Skelwith Force

The torn polygonal scraps of slate that line

Brathay’s bed above the force

Are dull when plucked, laid out and dry, but shine

Under the crag-stream’s course.

The whole broad dale at Elter Water’s strewn

With spring’s flood-leavings

And the upturned ash and birch-tree ruin

Tell of unseen heavings.

Out of the hill came the water, stripping the stone,

And lushing up the dale,

Around the ice-old mounds, the under-bone

Of the sleeper of a forgotten tale.

The soft and hard are side by side and felt

By every walker strolling down to see

The water turn to steam,

The clear become opaque,

The straight begin to bend,

The sure become unsure,

At Skelwith Force, where glaciations melt

And obstacles sudden slip free.

Seeing God’s Power in the Natural World

Do you remember the fantastic story of Solomon in the third chapter of the First Book of Kings?  God appeared to him at Gibeon while he slept and promised to give Solomon whatever he wished…

Solomon asked for wisdom, of course, and the First Book of Kings cedarlater describes some of the wisdom that he received in revelation from God, along with his fabled wealth:

And he spake three thousand proverbs and his songs were a thousand and five.  And he spake of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall: he spake also of beasts, and of fowl, and of creeping things, and of fishes. [1 Kings 4 32-33]

It seems that part of Solomon’s wisdom, rather than simply his knowledge, was his interest in the world that God has created and his hunger to understand natural history.  The longing to see God’s power in the world is a driver for many beautiful writings, songs, paintings, studies and disciplines, and I feel it strongly.  I wonder whether this was the wisdom that led Gerard Manley Hopkins to seek the inscape of every created thing, to understand its unique character and the song it sings to God the Father?

And Solomon had time – made time – to study and write this natural history while ruling Israel at the height of its prosperity!  God can give us so much when we ask and when we are ready to receive what he gives us.

Lines from a Train Window by Bedford

By Bedford sheets of water blanket grooves –

The sillion silvered, overcome and smoothed.

Hedgerows prove ancestral farmers’ plans

But water came and drank up all the land.

A waste – lost value – blank diminished ground –

Or know that soil too needs rest and sleep.

A string of salmon-coloured floodlights from

A light industrial estate, those sheds

Near Wellingborough, parade a fan of rays

Across the fresh full mere like liquid stars.

The Track

Go, turn behind the willows leaning down

And cross a broad, unmetalled, concrete bridge

Beside the throbbing relay station’s fence,

Behind the bold-brick houses, built, set, square

Upon the fertile valley’s bottom, where

A tiny talking brook provides the sea

For toddlers’ first wellie-splashes, and then

For boys from school to fall into and soak

And come home scolded, seek again to sneak

To tiny kingdoms of hedgeholes and mud,

And live in, in their dreaming, sleeping minds.

And if you find that stream, that bridge, those trees,

Begin to walk the track and to explore

A microcosm of all England’s lands

Expressed in half a mile, so few acres,

As shells express the whorl of hurricanes

Invisible in shape until an eye

Above the world can picture them all whole,

As rockpools mirror all the ocean’s depth

And as a garden mocks, with love, the wild

And wildernesses live behind a shed,

So know that this small span of well-loved land

Can teach entire the lessons of landscape –

Entire, at least, the principles on which

Every other sight, whether moor or mount

Or shore or fen or cliff or field or wood

Or lawn or park or scrub or shingle down

Or chalk-hill flank or tide-bared mud or sea –

The principles on which these worlds are seen

And loved, and held in balanced wonderment

With awe and joy each sharing parts of thought

That flicker from the buds of hawthorn hedge

To wave-tops, turning, crisping white, a-rush

To burst upon the land with such desire,

Enthusiasm to enact and give

And interact and change and be part of

The world that springs from those first wanderings, young

As a boy might be, so was I right there,

Turned from the street onto the brick-dust track,

The over-written history of space

And growing things that taught me how to grow –

Ah, go down beside the willows, then take

The slowly steeping walk up that hill,

Turn about, look around, see the world

That we have, this gift of childish heaven

That in it holds appreciation of

The living, growing land beyond the sky.

Wordsworth never finished the poem we call ‘The Prelude’, but it was meant to be his autobiography in verse, or, as he put it grandly, the story of the ‘creation of a poetic mind’.  I actually think this is a fairly good subject for poetry – if only of interest to other poets – but possibly self-indulgent!  Nonetheless, even without Wordsworth’s age or position, I found it really pleasurable to revisit my childhood places in verse like this.  Does this mean I’ll expand it?  

The Painter’s Eye

It’s late December – day-long dusks and clouds

And lovely open structures of the dying trees,

And railside wastelands earn another grey,

The brambles purple, old-man’s beard delights

With feather baubles long uneven swathes

Of drear embankment.  All the puddles full,

All the ditches dark, reflective, cold,

The lives of poplars stark, the pointed pales

Of fences cold as printed tractor marks

Now filled with scraps of sky and dainty crows.

We pass a field of horses, straw strewn out,

And dirty stable-coats upon their backs.

What entertainment can December bring

A horse?  What festive cheer a hungry bird –

Related in a theoretic way

To robins on a watercolour card.

But can I say it?  These are all my paint –

The pigments that I choose when I return

To dreams, to hopes, to quiet peaceful dreams.

The subtlety of every tree which owns

A unique pattern, never copied twice,

The varied textures of the water’s flat –

Despite the stillness of the air, the grey –

By reading printed painted books, a child,

By walking on the paths of lonely tracks,

I’ve won a little of the painter’s eye,

And with it surety of English truths.

So – I want you now to now my purposing –

The motivation I cannot express

As policy, or aim, or goal.  I guess –

I love to try, to leap, to run the course –

Another soul desires to comprehend –

I only want to know.

View from a Train Window in May

The cream-white, soda-flush of hawthorn bloom

Extends in streaks and still-shot eruptions

To bring the hedgerows more than definition.

Punctuation, regular as breath,

In gasps, in pants, in drinking draughts of sky,

Until the rows we watch from the window

Of the chuckle-wheeled carriages, are made

New-coloured, like the newly-weds’ hallway,

Redecorated with a paint that seemed

Unexciting on the shelf, but cover

A whole wall and gloss it over green

And spring green, the new and living colour

Of an awakening land, and you will see

How white is more than simply white again.

Some of those hedges hold their purple clouds

Where lilacs pour their thick, re-shaping shock

Into the composition of our eyes

And unframed, unstructured pictures, unhung

And unlikely to be collected.

But this is Spring – this vision from the train –

This helpless rush at life and flowered trees

And never while you ride ignore the may.

The Garden, Gone and Remaining

It’s dangerous, returning where

You left your living herbs to root.

A trip to re-taste friendship’s fruit

Was bittered by a chilly air.


The trees that stood between brick walls

That hid along the alleyway,

Perpendicular and grey

Behind the street thick with footfalls –


Those trees that softened up waste ground,

Beloved by none who owned them, no,

Beloved by one who knew them so,

Can no longer there be found.


Eight sycamores, wind-strewn and wild,

A faded, fallen apple, broke

Beneath the ivy’s unfair yoke,

And hazel and its hopeful child,


The ashes, birches, and tangled low

Odd-limbed gooseberries, all leaf

Their chance to fruit far too brief,

My chance to help them years ago.


If anybody knew or cared,

I did – who slept beneath the branch

And dreamt that plot my mind’s wide ranch

And ate the berries birds had shared.


Returning down that concrete path

Something airy worried me –

Then bare sky lay, no branch, no tree,

And sorrow mingled up with wrath.


For all these deeds and rights to build

What value has the love of soil?

For profit pulled from a rebar broil

Who counts the trees the clearers killed?


Small pain, oh yes, for all fall, trees.

What sentimental rot – what pose!

But gloved hands felled and counted those,

That last were climbed and held by these.


I know the width of limbs, the give

And sway of outstretched arms that reach,

From letting slower creatures teach

And show me how to be and live.


God speaks in rocks and fruits and trees,

So shouldn’t I be sad and cry

That disregarded saplings die

That I regarded, gave me ease?


From bed – this bed – beneath this spread

I’d wake and see them greet the day

Or sleeping, hear the wind at play

To test them, twitch them, shoulders spread,


Roots wild-set but gripping close,

Joying, fighting with the gale,

Ducking rain and flicking hail,

And then in sun, remain, repose.


I left a lot there in that ground,

A sage-bush brought and cropped and strong,

The trunk split-twisted, leaves grey and long,

Potatoes not yet dug or found.


Nothing’s lost.  I hope – it must be.

I know that God permits no waste,

And where our minds dash on in haste

He plays a longer game than we.


How many times a root re-springs,

How many times a spring re-flows,

Oh, every time you prune a rose

You prove the loveliness of dead things.

Delabole Waterfall at High Tide

Upon the lip a flow like glass,

It seems as solid as the slate

Over which the waters mate,

Salt and sweet, where waves amass.


The waterfall persists its flow,

Its noisy rattle, chatter, rush

But the bigger water sweeps in hush

The shatters patterns with a throw.


Now synchronised in flow and draw

The waves ride in and mount the shelves

Some further, nearer, spend themselves

To salinate the pool-spread shore.


Is it a battle or a game?

These two waters meet head-on

Their distinct selves are seen, then gone.

And left, one cold and salt-sweet same.

Limehouse Poppies

Somewhere just West of Limehouse

An emptied yard has lain and slept

Among the brick and rubble

Are promises the poppies kept,

To bloom between the foundation slab,

To stretch between the mortar,

Beneath the girders of the bridge

Beside the dockstill water.

They flourish in obedience

To a hundred-year-old-seed,

They quench with a silk-soft moment

An ancient personal need.

If you rode on a train and saw no life,

No bloom of weed or rose,

Then how would you know you were living

And how would you do what you chose?

Unless the flowers chose to rise

From the rubble where a warehouse stood

We’d have no daily proof of how

Ruins turn good.

Canning Town

How beautiful the river banks,

Each a slick and shining brown.

The tide now slackens out through town

Past railway sidings, standing tanks.


Here reeds are stained and standing thick,

The ducks and gulls squat on the mud

And later comes the brackish flood

But now the silt is dark and slick,


Here interrupted by a pile

Half-rotted, stained with grey and green,

There lies a tire, half-sunk, half-seen,

And so on down the winding mile.


All the way, from here to the sea,

The Thames retreats from its own bed,

Its mind is changed, intentions fled,

So changeful as the moon we flee.