How did a man famous for describing the prosaic intricacies of footpath gates, stiles and signposts, not to mention the best Dales bus routes for walkers that connect with the X84, manage to become a published poet? “Poetry’s always been there,” Colin Speakman says.
“My background is teaching English literature and I have always regarded myself as a writer who’s turned out walking books, firstly because I love walking and the countryside, and also because there’s a demand for them. So in a way, turning to poetry gives me the freedom to focus on my more intense, personal feelings about the landscape.”
He hasn’t exactly been prolific, though, only now at the age of 75 publishing a fourth collection in four decades. The gaps were filled by writing over 50 walking and topography books on Yorkshire as well as a biography of the geologist Adam Sedgwick and a book of Dales stories. All this was done while holding down a succession of day-jobs that included West Yorkshire’s tourism officer, redeveloping the information and warden services for the Yorkshire Dales National Park in the 1970s and running a successful transport consultancy, as well as helping to save the Settle-Carlisle Line from closure and forming the Yorkshire Dales Society.
When Speakman’s first book, Walking in the Yorkshire Dales, appeared in 1967 there was no other such book in print. Now there are hundreds of walking guides. But poetry was always his first love, he says, and his debut collection, Northland, appeared in 1973 thanks to an Arts Council grant. It put him on the poetry reading circuit for a time, usually appearing as warm-up for popular names like the late Stevie Smith and Norman Nicholson.
A sign that he was on the verge of bigger things came while teaching English at Lawnswood High School in Leeds, when a sixth-former came up to him and said that one of his poems had been read out on Radio 4 the previous night. Around the same time his poem Top Withens was used in an O-level paper.
His second collection, That Bleak Frontier, was published in 1978 and included poems inspired by some of his favourite corners of the Dales, places like Grass Wood and Malhamdale. Perhaps the most memorable of them was Three Peaks, capturing the allure of Ingleborough as an “Island in a sea of space”, Pen y Ghent’s majestic profile as a “sphinx of black grit”, and the long ridge of Whernside as “a vast, upturned ark of rock”.
Speakman was by then producing books on Yorkshire with an almost cottage industry-like intensity. He devised the 78-mile Dales Way footpath from Ilkley to Bowness-on-Windermere, writing a guidebook that has never been out of print in over 40 years and has recently been revised for a new edition. But, he says, he always tried to imbue his prose with a poetic quality.
“When you’re describing the Three Peaks or another landscape, I find there is a bit of a crossover. In fact, the poems often come out of the research I’m doing for a book of prose. The poem is almost a distillation of what becomes a chapter in the book.”
A good example of this is On the Banks of Humber in his new collection People in a Landscape in which he reflects on the estuary’s history while standing on its shore on a chill November day. It was a year ago, he recalls, and he was there to write about the area for a new guidebook to the Yorkshire Wolds which is due for publication in 2017.
“I was near the town of Brough on the north bank and I began to think about what the Humber meant to me, recalling many famous events over the centuries. So there’s Etheldreda, the Anglo- Saxon queen, taking a ferry to the other side on her way to Ely and sainthood. There’s Roman legionnaires, crossing by barge, and then there’s Dick Turpin who, as I put it, ‘robbed in Lincolnshire, lodged in Yorkshire’.”
Another poem, a homage to the spectacular Buttertubs Pass between Wensleydale and Swaledale, came from watching 2014’s Tour de France on TV. “Seeing all those cyclists climb up there kicked off a boyhood memory, flogging myself up the hill and then that wonderful moment when I went over the top. I was in my teens then, growing up in Salford, and I recall cycling all the way over the pass to the youth hostel at Keld.”
It’s an experience he has repeated since, but that first time he remembers as an important rite of passage: “A pause, whilst straining lungs and hammering heart/return to sanity. All around sky, lark punctured/a soft wind over the moor and peat hags./This is the moment of triumph; boyhood’s end.”
Wharfedale is almost a love-letter to the dale in which he has spent most of his adult life (he has had homes in Grassington and Ilkley, and now lives at Burley-in-Wharfedale). In the poem he traces the dale’s origins from “where cloud and fell merge to mist” southwards towards Bolton Abbey “through its chasm of grit... where priors, dukes, came to dream, their ruins an echo, fading, of time.”
He extends his poetic take on Wharfedale beyond the town of Otley in another poem, Under Chevin Side, “where Dales meet Vale and sacred river meanders to the plain, Pennines end.” In it he creates the unexpected, if not totally bizarre, image of Hannibal crossing the Alps in winter.
“That came about,” he explains, “from learning that the artist JMW Turner executed one of his most famous paintings, Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps, while staying as the guest of Walter Fawkes at Farnley Hall, near Otley. The story goes, and I’m sure it’s absolutely true, that Turner used Otley Chevin and Caley Crags, in particular, as inspiration for Hannibal’s legendary journey. He saw a wild November storm over Wharfedale and decided to place it in the exaggerated landscape of the Alps.”
After a 33-year hiatus, in 2011 he published a third book of poems, Dune Fox, containing many works he had stuffed in a folder after writing but was encouraged to bring to an audience to celebrate his 70th birthday. Soon afterwards he began his involvement with the Wharfedale Poets, which grew out of a workshop event at Ilkley Literature Festival.
He is upfront about his influences, and it is no surprise to find that the list includes Ted Hughes. “It’s very difficult to write about the Pennines without hearing Hughes’s voice in your ear,” he says. “He is someone I’ve tried to escape from.”
Philip Larkin is another as well as Leeds poet Tony Harrison and the late RS Thomas, and older masters like Thomas Hardy and Edward Thomas. “But every writer has got a particularly strong influence,” he says, “and I’d have to describe Larkin as one of my gods.”
• People in a Landscape by Colin Speakman is published by Fighting Cock Press, priced £4.50.