Shelter is on the edge of a car park in the middle of Lancaster. And then there are the car parks beyond that, so you feel you are in a field of cars with one little place for people only. And it’s not promising, on first meeting, this little harbour.
Surrounded by iron railings with curved spikes on top to keep out intruders. A padlocked gate. But then, when you come in I guarantee you’ll be greeted by friendliness — human warmth and the warmth of a cosy room. If you’ve been sleepingout all night, it’s the necessary remedy. A safe place, a warm place, you can maybe catch a bit of sleep on one of the sofas, eat some breakfast, get filled up. Get ready for the next.
When people have been sleeping out in these cold nights, they value warmth above all things. It’s more than money, the antidote to the ache in your bones, the sharp biting attack at your fingers and feet, the numb head. All of that begins to melt away with the magic of a warm room and a cup of tea.
And if you want, there is companionship here as well. People sitting in a circle, as people always have done since ancient times, since we started counting time itself. Face-to-face, perched on the edge of a chair, sprawled in an armchair, sitting on the windowsill, a group of people face-to-face, telling each other about their lives. Having a laugh often, a gossip, doing a little bit of business, there is some bragging, some swaggering and compassion too.
This is the room where people tell me their stories, in between laughing with one another, adding details, adding commentary, and taking the piss out of each other. So far, four of these little poems have been made.They continue the spirit of the poet William Wordsworth, a man with restless feet if ever there was one. He would walk 40 miles in a day sometimes. And he often walked the nights too, driven by his restless spirit out along the roads of England 200 years ago, under the moon.
The people he met on the road at night were usually on the move. Nowadays, you might call these folks homeless. There were soldiers, often wounded in body or mind, coming back from the Napoleonic wars. (And sometimes separately, the soldiers families, looking for their lost husband or father, looking for a reason…) There were people with struggling with their mental health, Wordsworth wrote movingly about such encounters – the idiot boy for instance is one of the most kindhearted poems written about such circumstances. Though it’s got a cruel title, to our ears. There were people who lost their jobs. There were people who were too old to work. There were people fleeing institutions. There were people fleeing landlords, or loansharks. People caught in money traps, the sparrow into simply not being able to pay the cost of a daily living.
And all of these people who Wordsworth met are still on the road today. Those reasons are still quite enough to drive people out of their homes, out of their minds, out on the streets. And sometimes they never come back. And it is here, on the edge of a car park in Lancaster, that these stories begin.
By Philip Davenport. LDHAS, January 2022
Refuge from the Ravens is supported by the Heritage Fund. In 1798, Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Coleridge sparked a literary revolution — poems in everyday language, telling of people on the margins of society. 200 years later, homelessness and social inequality are still with us and even on the rise. This project invited people with lived experience of homelessness and other vulnerable people to meet Wordsworth across time, replying in poetry, art and song in a Lyrical Ballads for the 21st Century.