An attic room with a view of the railway sidings: on the trail of Norman Nicholson
There’s an app for almost everything these days, isn’t there? And there’s certainly one for the poet Norman Nicholson, who spent almost his entire life in the same house in the town of Millom, in the far west of Cumbria.
His bedroom was in the attic of a small house in St George’s Terrace, Millom, from where he could see the railway sidings. (The goods shed is now a branch of Tesco). During his life he published seven collections of poetry, four plays, two novels, appeared on radio and television, was the subject of a South Bank Show special with fellow Cumbrian Melvyn Bragg, and was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry.
He was held in respect by other writers, and corresponded with Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, Geoffrey Hill, John Betjeman and Seamus Heaney, among many others. TS Eliot championed his work, and Nicholson was published by Faber and Faber. In spite of being on the edge of the Lakes, he is said to have generally preferred to write poems about his industrial surroundings, such as Millom’s ironworks, rather than the spectacular natural landscape of Lakeland. The industry has long gone, as it has in so many places in Britain, and Millom these days has a rather depressed, post-industrial air, despite its scattering of still handsome buildings.
Nicholson spent two years in a sanatorium in Hampshire in his teens after contracting tuberculosis. It affected his health for the rest of his life. His poem ‘The Pot Geranium’ takes a philosophical and ultimately uplifting view of his sense of confinement. His Collected Poems was published by Faber in 1994. A Norman Nicholson Society has been formed in the town to promote and celebrate his work. There is a stained glass window dedicated to him in a local church.
While on the trail of Norman Nicholson, I also managed to track down Write Out Loud’s co-founder Julian Jordon, who has swapped living in Marsden, where the poet laureate Simon Armitage grew up, to move to a beautiful village near Millom, a place that used to have its own railway station on the long-gone line to Coniston.
A writer pal of Julian’s, Ian Davidson, who knew Nicholson and is a former chair of the Norman Nicholson Society, has lively tales of working as a railway porter and occasional signalman there. Perfick! Julian had downloaded the Norman Nicholson Trail app, and together we tracked down the poet’s terrace house in Millom, complete with rather neglected-looking plaque, after first visiting the town’s museum in the railway station, where there is a room devoted to Nicholson, with information, books, and a small statue, pictured right, plus a poster and artwork on the station platform.
I will be the first to accept that this whistle-stop tour of Nicholson's town betrays a certain ignorance of the full achievements of the poet. But I have a copy of the Selected Poems, with its magnificent opening poem ‘To the River Duddon’ that invokes Wordsworth – “an oldish man with a nose like a pony’s nose” - and its ringing final lines: “There stands the base and root of the living rock, / Thirty thousand feet of solid Cumberland.” And I am hungry for more. Amazon, here I come.