Poet in Residence

 

Bob's poems are published below. Read & enjoy. His latest poem will appear after his first scene setting and evocative poem.

For the first poem of my residency I wanted to convey something of the history of the area. St Matthew’s Churchyard stands at an ancient crossroads, embodying all the folklore associated with the meetings of ways. Roman and British coins were discovered hereabouts, which suggests some sort of skirmish two millennia ago.

I have used early spellings of local place-names, the first two of which will be clear enough. The others are Upper Winteredge (near Coley Church), Woolrow (on the Calderdale Way between Bailiff Bridge and Thornhills), and Rookes Wood, Norwood Green. Estfelde Knowl was a field-name, and was situated to the east of what is now Knowle Top Road, at the southern end.

 Elland Flags is the sandstone, excellent for building, which was quarried at many sites in the old township of Hipperholme-cum-Brighouse, and almost up to the present day.

 

 The Old Churchyard

 

 Where four tracks met and parted
coins and blood were spilled,
silver heads of Caligula, gold Boudiccas,
in the world of neither here nor there
where the 255 Arriva cruises the turnpike
down to Baillibrigge and Clyftone Beck.
                         *
 Solace-seekers roam around low mounds of turf,
carved headstones of blackened Elland Flags:
two acres of the township’s departed, extras
in time’s tragicomedy, revenants
whose silence rings from Wyntersedge to Woleroe,
Rokeswode to Estfelde Knowl.
                         *
 Late winter sun over Birkby Hill splinters
through bare branches of oak and beech and thorn,
scatters across affectionate remembrances
of the long-lived, of infant mortality,
the pure of heart, sung to their rest
by flights of angels; the lover and the loved.
                           *

On the homepage of this website, click on 'About the Churchyard'. On the left, just over halfway down that page, click on 'Click here to read about people of interest ...' Last on the list is Private James Smallwood. Click on Private James Smallwood.pdf and scroll to the bottom of the last page of Dorothy Barker's article, where you will find a photo of Roydlands Farm, home of the Smallwood family. Or press here. As a child I knew this as 'Smallwoods' Farm'.

The poem merely references the farm, and is more concerned with the iconic premises, not in the photo, on the opposite side of Wakefield Road, where, as Dorothy mentions, the same trade is carried on 60 years later. Although the poem is not really about that, either.
 

 

 Christine

 

Below the Wesleyan chapel,
across from Smallwood’s farm,
Charlie Soothill’s chip shop.
Saw to the bets until it became legal *
and someone opened a bookie’s.
Spent each-way pennies
down The Travellers on a Saturday
after he’d cleaned the green range,
Frank Ford Halifax across the top.
 
Best batter in the land.
Took a chip from each frying,
tested it between finger and thumb.
A look was enough for the fish.
 
In the window next door, Charlie’s daughter.
Laughed when we offered a seasoned chip,
laughed at summer sunsets, snow,
dust blown down the street on darkening days.
We’d never heard the word Downs,
only two-syllabled insults
we couldn’t call her. Christine,
always on the other side of the glass.
 
*Betting was illegal until 1960. Charlie Soothill was Hipperholme’s ‘under-the-counter’ bookie.
 

Some time ago I visited John Clare’s cottage, now a museum, in Helpstone, Northamptonshire. He’s also buried in the village, at St Botolph’s Church. Clare is often referred to as a ‘peasant poet’, a term which sounds condescending these days. However, what he was, and remains, is a humble and moving poet of nature, as well as much else. Even during his final desolate decades in Northampton Asylum a deep love of the birds, flowers, trees and creatures amongst which he’d lived his life was often a solace.

I’m certainly not comparing myself to Clare, but the poet’s great lesson, for me, is that it’s always possible to open ourselves to the natural life which surrounds us.

 

April the Ninth

 

6.45 a.m. Sun just up, sky blue and gold.
I rest my bicycle against the back of a bench
next to Emily Jane Lister, ‘Beloved wife …’
Across Till Carr Lane Chris Green’s cattle
catch the warmth as the last of a light mist
lifts from the valley below. Birds everywhere,
soaking the air with their songs of spring.
 
From the top of an oak a woodpigeon,
still as the windless morning,
weighs up the world. An early bee
forages amongst last year’s leaves.
Drum roll of a distant woodpecker.
 
Pale yellow primroses, keys of Heaven,
flower of love, huddle on the graves
of Sam Watkinson and his neighbours.
Jackdaws carry twigs to the top of the bell tower.
Daffodils, that die on Easter Day, glow
against the dewy grass’s glossy green.
 
A duet of wrens defends the headstone
of Samuel Baines. Five crows float by.
From all corners a chorus of blackbirds
celebrates the sun’s slow resurrection
further north each morning.
A lengthening of light:
triumph, again, of day over night.     

   

Yggdrasil, the World Tree, represented as a gigantic ash, is central to Norse mythology. Its many mythical and legendary qualities are represented in almost all the world’s cultures. This particular ash tree occupied the corner of a field between the cricket ground and the churchyard until about 40 years ago. (Three Days Work was/is a field-name.)

 

World Tree

 

 In a corner of Three Days Work
by a stile which takes the path
to the back of the old graveyard:
ash, shelter and shade
for beasts in summer.
 
You could stand on the coping
of the weather-mangled wall –
scrags of blackened sandstone –
pull yourself onto its lowest branch,
inch along rough ridges of bark
to its centre, climb
 
to where you would see
wheatfields over the embankment,
then lean and close your eyes,
listen to the breeze
as it brushed the leaves,
soft as love.
 
Lightning felled this one.
It lay for years, diminishing,
until someone saw to it
and emptiness filled the field.

 

Corporal Joseph Naylor of the 5th Dragoon Guards, a Lightcliffe man, took part in the Crimean War of 1854-56 with 250 of his regiment. He was one of the 30 who survived the campaign, only 14 managing to bring back their horses. If you want to know more about Corporal Naylor, his family and descendants, go into About the Churchyard on the website, scroll down until you come to Click here …people of interest … then scroll down to Corporal Joseph Naylor. You’ll find the results of Dorothy Barker’s excellent and detailed research. Or press here and then scroll down.

 

 The Charge of the Heavy Brigade

 

I know what you’re thinking – slip of the tongue:
it was Tennyson’s ‘noble six hundred’
who were the heroes of Balaclava.
They were the ones who rode, how does it go,
‘boldly and well’. The poet was right there,
and he was right again when he said
they were riding into the mouth of Hell.
They must have known it, must have realised
Lord Raglan’s orders made no sense,
but never stopped to ask the reason why.
 
Before that it was our turn – the Heavies.
The Light Brigade looked on as we advanced
against the Russian and the Cossack cavaliers.
Hardly a charge. Uphill from a standing start.
Our horses had barely raised a trot
when them and us came face to face,
and, though there were more of them than us,
ten minutes of our hacking and heaving
and they’d had enough. When I think back now
I just hope the Good Lord’s forgiven me
for I fought more like a devil than a man.
 
We’d been there a month. No tents at first.
We lay down side by side in mud and rain
through the dark hours. Not many slept.
Then it got colder, cold enough at nights
to freeze a soldier’s beard to his greatcoat.
I thought a lot, I can tell you, of sunny days
down Crow Nest and Bottom Hall Beck.
Half the regiment went down sick. Not me.
I was lucky, that’s all.
 
Less than a fortnight and it was Inkerman –
outnumbered five-to-one in the fog
we fought as we saw fit, came out on top.
Then we holed up outside Sebastopol
twelve long and weary months, until at last
we starved ‘em out. They’d had enough,
we’d won, us and the French and the Turks.
We could go back home and sleep in beds,
though I never really understood
what it was all for, just did as I was told.
 
The Sun Inn laid on a spread for me:
bread and cheese and ale, and my friends
from the mill and the farm, thirsty for tales
of the fighting. I gave them what they wanted –
Russians running before the British fighting man;
showed them my decorations – two medals,
three clasps and four good conduct badges.
I’d come home a hero, one of the few dragoons
who made it through, and my horse,
my lovely brave Magpie. No laureate’s praise for me,
no streets or alehouses parading my name.
I was lucky, that’s all.

                                    

 This part-found poem is based on a recent Guardian article by the writer Robert Macfarlane, expressing his concern that we are losing our connection with the natural world. Many people, not just children, no longer recognise the flora and fauna which surround us. One out of three can recognise a magpie, but nine out of ten know what a Dalek is. Three-quarters of adults cannot identify an ash tree.

A ‘Hollowing’, according to Macfarlane, is a portal into the natural world.

 

Hollowings

 

And what is the extinction of the condor
to a child who has never seen a wren?
Never caught the blue spark of kingfisher
across dapples of deep-water sunlight?
 
Is it enough for nature and names
to be bound in deep time?
Will hopeless words survive,
like rattles filled with ash,
in the dark that is always rising?
 
Will it all, with cave bear and condor,
with the slow un-naming of land,
great thinning of bird and animal,
of insect and tree, vanish past memory?
Past mouths, and minds’ eyes?
 
Or can it come again,
with charms of goldfinches
and the blended singing
of lost children in the woods?


Two short poems to lighten the midwinter darkness.

 

 Solstice

 

 Winter has doused
autumn's flounce of colour,
turned off the light,
tipped the axis of the Earth
away from the sun.
 
Most of the day is night-time:
weeks of waiting for the bloom
of the flowering plum,
Persephone to pack her bag
of summer skirts.
 

 Turning

 
The new year dressed itself
in an overcoat of hope,
stormproof and memory-proof,
while lost springs of longing
lapped about its cautious footfall.
   

 

 

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