The two-carriage diesel train trundled round and across the tidal flats and salt marshes of Morecambe Bay and the Dudddon estuary, shortening the road journey by some miles.
The old routes, still marked as rights of way on Ordnance Survey maps, were across treacherous tidal sands (sadly remembered for the drowning of the Chinese cockle-pickers in 2004). In 1995 I walked one of these routes with Cedric Robinson, the Queen's Guide. The grandparents of the poet, Norman Nicholson, came the same way in pre-railway days. His grandmother was so horrified by the appearance of Millom - 'the ramshackle furnaces, the grey anthills of slag, the half-made up roads, the tight, huddled, half-grown streets ... that she told the carter to turn the horse's head round and go back. But the tide had turned and she had to stay.' (Wednesday Early Closing)
Last weekend I went to Millom for a festival, organised by the Norman Nicholson Society, celebrating the life and work of the writer Norman Nicholson (1914 - 1987). My bed and breakfast for the weekend was Horama House, an elegant modernist house (locals call it the glass box) surrounded by wild flowers and only a few yards from the Duddon estuary. There were bird books in the breakfast room (always a good sign). It was a lovely peaceful spot. I could walk into Millom through the nature reserve on the site of the old ironworks. Nearby was Hodbarrow, also a nature reserve. Immediately a clutch of Nicholson poems came to mind - 'Bloody Cranesbill', 'On the dismantling of Millom ironworks, 'Bee Orchid at Hodbarrow'. I was walking paths that Nicholson himself would have walked.
An informal gathering at the Clock Tower bar. Geoff Cox gave a talk on his play in progress, The Price of Land (due to tour
next year). The play is about the people who have worked and shaped the Cumbrian landscape, a seam richly worked by Nicholson. Geoff was spurred on to write the play after noticing that, ironically, these people who forged the landscape we see today were unrecognised in the Lake District's recent World Heritage designation.
Sean O'Brien spoke about his personal experience of Millom and Norman Nicholson's poetry. He read some of his own poems, including 'The Beautiful Librarians', which was particularly relevant as Millom's library is under threat.
The afternoon speaker was Dr Andrew Frayn of Edinburgh Napier University who concentrated on the Nicholson poems which trace the industrial history of West Cumberland. He mentioned a tantalising fragment of three lines (in the Rylands' Library of Manchester University), which Nicholson never completed, entitled 'Millom in the Twenty First Century'.Dr Frayn finished with the festival's theme-quotation from the poem 'Caedmon':
'I hack and hammer at the handiwork of verse'. He compared Nicholson's mining imagery here with Seamus Heaney's well-known 'Digging' poem. By expressing their writing as a craft they were linking it with the communities which formed them.
On Saturday evening we took over The Beggar's Theatre in Millom for an evening of poetry and music, ably compered by Ross Baxter. Eighteen of us read our work (strictly rationed to five minutes each). I read 'C' and 'D' from my Alphabet Poems and 'Nests', my contribution to the Cumbrian poetry anthology This Place I Know. The musical contribution was provided by the Demix duo who were consummate performers and pitched their sets just right for an audience of mainly middle-aged poets! Both musicians and poets coped very well with Millom's vociferous seagulls who perched on the roof and heckled down the ventilation grids.
In the morning a small group of us gathered at 14 St George's Terrace for a tour of Norman Nicholson's house (now graced with a blue plaque). Owner Sue Dawson was our knowledgeable guide and gave a fascinating talk about the house and shop and what they had been like in Nicholson's lifetime (the poet's father ran a 'Gentleman's Outfitters'). Several of us commented on the smallness of the rooms of this Victorian terraced house and how cramped it must have been when full of furniture. Sue said that for Nicholson, recovering from teenage tuberculosis, it was a safe space. I thought of the house as being like a nest for him.
We made a pilgrimage to the attic room at the top of the house - 'I have written practically everything I have done in that room', wrote Nicholson in 1975 in Wednesday Early Closing. Sue read 'The Pot Geranium' which is set in that room, and there was a red geranium 'flying its bright balloon' on the window shelf just as there had been when Nicholson wrote the poem. It's a work which never fails to move me with its theme of the writer's narrow physical circumstances compared with the wideness of his imagination. It was a particularly special experience to hear the poem read 'in situ'.
On the final afternoon Harriet and Rob Fraser (of somewhere nowhere) gave a talk and workshop. Their art and poetry practice focuses on landscape and a sense of place. Kathleen Jones gave a short summary to round off what was a fabulous festival. Many thanks to Antoinette Fawcett, Charlie Lambert and the Society committee who organised it so successfully.
Just before I left for home I met a young woman from Essex who had arrived in the town to start a new job. I explained how I had spent my weekend. 'Who is Norman Nicholson?' she asked. She'll soon find out in Millom.