The North Pennines and Rookhope were a world of wonder for W.H. Auden. He wrote:
“In Rookhope I was first aware
Of Self and Not-self, Death and Dread.
There I dropped pebbles, heard
The reservoir of darkness stirred.”
The Audens’ Holiday Cottage
The Auden family had bought a holiday cottage at Wescoe on the outskirts of Keswick where the family stayed from about when he was 11. But after coming over to Rookhope at the age of 12, it was the area around Alston Moor that became Auden’s spritual home landscape.
It seems that Auden was a regular visitor to the village from 1919 staying at the local doctor’s house. There wasn’t a resident doctor in Rookhope so its unclear where that may have been. He did know and was fascinated by the 2′ gauge railways up to Bolt’s Law as well as the busyness of the mining activities and smelt mill to the west of the village.
In spring 1930, Auden and his friend Gabriel Carritt stayed at the Lord Crewe Arms in Blanchland after walking Hadrian’s Wall. Carritt recalled Auden loudly calling for champagne in the public bar before launching into a rendition of Brahms on the pub piano. Next day the pair bathed in the freezing Derwent before setting off to inspect abandoned mine workings. “No other spot,” he wrote, “brings me sweeter memories.”
These mine workings fascinated Auden; the nature of the porous rocks hid these secret caverns that he loved and which yielded the amazing Fluorspars and other minerals. He was so immersed in this landscape of the North Pennines that he kept and Ordnance Survey Map with him everywhere he went. He even had it on his wall when living in America from 1939.
“I could draw its map by heart,
showing its contours,
strata and vegetation
name every height,
small burn and lonely sheiling…”
W.H. Auden: Amor Loci
In the recent BBC Radio4 programme (Oct 2014) “In Praise of Limestone“, Ian MacMillan spoke of how the lines in the landscape were like physical poetry to Auden. Lines of water, lines of lead running through the rocks and the lines of the age old paths across the moors were all important to him. Catch the programme while you can on BBC iPlayer.
“Always my boy of wish returns
To those peat-stained deserted burns
That feed the Wear and Tyne and Tees,
And, turning states to strata, sees
How basalt long oppressed broke out
In wild revolt at Cauldron Snout…”
W.H. Auden: New Year Letter
- ‘North East Life’ article by Anthony Toole
- ‘Rookhope in Auden‘ by Roberta Forsyth
- “Rookhope in Retrospect” by Sir Kingsley Dunham F.R.S. in Out of the Pennines, editor Bryan Chambers, Friends of Killhope, Killhope, 1997.
- Frank Partridge article in ‘The Independent’
- WH Auden Collected poems from Amazon