Sparty Lea Poetry Festival . . . piqued!

On the big bend of Sparty Lea, four terraced cottages may have hosted the notorious 1967 Sparty Lea Poetry Festival

Anjelica Falterfoot makes an enquiry about the (in)famous Sparty Lea Poetry Festival, held over the Easter holiday in 1967: “For many years the story piqued my imagination; my partner introduced me to Barry MacSweeney’s poetry and by chance I got to know his former wife Elaine. I think there was a radio play written by Tom Chivas; Barry [MacSweeney] had an archive at Newcastle university and his poetry is of this landscape.”

It doesn’t take any more than a pique of the imagination to kick off an entry for this Allendale Diary, and with that I was back on the trail of this week-long poetry session, as described in The Guardian’s Books pages in 2006, having heard about the event intermittently over the past twenty years.

Along with some radical young poets in London, Northumbria and Newcastle were important centres of the British Poetry Revival of the 1960s and 1970s, in particular because of the efforts of Barry MacSweeney, a nineteen year old Newcastle lad who loved to adventure around Allendale and Sparty Lea, and who brought a gang of similarly-minded radical poets and, it was said, a copious amount of alcohol, to a week-long retreat in his mother’s four cottages in Sparty Lea.

The week has long since passed into infamy, though it’s iconic in the annals of devout fans of British poetry of the ’60s and ’60s. Gordon Burns, writing in 2006 in The Guardian describes an Ellershope Cottage high above, but looking down on the site of the Poetry Festival, then at auction during his reconnoitres around the area, and returns to illustrate one of the altercations. Apparently, Tom Pickard, also a Geordie poet, was taken with unseemly ire when urged by Cambridge Marxist poet Jeremy Prynne to keep his young son quiet during a recitation performance, and as quoted by Gordon: “I reckon it was about here,” Pickard, who still lives locally, said last week. We were driving slowly past a series of recently sandblasted and conservatoried cottages with enviable views over the Allen Valley. “I drove [my Landy] to the top of the hill, went down into second, slammed on the brakes and sledged into [his half-wooded Morris Oxford saloon].”  That pique put paid to Tom’s poetry career for some time thereafter, though such hijinks apparently endeared Barry and his fellow Northumbrian poets to the likes of Allen Ginsberg (who I did hear, personally, reading ‘Howl‘, around about 1970), and the Beat Generation! Dor Wilson has posted a timely link to a 15min film from 1969 about Tom Pickard and his poetry, with intriguing views of Allendale and the Allen Valleys, in the Yorkshire Film Archive. Ultimately, Barry MacSweeney died, still very angry, of alcohol-related illness in 2000.

I might be wrong on the correct set of cottages for the photograph, but I have delivered large propane cylinders for the Baynes Enterprise to an Ellerhope Cottage far above the four terraced cottages shown on this Sparty Lea bend. Perhaps if anyone reading these notes knows of the Pickard family locally, they could help keep this entry straight?

The areas around Allendale and Sparty Lea, of course, including much of the post-industrial landscape of the greater North Pennines, were the wonderful poet W. H. Auden’s “last great place”. Philistines like me know Auden’s work from the moving poem ‘Stop all the clocks’ in Four Weddings and a Funeral, but he was probably the pre-eminent poet of the 1930s. And Philip Larkin was known to visit Allendale, from his lover’s home in Haydon Bridge — of course we all know what Larkin thought of his mum and dad. So distinguished poets are no strangers to this patch.

But it’s striking, isn’t it, to think that beyond individuals, the little hamlet of Sparty Lea once hosted a gathering of poets whose collective radicalism shook British poetry to its foundations, and created a mythology that still resonates (we could say, still piques!) today, some 52 years hence.

3 Comments

  1. I believe Tim Longville was there that famous week too, and he now writes about gardens for magazines such as Country Life….

    1. Tim Longville was indeed there. When everyone else had left, he and I had the job of carrying two heavy oildrums full of poet’s [poo] from the outside toilets to the infant River Alan into which they were to be emptied. I well remember the notice attached to a tree. It read “Please empty the bins into the middle (underlined) of the stream” We did our best but have to admit that some spillage occurred.

  2. Yes, the idea of the Sparty Lea Poetry Festival is always intriguing . . . in 1967 I’d never been to Sparty Lea, and didn’t hear about the Festival till long after (I was quietly writing poetry in Manchester about then!), by which time Sparty Lea had its own place in my mental & emotional landscape. The poets’ sewage story adds a special gloss, I have to say . . .

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