Songs of the Spuggies – Review of Land of Three Rivers: The Poetry of North East England

Tynemouth Lighthouse, by Sarah Gardiner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
From its rich seams of oral poetry, to the wealth of writers and publishing houses currently based here, the North East is a dominant region on the poetic landscape. Suzannah V. Evans enjoys Land of the Three Rivers, a ‘celebration of North-East England in poetry’, edited by Neil Astley.

An anthology of astonishing breadth, Land of Three Rivers: The Poetry of North-East England features poems and songs from across history, written by natives of the North East and those who have chosen to make their home in the land of the Tyne, Wear, and Tees rivers. The book’s scope is hinted at by Neil Astley in his (first) introduction, where he notes that it ‘maps the region in poems relating to past and present, depicting life from Roman times through medieval Northumbria and the industrial era of mining and shipbuilding up to the present day’. ‘Maps’ is the key word here. The poems in the collection are organised by the places of the North East, beginning with Hadrian’s Wall, and moving from North Tyne to Newcastle, Gateshead to Wearside, Durham to Teesdale, and beyond, offering a compelling poetic survey of the region.

Land of the Three Rivers begins with the eighth-century poet Caedmon, the earliest English Christian poet known by name. Memorial to Caedmon at Whitby Abbey, by Rich Tea [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The book is also, as Astley notes, the ‘first historical anthology of the poetry of North-East England’, beginning with the eighth-century poet Caedmon, the earliest English Christian poet known by name, and continuing to poets currently writing in the region. Land of Three Rivers also builds on the North East’s strong tradition of oral poetry; it is, ironically, partly due to this oral (rather than written) tradition that the region has a ‘largely unsung literary heritage’. This is what Astley’s book attempts to rectify, and he follows his introduction with a second, historical, introduction to the region’s writing by Rodney Pybus. Originally published in Stand magazine in 1966, Pybus’s piece investigates why the North East appears to have ‘an atmosphere and climate traditionally antipathetic to literature’. Like Astley, he cites the strong oral tradition as a contributing factor, but he also explores how residents of the North East have, in the past, been ‘consumed’ by the practicalities of making a living from coal-mining and related industries. Even in the nineteenth-century, he notes, writers were ‘more concerned with trying to improve social and educational conditions’ than with producing novels and poetry. The dialect of the North East has also dissuaded certain readers, with one commenting in 1387 that ‘All the language of the Northumbrians […] is so sharp, slitting and frotting, and unshape, that we southern men may that language unnethe [hardly] understand’.

Part of the joy of Astley’s anthology is, in fact, the occurrence of dialect words, and much of the contemporary writing in it engages with regional words that have changed little since the times of Old and Middle English. Astley’s own historical introduction, which follows Pybus’s and charts the period post-1966, observes how ‘the mid-1960s can now be seen as a pivotal period of renewal for poetry in the North East’. He cites Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts, published earlier in 1966, and the new imprints and community art projects that sprung up in the 1970s. Bloodaxe, the publishing house still run by Astley, was set up in 1978, and there are now ‘more published poets, poetry imprints and organisations promoting poetry in the North East than in any region of comparable size in Britain’.

North East dialect words word cloud

‘Springan’, by Fred Reed, is one of the poems originally published in the ‘pivotal period’ of the mid-1960s, and one that strongly engages with dialect. Reed, as Astley notes, was Northumberland’s ‘best-known dialect poet of the 20th century’, and his poem plays with the sounds of ‘spuggies’ (sparrows), larks, and crows:

Caa, caa, ye noisy craas!
Gobby a bord as ivvor waas.
Yon tree’s se like a hoos o’ lords.
Whaat’s meant b’ them donart words?
Aa’m sure nebody knaas.

The comparison of noisy crows with the meaningless chatter of politicians is cheeky, delightful, and Astley helpfully glosses the dialect words we might have trouble with: ‘donart’, here, is ‘foolish’. Other words seem made to be read aloud and savoured on the tongue: ‘pittleybeds’ is the dialect term for ‘dandelion’ (and reminds me of the French word for the flower, un pissenlit, or ‘wet-the-bed’). Elsewhere, other words are rejoiced in, as in Frances Horovitz’s ‘Vindolanda – January’, where the name of the Roman auxiliary fort is ‘a word warm on the tongue’.

The poets in Astley’s anthology are also acutely attuned to the region’s weather, particularly the wind. In Gareth Reeves’s ‘Stone Relief Housesteads’, stone is ‘whipped / by wind, by hail, / dissolved in rain’, while the poem’s short lines seem whittled down by the elements. ‘This Far and No Further’, a long poem by Katrina Porteous originally performed on BBC Radio 3, also summons the wind:

Blow, wind
Splinter, crack,
Snap the spine
Of the rock.
Wind, blow.

The wind blows through her poem as it does through the ‘sky-wide, the slant country’. Peter Armstrong, in ‘Borderers’, asks us to ‘Imagine land of lank grasses […] where the honed wind sounds / the wire’s harmonic’, and in ‘Bamburgh’s Wind’, Fred Reed lends his voice to the ‘Unpredictable’ wind:

Nebody knaas the will o’ the wind
And its wilful vagary;
It caresses wi’ luv, or screams wi’ hate;
Unpredictable as can be.
Which airt it’ll choose ye nivvor can tell.

Other poems note the geographical positioning that enables long summer nights: Anne Ryland, in ‘Midsummer Night, Berwick’, records the ‘half-hearted darkness at eleven, / a sliver of night that is and is not a night’.

Many of the poems, as we would expect in a compendium of work from the North East, reflect the region’s mining history. Poems by Joseph Skipsey, a poet who himself worked in the pits from the age of seven, and who taught himself to read and write, chart various aspects of life in the pit, from ‘The Hartley Calamity’ of 1862, when a mining shaft closed and men were trapped underground, to the early rise of workers in ‘Get Up!’:

‘Get up!’ the caller calls, ‘Get up!’
And in the dead of night,
To win the bairns their bite and sup,
I rise a weary wight.

Tommy Armstrong also wrote about life in the mines, and was regarded as the ‘bard of the Durham coalfield’, although his work was less known outside the region. As Astley notes, he printed poems and sold them at pubs at weekends for beer money, and was counted on to write songs on strikes, pit disasters, and other events deemed important by the mining community. William Gibson also wrote poems dedicated to industrial workers and miners, although ‘they are often conventionally melodramatic and do not convince nowadays’. Nonetheless, his poem ‘The Ponies’, despite its contrived ending, is a moving account of mining ponies revelling in the fresh air of outside during a mining strike.

These poems are set against contemporary accounts of the region, with its ‘visiting Norwegian choirs / in raptures over Durham’s spires’ (‘Durham’, Tony Harrison) and ‘waves – / like praying hands of saints’ (‘On Not Finding Bede’, Jake Campbell). Several poems are immediately recognisable as Gillian Allnutt’s for their clarity and clean prose, as in ‘At the Friary in Alnmouth’, where ‘The smell of the sea is in our hair yet, after supper’. Pippa Little’s poems excavate the Border Reiver women (1500-1600) from history, noting that they were ‘keepers of the Ballads’. In ‘The Robsons Gone’, the women have ‘hunger stalking our skirts’, while the female speaker keeps an eye on the hills ‘until my eyes itch shadows’. ‘Causeway’ by Matthew Hollis is also notable for the lovely rhyme of its last couplet, breaking on the ear melodiously after the previously unrhymed lines: ‘Between mainland and island, in neither sway, / a nodding of the needle as the compass takes its weigh’.

Neil Astley has done a remarkable job in editing a book that is not only the first of its kind, but a historical document that will appeal both to poetry enthusiasts and lovers of the North East. ‘When the wind cracks and the rain rattles’, as it does in Katrina Porteous’s ‘This Far and No Further’, I heartily recommend taking up Land of Three Rivers.

The anthology Land of the Three Rivers: The Poetry of North-East England is published by Bloodaxe, priced at £14.99.

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