30 March 2012

In Wilfred Owen’s footsteps

wedding and events drawing - 1983 sketchbook

These are pages from my (teenage) 1983 sketchbook.

Almost thirty years on I still have photos of Wilfred Owen on the wall of my studio..
I can’t remember how I ‘discovered’ Wilfred and his poetry. We didn’t learn about the war poets at school. It’s possible that the BBC drama of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth awakened my interest in the First World War and the poetry and painting of the era.
But my fascination with Wilfred Owen grew, and has remained.

 Wilfred Owen, drawing for Claire Jones' anthology, 'This Is Who I Am'

My recent trip to Yorkshire staying with friends living near Ripon was a good opportunity to make a small pilgrimage to Borage Lane where Wilfred wrote several poems including The Send-Off, Strange Meeting, Mental Cases and Futility.

Wilfred was sent to the barracks at Ripon, ‘an awful Camp’ in March 1918. He found a room in a cottage where he could write in peace, although the noise of children playing soldiers outside sent him up into the attic room ‘with only a skylight’, where it was quieter.
An historian friend had furnished my friends with a map of Ripon and details of the area c.1918; not just to find Borage Lane, but to retrace some of the walks Wilfred would have made.

map of Ripon

Coincidentally, the day we did the series of walks was the day before Wilfred’s birthday on March 18th, and exactly the time of year that Wilfred began his months in Ripon.

Armed with ‘The Collected Letters’, we began at the Old Railway Station, which was in use from 1848 to 1967. We walked across the bridge over the River Ure and along the riverside where there had been ‘boating of a kind’.

ripon old railway stationRiver Ure

A red brick wall is all that remains of the boating station, and on the opposite side of the river, it was easy to imagine the area ‘reserved for the Civilian Population on Wednesdays’. Here, ‘after toiling many miles to the bathing place’, Wilfred attributed the exuberance of one of his letters to his ‘recent baptism in the pleasant waters of this River’.

wall of boating stationriver bathing station, ure, ripon

Next we drove to Ripon cemetery. A sobering interlude as we read the many headstones from both World Wars.
There had been a hospital at the army base with 670 beds; the camp held some 50,000 men, an astounding figure.
It was a shocking reminder of the realities of war, yet it felt like an important part of the walk.

Ripon cemetery

Many of the Officers had lived in bungalows, so our next stop was a wander down Lark Lane to see what remained. Most had been modernised beyond recognition, but one stood empty, and looked unaltered. A short distance from here, on Kirkby Road was the barracks, still in use.

Officer's bungalow, Lark Lane, RiponRipon barracks

In 1918, Wilfred’s hut held 14 officers, ’13 too many.’ His days began at seven with ‘a hot and cold shower. From nine to about 3 p.m. we do physical, short walks, & Lectures. We are thus free all evening. I shall not know what to do unless I get a Room where I can use my big spectacles to advantage.’

Within a few days he was writing from 7 Borage Lane, ‘a Room in a Cottage close to camp: the very thing.’

‘The five minutes walk from Camp to my Cottage is by a happy little stream – tributary of the Ure.’

'a happy little stream', tributary of the River Ure

We went along the stream to reach Borage (now Borrage) Lane and walked almost the length of the lane to reach No.7 (now No.24).

7 Borage Lane/24 Borrage Lane, Ripon

 ‘It is a jolly Retreat. There I have tea and contemplate the inwardness of war, and behave in an owlish manner generally.’

It didn’t take a lot of imagination to picture Wilfred sauntering down the lane, ‘my lane’, to and from camp and into Ripon, enjoying the spring weather, ‘an interesting walk;-especially this morning when the buds all made a special spurt between dawn and noon, and all the Lesser Celandines opened out together.’


Borage Lane

Finally we went into Ripon, to the Cathedral, where Wilfred had spent a quiet afternoon on his last birthday, March 18th 1918.

Ripon Cathedral

It was a fantastic series of walks. A fair amount of visualisation was required; it is nearly a hundred years since Wilfred Owen was there after all, but it’s still possible to glimpse into the past and to get an idea of Wilfred’s time in Ripon. He also made excursions on foot to nearby Fountains Abbey – but that’s for another trip.

Wilfred Owen plaque in Borrage Lane, Ripon