My family and I had a lovely time last night at the opening to the ‘Cumbria Lonnings’ exhibition at the Florence Arts Centre in Egremont, Cumbria.
The Florence mine was, until recent times, a working iron ore mine. It was around 2008, I believe, that the mine stopped working commercially and the arts centre was set up; it is now run by a group of volunteers. I was impressed both by how nice the centre is and how much takes place there. I was also quite ashamed.
My shame came from the fact this was my first visit to the Florence despite living for eight years literally ‘just round the corner’. Well…maybe round the corner and up the road a bit but nevertheless I spent eight years travelling back and forth from Whitehaven and Egremont, passing the road leading to the mine, and never once ventured forth to this little treasure. The Florence may have been an iron mine in its day but for the community it’s really a ‘goldmine’. Yet too many of us are aware it’s there but don’t actually go and visit – or better still make use of it. The arts centre has been developed with community use in mind.
Alan Cleaver certainly has made use of it with his exhibition on Cumbrian Lonnings set up with Lesley Park. Dozens of photos,paintings and poems adorned the walls along with a large map indicating just some of the many lonnings which exist.
But what exactly is a ‘lonning’? I asked Alan.
“Well, that’s not so easy to answer,” he replied with a wry smile, “in theory a ‘lonning is a path which leads from A to B. Except…that they don’t always!”
I must have looked confused because he quickly added “perhaps it’s best to describe them as leading from A to…not A!”
And that, it seems, is part of the charm. A lonning can be any size, shape or length and can either lead somewhere or just stop dead after a hundred yards. But when you know what one is, it would seem you can spot the difference between a lonning and…well I guess a not lonning.
Which is more than Googlemaps or the Ordnance Survey can do, it would appear. You won’t find lonnings mapped out on either despite there being an awful lot of them around Cumbria. Alan explained to me that there are hundreds all over the UK but that each region calls them by different names – in Dorset, for instance, they are called ‘Holloways’ (in fact it was Robert MacFarlane’s book “Holloway” which sparked Alan’s interest in the first place) . The difficulty of defining these shady paths, however, remains the same whatever their name.
There’s something quite quintessentially British about this uncertain, yet definite, essence to lonnings. Alan went on to tell me of an occasion when one farmer who owned the land wanted to close down one such lonning. When approached by a Government inspector to explain why the farmer pointed out that the path led nowhere as his justification.
“Oh no, no, no,” Alan told me the inspector responded, “that’s perfectly acceptable!” The permission to remove the lonning was subsequently not granted.
We both agreed you couldn’t find something more delightfully typical of the English than to a consider a small path which leads to nowhere as completely reasonable and in need of preserving. It’s worth coming to the exhibition – to see just why that is – for yourself.
The exhibition continues on at the Florence Mine from June 5th to July 18th (every Thursday and Friday from 10.30am to 4pm – admission is free) and there are a number of talks and walks taking place. Details can be found on the website here: Florence Mine Arts Centre