Tuesday, 2 April 2013

WH Auden and a visit to Froghall 1925

“He would have liked the area. It would have had the sort of landscape that he enjoyed” a biographer of the poet Wystan Hugh Auden told me when I asked about a visit he made to the area as a young man of 18 in 1925. This year sees the 100th anniversary of his birth and certainly the anniversary has lead to an assessment of the man and his work. Auden is now considered to be one of the greatest poets of the 20th century and twice since his death in 1973 he has resonated posthumously in the public mind. Firstly, when in the 90s film “ Four Weddings and a Funeral” John Hanman reads “ Funeral Blues” “Stop all the clocks” over the coffin of Simon Callow. And again in 2001 he became the unofficial Poet Laureate of New York after the 9/11 attacks in his poem September 1st 1939 “ the unmentionable odour of death, offends the September night” and ending “ we must love each other or die” became a focus for communal grief.

 I have always been interested in his work. I found his work intellectual as well as accessible. An anthology of Auden was the first poetry book that I bought as a teenager. I was particularly impressed by the poem “Shield of Achilles” which details the powerlessness of an onlooker in a totalitarian regime I still have a copy of the book.  It has a picture of him as an old man staring out with the heavily wrinkled face that he described as looking like a “wedding cake left out in the rain”

 Although he was born in Yorkshire Auden had many links with the Midlands. He moved to Birmingham at the age of 2 when his father became the Director of Public Health in Schools. Auden’s unusual first name derives from a 9th century Shropshire born Prince who was later canonised. St Wystan’s empty tomb is in the Anglo Saxon crypt of Repton church in Derbyshire. His father went to the school in the town and his grandmother lived in the village of Horninglow on the Staffordshire/ Derbyshire border. Auden visited her regularly up to the time of her death in December 1925. He visited earlier in the year, which lead him to explore the rail system of the Moorlands.

At the age of 15 he decided to be a poet although his family were keen that he become an engineer and for the next 6 years he wrote 200 hundred. His style was often in imitation of poets that he admired such as TS Eliot, Thomas Hardy and the First World War poet Edward Thomas. The influence of Thomas is particularly marked in the poems that he wrote will visiting the area in the summer of 1925. The early poems“ The Canal, Froghall and “Flowers and the Stationmaster” were written while visiting the area. The later poem mentions Waterhouses.

He was drawn to a type of landscape especially mines and quarries. His vision of paradise was “ In my Eden we have a few beam engines, saddle tank locomotives, overshot waterwheels and other pieces of obsolete machinery to play with”. He was associated with the area around Alston in Cumbria- the abandoned lead mines in the area full of the archaic machinery that he craved. In fact the clue that Auden wrote poems about this area came from a book “ WH Auden, Pennine Poet by Alan Myers and Robert Forsythe published by North Pennine Heritage Trust.

The Froghall Wharf that he visited that summer would still have been busy but the truth was that it was entering into a period of decline. The limestone quarries had been in operation since the 18th century and a canal to take advantage the industry was opened in the 1777. The connection between the quarry and the canal was by a primitive rail system the first built in the 18th century. The limestone quarried was found to be particularly good in the smelting of iron ore and increasingly large amount were transported to the ironworks of the Black Country. The 15,000 tons of rock that was being shifted in the late 19th century had increased to 200,000 during the First World War. The stone was also used in agriculture and for the developing chemical industry especially after 1890. In 1885 there were over 100 men listed as working at the wharf. A photograph from 1905 portrays a very harsh environment with steam billowing and obscuring the landscape. It is bustling scene with men active and filling the view. Limestone is burnt and loaded on to the barges owned by Brunner Mold & Co.

 A newspaper account from 1936 reported that “ Some 50 years ago the basin was a scene of bustling activity with limestone being broken into ballast grades by large groups of men: limestone was burned into agricultural lime. On the other side of the canal brick making was practised and further into the valley coal was mined from galleries running into the valley sides”

 The company that quarried the stone Thorley and Bowers was owned and managed by the curiously named Primrose Thorley. He is in a photograph of 1912 tall and moustached with his boots caked with lime. His dog Sappho used to run alongside the carriage between Cheadle and Froghall. However, the peak of production at Froghall Wharf was brief. After the War the area went into decline following a landslip in the early 20s made access difficult to the quarries, which coupled with a decision, by the Cheshire based ICI which was created out of Brunner Mond to develop their own quarries effectively doomed the industry. The poem “The Canal, Froghall” begins:

“There are no roads except the towpath through the valley” and everyone who knows the area will recognise the remoteness. The canal follows through attractively quite countryside " winding in and out among the hill ribs and hollows”, There is a rich wildlife in this secluded spot but the peace is disturbed. A barge is pulled by an old horse and walking beside the animal walks an old man humming to himself and puffing on a clay pipe

“All unaware of what is scattered by their coming.
They go their way and ripples are the only traces
Until the calm returns which everything effaces
And images of trees resume their standing places”

In October 1925 Auden started his degree originally in Biology before changing to English. An interest in landscape and industrial heritage stayed with him throughout his life. In the 1930s he famously collaborated with the composer Benjamin Britten in the 1935 documentary film Night Mail and continued this fascination right to the publication of Lullaby the year before his death unlike many writers his reputation has not diminished since his death in 1973.