Men with Hats!
Clitheroe & Pendle
(written in Gloucester Station)
Boots still damp from bog-trotting on Pendle Hill today – walked up there with Anthony Nanson, fellow writer and storyteller. He had arranged a joint reading in his old home town of Clitheroe, Lancashire, where he went to Grammar School (‘Like The History Boys, but without the homosexuality!’). We stayed with his parents, Simon (ex-headmaster) and Cynthia (ceramicist and mean cook), who were most hospitable. I even got to sleep in Anthony’s old room. It was really special to let into his past like this.
The next morning we dropped some books off at the shop, looking perhaps a little bohemian for a small Northern town with Anthony’s Aslan-ish mane and my devilish hat. Afterwards, as we had a few hours to kill before the gig, Anthony took me up to ‘the Cut’, a notch in Pendle Hill frequented by revellers on Halloween (not a place to hang about, according to Anthony’s schooldays reminiscences, but very much part of the mythic landscape of his childhood). Here, with a dramatic vista either side we rehearsed our stories, slightly apart from one another.
Failing to raise Old Nick with our ‘incantations’, (our mythic mumblings would have probably had us burnt two or three centuries earlier) we drove into ‘witch country’ – now clearly sign-posted (as the Pendle Witches have been marketed as local heritage) although we still managed to have a moment of ‘navigational uncertainty’, at a suitably bleak crossroads, where the signs seemed to point all the wrong way (which, as it turned out, they did – having been bent round! It was all getting a bit ‘Blair Witch’…) We found the village, which seemed rather pleasant and harmless, as no doubt the ‘witches’ were – persecuted for political ends or local grudges. With the temperature dropping, we wended our way back to the town. Time to get to work.
The ‘reading’ (more a performance, as we didn’t use the texts) took place in Kaydee Bookshop – where Anthony worked for a year. We were co-promoting Anthony’s short story collection Exotic Excursion and my non-fiction tome, Lost Islands – a good combination. We told thirty minutes of material each, alternating ten minute slots. After Anthony’s introduction I started my set with the opening of Oisín and Niamh, including the poem, ‘Delightful is the land beyond all dreams’. In the middle I did The Spirit Bride, an Algonquin tale (which I last performed in Malta last November at Metageum). I ended with two modern stories – a Climate Change one about the ‘discovery’ of a found island, Nymark, in the Arctic, due to melting ice; the other was about how the Onge tribe of Little Andaman survived the Indian Ocean Tsunami thanks to the thirty to fifty thousand years of folklore. Anthony was thoroughly professional and engaging as usual. He hesitated doing his last ‘spoken fiction’ story from Exotic Excursions – because of an incursion by mainly teenage girls halfway through the event, but after apparently listening to Spirit Bride they up sticks and left, so luckily we got to hear Anthony’s movingly subtle rendition of his lakeside epiphany – an experience perhaps you appreciate far more, the older you get. It would be nice to have someone to share such a moment with. Indirectly, I supposed we had…a small but committed audience listened attentively (mostly Anthony’s family and friends, including an old Primary school teacher). We sold three books each, and they took six more of Anthony’s title on sale or return. The long trip certainly wasn’t reciprocated financially – most of it went on petrol and trains – but in other ways it felt worth the effort. It was great to have a break away from Bath after a heavy fortnight of teaching and marking. I hadn’t really been away from Bath properly since late September (OOTO/Long Man). Also, I have had a hard time lately – separating from my partner and, earlier in the week, having a motorcycle crash. I survived (a bruised knee and bank balance) but my beloved Zuki is in the garage awaiting repairs – the last thing I needed in these difficult times.
I was appreciative that Anthony was allowing me into his past – as we walked streets ghosted with memory. Later that evening, after the gig, we went into town with Andrew, an old Grammar School friend of his. We holed up in the Castle, by a merry fire. The old friends got caught up in a discussion about economics, while I yearned for some more feminine company. Anthony said I go to a pub to drink, but actually I want to connect with my emotions – not my intellect – after a tiring week’s teaching. I find a political debate not that relaxing, whileas some love to argue the toss (they had both been members of the school’s debating society and you could tell). I wished I’d gone into the other room to watch the musician, but by the time I decided to do this, he had finished. When we got back, I just hit the sack. It had been a tiring day.
Sunday, the weather miraculously cleared up after an overcast start. Togged up, we set off with some basic supplies – from Anthony’s ‘iron rations’. We parked in the pretty village of Barley and followed the line of reservoirs up – the effort warming us up, as it was chilly. We stopped to savour the black lines of bare trees against the silver water, the steep flanks of green hills beyond, the reddish bracken in the foreground. It was cold, clear – with a Celtic clarity about it, like one of those Medieval vignettes, perhaps the Gawain poem – one could have easily imagined the Green Knight dwelling up one of the cloughs, the sound of him sharpening his axe ringing in the brassy air. We carried on up passed the Boar of Wembory Clough, a jagged gulley down which iron knots of water gurgled. We were meant to follow the V of the main beck (?) all the way up but the path seemed to vanish into muddy, rocky slopes – so we struck out across country, hoping to intersect the lost track, but found ourselves bogtrotting over spongy ground riddled with treacherous ‘holes’ of brackish water. It was tiring slog, but at least it was sunny. It would have been grim going in wind and raining. This wasn’t a place to linger in such conditions. It had a wildness about it, an abode of trolls. After a determined yomp we hit the stone slab pathways – what bliss – which led to the top, the ‘Big End’. After ritualistically touching the trig point we went to the brow of the steep side to enjoy the spectacular view over the Ribble Valley. It had been certainly worth the effort. We enjoyed the prospect despite the noisy group of ramblers nearby, stopping for their summit snack like us, before the temperature made them move on. It was a clear day, and the Big End afforded fine views. We scoffed some crisps and chocolate and got moving again, making a small diversion at my request to Robin Hood’s Well, from which we both sipped. It was a romantic place, one could imagine the wolfshead slaking his thirst here as he looked back to his possibly native Yorkshire. I asked for cunning and agility, for it was also known as Fox’s well, but this was probably after George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, who had a vision on Pendle which inspired him to found his new religion. It was easy to see why – this place lent itself easily to noble thoughts, to vision. We now stood on Mount Epiphany, in the footsteps of prophets, and drank from those same waters…Having supped from the source, we gladly descended, body temperature plummeting. Down the steep rock steps passed the hordes of visitors flocking up, some ill-attired for the heights or a sudden turn in the weather. It was good to descend to milder climes now, although the land retained its wonderful rugged quality. We followed a merry beck lined with tangled hawthorns back down to the carpark, and, after purchasing some placatory jam (a token gesture to my kindly hospitable hosts) we wended our way home to Anthony’s parents for a lovely lunch, before hitting the road in earnest – South, a long but agreeable ride down the Welsh Marches. Anthony dropped me off at Gloucester station, where a dull long train ride home awaited (3 hours!). I wearily made it back to the Cauldron, ready to collapse – but first I finished off the stew I’d made earlier in the week, and hit the sack with toddy and bottle. A tiring jaunt, but I was certainly better for it than if I’d stewed at home all weekend. Nature is most certainly the best medicine. I agree with GM Trevelyan, who said: ‘I have two doctors, my left leg and my right.’ I am grateful to have both.