The English landscape is central to my poetic imagination and my passion for the countryside can be traced back to childhood and particularly my experiences of visiting my grandparents, who lived in the Holme Valley in West Yorkshire. This Pennine region was depicted memorably in the classic BBC comedy series Last of the Summer Wine and continues to find popular exposure through the work of artist Ashley Jackson.
My maternal grandparents, the Dysons, lived in a tiny village called Wilshaw, high up on a hill above Meltham, which is roughly six or seven miles to the south-west of Huddersfield. From their house, there was a tremendous panoramic view of the countryside – distant to the north-east was the tower of Castle Hill which overlooks Huddersfield; to the north, the land dropped steeply into a valley and then rose up to woods, fields and farms; in the valley to the north-west were the roofs of Meltham; and high up to the west was the huge, remote brown moorland which led over towards Saddleworth and Greater Manchester.
When my brother and I stayed there during school holidays, it was a daily ritual to walk with my grandfather, Ray, and the dog down to the ‘res’ – a reservoir at the bottom of the valley to the north of my grandparents’ house. We walked down a lane, then dropped steeply down a field, often grazed by brown cattle. We crossed part of a golf course, stopping to look for lost golf balls in the stream. Shortly after this, we reached the reservoir, which was an enormous body of water for a little boy to look out on. It was bounded to the north by steep woodland and if we turned around to look back to the south, we could see the village and our grandparents’ house high up on the hill.
It was nothing short of paradise for a young boy to play in the woods, finding new pathways, discovering little hollows in trees where you could make a seat and stare out over the wind-blown water. The walk back was a steep climb, but we loved every minute of it. I remember slogging up the last field, nearly home, and looking up to the huge, dark moorland rearing up in the west, almost disorientating. I recall many times seeing the winter sun setting behind this vast area of land.
My paternal grandparents, the Kilners, lived a few miles away in a wonderfully eccentric double-fronted house called Northdean, in the village of Hepworth, near Holmfirth, about eight miles south of Huddersfield. The house was built in 1926 for my great-grandfather, also named James Kilner, who was one of the founders of Hepworth Iron Company. From its windows, you could look east and north-east across the valley towards the dramatic hillsides of Meal Hill and Cheese Gate Nab. In contrast to many other buildings in the village, which were constructed from dark stone in the classic style of a Pennine village, Northdean looked like an Alpine villa. It had a sort of cream stucco exterior, stained glass and reddish-brown shutters for the exteriors of the windows.
My grandmother, Una, had a deep feeling for landscape and, well into her eighties, would cheerfully walk for mile after mile through the countryside. Her instinctual appreciation for landscape had a profound effect on me, as did her intellect and her wonderful idiosyncrasies. A grand old lady indeed. I dedicated my first book, Frequencies of Light, to her memory.