Trickledown effect

Poet Harriet Tarlo and artist Judith Tucker
Poet Harriet Tarlo and artist Judith Tucker
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On this beautiful morning downtown Holmfirth is bustling. There’s a knot of people jostling, ever so politely but with the steely determination of the recently retired, to get on the Holmfirth Experience Bus that starts from Sid’s Café and trundles to the heart of Summer Wine Country.

Each of the many tearooms is packed with people having morning coffee and deciding whether to go for a scone or a toasted teacake or both, and a number of couples are doing that old Comfort (as in come for’t day) stroll that combines equal parts wilful aimlessness and simple pleasure.

I’m half inclined to join them but I’ve got an appointment on the moors high above the town with a poet and an artist and some wide open skies and an ancient track or two. As part of this year’s Holmfirth Arts Festival Harriet Tarlo (she’s the poet) and Judith Tucker (she’s the artist) are creating an exhibition called Tributaries, exploring the human and natural histories of the intricate network of streams and, to be frank, trickles that flow down to the Holme River, the river that was a major part of the development of Holmfirth in the 19th century as the mills grew and thrived.

The Holmfirth Arts Festival is great at ideas like this; some festivals just import a few big names and have a fun day for the kids but this festival takes its location seriously. There are textile workshops reflecting the heritage and future of the industry that shaped the place, an evening with the fantastic Skelmanthorpe Band alongside a concert by the Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments, a Heritage Walk and a gig by a German comedian, so Tributaries fits very well into the festival scheme of things.

Harriet Tarlo has lived in and around the Holme Valley for many years; she’s a poet whose work grows from the landscape, and from walking on and in that landscape and trying to find a language to celebrate and describe it.

Last year she edited the book that, if anybody had asked me (they didn’t) would have been my Book of the Year: The Ground Aslant, an anthology of Radical Nature Poetry that was launched at the Holmfirth Festival, and which was full of poems that tried to find new ways of exploring nature and our relationship to it.

Judith Tucker also lives locally and teaches at the University of Leeds. Her art is often tied very closely to a sense of place; she’s written that her work “aims for a fuller, richer and comprehensive understanding of landscape and place in all their complexities” so it seems to me that her and Harriet complement each other; separately and together they explore both landscape and people and the way they intertwine.

In Judith’s studio near the beautiful chapel (and festival venue) Choppard’s Mission in one of the tight valleys that surround Holmfirth, they explained their working methods. What sometimes happens when artists and writers work together, it seems to me, is that one of the art forms wrestles the other to the ground so that the art merely illustrates the words or the words become captions for the images.

That isn’t the case here: the two of them tramp the moors together, often in horizontal rain and freezing wind. They both work on small squares of paper, making notes and creating pictures as they go.

As Harriet says, this restricts her wonderfully because if you gave her an A3 sheet she’d fill it. Indeed, these concertina-ing squares form a major part of Tributaries. They’ll be displayed alongside the finished work because for Harriet and Judith process is just as vital and exciting as product. I’m with them on that!

Up on the moor we park in a layby and stroll down a track that leads to a disused quarry. Down in town the pastries are being munched and up on the road the cars and trucks are zooming by but after a few hundred yards you forget all that, as lapwings weave in the sky above us. They’re nervous that we’re going to disturb their nests but they’re safe with us: we’re poets and artists, after all.

The landscape is that true northern mix of the natural and the man-made, with hills defined by wind and sleet and farming and digging. Remains of houses and barns and sheds dot the view, testimony to the harsh lives that were lived here on days much colder and less welcoming than this one. As Harriet writes in the draft poems she’s creating on the squares of paper: mud ruts onto/grooved stones/quarry tracks/corner peewit/calls, her words celebrating and delineating that mixture of nature and post-industrialism that exemplifies this place.

Somehow, listening to Harriet and Judith enthusing as we walk down the track, you realise that in some ways language and stories have shaped this area as much as weather and work, and that maybe the Holmfirth Experience bus should make time for a detour up the hill to here because in its earlier episodes Last of the Summer Wine was simply three human beings walking through the landscape and talking, like us.

Even the place names round here are defiantly Yorkshire and gloriously poetic: Marsden Clough, Digley Reservoir, Black Dyke, Dean Clough and my favourite, Good Bent End. We’re not too far from Upperthong and Netherthong and Totties and Scholes either, and I don’t think you’d find them in Surrey.

Curious cattle gaze at us before they turn back to the grass and Judith pounces on an eraser she’d dropped on their last visit, which only seems to emphasise the mixture of timelessness and remoteness round here. Judith and Harriet stand and look and write and sketch and talk as the lapwings continue to wheel. If there’s a better place to be on a day like this then I don’t know about it.

Mind you, it’s almost time to nip down into Holmfirth for a cuppa and a scone. Oh all right then: a scone and a toasted teacake.

Tributaries exhibition at Malkin House Barn to June 24. Tributaries Walk June 20, Workshop Walk June 24 led by Harriet and Judith. Tel: 01484 222444.