The English Lake District has a rich heritage of poetry, inspired no doubt by the language, the quality of life, the peace and the goodness of this north western corner of England. Here are some that have a special place at St Olaf’s.
CHRISTMAS MORNING 2020
His wellingtons shone; perhaps the shepherding
rinsed off to honour those few steps to the altar;
stone flags firm contrast to fells’ slurry and slip,
pause for a guiding word in sancturied shelter
as gathering for penning at the Shepherds’ Meet
second Saturday each October. A similar waiting
for the judge’s nod, yet pivot in the ancient story:
inn, shepherds’ fields, night journey into revelation,
summons and answer. Midnight’s choir of stars
faded as cloud ushered in escorting drift
to cap the tops of England’s highest fells
gathered to cradle its smallest parish church.
White blistering above two thousand feet the skyline
of those drawn close by pull of single bell,
like three wise seers, also in the sacred text,
retracing steps that led home after exile.
Snow does not stay: starched white of alter cloth
gives way to gnarl of rock by Easter’s thawing;
lambs held back, last nativities on sparse farms,
tired ewes’ tight coats shed late after Spring’s rising.
Though Christmas churchyard, sheltered by centuried yews,
walls’ rubble of cobble near the climbers’ gravestones,
shares spike of daffodils emerged to press
their case against chilled dark’s long prosecution.
Martyn Halsall, Christmas Day 2020. Wasdale poet Martyn Halsall enjoyed a long career as a journalist, including fifteen years with The Guardian. He now focuses on writing and reviewing poetry and his work has received numerous prizes including being short-listed for the prestigious Keats-Shelley Memorial Award. The Christmas Day Service 2020 at St Olaf’s – where he gave the address – inspired this poem.
Once every name was answered in the schoolroom,
called to order before that call to arms,
farmers’ sons setting aside their fathers’ ploughshares.
Now the response is quiet: two minutes’ silence.
Five scholars from the parish, names recorded
in plain glass under angels in east window,
sharing the secret of risen Christ returning
after his carnage, answering his name again.
Also on gun metal plaque the names of climbers
after whose sacrifice the fells were given,
and in carved slate those falling, reaching upwards
when answering Gable, Scawfell, Pillar Rock.
Some registers continue; breeze through yews,
lake’s lisp and lap; stones murmuring within the screes.
Martyn Halsall, Remembrance Sunday – 8th November 2020.
In 2020, we held our Act of Remembrance in the fresh air of the churchyard, beside the Fell & Rock Climbing Club Memorial. We remembered the six young men from Wasdale and the twenty members of the Fell & Rock Climbing Club who gave their lives for their country in World War I, and the six airmen who died when their aircraft crashed into the Wasdale fells in World War II. Thirty-two lives remembered – lasting peace longed for and prayed for.
Probably beech; old church held in new lighting
shows every pock and scar, medieval faces,
grain’s dark accountancy, an underpinning
of splayed A for Almighty bracing roof space,
plainsong in boulder before the Reformation.
Nearer to altar an inverted U
gives rise to myth, how bow of Viking rib-cage
was yoked to bear low weight of slate and rafter.
Look close: graze lingers over adze and chisel
where edge of steel spat sharp to split a knot.
Look up; eternity’s squared, confined to skylight;
each beam’s pegged home without a criminal nail.
Dale sings September’s lift-off into swallow psalm
as two priests track back aisle a final time,
exchange farewells in Christ’s ironic honour
of plain cross, larch cross-hatched above cleared table,
no figure tacked on after the fifteen-forties.
Carpenter worked main frame from local oak woods,
healer would bear spare nails in wounded handling,
rising at dawn to re-define each sabbath.
Leaving the dale is parable of each returning;
low cloud’s re-roofed the crags, drawn shutters down
over the screes, their tumbled panic of stonework.
Whatever passes for indoors, plaster and lath,
is dwarfed by place-named map, and its geology.
Martyn Halsall September 2020
This poem takes reference from the final eucharist celebrated in St Olaf’s by the Revs John and Lesley Riley on Sunday 13th September 2020, shortly before their retirement as Team Rector and Associate Priest in the Seatallen Benefice, and aims to set their valued six years of ministry in Wasdale within the continuing witness of England’s smallest continuing parish church.
i am a little church
i am a little church (no great cathedral)
far from the splendour and squalor of hurrying cities
– i do not worry if briefer days grow briefest,
i am not sorry when sun and rain make april
my life is the life of the shepherd and the sheep;
my prayers are prayers of earth’s own clumsily striving
(finding and losing and laughing and crying) children
whose any sadness or joy is my grief or my gladness
around me surges a miracle of unceasing
birth and glory and death and resurrection;
over my sleeping self float flaming symbols
of hope, and I wake to a perfect patience of mountains
i am a little church (far from the frantic
world with its rapture and anguish) at peace with nature
– i do not worry if longer nights grow longest;
i am not sorry when silence becomes singing
winter by spring, I lift my diminutive self to
merciful Him Whose only now is forever;
standing erect in the deathless truth of His presence
(welcoming humbly His light and proudly His darkness)
e cummings (1894 – 1962)
The poet used only the capitals shown, his name he wrote in minors too, and no punctuation. This humility suits a little church like St Olaf’s.
I WILL GO BACK
I will go back to the hills again
That are sisters to the sea,
The bare hills, the brown hills
That stand eternally,
And their strength shall be my strength,
And their joy my joy shall be.
I will go back to the hills again,
To the hills I knew of old,
To the fells that bare the straight larch woods
To keep their farms from cold;
For I know that when the springtime comes
The whin will be breaking gold.
There are no hills like the Wasdale hills
When spring comes up the dale,
Nor any woods like the larch woods
When primroses blow pale;
And the shadows flicker quiet-wise
On the stark ridge of Black Sail.
I have been up and down the world
To the Earth’s either end,
And I left my heart in a field in France
Beside my truest friend;
And joy goes over, but love endures,
And the hills, unto the end.
I will go back to the hills again
When the day’s work is done,
And set my hands against the rocks
Warm with an April sun,
And see the night creep down the fells
And the stars climb one by one.
May Wedderburn Cannan, a member of the Fell & Rock Climbing Club of the English Lake District, First World War poet and writer, November 1916. After her fiancé was killed in action, she became a nurse, working in field hospitals on the front line. After the war was over, she returned to the hills she loved.
No historian wrote it this way, but consider
this might offer a possibility; a priest,
named after his saint and king, is bedding down
for the night on rushes, amid the rustling mice
in small shelter – more a barn than a chapel;
and wind is testing the latch, and sleet’s forecast.
He had recognised this place; same verticals
as rock walls above fjords where his steps began.
His sailors had turned salt ribs, before they left,
from a spare boat into beams that roof his church.
So cloud became surf, his sanctuary a boat in the sky;
and cold is seeping into stone, and the hearth’s struggling.
Imagine him, settled in sleep, when a rough staff batters
oak shuttering him from dark. As he boils water,
trims a wick, rouses fire, tries to be discreet,
he waits for the shepherd’s wife to assist the birth
their first, as promised, to be named after a king.
And cloud’s clearing high crags, and stars are praising.
Martyn Halsall 2014 . Olaf’s Nativity is from ‘Sanctuary’ – a collection of poems that emerged from his year as Poet in Residence at Carlisle Cathedral and published by Canterbury Press in 2014. The poem is born of Martyn’s love of St Olaf’s, where he often worships.
Manhandled steep that first time, iron names
stretchered to Great Gable’s summit; twenty fallen
rising again on England’s highest memorial.
Braving for ninety years a weather barrage,
hail’s shrapnel, waves of misted gas attack
blinding for days; snow bandaged, trenched all winter.
Then helicoptered light as angels’ flight, re-settled
as elegy in a country churchyard. Yews
frame its new view to Gable’s pyramid.
Figures and facts read out; how upland acres
were vested to the National Trust for use
of people of our land, given for all time.
Hear them again: Fell and Rock Climbing Club
members no longer just names and initials,
Bainbridge through Lees to CJ Worthington,
but cragsmen, still roped on, as a child’s hand
traces steel mapped on giddy border contours,
settled with a psalm, and bishop’s re-dedication.
Historic plate set straight with waller’s grafting
in boulder shelter to blare of Herdwick lambs;
that crow’s rasp, scar across two minutes silence.
Martyn Halsall 2020. This poem relates to the memorial to the members of the Fell & Rock Climbing Club who fell in the First World War. It is located beside the east wall of the church yard, directly in line with the summit of Great Gable where it was located from 1924 until 2013, when it was replaced by an updated memorial. It is from the collection of poetry by Martyn entitled ‘Passing Place’, published by Cylch Cerrig Press in 2020. Other publications of Martyn Halsall’s poetry are:
Sanctuary, Canterbury Press 2014
Coronach, Wayleave Press 2016
Borrowed Ground, Cylch Cerrig Press 2018 and 2019
About Woodland, Cylch Cerrig Press 2019
Visible Music, Caldew Press 2020
Had Olaf come he would have re-read Wasdale
in Old Norse, recalled North, same glaciation;
homeland re-cast, translating king as priesthood.
He’d leave longboat at tilt where arguing ravens
mingled with gulls as glass held blended waters.
He’d follow Irt, dale narrowing to new keel-laying,
find everything to hand as anchorage, shelter;
boulders for cell, ash-lashings, turf for roofing,
beck fuelling draught and gruel; crags opening skylight.
Same water language as former home, same voicing,
spate’s sobbed lament, praise broken-open thunder,
lambs’ blare among those ready shepherding.
Nor could he dream how centuries’ steps would follow
fashioned so strange, yet praise in buckled walling,
pegged cross-beams peaceful after torturing nails.
Future would re-define bread ground from boulders
lifted as heavenly host in this prayers’ shieling;
swords’ melt re-cast as bell, adding to flocks’ chime.
This poem re-writes history to re-imagine Olaf as priest rather than king, establishing a monk’s cell on the site of the church named after him. ‘Shieling’ is a rich word of Scots origin, used for both a shepherd’s shelter and area of pasture.
I often call there.
There are no poems in it
for me. But as a gesture
of independence of the speeding
traffic I am a part
of, I stop the car,
turn down the narrow path
to the river, and enter
the church with its clear reflection
There are few services
now; the screen has nothing
to hide. Face to face
with no intermediary
between me and God, and only the water’s
quiet insistence on a time
older than man, I keep my eyes
open and am not dazzled,
so delicately does the light enter
my soul from the serene presence
that waits for me till I come next.
RS Thomas (1913-2000)
from ‘Later Poems’ 1972-1982; Macmillan London Ltd., 1983
While a long way from St Olaf’s, the celebration of a similar small church by the Welsh priest-poet RS Thomas draws interesting parallels. Both are places of guarded silence where the poet finds a similar ‘serene presence’ to our Cumbrian sanctuary; equally a place of spiritual power, and potential.