I can imagine no better way of beginning the new decade than this: walking past Askerton over a broad snow field, under a full moon. I had ended the old year with a dance at Caldbeck village hall on the 29th . I was beyond Brough on the 30th. and saw in the New Year at Pooley Bridge and resumed the walk from Castle Carrock just before midday on the 1st. Tommy, a keen follower of the foot-packs and a student walked with me. We began East on the Fell Road and then worked back North through Brampton. The sun fell before we reached Castlesteads. For the next three hours we were lit by an astonishing moon, which, cast up by the snow crust, illuminated hills twenty miles away.
It feels difficult now to imagine Cumbria without snow. Every hill and footbridge lay under untouched powder. Eighteen miles into our walk and just three miles short of the Scottish border, at nine at night, we were offered a bed. The oil had run out so there was no heating but Tommy was given a sofa by the fire and I a space in the nursery under many blankets. Our hosts had been snowed in for a few days.
After a very generous helping of breakfast we turned back towards Bewcastle with a fine hard wind, climbing up towards Roadend. Almost everyone was at home because they did not trust the roads: which was, of course, great for a visiting politician. I learned a lot from Mrs.Smith, the chairman of the parish council about windfarm and housing proposals and was given a jar of chutney by the Bishop at Bewcastle Cross. The stretch from Bewcastle to Gilsland was absurd and absurdly beautiful. With each step, I hoped I would stay on the crust but in fact fell with a creak two and half foot deep in snow, through to the peat bog. Both Tommy and I managed to slide into hidden rivers, soaking our feet. The effort of climbing out of the snow-drifts with each step made us experiment with crawling. We took it in turns to break trail and tread in each other’s steps. Most of this – though we could see nothing of it – was on the Maiden Way that linked the Roman fort at Bewcastle to Birdoswald. The wind kept the powder moving like a mist over the unbroken surface towards the setting sun. It took us two hours to cross a mile in this fashion and we were pleased to finally see tarmac again.
Sunday, was my birthday and my parents came down from Scotland to celebrate it with me and friends gave me a wonderful birthday lunch near Penrith. I spent the afternoon trying to catch up on work and e-mails and was back in the cottage at Dufton that night.
The ‘long campaign’ begins. BBC Radio 4 invited me to the Carlisle studio, as a prospective parliamentary candidate, to take part in the World at One debate with Rachel Reeves, Labour candidate for Leeds West and Karen Gillard, Liberal Democrat for South East Cornwall. Alistair Darling had just published a 150 page attack on David Cameron’s spending commitments. I tried to reflect what I am hearing on Cumbria doorsteps rather than quibbling with a 150-page policy document. I sense voters will decide almost intuitively that the Conservatives are more likely to make the necessary decisions to get the private sector going again and reduce the deficit. But it is so clear that all parties need to be better at communicating about the deficit and cuts. Again and again, people tell me that they don’t believe what politicians say about the finances.
I then went on to Tullie House museum – which is one of the great small museums in Britain: a fragment of gold necklace, kept by a Celtic goldsmith; a Roman greyhound, found at Kirkby Thore; a two thousand year old cup inlaid with the Roman fort at Castlesteads. Here is Cumbrian in all its magic Celtic-Roman-Welsh-Saxon-Irish-Norweigian-Scottish-English frontier state. And a great bookshop, from which I emerged with twenty books.
The central challenge for this election and beyond will be to build up the membership again from where we are (under 300) to where we should be (a few thousand) and a lot of that will involve bringing in younger members. I held a long meeting with our new agent, Gordon Nicolson, Neville Lishman, the Area manager and Isa Henderson, our chairman and planned and replanned every step to take us through to the election: hustings and canvassings, leaflets and magazines, posters and letters. The centre of all of this though will have to be a team in every parish. Please volunteer to set up you local branch.
Thomas Lowther, Conservative county Councillor and a farmer, took me to the Penrith sheep sales. David Crowden, Chief Executive of the mart, gave up an hour to explaining how the farmers took the auction business back under their control following the 2001 Foot & Mouth epidemic. He is a great ambassador for farming and in particular for the importance of the marts. Just spending time in an auction is a reminder how the marts are not just a good way of setting prices but also a unique opportunity for farmers (who have fewer and fewer people working with them on farms) to meet and talk about what they are facing. Like everyone, David is frustrated by the near monopoly power of the super-markets. As we work round meeting Willie Coulston and Robin Raine, Edward Bindloss, John Hall, Arthur Slack. It is clear that there are disagreements even within the farming community. It is not just a question of reflecting local views to Westminster but of choosing how much emphasis to put on each issue. The experience is freezing and heart-warming in equal measure.
The farmers are great company. They – of all the people I have met on my walk – are the most fiercely political. Above all, I would like to be a champion for rural issues. Penrith and the Border is the largest constituency because it is the most sparsely populated. The 98 per cent who live in cities struggle often to understand the reality of rural life – which is often about space and distance from services which a city-dweller has on their door-step. Advocating fiercely for our rural hospitals, schools, bus services, roads, environments and most importantly the rural businesses and farms that create, finance and sustain our rural landscape is in my view the very centre of my role.
Longtown Mart. Philip Walton – Chairman of the largest sheep mart in the country – gives me breakfast in the mart cafe before taking me into the auction ring. Prices are good, –for the moment at least. I come away feeling heartened – and chastened. These are good people, connected with the real business of life. They have real needs and for a long time, their needs and opinions have been sidelined. There are some smiles despite the freezing weather (which has kept away many sellers from Southern Scotland). But fifteen minutes spent looking through the paperwork forms is such a sad reminder of how much surreal bureaucracy is beginning to pile up on farmers.
I set off from Dufton through Milburn to Temple Sowerby, walking again. Hoar frost on every tree, another four inches of fresh snow and it’s difficult to take a photo without it looking like a chocolate box. But is increasingly serious for many people – particularly the elderly. I slowed down considerably to make sure I had as many serious conversations as possible. A couple took us in for half an hour in Knock. The husband was 86 and served on an aircraft carrier during the war. He was particularly focused on getting troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, stop immigration and balancing the budget deficit.
On the outskirts of Knock, a lady in pink wellies who was scooping her dog’s poop into a blue bag, greeted me warmly but said she was a solicitor and a labour voter who liked the labour party because they had spent a lot of money on public services. I couldn’t disagree with that.
At Milburn Grange, a lady of 86, who can’t drive (she is I would guess six miles from the nearest proper shop) explained that she survives because her neighbour drives up and down the road and gets her groceries.
A well-known local farmer fed me date cake and tea. His main concerns were quangos and again immigration and targets. He described going to see one of the new Cumbrian quangos and sitting in their office and asking one of the employees what she did. “The lady said she didn’t know…so she asked another colleague what it did. She didn’t know either and so they got a 3rd colleague in who said it was a sort of think tank.’ ‘You don’t seem to be doing much thinking at all,’ he replied. We agreed that it must be miserable for the morale of people who work in an organisation if they have no firm idea of what the point of the whole thing is.
A lady who runs a B&B described trying to fill in the paperwork honestly: sending in a reply saying that she didn’t check her refrigerator temperature every day, that she could tell when her meat was cooked enough by looking at it, and yes, she did have pets in the kitchen. Given that she had got no reply, she presumed they had not bothered to read her reply.
At Low Slakes, a lady whose family has been there for centuries, said that everybody had changed but as the conversation went on, and we talked about the Atkinsons, the Wears, the Smiths, the Richardsons and the Taylors and others, I wonder. It was by now 2 in the afternoon and in 3 hours, we had managed to walk a mile and a half. In Milburn, we saw Mrs Johnson by her car. But the Armstrongs weren’t in. Mrs Robertson was in at the farmhouse at the top and explained that because the weather had improved, everyone was out on their tractors. It was the first day back at Milburn School with a new head teacher so I talked to the teachers a bit and called on Mrs Atkinson. Her husband has sadly died recently and she was feeling the cold.
On the road out of town, I met a cheerful car mechanic. And another man, who was furious about MPs expenses and wasn’t sure that he was going to vote Conservative again. We got a better reception from Mrs Soulsby who had the most impressive Suffolk and Charolais tups, though she is worried what this prolonged snowfall will mean, particularly for upland farmers. Sarah Mason invited me in outside Newbiggin at Acorn Bank. She emphasized that she was a Labour voter but that didn’t stop her feeding me delicious elephant-shaped butter biscuits made by her daughter. She works on ‘gender equity and diversity’ in Cumbria Hospital but was enraged as the rest of us with the targets and metrics.
I saw Henry Sawrey Cookson, the local independent councillor and his daughter on the road and finished at 6, at Temple Sowerby Hotel with the Evans.
It was a wonderful day: beautiful, of course (it would be difficult to forget how beautiful Milburn school looked in the snow and the sun) but more importantly because of those conversations. I can only summarise them here – I must have listened to people, either in their houses, or walking alongside me for more than six out of the seven hours of the walk. It is a real privilege to learn from people in this way. It was particularly striking how a relatively right-wing farmer agreed with a left-wing mental health worker almost entirely on the folly of targets, metrics, crude inspections and countless forms. It is so easy to imagine – if a tabloid for example is ranting about the subject – that these stories are somehow exaggerated. But they’re not. The reality is surreal. Each anecdote confirms the astonishing absurdity of so much in the system. Again and again people said ‘we would like some common-sense.’ I’ve heard it twenty times a day but it’s difficult to put it better.
Warcop & Sandford Exchange where I saw the head of the parish council and councillor Martin Stephenson and met many Warcop locals. Then to Kirkby Stephen where I see Libby, who runs the Upper Eden community plan and talk to her about how to make sure we get the funding through the council system. I feel very comfortable with the Upper Eden community plan, less because of its detailed structure and more because everyone I’ve seen connected with it seems intelligent, keen, practical and hard-working. With Gordon Nicolson and Duncan Fairbairn, Cumbria County Councillor, I embark on the business of canvassing Kirkby Stephen. It is a wonderful town: a roundhead stronghold, with the romance of Arthurian Pendragon behind it and the tusk of the great boar of Westmorland, in the crypt. Dropping 500 leaflets through doors, takes me past the vicarage and the astonishing view towards the Yorkshire dales to the river and back through the narrow medieval lane. I am learning that curious politician’s (and pizza-menu deliverer’s) technique of working my cold fingers to drop a folded flier under the brass letter box and extract the fingers back through the stiff bristles before the Alsatian reaches them.
I see again many of the people which I saw when I walked through Kirkby Stephen three weeks’ ago and many of them to my delight offer to help deliver leaflets. Kirkby Stephen could become one of our strongest branches again.
Again another 500 leaflets in Kirkby Stephen, this time with Isa Henderson, Charlotte Fairbairn and Glenys Lumley and her husband Hebron. And again it is the encounters and conversations which make the task so interesting and rewarding. A man with an amazing Siberian husky with one brown and one sapphire blue eye supports conservative policies – on the face of it – but is reluctant to vote. One lady is happy to stop – despite the cold weather to talk at length about taxation and pension policy. Another younger woman says she has never voted, seeks my advice on how to reduce the gas bill and seems as though she might try voting this election. Tony Kilvington gives up half an hour to suggest ways of getting more young people involved.