3rd February 2014Millom’s Most Famous Son: In Search of Norman Nicholson

The more time you spend in the Western Lake District, the more you will come across the name of Norman Nicholson. A native of Millom born in 1914, Nicholson used his lifetime of poetry to explore the history and nature of the area, as well as the character of the people who live there.

Industrial places like Whitehaven, Egremont, Bootle and Millom were his subjects, and his descriptions of fells like Black Combe or places like the Duddon Estuary are unsentimental and filled with a bitter-sweet mix of beauty and bleakness.

With January marking the centenary of his birth, I thought it was a good time to identify some of the key places to visit for those who want to go in search of Norman Nicholson.

Black Combe

Clouds above Black Combe by John Troll, the Western Lake District

Black Combe, the 600m high fell that overlooks Millom, inspired Nicholson to write a number of different poems and he even named a collection of poems after it in 1978. It is easy to see why Black Combe stirred Nicholson so much. There is a bleak and lonely character to the peak and it is given an individual identity due to its location away from the central fells of the Lakes.

What's more, Black Combe is an easy, gradual hike (Wainwright said it was one of the few fells that could be climbed in carpet slippers) and the views from its summit are spectacular.

Extract from: Black Combe White by Norman Nicholson

(from ‘Collected Poems by Norman Nicholson’, published by Faber & Faber)

Sixty-mile drive to a reading - arriving by dark,
The audience sparse, the room unsuitable,
And bed in a cold hotel. At 8am
I draw the curtains, and there, beyond the roof-tops,
Bulging from the flat ledge of the horizon
Like a blister on the white paint of a window-sill,
Black Combe - its unmistakable cleft forehead,
No bigger than a thimble now, outlined in chalk
On the blue distemper of the sky. I turn from the cold
To a room grown more welcoming than before:
'It's been snowing at home!' I say.

Hodbarrow Nature Reserve

Hodbarrow Lagoon by John Troll, the Western Lake District

During his lifetime Nicholson witnessed the decline of West Cumbria as an industrial powerhouse and his poetry offers a poignant and ambivalent view on the effect this had on the area. To begin to understand the industrial history of the Western Lake District there can be few places better to visit than Hodbarrow Nature Reserve, just outside Millom. Now a beautiful habitat of dunes, beaches, estuary and birdlife, this was once the engine room of Millom's economy. Industrial historians, birdwatchers, or just anyone interested in a nice walk will enjoy a visit.

Extract from: On the Dismantling of Millom Ironworks by Norman Nicholson

(from ‘Collected Poems by Norman Nicholson’, published by Faber & Faber)

They cut up the carcass of the old ironworks
Like a fat beast in a slaughter-house: they shovelled my childhood
On to a rubbish heap. Here my father's father,
Foreman of the black furnace, unsluiced the metal lava
To slop in fiery gutters across the foundry floor
And boil round the workmen's boots; here five generations
Toasted the bread they earned at a thousand degrees Fahrenheit
And the town thrived on its iron diet.

The Duddon Estuary

The Duddon Estuary by John Troll, the Western Lake District

In contrast to the passing of Cumbria's industrial heritage another of Nicholson's themes is the immutability of nature and its permanence when compared to the works of man. The foreshore and sea were often the subjects of his poetry and, in particular, the estuarine areas around Millom.

If you want to drink in some of the atmosphere that inspired the poet, then a good starting point is to take a walk along the Duddon Estuary. This is beautiful stretch of water running between two jutting peninsulars with views inland to the famous Coniston Old Man. Walkers are spoilt for choice when it comes to walks (the Cumbria Coastal Way runs right around it) and it is the perfect place for a wander on a summer's day.

Extract from: Dunes by Norman Nicholson

(from ‘Collected Poems by Norman Nicholson’, published by Faber & Faber)

The dunes stalk the town,
Month by month stretching an extra ripple,
A brown reinforcing roll.
They are shovelling the warrens out of the front street;
They are sweeping the foreshore from the window-sills.
Backyard elders and sheds and allotment fences
Stand swamped to the knees in the dry silicic flood,
And litter-bins lie buried to the collar.


St George's Church, Millom, the Western Lake District

Of course, every true student of Norman Nicholson has to take a trip to his hometown. It is Millom that shaped the man and his poetry and its location and history are key to understanding his work. Nicholson's birthplace at 14 St George's Terrace is only a matter of feet from his grave at St George's Church, which also houses a memorial stained glass window. Millom Discovery Centre also features an exhibition packed full of information about his life and work.  (Incidentally, the Nicholson House Coffee Shop - which shares the site of his birth - does a mean cake too.)

Extract from: Comprehending It Not by Norman Nicholson

(from ‘Collected Poems by Norman Nicholson’, published by Faber & Faber)

In the brown packed streets the lamplight drizzled down
On the squirming pavements; the after-smell of war
Clung like a fungus to wall and window-sill,
And the backyards reeked of poverty. Boys,
Their big toes squirting through their boots,
Growled out While Shepherds Watched to deaf door-knobs,
And the Salvation Army - euphoniums, slung, unplaying -
Stumped the length of the town at the thump of a drum
To cracked Hallelujahs in the Market Square.

Norman Nicholson's House in Millom - today a cafe

Norman Nicholson's House in Millom - today a café

Find out more…

Western Lake District Norman Nicholson page – http://www.western-lakedistrict.co.uk/norman-nicholson

The Norman Nicholson Society – http://www.normannicholson.org/

Millom Discovery Centre, Norman Nicholson exhibition – http://millomdiscoverycentre.co.uk/norman.html

‘Collected Poems by Norman Nicholson’ is published by Faber & Faber – http://www.faber.co.uk/catalog/author/norman-nicholson-obe

Many thanks to John Troll for his photographs of Black Combe, Hodbarrow Lagoon and The Duddon Estuary

Whitehaven - the perfect day out
Millom & Black Combe

Brian Sherwen Photography

Many images on this website have been supplied to us by Brian Sherwen.