Cold Knap Lake
by Gillian Clarke
Q Is it a real lake? If so, where is it?
A Yes, it is real. It is a large artificial lake in a park in Barry in South Wales. The name is haunting, because of the word ‘cold’. That’s one reason I remember the lake. I have written several poems about it.
Q Is it a true story?
A Yes, as true as I and my memory can make it. It happened when I was a young child, about 6.
Q Does it rhyme? Or is it just at the end?
A I use half rhyme, except for the last two lines which use full rhyme. Examples of half rhymes are ‘crowd’ and ‘dead’, ‘lake’ and silk’, where just the last letters rhyme. You will find rhyme in every verse, if you look and listen for it.
Q Why do you describe your mother’s dress as ‘her wartime cotton frock’?
A During the second World War, when I was a baby, and for several years afterwards, you couldn’t buy nice clothes. My mother, who was very young and pretty at the time, made all her own clothes, and mine and my sister’s too. The fashions were dull, and cut from the least possible cloth. Old photographs will show you what I mean. I deliberately use the old word ‘frock’, to conjure the period of the War.
Q What’s the ‘water’s long green silk’?
A Water weed, and streams of water falling from the child’s clothes.
Q Why did the family beat the child?
A I suppose because they were so upset that they’d nearly lost her.
Q What was the ‘poor house’?
A Just a shabby place. They were a poor family.
Q What does the 4th verse mean?
A When you recapture a memory from early childhood, you’re sometimes not sure if you were really there, if someone told you about it, or if you read it in a story. The lake was not deep, but deep enough to drown in. I’d read fairy stories and legends about people drowning in mysterious lakes. I’d seen a famous painting of a drowned girl floating in a brook. Lake stories often have swans in them. Swans can be fierce, and pretty scary to a child who thinks they are beautiful beings out of legend. The little girl nearly drowned. Did the swans try to take her to their kingdom under the water? That’s the kind of story that haunted me when I was a child. The rhyme at the end connects the real event with a fairy story, I think.