Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Stringing Bedes (1)

“I see things better with my feet.”
-          James Holman

Cleadon Hills rarely looks this busy, this buzzy with people. I’ve seen it like this a few times: in the depths of December, when families bring sledges up to fly through snow, and for the Sunderland (International!) air show, in July. Winter brings memories of home-made sledges ranging from kids caccooned in builders’ merchant bags of hardcore plastic, bouncing down the hills, to the makeshift ski/board my sister made out of an old pair of Rossignols and a timber pallet from my Dad’s business, and which my cousins sat on to howl with laughter down to the fields below. Fingers numbed, bums damp with ice. Hotter climes bring the planes: Euro Fighters tearing open the sky; Spitifres and Hurricanes, more modest, reminding us of battles past, conjuring another England, another Britain, at war, somewhere beyond the sea, the great North Sea, whose flat blue-greyness sits solid at the back of it all.

© John James Addison

But this image, courtesy of John James Addison, conjures something older still. The couple – and I assume it’s a father with his daughter, as she looks at least twenty years his junior, though I cannot be sure – were one of a few anachronisms on the first weekend of walks for Stringing Bedes: a Poetry and Print Pilgrimage. Commenting on standout visual moments on the walks, one of the participants noted this couple, in their old-fashioned attire. A suit, on a July day, on Cleadon Hills! Others went further, noting that the scene on the hills – families with dogs, with children young and old, people walking, lying, milling, being social yet in thrall to something beyond (the planes) – reminded them of a scene from Lowry. I think that’s spot-on: here we had discernible groups of people, diverse and spread out, but cohesive in their regard for the spectacle of otherness, flying machines to the South-East over Sunderland. Artist Mark Todman said that this was the first point during our walk where we weren’t going against the tide: people were walking back over from Whitburn, towards us. Two hours earlier, in Roker and Seaburn, in a dream-like state of bubbles and Hello Kitty dolls and funnelled Taylor Swift hits, it felt that we were an outcast group of survivors, going against the whole flow of humanity, thousands of people, hot dogs and candyfloss in hand, camped out on the beach, waiting for the roar of engines, acrobatics between the clouds.

© John James Addison

At Cleadon windmill, I read my poem ‘Spelks’, which pays homage to a relatively unknown piece of folklore set on these hills: the story of Elizabeth Gibbon, heartbroken daughter of a local nineteenth century landlord, who kills herself after being forbidden to see her lover, a local sailor, or in some stories, a pirate. I prefaced the poem, which I’d read only three days earlier in London, by being thankful that this audience, by and large, would understand the two dialect terms in the poem: ‘spelk’ and ‘chare’. Chare, of course, being the Geordie word for an alley, in this case Sandy Chare, which we’d just walked along in Whitburn. Something strange happens when you read a poem aloud: its meaning transfigures, becoming – I think – a different experience to that of reading silently from the page. When the poem is read in situ, so to speak, it is further transfigured: the aura of the physical site adds permeance to the words being spoken. When I finished reading the poem, a young girl could be heard asking, through the gaps in the bars of the gate that prevents people getting inside the mill, “Who are you?” It was a pertinent question for us, followers in Bede’s footsteps, as the man himself posed in AD 731, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, a very similar question to his people: who are you, you inhabitants of this island? The more you dwell on it, in light of ongoing referendum and devolution debates and Eurozone policies, the more important it becomes. Who are you, and who are we?


Writing blogs in this way, which I’ve now done a few times, thanks to my walks along the Sefton Coast last summer, it quickly becomes apparent that thoughts tumble into other thoughts; quotes and lines of poetry and ideas all spiral outward, and before long it becomes difficult to sift for the accurate meanings and intentions of the piece. Editing becomes even more necessary. One such line that has just popped into my head is that by David Shook, who says that “Poetry has a responsibility if not to contradict the dominant narrative of society, then to bring it into question.” I found the quote, accidentally, because I was searching though Sean O’Brien’s volume of essays, Journey to the Interior: Ideas of England in Contemporary Poetry, for this quote:

“It could be objected that ‘England’ and ‘Englishness’ are not in themselves helpful ideas, that they resist clarification and contain too many internal contradictions, that the best way to understand a maze is perhaps to not go into it in the first place. But as I say, I am already inside the maze, imaginatively speaking, and have been at least since first I began to read and write poetry over forty years ago. My concern is with the workings of the imagination, which is not quite the same thing as the facts. The contradictions and paths into the mire and the grimpen, the dead ends and false trails, are part of the imagined England in which we live.”

I wish to discuss those ‘facts’. O’Brien is right: the facts of an English identity – indeed, the facts of nearly anything – are not the same as the ‘facts’ the writer creatively, liberally, uses and which the reader imaginatively interprets. During the walks this weekend, I was struck, as were many of my fellow walkers, by how little we know of Bede’s autobiography; how uncertain we are that he ever even walked this route, which we have spent an entire weekend tramping, and will spend many more months mulling over and transfiguring into poems and artworks. And the maze. Yes, it is labyrinthine. The little girl asking, “Who are you?” is me asking “Who am I”; is George Osborne telling us who we should be, who we should despise; is poets and writers and artists and rebels up and down the land saying “fuck you very much”; is Bede and his fellow monks, in centuries past, studying and thinking and writing on the banks of the Wear and the Tyne, pondering this great question, this series of questions: “Who are we, and how do we fit into this island and its past and future?”


To pepper the walks with thoughts and ponderings, to set conversations going between strangers, and to contemplate the ‘meaty’ topics of Bede’s mammoth oeuvre, walk leader Keith Bowey ensured that each participant was furnished with a ‘contemplation card’ at the start of the day, which they were to keep secret and mull over, until after lunch, when they were instructed to pick a partner and discuss their ideas. The source of the quotes was eclectic, covering everything from Auden (‘As I walked out one evening’) and Neruda (‘The child’s foot is not yet aware it’s a foot’) to Tristan Gooley (The Natural Explorer) and Wilco Johnson (‘Caught up in a jam...’). Furthermore, the contemplation cards exercises were built upon by five-minute contemplation spells: moments of silence, at given points along the route, in which we were told, simply, to stay silent and contemplate.

One of the most pertinent of these contemplations occurred in Primrose, Jarrow, on Sunday. Myself and four or five of the other walkers stood on a little wooden bridge above the Don. I stared at a Crack Willow tree, shivering in the breeze, and thought about the course of the little tributary of the Tyne below my feet.

Just as we were nearing the end of our collective ponderings, a young family approached the bridge. The first intrepid explorer, a boy of about five or six, dressed in a Spiderman onesie, stopped short of the bridge, mouth slightly parted in the way that can only say “I have no idea what this means.” His expression was mirrored perfectly by his late-twenties parents, who crossed the bridge with a polite “Alright, there”, but with faces that reeked of absolute bafflement. Who were these people, their looks said, and why on Earth are they simply stood here, silently, at half past three on a Sunday, staring down into this river?

Another significant, but very different, moment of contemplation took place on Saturday, at Bede’s Cross in Roker. Bede’s Cross, a monument erected in 1904, is often mistaken for a War memorial, or even worse, is ignored entirely. I must admit that despite having walked, cycled and driven along Roker promenade several hundred times in the past, I’d not noticed it. Which is a shame, because it is a magnificently intricate piece of public art which pays homage to one of the region’s most important sons. It seems that several thousand other people all missed it on Saturday, too. Surrounded by Spongebob Squarepants balloons and Army propaganda (quick, pilot the helicopter and pretend you too are scouting for insurgents in Syria!), the proud cross, standing some twenty-odd feet into the air, went unnoticed, mired as it was between a makeshift climbing wall, some portaloos and the back of Army HQ and its generator. Ignored, that is, by all but us: sixteen walkers, pilgrims paying a trip to this cross overlooking the sea, admiring the beauty and detail of the stonework, pondering over the words from and to Bede, considering the anachronism of its significance – its testament to peace and harmony – amidst cynical attempts to corral the youth of the North-East (remember, this is still the region of England with the highest level of unemployment) into careers as little more than canon-fodder. If all of that sounds deeply subjective and unashamedly biased, it’s because it is. David Shook is right: what is poetry if not to contradict the dominant narrative of society? As we cling to the military industrial complex, and as the baggage of our Empire status precedes us, are not moments of contemplation, moments of reverence for the diversity of life, at sites such as Bede’s Cross not more important now than ever before?


This, of course, leads neatly on to the question of faith, or religion, and how – and if – it fits into this project. Right from before the walks even took place (and remember, we’re only halfway through: places are still available on our return leg in August!), we were keen to stress the inclusivity of the project. We welcome people of all colours, creeds, genders, beliefs and anything else you can put an ‘s’ suffix on to. Speaking at the start, in front of St. Peter’s, Keith declared himself an atheist, but it was obvious that such binary concepts were not going to hold firmly very long on this walk. Introducing my part in the walks, I read a short passage from the Lives of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow:

“A year later, on Egfrid’s advice or, more accurately, at his command, Benedict [Biscop] chose seventeen monks from the community with the priest Ceolfrith as abbot to form the nucleus of a new foundation at Jarrow, dedicated to the apostle Paul and built on the understanding that the two houses should be bound together by the one spirit of peace and harmony and united by continuous friendship and goodwill. As the body cannot be separated from the head, through which it receives the breath of life, and as the head dare not ignore the body or it would die, so neither was anyone to attempt to disturb the brotherly love that would unite the two houses just as it had bound together the two apostles, Peter and Paul.”

I read it not only to ground the geographical specificity of the walks in a historically documented context, but to suggest that it was the community of the era, the working together and accepting differences, that made the two sites significant and showed that perambulations of the route, both historic and contemporary, were and are inextricably bound up in encountering challenges, differences of opinion and multifarious scenarios in which the spirit of goodwill and peace would be championed above all else. As a person interested in what a working socialism might look like in 2015, in light of Corbyn-gate, I am fascinated as to how the act of walking (no problem that can’t be solved by a good walk) might help us to put some flesh on to the bones of these ideas and how we might move forward together, physically and mentally, from this era of the Self-above-all-else.


The University of Sunderland’s WALK (Walking, Art, Landskip and Knowledge) research group, out of which this project, loosely, was born, was also cited at the beginning of the walk, as the group stood on the North bank of the Wear, adjacent to the National Glass Centre. Here, it should be noted that ‘Landskip’ is not a typo of ‘landscape’. Landskip is a Dutch word, which stems from that nation’s belief that we exist within and part of our landscapes; that they aren’t just objects to be rearranged or disposed of or otherwise utilised (for personal, collective, national or any other kind of ‘gain’, in a neoliberal sense). Keith reminded us that, in Bede’s day, we would have been standing in the river, as only centuries of river and land management, and the subsequent and intensive industrial processes of shipbuilding and the like, meant that the course of the Wear and its estuary was altered to lie lower down, as we know it today. Academically speaking, this accretion of layers ties in very neatly to the research I am about to begin for my PhD, but outside of the niche boundaries of my own interests, the concept is an interesting one, and its subtleties were to be found throughout the route.

It is important at this stage to say a word or two about the route: where it is; what it passes through, over and under; and, perhaps most significantly, how both specialists and the public might approach and engage with it now and into the future.

Bede’s Way, formally, was introduced by Sunderland and South Tyneside Councils in 2004, working in partnership with the church communities of St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s. Spanning a twelve-mile course between the twin monasteries, it takes in a huge range of environments in a relatively small area. From the former shipbuilding capital of the world on the banks of the Wear to the rolling sands of Seaburn and Roker; to the coastal village of Whitburn; on through Cleadon Hills and down into the southern edges of South Shields; it then winds a zig-zag course through the heart of South Tyneside, following the flats of Whiteleas and Boldon, through the historic Boldon Colliery, along and over the A19; then the undulations of Hedworth and Primrose, all adjacent to the river Don, before winding up at Jarrow Slake (‘Jarra Slak’; ‘Jarrow’s Lake’) at the south banks of the Tyne, beside the current industrial trajectory of the North-East: Port of Tyne, where Nissans from the nearby factory in Washington are loaded onto ships and all sorts of goods, including coal – yes, coal, coming into the Tyne! – arrive and are ferried off to the arteries of the rest of the region and country.

That’s the (kind of) touristy blurb done: what I’m really interested in are the Go-To-Bed-At-Noons, the Linnets which used to be miners’ cage birds; the thousand-year-old farm – Newton Garth – recorded in the Boldon Book; the smell of diesel from the A19; the haunting image of the rope tethered to the viaduct at Brockely Whins, where once coal wagons would have shunted black diamonds from deep below the Great North Forest onto South Shields. I want to know more about Pineapple Weed and Pellitory-of-the-wall; Purple Toadflax and Black Medic; Yellowhammer and Redshank. I want to get to know the young lad and his sister (daughter?) who politely stopped for us in Station Burn nature reserve, the engine on their mini quadbike ticking over, his “Nee bother, mate”, before he kicked the throttle and sped off towards Simonside. I want to be there, next year, for the 1,300th anniversary of Ceolfrith setting forth across the Wear and down to the Humber to board a ship to Rome, Codex Amiatinus in hand, to present to the Pope.

We walk again in August, will you join us?