explaining cumbria to strangers

I am trying to find the words to describe our part of Cumbria to strangers. When an elegant London journalist arrived last week at my cottage in Bampton in a floral silk dress (which delighted the midges), I subject her to a lecture on Alston. I tried to explain Cumbria again this week in Westminster to the CEO of BT, to broadband celebrity Martha Lane Fox, to American executives and Asian Ambassadors and to two Secretaries of State. I tried it again on Wednesday in what seemed, by accident, to be my sort-of maiden speech. I found myself calling us ‘the largest and most sparsely populated constituency in England’, saying we have ‘more self-employed people than any other constituency in Britain’, and that we are ‘almost the only part of the country to have positive GDP growth last year’. It’s all true, I believe – but such dry numerical proportions hardly convey the sense of a place.

This Thursday I found myself explaining us again to Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society, in Crosby Ravensworth. I had the time to explain a little about how we fund the Air Ambulance, run Mountain Rescue or Hospice at Home. I touched on the way that Tebay parish council laid a disabled access ramp itself late at night and Brampton organised to save its cottage hospital. I was able to explain how Cybermoor have brought high-speed broadband to Alston in part with farmers digging the trenches for the fibre-optic line, sharing lines with the school, setting up radio masts and selling microwave connections to the Northumbrian Fire Service to part finance it. I introduced our co-ops and our mutualised banks that didn’t follow the City of London in risky gambles, touched on the successful buying of the Penrith Auction Mart by farmer collectives and explained that we still have more commons land than anywhere else in Britain. But what he will really remember, I suspect, is hearing how the community will build the affordable housing, purchase the pub or build the anaerobic digester. And hearing it not in the jargon of Big Society or ‘the third sector’ but in the blunt, generous and precise sentences of David Graham and Annie Kindleysides. Nick Hurd asked a lot about the history of community action, which gave me another, tangential way of talking about Cumbria. I described how in the early 1600s the yeoman of Orton bought out their feudal Lord and became the first people of England to appoint their Parish Priest by democratic vote rather than through the discretion of a local aristocrat. Going further back, Oddendale recalls the name of the Viking god Odin whose symbol is the raven in Crosby Ravensworth.

But whether through statistics, or anecdotes, or narratives of the past, the real language to describe what I feel about Cumbria eludes me. Take my Sunday walk for example. I walked out of my front door and reached the top of Knipe Cragg at three in the afternoon. It was very hot. Three days earlier in London I had twenty-one appointments in a day, 35 people came to the constituency surgery, and the previous day I been at Glenridding to canoe with the Ullswater Community college, at Brampton cottage hospital fete and at Crosby Ravensworth where they were abseiling for the tower. But there was nothing in the diary for Sunday afternoon. So I continued on down to Little Strickland. Except for the retired Bishop of Newcastle exercising his neighbour’s dog, I saw no-one on the fells. Turning North, I stopped in Hackthorpe for supper in the Lowther Arms.

A regular told me that he was in the pub to give his wife two hours’ free to watch the soaps. I shared some chips with him; he seemed pleased that I would be walking back to Bampton after supper. He asked what I did and I told him: “No” he said “You’re not, you’re having me on. I follow politics, you’re not an MP” and, taking a final chip, retired to sing to himself in a corner. I walked back, past a great red bull, with a blood red sun falling behind Blencathra and saw beyond the telephone box at Knipe the white path stretching up to my cottage. Crossing my threshold again at ten minutes to midnight I could still see Cross Fell. It seemed hardly possible, on that longest day, that half a year had passed since I walked on the longest night, with all the East Fellside blazing in snow and moonlight, to Castle Carrock. How can I ever fit any of this into the language of a London office?

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