Tracking Kathleen Raine and Norman Nicholson

This week, the task has been to do more research for my Norman Nicholson biography.  Thursday was a beautiful, sunny, spring day and we went out to do some exploring around the various houses that have Nicholson connections.   For a short period, at the beginning of World War II, Norman Nicholson and Kathleen Raine were very close.  Kathleen had come north from London with her two children, after the break-up of her marriage, to find peace and quiet and creative space to concentrate on poetry.  She rented an isolated house in the Cumbrian fells above Ullswater, near a hamlet called Martindale.  The 'Old Vicarage' is a cottage - a long way from the nearest church - in the middle of a field, with the fells rising behind immediately behind it.  There are no near neighbours and Martindale is quite a long walk.  In the days when very few had cars, getting there by public transport would have been a challenge.  People walked for miles because they had to.  Kathleen Raine loved it and found the isolation perfect for writing poetry.

The Old Vicarage

Norman visited her there on several occasions and wrote several poems at her house.  Kathleen and Norman helped each other with their first collections and the title of Kathleen Raine's - Stone and Flower - is a quote taken from one of Norman's poems.  Many of the poems in Norman's second collection - Rock Face - were either written for Kathleen, or came out of their conversations and collaborations.
White dot near the woods on the skyline is Cockley Moor
Just across the lake, though a long way round Ullswater by road, you can just see a house on the hillside near the skyline.  This is Cockley Moor, which was owned by an elderly, wealthy patron of the arts called Helen Sutherland, who sponsored the painters Winifred Nicholson (no relation) and her ex-husband Ben, who had married Barbara Hepworth,  as well as Norman and Kathleen.  When Kathleen had to return to London to earn a living, Helen Sutherland looked after her children.   Norman was sometimes a weekend guest at Helen's house parties, which included writers such as TS Eliot.  Mixing in such aristocratic, wealthy, artistic circles was quite a challenge for a boy who had been born firmly working class in a terraced house in Millom.  Cockley Moor is a long, higgledy-piggledy, grey building, converted in the thirties from a farmhouse, cottage, and farm buildings to house Helen Sutherland's guests and her art collection.  Plus the chauffeur and the maid. The house was later owned by the astronomer Fred Hoyle.
Cockley Moor

Cockley Moor is remote - high on the fellside up a dead end road that leads only to a farm, with few other houses in the vicinity.  Far from big city light pollution, it must be an ideal place to view the stars on clear nights.

The view from the garden
 Wild, isolated and very beautiful, it's an odd place for a patron of the arts to live.  But according to Winifred Nicholson, Helen Sutherland had cold baths every morning, walked 20 miles a day, and lived on grapes, apples and lettuce.  Guests at her house parties had to live in a similarly spartan fashion and were penalised for being late for meals.  Sounds like lots of fun!!  


  1. What an inspiring place!

    By pure coincidence I was talking with my brother (who lives in Coventry) about light pollution last night. He was bemoaning not being able to see stars at night.

  2. This reminds me of something I've long wondered about - how do the English define a "cottage". That one in the photo looks much bigger and grander than my own conception of "cottage" which I always imagined as a single storey building with not more than about four rooms.

    1. Hi Catherine, the Old Vicarage was shared between 2 families during the war and was no grand accommodation No electricity, gas or telephone, no public transport, no shops, and access only by a single track , unmetalled road over a pass. I guess it's much more civilised now!

  3. Thank you for this. I've long been a 'fan' of Norman Nicholson and the wonderful sense of place which comes through so vividly in his work. I don't think he is revered as much as he should be -so thank you for raising his profile through your blog. For anyone who is interested in landscape writing I recommend his work - and for further interest in all things related to him there is a Norman Nicholson Society based in his home town of MIllom.


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