A place of 'sweet memories' for great English poet

Auden 1928
Wystan Hugh Auden in 1928

"More champagne!" is not a cry you hear that often these days in the bar at the Lord Crewe Arms, but bubbly was the 23-year-old WH Auden's preferred tipple on a night in Blanchland in Easter 1930, bashing out Brahms on a clapped-out piano 'till the wee small hours.

Arguably England's finest 20th Century poet, Wystan Hugh Auden had a lifelong love of lead mining and the North Pennines, and this fascination would be reflected in his work, even in the later years when he became an American citizen.

Born in 1907, the young Auden's letters to Santa must have made interesting reading; at the age of 11, one of his Christmas books from his mother is EH Davies' Machinery for Metalliferous Mines. He first visited Rookhope with his family at the age of 12, and he says in The Dyer's Hand, a collection of essays written in 1962 that: "Between the ages of seven and 12, my fantasy life was centred round lead mines."

Although the lead mines were long gone by the time Auden began writing, they - and their passing - are a constant theme for him.

Experts believe he had his artistic epiphany atop Bolts Law, majestic heather-clad hill that looms above Ramshaw. It's thought he is referring to the Sike Head Chimney in part of his poem "New Year Letter 1940".

New Year Letter 1940

Contributing to a series of travel articles for American Vogue in 1954, Auden writes about "Six unexpected days in the Pennines", recalling a trip he'd made the year before. Of Blanchland he says: "It is a number of years now since I stayed at The Lord Crewe Arms, but no spot brings me sweeter memories."

Auden had a fascination for North Pennine placenames, and seems to have relished creating a rich and resonant collection of fantasy names in his poetry which allude to real locations. For many years the true location for Auden's 'Pressan Ambo' was a complete mystery, but the late North East writer and translator Alan Myers argues persuasively that Pressan Ambo is actually Blanchland.

He suggests that the only placename in the North Pennines similar to "Pressan" is The Presser, the water pumping station above Ramshaw and about two miles from Blanchland. 'Ambo' has implications of 'both' or 'two', suggests Myers, and could refer to the 'twin' villages of Blanchland and Hunstanworth. Other references to the Lord Crewe Arms and the village's archway which used to be the main entrance for vehicles, point compellingly towards Blanchland as Auden's Pressan Ambo.

The Presser water pumping station
The Presser, Ramshaw Annette Ellis http://www.flickr.com/photos/8047619@N08/

Whether or not this is so, it's clear that Blanchland - and the North Pennine lead mines - held a special place in the poet's heart.

Information from WH Auden - Pennine Poet by Alan Myers and Robert Forsythe, published by the North Pennines Heritage Trust