Up at the top of England, sceptred isle, just below the border with Scotland, in a corner that’s always been on the edge and often in a state of flux, is Eden, demi-paradise.
Eden district is full of places that sound incredibly English – Appleby, Crosby Ravensworth, Eamont, Greystoke, Morland, Ravenstonedale. But also of places that sound older, Celtic, Viking, Scottish – Hesket, Kirkby Stephen, Kirkoswald, Langwathby, Shap, and Penrith itself.
Eden has less land taken up by roads than almost anywhere in England (and it claims, probably falsely, that John McAdam, inventor of the tarmac road, lived here). And – at 97.9% – Eden has the greatest proportion of green space of any district in the country. The River Eden flows north to Carlisle. In Penrith, the River Eamont, River Lowther, River Petteril, Thacka Beck and Dog Beck come together. Engineer Joseph Locke casually diverted one of the rivers when he spent two and a half years with ten thousand men driving a railway line through Penrith.
Penrith is a market town, on an old Roman road. It’s a quiet centrepoint.
Richard III, William Wordsworth’s mother, Samuel Plimsoll, Harold Wilson’s wife, and England cricketer Paul Nixon lived in Penrith. Perhaps King Arthur did too. Perhaps fifty of Arthur’s knights gathered at Eamont, on the southern edge of Penrith, to fight for the hand of Arthur’s daughter. Perhaps.
And just north of Penrith, the Battle of Arfderydd, fought in 573, lasted six weeks and three hundred men were killed. “It was one of the three futile battles of Britain, fought over a lark’s nest.”
Certainly more important than a mythical king and a lark’s nest, though, is the story of Athelstan. In 927, “the kings of Strathclyde and Scotland came south to Penrith to pay homage to Athelstan, first King of England and one of the greatest Anglo-Saxon kings.” Penrith is where England began, with Athelstan the first king of the whole country.
And in Penrith, you’ll find Eden Arts. Since the start of the 1990s, they’ve been fighting a quieter battle to bring art to the area, never needing to kill anyone to achieve their aims. They’re the most rural of all the arts organisations that Arts Council England supports as part of its National Portfolio.
They helped make the Eden Benchmarks, a series of carved stone sculptures which also function as seats, on public paths along the River Eden. They helped bring Andy Goldsworthy to the valley, to make drystone wall Sheepfolds. They marked the hill farmer’s ancient and enduring relationship with the upper Eden Valley with a Poetry Path, carved in Stone. They left a fifty ton megalith between the ancient earthwork known as King Arthur’s Round Table and the nearby Mayburgh Henge, to mark the millennium.
Nowadays, they march to a different drum, more interested in people and the life they bring to places than in heavy stone markers.
Eden Arts made the Signs of Penrith, a series of small, temporary signs scattered therough the town’s streets, local stories, things that made the place distinct, light and not outwardly serious.
They organise C-Art, a festival spread across Cumbria, when artists open their homes and studios. C-Art also organises an annual exhibition celebrating the best contemporary visual art from the region, and an award for young Cumbrian artists.
Picnic Cinema brings open-air screenings to forests and other quiet places across the area; a regular event is the Withnail Weekender, screening the cult film Withnail & I at the remote location, Sleddale Hall, where its heroes holiday. When they’re not outside, Eden Arts tour their film equipment to rural village halls, allowing local people to stage their own film screenings.
New Writing Cumbria covers the whole county, too, with a network of live events, publications and workshops connecting contemporary writers and readers.
And the Winter Droving is an annual event, a brand new tradition, fresh thinking wrapped up in a fake mythology, a revival of an ancient thing that never happened before. It’s a day-long party in Penrith. The beautiful town centre, red stone buildings and old market places, is blissfully closed to traffic. A market mixes fresh food and odd art projects. Strange characters walk the streets. The district’s toughest compete for the Drover’s Cup, tug o’ war and running with pints and carrying baled hay. Small stages, bands from the blurred edges of folk tradition and crusty, festival culture. Fire. A torchlit procession as the sun falls, giant paper lanterns carried by local children. Masks. And an anarchic ball in the local leisure centre to end it all, live bands and masked mayhem.
It’s all about place, everything Eden Arts does and has ever done. It’s all about creating something locally distinct, tied to the history, culture and fabric of the landscape. In an urban context, it’d be the hippest thing London or Manchester or Brighton ever saw. Up here, on the edge, it might be missed. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less important.