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The road to High Head Castle, first built in the Middle Ages and then destroyed by fire in 1947.

The thing is
to love life
to love it even when you have no
stomach for it, when everything you’ve held
dear crumbles like burnt paper in your hands
and your throat is filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you so heavily
it’s like heat, tropical, moist
thickening the air so it’s heavy like water
more fit for gills than lungs.
When grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief.
How long can a body withstand this? you think,
and yet you hold life like a face between your palms,
a plain face, with no charming smile
or twinkle in her eye,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

–Ellen Bass

I read this poem every day when I was in Cumbria. It has an incantatory power for me, an extraordinary coupling of life’s deep pain with that “plain face” of hope. Thank you to my friend Linda for passing it along to me.

Remains of High Head Castle, Cumbria

Flooding in Cumbria

The river claims the road

Higher ground now means something to me that it didn’t before spending 10 days in Cumbria. The natives of this lush and rainy region near Scotland now refer to the days of rain that culminated in 12 inches in just 24 hours as the 1000 year storm. So it is understandable that many were not ready when the rivers everywhere spilled out beyond their beds. On Thursday the town of Cockermouth was under 8 feet of fast moving water, and most of Keswick was awash as well. A member of the emergency crew lost his life when a stone bridge beneath him collapsed. Hundreds of people were evacuated from their homes.

A thousand year storm is mind bending enough and even more sobering when viewed within the larger frame of Cumbria’s long history of human habitation. The stone circle at Castlerigg just outside Keswick dates back to 3000 BCE. The neolithic sites scattered around the region make the Roman ruins found along Hadrian’s Wall seem recent and comprehensible. Latrines. Bath houses. Grain storage. This I understand. But what our neolithic progenitors had in mind when they demarcated vistas with circles of stone is still unanswered. The mystery of their meaning is part of their power. Like extreme weather, the only response is a speechless awe.

Stone circle at Castlerigg

Roman ruins of a bath house at Vindolanda in Scotland

Other mysteries were braided into our 10 days. After seeing Jane Campion’s film Bright Star, we relied on scholar Kathryn’s deep knowledge of Keats and his milieu to clarify where the film held true and where poetic license was employed. Volumes of his letters and a number of biographies about his life are ready to be referenced on the bookshelves at the Lodge. We heard about how Keats viewed Coleridge and Wordsworth and Shelley. How desperately in love with Fanny Brawne he was. How ill equipped the 19th century world was to deal with a disease classified by the provocative catchphrase “consumption” that flooded the body cavities with blood and took the lives of 1 in 4 Europeans during that era. How 25 years after his death, Keats’ publisher sold off the rights to all his poetry for a pittance, convinced his work would never command a following.

The higher ground Keats needed to be saved from drowning in his own blood wasn’t within his reach. Poor John. Meanwhile I know the difference between being in the water and being in a safe perch just beyond the surge. I also know that the difference between the two can be as slim as a split second, as thin as a paper membrane, as fluid as a river bed in Cumbria.

Rain-soaked road to High Head Castle

Sunlight between rainstorms, Caldbeck