Cumbria is huge. It extends from Hadrian's Wall, over rolling fells, through glacier-gouged valleys full of the music of water, over high, winding passes such as Hartside Top, where swirling, blinding mists roam like bandits, across the apocalyptic plain of the Eden Valley, through the vertiginous mountains of the Lakes, past the mysteriously interior Morecambe Bay, to the shining "great ring of pure and endless light" that is Barrow. In 1722 Daniel Defoe described it as "the most barren and frightful of any I have passed", though by the late eighteenth century travellers such as William Gilpin had managed to find it picturesque.
In 1799 the Wordsworths moved into Dove Cottage, Grasmere. In September 1798, William and Coleridge published Lyrical Ballads. Poetry would never be the same again. Nor would Cumbria. If William Wordsworth challenged the received aesthetic of poetry and attracted a steady stream of visitors to Cumbria – Coleridge, Southey, de Quincey, Keats, Walter Scott, Byron – today the Wordsworth Trust, "founded in 1891 for the eternal possession of those who love English poetry all over the world", does the same. In every valley, on every slope and plain, there are, or have been, poets: Norman Nicholson, Geoffrey Holloway, William Scammell, Margaret Cropper, John Richardson, Susanna Blamire, W. H. Auden, Basil Bunting, Tom Rawling, David Wright, David Scott, Clare Crossman, Maggie Hannan, Gladys Mary Coles, Rodney Pybus, Jack Mapanje, Gerard Benson, Owen Sheers, Bill Herbert and John Irwin have all lived in, or been closely associated with, the area. An awesome number live here today, including Tom Pickard, Colin Simms, Meg Peacocke, Jacob Polley, Patricia Pogson, Chris Pilling, Jeremy and Marita Over, Helen Farish, Subhadassi, Angela Locke, Lucy Crispin, Mick North, Mary Robinson, Lois Howard, Geraldine Green, Annie Foster, Pete Armstrong, Maggie Norton, Neil Curry, Robert Drake, Jennifer Copley and many more.
In this vast sprawl of a county, it's all happening at the Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere. Led by Robert Woof, the trust runs an internationally known and popular season of summer poetry readings. It also supports a wide range of educational activities, exhibitions, cross-arts projects, research and training, and poets' and artists' residencies.
Wordsworth's birth town, Cockermouth, is home to Slate, a group headed by poets Michael Baron and Elizabeth Stott. They organise high quality literary events such as readings, workshops and masterclasses. A highlight of the year is Slate at Christmas, a celebration of the best in Cumbrian writing. Slate regularly supports writers at the Cumbrian Literature Festival 'Words by the Water', and plans to sponsor up to four new poets to read a poem specially written for Wordsworth's birthday under a mentorship scheme in 2005. A cross arts performance workshop in June 2005 is in the pipeline.
Another organisation with ambitious plans for 2005 is Wild Women Press, founded by Vik Bennett in 1999. Projects include workshops, salons, books, competitions, anthologies, a mentoring and internship scheme and a US exchange. Wild Women Press describe themselves as "a bit of a maverick group outside the usual "'poetry scene'".
Maverick or otherwise, much of the Cumbrian poetry scene is brought together by Word Market, an umbrella organisation based in Ulverston for writers, readers and writing groups in South Cumbria. Word Market has recently won funding for three years of projects, community groups, and training and development. Co-ordinated by Linda Graham, it runs a year-round programme and supports Word Party in October, an annual festival in February, and the South Cumbria Poet Laureate. It also provides support for non-arts organisations to deliver literary activities, such as A Poem and a Pint. This aims to give South Cumbrian poets the chance to share their poems in the relaxed atmosphere of their local pub. Other groups supported include 4th Monday Poets, Allithwaite Writing Group, individual cross arts projects such as Poets and Printmakers, an email poetry competition and lyric writing competitions.
There's also a competition associated with this year's Cumbrian Literature Festival (1–6 March 2005). The festival is organised by Ways With Words at the Theatre on the Lake, Keswick, who promise a formidable line-up.
Open mic poetry is a feature of SpeakEasy, a monthly poetry night in Carlisle. A great number of other organisations and venues run readings and events on an ad hoc basis, such as Solway Arts, The Incwriters Society, The Bluebell Bookshop, Bookcase, Brewery Arts Centre, and Tullie House. East Cumbria Countryside Project recently set the poetry of Meg Peacocke literally in stone, to form Poetry Path, now a permanent feature in the landscape.
On the more conventional print side of things, Eden Arts (literature contact Sue Allan) publishes an essential newsletter All Write, with e-updates available online. Sue Allan also plans to revive the excellent Northern Lights imprint in 2005, if funds permit. A new poetry magazine, The Quiet Feather, is based in Cumbria. It is already on its third issue and plans a January 2005 special edition to coincide with Ulverston's Word Market Festival.
And there are plenty of opportunities for Cumbrian residents to develop their writing. Lancaster University provides distance learning and email programmes, in addition to MA and PhD courses. Cumbria Cultural Skills Partnership caters for the professional development of writers at all levels. There are many writers' groups and circles, some of which are listed here. Perhaps the longest running is Chris Pilling's Cumbrian Poets' Workshop, whose members have included poets such as Bill Herbert, Jacob Polley, Meg Peacocke, and, on one occasion, Les Murray.
Josephine Dickinson is the author of Scarberry Hill (The Rialto) and The Voice (Flambard)