Places make people

Benjamin Myers – writer

I used to think that people made a place. Now I understand that places make people.

For centuries we have been shaped by our surroundings. The way we talk, interact, eat, breathe and live has always been closely tied to our environments. Only in the past century or two have we edged away from the landscape, as the agricultural was replaced by the industrial, and then that too superseded by the digital.

But the birds don’t care. They still sing their morning song; their tweets are real and meaningful and timeless. The deer, the fox, the badger and the hedgehog may find more obstacles in their territories around which they must navigate, or the sound of sirens might reverberate deep into their dens and setts and nests, but the natural world is right there on our doorsteps. It shouldn’t be feared or avoided. It’s there to be enjoyed  – because we are a part of it too.

Ten years ago I moved to the Upper Calder Valley in West Yorkshire. It sits upon the southern stretch of the Pennines, an undulating terrain of rock and rain, a greatly varying place of valleys, woods and moorland, where the turning of a corner can present a new view, changing weather or a completely different eco-system. My outlook changed almost immediately, as did my creative output. I made a silent commitment to myself to devote my writing to these landscapes of Northern England – not just Yorkshire, but Cumbria, Durham, Northumbria and others too. I wanted to tell stories in those places I consider as underrepresented in literary fiction – and the people who inhabit them too. This I have done – and am still doing – via novels, essays, poems and articles.

To do this I walk. I walk most days, come rain or shine (usually rain). When I walk I look and I think or sometimes I don’t think at all. Often I’ll stop and share a few moments of conversation with a passing stranger. I love cities, but they offer a different dynamic. In time my legs strengthened, my centre of gravity seemed to lower slightly and my stamina – and appetite – increased. I stopped ingesting all things illicit and found that fresh air and unexpected feelings of exhilaration can be addictive. Our ancestors knew this.

Out of these wanderings come new ideas and stories. Sometimes they begin as a scenario or a sentence – or a word, even. I take that word and plant it, and see if it grows roots.

My last three books have been inspired by the landscape of the Calder Valley. The Gallows Pole novelised the real events of a local gang of forgers known as the Cragg Vale Coiners, and is now in its 8th print run since it was first published by Bluemoose Books of Hebden Bridge in 2017. It won the world’s largest prize for historical fiction, the Walter Scott Prize, has recently been reissued by Bloomsbury, and it has inspired both a walking guide and an album too. These Darkening Days was a noir novel that investigated the idea of small town gossip, old fears and new mythologies in a modern rural world. Under The Rock is a non-fiction attempt to map the area through my wanderings, poetry, photographs, old stories, swimming. It looks at the lightness and darkness of a place; the joys and challenges of valley life. It is a book of full immersion in the landscape and is published in paperback by Elliott & Thompson in April 2019. All of these were written in my head while walking.

Alfred Wainwright always advised that you should “mind where you put your feet.” Another timeless piece of advice offers “there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” I wouldn’t argue with either, though have discovered both the hard way. There have been turned ankles, ripped clothes and days spent soaked and shivering.

I was invited on one such wanders with the HebTroCo chaps, and got to hammer their clothes and boots on of one my muddiest and most enjoyable regular routes. In only an hour we passed through ancient woodlands, a medieval breeding ground for rabbits, explored a ruined cottage which once belong to charcoal-burners, looked out across the territory of the Cragg Vale Coiners and peaked the valley to take in views of Mytholmroyd, Hebden Bridge and Heptonstall, where the great American poet Sylvia Plath is buried. 

Looking out across the ancient land Ed from HebTroCo remarked that “Some people say we’re lucky to live and work in a place like this – but it’s no accident that we ended up here, is it?”

It’s not. People do make a place. Of course they do. But the place makes us too.

The Offing by Benjamin Myers will be published in August 2019 by Bloomsbury.

The Cragg Vale Coiners map used on this route is available from www.christophergoddard.net

 

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