Sunday, 6 March 2016


Or to give it its full title Peat Matters and Climate Science in the Northern Peatlands. 

It sounds a bit of a mouthful but it was a privilege to chair this session, the first of the Words by the Water talks this year.  University of Northumbria Geographer Professor John Woodward and artist Lionel Playford were engaging and informative speakers.  John Woodward led us gently through some of his research into the history of climate change (on a millennial scale) and the techniques he uses when taking samples from peat bogs and Antarctic glaciers.  Far from being an ivory tower academic he often collaborates, and his collaboration with Lionel Playford  has resulted in some stunning landscape paintings and collages.  Lionel has used some of John’s samples (peat and clay) as art materials. He is literally drawing with the landscape.  The range of warm browns results in evocative images of peat moorland.  The collages include scientific printed material superimposed on landscape images.  The exhibition is on in the Friends’ Gallery all this month and is well worth a visit.  (There’s a poetry connection here because Lionel collaborated with poet, Josephine Dickinson, and film maker, Alastair Simmons on Earth Journey which was exhibited at the festival in 2010).

On Friday evening we had our Eden Poets poetry reading.  Our chair Christopher Burns did his best to keep seven female poets in order and amazingly we all stuck to his six minutes each schedule.  I read three of my lighter Shakespeare poems, which take two minutes each.  As I was the last reader I was able to read my ‘Puck’ poem based on the Midsummer Night’s Dream stage direction ‘Enter Puck with a broom’ (my prop was a broom from B & M Bargains).  The audience listened to all of us and made appropriately appreciative noises every so often.  There wasn’t a lot of time for questions at the end but someone (male) asked about gender – Do you have to be female to be an Eden Poet?  Our convenor, Jacci Bulman, explained No, you don’t.  But we’ve managed to get rid of two male poets who came for a while (in fact they both moved away from the area).  It was encouraging that several members of the audience stayed behind to chat to us and bought books.  Quite a few people said how much they enjoyed the mix of subjects, styles and voices – no time to get bored!  A few of us unwound afterwards over a meal at an Italian in Keswick and a drink at the Square Orange (where years ago I did a short poetry reading with Chris Pilling in a break in the Keswick Film Festival).

The highlight of the next day was hearing John Gimlette speak on Sri Lanka, a place with several links to Western writers, including Leonard Woolf, who worked in the Ceylon Civil Service for seven years and wrote a novel set there called The Village in the Jungle, and Arthur C Clarke, the famous science fiction writer, who made his home on the island for over 50 years). 

John Gimlette spent a long time researching Sri Lanka and then travelled around it for three months.  His illustrated talk was fascinating and very professional (not all writers are good speakers!) and kept us enthralled by such a beautiful and enigmatic place.  He did not shirk from telling us about the bloody civil war but he also told us of advanced civilizations of the past and the wealth of wild life (7,300 elephants and the world’s largest concentration of leopards in a country the size of Ireland).  My interest was quickened because my family has personal associations with Sri Lanka.  My father was based there with the RAF during the Second World War until the surrender of Japan.  He moved round to different bases and spent all his spare time exploring the island, including climbing Adam’s Peak.  We have some photographs of the elephants that he used to move heavy gas cylinders (at one stage my father was making oxygen for troop ships bringing the wounded from Burma).  In 2008 one of my sons went for a month on a Durham university archaeological survey of the island and afterwards travelled round following in his grandfather’s footsteps.  His request to walk through an old RAF base now occupied by the Singhalese army was politely but firmly refused with a warm handshake.

It’s only a couple of days into the festival and there is plenty to look forward to before it finishes in a week’s time.  Tomorrow I have booked for Janet Denny’s talk on her book about her father, Amy Liptrot on her return to Orkney and Patrick Cockburn on the so-called IS.  Then Tuesday night is the flood fund raising reading in which I am taking part.  I’ll be opening the reading with a few of my poems.  There is plenty happening later in the week including Jim Crumley’s beavers (the animals, not the juvenile boy scouts), Grevel Lindop’s poetry reading and the Mirehouse poetry event.

I woke early this morning to find a very light snowfall frosting everything.  The fell tops were clear white peaks which looked nearer physically but more strange and remote in mood.  Light and shade were sharply etched and the lake ripples caught by the low sunlight looked like fractured glass.  It was one of those rare mornings when the sky is a pure winter blue and lifts the heart.

When the festival and the weather unite in this way Keswick is the perfect place to be. go to Leverhulme Project 2013-2015

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