Saturday, October 20, 2007

Dovedale, Derby and its writers

I spent Wednesday evening in Derby, joining poet Jane Draycott in handing out the prizes for this year's Citye of Derby writing competition - more of which anon.

It's now decades since I was last in Derby (for those unfamiliar with the city, it's in the Midlands, industrially home to Rolls Royce). I know Derbyshire better. The county introduced me to the concept of mountains. As a kid our family went on occasional weekends to the Isaac Walton hotel in Dovedale, my favourite among our vacation spots. It was an adventure to follow the River Dove, and cross it on stepping stones, but more magnificent than that was the opportunity to climb the steep green-flanked hills to the side. This was my first opportunity to rise above a peopled realm, and become small yet also somehow placed for a time in the sweeping context of nature.

Over breakfast in the hotel a fellow guest spoke about his love of mountains. I wondered where they could be found, and he pointed out of the window. A mountain, in his estimate, was anything over 1000 feet so what I had taken to be a hill outside was in fact my first mountain. I stared out at it in awe.

In introducing the evening, the competition organizer Rob Smallwood quoted Jane Austen from Pride and Prejudice (chapter 8): 'There is not a finer county in England than Derbyshire'. The point is open to debate, of course, but Derbyshire can punch its weight in such a challenge. In literary terms, Rob has a fine web page on the competition site establishing Derby's literary heritage. The page singing the county's literary values might be further boosted by including Isaac Walton. I was impressed as a kid to be staying in the 'hotel' of this writer, an acclaimed fisherman and naturalist. Walton's The Compleat Angler is the third most published of English books, with more than 300 editions.

I stem from the neighbouring county, Leicestershire. While I am inordinately fond of it, Derbyshire did in truth help to stretch me beyond my home confines. Derby itself has always been a rival to my city of birth though, and so I've never thought much of it.

Decades change a place, and I walked around with gathering fondness. Street names such as 'Friargate' echoed the names I know from Leicestershire, and the run of dark brick buildings was cosily familiar as an architectural style. One brief run of workers' cottages was named 'Francis Thompson walk', bringing in a modicum of respect for writers from the very beginning. An underpass led me direct into 'Westfields', which I took to be another glossy shopping mall but which had actually just opened that week. Emerging from the other side of it, the city is impressively pedestrianized, given over to its people. It all seems cared for, history preserved and adding lots of individual sparks, the Cathedral on top of a gentle hill to crown the place.

We passed a church as Rob drove me back to the station hotel. 'That's where Samuel Johnson was married,' he told me. Cities gather charm for me as I learn of snatches of writers' lives woven into them. Johnson's biographer James Boswell wrote that he "felt a pleasure in walking about Derby such as I always have in walking about any town to which I am not accustomed. There is an immediate sensation of novelty; and one speculates on the way in which life is passed in it, which, although there is a sameness every where upon the whole, is yet minutely diversified."

He and Johnson probably drank in Ye Olde Dolphine, Derby's 16th century inn. I was tempted to do so myself. I entered the wood-panelled lounge bar and found a room pleasantly buzzing with conversation. Then the fine folk gathered around the tables, looked up at me, and grew silent. Not one word was spoken as they stared. I walked across the carpet and out through the oak door on the other side. Pausing to listen, conversation resumed behind me.

Perhaps you can take a Leicester man out of Leicester, but you can't take Leicester out of him. Derby gave the name to rivalry between cities. I suspect these good burghers had sniffed me out.


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