Troubadour of the Hills

Happy New Year! It’s 2019, and the Troubadour of the Hills project is filling my thoughts.  It’s such a lovely poetry job to be asked to do.  The project is a joint venture for Ledbury Poetry Festival and Malvern Hills AONB, and it was launched on National Poetry Day in October.  I’ve already done some schools work, taking local children into the woods under the Malverns to make poetry – and there are more walks and workshops coming up before Ledbury Poetry Festival in July.

I’ve written my first commissioned poem for the project.  It’s based on a 7 mile circular walk, which you can plot on the map by following the poem. Here it is.

One uncertain history

Wide horns and white
medieval flanks.
Heavy as sighs,
the park cattle linger
by a shrinking pool.

Bromesberrow, oaked, milky

I’m lit along the wood-edge.
Blond light off corn stubble,
a sky full of rain and light.
In one ear, press of hide on saplings,
the unseen deer retreat

Raggedstone, steep, sallow

A bellwether sheep
leads a long file past me,
roman nose to soiled tail.
They beat the cloven common
into the common

Hollybed, pale, trodden

Come out at the car park
red car, yellow car, sweet,
seedy blackberries.
Rain runs down me,
down the hill, and down the hour

The Gullet, fogged, viridian

The hills are always here.
They wear away.
They stay, grip close
the patience of the igneous.
Their fossils sit me out

Midsummer Hill, bedrock, bowl-sky

Banked with shades and shadows
winding up inside a slope
the deep lane remembers everything
forgets remembers.
I misremember everything, I know

Chase End Hill, white cumulus, concrete trig

You can find a recording of me reading it on Ledbury Poetry Festival’s website here, and please do contribute your own poems about hills to the same page. There are lots there already, and we’re really enjoying them!

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Wishing all kind readers of this blog a happy Solstice, a merry Christmas – and all warm wishes for a peaceful, kinder, saner 2019!

 

‘A rain of sixpences and hunger’ – watch the video

We made a little video for ‘Tom Palin at Cinderloo’ – do share, do tell us what you think!

We’re starting to spread the word about ‘Understories‘ – a new poetry and music collaborative project between myself and musicians Charlotte Watson, Steve Downs and Sarah Ibberson of Whalebone.

Understories band photo portrait

Understories’ explores the new folklore of Shropshire.  Here are both rural and urban myths, tales just out of living memory and tales re-told.   They are the common uncommon.

We’ll be performing the new show in 2019.  Join us to discover Shropshire’s last wolves and cloggers,  its haunted roundabouts, railway lines and oak trees, not to mention the boy who burrowed under a church.

This poem, ‘Tom Palin at Cinderloo’, explores the story of a rising by ironworkers in 1821, as they protested against draconian pay cuts.  It happened in what is now Telford.  It’s a classic tale of abuse of labour in the interests of profit, and it ended in the deaths of several of the strikers with many further injuries to women and children involved in the protest.

The name ‘Cinderloo’ was coined at the time, following the notorious events at Peterloo slightly earlier. The Cinder Hills was the local name for the slagheaps.  The site of the struggle is now overlain by Telford Forge Retail Park.  Plaque needed, I think.

 

 

‘Understories’ – my new collaborative project

I’m really very pleased to see my poem ‘Tom Palin at Cinderloo‘ published this week on Peter Reynard’s excellent blog, Proletarian Poetry.

‘Tom Palin at Cinderloo’ explores the story of a rising by ironworkers in 1821, as they protested against draconian pay cuts.  It’s a classic tale of industrial abuse of labour, and it ended in the deaths of several of the strikers with many further injuries to women and children involved in the protest.

cinderloo

For the last eight months, I’ve been working on ‘Tom Palin’ (and another nearly twenty poems) in collaboration with the wonderful musicians of Whalebone – Steve Downs, Charlotte Watson and Sarah Ibberson.  Whalebone create eclectic instrumental music with guitar, bouzouki, mandolin and fiddle – their work’s been described as ‘delightfully and defiantly guilty of trespass across musical borders’.  Having now seen them make new music in response to a wide range of my poems, I’m in awe of their skill and imagination.  It’s been perhaps my most satisfying and challenging ever collaboration.

What we’re working on is ‘Understories‘ – a brush with the new folklore of Shropshire.  Here are both rural and urban myths, tales just out of living memory and tales re-told.   They are the common uncommon.

We’ll be performing the show in 2019.  Join us to discover Shropshire’s last wolves and cloggers,  its haunted roundabouts, railway lines and oak trees, not to mention the boy who burrowed under a church.

We’ve got a final recording of ‘Tom Palin at Cinderloo’, which at the moment you can listen to via Proletarian Poetry.  I’m trying to fix the tech…

JA recording with Whalebone
Here I am, recording…

 

My poems in the Agenda T S Eliot issue

I really am very proud to have two poems in Agenda’s special T S Eliot issue this month.  Thank you Patricia McCarthy for including them!

Agenda Feb2018 (1)

‘In Yellowhammer Weather’ was written at The Hurst, near Clun, a couple of years ago while on a week’s walking and writing retreat led by David Morley.  We explored Clun’s tiny, idiosyncratic museum, in which I found an (early 20th century?) photograph of local farmer Frank Collins ‘on his favourite horse, Polliwig’.  Walking later along the banks of the Clun river, and hearing the chatter of the yellowhammer in a hedge, the rhythms of the poem began to come together in my head.

Agenda Feb2018 (3)

‘How We Rode After Haytiming’ is a memory from my childhood in Cumbria, when I rode with the next door farmer’s grandchildren on a raggle-taggle of grass-fed ponies.  After the hay had been cut in June, six acres of inviting stubble lured us down to race the ponies across Long Field.  The poem was first written several years ago, and then it hung around because I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it.

Agenda Feb2018 (2)

 

A blog for ‘The Dark Farms’

Some years ago, I became fascinated with the Galloway Forest.  It’s a remote, depopulated region in south west Scotland, hundreds of square miles with scarcely a road across it, and a diminishing number of working farms on its inhospitable hills and moors.  It’s become a place famed now for its dark skies, and it’s visited by astronomers and those curious to see a sky without neon.  I’ve very belatedly set up a blog to record my explorations and the poems that came out of them.  Click here to have a look.

I grew up in rural Cumbria, among small family farms, and so recognised that what I saw in 2011 in the Galloway Forest was disappearance.  The disappearance of the hills under the conifer forests which were mass planted there in the 1950s and 60s, and the disappearance of small farms, some overwhelmed by the new conifer forests, and many more slowly abandoned as hill farming has become so uneconomic that only the oldest are still farming, often without the assets to retire.

So I went looking for the ghosts of stables, and cart-sheds, and sheep rees (the Galloway word for a sheepfold).  I went looking for the ghosts of placenames and farm names.   I found places where the severe weather has reduced cottages to a threshold stone and a hearth stone.  Cottages overtaken now by birches and brambles.  I found a rural museum with a black leather bull mask and a necklace of horse’s teeth.  A farmhouse with its windows bricked up – truly a Dark Farm.

I took the photographs at the time, on days of being savaged by midges, falling into peat clefts, wading upland burns where the O.S. map still marks the place as a ford, long since washed away.  The poems were published in 2012 in pamphlet form by Roncadora Press, enhanced by Hugh Bryden’s rich artwork.

Celebration Day for Impressions of the Past

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At last this wonderful project has come to its end.  To celebrate the months of workshops, walks and community, we held a celebration party at Poles Coppice, the site of the Oak Palisade and the Poetry Bench.

Around 55 people turned out to share food, fun, stare over at the Iron Age ramparts on Earl’s Hill, find the clay roundels they’d designed, and the words they wrote.  We read a few poems, and crowded round the installations.

Over 150 people contributed to ‘Impressions of the Past’ – thank you to each and every one, and special thanks from Ruth and me to Huw, Mike, Betul, Bob Gibson, Jim Sadler, Nigel McDonald and Joe Penfold.

Publication news

I’m very thrilled to have a poem in both these beautiful new anthologies – #2 from Vanguard Editions, and the fourth ‘Birdbook’ from Sidekick Books, which focuses on Saltwater and Shore.

A Tramp of Poets for Arvon

I’m just back from a gift of a week, staying at The Hurst for the inaugural Poetry with Walking Retreat, led by David Morley.

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Sixteen pairs of walking boots littered the hall, and it was very interesting, going for group walks and yet being alert to the possibilities for poetry.  It worked, slightly to my surprise.  (I’d planned to disappear on my own now and then if it didn’t).  But the group was lovely, and rapidly bonded to become a very supportive and creative community.  Helped on by the truly marvellous food…

I’d met David at various events, but hadn’t experienced the high tide of energy, irrepressible curiosity and sheer knowledge before.  He did a lot more than he needed to, including providing one to one sessions for us (mine was exciting and challenging and fruitful).  He filled the workshop room with books and handouts and bits of bone and feather, took us out with a bat detector and a great device that you can point at a tree to hear birdsong several times louder than life.  He trained us all how to call owls.  He made us see asemic writing in the woods.  Here’s some:

The steady rhythm of walking is good, I think, for writing.  I scribbled constantly and illegibly in my scruffy small notebook as we put in the miles through coppice, hillside and river paths in the mornings, and then wrote all afternoon.  There is something magical about The Hurst – a mellow, thinking house.  Steve Ely was our guest poet, rolling up in an ex Forestry Commission van with a lamping light on top.  He was great.

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Early in the week David provided us all with a photocopy of Clun dialect words and meanings, and loosed us on the village with the resulting short dialect poems.  I have to say I enjoyed this a lot.  Not great art, but great fun.  I hid mine in a shop. And it was such fun to walk with poets – they look around themselves so much.  They are so nosy.

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