Jet fighters, a jagged buttress and New Order – in the English Lake District

The all-new Aerial music-and-arts festival was scheduled to take place in Ambleside in the English Lakes, in March 2020. Then there was viral interjection. In September there was a replacement online version of Aerial. As part of this online special – a kind of replacement USB; a replacement universal series bus service – I was asked to give a short talk on my Lakeland youth. It was an honour to contribute to this internet broadcast, alongside bird song from the acclaimed sound-recordist Chris Watson, and alongside audio essays from broadcaster Stuart Maconie and the poet Helen Mort – all overseen by the great Caught by the River website kru, and MC’d by the much-loved top-tackle man John Andrews.

Here is a link to the Aerial /CBTR online broadcast:

Caught by the River at Aerial

And here is a slightly modified print version of my own Aerial narrative:

In tribute to Aerial festival I want to invoke aerial things – things that go up high, up into the sky. Mountains and mountaineers. The murderer’s gibbet and wool of bat. The Panavia MRCA, twin-engine, swing-wing, multi-role combat aircraft. The latter better known as the Tornado fighter-bomber. But I’ll start by talking about about a mountaineer – a mountaineer known as Jammy Cross. 

Park Close , with our old house in the village of Natland, on the edge of the English Lake District

I grew up on the edge of the Lake District and it was here that the most exciting thing in my working life to date took place – it was where the rock group British Sea Power began to take shape. I’m the eldest of six children and my two youngest siblings – Scott and Neil, aka Yan and Hamilton – are the two singers in British Sea Power. We grew up in a village called Natland, just outside Kendal. Mint Cake City. The so-called Gateway To The Lakes. I became British Sea Power’s manager. 

The mountaineer Jammy Cross grew up the same area, a couple of miles or so from our family home. But then she was known as Alice Nelson – a female mountaineer and climber. Alice / Jammy climbed in the Lakes throughout the 1930s and was the first woman to lead a climb on the Central Buttress at Scafell Crag, up in the central Lakeland peaks. If you stand before the Central Buttress at Scafell Crag, the prospect of climbing this massive, towering slab of rock is terrifying. As some literature from the Fell & Rock Climbing Club said in 1924: “The most arduous ascent in the Lake District.” Then two more words: Unexampled exposure.”  

Alice Nelson became Alice Cross when she married her mountaineering partner, Sid Cross. Earlier, she’d acquired the nickname Jammy at school – a take on the French “ne jamais”, meaning never. Alice, it seems, was a driven child. Nothing could stand in her way. I wrote a little about Alice in my British Sea Power-themed memoir Do It For Your Mum. The book was about the band and about our family and about the Lake District. I wrote about Jammy partly because she worked at K-Shoes, on the outskirts of Kendal. Me and my four brothers and our sister would often walk past the K-Shoes factory. It smelled of glue and leather – punk rock or what? But we didn’t walk as far as Jammy Cross. She, it has been reported, would walk 15 or so miles from Kendal, up into the Lakes. Once there, she’d have a climb – and then walk 15 miles home, so she could be at work in the morning, as a clerk at K Shoes. Amazing.

Me and my five siblings grew up in a council house on the edge of this village, Natland. It was a marvellous place to to grow up. If you stepped outside the front door or out back door, you were looking onto fields. Just down Hawes Lane was a dramatic section of the River Kent, rushing through sheer rock and on through deep, dark pools, which suggested Coleridge’s “caverns measureless to man” – words I first came across on the track Xanadu by the Canadian prog-pop titans Rush. By the river, amid dense green foliage, lay a former gunpowder works, an ivy-encrusted series of haunted-feeling ruins. These spooky ruins would have been an ideal location for a video for The Cure, made in the same period when we would’ve been walking and playing in this place, circa 1980. 

On a clear day in Natland you could see the mountains of the central Lakes. And you knew for sure that, up there in these central Lakes, was Bowness – a place very close to the projected location of Aerial festival. Bowness was the home of the Aquarius, a lakeside discotheque, a site of some particularity in our teenage night-time. 

Bowness in the Lakes, site of the Aquarius disco. Photo: Garth Hamer

In my teens, the South Lakeland enclave was well supplied with amazing pop music – but only if you could get to Lancaster University, 20-odd miles to the south and to where public transport did not range. Blondie played at Lancaster University in 1978. I would have been 12, 13 at the time. Imagine seeing Blondie at age 13 at Lancaster University. Even now I find the notion mind-bending. I didn’t get to Blondie at Lancaster University. The best we had was a Blondie record played at the Aquarius disco. 

The Aquarius was a remarkable location, kind of hanging out over the wide waters of Windermere. On a Saturday night me some friends would attend the Aquarius, our main mission being to harass the DJ into playing New Order’s Blue Monday.

New Order’s Blue Monday

Neither me nor my friends would be so gauche as to wear an Anti-Disco League button badge, as sported by the more doctrinaire local punks or metallers. But, at the Aquarius, for me and the my pals, the delights of, say, Kool & The Gang or The Gap Band were marginal compared to New Order’s Blue Monday. Eventually, the DJ at the Aquarius would play New Order’s Blue Monday – and, eventually, this story will take us from New Order’s Blue Monday to the Tornado multi-role combat aircraft. In fact, right about now.

In my teenage Lakeland there was a dream summer job – at a semi-rural paper mill a few miles south of Kendal. Henry Cooke Ltd, by the sylvan, riverine village of Beetham. Every summer the mill had the so-called Shutdown, where all the factory employees would go on holiday for two weeks – except for 10 or so engineering fitters, who would carry out maintenance, assisted by 20-odd students serving as makeshift fitters’ mates. Great times. Big money – working 12 hours a day for two weeks, time-and-a-half on Saturday, double-time on Sundays. Thus, us students would accrue wealth beyond experience. 

The fitters treated us “fooking students” with friendly disdain, an attitude that peaked in the build-up to the Fitters’ Night Out. For one night only, fitters and students were unleashed, ale-fisted, in a selected portion of South Lakeland. One year this big booze-up was scheduled for Warton Grange, a rural, agrarian-flavoured disco set under the steep sides of Warton Crags. When we arrived at Warton Grange something unimaginable unfolded. Me and a couple of pals began to relentlessly lobby the DJ to play New Order’s Blue Monday. This was transformed into a press-ganged playing of New Order’s Blue Monday like no other. 

In an attempt, perhaps, to impress the tough-guy paper-mill fitters, me and one of the other Fooking Students had preplanned some choreography. It will be difficult to communicate the full daring and homoerotic power of this routine. It involved marching, in military step, in opposite directions, around the edge of the big dancefloor. When we came face to face en route we would raise our hands, as in an act of mutual surrender. Then we’d back off for a few steps and, eventually, assume our counter-rotating progression. The Warton Grange locals looked on with surprise and outrage. But the fitters seemed to like it. There was shouting. Some clapped our progress around the dancefloor. With the fitters on our side we wouldn’t be battered by the disco regulars – otherwise all but certain.

My partner in what the fitters subsequently remembered – with apparent fondness – as The Fookin’ Route-march was a young man called Alistair. He’d attended a different school to the rest of us students. He was a bit posher than us, but a real cool cat, with a relaxed charm. The other thing that stood out about Alistair was the fact he could fly. Literally. He was on an RAF scholarship at university and had a pilot’s licence. I had a kind of vestigial childhood interest in aeroplanes. Alistair and I would talk about aircraft, including the Tornado multi-role combat aircraft.

Original Great SWIGCO artwork with Tornado fighter-bomber over John Ruskin’s former house, Brantwood, besides Coniston Water.

Late last year I was up on the edge of Helvellyn, the third-highest mountain in the Lakes. I heard a noise and looked around to see a pair of aircraft below, heading down the length of Thirlmere. They weren’t Tornados, rather Tucanos, a propellor-driven RAF training aircraft. I thought of Alistair. There was an outside chance he was in one of these planes. I also thought about the Tornado, a plane I’d seen many times blasting across the hills, with the peaks and valleys echoing to the thunder of jet turbines. These exhilarating and awesome aerial sky-benders…

A little later on the same day, I thought about the Lakes and about notions of the picturesque and the sublime. Amid the tourist-rapture of today’s Lake District, it’s hard to remember it wasn’t always like that. In 1724, Daniel Defoe said of the Lakeland scenery: “The most most barren and frightful of any that I have passed over… even Wales”. A few decades later, the Cumberland artist, cleric and author William Gilpin wrote of contrasting notions of the picturesque and the sublime. The picturesque being “The kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture”. The sublime was a kind of scenic pleasure underscored by “feelings of fear, strangeness and awe” – familiar emotions if you’ve looked down from Central Buttress at Scafell Crag. 

I began to think that a jet fighter blasting across the Lakeland heights, across the granite and slate, could be a latter-day magnification of the sublime – one with even sharper ambiguities. It seemed barely possible to think of the shock and awe of a Tornado shrieking past the Lakeland peaks on training flights, and then the same aircraft featuring amid the grotesque “shock and awe” of Bush and Blair’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. 

The things we do, the things we see…

British-piloted Tornados are, however, unlikely to bomb anyone ever again. This aircraft type was retired from RAF active service in 2019. There are limits, even to the sublime.

October 2020

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