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Regional Poetry Focus: Cumbria

This blog post has been some weeks in the prep – I realise my ambition to have a Regional Focus every month was a bit, well, ambitious! Anyway, here’s the second in the series (following on from the very popular Leicester Fiesta in January). In this episode I’m taking a virtual nose around that most poetic of regions, the Lake District, or more precisely the county in which it lies, known since 1972 as Cumbria. There are some tricky questions to be answered, such as  – Is there more to the poetry scene than ‘those Lakers’? and Where do the present-day poets hang out? and Do waterproof trousers work?

If you’re scratching your head wondering where Cumbria is even at, here’s a clue, courtesy of our friends at Wikipedia:

Cumbria on the map

If like me you grew up in an urban environment and still find the sight of lambs in fields worthy of comment “Ooh look!” then (like me) you probably love Cumbria, or even just the idea of it. All those romantic paintings of Lakeland scenes, the image of Wordsworth and his chums hiking all morning and sighing over their quills all afternoon. It is a shock to drive off the M6 not far north of Preston and suddenly feel like you’re in Switzerland. It’s so gorgeous up there you almost forgive how wet it is, because when the sun does come out – ah well, as a little taster here’s a pic I took last year when we were there for my birthday at the end of October:

Lake District

But all those lakes and mountains come with a caveat – don’t even think of getting from A to B in a hurry. I speak as someone who once thought she’d take a short cut in an old car over a near-vertical pass, only to have the clutch give out. In the words of one of my correspondents, Kathleen Jones: “Cumbria is a region without a major city and the mountains and lakes make getting around the county very difficult. Because of the geography it can take two and a half hours to get from Carlisle to Barrow.” Andrew Forster of the Wordsworth Trust looks on the bright side: “The Lake District is primarily a rural area with no major cities. I think because of this people tend to travel more than they would in urban areas to support the events that do happen, and that helps develop a much more widespread sense of community.”

But, as Kim Moore puts it, “Although Barrow is only 35 miles or so from the motorway, it is a slow road with only intermittent dual carriageway. Getting to readings or workshops is always a bit of a mission.”

One result of the relative isolation of the different towns is that a good number of them have developed as vibrant centres for poetry and poetry events.

Firstly, allow me to introduce my special correspondents. As ever, I’m very grateful to them all for taking time out of their busy schedules to answer my questions in such detail. I hope I’ve effectively summarised all of their main points. Unsurprisingly, some names and events were mentioned by all.

Writer Kathleen Jones  was born in Cumbria, and returned there after spells living abroad. The author of fourteen books including eight biographies, a novel and a collection of poetry, Kathleen is currently Royal Literary Fund Fellow in the Creative Writing Department at Lancaster University. “The Lake District has always been important to me as a writer,” says Kathleen, whose first poetry collection Not Saying Goodbye at Gate 21 contains many poems rooted in the landscape. She’s written two biographies centred on the literary history of the area: A Passionate Sisterhood – an account of the lives of the sisters, wives and daughters of Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey – and a biography of Cumbrian poet Norman Nicholson.

My second informant is Andrew Forster, Literature Officer at the Wordsworth Trust. “I moved to Cumbria seven years ago to take up my current post as Literature Officer at the Wordsworth Trust. It’s a particularly generous-spirited place, and I have been part of a number of poetry communities. When I took up post a number of poets came to meet and welcome me, and I had several invitations to read and join things, and I now count some of those among my closest friends.”

What Andrew didn’t tell me was that he is a widely published and award-winning poet with two full-length collections to his name. (I found this out on his website!) I should also add that all my correspondents were unstinting in their praise for what Andrew does for literature in the area.

A relatively new name on the poetry scene is Helen Fletcher, reporting for us from Carlisle. Helen’s poetry has been published in a range of journals including Brittle Star, The Frogmore Papers and The Interpreter’s House, and she used to be a costumed interpreter at Wordsworth House in Cockermouth, where there are regular informal talks on poetry and social history. “Cumbria was a superb place to come out as a poet. It is a diverse and unpretentious scene which is very welcoming of new writers.”

Finally, I couldn’t really run a feature on Cumbria without asking Kim Moore for her words of wisdom and insider knowledge. I love her blog and think it may be unique in its style and content – three parts diary, three parts showcase for other poets’ work and one part travelogue (I think Kim spends almost as much time journeying as Ian McMillan). Um, how many parts is that? Kim’s first full collection is out shortly with Seren. Her pamphlet ‘If We Could Speak Like Wolves’ was a winner in The Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition and was shortlisted for the Michael Marks Pamphlet Award and the Lakeland Book of the Year Award. Kim tells me she’s lived in Barrow for 11 years. “It does inspire my writing – although I would say it sneaks in without me noticing a lot of the time. I do like living in Barrow – I’ve found the people really friendly and the Lake District is right on the doorstep. It’s also a really cheap place to live, both renting and buying a house. The only downside is how isolated it is.”

Q1: Are there any specific towns/cities with a vibrant poetry scene?

Andrew Forster (AF): Kendal is the biggest town in the South Lakes. It has the Brewery Arts Centre. Grasmere, where the Wordsworth Trust is based, has been steadily developing as the centre for poetry in the north west.

Helen Fletcher (HF): Ulverston in the south has an annual Victorian festival and is the centre for ‘A Poem and a Pint’ poetry events. Cockermouth also has several modern poetry writing groups and a good arts venue, the Kirkgate. Keswick has an annual literary festival.

Kathleen Jones (KJ): Eden Arts Trust in Penrith has just started to put on some events at The Old Fire Station and it’s going to be interesting to see how it develops.

Kim Moore (KM): Elsewhere in Cumbria, there isn’t one particular place that has a vibrant poetry scene – it is such a large, rural county that there are a few poetry events scattered throughout the county rather than concentrated in one place.

Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal
Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal

Q2: Who are the poetry ‘movers and shakers’ ??

AF: Kim Moore is a human dynamo who seems to have more hours in her day than the rest of us. She’s on the committees of ‘A Poem and a Pint’ and Brewery Poets, and also runs an annual workshop with Jennifer Copley in Grange over Sands. (More on these below).
Ann Wilson has been at the forefront of a number of spoken word projects and currently runs the Brewery’s monthly open mic night ‘Verbalise’ (See below).
Angela Locke runs Mungrisedale Writers out on the west coast, and is also involved with the Maryport Literature festival which has a good poetry presence.
Geraldine Green runs poetry workshops with Brantwood and at other places.
Mike Barlow is actually based near Lancaster but is a frequent presence in Cumbria and runs the new Wayleave Press, beautifully produced pamphlets of quality poetry from a mix of established and emerging poets.

KM: Andrew Forster at the Wordsworth Trust, Ann Wilson – Spoken Word organiser at The Brewery in Kendal and Katie Hale who works for New Writing Cumbria.

HF:  I have most awareness of the North of the county. Cumbrian poet Sam Smith runs the independent international poetry magazine The Journal. Christopher Pilling, Nick Pemberton and Jacci Bulman have done a lot of work for many years locally to support other writers by organising poetry writing groups and events. There is a real wealth of talent in the county but to choose one for me it has to be Emma McGordon, whose pamphlet was published by Tall Lighthouse. I thoroughly recommend attending a live performance of her brilliant writing.

Dove Cottage
Dove Cottage (Photo

 KJ: Andrew Forster at The Wordsworth Trust. The Trust really does look to the future rather than the past – Dove Cottage in Grasmere has always hosted wonderful poetry readings, importing big names like Sharon Olds and Robert Hass, and enabling people living here to see poets that normally only get a hearing in London.

Kim Moore is one of the rising stars of the Cumbrian poetry scene. She’s the reviews editor of Compass, a new poetry magazine just launched, co-edited by Andrew Forster and Lindsey Holland. This looks as though it’s going to be a good magazine to contribute to. Kim also organises workshops and residential courses.

Q3: What regular poetry events are there in the area?

KJ: The Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal has a regular workshop group and organises poetry events, usually with open mic opportunities.

HF: Verbalise is a monthly open mic night at Kendal Brewery Arts Centre. Usually the last Saturday of the month from 7.30pm. Very welcoming, run and deftly compered by Ann Wilson.

KM: ‘A Poem and a Pint’  based in Ulverston but venues change from night to night. A typical audience is anything from 20-60.  I’m one of the organisers.

A poem and a pint poster

HF: ‘A Poem and a Pint’ hosts impressive poets at its readings, the most recent being Kei Miller. There is usually some live music too.

KM: The Wordsworth Trust holds workshops/readings throughout the year but bi-weekly readings throughout the summer.  There’s always something going on at Dove Cottage in Grasmere, either workshops or readings.

AF: The Wordsworth Trust programme is undergoing some changes at the moment after losing its Arts Council funding last summer. There is another application in at the moment which we will get the results of in June, and there will still be events over the summer.

KM: Open Mic at Zefferelli’s in Ambleside – Andrew Forster and the Wordsworth Trust run the open mic.

KJ: The Words by the Water literature festival in Keswick every March has a small poetry element and has become part of the literary life of Cumbria. The Mirehouse poetry competition, run as part of the festival, is now one of the annual national prizes.  The Old Fire Station, Penrith, is very new as a venue and I’ll be keeping on eye on events here, as it’s my local!  One of the big events is The Winter Droving – a celebration of Penrith’s historic past as a centre for cattle and sheep drovers. There are masked processions and lanterns and music.  This year there was a call for tweet poems on the subject of droving and we all contributed tweets that were chalked on boards around the route of the procession.

The Winter Droving
Winter Droving in Penrith – similarities to Lewes Bonfire, but more animals. Photo by Katie

KJ: Senhouse Roman Museum at Maryport hosts an annual literature festival that includes poetry readings and workshops and a competition.

HF: The Maryport Literary Festival – it has a fresh fringe-style feel.

KJ: Bookcase in Carlisle often hosts poetry readings and Steve and Gwenda Matthews who own the bookshop have also been involved in the setting up of a new festival ‘Borderlines’. The first one was last year, and it was a lovely festival with some fantastic events. The next, in September 2015, will have a more significant poetry element.

Bookcase in Carlisle
Interior of Bookcase in Carlisle

HF: Carlisle Cathedral supports a poet in residence and Bookcase, Castle Street, has been a long-standing host of first poetry collection launches and of readings of established poets such as Jacob Polley. Also in Carlisle, Speakeasy open-mic night meets weekly at a new venue Andalusia, Warwick Rd.

HF: I am always impressed by the numbers that attend workshops in Cumbria. The best I have attended is Jennifer Copley and Kim Moore’s workshops & residential at Kents Bank, Grange. They teach regularly and are running one again this Easter.

Q4: People (especially those outside the poetry world) tend to think that poetry + Cumbria = the Lake Poets, and that’s it really. What do you say to that?

AF: If you’re outside the poetry world it is understandable in some ways. The Lake Poets were at the forefront of the discovery of the Lake District , and it is hard to go anywhere without their poetry in your head telling you they were there first. This is very wide of the mark though. The Trust particularly is viewed as a rite of passage for poets, with almost everyone wanting to come and read here. About ten years ago the poet and translator Chris Pilling edited a New Lakeland Poets’ anthology which went some way towards indicating the wealth of talent that’s still here and a lot of us are engaged in addressing the Lake District in a modern way in our poetry.

I’ve talked about events organisers but there are other poets here too who are quietly getting on with it. Jacob Polley (not living here anymore but still with strong links) Mary Robinson, Chris Pilling, Polly Atkin, Mark Ward to mention just a few.

KJ: The Lakeland poets have been dead for a very long time – but the tradition still lives on. There are a lot of very good, award-winning, poets living in Cumbria. Must be something in the water! The modern Lakeland poets (though not all were born here) are an impressive lot. They include Terry Jones (no relation), Kim Moore, Andrew Forster, Jacob Polley, Chris Pilling, Helen Farish, Josephine Dickinson, Paul Farley, Jennifer Copley, Geraldine Green . . . there are lots of others too.

Jacob Polley
Jacob Polley (Photo from

Q5: Anything else I’ve missed?

KJ: A plea for more arts funding for large, rural areas like Cumbria. Poetry and other literary events shouldn’t be concentrated in the big cities. Newcastle, Manchester and Liverpool are a very long way from Cumbria and not an option for a night out!  One thing I forgot to mention in my area is the Wordsworth Bookshop in Penrith – they are an independent bookshop and marvellous at arranging readings – they supply wine and cupcakes and always have a lovely audience. They don’t have enough money to pay, but if you’re promoting a book it’s a great venue.

Q6: And finally, any interesting factoids for us?

KJ: Cumbria wasn’t a permanent part of England until the mid 14th century – Scotland thought it ought to belong to them. It has the wettest place in England, the deepest lake and the highest mountain.

HF: Ulverston is the birthplace of Stan Laurel (of Laurel & Hardy).

Stan Laurel

PS: yes, waterproof trousers do work and in my humble opinion are a must when visiting the Lakes. I got a very cheap pair of overtrousers from Blacks and haven’t regretted it. Great for golfing in the rain too.

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  1. Mary Mary

    Good coverage of our huge and geographically challenging county. Great to have Chris Pilling mentioned. As well as writing and translating many books of poetry he is an enormous encouragement and support to other poets.

  2. Peter Rafferty Peter Rafferty

    Just to pick up on what Andrew Forster said about a Lake Poets anthology. The one in question was called The New Lake Poets, and came out on Bloodaxe in 1991. It was edited however by the late William Scammell, who co-founded the Cumbrian Poets with Chris. Chris in turn edited Bill’s Selected after his death in 2000.

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Robin Houghton 2021