The Romans had a phrase for it: genius loci. Their protective spirit found in a specific place has now come to mean the distinctive atmosphere of a given spot. For me, these are faces of the same understanding. There are parts of this small country possessed of their own soul, their own character.
To go farther, all places have their own voices but some are so muffled, I cannot hear them well enough. Perhaps I would need more time. Surrey rarely spoke to me – the odd word on the heathlands, and an occasional whisper beside ponds and rivers.
Ah, but Northumberland! That is a land that sings.
My recent weekend near Seahouses reminded me of that glorious county’s powerful voice. The accents of the people, the strength of the great shoreline castles and the rolling force of the sea. History there is as obvious as the wrinkles on an old man’s hands. I cannot think of it without the echo of reivers, Grace Darling and the stories of Robert Westall. There’s a soundtrack too: the Keelers and the Unthanks, Kathryn Tickell, and David Almond reading his own work in his gentle lilting voice.
I love the space, the harsh honest weather. In one weekend we had gales, snow, hail and a magnificent rainbow over the Farne Isles. Each hour the weather presented a new drama.
Every time I’ve been, it has felt more real. The wheep of oystercatchers on the shore, and the friendly murmur of Cuddy Ducks. The hush of marram grass and the black outlines of winter trees against the enormous sky. Snow on the Cheviots and cheek-polishing wind. The massy stones in quay and castle and saint’s refuge.
It’s a thin place.
How strange such a physical place should be so spiritual too. But the body does not lie – and the senses bring us back to ourselves. Glamours are blown away by walks beside the North Sea, self-deceit doesn’t stand long against home-cooked food and there aren’t many airs and graces that can fend off a belted-out sea shanty.
I long for that in my writing – the things that remain, that mean something, the bits that Bede would understand and St Hilda and a kipper smoker from Craster and a little lass of ten from Alnwick. The elemental.
It’s not even my county. The people here feel like kissing cousins. I may not get all the dialect but the humour’s still there. I am teased and talked to and encouraged to sing. I’m not some fine Southern visitor treated oh-so-politely at arm’s length.
Not all pride is a sin. Love of a place can lead to creativity rather than divisive patriotism. My experience of Northumberland draws out my pride in my own homeland.
As they say:
You can take the lass out of Yorkshire,
But you can never take the Yorkshire out of the lass.
Is there a homeland in your work?