On Good Friday afternoon I decided on impulse to walk up Binsey on the western fringe of the Lake District. It’s a short walk, under half an hour to the top by the usual approach from Binsey Lodge. But this outlier, this freak of local geology, has a three hundred and sixty degree panorama from its summit. It’s a good walk when you haven’t much time to spare but need a fix of fresh air. If it is clear enough (it wasn’t) you can see the Isle of Man.
I walked up and westwards. The grass on the lower slopes was replaced by heather with its still bare winter stems. Skylarks flew up from the ground. The male birds were singing high above me. In the distance snow lay in north facing gullies on the highest fells.
At the summit I could see the complete circle – the coastal Cumbrian plain, over the tidal Solway to Criffel and Galloway, the deeply indented Caldbeck Fells, the pale streak of Whitewater Dash, Skiddaw’s curving spine, then layer after layer of crinkled rocky ridges filling the horizon before falling away to the towns of West Cumberland and the coast again. From this height Overwater, Bassenthwaite Lake and the pool at High Ireby were like miniature mirrors in a Sunday School’s Easter Garden, moss replaced by small plantations of dark green firs. The landscape is full of the history and legends of early Christian saints – the churches dedicated to St Kentigern, St Bega and St Hilda, and across the water the association of St Ninian with Whithorn.
I decided to prolong the walk and descend by the steeper south side of the fell coming out at the farm at Fell End. This route is used infrequently and there is no path, just a case of picking the way carefully and avoiding putting the boot in a skylark’s nest. Lambs were everywhere, soaking up the spring sun. Then a short walk along a very minor lane back to Binsey Lodge where I had left the car.
Last Tuesday one of my neighbours told me that he was going to walk at Ullswater to see the daffodils. He reminded me that it was on that day, April 15, when Dorothy Wordsworth, walking with her brother at Gowbarrow Park on the shore of the lake, famously saw the daffodils. She wrote about them in her journal and her brother used her journal entry for his even more famous poem “I wandered lonely as a cloud”.
I realised (bit slow here) that is why the Dorothy Wordsworth Festival of Women’s Poetry is held in the middle of April. It’s a biennial event, initiated by Carol Ann Duffy and organised by the Wordsworth Trust. Last week end was the third festival. I didn’t get to everything but I enjoyed Sarah Corbett’s poems and Zoe Benbow’s drawings (Where we begin to look: Women and the Landscape), some of the varied evening readings and a lively Writing Motherhood session with Rebecca Goss, Carolyn Jess-Cooke and Sinéad Morrissey.
But for me, Menna Elfyn was the high point of the week end. In conversation with Robyn Marsack, director of the Scottish Poetry Library, Menna talked about her life and read work by some of her favourite poets – including R S Thomas, Wislawa Szymborska, Mark Doty and Jane Kenyon. I have known of Menna Elfyn for some time but never had the opportunity to hear her read. She is an engaging reader, sharing her beautiful Welsh language poems and their English translations by Gillian Clarke and other Welsh poets. Her generosity, subtle mischievous wit and her thoughtful originality all combine in poems which never failed to hold my interest. Hearing the poems in their original language brought out Menna’s skill in and adaptation of the ancient Welsh art of cynghanedd (a combination of alliteration, internal rhymes and chiming sounds).
Zoe Benbow quoted Paul Klee’s definition of drawing as “taking a line for a walk”. It’s a phrase that has been borrowed by poets and to me it’s an apt description of the process of writing poetry.