The journey: how many times have I landed on the platform at Newcastle, tottering under an overambitious collection of luggage, looking for the stopping train that will rattle its way west along the South Tyne valley to Brampton? This, though, the first time since I sold our small house in Hallbankgate: so is this a home-coming, or something else?
We walk the familiar circuit: Clesketts, skirting Howgill along a still snowy track to Forest Head, the empty dwelling virtually collapsed now. Up the hill past Whinny Fell, the sky clear blue, sun warming our shoulders with the promise of spring. There is dereliction everywhere: the hotel on the edge of the tarn roofless, its top removed in a cynical ploy to avoid council tax, windows boarded or gaping, the pinkish stone visibly disintegrating; the burnt-out remains of the Richardsons’ house still screened by metal fencing. Alongside the road, the hedges and dog roses brutally ripped back to ease the passage of tractors, the raw ends smacking of a mean spirit.
The next morning an early lift to Penrith, the town dour and chill. Women sit smoking outside Costa Coffee where the Bluebell Bookshop used to be. They watch narrow-eyed as I pass.The museum remains firmly shut long past its opening time. I swallow an odd version of a soya cappuccino in the Three Crowns Cafe (banoffee cake on the counter top, the menu boasting all-day breakfasts and home baking). Browsing the Benetton shelves, I linger over a vivid blue merino wool cardigan until the museum opens at last for ‘Memories of Belonging’, an exhibition of Lorna Graves’s work. Lorna is the reason behind my visit; or rather, my friend Clare the poet who has written a memoir about this local artist whom we both knew.
Later, back in the George, still dogging Lorna’s footsteps, coffee slides into lunch, the revolving doors admitting a steady stream of what I imagine are regulars: ruddy-faced big-bellied men, women hunched in fake fur, stick-wielding, bag-toting, voices raised in jovial greeting or hushed for confidences - ‘aye… aye...naw… aye… mm… aye’. The board opposite the entrance advertises ‘LIVE music every Saturday, Sunday Jazz, a 70s-80s-90s Party & Buffet and 2 for £12 cocktails’. I order a goats cheese & beetroot salad and a glass of red wine, let the murmuration of Penrith’s earthbound starlings wash over me, touched (thank you Lorna!) by so many signs of homespun tenderness, belying perhaps their domestic realities of indifference or, worse, casual cruelties.
O may my heart’s truth
Still be sung
On this high hill in a year’s turning.
It’s the end of ‘Poem in October’ so quite the wrong season; a birthday poem, though, so in that respect almost perfect timing. Sadly, I fail to find the stele, the memorial to Lorna which was the other reason behind my morning’s walk. It seems I turned back just a few steps too soon.So thanks to Nicky for chivvying me out again mid-afternoon and helping me find the spot.
The book is launched: a crowd of familiar faces have assembled to send it on its way. In some ways the event is an anti-climax: all those plans and rehearsals unbalanced by non-functioning tech stuff and an overall feeling of disarray. There were moments, though, when Lorna herself - a fragment of her singing, a phrase from her diaries - seemed to hover in the room, on the edge of sight, just beyond reach.
The exhibition 'Memories of Belonging' continues at the Penrith Museum until June.
Winter Flowers: The Life and Work of Lorna Graves 1947-2006 a Memoir by Clare Crossman is published by and available from Bookcase, Carlisle
You can see work by Issam Kourbaj at Kettles Yard Cambridge until 2 April