The Craft Muscle | Fay Musselwhite

Rivelin Valley, Sheffield (photo by Mary Musselwhite)

It’s occurred to me lately how many years I’ve been honing and flexing the parts of my mind I write poetry with, and how transferable the craft skills I learned as a child and in early adulthood have proved to be. With this in mind, talking to someone who runs for fun has revealed shared strategies for sustained focus.

I’ve always read, and written a bit, but my childhood creative apprenticeship was in sewing, knitting, crochet, macramé, embroidery, patchwork, any kind of textile alchemy. By the time I was nineteen, I understood the rudiments of several processes, and felt at times like a stream of whirling ideas about colour, texture, line; with an urgency to try making the things I could see and sense in my mind.

Materials were begged, found or bought cheap: friends brought me interesting cast-offs, and charity shops were quite idiosyncratic back then. One of the best things was going on missions to Wilton Carpet Factory, where they sold end-lengths of wool too short for their looms, in the vast range of hues and tones required by carpets. I was enthralled by the subtle distinction, visceral contrasts, and journeys of gradation evident in the colours. Skeins were randomly mixed, so I’d always bring home surprises, some of which became treasured shades that ran out too soon.

Commissions were sometimes for specific designs: occasional wedding outfits, a cover for a pub piano; while most orders for jumpers, other knitted clothing, cushion covers and bedding, were for the design as well. Waiting their turn were my own projects, often generated in part from demands made by commissions, these were where necessary experimentation took place. I was on the dole with no children: if little else I had time, and a free flowing mind, each to do what I wished with.

I’d be up at the crack of midday, eager to get on with whatever was current, to see last night’s work in daylight, to master the next difficulty. My fascination with materials and processes, and the growing field of their possibilities were both purpose and reward. My drive was to express in a garment, or surface design, the flavour or tone of a notion, scene or story that I’d glimpsed in a barely accessible region of my own primordial swamp – by that I mean the colours and textures evoked by emotions and memory, some real, some conjured from personal and cultural sources.

Rivelin Valley, Sheffield (photo by Mary Musselwhite)

That much of what I made had practical and aesthetic value, and that people liked it, was validating, meant it didn’t pile up too much, and must’ve helped with my sense of purpose. But really, that seemed faint and far away compared with the actual work, the thrill of flexing my creative muscle, striving to translate the inside of my head into things in the physical world: the colour palette on a pair of socks, the cut of a jacket, the tone of a freestyle patchwork. My partner through some of this time commented on the serenity in my face and posture at work, especially when at the sewing machine. What I remember feeling is that I was doing precisely what I was supposed to be doing.

At the helm of the craft that carried me, I was channelling my energies in their natural direction, learning how materials behave, honing skills, experimenting, and especially learning from when experiments go disastrously wrong. If I was learning then I wasn’t failing, whatever the thing in my hands looked like. This was the first time I’d experienced my brain laying down new information of its own free will, then keeping it alive by addition and adaptation, and it felt as though I’d found a way of letting more oxygen in. I fully realised that the mind is a muscle not a sponge – it’s not for filling up and squeezing out, but for flexing and bringing to bear on things.

State education in this country seems unwilling to seek out, validate and explore what pupils bring to the art room or creative writing class. Instead it imposes rigid and spurious templates for ‘creativity’, then only evaluates whether or not the rules have been followed. Art can’t be made under these circumstances: tools and techniques need to be tested, then taken on board accordingly. To make a thing that offers truth in a usable form requires us as artists to retain full access to our inner selves – our hopes, fears, emotions – as that’s where we source our unique materials.

As we mature, the journey is sometimes distressing, and I found the practical elements of craft helpful in this, by keeping me grounded while I risked going about in my own murky interior. Attention to rhythms, like knit one purl one for so many rows, protected me from getting burned by some of the coruscating demons I was colour-conjuring. It’s as though the physicality of the craft absorbed some of the energy, and stopped me becoming overwhelmed by my strongest responses to the world; let me look at my own fear, for instance, without being afraid, afforded the space to hold it away from me, draw from it without indulging it. To knit a jumper for someone to wear, the knitter needs to not be overcome by rage, lust, or any emotion. By the same notion, to write a poem to send out in the world for others to use, the poet must master shame, grief, or rapture, while writing. Years later, a chance viewing of Tony Harrison, on TV, explaining the craft of sonnet building, was one of the sparks that led me towards writing.

Defining ‘craftsmanship’ might demonstrate how these skills transfer. To paraphrase Coleridge, craftsmanship is the best available materials brought together in an arrangement best suited to the use of their finished product. Those materials include the craftsman, who melds tools and materials from her own mind with those in the workshop, some of which are uniquely adapted or made from scratch, to create something she believes the world needs – otherwise she might not be a craftsman but some kind of charlatan.

So craftsmanship is the antithesis of shoddy goods made quickly for profit or status. In writing, I want to make something that didn’t exist before, and I want it to cast my own light on a shared human experience. Crafting a poem isn’t taming timber or chipping away at marble: the material is word, the craft is in negotiating between sound and meaning, the only muscle to wield is the mind.

Rivelin Valley, Sheffield (photo by Mary Musselwhite)

Walking the dogs by the river, we often see runners; in the last few years my sister Mary, visual artist by trade, has become one. For her it’s meditative, about feeling part of the land. Talking about it, we find parallels between running as meditation and poetry as craft: she trains and flexes muscles in her body as I do in my mind, and for the same reasons.

A runner who runs alone only competes with himself; a poet writes his own poems the best he can, and must be his own most rigorous critic. Like me with writing, my sister’s not asking for it to be easy. Here’s an extract from a piece she wrote about running by the River Rivelin in Sheffield: she’s just forked left off a main path, and says –

I especially like this part of the run because the path changes; it narrows and undulates round quick corners, tree roots everywhere, as well as rocks, and brickwork forming curved tunnels where the run-off water re-joins the river. You have to really watch where you place your feet and I like this focus, hearing my breath coming hard but steady, concentrating on every step.

Sometimes, for me, writing feels like this – I’m in my stride, words bounce along for a line, maybe several, sometimes a whole stanza, and more. When I miss my footing, I go back, find surprisingly apt solutions, carry on, as if in my own backyard. Then in the next draft I tease out connections and meanings that I never thought I’d the skill to bring to a poem, and by the next draft it’s starting to sing. An explanation for this kind of flow is that I’m applying what I now know – what I’ve found hard before and struggled to learn has become available, it’s in my mind’s muscle-memory and can be deployed to greater effect than before.

But there’s always more to learn, that flow won’t last long, and new depths soon become shallow. The next obstacle will require another kind of path: the only poems I know how to write are the ones I’ve already written.

The running analogy holds for when the writing again begins to flag. At the river, I sometimes see a runner walking. I don’t like to see it as they look out of place in their running gear – as though dressed up and out, but not up to it. However, this is a stage of the process: the runner has run as far as she can, pushed herself still further – just to that next tree, then the next one, dragged up the energy from somewhere, nearly made herself sick, and now needs a break. This option of walking is very useful: it’s a thing a runner can do to stay on track, stay on the river path, keep propelling himself through the material, keep his muscles moving, warm and supple, all this while temporarily unable to perform what he’s there to do, due to a snag in terrain or energy supply, but after a while of this walking, he will be able to run again.

Similarly, when I get stuck in a poem, I just write dull for a while. I know it’s dull, yet when I try to sharpen it nothing works, my mind’s muscle isn’t toned for it. If it’s the poem I’m supposed to be writing, then it will take off when the muscle is ready. “Memoir of a Working River”, which runs to twenty pages, forced me to dig out new resources to stay with the project, especially as it piled up behind me and seemed worthwhile.

Rivelin Valley, Sheffield (photo by Mary Musselwhite)

For as long as I’ve understood the Rivelin’s history I’ve wanted to write it as poetry, yet for years my efforts stumbled, led only to short poems of smaller journeys. So, fail better… I kept trying, and eventually tricked myself by beginning where I wanted the poem to end, wrote fifty odd lines, got stuck again, and this time, those lines alone would not make a poem. But I was onto something, and though I didn’t know how, I pushed on for the sake of what I’d written, and for the tale that needed telling.

At such times, I recall a runner walking and write dull for as long as it takes. If I can’t admit it’s dull while it’s costing the same effort as past gems, then I’d be afraid of writing dull forever, so I must acknowledge this and stagger on. Some of the output is useful – a word or phrase, narrative progress, a solution for some half forgotten problem, but the lines on the page are leaden. Nevertheless, I’m by the river, and in motion; soon I’ll learn what I need to go further.

To alleviate the drear, and tickle the muscle, I actively read poetry that seems spurred by the same energy as what I think I’m doing; this helps me tune to that energy. The competitor in me hates this: how come these guys can do it and I can’t? So I shut that voice up, like the walking runner, when another runner passes her, must rinse it from her mind. The poetry I’m reading is published; I wasn’t there while it was made. I didn’t see the poet walking by the river in her running gear, her hair all straggled, mud splattered up her aching calves; listening to the same stuff in her head, fighting the urge to give up and go home; and at the same time waiting, hoping, willing herself to be ready again to drive on. With both disciplines, staying with it is the only way, and when the flow kicks in, whoosh – what a payoff.

My sister started running with a friend who, when she slowed, would grab her wrist and pull her along, forcing her to run further before taking a walk break. My sister hated this, as I would. But it must be like being told by a respected fellow poet that you probably need to redraft a section or line of your poem, when you know how long it took you in the first place, and don’t believe your mind’s muscle can work harder, write it any better. Yet the giver of that advice believes you can, as the wrist grabbing showed my sister that her legs could run further, and she’s grateful to her friend for risking verbal abuse at the very least, by encouraging her to risk trying harder.

When I’m at home, alone, working on my poem, I have to grab my own wrist and pull myself on. Forget the fear of not being up to it. The poem’s arriving, whatever the sacrifice I must learn all I need to deliver it, keep going till it’s done – this time to another, further tree. The marvellous thing is, as poets, we do this in private. So, I snuggle into my writing chair, exposed only to the terrifying rigours of my own mind.

Fay Musselwhite’s debut full-length collection Contraflow is available now from Longbarrow Press. Visit the Contraflow microsite for further extracts, essays and audio recordings. You can also order the hardback via PayPal below:

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There is No Wealth but Life | Fay Musselwhite

The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw in a plain way… To see clearly is poetry, prophesy and religion, all in one.
John Ruskin, Modern Painters III

Rivelin Valley, June 2015 (photo by Mary Musselwhite)

Rivelin Valley, June 2015 (photo by Mary Musselwhite)

Nature, art and work define the prism through which John Ruskin examined man’s place in the world, and he combined them with mathematical elegance. Art and work require nature as raw material, and through study and further engagement, art and nature will ask of the mind what work takes from the body, while nature and work, for Ruskin, provide the perfect subjects for art.

The last of these equations is demonstrated by the critical interest Ruskin took in the Pre-Raphaelites, and in J M W Turner. Born and raised at the poor end of the Thames fishing trade, Turner’s close observations of ‘black barges, patched sails’ and ‘weedy roadside vegetation’ were highly praised by Ruskin, who saw no other painter able to depict ‘the natural way things have of lying about.’ [1]  This sensitivity, and the rallying cry of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, to paint from nature and to reject classical and artificial notions of composition and beauty, chime with Ruskin’s revelation, aged twenty one, which overturned much of the nine years’ schooling he’d had in ‘the mannerisms and tricks’ of making a painting. One afternoon, ‘with no prospect whatever but a small aspen tree against the blue sky’, he saw the charm of ‘composition’ in the existing world, and the holistic learning journey of capturing it. ‘At last the tree was there, and everything that I had thought before about trees, nowhere.’ [2]

The poets and visual artists featured and discussed in this essay embrace this clarity of sight in their spark and rigour. Seamus Heaney’s sonnet “The Forge” [3] begins: ‘All I know is a door into the dark.’ Through the doorway, all we see and hear, such as ‘The unpredictable fantail of sparks / Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water’, make the nearby ‘traffic flashing in rows’ sound tinny and ineffectual; while the juxtaposition of the modern road, where the blacksmith ‘recalls a clatter / Of hoofs’, provides a surface under which we seem to peer, as if through time, or perhaps not through time at all, but through our own surface layers, into what we are still made of.

“Coming Close” [4] by Philip Levine invites more direct contact, with a woman working the night shift at a buffer wheel. The work is dirty, hard and heavy, and has taken its toll on her body. She’s three hours, and many years in, her work is steady and conscientious, yet she’d resist it in a moment, should the chance come. Just before the end of the poem, we’re asked to imagine this:

… if by some luck the power were cut,
the wheel slowed to a stop so that you
suddenly saw it was not a solid object
but so many separate bristles forming
in motion a perfect circle …

Then she laughs and touches ‘the arm of your white shirt to mark / you for your own, now and forever.’

Philip Levine was born to a middle class family in Detroit in 1928. [5]  When his father died, twelve years later, the insurance company found an excuse to deny the major part of the claim, and Levine saw his mother worn out by the effort of keeping the family fed, clothed and sheltered. When they were fourteen, he and his twin brother vowed never to ‘participate in the corporate business of this country, a business that appalled us by the brutality of its exploitation of the people we most loved.’ [6]  Poetry had taken hold of Levine a year or so earlier, when his burgeoning lust for words fused with feelings of deep resonance that arose from delving into backyard soil to make things grow, and nights spent in woodland. So nature and work were implicated from the start, and “Innocence”, a poem from his 1991 collection What Work Is, sets them in bitter opposition to each other. A team of workers have prepared an oak wood for a road to come through it, foliage and branches have been removed, then:

earthmovers gripped the chained and stripped trunks,
hunched down and roared their engines, the earth
held and trembled before it gave, and the stumps
howled as they turned their black, prized groins
skyward for the first times in their lives

Soon after the vow with his twin, Levine began working part-time in a soap factory, and for many years supported his higher education by road building, factory and delivery work, until writing and teaching at last provided a living. His poetry remains fascinated by the streets and people of Detroit. In What Work Is, we journey with ‘the faces on the bus … each sealed in its hunger / for … a lost life’ [7], to places where someone must put on ‘wide rubber hip boots, / gauntlets to the elbow, a plastic helmet / like a knight’s but with a little glass window’ [8], or yearn to ‘climb the shaking ladder to the roof / of the Nitro plant and tear off / my respirator and breathe the yellow air’ [9], then to school, where the monoculture sets in:

These are the children of Flint, their fathers
work at the spark plug factory or truck
bottled water in 5 gallon sea-blue jugs
to the widows of the suburbs. You can see
already how their backs have thickened  [10]

Rivelin Valley (photo by Mary Musselwhite)

Rivelin Valley (Mary Musselwhite)

In his youth, Levine believed that manual labour would leave his ‘mind and imagination free for writing’. [11]  This mirrors Ruskin’s desire for St George’s Museum in Sheffield to inspire tired workers with ‘what is lovely in the life of Nature, and heroic in the life of Men.’ Situated on Walkley’s north facing hillside, where the furthest view looks northwest over the Peak District, ‘the mountain home of the museum’, as Ruskin described it, was chosen to draw local grinders up from the toxic air of Rivelin, Loxley and Neepsend valleys. [12]  However, some knew a more sustained escape was needed.

By his mid-twenties, Levine had his share of residual minor injury, was disgusted by the divisive practises that drove industry, and the prospect of a life there, unassuaged by his dream to make poetry pay, would have been intolerable. Instead, for many decades until he died in February this year, writing and teaching gave him:

… some work
to do, something useful
and hard, and that they might please

their own need to be doing.  [13]

A hundred years before Levine worked in factories, Sheffield grinders suffered severe damage to their respiration, digestion and posture; many were physical wrecks with terminal illnesses by the age of nineteen. [14]  Rivelin knife grinder Benjamin Creswick was impeded by the symptoms of his trade while his family grew. [15]  When St George’s Museum opened, in 1875, he was twenty-two, and its exhibits spurred him to try his hand; he discovered a talent for sculpture and invested in lessons. Before long he drew the attention of John Ruskin, who tutored him, helped find commissions, and paid him, weekly, for as long as necessary. Creswick became a sculptor of great national renown. He played a leading role in the Arts and Crafts movement, and held a senior position in Birmingham Art School for decades. Completing many public and private commissions, he made art from terracotta, marble and bronze, often portraying characters at tasks he’d performed and observed during his early working life.

It’s a credit to the zeal for authenticity Ruskin passed on in his training, that, with at least six children to support, Creswick initially turned down a major commission to illustrate the manufacture of hats, saying he knew nothing of the process. He was persuaded, after being allowed several weeks of study in the hat factory; and the friezes he made for the high street shop front, and factory entrance behind, have been called ‘a magnificent piece of Socialist realism, modelled without sentimentality but with great dignity.’ [16]  The hatters’ building no longer exists, but the scenes depicted on the Cutler’s Hall Frieze in London show the same strength and dignity. Creswick’s great granddaughter, visual artist Annie Creswick-Dawson, has said that the visual impact of the men’s stances, within sections and from one frame to another, remind her of the flow of the Rivelin.


Rivelin Valley (Mary Musselwhite)

I find this comparison thrilling for the way it taps into the parallels between man and nature that I strive to illuminate in poetry. From the realisations voiced by the teenage couple in “Star”, to the potency of how Sheffield’s fast rivers brought its famous industry to town, the connections flow. Poems of mine such as “Here I spill” and “River Memoir” imagine a river’s life in terms of a person’s, tracking attitudes and behaviour as they mature, suggesting also the harnessed power of a workforce. In poems like “Impasse” and “Contra Flow” the river stands in for the mind’s ability to break through and move on. “Flood Triptych: The Loxley” brings these notions together: as the harness breaks, human ingenuity turns against human, and devastation wrought by the river echoes a body’s internal struggle.

John Clare’s poetry pulls you into the midst of nature, where the work of flora, fauna and river seems never to be done. People are often peripheral: a cowboy on a gate, a distant seed-man sowing grain, or where ‘the cottage roof’s-thatch brown / Did add its beauty to the budding green’. [17]  Clare observes from pathless land, inside a thicket, or by ‘little brooks that hum a simple lay / In green unnoticed spots’. [18]  Removed from human lore, his poetry reveals the long rhythms of nature, while melding the immediacy of life, for its creatures and vegetation, with the breathless joy of the recorder. In “Sudden Shower”, a bee is one of the ‘little things around, like you and I’, who hurry for shelter, and his allegiance is palpable in this stanza from “Autumn”.

While from the rustling scythe the haunted hare
Scampers circuitous with startled ears
Pricked up, then squat, as by
She brushes to the woods
Where seeded grass breast-high and undisturbed
Form pleasant clumps through which the suthering winds
Softens her rigid fears
And lulls to calm repose.

Born in 1793, to a peasant family in the Northamptonshire village of Helpston, Clare grew up in similar poverty to Turner, with the same kind of exposure to his future material. [19]  He went to school until he was eleven or twelve, after which money and location left no possibility for further education; yet Clare was a voracious scholar. He borrowed, or saved to buy, books on history, music, botany, maths; everything, that is, except Latin and grammar which he disdained. Already in the thrall of reading, writing and story, when he read The Seasons by James Thompson in his early teens, he was seized by the urgent desire to record his world as poetry, and did so obsessively from then on. His early inner life also has parallels with Levine’s, and the poetry of both are underpinned by deep-rooted threads of human equality and nature’s supremacy. They also share the endearing strategy of telling you their tale as though you were stood beside them. Here are some lines from Clare’s “The Nightingale’s Nest” :

Hark! there she is as usual – let’s be hush –
For in this blackthorn-clump, if rightly guessed,
Her curious house is hidden. Part aside
These hazel branches in a gentle way
And stoop right cautious ’neath the rustling boughs

The fields and gardens where Clare worked weren’t the factories of Creswick or Levine, yet in “The Lament of Swordy Well” he bears witness to the appetites of the revolution already underway in cities:

And me, they turned me inside out
For sand and grit and stones
And turned my old green hills about
And picked my very bones.

Rivelin Valley, June 2015 (photo by Mary Musselwhite)

Rivelin Valley (Mary Musselwhite)

In poems like this, dedicated to the horror of land ownership which Enclosure ushered in, Clare rails at length against its fences, stop signs, ‘Grubbed up trees, banks and bushes’. [20]  The packaging of land came to Helpston in 1806, Clare’s thirteenth year, and in “The Moors” there’s the sense of him having caught the last moments of ‘one eternal green / That never felt the rage of blundering plough’, whose ‘only bondage was the circling sky’, where boys picked mulberries, and shepherds found lost sheep. Intact forever, until ‘Enclosure came and trampled on the grave / Of labour’s rights and left the poor a slave’. This and a similar line in “The Village Minstrel”, where he ‘Marks the stopped brook and mourns oppression’s power’ – a line that could have been written somewhere in the world any year since – typifies his fluidity between a lost detail and the irrevocable hijacking of resources. His way of speaking for and as the landscape and its creatures makes his politics always personal, yet he is usually shedding light on an ugly facet of his nemesis. When “The Fallen Elm”, which always grew comfortingly close to his home, and ‘murmured in our chimney top / The sweetest anthem autumn ever made’, was felled without any warning, he notes the dangerous rhetoric of those who ‘Bawl freedom loud and then oppress the free’. He goes on:

And labour’s only cow was drove away.
No matter – wrong was right and right was wrong
And freedom’s bawl was sanction to the song.
– Such was thy ruin, music-making elm

Like Levine, Clare grew up at the brunt of great national hardship and severe class division. In Helpston, he struggled to make a living, nearly enlisted, even put up fences for the local squire – which always made him drink more and hardly write at all; then at twenty four, his family almost destitute, he travelled a few miles for work burning lime, which went to make mortar and fertiliser. It was during this employment that he resolved to change course: he approached a local bookseller and his twelve year journey to publication began.

This is no rags-to-riches tale. Clare held out for the best deal, and after his first collection was published in 1820, he enjoyed several years of acclaim as the Peasant Poet. During visits to London, though noticeably gauche, he made friends, some generous and loyal, of writers, artists, etc. There were more collections of his work, but inexperience and bad advice lost him money, and it’s likely that his wit and politics eluded much of his contemporary readership. When delays and charlatans had squandered his most accessible assets, his popularity waned. Meanwhile, the severity of his mental frailty, and homesickness when away, went unrecognised or misunderstood for too long. Conversely, he missed London friends and city life when he only connected with them by letter.

Three years after the publication of his first collection, Clare suffered his first bout of depression. This coincided with the death of a rural labouring class poet from Suffolk, a few decades his senior. Robert Bloomfield’s work had been immensely popular for a while, but the man had died penniless and losing his sanity. Fourteen years later, aged forty-four, John Clare was first certified insane. Failing mental health, manifesting in depression and erratic behaviour, had for a long time prevented him from making the best of his earnings, and made home life difficult. Now, it seems, his wife was concerned he would become violent. In his last few years at home, he could often only be calmed by one of his children talking gently with him about the countryside. He remained in mental health care and continued to write until his death in 1864. Here’s his sonnet, published in 1835, “To the Memory of Bloomfield”:

Sweet unassuming minstrel, not to thee
The dazzling fashions of the day belong:
Nature’s wild pictures, field and cloud and tree
And quiet brooks far distant from the throng
In murmurs tender as the toiling bee
Make the sweet music of thy gentle song.
Well, nature owns thee: let the crowd pass by,
The tide of fashion is a stream too strong
For pastoral brooks that gently flow and sing,
But nature is their source, and earth and sky
Their annual offering to her current bring.
Thy gentle muse and memory need no sigh,
For thine shall murmur on to many a spring
When their proud streams are summer-burnt and dry.

As is so often the case, in the 1870s much concern was expressed in Britain about the national debt. This didn’t, however, refer to the debt owed to the working urban and rural poor by the individuals making a fortune from the sweat on their thickening backs. Ruskin’s response was to call for a National Store, and St George’s Museum in Walkley was conceived to exhibit this collection of artefacts. [21]  He deplored mass production and its attendant poverty of the human mind and body, and founded the Guild of St George to explore alternatives to industrial capitalism, encourage art and craft, and work toward greater class equality throughout the country. The museum in Walkley was one of its earliest projects. Unfortunately, several episodes of serious mental illness left John Ruskin unable to fully realise his hopes.

Rivelin Valley, June 2015 (photo by Mary Musselwhite)

Rivelin Valley (Mary Musselwhite)

Currently, the Guild is funding a nine year programme at Sheffield’s Millennium Gallery, due to culminate later this year. Ceramicist Emilie Taylor was commissioned to produce work for Force of Nature; Picturing Ruskin’s Landscape, its 2012 exhibition.

Taylor has led a number of projects that encourage members of a community to make art from what binds them. [22]  Several years ago, for instance, in Brown & White, recovering heroin and cocaine users employed a nostalgic framing to juxtapose their own images of addiction and safety. For Force of Nature, she drew on childhood memories of her father’s involvement in pigeon racing around their Rivelin Valley home, and the piece she made, “So High I Almost Touched the Sky”, is a pair of metre tall vases decorated with tender images of Skye Edge pigeon fanciers, their birds and surroundings. She fired them in an outdoor smokeless wood-fuelled kiln, built by the artists’ community at Manor Top, while pigeons flew high above. The impressive stature of these items, along with their capacity and fragility, are perfect for the men they depict. Indeed, for the whole workforce who keep everyone fed and sheltered without anyone’s name being known – because none of them are called Tesco or Adidas – and for the poets and artists spoken of here, who have seen something and wished to tell it.

A few years ago, Taylor was guest visual artist on a poetry walk led by Mark Doyle, and I was lucky enough to be on it. We left Upperthorpe Library to stand where Kelvin flats had been, and look out over Pitsmoor and Parkwood Springs. She gave out materials, talked to us about looking, not looking, and negative space, showed us methods to capture our version of the view. Then I was amazed to be led along Neepsend Valley to where derelict pigeon lofts are barely hidden by a thin stand of trees beside Penistone Road. “Flight from Cuthbert Bank” is the poem I wrote about the walk; here are its last two stanzas:

Ten years since the last
kept pigeon homed to here. Back five more decades
to before they razed Parkwood Spring and sucked
Neepsend dry: the valley not this fleck of factory,
a filament between car galleries
and abandoned hillside,

but like a Lowry vision: a flock
of men released by work clocks, to rise above
day’s end, the valley’s din, legacies of grind,
to hold the small bulk, feel its heat
pulse through feathers in cupped hands,
and send those tiny hearts and lungs
to claim their reach of sky.

Several poems by Fay Musselwhite appear in the Longbarrow Press anthology The Footing; her debut collection will appear from Longbarrow Press in 2016. She is among the poets taking part in the Longbarrow Press residency at the Pop-Up Ruskin Museum at 381 South Road, Walkley, Sheffield, S6 3TD, from 2 – 30 September 2015.  Join us for the salons (every Wednesday and Thursday between 1pm – 3pm in the Museum), in which the poets will lead discussion of several Ruskin-themed topics with reference to their own and others’ poetry; these are free to attend, and no booking is required. The residency will culminate in a collective reading at the Museum at 7pm on Wednesday 30 September, featuring Musselwhite and poets Matthew Clegg, Angelina D’Roza and Pete Green. See the Longbarrow Press Events page for more information.


[1] Ruskin, The Two Boyhoods, in Wilmer p146
[2] Ruskin quoted in Dearden, pp17-8
[3] from Door into the Dark, 1969
[4] Levine, What Work Is
[5] details of Philip Levine’s life are from Levine, The Bread of Time
[6] Levine, Bread, p113
[7] “Every Blessed Day”, Work
[8] “Fear and Fame”, Work
[9] “Burned”, Work
[10] “Among Children”, Work
[11] Levine, Bread, p114
[12] Price, p71
[13] “Possession”, Not This Pig
[14] Engels
[15] details of Benjamin Creswick’s life are from Creswick-Dawson
[16] Creswick and Ruskin scholar Simon Ogden, quoted by Creswick-Dawson
[17] “The Village Minstrel”
[18] “The Eternity of Nature”
[19] details of John Clare’s life are from Bate, Biography
[20] “The Lament of Swordy Well”
[21] Notes about the Guild and the Museum are from the Guild’s website
[22] details of Emilie Taylor’s work are from her website

Sources and further reading (click on bold text for website links)

Bate, Jonathan,  John Clare: A Biography.  London: Picador 2003
Bate, Jonathan (ed.),  John Clare: Selected Poems.  London: Faber & Faber 2004
Creswick, Benjamin
Dearden, James, An Illustrated Life of John Ruskin.  Princes Risborough: Shire 2004
Engels, Friedrich, The Condition of the Working Class 1844
Guild of St George
Heaney, Seamus, Opened Ground: Poems 1966-96.  London: Faber & Faber 1998
Levine, Philip, Not This Pig.  Hanover: Wesleyan University Press 1963
Levine, Philip, The Bread of Time: Towards an Autobiography.  New York: Alfred A Knopf 1993
Levine, Philip, What Work Is.  New York: Alfred A Knopf 2012
Price, David, Sheffield Troublemakers.  Stroud: Phillimore & Co 2008
Taylor, Emilie
Wilmer, Clive (ed). Unto This Last (collection of Ruskin’s essays).  London: Penguin 1997

Contra Flow | Fay Musselwhite

An account of the Rivelin Poetry Walk, Sheffield, Saturday 1st March 2014

The Rivelin Valley (click to enlarge). Original map courtesy RVCG (see bottom of post for link); adapted and re-annotated by Fay Musselwhite (poem titles in italics)

As soon as I moved to Sheffield I needed somewhere to walk my dog, and not having a car it had to be nearby.  So when someone I met in the street, on my third day in town, told me there was a river, I was keen to try it.  I followed directions down to where the Rivelin passes behind the fire station just before joining the Loxley at Malin Bridge, and found, to my surprise, a corridor of stunning countryside a short walk from my home.

I’ve been dog walking here for fifteen years, and poetry has emerged, most of it from the mile and a half stretch of river between the ‘S bend’ – where the Rivelin tunnels under Rivelin Valley Road – and Rivelin Post Office, which isn’t a post office anymore, but marks the upstream end of the publicly accessible Rivelin Valley.  For the poetry walk to happen on this section of river, and be reachable by public transport, it was necessary to begin at Crosspool shops. So it’s from there, soon after 1pm on a bright early spring afternoon, that just over twenty of us, including dogs and children, set off to cross Manchester Road, and walk among houses for ten minutes, till we’re at the countryside’s edge: a spot just off Hagg Lane with a panoramic view of Stannington on the next hillside, though the valley we’re heading for is obscured by trees.  Horses in a small fenced field come over, but all we offer is words.

Fay Musselwhite introduces 'Contra Flow' (photograph by Mary Musselwhite)

‘Contra Flow’ (photograph by Mary Musselwhite)

Brian Lewis of Longbarrow Press introduces The Footing, which is the book we’re publicising this afternoon.  He also talks of the poetry walk practise that Longbarrow has established in Sheffield over the past six years.  These events, he says, ‘enable the poem to move into the world, and the world to move into the poem.’  I then make my own brief introduction, explaining that the walk is called Contra Flow after one of the poems, but particularly for the story-told-backwards nature of its journey: we’ll be walking against the river’s flow so as to apprehend it more fully, meet it head on, take greater notice of it as a current, a force, an entity, than if we were to walk with its direction. Before we begin the descent into the valley I read a short poem.

Most of us take a sedate and surprisingly long meander round and down, some use a near vertical path, impossible without the opportune jutting-out of occasional rocks to form staggered steps.  We convene in a riding school’s field, in sight of an old Water Board marker – a stone with initials carved on it – stuck up in the grass.  Electric fencing prevents us approaching, but conservationist Graeme Hodgson points out the direction of another similar stone that some of us can just about see, and explains that they show the route of an old disused underground conduit that runs from the water treatment works all the way to Crookes Valley Park.  The park was the site of reservoirs built in the eighteenth century to meet Sheffield’s water needs, but the town grew rapidly, due in part to the tremendous success of local industry, and by the mid nineteenth century was facing a major public health crisis.  This led to the Water Board’s keenness to gain some control over the flow of water into the city.  Meanwhile, millworks on the Rivelin were in decline due to their comparative remoteness, so in the 1850s the Water Board bought every mill-powered factory on this river, though industry continued for decades after.

Tom's RPW pics 1Mar14 022

Contra Flow: Graeme Hodgson highlights the route of a disused conduit (photograph by Tom Salmon)

We proceed down through the riding school, our progress noted by one horse in particular. After we cross Hagg Lane (again), the river’s long sigh becomes louder and more urgent, and even on such a crisp spring day, there is a tangible rise in humidity. We follow the mud track down to meet the Rivelin itself, cross it and gather by the distinctive round lake at the Hind Wheel factory site.

From my earliest dog walks here, I wondered about the iron and brickwork remnants.  Then, as I gradually learned more of the industrial history they represent, I realised that by way of the exceptionally fast flow of local rivers, this landscape was responsible for Sheffield being what I already knew it to be: the steel capital of the world.  The worked part of the Rivelin had twenty mills along it: the furthest out being Uppermost Wheel, a little beyond Manchester Road, while Grogram Wheel was the last before the Rivelin flows into the Loxley at Malin Bridge.  All of these are still in evidence today.

The Hind Wheel (by Tom Salmon)

Contra Flow: at The Hind Wheel (by Tom Salmon)

The Hind Wheel is the oldest mill site on the Rivelin, recorded in use from 1581.  The dam is where water was stored to feed, at various times, one or two wheels of ten or eleven foot diameter.  They were installed at the place we’ve arrived at, between the weir and the dam, and they powered up to eight or ten cutlery grinding troughs, situated where scrubland now is on the other side of the footpath.

For a time, while gathering this information and trying to map it in my mind onto how the river is now, I couldn’t help but picture the industry as an almost rustic endeavour.  I found it hard to grasp that the grinding wheels and troughs were housed in buildings; that all down the river there were huge factory sheds where workers stood or sat at gritstone grinding wheels to sharpen cutlery and tools.  It would be loud, the air specked with metal and grit, sparks flying up and all the debris falling into the river.  It was a proper industrial environment, like Attercliffe in East Sheffield – noisy, dirty, dangerous, full of noxious substances, the likelihood of grinding wheels exploding, and whatever other industrial accidents.  There’d be bosses and workers all cutting corners, horses and ponies carrying goods, materials, etc.

So far, this thread of the Rivelin’s story hasn’t quite made it onto the finished page for me, though it is on its way, and features in a sequence I’ve written about the Loxley flood.

In the meantime, human use still litters the river: these days it’s leisure litter.  Graeme (who’s also my partner) regularly brings home bagfuls of dumped bottles, cans, food wrappers, etc.  Then there are fishermen, many of whom take their dangerous debris away; others don’t.  One afternoon, I was at home when Graeme phoned to tell me he’d found a moorhen in distress right here on the grass by the water, and he was bringing her home to try to rescue.

Because they hide in plain sight, are safe when visible in trees and on water, birds provide some of the most dynamic entertainment and intrigue at the river.  Moorhens, coots and mallard ducks, also: heron, kingfisher, jay, crow, various tits and finches, dipper, wagtail, robin and sparrow are regularly seen, other species occasionally too.

We walk around the dam and on a little further, till we divert a few paces into the scrub so as to be heard above the river’s gush.  We stop by an ancient wall greened and softened by moss.  This is the outer casing of Plonk Wheel dam which held water to power up to four or five grinding troughs in the latter part of the eighteenth century.  Built in 1737, originally as a sawmill, this was one of the earliest works on the Rivelin to be decommissioned.  It’s been unused since perhaps as far back as 1814, so is the part of the industrial river that nature’s had longest to claim back.

The river’s story falls into two chronologies: one being this human exploitation over the last five hundred years (longer on some other Sheffield rivers), during which time the harness it endured puts it in the realm of post-traumatic landscape.  The other time scale is the long and deep natural history of the valley, encompassing life cycles on micro and macro levels: the layering of life and death that makes the ground we walk on, and the ancient shifts, flows and drops by which the river is here. More recently, I’ve helped a little with the resistance to Himalayan Balsam, and so realised how it could all look without those human interventions. And how much depends on the knitting of detail. The next poem focuses on a small natural event.

On from the Plonk Wheel, we follow the old stone path by a part of the river that seems quite eerie to me.  It’s a straight fast section where the water is almost level with the land, so not seemingly remote; it nips along briskly in its own groove muttering as if it has a secret.  On quiet days, there’s something about how the current meets weir-remains on the riverbed that produces a sound like people talking and laughing on afternoon radio just too low, or detuned, to quite catch what they’re saying.

As we pass Swallow Wheel dam, we look over the water to where the land slopes up toward the road, and anticipate the setting for the next poem. Himalayan Balsam is a problem throughout the Rivelin Valley, and several years ago this whole area was riddled with it. Though the task’s never over, Graeme has been instrumental in reversing its current colonisation attempts along a considerable stretch of the river, with many areas now yielding a new diversity of native vegetation.

Around the Swallow Wheel weir there are whirls and eddies, where sticks, leaves and bits of twig have gathered around a river-swept tree stump, shaped like a massive human heart, lodged in the shallows.  Graeme describes how this mass of marauding timber was washed downriver in heavy rains a few years ago, how it rested for many months on the crest of Frank Wheel weir, upriver from here, then arrived at this spot sometime last autumn.  Since then it’s formed a makeshift dam beside the path, and upgraded the trickle that always found a way round the far side, to a decent waterway, now the main flow.  Back when the river drove the work, it would’ve been someone’s job to check and clear the channels, now it’s down to the Rivelin Valley Conservation Group who do a lot for the coherence of river and footpath.

We stop just before the impressive Wolf Wheel dam, at a place where the path opens out, and the river corners into an inviting beach with a huge section of felled tree laid out as a bench.  There’s a long-established steep cobbled path leading down here from the road, which meets a bridge to where other footpaths cross the farmland beyond the river.  We call this ‘electric bridge’ as it has cable attached underneath, presumably taking power to the fields.

Contra Flow (photograph by Mary Musselwhite)

Contra Flow (photograph by Mary Musselwhite)

Before the stone steps taking the footpath up to the dam is a patch of boggy ruin where the Wolf Wheel factory buildings were; in its day making work for up to seventeen razor and table knife grinders.  Not long ago, this area was deeply colonised by Himalayan Balsam, and though it’s slimy and craggy to work there, Graeme has persevered and we don’t now expect to see more than a couple of stragglers this year.

Himalayan Balsam has much in common with that other invasive species Japanese Knotweed: both owe success to their quick-growing nature, and this shows in their shared bamboo-like stem structure.  I recently read someone’s childhood story, from 1960s Bristol, where Japanese Knotweed was rampant on local wasteland.  It seems that its exotic-looking stems led the group of children playing there to favour jungle warfare type games.

Perhaps it was for the same reasons that a similar thing occurred to me when I came out to help Graeme balsam-bash last year.  On the steep bank that separates Wolf Wheel dam from the goyt, it was hot and tropically close, but up on the slope behind the Swallow Wheel dam, Graeme had been at work for several evenings, and had cut himself a grid of access paths through plants that were eight to ten foot tall.  A little cooler here, but these carved-out straight lines seemed to describe human living space, gave the terrain a recently abandoned primitive urban atmosphere, and conjured stories of war atrocities in Vietnam, Malaysia and Burma.

Wolf Wheel dam is the biggest on the Rivelin, and some records say the factory here was active for nearly two hundred years, until 1918.  Two houses visible from the path (when trees behind the dam are bare) on Rivelin Valley Road were built to live in by the Windle family who worked this mill in the first half of the nineteenth century.

After the narrow path beside the dam, we follow the river to Frank Wheel, and gather by where its buildings were.  Walking upriver means we approach each mill site by its building end; this is because the power wheel was always attached to the downriver end of the dam that serves it.  As those buildings all collapsed and disappeared long ago, we’re left in many cases with a leaky wall and boggy ground, which accounts for the moss furring at Plonk Wheel, and for the crisscross of rivulets through the Wolf Wheel ruin.  And here, at Frank Wheel, it explains the swampy ground that used to pervade a wide area, and has now resolved into a shallow pond.

In 1864 Frank Wheel turned from the cutler grinding it had undertaken since 1737 to making paper. This was enabled by the availability of fresh water that travelled down from Third Coppice Wheel, the next wheel upriver, where paper was made from 1814 onwards.  The change of business at Frank Wheel may have been precipitated by the wrecking of a Loxley paper mill in the 1864 flood, where raw paper was apparently strewn about the hillsides next morning.

Perhaps it’s the slimy wall and soft ground, or maybe it’s the dark near-horizontal trees, resembling massive skeletal insects, that overhang the dam up from the footpath, that give this place a melancholy atmosphere.  As I’ve said, I found the Rivelin with my dog when I’d just moved to Sheffield, so I’ve known it longer than anyone I’ve met here, which is quite a friendship.  That dog got old and died, of course, and a few weeks later I came to the river for the first time without her, trying to make sense of her absence.

On the brief walk from Frank Wheel to the next stopping place, we pass a huge lump of stone that squats at the river’s edge.  It was one of the first natural things I noticed and looked out for here, and it gave me this poem.

To reach nearby woods we cross a tiny bridge, over where the goyt taking head-water to Frank Wheel dam starts.  In 2007, when Sheffield got the floods, it was wild down here.  All rain that hit any part of this valley had to reach this river.  It poured down from the road, from the fields above it, down this hillside, and all the vegetation was lying down in the mud like it had been combed; anything loose was strewn about, making its way down to the lowest level.  Around that time Graeme and I saw that the goyt was empty and wondered if we could do anything.

Water’s flow is of crucial importance to this day, as human needs everywhere compete with the desires of industry.  The effects of public health measures taken by the Sheffield Water Board in the nineteenth century required augmenting as the twentieth century approached, and Graeme explains how these demands were met:

‘It was agreed that a water supply would be taken from the recently dammed Derwent river some five miles away.  A tunnel was constructed, beginning in 1903, and taking six years to complete.  This was enabled by the construction of several sighting towers across the moor, the remains of which can still be seen today.  When the two sides finally met, they were only inches out of alignment.  What’s more, the tunnel came in at £13,000 under budget.  On the Rivelin side, a small gauge railway was constructed along Wyming Brook Drive to deliver materials from a supply dump on the A57.  This was also one of the first civil engineering projects to use electricity as a power source.’

So, there’s plenty to suggest that this landscape has in turn been sculpted by the industry it gave rise to.  But thinking now in a truly macro and ancient way, we can speculate as to how the river and valley were formed.  From here we look across the river and up to farmland on the high ground beyond, then we turn and look up the other hillside to Rivelin Valley Road.  We note that they share a level, and know that however long ago, up there was the ground: all this was filled in, underground.

Water makes its own bed which deepens as it flows through, eventually carving out whole valleys, but it needs a dip or crease if it’s to become a river.  I’ve been out to near where the Rivelin begins and I can see that it arrives in several tiny streams, gathers itself and sets off to find its way here. There’s a notion that rivers which occur in this way follow the line of fallen trees, which collect water, then rot to form a channel.  According to Alice Oswald, ‘dart’ is old Devonian for ‘oak’.

It’s amazing to see the land reclaim its own.  We’re gathered by a tree that’s lain here for some time, and we can see how the tips of it have disappeared and are indistinguishable from the ground; eventually that will be the case for the whole trunk, maybe leaving a hump where the root ball was. We know this. But we don’t usually see the tree fall, like Graeme and I saw this one gradually succumb seven or eight years ago.  We were walking along the path, perhaps just passing Boulder, when Graeme noticed its top twigs travelling through the scenery.  He nudged me and pointed.

Contra Flow (photograph by Tom Salmon)

Contra Flow (photograph by Tom Salmon)

We get back on the path, and soon we’re where we can look across to see the last of Black Brook as it white-tumbles its rocky fall into the Rivelin.  The tributary is named for the peat that used to be dug up round its source up at Lodge Moor, and its arrival here is responsible for Third Coppice Wheel being able to manufacture paper through nearly the whole of the 19th century.

For the clean water essential to such industry, they ran an aqueduct from the top of the waterfall over the river to factory buildings on this side.  Somewhere on this steep bit of ground they had a paper mill, two drying houses, a rope shed, rolling house, store and stove, as well as domestic buildings for people and livestock.  The Rivelin still turned the millwheel for power.

Protruding from the mud is the curved top of some kind of metal tank left behind by the papermakers.  If it’s round, then it’ll be seven foot in diameter.  Perhaps it was a boiler or water storage tank.  Down by the river, the remaining brickwork gives a marvellous insight into the ingenuity of water redirection.  And in the water you may witness an instance of the river flowing against itself: turbulence caused by riverbed disturbance, or by the torrent of Black Brook, or it could be the channelling remnants of its industrial past.

It’s fitting, then, to end this life-told-backwards walk with a poem about how the Rivelin gathers itself and sets off.  Some years ago, we went to find the source of the Rivelin, and though I tried for a short while to convince myself otherwise, it was clear to me that I couldn’t write my poem from there, mainly because the terrain and atmosphere reminded me far too much of the opening pages of Alice Oswald’s Dart.  On walks nearby at Fox Hagg, however, I’d seen unnamed tributaries of the Rivelin trickle and pour out of near-vertical craggy land.  So instead I began the tale there.

I’m drawn to the idea that rivers, which now bring corridors of nature into city centres like Sheffield, were unwittingly responsible for delivering the industry that made them.  Also by how these rivers begin fresh and free, but for many centuries were harnessed for work as they matured.  Having a teenage son when we visited the source, and especially on seeing some of the meandering and messing about the Rivelin does before finding its groove, made comparison with the life of a young person – as yet not truly aware of how the yoke of work will channel his or her energy – seem pleasingly apt.  But it’s not only in Sheffield that rivers brought us to town, and the macro comparison is far more compelling.  Over the past several centuries humans have moved as a race from rural to city life; each decade we’ve removed ourselves further from nature’s jurisdiction, and it seems we may now risk losing our way on the earth, if we continue to turn away from nature’s guidance and nourishment.

The Rivelin tells all these stories.

In keeping with much other writing about Sheffield’s working rivers, I’ve used the word ‘dam’ to mean a confined body of water that now functions as a lake but used to store head-water for the power wheel.

Ball, Christine, Crossley, David, and Flavell, Neville. 2006. Water Power on the Sheffield Rivers (second edition). Sheffield: South Yorkshire Industrial History Society .

Rivelin Valley Conservation Group website. Click here to view and download the original map of the Rivelin Valley walk.
The Footing microsite. An anthology of specially commissioned poems on the theme of walking, with contributions from Angelina Ayers, James Caruth, Mark Goodwin, Rob Hindle, Andrew Hirst, Chris Jones and Fay Musselwhite (the latter’s Breach sequence includes the poems ‘Boulder’, ‘Contra Flow’, ‘Path Kill’ and ‘Impasse’). Click here to view further images of the Contra Flow river walk (taken by Emma Bolland).

The audio recordings of poems embedded in this post are also available to hear as a continuous sequence (click on the first track, ‘Eggs’, to begin the sequence of nine poems):