Eden Benchmarks
Exploring the cultural landscape in East Cumbria
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The Poetry Path (Instalment 10)

Coltsfoot, celandine, earliest daisies.
Twin lambs race to the mother, baby cries,
Mam! Mam! Jolt out of them and now
they jostle the ragged ewe,
boosting each split hoof
high off the bitten turf.
Pinching jaws and hard curled coats
are braced against these April suns and sleets.

                       April Poem by Meg Peacocke

Stenkrith Park is on the route of the Poetry Path, a series of twelve poems carved on large stones and written on the theme of ‘a year in the life of a hill farmer’.   Encouraged by the success of Eden Benchmarks I had wanted to do something similar in the wake of 2001, that dreadful year when life in Cumbria was paralysed by Foot and Mouth disease and many farmers were forced to destroy all their livestock.  As they started to recover and buy in new stock it seemed to be an appropriate opportunity to acknowledge the hill farmers’ historic relationship with the beautiful landscape in and around the upper Eden valley.

The route starts on the outskirts of Kirkby Stephen, along the Nateby road, at the bottom of a track called Bollam Lane where it meets the river Eden.  It crosses the river on a wooden footbridge, known as Swingy Bridge and turns south along a deeply worn, hedge lined bridleway to the Podgill Railway Path. It then goes west to Stenkrith, back over the river again on the Millennium footbridge and returns, north from there, to Swingy Bridge.  The twelve poems, one for each month of the year, were written by the distinguished poet Meg Peacocke and carved by hand on the stones by lettering artist Pip Hall.  The stones sit at intervals along the route and also feature Pip’s decorative motifs depicting some of the activities associated with every month of a hill farmer’s year.  Rubbings can be taken from these on sheets of paper with crayons.

I like the permanency of stone.  The Eden Valley hosts numerous man-made stone structures in the landscape, surviving from antiquity, encapsulating and communicating our ancestor’s reflections on life and eternity across the centuries.  Who is to say that the archaic stone circles, such as Long Meg and her Daughters near Little Salkeld, were not the work of a neolithic artist?  Whatever their original purpose they somehow still articulate the imperative of human oneness with our Mother Earth.  Never before has this insight been more compelling, yet so ignored, as it is today.    

My aim with the Poetry Path was to introduce a contemporary equivalent for the 21st century; a permanent and integrated interpretative experience in the landscape, which itself becomes part of the heritage it promotes, conveying a powerful message about the farmers’ now dwindling role as custodian of the countryside.  Two major funders, The Countryside Agency and Leader Plus, a local distributer of European Union grants, agreed to provide most of the money needed and I recruited a committee of local community representatives to help me select a poet and a letter carver from a shortlist I’d compiled of likely candidates.  They were all excellent people so deciding wasn’t easy but, in the event, both Meg and Pip were our unanimous choice.

Management of the Eden Benchmarks project had convinced me that a paramount constituent of the public art commissioning process was to keep the artist’s brief as non-prescriptive as possible.  I determinedly resisted the frequently expressed expectation that each artist should be required to secure approval of their intentions with a fully realised representational drawing or maquette before proceeding any further with making their sculpture.  Apart from the impossibility of gaining an entire community’s agreement, or even the accord of several members of a community’s representative committee, it is my view that if we want art in the landscape we must allow the artists as much freedom of expression as possible.  Emile Zola described a work of art as being the product of an artist looking at the world “through a temperament”.   It is the artist’s function after all, albeit within the parameters of site specificity, to understand and creatively communicate their own personal feelings about a place.

When I took the first tentative steps toward implementing my concept of the Poetry Path the initial outline I’d had in mind, once again, proved to fall well short of the projects full potential. My vision was based on little more than instinctive optimism and an ardent conviction that poems carved in stone would be an interesting way to achieve my aims as a countryside interpreter.  From the moment I introduced Meg and Pip to one another they quickly established an ebullient rapport, assertively took ownership of the bare framework of my proposal and, in the ensuing months, utterly transformed it with something akin to alchemy.       

Pip Hall lived in Reading.  She graduated from Reading University with a degree in Typography and Graphic Communication and went on later to train as a letter carver.  She regularly visited Cumbria to teach letter carving every summer at a house near Ullswater.  I particularly like the way she experiments with the forms and arrangement of letters to reflect the rhythm and meaning of text.  It had been obvious from her job application that she loves and appreciates poetry and I wasn’t surprised to discover that she is also an accomplished musician.  There is surely a correlation between music, poetry and the elegant flow and flair of good calligraphy and Pip has an intuitive aptitude for all three in abundance.      

Meg Peacocke ran a smallholding on Stainmore for many years where she lived alone, with just her farm animals for company, so she knows all about a farmer’s life.  She has published five critically acclaimed collections of poems and is a winner of the prestigious Cholmondeley Award for distinction in poetry. I’d never met her before, although I was already familiar with some of her poems as I had a copy of her first published collection ‘Marginal Land’ on my bookshelf.  I found some of them difficult, but then good poetry is always quite difficult; it can’t be read like prose.  Like a fine malt whisky, a poem is distilled and concentrated, honed to coded perfection and reduced to the very essence of what it’s about.  Working with Meg I slowly gleaned a little more insight regarding the importance of structure in a poem: the shape, pattern and movement that runs through it and gives it life, the implication of meaning rather than pedestrian description, the length of its lines and their arrangement in stanzas, the length and stress of syllables in relation to one another and their beat, rhythm and metre.  These are the tricks of the poet’s trade but the best poets keep them hidden with a conjurer’s sleight of hand.

When Meg was offered the job she had some reservations.  She had always written for herself and never to commission and knew she would have to write poems that were more instantly accessible than she normally writes, which sit on a page to be unravelled slowly and cerebrally savoured.  There were also her serious misgivings about the intrusiveness of ‘public art’ compounded by the prospect of seeing poems she had written herself displayed permanently on stones along the route of one of her favourite walks!  Luckily she overcame her doubts and in due course delivered the poems.  My one instruction had been that the poetry should document each month of a farmer’s year so I was disconcerted to see that only four of the twelve poems were specifically about farming.  I was nervous when we met to discuss my concern, because Meg is always voraciously forthright in her manner, but in no time at all she quietly allayed my fears and, with measured forbearance, explained to me how the poems were intended to evoke the wider context of a farmer’s life; his animals, the weather, soil and the geological lie of the land, wild water and wild nature, human history and the river cutting a timeless swathe through the lives of all of us who live in east Cumbria.  I was instantly and irrevocably convinced.                 

I first met Pip when I attended her letter carving course at Martindale shortly before she was due to start work on the Poetry Path, which gave us an opportunity to talk.  I’d originally envisaged a trail of twelve poems, carved in twelve different styles of lettering on long thin slabs of stone, incorporated into twelve stone wall stiles which I wanted to call ‘Twelve Poems in Twelve Different Stiles’.  I spent months searching the length and breadth of upper Eden for a suitably sequenced series of twelve stiles in a circular route that would fit with the title.  It was only my failure to find one that made me realise I was overlooking the ideal route between Kirkby Stephen and Stenkrith Park, right on my doorstep, for the sake of what had become an obsessive preoccupation with a mildly amusing, punning title!  I still had in mind using the long thin slabs of stone, not least because they could easily be transported to a letter carver’s studio and then, on completion, brought back and set into the ground along the route, as standing stones.  I hadn’t budgeted to provide either accommodation or a workshop facility for the artist, so when it transpired that Pip had a friend living near Kendal who was prepared to do so free of charge, it wasn’t long before I found myself wandering around a local quarry, with both Pip and Meg, looking at a variety of very large and very irregularly shaped rocks.  My notion of the neat procession of long thin slabs of stone was, finally, laid to rest.

Meg wrote her poems with the specific locations in mind so we chose the stones accordingly.  We also decided to use an assortment of limestone and red sandstone to reflect the intermingled geology at Stenkrith.  I organised a haulage contractor to move the first of these to Pip’s workshop and we managed to find a second-hand gantry so that Pip could move the stones around in the confined space of the workshop.  Without further ado she then confidently embarked on the gargantuan task of chiselling each of the 1752 letters in Meg’s twelve poems by hand, with exquisite precision, on nineteen hard blocks of stone, millions of years old. She designed twelve different styles of lettering and layout for each poem to enhance their visual impact and carved the little motifs representing the main activities of a hill farmer’s year.  When each stone was completed and transported to site ready for installation, all three of us got together to deliberate on their exact placement and positioning.  

January’s poetry stone, nestles unobtrusively in the tree latticed tunnel of Bollam Lane where a bridleway, hoof-hollowed by centuries of horse traffic, seems to hesitate before fording the river Eden.  The line “Life is a kernel hidden in the stone of winter” makes me shiver.  Across the river the February poem aches for winter’s end, inscribed on a stack of four limestone blocks, which mimic the corner stones of a nearby ruined byre where wintering cattle once sheltered “safe from reiving wind and rain”.  

Bearing right onto a hedge lined path, once the main thoroughfare between Kirkby Stephen and Mallerstang, the track slopes down into a shallow gill where the red sandstone pillar, bearing the March poem, stands in a beck.  This was an exciting one to install.  The contractor used a low loader with a telescopic arm.  Each stone was slung on heavy duty straps and carefully lowered into place, whereupon any adjustment needed was easily achieved whilst the stone was still suspended inches above the ground.  This stone, however, was to be installed in a pool of water where the beck tumbles off a vertical shelf of red sandstone, above which there is a potentially unstable grassy slope at the top of the bank opposite.  Because of the narrowness of the path the contractor had no alternative but to approach the beck from the other side and chain the low loader to a tractor to avoid it falling over the edge.  The stone was then suspended on straps from the end of the telescopic arm and cautiously propelled forward where it swung gently above the pool.  Meg, Pip and I had been joined by a group of friendly walkers and a lively discussion ensued regarding how we might position the stone in the beck to its best advantage.  I think we were all inclined to favour a central position but not at all certain if it would sit securely enough in the stony morass at the bottom of the pool.  I had previously waded into the water and attempted to dig a hole without much success.  As we hesitated, mesmerised by the poetry stone dangling over the water, one of the straps suddenly snapped and it plunged, with a mighty splash, into the beck, wedging itself firmly and solidly, in an upright position, against the sandstone outcrop at the back of the pool.  It was as if the poem itself had lost patience with our prevarication.  The friendly walkers and I roared our delight at this unexpected, most satisfactory, of outcomes and we gleefully concluded that it was one of those lucky accidents that defied logic.  As I turned to look at Meg and Pip, however, I could have sworn they exchanged conspiratorial glances with enigmatic smiles on their faces.

                                                “From field
                                                            and fell
                                                run cold
                                                            run small.
                                                I am the rain
                                                            tear in the eye
                                                blood in the vein
                                                            I am the sea.”                           

The path continues uphill along another sunken hollow way, enveloped by a canopy of trees.  Half way up the slope, April’s poem is carved on a stone incorporated into a section of drystone wall, celebrating lambing time and the newly arrived lambs huddling behind their mothers.                             

                                                “Pinching jaws and hard curled coats
                                                are braced against these April suns and sleets”

The poem for May, also built into a wall, is on a big slab of red sandstone, its ripe peach colour contrasting dramatically with the grey lumps of limestone in the wall around it and incised with a curly style of lettering reminiscent of wool.  This poem is about the shepherd removing dirty clumps of fleece from the tails of his rams whilst his hands are “seamed with muck and the sweat runs into his eyes”.

The path crosses a bridge above the railway path to where the June poem is situated, carved on an industrial block of gritstone, describing elder blossom as being like “dishes of cream” and fledgling birds trying “small quivery leaps” in the spring sunshine.  The route then follows a section of the railway path.

There are three poetry stones along the railway path.  July’s poem is a succinctly lyrical equation, encapsulating the imperative of making hay (and silage) while the sun shines.  Pip’s clever calligraphic invention mimics not only the “the first green furrow” and the “ark of weather” in the poem but also, as a farmer’s small son pointed out to me one day, the tread marks of a tractor tyre.  The August stone sits amongst the trees and is, perhaps, the one I like best.  A large piece of red sandstone, shaped like a slice of a melon, with the curving lines of two stanzas carved on both sides, echoing the semi-circle shape of the stone.  The lettering is jauntily curvy as well and big and bold like script on a Salvation Army banner. 

                                                “For touch, taste, smell, sight, hearing
                                                            I give thanks.”           

August is the month when farmers show off sheep at agricultural shows and hope to win prizes for their best animals.  Pip’s motif of a prize winning Swaledale tup’s head is often enlivened with a colourful wreath of scribbled marks left behind by a child taking a rubbing from it with a crayon.

The railway line was constructed between 1857 and 1860 to facilitate steam locomotives pulling trucks of coal from the Durham coalfields to the shipyards at Barrow in Furness.  It closed in 1962 and the poem for September, on an oblong block of St. Bee’s sandstone, urges us to use our imagination and “Listen, and catch the hiss of steam again.”

The railway path terminates at this point but the Poetry Path continues, on the footbridge  across the river, back into Stenkrith Park. The intersecting geology in Stenkrith Park is the subject of October’s Poem, on a prostrate pair of stones where one verse, on sandstone, asks the question “How did we trace a path through the ancient dunes?” and the other, on limestone, “How did we swim through the drift and not perish?”

The eleventh pair of poetry stones, standing together at the bottom end of Stenkrith Park, hint at the darker days of November with a tiny carved motif of a farmer preparing his rams for ‘tupping’ time.  Two flowing lines of neatly chiselled letters on sleekly flat, shined surfaces celebrate the bigger picture of the river moving “softly or in spate” on its perpetual journey “from Mallerstang to the shifting Solway sands.”

The footpath returns across two fields to Bollam Lane, parallel with the river.  I can almost guarantee the sight of a grey heron along here standing motionless on long legs in the shallow water, watching and waiting, ready to lunge with its sharply bayoneted head at an unsuspecting fish.  It usually hears me and takes fright and I enjoy it’s slow, lanky, pterodactyl manoeuvres, up and away, between the branches of the trees and into the sky.

Appropriately for this location, the December poem is a Japanese style ‘haiku’ poem about a heron, which concludes the Poetry Path on a pensively philosophical note with its seventeen syllables, in three short lines, on a row of three narrow horizontal stones.

                                                “There sails the heron
                                            Drawing behind him a long
                                                Wake of solitude.”

My East Cumbria Countryside Project colleagues Marilyn Leech and Ali White designed and illustrated a beautiful booklet, which includes all the poems, directions to follow the route and descriptions of farming activities during the course of a year.  It is available for sale from various outlets in Kirkby Stephen.  Proceeds go towards upkeep of the route and reprinting the booklet.