Walking with Gerry Harris on 10 April 2010

From Ulverston to Baycliff

I am walking with Gerry, whom I first met  in 1999, when she examined – and passed – my PhD.

Gerry meets me at Lancaster train station. We’re catching a train to Ulverston, where we’ll take a short bus ride and then walk along part of the Cumbria Coastal Path. Our destination is the Beach House of John Fox and Sue Gill, artists I admire greatly but have only met a couple of times. Deep in conversation on Platform 3, we fail to notice that the train we’re meant to be on has departed from Platform 2 – without us. An auspicious start to our walk (made somewhat ironic by the fact that part of our engaged discussion was about risk taking and travelling to unknown places).

But it’s a glorious day, we’ve got lots to talk about, so another 30 minute wait is not so bad. The train journey from Lancaster to Ulverston, when we do actually make it, is pretty spectacular, running alongside (treacherous) mudflats that seem to extend for miles, certainly as far as the eye can see. At one point, the train crosses an expansive bridge that cuts across the sand. Eating the packed lunches that Gerry has supplied (sandwiches always taste best when eaten on trains), the sun warming the Cumbrian coast, I really feel like I’m on holiday.

Alighting at Ulverston we follow Sue’s carefully provided directions that lead us into the town, where we catch a local bus and ask the driver to let us know when we reach the swimming pool. After a short while, the bus climbs its way up into a housing estate, zigzagging small suburban streets and then – stops. We’re the only ones left on the bus and at this point the driver admits that he’d forgotten all about is. (This local trip is turning into something of an adventure.) Never mind, he reassures us, he’ll be retracing his route in a moment and this time will make sure we’re safely dropped off. We sit at the front of the bus, just to be on the safe side.

Sue’s directions from the swimming pool: take the first left down a lane, then the first right, keep going till you reach the house called ‘Paradise’. Finally, we are actually walking, the sun on our backs. No traffic, curtains of tall corn stalks on my right, fields further afield. We walk for a bit on the road, finally coming to its end at the poetically named ‘Paradise’ (1 Priory Crossing,1882). From here we access the shore line – sandy, pebbly beach, the sea itself still a long way away. It’s easy walking underfoot and though the path is straight (I like coastal walks as it’s difficult to get lost) our convivial conversation meanders; we divert, loop, retrace, overtake. It seems wholly appropriate  that walking provides the perfect means to catch up with someone.

Passing through Bardsea (resisting the ice cream van but using the convenient ‘conveniences’) we continue round the coast till we come across evidence of beach-art activity – a bush decorated with flotsam and jetsam (mostly, to my despair, made of plastic, but at least it is being creatively recycled). A few more paces on, and there’s a beach garden, stones set in a circle, carved wooden oyster catchers flying on string from one tree to another. It would be hard to miss the home of Sue and John.

Up the path leading off the beach and into a garden packed with sculptures made from bits and bobs. In the circular studio on the left, we interrupt John, busy at work on his various pieces that engage with this particular environment (at present, pictures revealing the thousands of micro-organisms to be found in a bucket of sand from the beach below his home). Sue invites us in for a welcome cup of refreshing tea and some seasonal sustenance (toasted Hot Cross Buns and Simnel Cake). Their renovated beach house is carefully designed with lots of natural wood and glass, and curves that soften the square of windows in the living room. Looking out onto the expansive horizon (sky, sand and water), Gerry and I agree that if we lived here, that is all we would do. The landscape is so big and empty and riveting.

I tell Sue and John about 40 Walks and serendipity hovers again. Sue has given herself a couple of Birthday Walks too – including a long distance, week long walk alone for her 60th. Sue is a woman to admire.

John shares a picture book album that tells the story of Beach House. What is most evident is that its creation has depended on the continual efforts of family and friends. It is a feat of commitment, determination, community and love. We are also told about a likely wolf ghost (paw prints appearing mysteriously in the sand early one morning). Apparently, the last wolf in England was shot not too far from the beach house. It seems entirely likely that if the wolf is to return anywhere, then it will be here, close to the Fox’s home, where art and life are carefully synchronised.

My walk with Gerry, though only 3 ½ miles in length, was a day filled with different delights, including the accidents or ‘mistakes’. Though I’ve known Gerry since 1999 (when she examined my PhD) this is the first time we’ve actually been together totally outside the frame of our jobs. Gerry, one of the wise women I’m lucky enough to have in my life, of course chose our walk wisely too. Today, walking together not for work, not for research, but just for me, I really recognised the value of this birthday gift to myself, a gift that depends totally on the generosity of others.




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