a nesting rook perched aloft. On the floor, a partly obliterated stencil, something about ‘marriage and wives’, over-stenciled by someone else writing, ‘Bad stencilling is like shit on the pavement’. How discerning, that someone has had the time, and motivation, to over-stencil a stencil. On an adjacent wall, a huge, green, 3D, ear, with the legend ‘Audio Surveillance Zone’. This must be street art, a visual pun on ‘walls have ears’? Either that or Paris has become more surveillance conscious than ‘Big Brother London’.

The street, Rue Lemercier, is almost a six-storey canyon, with only the odd window box, and airing duvet, to break the cream monotony. Oh, and ‘Mme. Dupont’ checking her domain for unwanted intruders, from as far away as the neighbouring Rue Legendre, as she has done for centuries. No eye contact! But, then, to my left, a solid gate opens and a courier strides, carelessly, out. Before the door creaks it’s way closed, I’m in. I’ve seen it done on ‘Maigret’ and if an old, bemacked, pipe-smoker can do it, so can I. When I get through, I’m in a smaller version of the Cité des Fleurs. The street is paved, single lane, gated and with gardens full of trees. Probably, just like the Cité, the citizens were allowed their own design of houses, they merely had to guarantee that three trees would be planted in their front garden, I expected to be in a courtyard, but, in fact, I am in a 100m long, country lane. This is so well-disguised, and I wonder how many more of these gates lead onto wooded lanes? These are secrets that need to be kept, secrets that beguile, and attract.

Place Clichy beckons. En route a ‘boulangerie/patisserie’ with wooden framed windows and painted glass and a ‘cordonnerie’, again with wooden window frames and a ‘museum’ of ancient tools, and the cobbler sitting there actually using them! Two more painted gable ends and more stencils, this time of Dylan and Gandhi. I’m not convinced by stencilling, it isn’t graffiti, it lacks graffiti’s immediacy, and is carefully prepared and constructed ‘at home’ rather than ‘in situ’. Bit of a cheat? I think so. And there’s another. This time it’s a café, ‘Le Petit Poucet’. It can’t really mean ‘The Little Thumbscrew’? Can it? But it’s been distressed. Everything from the sign, to the tables has been distressed. This is like Holts’ Brewery, in Manchester. They are the only people who can open a new pub and make it look genuinely, grubby, homely and fifty years old, from Day One. Why do people take a perfectly good piece of furniture, hack it about, sand it down, paint it blue and then believe that it’s attractive? They’ve done it here, in yellow, to a café !

So, the Place and a coffee. In the historic café, Wepler’s? Non. Not at those prices, I only want a coffee. So, I’d better whisper this, I sit in the window of ‘Quicks’, and drink a perfectly acceptable cup, for less than 2€. There is only one other customer. An oldish woman, oh dear, I mean of ‘my age’. There are four employees one Chinese, one West Indian, one South American and one European, sitting enjoying a coffee, chattering away in French, before the lunchtime storm, sprawled across the bench seats, in the corner. It doesn’t seem right for a woman, of that age, to be eating a ‘burger, she’s out of place, out of time. She’s not even dressed properly for the activity, . She’s dressed . . . like a woman of 65 . . . ish. I wonder if she’s thinking the same thing about me, an awkwardly dressed man?

Outside Parislife continues. Over there four, besuited, and smart, Central Africans are trying to raise a crowd, for prayer. A North African man pushes a supermarket trolley which contains a small grill and oven. Hanging from the handlebar, a bag of sweet corn, to be roasted. So many memories, of the ‘Hot Chestnut Man’, outside Central Station, in Blackpool, come cascading back. No flick of the switch here, he’s waiting for the charcoal to come to temperature. This is proper street cuisine. But, just like the inappropriately dressed woman to my right, I can’t visualise people walking, eating a butter-dripping, uncontrollable, piece of maize, in a Parisian street. Perhaps his optimism is based on experience? I hope so. Two other North Africans are unloading a multi-coloured VW van, a throwback to ‘flower power’, now that is graffiti, proper sprayed graffiti, illegally parked graffiti, as well. All the boxes ticked. They are delivering fresh fruit and vegetables to some of the establishments round the Place, and under the Place, as he bumps a trolley, stacked twelve crates high, cautiously, and expertly, down into the bowels of the Metro. A display of strength and skill which, obviously, did not leave Paris with the closure of the huge marketworld at Les Halles. Emile Zola is, suddenly, there, with me. ‘Les Ventres de Paris’.(1) People do watch, with that curious, glancing , desire to see a disaster, and the lettuce, oranges, tomatoes et al, plummeting towards Line 13. He does not oblige. Girls with trilbys, and carrying rucksacks, pass him on the way up. Probably escaping Australians, come to see what civilisation looks like. Men with briefcases. Japanese with cameras. Me, with curiosity, at such a rich scene. The inescapable mobile phones clamped to walking ears. “Is it all so important?” I imagine it must be. The inevitable Pompier siren. The honking Renault. The irritating scooter. Traffic guided by common sense rather than white lines. The sounds of a city that isn’t, actually, in any guide book. But it is in the novels of the Rougon-Macquart, it is in Zola . . . and it’s still here.

Rue Lecluse stands round the corner, off the Boulevard Batignolles. This is not a village street. But this is where the village went. A Dublinstreet of wonderful doors and entrances. This is the story of Paris. In the nineteenth century when Baron Haussmann was planning his great boulevards and squares, his great and glorious townhouses, the tax-garotte that was the wall of the Farmers-General, still stood and, within it, the grand design was taking shape. But where did the working people of the city go, as their houses and streets disappeared. In fact they went, as with all great cities, east, towards Belleville and Villette, towards Menilmontant and Gentilly. The spaces of Batignolles and Ternes, of Autueil and Monceaux, in the north, became the hunting ground of speculators. The population of Batignolles rose by 103% between 1861 and 1896. Does this sound familiar to Anglo-Saxon ears? It should do. Land was bought, and held, ready for the right, profitable, price. Profits weren’t to be made in the building of working-class dwellings, for the displaced poor. Eventually, magnificent terraces went up, like the Rue Lecluse, for, if not the rich, the well-to-do. Speculators are not philanthropists, not social engineers, their interest is purely in the acquisition of money. Shedloads of it. Buy. Build. Rent. The creed of greed, sorry, investment. These houses have passed their best and are now multi-occupancy appartments, but they are a vibrant part of this village’s story.

My next punctuation mark, another comma, on this amble, is the park in Batignolles. But I must find my way there, through streets that were trodden by Zola. He is an ever-present spirit in this narrowness. It was here that he lived, for a while, at 23 Rue Truffaut, directly opposite the wash-house. All the experiences described in ‘L’Assomoir’ (2) could be seen from his appartment window. The initial fight that Gervaise Lantier had in the laundry, the smells and sounds that he evokes in the story, he experienced them here, in Batignolles, then set his novel in the nearby area of Barbes-Rochechouart! James Joyce said that he hoped that, if Dublin were to be destroyed tomorrow, it could be reconstructed from the pages of ‘Ulysses’, the same could be said of Paris and the books of Zola. The street is quiet, deserted, but is peopled by spectres of the past. They are here.

The park is a perfect example of the English, municipal park. There are neat flower beds, a lake, populated benches, statues and tall trees. The children’s playground is locked. The Orangerie contains one orange. The café is barred and shuttered and the roundabout silent. Austerity bites. But there is a Galllic twist. The people. They are not only Parisian, but the remnants of Empire. This is a relaxed multi-cultural place. People talk to each other. I just sit on a bench, in my understated , English, way, on a vacant one, of course. Within minutes I am joined by a doppelgänger of ‘Tiger’ Clemenceau, complete with cigarette (oh how I wished that it had been a ‘Gauloise’, but it wasn’t!) in the corner of his mouth and mobile ‘phone. He smiles and nods. ” ‘…jour’ “Isn’t it strange how you can tell the sex of the person receiving a call, by the voice and body language of the caller? “Marcel. She can’t see you!” He isn’t ‘phoning that woman on the other side of the Lake, is he? She’s on the ‘phone as well. I’m party to some clandestine meeting. I am. I’m sure of it.
Man-with-briefcase-and-‘Le Figaro’ sits between us. The spell is broken.

The end of my odyssey is in sight, along the Rue Boursault, the Pont de l’Europe and Gare St. Lazare. On a school another memorial, to Robert Louis Desmoret, and another bunch of fresh flowers. The 32 year old Robert was shot on this spot, outside the school, by the Nazis, on August 20th.1944. He had been part of a Resistance group which had attacked a garage requisitioned by the Wehrmacht. He was wounded here and died, the next day, in the Hôpital Bichot. The battle for Paris had begun on the 19th. August and lasted till the German garrison surrendered on the 25th. In only six days the Parisians reclaimed their city. But, as with Colette Heilbronner, the only reason I know what they did, is through research. To all passers-by these brave Parisians are just names on walls, memorial bouquets. They aren’t. They deserve more. Someone. Somewhere. Do something!

The Pont de l’Europe. I’m still not in the guide books, but this is the site of so much artistic endeavour. . . and achievement. The wonderful, evocative, Impressionistic, paintings of Gustave Caillebotte. (3) ‘That’, iconic, photograph by Cartier-Bresson, of the puddle-jumping businessman, ‘Derrière la Gare St. Lazare’. The paintings, inside the Gare, that you just wish had been painted by JMW Turner, but are by that French impressionist, Monet. And then, Emile Zola, again. The sordid, sexual, and violently, murderous events centred on the railway from Gare St.Lazare to Le Havre, in ‘La Bête Humaine’ (4). Behind me the huge trench that used to carry the railway into the Batignolles Tunnels. A sort of Parisian Kings Cross. A, seemingly endless, symphony of rails, overhead cables and trains. The tunnels were closed after an accident, in 1921, when two trains collided, in the that terrifying darkness, and burst into flames, killing 28 and injuring 74. There was an instant reaction and, in 1925, the tunnels, save for a short section, were gone, replaced by this gash through Batignolles.

In front of me, la Gare. The fourteen platforms of Zola’s day are now twenty seven. This is the second busiest station in Europe, carrying 450 000 passengers a day. The busiest? Well, the busiest is walking distance away, the Gare du Nord. Monet’s pictures of St. Lazare, (5) evoke light and steam, Zola’s writing, power and noise. Today all is quiet, calm, and electrical. The only intrusion being the ‘bing-bong’ announcer, and the odd Diesel engine revving up. But the crowds of travellers still throng, and mill about, heading for the same destinations as a century ago, Cherbourg, Rouen, Caen, Le Havre and Deauville. But, tucked away, at the edges, are the lines to Auteuil and other local destinations. Here lies the ghostly footprint of ‘Le Petit Ceinture’ the ‘Little Belt’, Paris’s forgotten railway. I must find out more about this ‘hidden gem’.

The almost deserted platform of Brochart station on the Metro was where I started, the bustling concourse of Gare St. Lazare is where I finish. Paris is a city which fascinates, away from the Champs Élysées, where it bores, in fact . . . No, I won’t go there!

Notes:
(1) ‘Les Ventres de Paris’ is the third book in the Rougon-Macquart cycle and is based on the central market of Paris, Les Halles. The ‘Belly of Paris’ was written in 1873, with Florent Macquart as it’s principal character.
(2) ‘L’Assomoir’ is the seventh book in the Rougon-Macquart cycle and is centred in Barbes-Rochechouart. It was published in 1876 and tells the story of Gervaise Lantier (née Macquart) and her fight against grinding poverty.
(3) The painting ‘Pont de l’Europe by Gustave Caillebotte, painted in 1876, can be seen in the Musée du Petit Palais in Geneva. Many of his paintings can be viewed at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
(4) ‘La Bête Humaine’ is the seventeenth book in the Rougon Macquart series. It was written in 1889 and is a story of sex, greed, corruption and murder, based on the railway line from Gare St. Lazare, in Paris, to Le Havre. The main character, the engine driver, Jacques Lantier, is the son of Gervaise Lantier (L’Assomoir) and the brother of Etienne ( ‘Germinal’ ) and Claude ( ‘L’Oeuvre’ ) Lantier.
(5) Monet’s Gare St. Lazare series were painted in 1877 and can be seen in the Musée d’Orsay.

Advertisements

Up the Itchen Navigation to a Waterhouse.

I’m starting at a down-at-heel, unmanned, railway station, in Hampshire, at Shawford. A full Car Park tells it’s own story, we’re in Commuterland, between Southampton and London. By the quality of car on display here, there’s not much of a recession happening in this neck-of -the-woods. Plenty of cars, plenty of trains, business is growing. But I’m bound for the water, the Itchen Navigation, in fact. Shawford is a funny old place, it doesn’t feel like a village at all. I can’t see a school, a shop or a church. There is a station, a pub, ‘The Bridge Inn’, and also a Mission Hall, proclaiming that ‘God is Light. God is Love.’ One Edwardian semi has been renovated. One half is an office, with ‘man at computer’ in the window of the former drawing room, giving me a “What do you think you’re looking at?”look. I’d have called it the ‘Front Room’ if I’d been much further north, whilst next door is the ‘Shawford Hair and Beauty Salon’. A little further on, there is more renovation work going on, another residence about to become a business? What is the definition of a village? This just seems to exist as a cluster of houses around a station, an extended Station Car Park, there are cars parked everywhere. But no people. Within yards I’m at Shawford Bridge, my real starting point, and below me the water tells me of weeks of rain, it is full and rushing. Another man crossed this bridge on Sunday 12th October, 1651, ‘a distinguished figure, over two yards high’ wearing ‘a suit and cloak of country grey and a tall black hat’. There was a bounty of £1 000 on his head. This was Charles II, en route from defeat at the Battle of Worcester, and his night in the Royal Oak, to exile in France. I’d crossed his path, some months before, near Burpham, it was certainly a goodly walk from Worcester. Mind with that price on your head, and your enemy at your heels, the length of walk was, probably, of little significance to him! I turned, less regally, along the towpath, upstream, towards Winchester. A perfect walking day. Clear sky. Cool but not cold. No chance of rain. To my left the river, to my right . . . on the other side of a garden . . . another river. Both rushing down towards Southampton Water, at speed. Both roughly the same size, just ten metres apart. This was the Itchen Navigation. A Navigation is the term for a waterway which is a river, but where the difficult sections have been by-passed by canals, or cuts, to make one navigable stretch of water, part river, part canal. The garden belonged to, what appeared to be, an old Georgian mill, now a ‘des res’. But it promised to be a thing of great beauty in Summer. The Spring flowers were just beginning to ‘go back’ and the pink and white blossoms of the fruit trees, were about to show. Where man works alongside Nature, a simple, man-made, garden, blending in with its natural surroundings, each complementing the other, it really enhances life. This is my sort of garden, I’m smiling just looking at it and my notebook is jammed with ideas. This is the tranquility I’m aiming for at home. I’ve only just started out and my soul is uplifted. On the further bank, to my left, there is a procession of large houses, all well above the level of the river, with long gardens running down to the water’s edge, and a small landing stage. All the gardens are identical, long and sloping, mainly plain grass, with a terrace next to the house, for ‘evening cocktails’ Sundowners at seven. Less gardens, more expanses of grass. Dull, with a view of the river. At the water’s edge there is, invariably a reed bed, which, I hope, portends a stunning display of irises, later in the year. There are no boathouses, so my guess is that this waterway is oar-powered, these days. The houses are so high above the level of the river, that there is, absolutely, no chance whatsoever of flooding! When the Thames flexed its muscles, last month, Man, who loves, and is willing to pay exorbitant prices for, a ‘pretty river view’, had to endure all that the angry river contained. Here, the prices may also be exorbitant, but Man is more in control, as much as Man can be over Nature, and disaster has been planned out. The river is politely requested to move along particular channels, and does so, until it takes it’s fancy to intrude and then, it actually goes where it jolly well pleases! Some thought has gone into the Itchen Navigation, thought that eluded well-healed, Thames Valleyman, who probably saw himself above Nature. Although, I guess, some ordinary people had to suffer as well. A harsh lesson in treating your rivers with respect. The people of this valley didn’t figure on any News Bulletins. They know their place, the wealthy have built their houses on the heights, not on the riverbank. I pass over a sluice gate, feeding the ‘cut’ to my right, so, now there is only one river, a river full of old rain, to focus on. The Itchen runs close to the valley side and, to my right is a huge expanse of watermeadow. This is a planned flood plain. There are no houses on it, this is agricultural land, bisected by drains and dykes, to be flooded when necessary. All evidence of flooding in the previous months has gone, there are sheep and cattle out grazing now. At intervals I’m overtaken by dogwalkers. Labradors. Retrievers. Oddly, we’re all walking in the same direction, towards the M3. When I travelled the Itchen Navigation last, from Winchester, upstream of where I am now, walking downstream, the walkers seemed to be going in the opposite direction, again towards the M3. Does this piece of road act like a magnet, you must . . . must, walk towards it before you can drag yourself away from it? The way towards Winchester beckons, wide and straight. Away to my right the ridge of Twyford Down, that I’m going to follow back to Shawford. To my left, the canal and the constant hum of traffic. But this was not always just a haven for middle aged dog walkers. After the Conquest this was an important artery for Duke William. The grand plan? To destroy the Saxon civilisation, a civilisation whose richness we are slowly coming to terms with, this was a great civilisation. The Normans wished to eradicate it. Cultural genocide. The great buildings had to go. Winchester had been not only the major city of Wessex, it was the major city of England. The seat, and burial place, of Kings and Queens, of Alfred, of Emma and of St. Swithin. The Saxon minster was to be demolished and a Norman cathedral built over it. Not next to it,or near it, on top of it, the building must be obliterated. The stone to be used? Caen stone. Norman stone. How would the stone reach Winchester? Up the valley of the Itchen. Strangely the canal did not benefit greatly from the Medieval wool ‘boom’, given that the Downs are covered in sheep, but was developed in the canal-crazy years of the eighteenth century. The last commercial transport passed down it in 1869, though it wasn’t until the 1960’s that its value as a leisure amenity was recognised. This is a modern waterway. The walk has a tranquility all its own. The towpath is well-used and well-kept. The water, and its margins, is well-managed. I cross the Twyford Sluice, as it leaves the main artery, bound for a Twyford Drain, and, on it, in regal splendour, swims a lone swan. What a handsome bird they are. But I am about to see it’s other side. Its power. This one, as I pass, decides to take off. Its grace disappears, as it lifts its enormous self off the water, and hauls itself into the air. The noise made by its wings as they beat and it struggles for aerial traction, is almost mechanical. This is just pure power. I can fully believe the ‘country tales’ of a swan being able to break a man’s arm with a beat of its wings. Just like the water it is leaving, grace can become power, in the wink of an eye. It’s the first time I’ve been so close to a swan’s ‘take-off zone’, it is an awesome sight. As I look up, to follow its progress, as it wheels away down the valley, grace is resumed with effortless wing beats. The path now leaves the Navigation and moves to the right, towards the main road. Just before the road is a dry, and derelict, lock. History is disappearing here. It isn’t being destroyed, it’s drifting away, like campfire smoke. Before we know it, before we’ve noticed, it will be gone. Nature will have reclaimed her own. Still visible are the colours of the old bricks, lining the lock. I can almost hear the Georgian brickies, down there, building a lock that will be underwater, but will still be there two centuries later. It now survives the pollution, and vibrations, from its ‘noisy neighbour, the M3. But, as with excavated archaeology, it’s the wood that goes first, the lock gates have gone and the future of Twyford Lane End lock hangs in the balance. The shape of the dry canal, on either side of the lock, has almost gone. Trees, and grass, Nature’s humblest, but stealthiest, plant, replace the canal narrow boats. But history moves on, and this valley is an object lesson. The muddy, turnpike road was replaced by the canal. The canal succumbed to the railway. The busiest route, now, is the neighbouring M3. Over my head a plane slowly descends to Southampton Airport. This valley has taken it all in its stride. Only once have noisy protests met the inexorable march of transport evolution. We all remember ‘Swampy’, (Where is he now?) battling to save a wild flower meadow on Twyford Down. The trench that carries the motorway was, eventually, cut, and the M3, almost invisibly, but not inaudibly, carries the world to London. Over the road that leads to Twyford, and there is a toll house. This is a seventeenth century péage. Well someone had to pay for the road’s upkeep, perish the thought that it should be the landowner, making his fortune from rents and cheap labour or the canal company, making a pile from haulage rates.even then money ‘rose to the top’ of Society, or should that be ‘sank to the bottom’? Across the road, my way lies across Hockley Golf Course. It’s Tuesday, and the Car Park is jammed, with more expensive cars, of course. How do so many people get Tuesday ‘off work’ to play golf? ‘Four balls, at selected times. £120. How much? I feel quite chipper that I’m getting my walk for free! Several people pass me, all look, but none speak. I’m not in smart, bespoke walking gear, I ‘m just in my usual scruffy tackle. I really feel that I am in the world of ‘them’, and ‘us’ are less than welcome. I’m an intruder. Unless, of course, we have £120 at selected times! It seems strange to me, that for a game that involves walking, it takes some pretty expensive motors to get ‘them’ here. Behind the clubhouse stand a group of ‘liveried retainers’, about to man their ‘grasscuttingmobiles’. The countryside is about to be manicured. The course ascends Twyford Down and seems more like an ‘assault’ course than a ‘golf’ course, it’s so steep. The path swings left, uphill, through a copse. To the right is the ‘direttissima’. This has been turned into a ‘driving range’, but the ‘drivers’ are, obviously taking luncheon. There’s a practice putting green by the range, where a young ‘serf’ is demonstrating, to a venerable ‘seigneur’, how to plop the ball into a hole. I striking straight up the middle, Driving Range or no Driving Range. A shout from a ‘liveried retainer’. Don’t turn. No eye contact. I’m building up a fair head of steam, I still find uphills easier than downhills. I don’t hear the sounds of pursuit so press on. The slope of the range is punctuated by a carpet of balls, but, as I rise, the carpet thins. I’m soon among professional balls, impressively struck balls. I stop and look back, the little shed, where they stand, way below me, is still empty. I have visions of a lookout, in the clubhouse, announcing, excitedly, “There’s one out there!” Then a rush of ‘bePringle-jerseyed, bebaseball-capped’ gophers hurtling out, to begin firing their balls, at a, not so, rapidly moving target. Similar to giving the peasant a headstart, then letting the hounds loose, to hunt him down. I think I’m safe though. Looking back, steeply downhill, I can’t help but be impressed by the man who struck the last ball, it’s a gigantic hit. I wonder if he knows that he did it? It would take quite an arduous ascent, for him to find out. But, I guess, that’s the sort of competitive thing that golfers revel in. Of course, he could despatch a ‘liveried retainer’, on his motorised steed, to confirm, then loudly announce, his prowess. That’s the sort of thing that golfers revel in, as well, it seems. At the top of the hill, there’s a ‘green’, and three women delicately chipping towards it. It all seems so much more attractive than the ‘macho-ball-blasting’ that happened on the other side of the slope. My way lies onto a path which plunges through an avenue of Blackthorn, blackberry and Hawthorn. The blossom is just starting to appear, ghostly white, with the path as its black centre. The first two hundred yards run along the hillcrest, but the view is obscured, as the path is a hollow way. How, and by whom, it was hollowed seems a bit of a mystery. It leads onto the top of the Down, or it would have done, before the golf course and M3, from the valley road from Twyford to Winchester. There doesn’t seem to be enough room for sheep to be driven, it is a single track, and relatively steep-sided. There is certainly not enough width for a cart. So, human feet must be the only option. The route becomes, bobsleigh-run, steep, with curves to test the driver. I am enshrouded in a green tunnel, in a solitary, and almost silent, world. The downhill walk pulls on my muscles, I really do find uphill easier. Then, a moment of dreams. Up the hill churns a figure in running gear. His style isn’t elegant, his frame far from lithe, but he is making determined progress. For a moment it’s me. It really feels like I am watching myself. The ‘me’ of twenty five years ago. I’m looking at myself, in this dreamlike cameo, running, as I used to and, loving it! He’s not a fell runner, he carries too much weight, he’s a fun runner, and only those who have done it can understand that divine torture. I stand aside to give him ‘right-of-way’. He grunts as he passes, I recognise that as well. The walk has been worth it, if only for that minute of fellow-feeling. I, momentarily, turn to watch him disappear round a bend, and the moment is broken. Passing time has just been marked. I pause again, only once, for a ‘photo opportunity’. In the hedge, there is a half deflated party balloon, it is so out of place, with its silvery sheen and gaudy colours. How did it get here? Released from a toddler’s hand in the valley, and carried tearfully, skywards? Brought here by a, boisterous, teenage party and abandoned? But, the day is bright and there are vivid reflections of the, surrounding, foliage on its surface. The photograph duly taken, I move onto the main road and, in minutes, am in the village of Twyford. Almost the first house that I encounter is a glorious ‘Queen Anne’ style building, this is Twyford House. I peeped at the Estate Agent’s blurb :- ‘It’s situated in the much sought after village of Twyford . . .'(Ching) ‘Prominently situated in the village . . .’ – you don’t want to hide your wealth away, do you? ‘Stunning views across the Itchen Valley’. . . (Ching) ‘The spacious cellar incorporates a cinema room and gated Wine Cellar’.. . (Ching) ‘The gardens are a wonderful feature of the property, complementing the elegance of the house’. . . (Ching) And so it goes on. The accompanying photographs, of the interior, tell the same affluent story. Zoopla tells me that the average price of a house in the village is £1 111 667, that a house recently sold for £608 000, realising a profit of £75 300. Recession? What recession? You could own Upland House on Roman Rd. for a cool £975 000 or a simple terraced house for £320 000. Oh well, that’s more affordable !!! The best known, past, owner of Twyford House was Dr. Jonathan Shipley, a Bishop of St. Asaph and Llandaff. He did exhibit some unfortunate political views though, in that he opposed the policies of George III over America ! This, undoubtedly would have affected any further job prospects that Dr. Shipley may have had. But, even further, he entertained, at Twyford, Benjamin Franklin, the eminent American. Franklin, reputedly wrote part of his celebrated autobiography here. The high walls surrounding the house would definitely have assisted his proclivity for alfresco nudity ! Over the walls he would have seen the tower of Twyford church. That church was to be demolished in August 1876. The present church is a real jewel. It is a real Victorian Gothic, country church, and it was designed by, no less an architect than, the famous Alfred Waterhouse. It seems that the old church was in a massive state of disrepair, a ‘refurb’ was out of the question, only a rebuild would do. A committee met in June 1875, to discuss the new church. The Chair of the committee was a Manchester engineer, Sir Thomas Fairbairn, who had retired to Bambridge House, at nearby Bishopstoke, in 1866. He was the archetypal ‘Great Victorian’. A patron of the Arts, particularly of the great pre-Raphaelite, William Holman Hunt. He was Chair of the committee which organised the ‘Art Treasures Exhibition’ in Manchester, in 1857 and was a prime mover in a free Art Gallery in Manchester, now the City Art Gallery, and still free. He was to die in 1891, and is buried in Twyford churchyard. We now have bankers who stash their ever growing bonuses, oligarchs who buy football clubs as their playthings and a wealthy class of self-interested tax-scroungers. A nation as divided now, if not more so, than it was then. We tend to decry the Victorians, but one thing is patently obvious, that it was an age that saw philanthropy as a duty. These men saw themselves as the ‘leaders’ of Society and men like Fairbairn, a rich, but good, man saw the investment into Britain as a civic imperative. Where are his like now? Where are the Great Men? We’ve become a nation of narrow-minded, self-obsessed, people. This goes some way to explaining the winning of the contract by the eminent Manchester, Quaker, architect, Alfred Waterhouse. He had built Strangeways Prison in 1869, was just beginning work on the Natural History Museum and finishing Manchester Town Hall. Waterhouse had set up practice in Manchester, and many of his early contracts came through his Quaker connections. He was in practice for fifty years, in Manchester and London, and designed over 650 buildings. The Society of Friends was a powerful force, for good, in Victorian England. So the mixture of industrial philanthropy and a Quaker architect was brought to bear on a simple, Hampshire parish church. It became one of the 4 000 new Anglican churches built between 1835 and 1875, that’s 100 new churches a year. The Anglican religious revival was to meet the Gothic architectural revival, here in Twyford. The church, and spire was to cost £8 339, just £1 339 over budget, and Waterhouse’s fee was, a modest, £407 13s 11d. In his design several features of the old church were retained, including the, magnificent, nave pillars and a massive clipped yew, directly adjacent to the church. Inside, this is a real, archetypal, English, rural parish church. 150 years on, and the hopes and dreams of Fairburn’s Steering Committee have been fully realised. Inhere there is a wealth of rural history. There is the anguish of a family who raised a plaque, when their 22 year old son was drowned, off Wells-next-the-Sea, in Norfolk, when HMS Alarm went down. There is the story of William Davies, who lived in Twyford House in the 17th. century. He was lost, as night fell, in the fog, high on the Downs. He was surprised to hear the bells of the old St. Mary’s and stopped to get his bearings. When he looked more closely, he had stopped on the precipitous edge of a downland chalk pit. He found his way home by following the bells. In gratitude, when he died, in 1754, he left a sum of 20 shillings per annum, to be distributed between the ringers, if the bells rang out morning and evening on October 7th., the day of his miraculous escape. This sum was only to be paid if the bells were actually rung. The tradition carries on today, but I would think 20 shillings (£1) wouldn’t go as far in 2014 as they did in 1754! In the North Aisle there is a glass case holding a bible. The legend tells a tale. The case once held a ‘Vinegar Bible’, a ‘Vinegar Bible’ as published, in Oxford, in 1717, by one John Baskett. There was a misprint, and the ‘Parable of the Vineyard’ became the ‘Parable of the Vinegar’. Strangely the ‘Vinegar Bible’ which resided in this case was stolen in 2007, and the thief actually replaced it, with a Lectern Bible! How odd is that? This church is a real historical, and architectural, storehouse, a delight. The lane, at the end of the churchyard, leads down to a footbridge over the River Itchen. A centuries old scene is being re-enacted before my eyes. Two mothers have brought their young children, to play in the water. A rope hangs from a tree and they are swinging on it. I can see that the mothers really want a ‘go’, but the chance of a loss of dignity prevents them. I move swiftly on, I do hope, that when I had passed, they took their courage, and the rope, in both hands and relived their own childhood. Directly across a meadow, lies the road back to Shawford. The road is flanked by what is obviously a, Georgian, boundary wall. There is a house lurking behind there, but it defies all my efforts to see it. I fight off the urge to climb the wall, I’m getting too old for that! Then the grand gates. This is Shawford House and, although I can’t see it, I do know something about it. In the 18th. century it was owned by the Mildmay family, who had a daughter called Jane. Her father Carew Mildmay (can’t you just picture him? Michael Gambon would definitely play him in the film!) left the house to his eldest daughter, Jane. But there was a proviso. Whoever she married had to adopt the name Mildmay. Sir Henry St. John (I can picture him as well. The part goes to Leslie Phillips!) had no qualms, whatsoever, on that score, with a wife, house and estate at stake! It appears that he was a vain and ill-tempered man, who managed to curb his temper long enough to sire eleven sons and three daughters. Sir John, and most of the children, predeceased Jane, who, herself, died in 1857, at the ripe old age of 93. Multiple bouts of child bearing obviously did her no harm! I reach my destination, Shawford Station. There is one more place to see, and I’m looking at it. It’s unmarked, and just here, by the bridge, outside the station. This is the spot where Victor Meldrew was knocked over. I know, “You can’t believe it!”, but it’s true. In this quiet, sort-of, village our crusty hero met his end. ‘One Foot in the Grave’ ended here in Shawford. So, as I sit in a rustic shelter, dedicated to the memory of that regal curmudgeon, Queen Victoria, over the road, from the place, where a more modern curmudgeon met his maker, the sun still shines, God is in his Waterhouse church, and all’s well with the world. The Bridge Inn calls.

On The Edge of Beauty.

 

On the Edge of Beauty

The wind bites with decembercruelty. I’m on the edgelands. But this is not the edgeland of a city, this is the edgeland of West Cumberland. Behind me the misty immensity of The Lakes and, before me, the greysea swell of the Solway Firth. There are all the colours of coldness, out there, stretching between where I stand, and the Scottish shore, the hills of Galloway. I’m looking at the tide mark of the Irish Sea, and out, into a bleak wonder that raises the spirits. This coast is divided into two distinct areas. The one ravaged by industrial desolation, the steel of Workington, the coal of Whitehaven, the iron of Millom, with their harbours, and the silent ports of Maryport and Silloth. All gone. It’s as if time is not a linear thing, it actually stretches out on either side of you, you walk among the living, and dead, past. But, on this spot, the feeling is different. There are no industrial sores here, in the tiny village of Allonby, between Maryport and Silloth. Interestingly, there is a Breton connection in the name of the village. Alein’sby. ‘Alein’ is an early Breton, male, forename and ‘by’ is the Viking suffix for a village or hamlet. I’m closer to home than I thought. The Romans had been here, fleetingly, there is a lookout post, on the shore, between here and Maryport, now just a pile of stones, but a Romanp pile nonetheless. The Vikings who were driven out of Dublin by the warlike Celts, at the end of the 9th. century, settled in this little bit of England, a bit that they had missed in the first place, hence ‘by’ in the village name.

In this, bitingly, cold, December, weather the houses, as well as the people, are hunkered down. They cling together, closely, along the shoreline, there isn’t enough room for the wind to penetrate between them. Houses crouch rather than stand. I have come here with a purpose, to discover some of the sites drawn, and painted, by the Workington- born artist, Percy Kelly, who, for twelve years, lived here, in Glen Cottage.

The stimulus for my visit, was a series of walking books by Chris. Wadsworth, which lead you through some of the sights, and sites, which lit Kelly’s artistic fires. Each an area of West Cumberland.

As I park my car on the exposed Car Park, at the south end of Allonby, ominously, an empty hearse draws up alongside me. We are the only two cars in this, wind ravaged, field, and he chooses to park right next to me. The sombre suited driver smiles mischievously, at least, I think it is mischievously, I cannot bring myself to return the smile! Very ominous. It’s almost like the Lancashire superstition that the night before you die, you hear the sound of a horse trotting on the cobbles, and it pauses, to whinney, beneath your window!

Above, Herring Gulls swoop and soar, this strong wind is made for them to show off their aerial prowess. The sky is full of them, like one of those moving spirographs of starlings that used to entertain, each evening, over Piccadilly Gardens, in Manchester or North Pier at Blackpool. From the church, opposite the Car Park, houses straggle along the coast road, just a single depth of houses, there is nothing behind them, except caravans. If any church can look weather-beaten, yet defiant, this one does. Squat and determined. It was built in 1845 to replace a Chapel-at-ease. It should be called a Chapel-at-Ease again. These chapels were built for parishioners who had a long way to walk to reach the parish church, or for the convenience of the local lord of the manor. I think I’ll go for option one, although a church could be ‘relegated’ if there had been a significant shift in population.
If, within a hundred years, the population had halved, as here, that could be a reason for its forlorn aspect. In common with many rural churches, the vicar, the Rev. Mary Day, lives in Croscanonby, and shares her ministry. Then, along the shore, I have to pinch myself, and remind myself that I’m beside the Irish Sea, not the Pacific, as I pass the Baywatch Hotel and Jack’s Surf Shack. Really! The thought of Pamela Anderson’s goose pimples warms me to the marrow!

There are people about. A woman stops, whilst I’m sketching, and initiates a conversation. We can hardly stand upright, and here I am talking to an Australian ex-pat … desperately … desperately …John Cleese-like, trying not to mention the Ashes! Her choice of conversation? To talk about the chances of the sea overwhelming the village. Recent news is still fresh. She actually lives in a Allonby, but, I think, a true native would have shown much more optimism. There are no sea defences. In a week when the east coast storm surge toppled houses onto the East Anglian beaches, that must have been of concern here. The last great tidal surge, in 1953, started just north of here, off Stranraer, then proceeded to smash its way, murderously, down the east coast of Britain. I thought I’d got away with it, but no, “Your boys aren’t doing so well in the Ashes!” I turned into the wind, and left her to her walk!

Allonby has a rock-strewn beach, a footpath level with the sand, and an expanse of grass, probably forty metres wide, before the totally exposed houses. The only other people on the path, I hesitate to call it a promenade, are wind-blown dog walkers. Oddly, all the dogs look similar, small, short-legged, ‘ I-might-be-small-but-I-can-cope-with-anything’ models. It seems to make sense in this wind. Their masters look the same as well, shrouded in battered-looking, green, anoraks and wearing woolly hats (bobbles optional) But they all speak. Everyone says “Good morning.” No-one passes in silence.

I turn inland, with my back to the sea, past two former inns, ‘The Solway’ and ‘The Grapes. It was outside the ‘Solway’ that the crowds gathered, in 1903, one stormy night to witness the grounding of the ‘Hougoumont’, a ship bound for Liverpool, from San Francisco. The beach was littered with the cargo, and the detritus of a wreck, including crates of peaches, pears and salmon. They were not labelled, so the only way to discern the contents, was by shaking the tin, if it ‘glugged’, it was fruit. None of the 20+ crew, nor the captain’s wife, were lost, but I wonder where all that fruit and salmon went !!!?

There, next to the Post Office stands a Fish and Chip Shop, ‘The Codfather’, I love the imagination that goes into naming Chip Shops.

There is the red, road, bridge, over the beck, that Kelly took so much delight in drawing and painting, rebuilt when a traction engine destroyed the original in November 1907. The engine, en route from Maryport, was dragging three wagons, containing a steam-driven fairground ride. It toppled into the swollen beck, destroying the bridge. The local bobby, PC Richardson,took control, directing traffic. Those were the days, when the police were there for the public good, rather than catching people out and fining them. Glorified tax collection. He directed them through the beck, which was much wider and shallower than today. I don’t think I’d have fancied that in my battered, old, Citroen Xantia! A Mr Twentyman took it upon himself to bring planking from a ship being broken up on the beach, to construct a temporary walkway. Nobody was hurt. I can only presume that this is a relation of the Twentymans who owned the village shop in Percy Kelly’s time, and still do. Ship breaking was a major trade at the turn of the century. Ships were brought to Allonby beach to be broken up. Much of the wood went to the burgeoning local coal industry for pit props. Is that a ‘Green Policy’? Or just common-sense recycling?

Back-to-the-Sea is Kelly’s direction as well. He isn’t drawn by the elemental strength of nature, but by the more prosaic lines of the houses. There is a full,
from-every-angle, view of the bridge area, in Chris. Wadsworth’s excellent guidebook, c/o PK!

I’m drawn by a piece of antique street furniture, by the side of the bridge, a ‘Cumberland C.C. Fingerpost’. Probably seventy+ years old. It feels, timelessly, right, here. Living history. And there, unostentatiously, stands ‘Glen Cottage’, Percy Kelly’s home for twelve years. Well, home till his wife arrived back, one evening, unexpectedly, to find him sat in his chair, wearing her clothes! The bland face of the small, rural, cottage hides it’s ‘dreadful’ secret, without expression. The Fiat ‘Uno’ parked outside, also, seems totally unconcerned, as you would expect from an Italian, used to such ‘la dolce vita’, I expect.

To turn along Garden Terrace, to the right of his home, is almost surreal. To walk along it gives the sensation that you’ve stepped through some, invisible, wardrobe door and entered, a Cumbrian Narnia, or, at least, that you’ve stepped into a Kelly picture. But walking into one of Percy’s pictures will make you, immediately, invisible, his pictures are form and shape, but without people. This is not true of Allonby today. It’s population, in the early 19th. century, was between 700-800. When Percy lived in the village it had plunged to 400, and now, (in 2001), it stands at about 470. It is growing again. Garden Terrace is a cul-de-sac, ending on private property. Returning to the bridge, and turning directly right, heads you down a narrow lane, for Westnewton and Aspatria, and there is ‘Globe Inn Cottage’. Formerly ‘The London Apprentice’, it is for sale. Another facet of the village, opens up, it’s pubs. Most are closed, and are residential cottages, but every other house seems, at some time, to have been a public house. They must have been prodigious drinkers, these Cumbrians of old. Since turning from the sea I have passed three, well four really, if you count the guest house almost next to Glen Cottage. This was, until 1850, the ‘Queens Head’, and then became the ‘Queens Temperance Hotel’. It was owned by T. Armstrong and, on old photographs, boasts stabling and ‘conveyances for hire’ and, there, on the picture, a very smart ‘conveyance’. Allonby was a holiday destination at the end of the nineteenth century.

Almost opposite Globe Cottage is the entrance to ‘The Square’. I use the word ‘entrance’ advisedly. I am looking down a very narrow, cobbled street, once the main thoroughfare of the village. It’s date is given away immediately, on the first house, a datestone for 1679. This is real history, not the ‘stuffed and preserved’ history of the larger tourist traps. This has not been subsumed by ‘Ye Olde Gifte Shoppe’, people live here, as they have for centuries. Allonby has evolved rather than been developed. It lives, and breathes, in its own quiet, understated way. I do like it here. It’s real. There is no room for the wind. It doesn’t whistle through the alleyways, it knows that it isn’t welcome. A cottage bearing a coat of arms, dated 1650, emphasises the street’s age. To my left are two more former pubs. One, unashamedly, ‘The Swan’, is called Swan Cottage but more demurely, almost adjacent, stands the ‘The Sun’. At the end of Temple Terrace, a neat row of cottages, is a wreck, a ruined farmhouse. I fervently hope that it is not taken up as a weekend cottage, but becomes a home for a local family, people who are going to live here. On Temple Square, named for the family who lived there, rather than any religious connotations, stands the former ‘Greyhound’ pub. How many pubs could this population stand?

Passing Temple Square, there is a break in the housing, on the left, and there over the beck stands an imposing group of buildings. These are the Fishyards. The herring industry had been important here in the late 17th. century and these buildings were owned by the Beeby family, a family of Quakers. Here herrings were gutted, salted and packed. Some were smoked, the gorgeous aroma of Kippers must, once, have filled the air. There was even a cooperage in the complex, to make the barrels, into which the herrings were packed. By 1900 the herring industry had slumped. This being Allonby, there was also a pub in there! ‘The Spirit Vaults’, a grog shop. It sounds an extremely rudimentary ‘drinking den’, and was described as ‘a darksome place’. Old photographs bear that description out! It was run by the Costin family and could have had, as it’s origins, the rum smuggling trade which thrived along the Solway. Alfred Costin, opposed by the Police, and the Temperance Union, lost its license in 1903. Pretty substantial opposition for our ‘grog shop’ owner. The buildings became a stables, and riding school, you can still see the stone, horses’ heads which adorn the gateposts. Now there are some private dwellings and a huge, weatherworn, gable end.

Allonby is a treasure house of architecture, and that facet of the walk is about to unfold. There, in front of me, on the main road, is an Italianate, red brick, building, complete with staircase and tower. It is in the throes of renovation, into a private house, but a sympathetic renovation. It’s character is being retained. This is the ‘Reading Room’ and another door into Allonby’s past is about to open. The building was erected in 1862, financed by a Quaker industrialist, from the North East, Joseph Pease. He was part of the group that started the Stockton and Darlington Railway Company. He was the largest mine owner in South Durham, and bought the land which was to become the port of Middlesborough. A Victorian entrepreneur par excellence. He became an MP, supporting the Whigs ( later the Liberal Party). He was the first Quaker MP and, in common with Quaker traditions of fairness and honesty, without ritual, refused to take the oath, but was, eventually allowed to affirm. Neither would he remove his hat when entering the House, Quakers believing that all men are born of equal worth. He was a prodigious man. At the age of 61 he became a father, for the sixteenth time! At the age of 63 he commissioned the Reading Room and he was to die, in 1872, aged 73.

But this extraordinary man is not the only notable Victorian Quaker associated with the building. He commissioned a young, Quaker, architect to design his Reading Room, the 32 year old, Alfred Waterhouse. Waterhouse had set up practice, in Manchester, in 1853, and was to be responsible for much of the architectural glory of Victorian Manchester, as well as many Quaker homes in the North East. In 1858 he designed the Assize Courts, in 1862, the formidable Strangeways Prison and finally the Gothic, totally irregular, rectangle, that is the marvellous, Manchester Town Hall, in 1877. If you see the interior of the Houses of Parliament, depicted on a television drama, you can bet your life you are really looking at the interior of Waterhouse’s wonderful building. His crowning glory came in 1873 when he designed the Natural History Museum, in London. And here I am, on the banks of the Solway looking at a building designed by Waterhouse. Incredible. Like Pease he recognised that construction was part of the industrial process, but also embraced the principles of the Arts and Crafts Movement. He designed a bold statement on the West Cumberland skyline. The Reading Room actually closed its doors, for the last time, in the 1970s, after more than a century’s service. Well done to its new owners for the, sympathetic, restoration which seems to be going on.

On the Reading Room clock it shows 12.40. Over the road, on the Allonby Hall, it is 9.50. This building was opened on November 9th. 1905, by EH Banks JP., of Highmoor, Wigton. An old photograph shows the event. A large, but orderly, crowd has gathered outside the front door, women on one side, in full Edwardian dress, with required, large, hats. In the centre, the Sunday-suited children and on the right the menfolk, capped or hatted. Almost hidden, standing on the Hall steps, are the besuited, but bare-headed, dignitaries. The Edwardians certainly knew how to take a dignified, and comprehensive, team photograph!

The, current, noticeboard is a document of our times. It should be preserved for posterity. The results are posted for the, uncontested, Parish Council Election of April 2011 ( two and a half years ago, and still there!). Civic apathy, I wonder?
Then, a notice posted on 20.08.2013. ‘Due to austerity measures Allerdale District Council are (sic) reducing the concurrent grant by 50% for amenities and services in Allonby parish. This will cause financial loss to the Parish Council in future.’ Shame on the government for this strangulation of a community! Then we have a meeting of the ‘Over 55s Club’ every Thursday. The Christmas Lights Switch-on will be held, outside the Hall, on Saturday 14th. December, with mulled wine, mince pies and Santa (Blackpool eat your heart out!). Allonby School will be presenting ‘The Stable Boy’ on the evening of December 11th. Bravo Allonby!

At the furthest remove from the parish church, at the north end of the village, is the Congregational Chapel. There is never any doubting that a building was once a Non-conformist Chapel, like French level-crossing houses, they all look identical. Now a private house but still obviously the Chapel. It was built in 1844, and still bears the legend ‘ Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together as the manner of some is but exhorting one and other and so much the more as ye see the day approaching – Hebrews X Verse XXV’. Fire and brimstone will have been breathed within those walls. A nineteenth century Sunday morning was a busy time in Allonby.

A little further north is a low cottage, now a private house, but between 1703 and 1991, this was the Quaker Meeting House. A low-key, simple building, for a low-key, simple faith. There are still only 25,000 Quakers in England today. There is so much to admire about their simple faith. I find it so reminiscent, in certain respects, to the beliefs of the Cathars, in Languedoc, whose genocide by the Roman Catholic Church has interested me, for so long. Quakers eschew ritual. As did Cathars. Quakers do not need a priest to intercede between God and Man. Neither did the Cathars. Both suffered at the hands of ‘organised’ religion. The Cathars grievously and brutally. I suppose one major difference is the Cathar belief in reincarnation, wherein a soul moves from body to body until it reaches a perfect state. Thus their vegetarianism. It would not do, to kill and eat a cow. That cow could be carrying the soul of Great-Grandma! Religion is never far from where you are standing, in Allonby.

A skein of geese fly overhead. Arrowhead sharp heading south. Collective nouns are so difficult. It certainly isn’t a ‘gaggle’, that sounds too clumsy for this formation, but it could very well be a ‘wedge’, no, that sounds too solid. I’m settling for ‘skein’. Then I find, a ‘plump of geese’, if they are close together, but is that in flight, or on the ground, or in the water? And what is a ‘nide of geese’, that doesn’t’ fit anything to do with the bird? Earlier I had seen a, ‘what’ of starlings? A ‘clattering’, a ‘chattering’, a ‘cloud’, a ‘murmuration’ or a congregation? Oh dear, I’m on one now. What about gulls? A ‘screech’, a ‘flock’, a ‘flotilla’, a ‘squabble’ or a ‘scavenging’? This is far too reminiscent of trawling through ‘First Aid in English’, by my ten year old self, in my Baines Endowed days, in Blackpool!

Shortly I’m at the the northernmost point of the village, at a very grand building. This is, the gloriously early Victorian, North Lodge. It was built, originally, by, and for, a Quaker banker, Thomas Richardson, in 1830. I wonder how many Quaker bankers there are today? He started as an errand boy, and had a ‘good idea’, when he became a clerk. He, with a partner, started a Bill-broking firm, this was revolutionary, at the time, as it only charged commission to the borrower. Some would say that this was the beginnings of London becoming an international banking powerhouse. He has a lot to answer for, does Thomas Richardson! North Lodge was a holiday home for himself and his wife, Martha Beeby, ‘as was’, a local girl, her of the Fishyard family. Flanking the main house are six cottages, which were for six local widows and spinsters, plus an annual sum of £5. It is still managed by the Allonby Alms House Trust. The main house has been converted into six flats, but the outside has been, faithfully, preserved.

I now turn back, towards my car. Out across the mists of the Solway Firth, to my right, I can see the ghostly shapes of a wind farm. Why aren’t more sails going round? Today is a wind farm day! Isn’t it? It seems to make so much sense to build, if they must be built, these monstrosities, out at sea. Two cyclists hurtle past me towards Silloth, propelled by the strength of the wind. It won’t be as much fun on the way back, into the teeth of the gale. A man comes out of a door to my left wearing a short sleeved, Whitehaven Rugby League shirt. He, merely, nods at this swaddled ‘townie wimp’. Men are men out here!

It was easy to overlook the ordinary housing of the village, when confronted by its grander architecture. But the fishermens’ cottages are equally as important. ‘Moss House’ was built for Thomas and Ann Bouch in 1760. Across the road, ‘JR’ built a cottage in 1746. A little further down ‘DRE’ built a cottage in 1666. In larger towns I have found great difficulty in searching out working class dwellings, amongst the houses of the wealthy and influential. Here they stand cheek by jowl. Unapologetic. They are the houses of the people of Allonby. It’s as if the Quaker belief, in equality, has impressed itself on to the whole town. There doesn’t seem to be any feeling of them and us.

Instead of walking back down the main road, I detour onto The Square. There, facing each other are two magnificent, porticoed, buildings, Allonby Grange and , over the road, The Baths. This bathing venue was built, by the Quakers, in about 1830, with a full, Doric, portico! Here on the Cumberland coast! Sea bathing must have been a major industry in Allonby, in spite of the weather! The sea water was pumped, daily, from the shore into the Bath House. An engineering feat in itself. As I pass, a lady using a Zimmer frame slowly eases her way out of her house. “Bracing day,” she offers,” it certainly keeps the cobwebs off of us!” I can only smile at her fortitude, and yet another local more than willing to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger. This is Cumberland at its best.

Of all the things that this place does not need, a blue plaque is one of them. The village is a distinctive, historical place, ‘in toto’. But there is one, there it is, on the ‘Ship Hotel’. Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins stayed here in 1857 whilst writing their book, ‘The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices’. ‘The Ship’ seems to thrive, still, as the only pub left in the village centre.

I walk back past Glen Cottage. I love Percy Kelly’s painting, but he just didn’t get the feel of this lovely village. Perhaps his paintings tell us more about him than Allonby. They are a pictorial record, of a moment in time, but only a partial record. The village lives, as well as exists, and Percy didn’t seem to grasp that. He has so much in common with the Cumbrian poet, Norman Nicholson. They could relate to an area but not to it’s people. He was an island, and, if I was to be uncharitable, a rather selfish island. That they were both huge talents is undeniable, although, I rather think, I wouldn’t have enjoyed a pint with either of them. But I do admire both of them for their various, wonderful, creative, talents.

Allonby has been a revelation, in the way it has retained its architecture, the history of its pubs, the great Victorians associated with it, the benign Quaker influence and its sociable people. Oh, and Charles Dickens slept there!

As I made to cross the footbridge, outside Glen Cottage, a woman appeared with a small dog on a lead, a Yorkshire Terrier, I think. He growled at me, in passing. “Take no notice. He’s friendly, just a bit of a grump in Winter. I saw you earlier, drawing my house, didn’t I? Can I see it?” I hadn’t realised that I was being watched, so I showed her my effort. Just a simple pencil sketch. “That’s it,” she said,”mind my house is quite easy to draw.” I was dying to ask her if she had known Percy. Had he drawn her house as well? It was extremely doubtful, I know, forty years had passed. But, in the end, I thought better of it. I didn’t want my fragile ego to become the victim of Cumbrian, friendly, frankness. . . again.

 

 

A Steep walk to High Beech.

It’s a cold, but dry, January day. I’m exploring the countryside around the village of Steep, near Petersfield, in Hampshire, where the writer Edward Thomas lived. I know that Thomas was a poet, who was killed in the Great War, that’s really all, but I am about to find out a great deal more about this, endlessly,fascinating man, and relate him to other British creative spirits.

The walk begins in the village church, All Saints, and the artistic tone is immediately set. I’m looking for two, small, lancet windows designed by Lawrence Whistler, commemorating the centenary of Thomas’s birth. One has been taken away, presumably for some restoration work, and the plainer of the two remains. But it isn’t that, that draws my interest. The church is a true celebration of it’s community. It is , actually, quite unpretentious, a Victorian rebuild of a twelfth century original. But it ‘feels’ like a village church. There’s even a legend accompanying its construction. In 1140 the people of the villages of Steep, and Froxfield, decided to build their own village church. It was to be sited on the ridge between the two. ‘Miraculously’, at night, the stones were moved, from the ridge, to this site. Heavenly guidance? It was destined for this spot, I think, until I find out that exactly the identical legend applies to the church in the neighbouring parish of Froxfield! How English is that?

What gives All Saints an irresistable appeal for me, is that all it’s artifacts seem to have been made by local people. The Authorised Version, on the lectern, was bound by Roger Powell, an ex-pupil, and teacher, at the nearby Bedales School, at the beginning of the Twentieth century. The altar cross was carved by Tanya Ashken, another Bedales pupil,and the silver candle snuffer was made by another teacher, H.A.Barker. A local, renowned, craftsman, Edward Barnsley, made the organ screen and the porch doors. The kneelers were designed, and made, by local people, more recently. The sandstone floor consists of slabs from the old London Bridge. It’s amazing how many of those old London paving stones made their way onto the south coast. The feet of Londoners also smoothed the flags, which adorn the wonderful garden at Great Dixter, in Sussex.

My way leads across the playing field opposite All Saints. Into a coppiced, well managed, wood of oak and hazel. Everything here for wooden objects, from baskets to warships. But the path, after the persistent, torrential, rain, is a quagmire, a relatively short quagmire, but a quagmire nonetheless. This isn’t the last time, on this walk, that I’ll be up to my ankles in mud.

Onto Mill Lane, and then steeply upwards, past farms, in a sunken lane. A farm worker is noisily strimming the hedges, gloved, goggled and helmeted. Health and Safety. But everything is secure hereabouts. Barbed wire, high hedges, gates and ‘warning notices’. This is security paranoia. I’m told that Yew Tree Cottage, where Thomas finally lived in Steep, is “Up there. In the middle of them houses. Can you pick it out?” No I can’t, and, oddly, it doesn’t seem relevant. At Ashford Old Hall, another ‘secure’ home, I leave the road and onto a forest track (quagmire, really).

I can now begin to really sense the presence of the man. This is the track the Thomas children took, every day, to and from the Red House, at Wick Green, to school, at Bedales. It is also the track that he took daily, when he first began to write poetry, from his, new, home at Yew Tree Cottage, to his study in the Red House. It is now dense woodland which climbs steeply to the ridge of Ashford Hanger. There is a small serene pool here from which Ashford Stream leaves Ashford Gorge. Thomas remarked on a cottage which once stood here:-

Here once flint walls
Pump, orchard and wood pile stood
Blue periwinkle crawls
From the lost garden down into the wood.

It is still the same a century later. It still feels like the cottage, here at Lutcombe Bottom, has only just disappeared, recently. These words written by a poet of the countryside, describe a scene which he had written about in prose originally. But, it’s as a war poet he is principally known, and, now, I’m in a scene redolent of that war, bare trees, clinging, flinty, mud, barbed wire and incessant drizzle. This cliche is a glimpse into his future. The path ascends, extremely steeply, and I find that you can, actually, slide uphill! Eventually I reach Cockshoot Lane.

I’m now on a metalled road, hugging the edge of the, invisible, escarpment. Invisible, because the view has been appropriated by those that can afford to live overlooking it. The first house though, is not a house, it is the workshop of Edward Barnsley, the maker, not only of the organ screen, but of exquisite hand made furniture. You can look through the workshop window and still see designers, and craftsmen, at work. It is pure voyeurism, but what a treat. Barnsley was a furniture maker, from a furniture making family, and, his Arts and Crafts style was heavily influenced by William Morris. The furniture is simple, and, simply, beautiful. He had been a pupil at Bedales. A former pupil of Bedales, the actor Daniel Day Lewis, said, only last weekend, that he had been passionate about furniture making, whilst at school, and, could have taken that path, rather than the, Oscar-laden, acting one he is on now. Strange but true.

It is at the next house that the Edward Thomas story takes flight. This is the Red House. And here the significance of his cottages becomes more apparent. He had moved to the Red House from Berryfield Cottage, at the base of the escarpment. He had been depressed, and desperately unhappy there, with his work, his wife, Helen, and his inability to be creatively satisfied.
His depression led him to pick, unmercifully, on his wife and children. There would be long silent periods, hard words, internal, pent-up anger and a general air of despair. He became so depressed that one day, in 1908, he went for a walk, on Shoulder of Mutton Hill, with a rusty, but serviceable, revolver in his pocket. Suicide on his mind. But he was distracted, and didn’t use it.

“How nice it would be to be dead, if only we knew we were dead. That’s
What I hate, the not being able to turn round, in the grave, and say
It’s over”

All this happened in full sight of his home, far below, where he knew his wife and children were.

In 1912 Edward Thomas was to meet Godwin Baynes, one of a new breed, the psychoanalyst. Edward had been diagnosed as a neurasthenic, a bit of a blanket term, at the turn of the twentieth century, for anxiety and emotional disturbance, which seemed to result in fatigue and irritability. But, of course, depression can also be the fount of intense creativity. Both Baynes and Thomas recognised this. Cure the condition, purge the creativity. It was suggested, by Baynes, that he should write autobiographically, and, in some of his writings, strange characters, strangers, nameless ones, appear, who speak ‘for ‘ Edward. His alter ego. After Edward’s death Baynes was to write of Thomas;

“He was a generous and witty comrade and in his soul he was saintly. He was deeply into the hearts and souls of men for he too had known the clutch of the erotic complex and this was the source of his neurosis. His face was
Christ- like and it is his link with Christ the Lover of Man that brings his sorrowful, pitiful soul into his eyes.”

For the first time on the walk, John Clare appears in my consciousness. How alike were these two men, two close observers of the rural scene? Two men of such sensitivity. Clare, who was to be committed to two Lunatic Asylums, continuing to write sensitive poetry. How different would Clare’s poetry have become, if he had been ‘treated’ by a Godwin Baynes?

In September 1908 the Thomas family moved into the Red House. Today it is still a private house, and looks very much as it would have done when it was designed by Geoffrey Lupton, a follower of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement. He used traditional materials, hand made red bricks, tiles, solid oak doors, timbers and floors. The wrought iron fittings came from Lupton’s own forge. In ‘Wind and Mist’ Thomas rightly says ‘ Yes, with sixty miles of South Downs at a glance.’ And he hated it! Again from ‘Wind and Mist’,

‘… There were whole days and nights when the wind and I
Between us shared the world, and the wind ruled
And I obeyed it and forgot the mist.’

‘ We lived in clouds, on a cliff’s edge almost
(You see) and, if the clouds went, the visible earth
Lay too far off beneath and like a cloud.
I did not know if it was the earth I loved
Until I tried to live there in the clouds’

And so he was driven to Yew Tree Cottage, the one invisible on the village hill.

The walk takes on a different ambience here. Ambling round the areas where poets and writers have lived, generally, centres on,’The House’. A scrubbed-clean, freshly-decorated ‘in the style of’, furnished with chairs, tables and beds all unfamiliar to the famous occupant, type of a house. It could be the Bronte Parsonage, Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage, Walter Scott’s Abbotsford or The Bateman’s of Rudyard Kipling. But not here, all Thomas’s cottages are privately owned, not ‘Open’, not stuffed with framed manuscripts, or cordoned off rooms, or “Sitting down forbidden” furniture ‘of the period’. No gifts for sale, no noxious smell of lavender or ‘Cream Teas’. So Edward Thomas is not a house, he is the mud, the chill wind and the beautiful Hampshire countryside. He is here, in the wild winterness, not in the chintz cottage. I can feel him.

Cockshoot Lane now becomes a green lane. The view to the right is still curtained by large houses, but, to the left, behind less prepossessing homes, lies an expanse of English farmland, the rolling , agricultural acres. Timelessness in all its simple grandeur. The big houses have opted for the wrong view! This is the England that you know exists, but rarely see. The unmetalled track emphasises that timelessness. As if on cue, a woman, riding a fine looking, bay, horse passes me with a country “Good afternoon”.

It is easy to stand at the junction with Old Litten Lane, when you know it leads down to ‘The White Horse’, the subject of his first poem, and just admire the scene. In reality, in Thomas’s time, and centuries previous, these fields had been the scene of unremitting, rural toil, and the never-ending battle against poverty. It wasn’t only in the cotton mills of the North where daily struggles for survival were fought. It is easy to equate urban slums, and back-to-back housing, with destitution and oppression. It is less easy when gazing at the beauty of the Weald.The ruthlessness of landowners equalled, if not surpassed, the oppression of the mill-owners. Rents would take up a third of a family’s income. Then, money had to be found for food and clothing. At once I am transported back to 2013! The clock is running backwards. The landlords are back in charge! The children of the cotton factories worked barefoot, here they would need strong boots and warm, outdoor, clothing. The rural population was scattered and poorly educated. Unions were difficult to organise and, living in tied cottages, the labourers were at the mercy of the landowners. The plight of the rural poor is often concealed under a cloak of verdant beauty, and the honeyed words of poets, and writers, inspired by the ‘idea’ of Mother Nature. It takes a John Clare or Edward Thomas to draw us up short.

At this junction I’m almost waiting for a passing hay cart, or herd of cows, or a pedlar with his pack. There is no sign of my century. A dirt road, a broken gate, no travellers and, strangely, no birdsong. But there are sounds. The wind, the trees. Sound is important. When Thomas took up poetry in 1914, it was the sound, the cadence of his words that was important. In that respect how similar is Edward to that other Thomas, Dylan? So similar but so, so, different. Those sounds had been present in Edward Thomas’s prose writings, and those sounds he, now, translated into verse. He was actually prompted by his great friend Robert Frost, whom he had supported through his positive, literary, criticisms of the American’s work. As a poet of the countryside he is more John Clare than William Wordsworth . More realism, in everyday language, than romanticism in a literary tongue. It is here, at this junction that the ‘Edward Thomasness’ of the walk strikes you.

I have mixed feelings about memorial stones, raised, seemingly, in the middle of nowhere. An excuse for a seat overlooking a panorama? There is one to Edward Thomas, on the Shoulder of Mutton Hill, close to the same spot, ironically, where he came so close to self-destruction. It was raised, with the best of intentions by Walter de la Mare, and looks out over the South Downs, from a similar height to the Red House, buffeted by the same winds, and shrouded in the same mist, that drove him down to Yew Tree Cottage, in Steep.

Steeply down hill, through another quagmire, past Berryfield Cottage, over a rustic bridge and I was back in Steep. Should I turn right, and go and see Yew Tree Cottage? No. It wasn’t relevant.

The family moved to Yew Tree in the Summer of 1913, for a rent of 3/- per week, but Thomas, for the princely rent of 1/- per week, retained a place to work, in the garden of the Red House. The quality of Edward and Helen’s married life can be judged by a letter sent by his wife, to a friend ;

“He’s tried hard over these last two years to kill my love for him but it’s just the same as it always was, it ‘s my great treasure, the thing that keeps me going, that is my life, and that and the children…… Sometimes I think he does not love me anymore, and my soul gets into a panic of terror, and then out of the darkness comes some wonderful gleam that gives me new hope, new life, new being and I start again. And now in this cottage it’s all going to be easier.”

This was not to be. The war intervened. The glory is, that in the days of walking to the ‘Bee House’, in the garden of his former home, he was to begin, in the December 1914, writing poetry. He began,quite suddenly, after a visit to his closest friend, Robert Frost. He worked to translate a prose piece, about the nearby, ‘White Horse’ pub, into verse. The debt that Frost owed to Thomas, was repaid by the unleashing of Thomas’s poetic powers. In five days he wrote five poems, the dam had been breached

In the Summer of 1915 Edward enlisted in the Artists Rifles, and in September he was posted, for training, to High Beech Camp, in Epping Forest.

High Beech, the same High Beech that was the scene of John Clare’s committal. To complete the Poetic picture, whilst at Epping, he was stationed, at the same camp, as Wilfrid Owen, and the two never met, both keeping their poetry a secret from their military colleagues. Owen was to be in the company of another great poet, Siegfried Sassoon, at Craiglockart Military Hospital, in Scotland, and each was to have a wondrous effect on each other’s poetry. What if Wilfrid Owen and Edward Thomas, in such close proximity, had come together. . . ? What if . . .?

But another chance encounter was to occur, whilst he was in the camp at Epping. He met Edna Clark Hall, a beautiful woman, a painter and poet, but in a neglected and loveless marriage, with two children. Her husband, William was forever absent in London, working in the interests of under-privileged children. Not, as Edna observed, in the interest of his own family. The two fell in love. For Thomas, he was feeling emotions that he thought were beyond him, emotions that were absent from his marriage to the faithful Helen. He began to write love poetry. Edna is never mentioned by name, but it is fair to assume that she, perhaps, was one of the subjects, alongside his mother and the young Hope Webb.

Like the touch of rain she was
On a man’s flesh and hair and eyes
When the joy of walking thus
Has taken him by surprise:

With the love of the storm he burns,
He sings, he laughs, well I know how,
But forgets when he returns
As I shall not forget her ‘Go now’.

Those two words shut a door
Between me and the blessed rain
That was never shut before
And will not open again.

Clare, also, had written copiously in Mary Joyce’s honour, in his ‘madness’, she was always with him. Helen Thomas knew of Edna and felt threatened. He had been in a close relationship with Eleanor Farjean for sometime, Helen knew this. But, unlike Eleanor, Edna was stunningly beautiful. Helen moved to High Beech.

John Clare was married, to Patty Turner, but when he walked from Essex to Northamptonshire, he was going to meet his ‘Dear first love and early wife’, Mary Joyce. In reality, she had been a ‘classroom crush’, never his wife. His flight, from High Beech, took place in 1841, Mary had died in 1838. When Clare arrived, after four days walking;

‘ a cart met me with a man and a woman and a boy in it when nearing me the woman jumped out and made fast hold of my hands and wished me to get into the cart but I refused and thought her either drunk or mad but when I was told it was my second wife Patty I got in and was soon at Northborough.’

Clare was, like Thomas, a manic depressive, but, in the nineteenth century, this was madness, not even neurasthenia. Their loves, certainly Clare’s, were platonic, beginning and ending, in their own imaginings. Although, in Edward Thomas’s case, Edna was truly devoted to him, as was his wife, Helen. Both Clare and Thomas seemed obsessed with the thought that true love was unattainable, by them. Edna, Hope and Mary were symbols, muses who inspired creativity, in a sense, ‘Guardian Angels’. Clare had fantasised about making Mary his own, but could not, because of his, perceived, ‘more lowly station’. Edna was there for Edward, they met, and walked regularly, but I wonder if Edward shared John’s fears? Or, when he was forbidden to write to Hope Webb did he recognise an inappropriate age gap, or just realised that he, merely, had the desire for that which he knew he could never have?

Thomas and Clare were both inspired by women to whom they were not married, whilst they were married. Both spent time at High Beech. A literary coincidence. Thomas shared a Camp with Wilfrid Owen. Both were to die in France, in the Great War. Another literary coincidence.

Needing the love and support of ‘another’ woman is not unusual in artistic lives. In 1908 Edward had met Hope Webb in Suffolk. She was 17, he was 30. He told Walter de la Mare:

‘She is 17, a particularly lovely age to me because when I was that age I knew only two of my coevals, one I married and the other is in South America, and in the presence of this new one I had the sharpest pains and pleasures of retrospection, longing and-I am now making absurd attempts to return to that period by means of letters.’

In more recent times, the Cumbrian artist, Percy Kelly, also ‘needed’ the support, and love of one not his wife. The 43 year old Kelly met the 17 year old Rosanna Vergowan at Carlisle College. He was, not happily, married to Audrey, who financially supported him, in the Post Office, at Allonby, and who brought up his son. He wooed Rosanna, who, as the eldest girl had been left to be the surrogate mother to her younger siblings, by a feckless mother. ,
A totally soul-destroying task. She was beset by her own problems, he was self-obsessed. She was young, he was middle aged. She needed a strong man, he needed a strong woman. Two people with vastly differing needs. It was a doomed relationship, but one that Audrey knew about, and, in her way, tolerated. But Percy began something that was to develop, with other women, into a thing of great beauty. He wrote illustrated letters of love to Rosanna. She inspired, in his doomed loving, the beginnings of his copious, pictorial, correspondence. Audrey’s patience was to shatter, but not through his ‘other’ women. His letters survive and various collections have been published, those to Rosanna, to the curator of the Abbot Hall Gallery, to the poet Norman Nicholson and to his friend, Joan David.

My walk has ended where it began, at All Saints, Steep. I’ve just passed Yew Tree Cottage, the War Memorial, with his name inscribed upon it and Bedales School. The memorial brings to mind the manner of Edward Thomas’s death. He arrived in France at the end of January 1917. His Battery moved up to the Front at the end of March. He was killed at Arras at the beginning of April. The day before he died, a dud shell had landed, harmlessly, two yards from where he was standing. His men joked that he was ‘lucky’ and would be safe wherever he was. The following day, the first day of the Arras Offensive, he was standing lighting his pipe and a shell passed nearby. He wasn’t killed in an explosion. The shell passed so close that the blast of air stopped his heart. There wasn’t a mark on his body. He was buried in France.

This walk had brought together four creative spirits, and their, coincidental, similarities. It has been a great learning experience, born of an afternoon ramble in Hampshire

Several books have been ‘must reads’, to illuminate the walk.
‘Now All Roads Lead To France’ by Matthew Hollis, published by ‘faber and faber’, is a wonderful insight into the last four, tumultuous, years of Edward Thomas’s life, and is particularly strong on his various relationships.
‘John Clare- A Biography’ by Jonathan Bate, published by ‘Picador’, gives an eminently readable account of the Northamptonshire poet’s life and stimuli.
‘Hercules and the Farmer’s Wife’ by Chris Wadsworth, published by ‘Aurum’, gives a graphic, and amusing, account of the rebirth of the artist Percy Kelly, amongst other art-related stories.
All three books are perfect starting points to a deeper understanding of their subjects’ work, and lives. A journey not to be missed.

Sheila Fell. A Passion for Paint.

Sheila Fell was a woman. She was beautiful. She was born in West Cumberland. She is a massively underrated artist.

Sheila Fell was born in 1931, in Aspatria, a mining town like all those doomed towns of the area, Workington and Whitehaven in particular, where employment was becoming increasingly difficult to find. The indomitable spirit of the people of the area was exemplified by her parents, Jack, a miner, and Annie, who took in sewing to keep ‘hearth and home’ together. Poverty was endemic, the family lived ‘on the edge of dread’.

 Jack, like many Cumbrian men had joined the Border Regiment, at Carlisle, at the outset of World War One. In 1916, he was hit by shrapnel and his lungs were badly burned in a gas attack. He returned home, in a wheelchair, but, within a year, was back at ‘the pit’. These men’s resolve, and sheer courage, seems to be beyond belief, in the twenty first century, but his case was not isolated. Many men took it as their bounden duty to support their family, and were  determined to do so against all odds, their wives supporting them. They were true giants. The greatness of the Cumbrian people of that era would be shrugged off by those that can remember. But greatness it was.

Her mother, Annie, was an immaculate housekeeper, was ‘chapel’ and was highly respected in Aspatria. She loved poetry, could play the piano and the harmonium and gave Sheila a passion for music and literature. She also showed ‘iron’ determination to keep her family provided for, as she sat at her treadle sewing machine.

Jack was ‘ laid off’ in 1936 and had to travel the 35 miles to Parton, near Whitehaven, for work. He lodged there on the windswept shores of the Solway. A pit fire eventually closed the face and he moved to Siddick Pit, closer to home, but both his kegs were crushed when rotting pit props collapsed. He joined up with the Air Ministry Police in 1939 and stayed with them, at Silloth, until 1959.

Sheila attended Grammar School in Wigton. Of that time her cousin said ” She was very private,very self-preoccupied, and had a powerful inner life – not touchable emotionally. I was frightened of her because of her intensity.” at school, with support of her Art Teacher, she developed, “She worked with absolute concentration and seriousness.” Her music teacher wanted he to go to music college, her Headteacher wanted her to take up languages at university, but she won a scholarship to attend Carlisle College of Art. The die was cast.

 In 1955 she came to the attention of L.S.Lowry, who saw her work and asked to meet her. This friendship, of kindred spirits,  would last till his death in 1976. He would visit her parents, in Aspatria, he had a particularly close relationship with her dad. Sheila and he would go on sketching expeditions, where she would sketch and he would wander around, watch and talk. She said of him,” He was marvelously humorous, inquisitive, mischievous as a child, gentle . . . but had shrewdness and understanding.” He lived to see her elected to the Royal Academy in 1974, as did her dad, who also died in 1976.

Sheila Fell’s work speaks volumes about her intensity and her dedication to her art. Her life, like that of all true artists, was complicated. She was a heavy drinker and one December morning she was found dead at the bottom of the stairs of her flat. One of her friend’s, who helped identify the body said, ” she looked like an Aztec queen – this unbelievably grand death mask, as it were. Absolutely reposed, but this amazing profile – unforgettable.”

The book, by Cate Haste, ‘Sheila Fell. A Passion for Paint’ is a must read for anyone interested in Cumberland, the work of a wonderful artist, the workings of the creative mind or just a story of our times. The illustrations are lavish, and well printed, the text is lovingly written by Cate Haste and relates Sheila Fell’s work to her life with sensitivity and grace. What a wonderful book about a truly marvellous artist.

Who is Percy Kelly?

Percy Kelly. Who is Percy Kelly? A question that six months ago I could not have answered.

Then, an innocuous book review in ‘The Guardian’ caught my eye. It wasn’t the name ‘Kelly’ that attracted me. I wasn’t looking, particularly, for the review. I was just scanning the  ‘Arts’ section and my eye latched on to one word, ‘Workington’. My family has lived, since the mid-1800s, in the town, and although those that live there now, or in Whitehaven or Harrington, are really distant relatives the name of the town still rings an ancestral chord.
There was a picture to illustrate the article, only a small one, but enough to engage my attention. I read on. The review, of ‘ The Man Who Couldn’t Stop Drawing’ by Chris Wadsworth, was a good one. It seemed that the reviewer had just discovered Percy Kelly himself for the first time. The article drew me in.
By the time I had finished the review I knew that I wanted to know more about this extraordinary man. Workington is a town that still exudes an aura of warmth for me. Not in a scenic way, as the steelworks, the pits, the docks have declined, in the same way as in many of our industrial towns. The area where my family lived, the Marsh, can only be glimpsed, as a ghostly footprint, from the top of the grassy gnoll that was once the slag heap. Indeed a childhood memory is of sleeping in Uncle Dick and Aunt Ethel’s house, on the end of Berry Street, and watching the little train chugging up the ‘bank’, at night, and tipping its cargo of molten ash into the deep blackness? What a a glorious sight for a child. But it’s  the people, and their natural Cumbrian spirit and friendliness, that are the glory of the town.
But Workington, as the home of an artist? That was a new one on me. I had heard of Sheila Fell, and loved her landscapes, but she was from nearby  Aspatria. I ordered the book on my new toy, an i pad. I’d almost forgotten about it, when it arrived at the local La Poste, in St. Brice.
From the very first picture, the ‘Red Field’ and the very first charcoal  drawing, ‘ Bank Barn’, I  was drawn in. The quality of his draughtsmanship, his eye for perspective, his calligraphy and the ability to express his feelings, and emotions, into his art, are mesmerising. His individuality, and the strength, and confidence, that they exude take the breath away. For a rank amateur, such as myself, there is little consolation  in the fact that he, like me, has eyes, like me, he paints and draws with a pencil or brush in his hand and he, like me, is a mere mortal. His work is pure genius.
He was born in Workington. He worked for the Post Office, in Kendal and Workington. In 1939, with his twin brother, he joined up, in the Border Regiment, of course, as all my family had done in 1914, but was soon transferred to the Royal Signals. His drawing skills had been discovered. He was posted to GHQ in London, and was billeted in a small room, next to the Cabinet War Rooms. Of course, as in all good war stories, he met, on several occasions, Winston Churchill, with whom he discussed their shared passion, for painting. Some of his work was exhibited at an exhibition of service men’s work at the National Gallery. So far, so believable. He wasn’t a soldier, and army life became a trial. He had a belief that he was always right, not an immediately attractive trait to officers and ‘non-coms’, so was often in trouble for indiscipline.
When the war ended he was posted to Germany, where, he found, he almost completely lost his muse. He was unable to feel at ease in the country of ‘the enemy’.
On his return, he played professional football, under Bill Shankley, at Workington Town, the ‘Reds’, and he was married. He rejoined the Post Office. His wife, Audrey, had ambition for him, within the GPO, she wasn’t interested in art. They had a child, Brian. As with a lot of ex-servicemen Percy had problems readjusting to civilian life and he became depressed and unhappy.
The Kellys took a Post Office near Cockermouth, which gave  Percy more time to spend on his art, whilst Audrey ran the shop. His son, Brian said ” My dad was a genius. He just wanted to draw and paint but my mother wanted him to be the Postmaster General.”
He had a nervous breakdown and the family moved to Allonby, whilst Audrey supported them, working at Dovenby Psychiatric Hospital.
Percy always seemed to attract women who would care for him. There had been his mother, then Audrey, and then, through the poet, Norman Nicholson, he met Helen Sutherland, a patron of the arts who lived at Dockray, near Ullswater. Through her interest and the influence of her house which contained Courbets, Mondrians,  Hepworths, Moores and Picassos, Percy was fired to apply for a course at the Carlisle College of Art. He couldn’t get a grant, he was, at 41, considered far too old, but he won a place. He then ‘worked’ his way through college. The usual route, part time jobs, the Christmas post at 41!
The work he produced at college included a series of studies of industrial scenes in, and around, Carlisle. He drew on building sites, Citadel Station, Carlisle Brewery and Whitehaven docks and the villages around Whitehaven, Lowca, Moresby, Parton. His love of Cumberland starts to glow from his work, not in vivid colours, but in ‘real’ Cumberland, natural, shades. The totally beguiling beauty of his water colour pieces, particularly the haunting ‘Lorton Fells from Pardshaw’, leave you wanting more.

The ‘detective’ work for this book, carried out by Chris Wadsworth , draws  you slowly in to the work of PK. But this isn’t her only book with Percy Kelly themes. She wrote a series of collected stories, ‘Hercules and the Farmer’s Wife’, stories connected to the art world, and artists she has known. In ‘The Man who couldn’t stop Drawing’ she refers to a relationship he had, whilst at college, with a 17 year old, Rosanna Vergowan. She was a girl, from an eccentric family, who lived at Rigg Beck, up the Newlands Valley. Sadly for Percy his ‘love’ was not reciprocated, but he did visit Rigg Beck and started to correspond with Rosi. His letters were a portent of the future, because they were illustrated. The letters are an important part of understanding Kelly, and Chris Wadsworth handles them with care, but doesn’t ‘duck’ the issues. Audrey, his wife, senses that something is ‘going on’, but it isn’t until you read the short piece in ‘Hercules . . .’ that you find out that, on one occasion, Audrey followed him to Rigg Beck and confronted him. She knew. In addition, the house, painted,  bizarrely, purple, was a house with a history for many young artists, poets and actors. Ted Hughes, Shelagh Delaney, Victoria Wood, Bob Hoskins, they all stayed at Rigg Beck.The familiar themes of the ‘ always going to be thwarted’ older man falling for a woman more than twenty years younger are played out here. We have a “She’s behind you!” moment. You just know what’s going to happen, and it does!

But the manner of the separation falls like a bombshell. We have been ‘coasting’ secure in the knowledge that Percy is a man who needs the strength of a woman, his mother, his wife, Helen Sutherland, Rosanna Vergowan, all played a rôle.
Percy was starting to have problems with his eyes, he thought he was losing his sight. He visited a doctor in Pardshaw, just outside Whitehaven, and was greeted at the door by the doctor’s wife. Paul and Chris Griffiths, the doctor and his wife, were invited to see Percy’s cottage, on the coast, at Allonby.  Audrey was suspicious of his ‘arty’ friends, this wasn’t her scene at all. She had been introduced into the ‘Art Establishment’ in London, and had met Princess Margaret, now that was more to her taste!
One evening, Audrey returned home to find a stranger, sitting, in the half light, in the armchair in their cottage. The clothes were familiar, they were hers! The ‘woman’ was, in fact, Percy. That was it. She threw him out, there and then, and had the locks changed. She only saw him once again . . .  in court! All he wanted from the marriage was his work, Audrey had burned his passport and driving licence, she wasn’t for giving it up. The judge awarded Percy one penny and his precious work.
Chris and Percy married and, eventually, went to live in a run down cottage in Pembrokeshire, with two of Chris’s  three children. It is now 1973. Percy had corresponded with her other child, Kim, with more of those gorgeous illustrated letters. The trials and tribulations he submitted his wife and step children to were beyond belief.
In St. David’s he continued his transvestism, much to everyone’s embarrassment. But Percy found great difficulty in parting with his work, consequently life was a constant struggle against penury. The sheer volume of work continued to flow. It is fair to say that the love with which he paints Cumberland, is emphasised by the fact that there seems to be less positive emotion in the work produced in Wales. There is a real darkness of the soul. He hated selling his work, even when his new cottage, or his cars, needed work or when basic family needs were in need of addressing. He loved his work. Not just the actual physical tasks of painting and drawing, but the pieces themselves. They were his family.
At the age of 60, in 1980, Percy and Chris moved, once again, to Pear Tree Cottage, Rockland St. Peter,  in Norfolk. He obviously had a ‘thing’ about names! By 1983 Chris had had enough and left him, emotionally battered. He was totally alone, and a long way from Cumberland.
Now another woman entered his life. Joan David had seen one of Percy’s paintings, at a friend’s house, and wanted to buy one. She wrote to him. This kind, and generous woman was to become his ‘rock’. But, importantly, this correspondence, which carried on until his death, resulted in a a collection of illustrated letters which became the basis of another study by Chris Wadsworth. They are, truly, magical. The joy of receiving a letter is tangible, but to receive letters like these beggars belief. They are pure delight.
Meanwhile, Percy, who had been secretly taking Chris’s HRT, had developed  breasts and was more openly exhibiting his gender confusion. He changed his name to Roberta. Oddly, the darkness of the work he produced in Wales disappeared when his feminine side became more dominant in Norfolk, and his touch, and palette, become visibly lighter.
Percy died in 1993, a lonely, and confused man. The remarkable Joan David died in 2000, but not before she was instrumental in bringing Percy’s son Brian, and Chris, together to save the enormous number of art works ‘stashed’ at Pear Tree Cottage. A serendipitous miracle!
The story of the discovery and development of his career since his death is admirably, and sensitively, told in ‘The man who couldn’t stop drawing’, ‘Hercules and the Farmer’s Wife’, ‘The Painted Letters of Percy Kelly’ and ‘Whitewash and Brown Paint-Lovely’, all by Chris. Wadsworth.

His story could have died with him and his paintings and drawings been destroyed, without the determination of Chris. to preserve, and develop, Percy Kelly’s reputation. The books that she has produced, including a collection of his charcoal sketches, are stunning, in demonstrating the quality, and range, of his work, in whatever medium, and on whatever surface, whether they be paintings, sketches or letters. His life is a fascination, at times you want to just shake him, “Get a grip! Get real!” But, after the frustration, to sit and quietly enjoy his skill, his genius, is a delight, and that is with no small thanks to Chris Wadsworth herself.