North Pennines: Poetry in motion

What better way to mark the 100th anniversary of W H Auden's birth this month than to go to the source of the poet's inspiration, his beloved North Pennines? Frank Partridge follows in Wystan's footsteps

One afternoon, in the summer of 1922, a 15-year-old was tramping across a deserted moor in County Durham when he happened upon two tall chimneys and some abandoned mine workings. Intrigued by the discovery in such a remote place, he idly picked up some stones and dropped them down the shaft. Far below, they splashed into the water that had collected at the base.

The schoolboy was Wystan Auden, on holiday with his parents in the North Pennines. The location was almost certainly the Sike Head shaft, on the slopes of Bolt's Law, a windswept hill rising more than 1,500 feet above the village of Rookhope. Sike Head was one of numerous lead mines in the area that had been forced to close because, from the early 20th century onwards, lead, silver and other precious metals, mined in these parts since Roman times, could be imported more cheaply from abroad.

By the time Auden arrived, most of the Pennine miners and their families had abandoned their high, weather-beaten villages for a new life in North America, Australia or New Zealand. But Auden was more interested in the machinery than the people who had operated it. And at Sike Head that day, a remarkable thing happened. As he heard the distant splash of the stones, the budding poet had a vision of the future. From that moment, he saw himself as a creative being: "In Rookhope I was first aware/ Of Self and Not-Self, Death and Dread:/ There I dropped pebbles, listened, heard/ The reservoir of darkness stirred." ("New Year Letter", 1940)

The two stacks on Bolt's Law survive today - smokeless sentries half a mile apart, guarding their ruins. Auden saw them reaching for the sky, pointing "the finger of all questions". The B-road leads on to Blanchland, nestling in a deep river valley just over the Northumbrian border. It was - and is - a privately owned village originally built around a medieval monastery and restored in Victorian times, its cottages forming an L-shape on an Italian-style piazza. There's nothing quite like it in the North of England. The Blanchland estate was bought by Nathaniel, Lord Crewe in 1708, an event commemorated today by the Lord Crewe Arms, a friendly hotel with log fires, a Jacobite ghost, a bar in a 13th-century crypt, and outstanding cuisine.

Auden was drawn there in 1930, at Easter, when he surprised the regulars by getting tipsy on martini, calling loudly for champagne, and sitting at the honky-tonk piano to bash out some Brahms. Later, he and his companion swam in the freezing river Derwent. "No other spot," he wrote, "brings me sweeter memories."

Throughout his life, Auden often returned to the North of England, both in imagination and in person, creating a place - part-real, part-fantasy - that became sacred to him and formed the source of much of his poetic imagery. For years, he had a map of Alston Moor, just over the Cumbrian border, on the wall of his study in America, and called the Pennines his "Mutterland", the German for "motherland". This expanse of moorland, stretching from Swaledale in the south to Hadrian's Wall in the north, was his earthly paradise: "I could draw its map by heart,/ Showing its contours,/ Strata and vegetation/ Name every height/ Small burn and lonely sheiling..." ("Amor Loci", 1965).

The North Pennines remains one of England's few unplundered treasures: mile after mile of untamed, sparsely populated upland, dissected by dales and escarpments, erupting every springtime with displays of subalpine wild flowers. Waterfalls and brooks feed the three great rivers, the Tyne, Tees and Wear, that define the north-east coast. Auden was clearly on to something: in 1988, the region was declared an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty by Unesco, becoming Britain's first Geopark.

The dramatic landscapes certainly played a part in turning Auden's head, but it was man's endeavours below ground that set his creative juices flowing. As a journalist commissioned by American Vogue, he toured the region by car in 1954 and wrote: "Derelict shafts, abandoned washing floors, decayed water wheels, solitary chimneys sticking up in the middle of nowhere ... they had a melancholy fascination, a wonderful desolation and a quiet isolation."

Using the dereliction to symbolise lost belief, these qualities underpinned some of his most evocative verse: "The smelting-mill stack is crumbling, no smoke is alive there,/ Down in the valley the furnace no lead-ore of worth burns;/ New tombs of decaying industry, not to survive here/ Many more earth turns." ("Allendale", 1924)

The more the earth turns, the more the weather warms up, and the folk of Allenheads have been complaining about it for years. "We haven't had a proper winter since 1991/92," said one, cradling a hot drink in the village café. Allenheads, another former mining community, is one of England's highest villages, and the unlikely base of the British Norwegian Ski Club, whose members erect two rope tows every November in a field above the village, and start praying for snow. Auden visited Allenheads in the summer of 1926, when the lead mine was still productive, describing the life of the miners, toiling "to place a roof on noble Gothic minsters". Global economics would soon put an end to that; now, global warming is frustrating its hopes of becoming a miniature skiing resort. By the end of January, they'd managed half a day's skiing all winter: 30 years ago, the season would last for four or five months. "Absolutely no queues!" the Ski Club's website guarantees. How they wish it were otherwise.

On the A689, heading west towards Auden's beloved Alston Moor, the defunct mines at Killhope and Nenthead have been turned into heritage centres, eking a little tourist revenue out of the seams. Killhope has two working water wheels, one in the tunnel that carried miners to the seam, which visitors can explore. Auden would be in his element: "Tramlines and slagheaps, pieces of machinery,/ That was, and still is, my ideal scenery." ("Letter to Lord Byron", 1937)

Passing through Auden Country one last time, on the B6278 between Blanchland and Stanhope, I glimpse the two stacks near Bolt's Law, and spot a marked path (the Lead Mining Trail) heading in their direction. On a bright winter afternoon, with only grouse for company, I gather stones as I walk, hoping for an Audenesque splash of revelation when I drop them down the shaft. But when I get there, I find the site fenced off, the shaft sealed up. I scatter the stones in disappointment and head for home. Where once there was magic and poetry, now there is Health and Safety.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The main rail hubs are Newcastle and Durham (National Rail Enquiries: 08457 484950; www.nationalrail.co.uk).

GETTING AROUND

Car hire was arranged through www.carrentals.co.uk (0845 225 0845), which offers discounted prices from major companies such as Hertz and Europcar. Prices for one-week rentals in the UK from £110.

STAYING THERE

The writer stayed at the Lord Crewe Arms, Blanchland, County Durham (01434 675 251; www.lordcrewehotel.com). Doubles from £120 including breakfast.

VISITING THERE

The Killhope Lead Mining Museum, near Cowshill, County Durham (01388 537 505; www.durham.gov.uk/killhope). Open daily from 1 April to 31 October, 10.30am-5pm; adult tour £6.50, children £3.50.

For daily automated snow report at Allenheads, call 01661 860 689. Single membership for a year is £20, families £40, and affiliate membership, which allows a whole day's skiing, is £10.

More information at www.ski-allenheads.co.uk.

Most of the North Pennines area is covered by Ordnance Survey maps 307 and OL31, priced at £7.45.

MORE INFORMATION

North East Tourism: 0906 683 3000, calls cost 25p per minute; www.visitnortheastengland.com

Enjoy England: 020-8846 9000; www.enjoyengland.com

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

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