A magical walk in the mind’s eye
Do you have a place you visit in your mind when things are hard? These past few days, I’ve spent a lot of time walking in my imagination. But where to go? Somewhere I was happy. The cliffs near Whitby? No. The park at Chatsworth House? No.
In the end, I conjured up High Force in Teesdale, in the North Pennines. To reach this waterfall, sketched by JMW Turner in 1816, you drive from Romaldkirk, a village as perfect as any in England. It’s a journey that takes you over the tops, moorland spreading out around you like the sea; someone told me that the tenant farms that dot it are whitewashed because, long ago, their landlord, Lord Barnard, was half-blind. On the way, you pass through Middleton-in-Teesdale, a market town where a men’s clothing shop still protects the goods in its window with yellow cellophane.
Once Newbiggin is behind you, you’re nearly there. You park and step through a gate into woodland. A gentle path takes you to some steps – and now you can hear the low roar of the water. Finally, you stand on a platform, clutching a wooden rail, and you take it all in. The Tees falls from 21m above you, over the Great Whin Sill ridge. If it has rained, the noise is astonishing. Then there are the colours: moss green and dirty yellow, peat brown and grey blue. Feeling small and exhilarated and newly calm, you head back up the hill for a pint.
Exit one poet, pursued by sheep
Just before the lockdown began, I went to a talk at which Hermione Lee and others launched a book of essays about writers’ houses – a collection that seems timely now we’re all stuck at home like so many tortoises in their shells. My favourite piece is Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s account of the Victorian obsession with Alfred Tennyson’s study, “a place as legendary as Fingal’s Cave”. Poor Tennyson. The tourists visiting Farringford, his Isle of Wight home, became so crazed in their efforts to catch a glimpse of the poet eating breakfast that he grew quite paranoid. Having shortsightedly mistaken them for souvenir hunters, he was once seen running from a flock of sheep.
A truly gritty city
For perspective, I examine some photographs taken by John Darwell in Sheffield in the late 1980s. Lord, was it really so grim? Fond as I am of the city of my birth, I think perhaps that it was. Tinned-up pubs, abandoned steel mills, skinhead graffiti: I admire the chiaroscuro of back alleys and jagged windows and feel at once marginally better (life is a cycle) and very much worse (the slog that lies ahead).
Finding joy in the details
Lockdown television is strange. Box sets are not doing it, while six million people are tuning into the BBC’s The Repair Shop. What I love about it, and what makes it so right for the times, is that the items its experts restore have only sentimental value. Last week, watching as a leather chair was reupholstered, I thought of William Morris, who believed that the secret of happiness lies in paying attention to the small details of everyday life. This has never felt more true than now. Put on that lipstick. Serve that stew in your loveliest bowl. Arrange those flowers like your life depends on it.
• Rachel Cooke is an Observer columnist
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