Tuesday, 17 May 2016

The Needle's Eye

In Berwick-on-Tweed, England's north-east coast. 

I head for the caravan park where the map says the Coastal Path ends or begins and I find the path along the cliff top. It skirts the caravan site and there are a few other people, walking dogs. After the caravans end, the path divides, one leads back in the direction of the town, the other continues along the cliff-tops and the signpost is marked 'Marshall Meadows' and not Coastal Path, but it clearly is. After this junction I don't meet any other walkers.


It had been cloudy but now the sun has come out and it's warm. The views of the breaking waves, greenish-blue, are tremendous. Coming into sight of one cove, there are deep caves in the red rock. They have a look of being man made, arches of rock over the cave entrances. They can't be though, they just look that way.

Here, there is some distance between the ragged coastline on my right and the railway on my left. Two fields width. In the first field, nearest the path, there is a solitary human being, walking slowly through the field, with some device strapped on his shoulder. It doesn't make any noise, perhaps he is watering the ground. There's a faint green haze on the tilled earth, so something is growing. And this man, alone in the landscape of fields and clifftops, of views out over the sea, with the white ragged pathways of breaking waves, ending in the straight blue line of the horizon, is tending a patch of pale green.

Two fields stretch beyond him. Then there's the railway track, though it's screened by bushes and small trees and general foliage and you wouldn't know it was a train track, except that I saw one train passing. And beyond that, the square blocks of buildings, the industrial site, form the other horizon. And somewhere after that is the road, but it's too far away to hear anything.

Further on, in the next cove, it's Seagull City, crowded with the birds, especially on one lone pinnacle of rock which as far as I can see is separate from the cliff, a red stone sliver of an island. 

But I'm not entirely sure if it's an island, if the sea pours between it and the promontory of cliff because, to see the bottom, where rock meets sea I would have to go too close to the cliff edge and when I get too close to an edge, unless there is something to hold on to, I begin to wobble like a spinning top that's slowing down. It's odd maybe how an absence of level ground in front of me means I need to hold onto something, but that's how it is. 

According to the map, this is called Needle's Eye and I wonder if the long thin rock is the needle (because of its long thin shape) or it's the eye, with the promontory of cliff being the needle and the rock the dot that forms the eye. I would have asked the solitary equivalent of Vincent's The Sower in the patch of field but he had been focussed on what he was doing and did not look up as I passed. And, by the time I reached the Needle's Eye, and looked back, he was a small point in the landscape and
himself a bit like an eye in the needle of path worn in the cliffside turf that fell away into the blue ocean below.

The path follows the curve around the cove of Seagull City, goes inland and is now very close to the train track, which lies between the sea and the main road. The map's dotted line suggests a path across the track, but I am doubtful. And then – there it is! Another path heads to the railway, there's a stile over the fence, with a sign warning pedestrians to take care before crossing, and sleepers laid between the train tracks. I cross with a feeling of jubilation.

On the other side of the track the path goes along the edge of a field then crosses another and comes out into a large industrial area. It is deserted. An occasional car passes. It's like a city that's been abandoned. Full of implied industry and commerce, but there is no-one around, no human being to be seen, no-one walking even from car park to building. So there is something of a stage set about it, almost eerie, almost menacing. 

There is however, a narrow lane, presumably for the few mad or lost pedestrians like me, and it leads to the main road which I would rather walk beside than continue through this ghost town. So I walk along the lane through the building complex, which is three streets wide. Once I reach the path beside the road I feel as though I'm almost back in the human world. And it's not far before I'm in the outskirts of the town, and walk through its streets back to the train and bus station.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Shaping the Water Path

At Casterton near Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria.

Devil's Bridge, Kirkby Lonsdale

Day of Poetry and Music in The Old Vicarage. Organised and hosted by Sally Evans, poet, prose writer and blogger, publisher, bookseller, editor of Poetry Scotland and organiser and host of the annual Callander Poetry Weekend.

The Old Vicarage was one of Sally's childhood homes. When it came on the market recently, her brother bought it, and has generously made it available for the whole family to use, including special gatherings such as this one.

The Old Vicarage, Casterton

Sally and I travelled south on Friday 28 April and spent Saturday shopping in Kirkby Lonsdale then preparing a meal for about 30 people who would come the following day, May 1st.

Casterton is only a few miles away from one of the schools that Charlotte Bronte attended. Adjacent to the avenue that leads up to the house, is the Church. The bells chime the hours, a reassuring sound, giving you the impression that time is kindly, protective, it is on your side and is on the side of every generation, it marks the tide of 'time future and time past'. I heard it at night from my room. And in the morning, flitting among the trees, pine, willow, oak and one giant redwood – there was birdsong, mingling with the regular tolling of the bells. 

Garden in front of the old vicarage in evening

After the meal we were given information about the house, to use as a prompt for writing. This grand house is on three floors, with five rooms each on ground floor and first floor, and three in the attic. Built in 1845 it then housed the vicar, his wife and three children, several domestic servants, a teacher, a governess, a gardener and a groom. 

I sat in the dining room, with a large dark-stained wooden table, and a Japanese screen between two of the windows. What I wrote includes snippets of background conversation...

You get the feeling that everybody has either been here before, has ancestors who lived, visited or came from here  - or perhaps it's the Bronte connection, a root that we all have in common.

Mind you, I like the hills when they're like this, all covered in mist -

Beyond the Japanese screen – its beige branches, leaves, birds and blossom design on black background, like a landscape glimpsed in a sudden headlight as the car crests the hill and dips down again, so the vision disappears -

I feel a sonnet coming on -

I wondered what that funny noise was - 

Beyond the Japanese screen, with its surround of dark wood – there's the window leading onto the garden –  and the bridge over the beck which the Polish builders strengthened and where they made a wall to shore up the beck which swept the bridge away and submerged part of the lawn in the recent floods.

The house was quiet in evening sunlight when we arrived, the Polish builders making sausages and potatoes in the kitchen, and the light makes its way through the branches of the redwood tree, 

the newly-built bridge, then the lawn that slopes up to the rockery and the light reaches the kitchen door and we open it, so that the light meets us and it's as if you've lived for so long looking at a picture on the wall and now – now the door has opened and you have entered the picture and the strange thing is that you know exactly what it is and where it is and – even stranger – is that you remember being in it, just moments ago it seems now – when you left it – so what was this lifetime, folded neatly, an accordion of thin, papery images – like a Chinese fan, like the Japanese screen –

David, one of the Polish builders from Warsaw, talks about the city of Lodz, with its elegant red-brick buildings, abandoned, falling into disrepair, the broken windows, the snaking plants growing in once tended gardens, spreading across the empty window sockets – 

Abandoned factory in Lodz, Poland

The factories made materials to export to the Soviet Union, but since it collapsed, the trade dried up, the factories closed down – but some are being used for other things. One serves as a studio for artists and an Art Book Museum, with performance space in a large room with parquet floors and grand piano, paintwork peeling from ceiling and walls, gently, in irregular lines, like waves that dash and froth, then slip back into an evening tide.

And in the basement, old printing presses, letterpress type, handmade paper, from flax, earth-brown – and in the main street of Lodz, on a bench, a seated statue of the poet Julian Tuwim, and it's good to see a celebrated writer sitting there, sharing his bench, and he's smiling, gleaming in the sunlight, golden-bronze. 

Statue of poet Julian Tuwim in Lodz

So I remember Lodz in golden light, and David – he sees what it once was, among the ruins.

Beyond the Japanese screen –
there's the rebuilt bridge, the beck, the sunlight – Polish expertise now moulding the water path, shaping it, containing the future, securing it against the ravages of time and weather – 


David offers us some of their sausages, vegetables, potatoes.

Leave the back door open, let the evening sunlight in.