Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Small Bear Chronicles - 2: The Walney Channel

Part 1:

It is a mild mid afternoon when I arrive at Roose station in Cumbria, to be met by Ayelet McKenzie, whose poetry collection Small Bear is about to be published by Caterpillar Poetry, and her friend Ron, who has kindly offered to put me up for the night, before we launch the book at Barrow Library. 
As Ron drives through the pleasant suburban streets of Roose, we talk about the book, and our plans for tomorrow's launch, before he drops Ayelet off at her place and continues driving me towards the area I am about to discover - and which Ron has volunteered to show me around, beginning with the Walney Channel and its environs, which I am to find redolent with wildlife, history, and poetry.

Our first port of call is the Barrow Dock Museum, overlooking the eastern sweep of the Walney Channel, whose sandy edges can be seen sloping down to water, gulls standing sentry amid muddy dunes and glistening shallows. They perch on railings or observe us quizzically as we stroll the steps to the building, in the shadow of the district's shipbuilding heritage.


Telling the story of Barrow through its steel and shipping industries, the museum is an impressive, multi-layered site comprising a walk-through display of Viking history - complete with ship - several sections of more recent times, and a large range of beautifully constructed maritime models - examples of Barrow-built boats from through the years, as well as life-size representations of the town's industrial past.

On the 23rd May, 1936, a Zepellin - the Hindenburg - flew over Barrow, an event which caused great alarm in the town and was captured on camera by local residents. 

In addition to the Hindenburg photograph, the museum contains many other sobering reminders of the district's wartime legacy.

But also replicas of vintage domesticity

... natural history  

...and sport

Willie Horne, immortalised in Barrow steel, apparently began his rugby playing career at Barrow, and later captained Lancashire, England and Great Britain.  My knowledge of rugby is extremely limited, but Ron tells me how "Willie had a sports shop in Barrow, he ran it with his daughter, and he sometimes tried to help others out with a free sports kit."  Ron tells me about his own experiences of working in industrial Barrow, and we both comment on the weird and wonderful appliances on display at the museum's exhibition of the 1950's home

As we wander through the remainder of the site, I am struck by old photographs

entranced by images of the local countryside

and am fairly sure I lay eyes on an old friend

I am very interested to learn that Barrow was once dubbed "The English Chicago," having ancestry in that US city, and when I find that this sobriquet was lent it more in honour of the alarmingly rapid growth of its industries in the early 20th Century, rather than in reference to any underworld skulduggery, I must confess to a degree of disappointment. 

Splayed beyond the museum's entrance, the Walney Chanel its self begins lethargically, a patchy, threadbare fray of puddles blotching a shore of dark, wet sand and chunky pebbles.  The sandy plateau stretches out into a desert of bumpy, rocky ridges, or is littered with the hulls of long-abandoned ships; but just further across the bay there are modern vessels, pleasure boats, and a sense of calm somewhere between seaside jollity and some picture-postcard riverside. 

In her poem Walney Channel, Cumbrian poet Kim Moore, who lives in Barrow, gives an acutely detailed and yet somehow otherworldly description of the channel which veers between sights that meet the naked eye, to the channel's sense of history, and a succession of dreamlike images and sounds.  When the tide is in, it leads to water she tells us, when the tide is out it leads to mud, and the beginning of the old road across the channel. 
Indeed, the channel is defined by crossings and the remnants of crossings, from the thin bridge with its rickety railings which Ron and I cross in order to walk the pier, to the bridge which spans its northern edges, built in 1908 for the benefit of shipyard workers crossing to and from the yards and factories, now dotted by traffic and stretching almost incongruously against a backdrop of sand and water like the body of some huge amphibious predator.

The bridge effectively replaced many of the older walkways and "crossings," which feature prominently in Kim's poem, echoing with footsteps of the shipyard workers who walked that channel years ago:

This was just 

a crossing, the only way, before the bridge
was built.  Each morning you'll hear

the shipyard calling men to work. 

As we follow the paths across the wooden walkways, an elderly woman comes our way, pushing a grandchild in a pram.  She tells us that she remembers the days before the railings which separate us from the twenty or thirty metre drop into the channel below.  "We used to play along here, running and jumping about - its a wonder we didn't end up falling over t'edge ... I wonder how many must have fallen and died in there ..." and such is the glint in her eye and the gleeful chuckle in her voice as she ponders these imagined fatal plunges that I almost expect her to add that "those were the days." With polite smiles, Ron and I move on, the grandma's jolly cackles simmering on the breeze behind us.

If you head out further along the channel, you are rewarded by bird life, and we watch an oystercatcher peck and delve amid the tide like a fluffy domino, black-and-white form propelled by two orangey legs.  The svelte, amber dagger of its beak spearing sandy shallows, the oystercatcher prods on oblivious to our presence, the rippling shimmer of the channel flowing by before it like an icy sky.  Kim Moore writes of barnacles and seaweed, and even when considering the bridges and human geography of the channel, she is impelled to do so via imagery which recalls the zoological:

Wait and watch the path appear
like the spine of some forgotten animal
turning in its sleep

 I had read Walney Channel before - it is the opening poem of Kim's super pamphlet If We Could Speak Like Wolves (smith/doorstop 2012) - but when I came to the channel myself, I saw and felt its shivering, briny, post-industrial power all the more deeply.  I could see the ghosts of shipyard workers filing over the bridge, the boot-marks of long-gone workers fading in the sands, the bones of primeval animals, could hear the sirens echoing against the wreckages of masts and prows. 

Further on, we are met by the imposing mass of Black Combe, rising nearly two thousand feet and formed four hundred and sixty million years ago. Like some glacial goddess of black ice, the Combe looms above the Irish sea in vast, dark beauty.  Its lower reaches heavy in Ordovician black, the Combe lightens near its peak to a heathy green or brownish tinge, depending on the angle of the light, and is visible across the district, the views from its summit stretching from the Irish coast, to as far as Wales and Scotland.  Wordsworth wrote that, from the Combe, the amplest range of unobstructed prospect may be seen that British ground commands, while his great celebrant Branwell Bronte, who lived and worked as a tutor at nearby Broughton-in-Furness, was moved to write a sonnet in honour of the fell.  This has special significance for me at present, my film on Branwell's Calder Valley Years just two months shy of its premiere, and as I tell Ron about Branwell's ill-fated time at Broughton, cut short due to the early signs of an alcoholism which would lead him towards ruin, I can see why the formidable entity, almost Volcanic - Cumbria poet Norman Nicholson called it the dynamited Combe - held such magnetism for the romantic Branwell. But his poem seems to hint at the struggles which would soon envelop his young, troubled life, an inward, brooding prophecy against the black clouds of the Combe:

BLACK COMBE, by Branwell Bronte:

Far off, and half revealed, 'mid shade and light,
Black Combe half smiles, half frowns; his mighty form
Scarce bending into peace, more to fight
A thousand years of struggle with a storm
Than bask one hour subdued by sunshine warm
To bright and breezeless rest; yet even his height
Towers not o'er this world's sympathies; he smiles -
While many a human heart to pleasure's wiles
Can bear to bend, and still forget to rise-
As though he, huge and heath-clad on our sight,
Again rejoices in his stormy skies.
Man loses vigour in unstable joys.
Thus tempests find Black Combe invincible,
While we are lost, who should know life so well!

Originally, the area of land known as "Barrow Island" was indeed an island between Barrow and Walney Island, whose sands and grasses beckon us from over the shore, waving in the wind.  Nowadays, Barrow Island conjoins with Barrow proper via the road that runs alongside the museum, and the land on which the huge submarine facility, Devonshire Dock Hall, is built.  But the whole environment feels island-like, as a sharp wind slices at us through the hilly, winding roads, speckled with gorse.  I had noticed the gorse on the train to Roose, burning by the tracks and increasing out among the fields and bases of the hills; now it seems to have colonized whole swathes of the terrain.  On the way to Walney Island, we drive past long, frazzled splashes of it - like crackling cascades of fire, its ochre blaze drapes the fields, dunes and heaps of heathland carpeting the sleeve of land which frays out into the glinting silver sea.

The gorse, in all its spiky beauty, reminds me of the Calder Valley, and I feel at home among its flowering drifts of gold, sweeping the land beneath a whistling moorland wind.  Soon, the sun is warm again, the air is calmer.  A gentle breeze is tickling through the reeds, as Ron and I point out the birds which swoosh and bobble through the grasses.  Some we identify, some we don't, just like the chirps and flutters that bounce about the air in joyous spring songs. 

Families are picnicking, cyclists spool by.  On a bench overlooking one of many silent, reedy ponds, a couple bird-watch, as horses and cows graze in the hazy sunlight of the late afternoon. 

Just beyond a fence, a lapwing wanders, tottering jerkily as it shakes its jazzy hair and dazzles in the sun, black plumage tinted green and sunset purple. 


I am reminded of the first time I laid eyes on lapwings, nearly ten years ago now, in the snowy farmlands of Penistone, South Yorkshire, watching them circle slowly above, listening to their weeping laments, the mournful song which earns the birds the nickname "peewit," and the poem I wrote about them.


Snowdrifter, you loop
a silver sky
slowly floating
over fields where frost
is crackling underfoot,
where iced-in streams
streak lunar-white
against dark earth,
hills grey-misted and a wind
so fresh it rattles bones with cold.

You slit the sky in batches,
billlowing like tides,
pour flat miaows,
a pale yet piercing sound,
threnody of notes sob-soft,
a long, sagging sadness.

But today on Walney, there is no frost underfoot, and the wind is a lazy wind, blowing the dust from the chalky roads as the occasional van or jeep sweeps past, so that the middle distance is blurred by a filmy, mist-like light.

As we walk along the beach, Ron points out sea cabbages and a tiny wildflower, deceptively dainty, peeping through the pebbles, which turns out, I'm sure, to be Silene uniflora (Sea Campion).

We are passed overhead by gliders, and as I look out to sea I watch kites billowing against blue sky. 

 Strolling over the sands,watching the kiss of the evening sun ignite the sea in ripples of glimmering silver, I realise that this is the first time I have ventured beyond the British mainland for nearly twenty years.
It feels good, here on Walney, to catch the soft warmth of the sunshine on my neck, to hear the rustle of the bumpy, chunky stones beneath our feet, and to head for the car as the sun is going down, knowing Barrow beckons - and with it, tomorrow, the launch of Ayelet McKenzie's Small Bear.

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