Sunday, 30 April 2017

The Small Bear Chronicles - 1: The Train to Barrow

For an April morning it is cold and wet, a frosty air sealing everything within it so my canalside walk to the station is a bitter, wintry trudge. The glorious chaos of the nearby church bells bouncing in my ears, I am weighed down on this Sunday morning by the rectangular cardboard box I am trying to hold up on two tired arms, and which contains the reason for my early morning journey: seventy copies of Ayelet Mckenzie's Small Bear, the latest collection by Caterpillar Poetry, illustrated by York based artist Nicole Sky.

From Sowerby Bridge, my train winds along the familiar spine of the Calder Valley, trickling through rainy morning mist past the cobbles and chimney stacks of Mytholmroyd, Hebden Bridge, Todmorden, before we chug through Burnley, Accrington and Blackburn, steep streets merging into one endless sweep of terraced housing, their gable ends and v-shaped roofs lined one after the other like rows of enormous toblerones.  Bit by bit the seats fill up - businesspeople firing up laptops, office workers scrolling through their phones, men bound for garages or warehouses - the diverse, heaving throng of commuter Britain, a conveyor belt of lonely strangers, so disparate and different, yet united daily by the same dawn landscapes and miles of homes, their windows flickering alive in gradual, patchy salutations to the pale, chill dawn.
Re-reading Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, Richard Bach's modern fairytale of flight and self-discovery, I watch the silent white shapes of birds swinging over estates, scrubland, and industrial yards; we slip past sleepy stations with friendly names like Cherry Tree, Pleasington and Bamber Bridge, and push towards Preston, where I must change trains, and step out into a station I have not laid eyes on for over a decade - which welcomes me with a sign to warm my heart, and those of all other Yorkshiremen:

Heading north, we push through fields of racing green, the shiny wet bend of a canal curling past sheep who loll like ruffled bundles of fluff, the colour of the clouds which blot blue sky above, sky that is stretching like a cuckoo's egg shell, a dreamy veneer of sugary blue.  I can vaguely make out the buds on the trees, branches shyly coming into leaf.
Outside Lancaster, the land's a fertile, flat vastness, glimmering with dandelions. It is like the ground is on fire, or being invaded by an ankle-height army, a yellow peril of Leprachauns, as the River Lune appears like a grey-blue continent.  Cyclists putter along a sandy path, the fields are green again, stretching like a snooker table towards chimneys, roofs and battlements, and the bald, primordial cones of distant hills.  Above the river, a gull sashays, wind-swivelling, turns on a sixpence, and loops an arcing loop to swoosh beneath the bridge.

Built in 1846, Carnforth station was designed by the architect of London's St Pancras, William Tite, and in 1945 was used for the filming of Brief Encounter.  Now housing a heritage centre in celebration of this fact, the station does not particularly exude romance with its grainy grey brickwork and messy exterior - scrapyard-style yards and car parks splayed like some post-Apocalyptic bombsite, peppered with the remnants of discarded vehicles and petering out into the grim monotony of the Bridgeside Industrial Park.
And yet, as we sweep past the platforms and towards the banks of the slim blue River Keer, I am taken with the romance of the station's past - in particular, by the clusters of old, redundant engines mounded up along its outer edges.  Like an outdoor museum, this assortment of retired trains is a kind of testament to the station's past, with a sad sense of former glory but also something cheerful in the quiet grandeur of the chunky, friendly-looking engines: half a poignant vision of a world gone by, and half like an outtake from Thomas the Tank Engine.  They remind me of  the retired race horses in Philip Larkin's poem At Grass, who stand anonymous despite their long expired heroics in fells and handicaps.  Watching the horses "seeming to look on," Larkin wonders:

Do memories plague their ears like flies?
They shake their heads. Dusk brims the shadows.
Summer by summer all stole away,
The starting-gates, the crowd and cries -
All but the unmolesting meadows.
Almanacked, their names live; they

Have slipped their names, and stand at ease

and somehow these tired giants evoke in me the same degree of empathy.  How many hundreds - thousands - of miles of steam had these sleepy dragons puffed and pummelled their way through, chugging up the steel veins of an older, different country?  How many family outings, workers' daytrips, lonely journeys along the neck of England's Northwest had taken place behind the big broad oblong windows of these mighty chariots of yesteryear?  As we pootle on towards Silverdale and Arnside, I begin to scribble something that may pass as poetry.

Old rust-red engines
slumped like uncollected pint-pots,
graffiti-streaked, clapped-out, kaput,
like old regrets they glimmer,
chipped and bruised,
ciggies in the ashtray
smouldering defiantly,
ruined gamblers,
ancient bones.

These immobile antiques,
'50's flanks pronouncing things like
"Diamond Jubilee"
blur by in puddly purples, greens,
browns the colour of autumn leaves.

And yet the sun which casts
a varnish on their wrinkled skins
is a springtime sun
illuminating fields of golden dandelions,
chandeliers of blossom,
milky fleeces of lolloping sheep,
on the fading paintwork
of these sad racks of proud, steam-powered pasts.

As Grange-over-Sands gleams into view, I am taken aback at its utter, unexpected, beauty. We have passed seamlessly from open country into coast, where the sands in brown and amber bands are plaited like cross-currents, a rich, sun-moulded landscape furling out into the sea in a muscly duvet of dips and clefts.  A heron stands patiently in a watery knoll; curlews stab the shallows; ice-white gulls circle overhead like angry shooting stars.  Further out, egrets investigate the dunes and pools of the peninsula, their willowy white bodies seeping into the sea's glazy haze like melting snow.

In the distance the octagonal spire of the clock tower, built in 1912, peers over the town like a limestone sphinx, and we pass by the promenade, greeted jubilantly as grandparents lift children on their shoulders to wave and smile, continuing north along the Cumbrian coast, its cliffy shoreline basking in sunshine as the morning tips into a balmy afternoon, and the way ahead beckons, brightly. I remember it is Shakespeare's birthday; and St George's Day.  It seems almost absurd to think it, considering the tumult of the recent past, and the current turbulence enveloping the country as we hurtle into an election rife with issues of identity, but in this divided country, where communities, friendships, even families, have been riven, and our sense of knowing who we are has been questioned, torn, twisted by politics and left painfully unresolved, there is still an England I love, its wild coastlines and stately promenades, its neat, smart public parks and manicured gardens, and its free, rough-and-tumble hills.  I love the understated dignity of this old seaside town, its sandstone piers and slate-gabled churches, its silvery station, roof shimmering in sunlight like a warm, wild sea, its elegant waders and its sharp, gobby gulls, ducking and diving and sailing the rippling, choppy waters.

The remainder of the journey is peaceful, as we drift along the fray of England and back within its wooded heart, towards the stony, steely Triassic Furness Peninsula, and I am bound for Barrow, and its poetry.

SUNLIGHT, by Ayelet McKenzie

All around there is space and light.
Through the trees
because of the trees
sunlight sieved and strained,
as if the world were a huge colander
of branches and leaves
playing dappled games with the river.
A generous river, full of fish and gestures,
a moving layer covering rocks and weed;
tucked under, a bed.

1 comment:

  1. I am gobsmacked, Simon. This is just radiantly beautiful. You have captured the whole sombre, changeable magic of this area - lit it up with human love. I think that is what we are here light things up like that - through perceiving and adding to the light that is in them...changeably. This is just gorgeous prose. And i love the Larkin, and the other snippets - yours and hers - and...well, it is just so good. I hope you are read widely, because you ought to be. And in fact, serendipitously, I am writing a story in which a steam engine figures large - and this piece was helpful, even.