‘Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.’
- Søren Kierkegaard
Year after year’
On Sunday 5th June 2016, myself and five other walkers set out on a pilgrimage of around fifteen miles from Sunderland to Durham. Following in the footsteps of the late poet, William (Bill) Martin, and his friend and fellow writer, Gordon Brown, Marratide saw the rekindling of the flames of a walk which last burned to embers in 2008, two years before Martin’s death.
I was joined on the walk by a longstanding friend of Bill’s, the poet Peter Armstrong, himself a regular on the walks since their inception in the early 1980s; his partner, Christine; and friends, colleagues and fellow poets connected, if not by birth then by residency and/or literary association to the North-East: Jason Lytollis, Kris Johnson and John Challis.
The walk begins at Tunstall Hills, around two and a half miles south of Sunderland city centre. Significantly, Bill Martin was born and spent his childhood half a mile to the south-west, in Silksworth, and resided for the majority of his adult life in a house several hundred yards to the north of the hills, in the Tunstall/Ashbrooke area. Bill’s son, Graham, whom I’ve been in touch with for around four months now, agreed to meet us at the start of the walk, to give an overview of his father’s work and the symbolism and connotations of the route and its relationship to the poetry his Dad wrote.
Notions of ‘The Return’ – a recurrent motif in both Bill’s life and literary composition – were to be our starter and guiding principle. Graham spoke of how his father’s work was concerned with spiritual elements of the return, but also of wider environmental, social and divine connotations pertaining to the cyclical nature of being and its emblematic representation in artworks.
Upon request, I – we – were to carry a ram’s horn containing a small amount of Bill’s ashes, to be spread in the river Wear near the racecourse at Durham — a site doubly poignant for its being the last place Bill’s friend, Gordon, drew breath before throwing himself into the river. We would depart from the ‘Maiden Paps’, so-called for their representation in the landscape as the female Goddess, evoking fertility and maternal guidance, and traverse a landscape imbued and interpreted in myriad ways by the eyes of Bill Martin, a visionary poet, pantheistic in his outlook, global in his concerns, but firmly rooted – not bound by – the locale of the east Durham coalfields.
It is incredibly humbling to be asked to carry the ashes of a man you’ve never met to a site you’ve never been to, in absentia of family members. As Graham was unable to take part in the walk, though, and as he mentioned in his opening, it is perhaps fitting that a group, or troupe, of poets should be ordained with the task of scattering the ashes of another poet. A kind of taking the baton, lighting it, and passing it back to the place from whence it came: the river banks, the water, and eventually the harbour mouth and open sea beyond.
|Looking north-east towards Tunstall Hills, Sunderland, parallel to the A19|
Graham, quite understandably, was reluctant to recite any of his father’s poetry (“I didn’t do the walks because of the poetry”, he told us, “I did them because it was me Dad!”) but he did bid us farewell with a song, a verse from ‘Leafy Lonnen’, taught to him by his father, and recounted on the hills in a manner which can only be described as ‘hair-raisingly’. The refrain:
‘Up the leafy lonnen
with windows green as grass
call at my hinny’s door
she’s a bonny lass.’
How a walk can be a return when you’ve never done it before is something I contemplated – am still contemplating – for much of the route. Most of the walk follows former coal wagon ways, including the gravity railway line where, as a child, Bill would play. The vital significance of coal mining on Bill’s sense of identity and in his verse cannot be underplayed: born into a Methodist mining community in 1925, he lived during what was probably the peak of carbon extraction in this country, in a region which, even to this day, is still associated with black diamonds more than perhaps any other on earth. To follow, from the place he was born – an actual walled mining village in north-east Durham – the wagon ways that carried those spoils of labour from their bedrock below the ground, out of the parochial enclosure of the micro-local, on journeys towards commercial exchange at the sea ports of Seaham or Sunderland, and/or the railway mainline bisecting County Durham on its trajectory between London and Edinburgh, must have been an incredibly profound experience for Bill.
Much of Bill’s poetry is concerned with trying to situate his conception of the ‘Marradharma’ within pre-existing religious iconographies and creation myths. As a sort of manifesto to his verse, it is worth dwelling on a quote from Bill as to the mission of his work:
‘Poetry should be concerned with more than personal, domestic and confessional themes. Being [part of] creation, we are involved in the continuing search for a collective sanctus... if we reject elitism and ego-economic notions, we will find that ‘marradharma’ under our noses. Art is not a programme, neither is a poem a tract, but it is surely rooted in dharma.’
So, it follows that the ‘Mothergate’, (the main roadway in a pit), should have vaginal connotations, evoking not only the fertility, birth and re-birth of the animal, vegetable and mineral, but the cyclical endeavour of the whole — man, woman, people, earth, spirit. In a world which, post-industrial as it now is, keenly felt and realised especially in the North-East since Thatcher, such concepts might seem gaudy or sentimental, but by considering Bill’s poems as we walked, I got the impression that those in our midst who were too young, or simply weren’t present, to appreciate the totality of a mining community mindset, somehow instinctively felt that these things haven’t just ‘vanished’, as so many commentators suggest; and that, maybe by cross-referring their vestiges (former wagon ways turned to bike and foot paths) we may be able to see in this world elements of former ones, and feel stronger, more bound together, for having glimpsed such a vision of wholeness.
Wholeness dovetails neatly into another aspect of the walk which Graham mentioned: common feasting. Traditionally, before the walks began, Win – Bill’s wife – would prepare breakfast, and the group would sit together in common feasting, to be fuelled physically for the spiritual journey ahead. Graham laughed when he recalled that, as the years passed, the lengths of these communal breakfasts also increased, so that quite often the party wouldn’t be seen in Durham until dusk was beginning to fall. Unfortunately for our group, no such communal breakfast was to be had before we left. Instead, the image of groups of men sitting in The William Jameson in Sunderland at quarter past nine that morning was the closest we came to observing any kind of collective sanctity, though it is debatable whether pints of lager on a Sunday morning in a Wetherspoons is actually conducive to any greater, spiritual cause.
|Copt Hill Inn, now|
|Copt Hill Inn, then|
Superfluous as it might feel to detail the precise itinerary of the route, it will be worth ruminating on certain sections. The first significant point, after the beginning, of course, was Warden Law, the highest point in east Durham, and our first sense of the scale of the landscape and its effect on how Bill wrote his poems. His ‘Wiramutha Helix’ sequence (Hinny Beata, 1987) appears to place the reader in the position that we found ourselves in, atop Warden Law, looking north. An image from the poem, below, serves to extrapolate my point: that first Bill must have spent many hours – years, even – carefully observant at and around this point before ‘joining the dots’, as it were, and conducting an outwardly-spiralling helix to link the physicality of a varied Wearside topography with associated mythical, spiritual and industrial points. Personally, I find this hugely inspirational as both a method and mode of contemplation and creation: to bring the poem(s) forth almost literally from the landscape, and sequence or (re)order them into a shape that engenders in a reader a totally new conception of an otherwise everyday vista.
|From 'Wiramutha Helix'|
Next, and a mere quarter of a mile after lunch at The Copt Hill Inn (many Sunday dinners being served to conspicuously young families, a promising sign of the vitality of the traditional pub) we reached a glorious view of the Seven Sisters round barrow, thought to be a Neolithic monument. I counted six of the ‘sisters’, suggesting that inclement weather, or a rogue woodsman, has at some point felled one of them. My photo, below, is poor, taken as it was several hundred feet from the site and zoomed in on a smart phone, but it nonetheless depicts an image Bill Martin would have been drawn to for a variety of reasons.
Hetton Bogs (much better looking than sounding) was the next section in which the party felt particularly inspired. I’m always wary of the term ‘Nature Reserve’, with all its ecocidal ramifications and anthropocentric delineation, but giving them the benefit of the doubt, Sunderland City Council have certainly got something to be proud of in the reed beds, butterflies and orchids of Hetton Bogs. Peter recalled that a particular orchid, which he couldn’t remember the name of, used to grow along this part of the route and was prized by Bill not only for its beauty, but its links to spiritual and ecological iconography. We certainly didn’t see it if it was present, but that might be a result of the untrained eye. Ditto, a specific type of butterfly, which I have forgotten the name of, but which was also traditionally found around the Houghton skirts of the route, was not witnessed, leading to much discussion surrounding the alarming effects of climate change on natural systems in a short spell of time.
From Low Pittington and a stop outside the Blacksmith’s Arms, where shady dealings of some sort appeared to be happening between five heavily tattooed blokes and the boot of a Vauxhall Astra, several miles were spent within an otherwordly tunnel of trees as we wound our way to the edges of Durham. Recalling a walk in the 80s, during the miners’ strike, Peter told us about how Bill and Gordon witnessed at this point striking miners digging into the embankments, to carve out whatever limited, poor quality spoils of coal remained. Always in solidarity with the spiritual dimension of the miners and their plight, it is important not to forget that Bill was politically motivated, too, and sympathetic to their cause: the striving for fair pay and working conditions which always found its point of focus, annually, at the Big Meeting in Durham where the walk ends.
|Blacksmith's Arms, Low Pittington|
And on in to Durham: arriving in Dragonville, via a subway beneath the A1 motorway, the walk had gone, in a matter of metres, from a pleasant afternoon stroll surrounded by cows, fields of Rape Seed and ancient Oaks, to an industrial estate comprised of all of the industrial estate ubiquities: Carpet Right, Tesco, Argos. At this point, I recall a conversation with John where we discussed Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts’s Edgelands, and how and why places like this – at the periphery of the rural and the urban, but not quite belonging to either – have become such rich sources from which poets draw inspiration. Perhaps it’s the Gilesgate Moor Hotel sitting next to the Solar Panel business; perhaps it’s the Aldi flanked by the curving fields; or perhaps it’s because, paradoxically, these anywhere-places can actually be comforting in their disquiet sense of repetition and replication that poets and artists can stake claim to ‘their’ Tesco Extra, with only its view of the spires of Durham Cathedral, or ‘their’ Screw Fix with its particular pile of pallets and fly-tipped piles of junk at the corner of its car park.
Onward we walked, knowing that this place had changed much and little since Bill last strolled through it. Half a mile out of Pelaw Wood, we were greeted with our first uninterrupted view of the Cathedral – a mighty prospect from any vantage point, but one less familiar, seen here from the east, as opposed to the more common view from the west, via the train line.
Then, a blockade: the path closed ahead. This was particularly annoying and upsetting as it meant that the part of the river where we had been asked to scatter Bill’s ashes was entirely inaccessible, as the council were doing salvage and reclamation work on a landslide. Still, better to divert than be crushed by mud. As if appearing like the ghost of Bill Martin, a man appeared from the bushes, having taken the alternative route with his dog, to instruct us of the way round. I don’t remember exactly what he said because I was listening to his accent: that glorious Durham lilt, not quite Mackem, and not quite Geordie – something all of its own, drawn from the earth of this hilly place – which said, “Just follee the track”. Follee. Folly. Were we fools, to follee this path, or would we have been fools to’ve trespassed through the gates and carried on as originally intended?
Whatever the case, the diversion was a good one, serendipitously affording a stunning aspect of the cathedral. As we descended back down to the riverside, a tranquil scene which seemed set to an eternal loop of ‘life is but a dream’, played before our eyes, as rowers of various calibre and intention stroked the Wear; as young couples frolicked with ice creams along the banks; and everyone else either lay and sunbathed, or read, or just took in what felt like the first real day of summer, whistling ‘Row, row, row your boat...’
|Durham Cathedral, from Pelaw Wood|
Our penultimate stop (discounting the pub) was Durham Cathedral, where traditionally pebbles and stones picked up en route were laid at Saint Cuthbert’s tomb. Unfortunately, a group of Australian pilgrims had beaten us to it and were preparing for the choral evensong, meaning we had to go with plan-B and pay respects to another great Northumbrian: Saint Bede. For Bill, this aspect of the walk was of paramount importance, as not only did the route trace former industrial byways, it followed the procession of Cuthbert’s coffin as it was carried, finally, from Chester-le-Street to Durham. The significance of the offering of stones is mentioned in Bill’s poems, and their movement from site to site has religious sanctity across a number of cultures and associated pilgrimages, so it was, again, upsetting not to honour this aspect of the walk, but having read and wrote about Bede so much in the past twelve months, it felt like an honourable personal compromise to lay a stone, for and from Bill, to Cuthbert, via Bede.
Emerging from the Cathedral parallel to the south transept, which I’ve never done before, back into crystalline blue skies and the cobbled streets of South Bailey, knowing that we were entering the final stages of the pilgrimage, I felt really quite moved. As we walked to Presbend’s Bridge, Peter gauged the wind direction and speed. Unlike some of the bridges in Durham, this one is pretty high, and because bridges by their very nature have to be durable, it is also pretty thick. We ascertained the best side of it from which to make the scattering (south), removed the gaffer tape and cotton wool Graham had sealed the horn with, and thanked Bill and each other for accompanying us on the walk. I strained to reach my arm to its full extent over the thickness of the bridge wall, and tipped. At first the ashes whooshed east, back onto the bridge and towards the river bank, but then the gust dropped, allowing them to fall more or less vertically. In the seconds that passed, as they flowed from the ram’s horn which Bill first picked up thirty-something years ago, somewhere along the route we had just walked, a gentle breeze caught them in an updraft and they widened and fanned out into thousands of tiny dots caught between the surface of the eternally-flowing water and the glow of the early evening sun.
As all good walks do, this one finished with a celebratory pint. We walked the final metres along the banks of the Wear, Bill now at our side, to Framwellgate Bridge, where we rejoined the throng of early evening diners, students making their way to summer balls and shoppers kicked out of shops. The Head of Steam was where we finished, pints of Durham ale and Ox flavoured crisps set before us on the bench. Jason, unfortunately, had left by this point, but the remaining five discussed Bill’s poetry. Peter and Christine, who knew him very well and for a long time, talked about the bardic quality of Bill’s performances, and how his poetry, as Graham had implied that morning, deserves to be read by a much wider audience. As I went to leave, thanking everybody for joining me, Peter said ‘Next Year in Jerusalem’, adding that it’s what Bill always said at the end of his walks, because once you’ve seen Durham Cathedral in mid-summer, the only other place that could compare might be Jerusalem.
|Bede's Tomb, with stones|