Category Archives: Yorkshire

Abbeys, Monasteries and Convents – A Contemplation

 

I’m just back from two weeks in the Yorkshire Moors where it felt as if we experienced every type of weather ever invented and more!

For the first week we were based in Helmsley, and for the second week in a National Trust cottage just outside the gates of Fountains Abbey.  The sea, of course, was not a presence.  I was amazed how much I missed it as, recently, I felt that I was taking my daily glimpses of the sea from our bedroom windows a little too much for granted.  We were, however, close to some very impressive, fast-flowing, steep-sided Yorkshire rivers, namely the Skell and the Laver which are both close to Fountains Abbey and meet at Ripon, and the Rye, from which Rievaulx Abbey gets its name.  I thought a lot about rivers.  I grew up by the Thames and my dad was a boatbuilder so I knew how important they were from an early age – they provide food on the table for our family, for a start!  I’ve always been fascinated by how settlements develop by rivers and how we use them for both survival and entertainment.  Both Rievaulx and Fountains Abbey were Cistercian monasteries and what the Cistercians didn’t know about forcing a river to meet their own ends isn’t worth knowing.  The monks of Rievaulx were granted land north of the river and today, Rievaulx is still north of the river, but the monastery is somewhat larger than it should have been as yes, you’ve guessed it, the industrious monks (or, more likely, the lay brothers who did all the donkey work) moved it.

In the 18th century Fountains Abbey was used as a romantic ruin for 18th century aristocrats to enjoy as they explored the water gardens at Studley Royal as guests of the Aislabies.  John Aislabie, another who had the ability to see how river water could be manipulated, but for leisure this time, created the gardens after he was expelled from Parliament due to the South Sea Bubble disaster.  What a great retirement project!  There are wonderful views of the Abbey from many spots in the garden.

Studley Royal Water Garden in the eighteenth century

Thomas Duncombe of Duncombe Hall, on the fringes of Helmsley, went one better.  He had two romantic ruins – Helmsley Castle at one end of his estate and Rievaulx Abbey at the other.  He created Rievaulx Terrace – a high walk with temple follies from which you get wonderful views.  When we were there the serpentine wooded approach to the terrace shone with snowdrops and this became quite a feature of our walks, as did banks and banks of wild garlic.

Cistercians were a breakaway group from the Benedictines.  They wanted to go back to St Benedict’s original principles and prided themselves on being self-sufficient.  The river would have been used in the tanning and wool industries which made money for the Abbey.  It also would have been used as a sewer for the rather elaborate communal latrines.  Springwater was used to make small beer and for fresh drinking water.  The area around Fountains Abbey seemed to literally seep underfoot there are so many springs!  The monks didn’t wash frequently and then usually just their hands before dinner and their feet on Fridays in a religious ritual.  They only wore underpants (communal) when they left the grounds on monastic business and were allowed in the warming room twice a day for fifteen minutes.  Having experienced a few blizzards in the proximity of both these Abbeys, I am full of admiration for these men and the harsh life they undertook so willingly, although less so just before the Reformation when they had become as corrupt and decadent as the order they broke away from.  It’s always fun to spot Abbey stones in the local walls and houses from where the stone was pillaged once Henry’s men had taken all the more readily portably goodies.  King’s Lynn has a stunning late Tudor warehouse, Marriott’s Warehouse, which sports a lower layer of monastic stone.  It’s much easier to spot this little bit of history in Norfolk than it is in Yorkshire where the “acquired” stone easily blends into the local stonework.

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The monastic life is a fascinating one.  I’ve just finished Bitter Greens  by Kate Forsyth.  It weaves together the story of Rapunzel and the witch who imprisons her with the story of Charlotte-Rose de la Force, the woman who wrote the version of the story we know today.  Fairy and folk tales were very popular in the literary salons of Paris in the 17th century and Charlotte would have known Charles Perrault who collected many of the stories still told today.  She sounds like a formidable character and, at one point, was exiled from the court of Louis XIV and sent to a convent.  Kate Forsyth brings this austere community to life and it is here that Charlotte learns about Rapunzel and can make comparisons with her own “imprisonment” in a cloistered community with little or no contact with the outside world.  The book would make a fantastic film, it has so many layers and sub-plots.  On the subject of films, one of my favourites, set in a convent in the Himalayas, is Black Narcissus starring Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh and Kathleen Byron as a wonderfully demented Sister Ruth, fatally lusting after David Farrar, the local British agent, in his unfeasibly short shorts.

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It was shot mostly at Pinewood Studios but that didn’t stop an enthusiastic cinemagoer writing in to say they recognised the particular spot in the Himalayas where filming took place!  Then there’s the Audrey Hepburn film, The Nun’s Story.  Hepburn is a particular favourite of mine and I find this film incredibly poignant.  It’s set primarily in the Belgian Congo but, towards the end of the film Sister Luke returns to Nazi occupied Belgium and, having always struggled with obedience, and forced into a series of compromises through the Nazi occupation, leaves the convent after being granted a dispensation from her vows. As a young girl, Audrey lived in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands.  At one point, she was reduced to eating groundup tulip bulbs to avoid starvation.  I can’t imagine what memories this film would have evoked for her.  Audrey gets to play a nun again in Robin and Marian, a film she alledgedly only agreed to make at the insistence of her sons who couldn’t envisage why she would turn down the opportunity to act alongside James Bond (Sean Connery)!

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Sean Connery is also the lead in another great film set in a monastery.  The Name of the Rose is based on Umberto Eco’s novel of the same name.  It’s a murder mystery set in a 14th century Italian monastery with many scenes taking place in the labyrinthine library.  At Fountains Abbey we discovered that he monks who made the beautiful illuminated manuscripts, laboriously inked onto vellum, were allowed to work in the warming room.  Cold fingers can’t write very well and this could be why I wrote little poetry during my Yorkshire sojourn!

I thought a lot though, and those thoughts have provided plenty of ideas for future poems.  Being so close to monasteries does make one feel very contemplative and I particularly liked one of the thought-provoking ideas at Rievaulx Terrace where visitors are invited to lean on sculpted pieces of trunk and just watch the clouds go by…

I recently attended a poetry workshop on Rain at the Troubadour Café in Earls Court, taught by the brilliant Anne-Marie Fyffe.  The subject was rain.  I was struck by how many  of the group participants had an affectionate relationship with rain.  It does cause mud, which was a feature of our holiday (my walking boots are still in recovery!) but it also helped to create those verdant banks of snowdrops and wild garlic… So it seems only apt to end on a picture of me at Pickering Station smiling through the raindrops!

 

Poetry for All!

 

It’s so difficult to answer the question What is poetry? and even more difficult to answer Why do you like poetry so much? – the latter often said in a rather confrontational manner!   I suppose I don’t really see poetry as separate from life, or not from my life anyway!  For me, writing poetry is as essential as breathing and not a day goes by without a line or two looping through my head, ready to be incorporated and crafted into a new poem.   We probably all loved poetry at school, learnt poetry by heart, enjoyed rhythm and rhyme, nonsense rhymes, the poems of Edward Lear, Roald Dahl, Hilaire Belloc.  In the past we would have listened to bards and troubadours bringing the latest news in ballad form.  We might have wooed our loves through poetry to show our education, our passion and our sincerity, or maybe begged a lyrically inclined friend to do it for us!

Image result for cyrano de bergerac Somehow, though, as we mature, many of us lose our way and poetry becomes something alienating and elitist, seeming to belong to an academic world of closely guarded secrets which only the chosen few can access.  I would say that poetry belongs everywhere, to us all, to the world and, although it has a commercial motivation, I’m delighted that the Nationwide Building Society are using poetry to speak to their wide-ranging potential customer base.  At the moment I’m following a course run by the Poetry School and tutored by Emma Hammond. It’s called Hyperspectacle and we’re exploring poetry which occurs in unexpected places – tweets, internet review forums etc  I feel quite evangelical about getting more and more people to enjoy poetry, to realise that they can’t like it all, and if they don’t it’s not their fault but to keep on looking until they find something that speaks to them.  There’s so much poetry out there at the moment, but it’s a bit like a dating website, you have to persevere to find your match!

So where’s the most unusual place you’ve seen a poem, or found a poem?  Some time ago I went on an excellent Poetry Day School organised by Writers’ Centre Norwich and tutored by David Morley.  He encouraged to write haiku, guerrilla haiku, and then hide them (on recycled and easily biodegraded paper of course!), perhaps in a shop display, tucked in a crack in a paving slab, in a book, up a drainpipe.  I tried this out with my students who very much entered into the spirit of the activity and posted their words through the doors of people they knew locally, hid them in bus-seat seams and slipped them inside menus!  And, on this note, if you haven’t come across The Guerrilla Poetics Project then do check out their website.  https://guerillapoetics.org/  Their manifesto was simply:

Returning poetry to the people by subversively putting it into their hands.

In order to do this GPP operatives covertly smuggled over 50,000 poem broadsides into select books in bookstores and libraries all over the world. The broadsides are still being found today, perhaps the next visit to your local library will turn up a guerilla poetry surprise!  They are things of beauty, I would so love to find one… Below is one of my favourites, there are a 1,000 copies of it out there so maybe my days of shaking the leaves of all the Jack Reacher books I devour in public libraries won’t be in vain!

One of the broadsides was found in a copy Jon Ronson’s Out of the Ordinary: True Tales of Everyday Craziness in a Book Clearance Centre in Wigan, so you never know!

We’re all familiar with commissioned poems in cities and landscapes.  It’s a wonderful use of poetry, integrating it once more into life and the everyday.  Simon Armitage recently took part in a site specific poetry project, Stanza Stones, with poems carved in places which more or less follow the Pennine watershed.

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The idea that these poems will weather in time, becoming fragmented and part of the Moors in different ways as they deteriorate seems a magical use of words to me.

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I’m also rather fond of Andrew Motion’s poem What If on the side of one of Sheffield Hallam uni’s buildings just as you come out of Sheffield Station purely for its in-your-face-can’t-miss-it boldness!

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When I was participating in The Ark project recently I tried to encourage the rest of the group to create a ‘live streaming’ event by writing their haiku on strips of cloth to hang in the garden and get windswept and washed away by the summer thunderstorms.

During the recent King’s Lynn Poetry Festival ten mannequin torsos were displayed featuring a new poem on each.  These were in aid of the charity Blue Smile which helps children with mental health problems.  The torsos had previously been displayed extensively in Cambridgeshire.  I believe they’ll be auctioned off early next year. I’d love to have one, they are beautiful objects.

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In a previous post I mentioned the Rain Jane project in Winchester where Jane Austen quotes appear only after it has rained.  I discovered a similar project in Boston and I guess, generally speaking, this is bringing poetry into the world of public art in a similar way to the stanza stones and Motion’s monolithic poem.  Wouldn’t it be amazing to get hold of  some of this special paint?  I’m very taken with “painting the town grey” , envisaging people stepping onto my poetry in the drizzle…

http://mentalfloss.com/article/80854/bostons-secret-sidewalk-poetry-only-appears-after-it-rains

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So, there you go!  Poetry doesn’t just have to inhabit the page.  Be bold, be a guerilla, get more of it out there!

 

Happy Valley, Zombies and Ted Hughes

 

Lumb_Bank_The_Ted_Hughes_Arvon_CentreI’ve just returned from my second Arvon course under the Arts Council grant, this time at Lumb Bank, an imposing eighteenth century mill owner’s manse glowering down a steeply wooded hillside to where the ruined mill chimneys can still be seen. The concept of Arvon, the grandaddy of UK creative writing courses, was founded in Devon by poets John Moat and John Fairfax in l968 as a reaction against what they saw as a staid, dogmatic approach to teaching poetry.  Lumb Bank was Ted and Carol Hughes’ home for a short while and was leased to Arvon when Hughes suggested it was time to open a Northern centre.  The Arvon formula is the same in all three centres: two tutors, a guest reader mid-week and up to 16 anxious but starry-eyed participants.  Fantastic poets and tutors Jean Sprackland and Jacob Polley had fun with an ever-changing good cop/bad cop formula and knocked us all into better shape with grace, sensitivity and humour, coaxing (or, perhaps, ripping!) seven very different poems out of me in just four days.  Sean Borodale arrived on Wednesday night for his guest slot looking like a floppy-haired 21st century version of Keats to read his profound and erudite poems on subjects ranging from peeling and stewing apples to an extraordinary contemplation of a queen bee…

stubbings wharfThe weather was glorious except for the day I had cooking and washing up duty (sometimes the best-laid plans actually work out!).  I did a daily walk down to Hebden Bridge to sit by the canal with a beer at Stubbings Wharf or a coffee at The Den watching the sun on the painted barges and dodging the hissing geese before the steep walk back up via Heptonstall.  sylvia plath's graveSylvia Plath is buried in the new graveyard in this village which is a fifteen-minute walk from Lumb Bank.  I’ve been to this area quite a bit and was glad that I’d already “done” my Sylvia Plath poem some years back – it’s hard not to be influenced by these two extraordinary poets and hard not to let the beauty and harshness of nature overwhelm your poems.  There was even a cat called Ted, although it was from the farm down the road and turned out to be a girl…

The week was full of bizarre encounters and surreal coincidences.  Taking a breather on the pair of benches on a grassed over burial mound which look across the valley at the top of the lane from Heptonstall to Lumb Bank I got chatting to a walker from Barnsley who had done a great number of Arvon courses and whose strongest memory was of a poem by Heidi Williamson who was a guest reader on a course he’d done at Totleigh Barton.  When I said Heidi was a great friend of mine as well as my long-standing mentor he was, understandably, chuffed to bits and went off to tweet his news with a spring in his step!

Sarah Lancashire in Happy ValleyI discovered that one of the participants on the course had stayed in the same cottage in Mytholmroyd last April that Chris and I had rented in November during my birthday week.  One of my presents was  the first series of Happy Valley – it was a rainy week and we couldn’t stop watching it.  Sally Wainwright’s flawless script, superb acting from a wonderful cast, particularly Sarah Lancashire and James Norton, and the fact that every night we walked along the dark canal back from Hebden Bridge to Mytholmroyd, passing the exact spot where the chillingly psychopathic Tommy Lee Royce had been hiding, all added to the dark and rather magnificent claustrophobia which permeates the Calder Valley on  winter days.  Sally Wainwright went to school in Sowerby Bridge and most of her scripts touch on this area (Sparkhouse, Scott and Bailey, Unforgiven etc) and, of course, Catherine Cawood, Sarah Lancashire’s character in Happy Valley, is often seen in Heptonstall at the graveside of her daughter Rebecca who is the invisible motivating factor behind the whole series. Calderdale has been used as a feature film location since Cecil Hepworth’s Helen of the Four Gates in 1920 and, with its sinister moor and heathlands, steep climbs, cobbled villages and solid stone buildings, it never fails to be a character in its own right.

wuthering heightsOn my birthday we walked from Haworth back to Hebden Bridge via Top Withens (Wuthering Heights to you and me!) on the kind of foggy day that just makes you want to write intensely passionate and romantic poetry (although I was slightly distracted by the fact that I’d turned my left eye into a giant purple puffball by picking a mushroom, trying to identify it and then rubbing my eye…)

The Last Man on EarthWe also had a rather more up-to-date and positively post-apocalyptic experience that week when we went to the fantastic Trades Club on Hallowe’en to see a screening of Last Man on Earth, a schlocky B-movie made in Italy at the height of the horror era in 1968 (adapted from Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend  and remade under this title in 2007 with Will Smith. There’s also a 1971 remake, The Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston).  It stars Vincent Price as Dr Robert Morgan who wakes every morning in his garlic- festooned house to go vampire hunting (the film’s baddies are a confusing mix of zombie and vampire).  The screening was accompanied with live music from Animat who used a mixture of their own brand of dubby downtempo music as well as an eclectic selection of tracks from their DJ archive including, inevitably, Thriller!  Holme Street, where the Trades Club is situated, is a cul-de-sac T-junctioned  by the Rochdale Canal and it tends to attract all sorts at night…  We emerged into the darkness to be met by a ragged bunch of men staggering around in an inarticulate manner with an excitable black dog, echoing the repeated scenes in The Last Man on Earth where Vincent Price encounters angry zombies every morning when he opens his door and he even inadvertently adopts a zombie dog (black, of course!).

floodMy visit this time was tinged with sadness, but also admiration.  The effect of the Boxing Day floods last year are still very much in evidence.  It has taken so long for many of the shops and houses to dry out that building and repair work has only just begun.  I was delighted to see that favourite bookshop The Book Case had re-opened, but shocked to see that their floodmarker for December 2015 was level with my eyebrows…  Overall, the atmosphere was positive and forward-looking, these people are tough and tenacious and their refusal to be defeated by overwhelming odds moved me considerably.

Cascara+LooseSo, finally, our quest to be the geekiest of third-wave coffee seekers scaled new heights this summer as I dropped in to the wonderful and aromatic Caravan (www.caravanrestaurants.co.uk/kings-cross.html) to buy some coffee beans and was introduced to cascara…  Cascara means dried husk or peel in Spanish and refers to the dried skins of coffee cherries which are now, in a further drive to be as eco as possible, collected after the coffee beans are harvested and used to make a kind of tea.  It’s a very strange experience indeed.  One of the baristas, sensing my interest, made me an iced cascara tea – it’s definitely the point where tea and coffee intersect and for all its pale straw innocence it packs a real punch.   The only similar kick was a drink I had in San Diego called an Electric Chair – coca cola with a double-shot of expresso and yes, my hair did stand on end, and yes,  I really did think I would never sleep again!