Thursday, 26 March 2015

Billy Watson' Lonning

Billy Watson' Lonnin, Harrington, Cumbria

THIS ballad was written by dialect poet Alexander Craig Gibson and was first published in 1874 – the year that Gibson died. Amazingly, the lonning still exists in Harrington, Cumbria (Gibson's place of birth). It’s a delightful poem about the lonning and how it was the author’s favourite spot to take a young lady. It’s made all the more atmospheric by Gibson’s inclusion of many other local place names: Hempgarth Brow, Clay-Dubs, Lowca Lonning and so forth. A huge debt is owed to Harrington History Group for identifying where many of these locations are (see Harrington Through The Years Book Six). They also did some fine detective work on who Billy Watson might have been. At the end of the day, we can only be sure his name was Billy Watson and he lived near the lonning that now bears his name. Surely, it’s not such an awful legacy that the only proof of your existence on earth is the name of a beautiful country lane near to where you lived.

* A word on that apostrophe. The grammar geeks will be querying the apostrophe on “Billy Watson’ Lonning”. Surely, it must be Billy Watson’s Lonning? Perhaps it should but that was how the title of the ballad appeared when it was first published so I’ve left it in its dialect form.

O for Billy Watson’ lonnin of a lownd summer neeght!
When t’ stars come few and flaytely, efter weerin’ oot day-leeght
When t’ black-kite blossom shews itsel’ i’ hafe-seen gliffs o’grey
An’ t’ honey-suckle’s scentit mair nor iver it is i’ t’ day.
An’ nut a shadow, shap, or soond, or seeght, or sign at’ tells
‘At owte ‘at’s wick comes santerin’ theer but you, yer oan two sel’s.
Ther’ cannot be annuder spot so private an’ so sweet,
As Billy Watson’ lonnin’ of a lownd summer neeght!

T’ Hempgarth Broo’s a cheersome pleace when t’ whins bloom full o’ flooar –
Green Hecklebank turns greener when it’s watter’t wid a shooar – 
There’s bonnie neuks aboot Beckside, Stocks-hill, an’ Greystone Green –
High Woker Broo gi’es sec a view as isn’t offen seen – 
It’s glorious doon ont’ Sandy-beds when t’ sunn’s just gan to set –
An t’ Clay-Dubs isn’t far aslew when t’ wedder isn’t wet;
But nin was mead o’ purpose theer a bonny lass to meet
Like Billy Watson’ lonnin of a still summer neeght.

Yan likes to trail ow’r t’ Sealand-fields an’ watch for t’ commin’ tide,
Or slare whoar t’Green hes t’ Ropery an’ t’ Shore of ayder side – 
T’ Weddriggs road’s a lal-used road, an’ reeght for coortin toke –
An’ Lowca’ lonnin’s reeght for them ‘at like a langsome woke -
Yan’s reeght aneuf up t’ Lime-road, or t’ Waggon way, or t’Ghyll,
An’ reeght for ram’lin’s Cunning-wood or Scatter-mascot hill.
Ther’s many spots ‘at’s reeght aneuf, but nin o’ ways so reeght
As Billy Watson’ lonnin’ of a lownd summer neeght.

Sec thowtes as thur com’ thick lang sen to yan, a lonterin’ lad,
Wid varra lal to brag on but a sperrit niver sad,
When he went strowlin’ far an’ free aboot his sea-side heam,
An’ stamp’t a mark upon his heart of ivery frind-like neam;–
A mark ‘at seems as time drees on to deepen mair an’ mair –
A mark ‘at ola’s breeghten meast i’ t’ gloom o’ comin’ care;
But nowte upon his heart has left a mark at hods so breeght
As Billy Watson’ lonnin’ of a lownd summer neeght!

Oor young days may’d be wastet sair, but dar their mem’ry’s dear!
And what wad yan not part wid noo agean to hev them here?
Whativer trubles fash’t us than, though nayder leet nor few,
They niver fash’t us have so lang as less an’s fash us noo;
If want o’ thowte brong bodderment, it pass’t for want o’ luck,
An’ what cared we for Fortun’s bats, hooiver feurce she struck?
It mud be t’ time o’ life ‘at mead oor happiness complete
I’ Billy Watson’ lonnin’ of a lownd summer neeght!

Some help with the dialect 
Lownd, calm. 
flaytely, timidly.
black-kites, blackberries
gliffs, brief looks, glimpses
la'al, little
wick, busy, lively
toke, your bethrothed (your ‘taken’)
aslew, amiss
slare, walk slowly
langsome, lonesome
woke, walk
lonterin’ lad, loitering lad
sair, very much
fash’d, bothered
brong bodderment, brought anxiety

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Return to St Catherine's holy well

St Catherine's Well, Eskdale
THE restoration of St Catherine's holy well in Eskdale has encouraged me to revisit the various notes on this delightful spot in Cumbria. Much of the work on the well was done in the early 20th century by Eskdale archaeologist Mary Fair. She re-found the well and arranged for it to be 'dug up' and investigated. Curiously by 1942 it had all been forgotten and people were again asking where the well was. A letter (written in 1942) in Whitehaven Archive & Local Studies Centre from Mary said:

"The well is known not only by tradition but by continuity of actual knowledge. Aaron Marshall regularly got water from it and up to about 1870 it was regularly cleared out and kept in running order. After that occasionally cleared to keep the site known."

She tells how she excavated the site in the late 1920s...

"We went under the great blocks of stone forming the basin of the well firmly then set in clay and there were as well structural remains in the form of a solidly constructed framework of mainly oak, set in clay with the boulders forming the basin upon it. There were rude steps leading down to the basin at one side and at one time there had been a roughly built stone conduit in the direction of the church."

Mary speculated in 1927 that the hill near to the well may have housed a home for a hermit. She bases this, rather unconvincingly on the two summits being called Cross Howe and Harmot Howe. She adds: "(They were) also spelt  Harmitt and Harmoth, associated with a place called Arment House, all of which words may indicate that a hermit may have once occupied a small cell at the place." As far as I can tell this is the origin of the 'legend' that a hermit did live there - a story now widely repeated on the net and in folklore books.

There is more evidence for the 'Catty fair' held in a field beside St Catherine's Church. Its first written record is in the church accounts for 1766. The fair was held close to the saint's day of November 25th. According to notes at the archives office, the fair allowed for the sale of corn, drapery, woollen yarn, sheep and pigs.

The restoration of the well in 2014
The fair is again mentioned in a government report of 1889 and around 1900, the vicar of Eskdale Rev W Sykes, wrote "Kitty Fair and Bellhill bonfires remain in memory". Historian Park in his classic work on Gosforth (1926) says the fair was Dodgskin Fair but he gives no source for this.

In the Whitehaven archives there is an undated letter (it looks as if it was written in the early 20th century) from CA Calverly:

"Old Mr Porter of Low Holme told me as a child he remembered the fair held at the church. They had a service first. Catty Fair it was called and gingerbread were made in the shape of a human being, arms outstretched, I suppose to represent St Catherine  on the wheel."

The fair was held in the field between the church and Parson's Passage (what was previously a gated path - Belle Hill Gate; the name - according to a note at the archives - originating from the fact the church bells were hung in a tree beside the gate).

There also appears to have been an annual sports event held beside the church but this died out in 1924.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Mystery of falling book sales solved

The book in the 1500s

The book today: So much for 'progress'

THE star of the BBC production, Wolf Hall, for me was not any of the actors: it was a small illuminated book flicked through for a few seconds about halfway through the first episode. I can't have been the only one drooling over my tea and crumpets as the brightly-coloured pages on gobsmackingly gorgeous manuscript was tantalisingly held in front of the camera. The book was typical of 16th century tomes - and I look at our books today (even our digital ones) and think "What progress? I'd rather have the 16th century book thanks".

The last five years have seen off-the-edge-of-a-cliff sales falls for printed books. Game-changing drops in revenue for publishers which must have most of the staff brushing up their CVs ready for redundancy with the next four or five years. It's only people working in local newspapers who face bleaker job prospects.

Sure, some of the decline can be blamed on people switching to digital books but to me that scene in Wolf Hall showed in one image precisely what the problem was: Today's books are dull, dull, dull. Page after page of boring 9pt Times Roman text, black on white. And Kindle experiences are no better. Black and white text on an electronic screen is no more exciting than having it on a printed page.

We've taken the book for granted and are now paying the price. Why is it that publishers think we only want bright, colourful books up til the age of 10? Thomas Cromwell's book wasn't a child's book (although his daughter lovingly caressed it). What's wrong with some illumination? Why can't a book be also a work of art? And digital publishers surely have no excuse - coloured text, moving images... they could do so much more than their 17th century counterparts but rarely do so. (My thanks to Moira Briggs for pointing me to this link on how the Wolf Hall illumination book was made).

I'll leave you with another example from the time of Henry VIII (courtesy of The British Library). It's a musical score: the words and music for a canon (round) for four voices and I can't believe the combination of music, words and pictures has ever been equalled. If Apple produced this tomorrow as the logo for their musical download app, no one would bat an eyelid..

Monday, 8 December 2014

Local newspapers and the internet - where did it all go wrong?

April 1985: The  South Bucks Star goes live on the internet. It was the dawn of an age that offered so much for local newspapers - but in the end has delivered very little of worth

I REMEMBER the excitement of the internet arriving in our lives, way back in 1994. The biggest technological development since Johannes Gutenberg tripped over a wine press and said 'Oh, that gives me an idea'. The internet promised (and delivered) publishing instantly, in full colour, around the world, for just a few pence. It was to herald a new age in publishing. So where did it all go wrong?

I look at the clunky, cluttered and chaotic websites of almost every local paper on the web and I just get depressed.  I recall the vision of 20 years ago and then see what we ended up with. The dream was smart design, instant news, links to background stories and other websites, moving pictures, interactivity... But take a look at any local newspaper website today and I suspect you will share my disappointment. 

First, you must work out what on earth the website is all about. Almost none of them say 'We are a (local newspaper) website publishing news and information about Seahaven'. And if they do, they don't tell you where Seahaven is or even which country it is in. Then you must fight your way past the flashing in-your-face ads (only advertising, it seems, has taken up the opportunity of moving images) and chaotic design to find out what you need. Even in 1984, early web designers were telling editors good navigation was vital. Why did no one listen? And why aren't they listening now?

When you get to the story you want, the disappointment is palpable. The story (and all the others on the same page) was published a few minutes ago but it relates to an event that took place a week ago. What happened to 'instant news'? There is only one static picture but it's tiny. I want to click on it and order a print but I can't.

There are no hyperlinks in the story. Was Tim Berners-Lee's work all for nothing? I want to click on the name Truman Burbank and access a quick biography - but I can't. And I want to click on the venue for a map - but again I can't.  I can only comment on a handful of stories and I need to register to do it. I'm amazed at how many papers still don't hyperlink the reporter's byline with their email address. Surely, that's a basic first step for publishing news on the web? Even when a story is uploaded with a web address, few bother to hyperlink it.

"Oh we don't want to link to other websites," say the publishers. "We might lose our readers". Too late. This short-sighted suicidal strategy shows you just don't get it. And we readers are long gone.

It's clear local papers are still publishing papers the way they have always done. The fact it's on a website makes little difference. It's like being show the discovery of television and then just sitting in front of a TV camera slowly turning the pages of a newspaper. If you think I'm exaggerating, find out how many "e-newspapers" are just pdfs of the print edition.

And don't get me started on those online stories that end... "Read the full story in this week's Seahaven Times." Did no one tell you the internet is global? I can't buy the Seahaven Times in Cumbria. Give me a link to your digital edition at least.

The adverts are 10x2s which do little more than direct me to the advertiser's website. Dull, annoying and unimaginative. The only success story is the database-driven property, jobs and motors sections which allow you to specify the type of house, price, location etc. But if this is the advertising success story, where is editorial's shining example?

And as for easily navigating around the website, forget it. "Find me a bag of potatoes," said Bob James to editors as he threw their disorganised newspapers back at them. In 2014, I should be able to type 'bag of potatoes' in a box on the home page of any local paper website and be shown local sellers, a map of where they are and a one-click buy-now button. Visit your local paper website now and try the Bob James test. Try and find potatoes, what's on at the theatre tonight, how to place an advert, or a number of other items that should be easy to find.

I'm yet to come across a good local paper website (if you have found one, do let me know) but given the state of the nation, I doubt many of them will be around for much longer. Worse, I doubt many people will miss them.

  • Alan Cleaver has spent a career in regional and national papers. With Rob Whittlesea, he published the South Bucks Star on the web in April 1994 - one of the first weekly papers in the UK to go on the web. He now lives in Cumbria.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Spotting the miraculous on your doorstep

I WAS talking to a gentleman in Cumbria a while ago about the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition and he was bemoaning that you need to live in some obscure far-flung part of the world to stand a chance of winning. I pointed out that to a photographer in the rainforests of Borneo, a lonning on Britain’s north-west coast is about as remote as you can get. It’s just harder to see the unusual, miraculous or the exotic when you live beside it everyday. To me, walking down Seacross Lonning, near Cockermouth, on a spring morning with Sale Fell in the distance, a tunnel of hazel ahead of you, stitchwort and harebells on the bank and for a lamb to then come trotting down the lonning towards you is about as miraculous as it gets.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Wildlife champions

LESLEY and I are now Wildlife Champions. I can say this with certainty because we have yellow fluorescent jackets with "Wildlife Champion" emblazoned on them. And I've also taken to walking around with a clipboard just to leave people in no doubt that I am someone important. I saw a story in The Whitehaven News for Sustrans - the cycle path people - seeking volunteers to monitor the number and variety of wildlife going up and down the local cycle paths. It sounded a lovely way to spend a summer's evening: Walking the cyclepaths, counting the number of lesser spotted nightjars and waving my clipboard menacingly at any cyclists going too fast or ne'er do wells misbehaving. As it turns out, cyclists can be a bit scary when they zoom past so the fluorescent jacket is a valuable item of clothing to put on.

Yesterday was our first day out on our patch - a kilometre stretch from Cleator Moor to Moor Row station (well, the remains of it since the disused railway line now forms Route 71 of the Sustrans cycle path). It was heartening to see that Mother Nature could resist all that the worst of humanity could throw at it. Litter is everywhere - so too is dog dirt. No doubt many users of the cycle route will rightly point out that there are no rubbish bins and no doggy-bag bins. But I and many others manage to carry our rubbish home so I'm not sure that's much of an excuse. I like to see the rubbish as a positive though: it's a clear indication of how well used this route is. Indeed there were cyclists and walkers passing us at the rather of four or five every 10 minutes. I met two people I know for God's sake! There's also the added advantage that there are no cars or motorbikes to run you down. It is indeed a haven away from the mad, mad world of the A66 and A595.

We set off armed with the Eye-spy books of trees, flowers, butterflies and those weird-looking buzzy things. We're not experts but feel confident to say that the Tesco bag is probably not a native species. Fortunately, most of the birds that turned up had the decency to be ones we could identify: The Great Tit, Blue Tit, Chaffinch, Blackbird, Magpie, Wood Pigeon, Robin - amazingly the hedge sparrows (dykies as we Cumbrians call them) was strangely absent. The only one that had me puzzled was this one...
Willow warbler or chiff chaff?
which is either a Willow Warbler or  its identical twin brother, the chiff chaff. I'm minded to say Willow Warbler since there were several of them on willow trees. But also because its song was not very chiff chaffy at all. Let me know if you can identify it correctly. It was a hot sunny day so there wasn't much in the way of mammals - one dead mole to be precise. Hawthorn and willow bushes abounded along with a number of butterflies (oranged-tipped, peacock and the green veiny, black edged white ones). We'll be out about on Route 71 throughout the summer so if you're cycling down the path at furious knots beware of the Wildlife Champions in the yellow jackets - and the willow warblers.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Reviving Cumbria's holy wells

St Catherine's Holy Well, Eskdale - one of Cumbria's holy wells in danger of being lost through neglect
HAVING - with a very few other stalwarts - waxed lyrical about the beauty of Britain's holy wells for the last 30 years, I am delighted to report that a project has been launched in Cumbria to celebrate and renovate these endangered landmarks. The good news came from Father John Musther an Orthodox priest who lives in Keswick. His plan is to select a number of Cumbrian holy wells for cleaning and restoration. Then, from September 8 to 17 2014, to use volunteers from around the world along with local volunteers and expertise to restore and celebrate those wells (and bless them). It's an astonishing project but is already well advanced. I visited Fr John and his wife Jenny to find a chart with many holy wells already marked out. He has visited many of them and started speaking to the parish councils and land owners about what he wants to do. The project is led by Grampus Heritage based at Threapland in Cumbria and involves partners in Germany, Iceland, Romania, Slovakia and Turkey. There is support and funding from the EU.

The first question has to be why Orthodoxy has an interest in holy wells (the established church has had something of a love hate relationship with holy wells over the centuries!). It's probably a question for Fr John to answer himself but to quote a draft of a booklet he is producing alongside the project:

"If, as we travel around Cumbria, we become aware of the early saints who lived here, of the churches they founded, of the monasteries they began, of the crosses they erected and the innumerable holy wells they used the landscape of Cumbria takes on a spiritual aspect as good, say, as the best of Wales, Cornwall and Ireland."

You won't find any arguments from me on that score! I am sure many of my holy well friends will want to help in one way or another. For now, drop me an email to to express your interest (and say how - historical research, admin or rolling your shirt sleeves up to clean up those wells!). I'll update my holy well map nearer the time with more specific  information on the wells most suited for restoration but feel free to suggest any you know about. Fr John and I are aware there are more wells than marked on this Google map but don't assume we know about your one!

This is a wonderful and exciting opportunity. Hopefully it will see many holy wells currently in danger of being lost for good, rescued and restored. I'll post here again when I have more information.