Cracks started to appear as I’d walked towards Richmond, I’d sent a message to the school I was due to visit there. When I’d dried off, I’d seen a reply that amounted to “no thanks…no room at the inn”.
I’m not sure whose fault this was. But I’ll blame the school for now, seeing as this was the only one to uninvite me. Without letting me know too. Although I do think one other had forgotten I was coming, but they’d welcomed me warmly anyway (I’m naming no names).
I’d no idea what to do next. School offices would be closed for the day. I recalled walking past 3-4 schools on the way to meet Bea. I’d not really used Twitter before, but found the two other schools ran accounts, (many now do, in order to keep in touch with smartphone-watching parents and to highlight school achievements). I posted a short message asking if either of the other two schools could help me, whilst thinking “aaarrrgh!”…
Having taught a bit, I was well aware that many great teachers would be working overnight as usual, planning their lessons and next term, marking work, writing reports, chasing resources. I dread to think what the actual hourly pay rate is for a teacher. But that’s where dedication to a vocation takes you.
The three nearest primary schools were Roman Catholic, Methodist and Anglican, which reminded me of the classic line used in times of religious uncertainty on Father Ted…who might help me out?
A young teacher from Trinity C of E School replied very quickly and said they’d love a visit in the morning. Which was so good to hear. I’d always had the ambition of 15 days & 15 schools. Without Miss Juden stepping in, I’d have definitely felt I’d failed the whole thing.
It really did mean that much to me. Top teacher. Great school – part of a multi-academy trust (I’m not sure how MATs work but they do seem to move fast and empower staff). I bet they all miss her – she teaches down in Somerset now. Another golden Lost Word county, thanks to John Fish’s campaign.
So the next morning, I retraced my steps back to her school (of course, it would happen to be the furthest one from where I was staying), weaving between the many families walking, not driving the school run. The school was incredibly welcoming which more than made up for the Methodists having given me the brush-off. (And the Catholics not bothering to reply). There’s a parable there somewhere. As that good book says, it’s not for me to judge.
They also had a massive sound system, which took me back to when I’d managed club nights in the 90s, simultaneously thinking – The Blessing by Spell Songs is going to sound awesome through this. Miss Juden had mentioned a sister school outside town, which could have been a 12 mile round walk, but with Bea being in town with the car, I figured ‘why not’? A good way to return the huge favour they’d done for me. And it really isn’t a chore visiting schools – it’s an absolute privilege.
By now I’d presented nine assemblies, for over 800 children and 40 staff. This was one of the biggest so that rave PA came in handy though it made it slightly harder to show the book off. I noticed no one identified Magpies by name, saying only ‘birds’, perhaps lacking confidence in front of such a big audience. Or perhaps not knowing. There is a lot of ‘shooting’ happening around Richmond…
Schools had been so good, and without being asked, three had made significant donations to help others schools in Cumbria receive The Lost Words book. Not the biggest schools. In fact, three of the smaller ones, two of them in Yorkshire. I don’t know what this means, it’s just how it happened.
The staff of schools are so crucial to realising the potential of children within their communities. In a decade of working with schools, I reckon there’s only two teachers and one head I’d rather not meet again. I’m thoroughly impressed with 99% of them – a success rate I’m not sure many professions could achieve.
All of which meant that a visit to the sister school at Middleton Tyas was just as much fun and just as much appreciated by me. They’d watched the film made by my friend Cain Scrimgeour before I set off, and I heard some of the children say “it’s him off the telly” as they filed in. I was wearing the same t-shirt as in Cain’s film which must have helped me to be recognised. Probably why David Attenborough always wears a blue shirt, I suppose.
It also provided a real treat, as one of the nicest posh cafes I’ve ever been in was nearby. Some of their events made me chuckle. Shakespeare or David Walliams…hmmm.
Our landlady had recommended it. She was a handsome, dynamic woman, who I could well imagine as a resistance fighter, Yorkshire’s Violette Szabo, if she’d lived back then. Now she ran mindfulness breaks for people and healing therapies. She seemed to be on quite a journey herself.
“I haven’t always lived here or like this y’know…(I sensed there’d been a split…and perhaps a temporary change in circumstances)…but I run therapy and retreats now to help people”. I mentioned the sign I’d passed up on the fields above town, about mindful rural retreat lodges which (unwittingly) seemed to make her quite cross. “They’re no such thing – it’s a development dodge. Sharp practice.” Her eyes narrowed, briefly.
Dairy free diets were clearly a particular passion of hers, along with all kinds of healthy living now. We did have a lovely breakfast, surrounded by dreamcatchers, affirmations and I think a few crystals. It’s a scene I’m familiar with. My mother-in-law is very interested in anything. Whether it’s how a pyramid improves her tomatoes, or how visualisation helps her pay her taxes, or the crystal (that I’ve never touched – it’ll mess its powers up) she placed next to our TV to keep us safe.
As we prepared to leave, talk turned somehow to shooting. Turns out she’d run a ‘shoot’ for years. (Never judge someone by their dreamcatchers). I wish I’d known. It would have been a rare chance for me to talk to someone on that side, about it. To learn more about what I can’t start to understand. I’m not sure whether she shot things any more. Other than secret agents, perhaps.
I was now on my ‘days off’ and we moved across town to our new accommodation for the weekend. It had been almost impossible to find. I think mainly as the only real landmark was a sewage farm, which for understandable reasons, they’d not wanted to refer to in their marketing publicity. (NB: Sewage farms are pretty good for birdwatching – every methane cloud has a silver lining).
It was actually right on the Coast to Coast’s riverside route out of Richmond with a beautiful view across the river meadows towards a ruined Abbey. It was extremely relaxing and pretty inside, filled with beautiful furnishings and glass art and mosaics that our new host had made. Then I saw the dreamcatcher and looked sideways at Bea. We both silently nodded once, Laurel & Hardy style.
I’ve never used the word vivacious before, but it’s the right word for the sparklingly attractive woman who arrived with a paper bag filled with dairy-free (another Laurel & Hardy nod) goodies for our breakfast.
“What a lovely unusual place you live in” I said. How did you come to be here? (I should have known, not to ask, it was another coincidence, being connected to another separation of sorts. I didn’t ask. Clearly the man’s a fool).
Bea and I crossed the river to visit the ruined abbey. It was quite a find. And very pleasingly paired up with the Shap Abbey ruins, built by the very same order of white canons almost nine centuries ago, forty miles back west, as the crow flies, (fifty for the C2C walker) in Cumbria.
It dated back to 1150 and whilst it was ruined, St Agatha’s, the C13th church nearby, still stood with equally ancient, rare murals dating back to a time before certain paint colours were available to artists.
I particularly liked seeing the clever crow following the farmworker. So much so, I missed some stone cross that Pevsner had got giddy about. It felt like all the best things about Richmond lived down here by the river. Beautiful artists and artwork, peaceful and sacred places.
The next day we had another rest day treat planned. A nature walk involving the official secrets act.
Years ago I’d heard about a curious place ‘Foxglove Covert’ – a hundred acre nature reserve built by, and for the armed forces. Not without some irony, (in my mind at least). It was the first nature reserve in Richmondshire – a place perhaps better known for shooting wildlife rather than conserving it. It had taken the professional armed forces to create the region’s first nature reserve.
The MOD own incredible amounts of land and their operations have prevented certain developments, modern-day chemical drenching and public access, often to the advantage of wildlife. It looked lovely. It had some of Yorkshire’s best wildlife ponds for one thing. The lake had been dammed up by concrete a century ago, when it was to be a camp for 40,000 soldiers. Now it was home to kingfisher, little grebes, dragonflies and wetland flowers.
The campaigner Guy Shrubsole found there’s actually 70,000 acres of MOD land totalling 174 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). But it’s not that simple (is anything?) with huge questions about the promises successive governments haven’t kept, such as Churchill’s infamous pledge to return Tyneham to those they evicted. And, with the evolving nature of war, are tank ranges and the like actually how things are still done? Isn’t it now more to do with cyberattacks, biological warfare, terrorism, ‘maskirovka’ and black ops..?
The consensus among Coast-to-Coasters was that east of Richmond, other than the sound of guns and explosions, things got suddenly very boring and uninspiring, in relation to the Coast to Coast. Which is a bit unkind. People live there. The area is hugely reliant on the armed forces for employment and its prosperity. Catterick, just 5 miles to the east is/was Europe’s biggest barracks. So what was Foxglove Covert about then?
I’d contacted the wardens there before I left with an idea to ask if I could present a talk for them, perhaps for their volunteers, reserve supporters, interested squaddies? It hadn’t quite come off purely due to shortage of time on my part, but I was determined to still visit. I knew you needed a passport to enter and would need to clear an armed guard checkpoint or two to do so. But admission was free.
After we checked in, some pleasant uniformed lads told us to follow their escort vehicle and not stop. But they pulled over and somehow we ended up in front of them. I wasn’t sure what to do, but could tell we shouldn’t have done what I did, which was to carry on.
A comically low-speed car chase ensued as we drove on at 10 mph aware we were now being pursued by armed soldiers in their little Ford Fiesta. A car chase involving guns is still nerve-wracking, even at 10mph. I think they didn’t want to break their own barracks’ speed limit. As they executed a manoeuvre to pull us over, I think they did well not to laugh. I expect I’d gone a bit pale. We’d definitely gone somewhere we shouldn’t, after missing the narrow hairpin turn around the boundary fence.
It didn’t take long to calm down when we did get on to the reserve. Huge amounts of landscaping work had been carried out, led by a phenomenally dedicated conservationist and soldier, Major Tony Crease of The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, in order to offer natural health services to personnel in 1992, returning from what would become the first Gulf War, as well as new recruits.
It’s pretty wacky seeing how the soldiers used tanks and military engineering to get things done, from creating lakes to building bird hides and super habitats. If the JCB got stuck (which it did), they just went and got a tank to pull it out. Simple. It must have helped them recover from their ordeals.
They had some innovative ideas. I particularly enjoyed pretending to be a beaver, changing the features, riffles and flow of water, and finding a weasel (one of the most elusive of The Lost Words). I was only sad I’d not had the time to set up an event with them. They were clearly brilliant at what they were doing, and good enough to let the public visit.
Whilst sat in a bird hide, I suddenly saw a camouflaged line of soldiers carefully crawling along a hillside then advance on a target, providing covering fire. That sort of thing just doesn’t happen at RSPB Minsmere.
There was one last BIG thing to do. A red letter day.
Whilst planning my walk, I’d looked up the incredible work commissioned by Compton Verney gallery, for my friend Kate, as I thought it might help her plans for a Lost Words project in Carlisle. By coincidence, I saw their Lost Words exhibition was touring in the summer to various properties and national parks. More than that, its only northern date would actually be just an hour away from me in Yorkshire and opening on the very day I was in the area.
Pure chance. Pure luck. I was very keen to go and see it. Maybe I could help or volunteer to do a talk there? It turned out there were already a number of events planned, from arts-based workshops with the Lost Words co-creator Jackie Morris, outdoor activities, as well as a grand event to open the exhibition on Saturday.
Bea and I drove over from Richmond to see what was happening. It was quite a swanky affair. Bea had fortunately brought me a fresh t-shirt as well some repair tape for my ripped raintrousers but I was still a bit underdressed.
The last gallery do I’d been invited to with an artist in attendance was with Bridget Riley, in Eastbourne of all places. I’d seen a piece she’d done using the exact same colours I’d had mixed to paint my teenage bedroom walls with, but didn’t like to say. She’d seemed a bit intense, and mainly sat frowning, in her dungarees.
Not Jackie. She was wearing a fabulous otter-painted scarf and surrounded by people including one in an officially smart dress with a big clipboard.
“Let me give this man a hug!” Jackie said. (Possibly to get away from the clipboard).
It was great to meet her at last. And her friends. And so many Lost Words supporters.
There were some incredible people there, including Sarah Deakin, one of four women who’d supported the Lost Words for Sheffield campaign in conjunction with the Save Sheffield Trees protest, all led by a tree called Vernon – look, I know it sounds mad – but it’s true:
And the writer Amy-Jane Beer, who’d run the successful North & East Yorkshire Lost Words campaign. I met her and her son, with an ermine moth I’d just rescued from the loo in my hand, which made for a nice icebreaker.
And Cath Bashforth who was working on a rather secret beaver project in Yorkshire. Look at the success they’ve had with it since:
And last but not least, a local actress, Bidi Iredale, with a true glint in her starling eyes, who would perform some of Robert Macfarlane’s spells live. It was going to be great.
The clipboard interrupted. “Right who’s doing what and when, have I got your speeches etc etc” and started to usher the VIPs behind the rope. “He’s coming with us” said Jackie. First time I’d ever been in an entourage. It felt a bit rock n roll…like being in Fleetwood Mac. At their seventies’ peak.
More fretful clipboard enquiries “who’s speaking first?”
“He’ll be speaking” said Jackie, again nodding to me.
“But I don’t have this information. What about? WHO are you?”
“You mean, you don’t know?” I slowly asked, feigning concern. (That seemed to do the trick).
“What will you talk about? I’ll need a transcript.”
Behind her, up on the wall was Jackie’s illustration, the absence of kingfisher.
“Ripples” I said, looking over her shoulder, at the picture. “How we can all cause ripples, not knowing what will result when we do.” I improvised.
It was a golden evening. Everyone spoke very well, with passion, with love for the Lost Words and with humour although I’m not sure the National Park bigwig had read the book. He mainly talked about the building we were in. And Bea later said I’d got unusually serious at one stage (I don’t know, I’m not sure what I said, it was all a bit gobsmacking).
Sarah gave me a gift I could carry, from the Sheffield campaigners. A new version of Heartwood – the charm-against-harm, sung to help fundraise for people who were facing heavy legal costs, despite having been found to have been in the right to protect these trees. If you want to help (and please do), visit them at http://www.savesheffieldtrees.org.uk
I can’t tell you much more about Richmond. It all looked pretty good, but everything seemed to be booked up, with the exception of an old school chippy complete with formica-topped tables that we ended up in, for our meal out. But it had been the most memorable weekend.
We’d had no dairy, but also no bad dreams either…