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Mirehouse & Gardens
Keswick, Cumbria, CA12 4QE

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2016 Poetry Prize Winners

Winner of the Mirehouse Poetry Prize 2016

WHAT WE LEARNED IN THE SHORTHAND ROOM

Perhaps we should have treated it with reverence,
like the frowsy elder who taught us drill, seen
ourselves as custodians of some tribal language
to pass down to the next generation as a gift,
but even then we knew its days were numbered
like the rotary dial phone or the slide rule,
and futures seemed only vaguely mapped
as ambition drifted off into each blowsy loop.

Our cheap pens leaking, we repeated outlines:
birdlike chevrons, a few bold smiles, bubbles blown
in the party spirit, and as we tied off each sentence
we savoured the fact that kisses were pressing.
Soon, we found the shape of ‘civilisation’
to be no more than a pig’s tail tied to a deaf ear.
And, with the contraction of ‘mind’ we learned
how things can halve yet still keep their meaning.

In a year we were dispatched, if lucky,
to assist in boardrooms, serve pink gins at lunch,
and practise a little guesswork inbetween,
carrying with us a phrase that taught us placement,
a shape on the line which looked like a shark’s fin:
that described ‘love’, and the same shape rising:
that was ‘life’. On, above, on, above, the old walls
echoed, thin stroke, thick stroke, ‘Love life’, ‘Love life’.

By Alison Carter


SPIRIT LEVEL

Long as my father’s forearm,
a solid block of weathered oak
with brass fittings, pitted with age;
one skylight window, one porthole,
holding neon tubes, each floating
a precise bubble like cod-liver-oil
capsules. The impossible trick
was always to balance both
between narrow grey lines-
stability in two dimensions.

Saturday morning; I am in his garage
sorting tools for my mother.
She is upstairs on the wrong side
of the bed, packing pyjamas, jackets
into Oxfam bags. Forty years ago
I spent weekends planning timber,
or under the bonnet while he passed
spanners, read aloud from Haynes,
translating diagrams of
head gaskets, distributor caps.

Now I choose from his shelves;
what to keep and what to put
in a car boot sale; the battered
biscuit tin of nuts and bolts,
a brand new set of washers,
four shillings and sixpence,
this weighty spirit level
with its yellow unsettled eyes.
Leaning on the cold concrete wall
I can feel his hand steadying my elbow.

By Jo Stoney

HIGHLY COMMENDED


A BLACK AMEN

    Tell me, do bats squeak?
Well, not quite. Bats are not doors (…swinging in darkness
    moved by draughts?) they fly with their eyes shut
like sleepers; think Odysseus walking swiftly on fog –
    air is bronze for them, the dawn not yet begun:

    So bats have their history?
Say each is its own ink Icarus: moonlight is fire,
    hence their own low tipped flight, taste for moth hearts,
their entire mythical stance to earth;
    beneath them, our dwellings are framed and strange.

    Then bats do not belong to this world?
I would say, partly: inverted, limbed and furred,
    they muse inside dark propositions; from there, they attend
forms of the world – as if, dreaming and lost,
    you could not wake when someone called.

    Say then, do they belong to the living or the dead?
On this, two minds: fruit of dust, night’s paragons,
    they hang alive on a stave, be and cease,
of existence wink in and out; silver eared, they are note
    and silence – but in the main, silence.

    So bats will not speak?
Ah, but they will. Take the long line between moon
    and sun, a thing and its furious shadow:
unsung, hung between, they call to abandoned gods;
    we must trace and heed, read them as parchment and rune.

    And then, then what must we do?
Just a little. For ourselves, creatures of light, days’
    broad settlements, we should say bat prayers at night,
huddle in the alphabet of our shadows,
    sub-vocalise a black amen… wait the echo.

By Terry Jones

HIGHLY COMMENDED


RED BRICKS AND BLUE SKIES

Up to their ankles in tides of red;
red dust, red clay, red bloom of effort.
My granddad and his father before him
Worked at Whitehaven Brickworks.

Only Sundays could break the wall,
with a promise of fresh Solway air,
infinite blue skies and a small silver fish
caught down by the harbour on a thin line.

On Monday mornings they dragged
themselves to the temple of tall chimneys.
Grey steam belched and gathered
above a town rendered into servitude.

Rumbling wagons tipped out rocks
to be shovelled into crusher jaws.
Millhouse wheels clattered,
Screeched, ground, pressed.

Clay pudding churned in pugmills.
Hands threw clots into moulds
and packed sand-lined boxes.
Row after row, dark blood moist.

Men stacked brick upon brick
In long drying tunnels.
Air choked, powder penetrated.
Bricks smiled under pressure.

Fuel crackled and burned,
vast kilns throbbed heat.
Air drifted around chambers
like a high priest ghost.

The walls of their labour rose up
around them; homes, factories,
churches, viaducts, pit buildings.
Lavish Georgian houses.

Frog marks echo people and places;
Kirkhouse, Sandysike, Micklam,
Harrington, Whitehaven, Camerton,
Barrow, Romans at Brampton.

Four sided cradles and coffins
Bolstered the life in-between,
decreed extrusion of the soul.
The only relief, a blue sky Sunday

By Alison Barr

HIGHLY COMMENDED


WAKING KISS

I kissed with closed eyes,
As the wise poet wrote,
and dreamt they would open
to find you wrinkled;

weathered, as we aged,
out of all slogans
to a caring that had learnt
to forgive:
              at last I looked,
saw you rise up, fresh
as at that first kiss,
              forever fixed
that time past,
              and still further away,
smiling, duplicitous,
without substance, a shadow cast,

fleeting as caught breath,
and woke to the same hunger,
the same rage,
              with nothing settled,
nothing assuaged.

By Alexander J H Martin

HIGHLY COMMENDED


FROM AN ARMCHAIR

Beyond the range of the Tsar’s photographer
the Tanguska forest of the meteorite
and its flower of blasted pines;

beyond the islands of the Gulag
and the road of bones through endless forest
where winter is norm, lives pass unrecorded,

epics unfold their progress in silence,
towns work through unknown narratives —
all outside the great conversation;

beneath sky-scapes lashed with stars
and the unfolding green of borealis;
through Yakutsk to Sakha and ice crushed bridges,

between frozen mountains lies Omyakon.
And here they say in winter words freeze
as they leave your mouth to fall forgotten in the snow.

They make a tundra littered with gossip,
cries of love, argument and greeting,
speeches and shouts petrified in depths of ice

until one midday when larch are greening
and Golden-root makes brief smile at a low sun,
words fall into air as if from a door flung open

to fill the town like birdsong and running water.

By Christopher North

HIGHLY COMMENDED


FINALITY

I heard earth clatter on the wicker coffin,
a buzzard keening overhead, a squall
that shook a rainbow from the shrouded sky.
I buried snowdrops in a cast of clay,

and left you there, and thought that everything
had closed over you with bleak finality –
but you are still sitting the kitchen table,
yesterday’s Guardian open at the crossword,

eleven across and thirteen down still blank;
the jar of quince jelly you opened for us
unfinished, and your voice informing me
you’re sorry you can’t get to the phone right now

but if I leave my name and number, you’ll
get back to me as soon as possible.

By A.E Rowe

HIGHLY COMMENDED


AFTER THE FLOOD

These old walls, once mountains’ bones,
stacked with skill, are broken, bowed
under weight of water. Sheep wander the fell,
unfenced. The flood sweeps boundaries away,
turns road to river. Steel sheets of rain
hurl at us, till the mountain’s lifeblood
flows unstemmed, leached from the hills’
veins, gouges chasms, self-cutting to the heart.
All is displaced, rearranged.
So many stones lay hidden under bracken,
now flushed out, flung onto roads,
missiles, ankle-breaking in the dark.
With luck, the moon will rise;
there will be beauty in these great accidental
lakes which lie, wild children of the river,
overtopping fences. Underneath are ghosts
of walls, telling the tale of land.

By Angela Locke

HIGHLY COMMENDED


KESWICK MUSEUM

Here be curiosities. Keep your wits
about you. Look – penny farthings, suspended;
owls, fossils, muskets, dead cat, the splendid
hornfels xylophone. A sharp-nosed fox sits
on a box; Flintoft’s vast, raised, glazed map fits
neatly on a wall, its bulk upended,
its named lakes and brown mountains defended
by a rail. Don’t lean! Stone-age axes, bits

and pieces of provincial history so
numerous they spill into this sestet,
which was reserved for the Exhibition:
white sea broken by an archipelago
of paintings, letters, diaries – the alphabet
of memory, the stuff of re-transmission.

By Gill Frances

HIGHLY COMMENDED

Special Bookings

On days when Mirehouse is not otherwise open to visitors, specialist guided tours of the house may be arranged (with a minimum charge of £157.50) at a special rate of £10.50 per person.

There is a chance on these tours for special interest groups such as History Societies, Women’s Institute groups, NADFAS groups etc to have a tour catered to their varied interests.

Knowledgeable, friendly guides will take small groups round Mirehouse on a tour lasting about an hour with the opportunity for visitors to then wander ground the gardens and grounds at leisure and end up at The Old Sawmill Tearoom if that suits.

2018 Poetry Prize Winners

Winner of the Mirehouse Poetry Prize 2018

Topiary

You trimmed me back to the shape of love,
yet it does not adequately describe me.
I am not you, I cannot display your need.
All through Winter I gave a little colour.
I was loose leaved but willing, and now
when I feel Spring leaking in my veins
my bulk flushed out, emblematic
ready to run with the vetch and trefoil
that trawls and binds in carefree chaos,
I am caught between blades. Unclothed,
the light digs deep, checks my hardened core.
I catch my breath; I cannot exhale.
This summer I will give you nothing.
Release the sweet white bells within me.

Alison Carter


'Show me a day when the world wasn't new'
Sister Barbara Hance (1928-1993)

Show me a day

when blackberries don't taste like a stolen prize
taken from the hedgerow as if for the first time.

When the goldfinch at the feeder doesn't amaze
with how many sunflower seeds he can swallow

and the cat doesn't look like she never found
such a delicious fire to warm her belly by.

Show me a day when the stars - you look up at the sky
as you walk to the front door after a hard night

and suddenly feel like a child, held in a blanket
so easily forgotten, sequined with silver, safe as home.

When the wait for news is harder than the news itself,
and you surprise yourself with how much you can bear,

how lucky you are, despite everything, to be here.

Jacci Bulman


Moonshadow
after Cat Stevens (Teaser and the Firecat)

The summer my colours all run dry
it lands at my feet, spins like a sleeping
yo-yo with an invisible string.
Before long I learn to Walk the Dog.

Sometimes, the Moonshadow multiplies
before me, a constant stream of bubbles,
fizz rising from leaves of waterlilies
when they rupture in the spring.

It can navigate with precision, is indicator
and wing mirror for my father
as we walk the endless hospital corridors.
Without Mum he has many blind spots.

Drifting under the low slung tunnel
of the Dunkirk annexe, my Moonshadow
winks, lifts my sightline above scarlet tiles
running a major artery along the walls.

Morphing to crystal ball, it swirls with futures,
draws parallel rays of light into rough focus.
I fear the four red owls who steal my moon,
tie it up in a white napkin with their beaks,

fly off into the endless dark. I hear it snap
into its blue black socket where I can't reach.
But today I watch the firecat and Teaser
ride the river on that disc of light and the sky

is dizzy with spinning fishbones, licked clean.
There is no question mark in their arrangement,
how they channel earthwards, how they hit
the ground as backbeat, how they build to song.

Alison Carter


Fabrications from a train

Five minutes past goodbye. The train pulls out the threads;
we are unravelled. Skeins of memory
loop over boarded factories, empty matchbox streets,
a canal swatched with rainbow death,
dead angels playing trumpets into hell.

The first real houses scamper up; proud gardens,
bunting babygros, an old man's vest, that tired blouse from Marks.
It's all so normal. Inside the train, I weave us, you and me,
in that London park today, with April sharp around us,
drowsy lawnmowers, girls in citrus trousers.

Yet now these shuttered car parks speak of loneliness.
For so long we wove Love into the fabric of our lives,
the flowers you sent, lamplight, Brahms, scraps of poetry.
The train runs on its shining rails,
stitching up the seams, between the houses and the streets,
where kindly people live and don't tell lies.
The needle stabs.

You will go home, slip into something comfortable,
and say: 'London? Oh, it was hot today. I saw the queues for Renoir
as I passed. Women sunbathed on the grass;
flowerbeds a picture. You would have loved it.'
And I, going home, will say the same.

Angela Locke


Shawl Song

I

Taps pour women-talk: a sick-child gurgle,
the freeze of bare pantry. They gather there

- one tap to six houses - wrapped
in their crocheted wool shawls, purple, blue, grey,

serviceable for streets of mud and coal.
They laugh about all the egg sandwiches

at the Sunday school picnic, how they shamed
the blacklegs with their serenades;

know that just a single wall-knock and her,
from the next one-up, one-down,

will come in to stare at the blackened grate,
listen to the hissing kettle

together, through the watch and wait.
On fine nights they stand, shawls loose,

by the lean-to sheds, look beyond
chrysanthemums, chickens, leeks and pigs,

find gold in the winding gear's halo,
see crimson candy floating

over the waste heap, think the pit might
be more than the filthy machine

that puts bread in the belly, fire in the hearth
and mangles the souls of their men.

II

And then the bulldozers come, flattening
the old colliery's breath with a fresh breeze

over green fields. But no-one picnics
with ghosts. The women move

to the next town, to new homes,
mod cons. And their shawls

lie folded on wardrobe shelves.
A century of life compressed

in paper folders in the archive.
The village that died, the cuttings say.

In a loft, an inscribed Bible - musty, cold,
from the laying of the church foundation stone;

in a bin, a shawl with uncrocheted holes,
mangled memories, almost forgotten.

Maggie Davison


Request Stop

On this line lies the unanswered question
of our returns. Being there and also here,
and never quite so between. Like a fish snaps at
another's tail, twins look into each other's eyes,
for what? A pause in the reddening of a leaf,
the deep-etched rough of bark, scratching
at something that might be really here.
Our human endeavours, earnest and meek:
like nostalgia for a branch line, for diesel trains,
the bricks of old stations blackened but firm,
the coal-faced timbre of local voices.
From a clarty carriage window, the mountains
Never rising, just there, ever,
a horizon, clouds stroking across their contours. Request stop.
Shops boarded up, the kinds of faces you once
might have known now gone. Aye and the
people you once would meet. That mist-mizzle
embrace along those last miles of shore
and the cormorants combing out their wings
on this shallow edge of land. And the little
dunlins lifting across a lace hem of tide.
A plastic wrapper crinkling and slippery under
my boot. Rucksack laden with yesterday's
ideas. Wondering what words might be best,
soon, when we see each other again,
and then how the birds got there, if I'd missed
them before, if they were really here last
time, if they will send me off tomorrow

Martin Bewick


Mementoes

I met a fraction of myself
in a box of carefully horded mementoes
A white envelope containing a kiss-curl
now aged to an unexpected yellow,
my name an evidence tag on the outside.
Bits and pieces forgotten about,
an embroidered apron in blue gingham,
its ties went round my waist twice.
Class photos marking the end of summer term
in still-life sequence.
This tracery catches me by surprise,
my memories are of other things, of classrooms,
birthday parties and broken bones.
But I am also here,
collected up and curated
in neat brief descriptions
by my mother's hand.

Jackie Garner


Scent of Change

One deadly eye,
black, unblinking

projects an image,
weeps a paralysis,

time like a shadow
touches the planet.

I look up to the sky,
try to navigate this landscape of loss,

yet there's something in the air
which isn't about to give in.

The clouds cough, yet no one looks up
from what they are doing,

what's left of the day
is hardly worth mentioning.

Yet somewhere far beyond
street lights are singing an unfamiliar song,

tail lights are grazing the horizon.
The scent of change is closer than we think.

Claire Louise Hunt


Tinnitus

….

silence

where there is silence
I will you pure silence

where there is a triad
I will you beatless concord

and I will you a clash of cymbals
so crisp the canals are frosted

and a roll of drums, the traps
distinct and rapt

and the bright sing of the glass
rimmed with a cool finger

and beyond the coda
I will you

silence

Mark Carson

School Groups

School visits are welcomed by appointment and such visits attract a discount of 10%. Mirehouse offers a wide range of facilities and educational opportunities. As appropriate, various aspects of Key Stages 1 - 4 of the National Curriculum can be covered during a school visit to the house and grounds.

School parties are welcome to hire the Garden Hall for the day at the reduced rate of £70. The Hall provides toilets and a secure place in which to leave bags, packed lunches and coats.

Where teachers have the time, free preparatory visits are welcomed.