Monday, August 28, 2006

Jane Bhandari's Detailed Reply on England's Lake District

Here's Poet Jane Bhandari's detailed reply about England's Lake District, where poet Wordsworth lived and wrote. Thanks, Jane!

Dear John,

A small village indeed. I had no idea that William's grandson had lived here, or that he was a poet. Would any of his writings be available?  Yes, Wordsworth's poetry was rammed down our throats, and other great writers were simply introduced too early. I have a particular distaste for 'Daffodils' because our school choir had to sing a song for the local festival that used the words, and it was musically too sickly sweet for words. Courtesy my parents, I had grown up on Palestrina, Bach, and Mozart, and found the late Victorian music boring and the harmony too predictable.

I think the Lake District produced more than poets, it also grew engineers (railway and bridge builders for the most part, but also ship-builders) and philosophers. The geography was difficult and isolated, so that philosophers used their legs as much as their minds, and I have a book by John Bolton (a weaver who was also an amateur geologist and wrote several books on the subject) on the geology of the area where I grew up which tells us as much about the local gentry and their eccentricities as the appearance of the landscape and its underpinnings. It is fascinating because my father's family lived here for centuries, farmers who intermarried to such a degree that my great-great-grandfather determined to marry a scottish lady. (Scots have been a part of the pamily ever since.) There are local names that appear in every geneaology, and in a village it is dangerous to insult somebody who may be related to you in more ways than a spider has legs. Bolton muses on the tendency of inbreeding to produce either geniuses or idiots - I wonder what he would have thought of the Parsis - and digresses to observe the flora and fauna, equally inbred due to extreme isolation. Many parts of the Lake District were inaccessible except on foot, and some villages were visited by the priest only once or twice a year. It was not uncommon for a man to take a wife in a barn-wedding attended by the local residents: by the time the priest came to legalise the ceremony he often performed a baptism (or two) at the same time!  

As for local poets, my favourite was probably Norman Nicholson, who lived only seven miles from our village and worked alongside of his uncle in the iron-works in the early 20th century. The Furness area had both iron and copper mines, and I remember the red glow in the night sky as the slag was poured into the sea. Unfortunately the haematite reef (mentioned by John Bolton) ran out under the estuary in a limestone reef too badly fractured to sustain underground mining. Eventually the iron works closed down, after bringing in ore from Sweden for some years after the mines closed. The great slag tip remains, running out like a pier into the estuary. At one time they had thought to connect it with a similar tip on the other side, and run a branch line of the railway across it. This never happened, and I doubt it would ever be followed up now. You can still see the great holes and pits throughout Furness where they dug open-cast mines, and where they tunnelled underground, the land has caved in in some places, sometimes taking a couple of cottages with it.

We used to go fossil-hunting along the limestone reef that ran out into the estuary, and for years picnicked on top of a huge fossil of a nautilus-type shell, which was eventually discovered by fossil-raiders and taken away in the dead of night. It must have weighed a couple of tons, and I wonder how they transported it across the quicksands. Perhaps they used a donkey and a sled at low tide, and towed it along the beach until they were close to the road.

Norman Nicholson wrote about his area, only ever went to London once, by train, and having seen the sinful city returned, never to go more than ten miles away. His poems about the plant life, the birds, and the local community are fascinating, to me a nostalgic look at a life that has all but vanished, the industrial life that flourished alongside of rural England, mingled in it, even - often farmers grew coppices, small woods, beech or hazel, that were pruned to produce even thickness of branch that was then made into charcoal for the copper-smelters. That was a cottage industry - and many farmers also had a little copper-mine on their land which they used for additional income. Copper ore smelts easily in the intense heat of charcoal. When they had enough 'pigs' they would take them to sell to the big foundries to be purified. Incidentally hazel-nuts only grow on new wood, so there was a double benefit - after harvesting the nuts in autumn the coppices were cut, and the branches trimmed and stacked to dry out and be made into charcoal as required. Our neighbour made an especially fine charcoal of thin twigs that he sold to artists. The stacks smouldered for days, and required meticulous attention to be sure they did not burn too quickly, which would have left ash, not charcoal. A burnt-out stack was a great financial loss.

I keep digressing, (I have not thought of these details for years), but my favourite Nicholson poem is that of the pebble that rolled right around the coasts of England till it returned to its origins as a speck of sand. John Bolton too investigated the huge boulders on a shingle beach in South Furness and found that they had been moved  from the Western Scottish coast by the sea, as they were mostly of granite, which is not a Lake District mineral! Sometimes I feel like that pebble. I should post the poem, it is a fine piece of writing with a sly humour.

Okay, I have run on long enough and still have fifty or so emails to look at. Sometimes I am tempted to delete them unseen...and occasionally I do.

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