The Community of Cumbria

Last Friday, I came home on the train, feeling that parliament and even Britain was out of sorts. But twenty separate meetings – starting in Penrith, on to Wigton, and finishing at a memorial service for Mary Burkett in Carlisle – changed my view. First, we broke the foundations for the new Sunbeams Music Centre, framed by the distant ridges of the East Fellside. (Annie and her team had managed to raise almost two million pounds for their music therapy). Then, at Wigton, I saw the foundations of a factory which will make the five and ten pound bank-notes for the Bank of England, creating more than a hundred new jobs.

One community group had saved the Wigton Swimming Pool; a second group had a plan to restore the beauty of the Georgian market town, one shop-front at a time. Four boys, who had just completed a course in documentary-making, showed me a fifteen minute film, on their experience in foster-care, which was beautifully made and observed.  Next door, school-children had taken the 120 names from the War Memorial and were plotting these soldiers’ homes on a map of Wigton – connecting the almost unimaginable scale of the killing to their own local history, and to houses, which they knew.

The people behind these projects included civil servants, business people, charity workers: people who were paid, and people who were unpaid: a seventy-six year old was leading on the market town – a thirty-year old woman was the project manager for the twenty million pound factory, a seventeen year old directed the documentary. Some were exhausted by the relentless modern demands for plans, regulations, and funding. And yet they felt pride – in some cases in buildings which will last for fifty years; in other cases, through linking people to music or the past; or, in the case of the documentary, through investigating the present moment. And although many of these people were born in other places, all were proud of being Cumbrian.

Then I went to Mary Burkett’s memorial service. Two years ago, she had heard that Shoshana and I were walking from Ullswater to Maryport, and invited us to stay. I knew nothing about her house; as we walked up the long avenue of trees, it did not seem real. One end was formed of a thick pink-plastered peel tower, abutting a long facade of miniature multi-paned windows – apparently untouched for five hundred years. Mary stood at the threshold with a smile that revealed every tooth. It was difficult to know how tall she had once been, but now she was tiny, dressed in rubber-soled shoes and a striped skirt.

She was living alone at the age of 88 in an unheated house that seemed to consist of a hundred tiny rooms, many unfurnished, or decorated only with Central Asian felts, which she had collected on trips around Afghanistan. Having guests must have been exhausting for her, but she did not show it. At supper (we went out since she kept no food) she described trying to get an English archaeologist, who wore a watch-chain and a three-piece suit, out of an Afghan jail. She talked about Kushan jewellery and about Lady Anne Clifford – who as a single, widowed woman – had restored so much of Cumbria in the seventeenth century. And she put us up that night under six felts on a horse-hair mattress. The next morning, she invited her friend Julian, a painter, to walk with me. I looked back at her, tiny against the façade, on that ridge above the river and the Jacobean garden, and wondered who would ever have the confidence to inhabit such a house after she was gone.

Melvyn Bragg in his address in Carlisle Cathedral on Friday night made Mary a symbol of the ancient Kingdom of Northumbria-Cumbria. He described how for more than twenty years as the director of Abbot Hall she had built the staff from four to forty, had discovered seventeenth century and contemporary Cumbrian painters, and championed Cumbrian poets like Norman Nicolson. Professor Rosemary Cramp, who is almost Mary’s age, read from Alfred Wainwright’s description of Stickle Pike; and she was followed with a description (by Robert Byron) of a eleventh century tower in Eastern Persia; and a good reading from the Wisdom of Solomon. And then the Bishop of Carlisle wove her life into concise, and striking moral lessons.

I sat at the very back of the Cathedral. It was night behind the stained glass windows, and the blue ceiling, set with suns and stars, stretched on into candlelit darkness. Every seat was taken. Some people had come with all their children. I had begun the day, feeling the world was fragmented; I ended it, linked to the people around me – to Henry, for example, in the choir-stall, whose voice I recognised from when I first heard him sing, twenty-nine years ago. Along the line of tall wooden thrones, that formed the canon’s gallery, were Cumbrians who had travelled not just from the other end of Cumbria (Hugh had come from Cartmel), but from London, and before that Tunisia. Some of them came from families that had sat in the cathedral before the reformation, many – like Mary herself – were originally from other places. There were painters, civil servants, sheep-farmers, archaeologists. Mary had half-created through her life, as much as through her work, the idea of a Cumbrian civilisation. She had formed the community of Cumbria who had to come to remember her on that night.

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