Looking Back: Traces Of The Past

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I took this photo on a whim, just to see how it would turn out. This old farm-field post was one of several on the footpath to the Hathersage stepping stones that cross the River Derwent just outside the town. For those of you who read my earlier Derbyshire posts, you’ll know I was on a quest to follow in my great grandmother’s footsteps, taking the path that she once took from Callow Farm and into Hathersage.

I don’t remember ever seeing stone posts like this before, and don’t know how old it is. But I think it’s safe to say that this and others were there in the late 1880s-90 when Mary Ann Fox passed by to do her shopping.

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You can read more of her story at Stepping Stones Through Time and Stronghold – The Telling Of Family Tales

There was also another idea running through my head when I took the photo – a far cry, too, from Derbyshire and my ancestors. When I saw the hole in the stone I was reminded of the 1960s young adult novel The Owl Service by Alan Garner. It is set in Wales and explores the rival affections between three teens through a parallel tale from the Welsh medieval story cycle of the Mabinogi.

It’s a great story, both the original and Garner’s use of it. Here’s a quick version of the myth.

The magician Gwydion makes a woman, Blodeuwedd, from flowers. She betrays her husband Lleu with a man called Gronw who tries to kill Lleu with a spear. He turns into an eagle and escapes. However, rough justice allows Lleu to have his turn to throw a spear at Gronw who may only use a stone for protection. Lleu throws the spear so hard, it passes straight through the stone and kills Gronw, and to punish Blodeuwedd for her part in all this, the magician Gwydion turns her into an owl.

So the first shot is my photo version – the stone of Gronw.

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

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If you want to post some of your own ‘Traces of the Past’ please visit Paula at Lost in Translation

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JANE EYRE WAS HERE? Or was she?

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I struck straight into the heath; I held on to a hollow I saw deeply furrowing the brown moorside; I waded knee-deep in its dark growth; I turned with its turnings, and finding a moss-blackened granite crag in a hidden angle, I sat down under it. High banks of moor were about me; the crag protected my head: the sky was over that.

Jane Eyre Charlotte Brontë 1847

 

Most people, who know anything about the Brontë family, will know that they lived in a gloomy vicarage in Hawarth, West Yorkshire, on the edge of the rugged Pennine uplands. Most of us, too, will have seen the windswept ‘Cathy come home’ film clip renditions of scenes from Emily Brontë’s dark romance Wuthering Heights. And so, if we think of it all, we probably imagine that Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is set in her home county too.

And we’d probably be wrong. Circumstances and too many clues suggest that it was Hathersage and its environs in Derbyshire’s Dark Peak that informed the landscape of Charlotte Brontë’s imagination as she wrote Jane Eyre.

If you read my last post on the Seven Stones Bronze Age circle on Hordron Edge you will have seen the above vista – Stanage Edge above Moscar Moor. The path to this part of the moor begins at Cutthroat Bridge on the Glossop – Sheffield road just south-west of the old boundary stone at Moscar Cross. From here the hills fall away to the Derwent Valley and the vast Ladybower Reservoir built in the 1930s. You can just see a glimpse of the reservoir in the next photo taken from Hordron Edge.  It would have been a steep river valley in Brontë’s time. At the reservoir the road divides – west for Glossop and Manchester, and south for Bamford and Hathersage.

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This next quotation is one of the possible ‘real location’ clues. It describes Whitcross, the place that many now identify as Moscar Cross. This isolated spot is where Jane Eyre is dropped by the coachman because she hasn’t enough money to pay for the onward journey. So begins her desperate wandering and lonely night out on the moors. She has just run away from Thornfield Hall and her thwarted marriage plans. Husband to be, Edward Rochester, has been exposed. He is already married to a lunatic wife whom he keeps locked in the attic. Jane’s sense of shock, loss and emotional distress are heightened as she loses herself physically, choosing to walk away from all identifiable landmarks and into the wild unknown:

Whitcross is no town, nor even a hamlet; it is but a stone pillar set up where four roads meet: whitewashed, I suppose, to be more obvious at a distance and in darkness. Four arms spring from its summit: the nearest town to which these point is, according to the inscription, distant ten miles; the farthest, above twenty. From the well-known names of these towns I learn in what county I have lighted; a north-midland shire, dusk with moorland, ridged with mountain: this I see. There are great moors behind and on each hand of me; there are waves of mountains far beyond that deep valley at my feet.

And why, you might ask, are people so keen to think that Whitcross is Moscar Cross? Does it even matter?

Of course it doesn’t. That a writer was drawing on what they knew of actual places when creating their fictional settings doesn’t necessarily add to our enjoyment of the story. On the other hand, to know that they had a definite somewhere in their mind’s eye may offer a few insights into the nature of the creative process.

I’ve written elsewhere about the importance of PLACE in fiction, and that SETTING is more than just a location. In the best stories the evocation of place can be as crucial as the conjuring of believable characters to occupy it.

Writers need to do their world-building homework very carefully – the outcome of which is likely to be more successful if they are summoning places and situations that have already stirred their creative impulses. When they come to write, they are already firing on all senses: can walk in their character’s shoes; feel through their skin; see through their eyes.  And if the narrative warrants something more complex, there can be, by way of dramatic or comic irony, further interplay between what the reader may ‘know’ of the place and what the protagonists are seen to experience.

Of course all creative people make up things, but they also start their imagining from what they know: from people, places, things that have struck or affected them.

But to return to the Hathersage connections and Jane Eyre  and the real reason why I’m indulging in this piece of literary tourism. For those of you who have read my recent posts you’ll know that the small Peak District town of Hathersage has personal family connections. My ancestors farmed on its outskirts from at least the late 1600s to 1892 (see Stepping Stones Through Time and Ancestor Sleuthing in Derbyshire ).

My great great Fox uncles and aunts of Callow Farm were exact contemporaries of Charlotte Brontë, and some of them would have been around in 1845 when the writer spent three weeks in Hathersage, staying with her very close friend from school days, Ellen Nussey.

Ellen was the vicar’s sister, and he, Henry Nussey had just got married and was away visiting his mother with his new bride. At some stage Charlotte had apparently refused a marriage proposal from Henry (he who apparently liked to draw up lists of attributes for any potential wife) and so his absence was perhaps taken advantage of by Ellen. In any event, the two women spent this time going out and about and visiting local notables.

And while I don’t for a moment think that these outings included afternoon tea at Callow, I am quite enjoying the notion of them sharing the ‘same air’. In fact Callow may well have been a sad place in the summer of 1845. In March of that year, my 3 x Great Grandmother, Mary Ann Fox nee Williamson, had died of ‘general dropsy’ at the age of 57. She is a bit of mystery, possibly ‘a London lady’ who in circumstances unknown became engaged to local bruiser and fist-fighter, Robert Fox of Callow. They were wed by marriage bond in Southwell Minster in 1812. She was anyway survived by four daughters and three sons, and although some of the girls look to have been employed in households outside the area around this time, I’m thinking there may have been Fox family members at Hathersage church on those Sundays in July when Charlotte and Ellen doubtless attended.

One of the places the two women definitely did visit on several occasions was North Lees Hall, below Stanage Edge, near Hathersage. It was lived in at the time by members of the very populous Eyre dynasty whose antecedents had built it in the 1500s.

North Lees BBC2Photo credit: BBC

The Eyres had occupied many such houses in the area over the previous several hundred years. In fact my Fox family legend (totally unsubstantiated) has it that the first ancestral Derbyshire Fox was the steward of the vanquishing Eyre who came to England with William the Conqueror in 1066, and that this relationship continued down the ages – from which you may also surmise that some of my ancestors told rather good, if dodgy tales. In fact they were still telling this one when Great Great Grandfather George sold up at Callow in 1892. I know, because it was picked up at the time and featured by several local and regional newspapers.

Nor was Charlotte apparently averse to recycling tales. North Lees came with its own legend that told of one Agnes Ashurst, a mad woman who was confined to a room on the second floor. This room had padded walls to stop her injuring herself, but like Rochester’s wife, Bertha, she also died in a fire.

Definitely it was too good a yarn not to re-use and develop then. It also well illustrates another aspect of the on-going writerly process – the jackdaw syndrome of gathering in every shiny fragment and titillating curiosity just in case such treasured little nuggets may one day serve some plot.

Anyway, I will finish this present ramble with the Jane Eyre description of Thornfield Hall. Take a look again at the photo of North Lees. What do you think – a convincing source for Rochester’s domain of dark secrets and the scene of Bertha Rochester’s shocking demise?

I stepped over the threshold. It was a fine autumn morning; the early sun shone serenely on embrowned groves and still green fields; advancing on to the lawn, I looked up and surveyed the front of the mansion. It was three storeys high, of proportions not vast, though considerable: a gentleman’s manor-house, not a nobleman’s seat: battlements round the top gave it a picturesque look.

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

Stepping Stones Through Time

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This photo may work better as an idea than as an actuality, but this week Paula at Black & White Sunday gives us the prompt of ‘layers’, and here (for me at least) there are many layers, not only of light and shadow, surface reflections and leafy river bed, but also of present and past, the stones that my maternal ancestors may well have stepped on for nearly two centuries.

So goes the family tale anyway, the story my great grandmother, Mary Ann Fox, passed on to my grandmother, Lilian Hickling, who passed it on to her daughter, my aunt, Miriam Wilkinson, who passed it on to me. The photo, then, could be taken as a physical rendition of Chinese Whispers since, and as with all such family histories, there are bound to be distortions as word passes from generation to generation – omissions, elaborations.

But there are certainties too.

Mary Ann was born and grew up at Callow Farm on the hill above the River Derwent, just outside Hathersage in the Derbyshire Peak District. (The field path from the farm house to the stepping stones is still marked on the Ordnance Survey map). And so in later life, perhaps as a young wife and mother living in the close and gloomy streets of industrial Manchester, she conjured her old life, telling her three town-born children how, if she wanted to go to the shops she would have to cross the Callow fields and take the stepping stones over the Derwent to Hathersage.

Other scraps of tales have also reached me: my grandmother’s pronouncement to my aunt that her mother was ‘a sad woman’ (she was widowed twice: at 30 and at 41); that the waft of her black silk dress as she moved about the inn that she kept after the death of her first husband carried the scent of lily of the valley to cover the smell of gin.

My feeling is that as a young woman, Mary Ann, called Merian by her family, was headstrong and passionate, and in consequence made bad decisions. At twenty she went against family wishes and married Thomas Shorrocks, a Bolton spindle manufacturer, and widower with a young son. How she met him is still a mystery to me, although I have my grandmother’s acid remark etched in my mind: that her mother fell for the first man she saw wearing a stove-pipe hat, that she was a country girl swept off her feet by a townie. Grandmother said she scarcely knew her father, intimating that he kept away from home until they were asleep, staying on at his works or at his club. In 1893-4 his family firm went bankrupt, and he died aged 39.

Mary Ann’s first married home on Kildare Street, Bolton – a modest terraced villa with a small front garden – was a far cry from the sweeping high moors vistas around Callow. She did have a servant girl, however, to help with the children, but it is hard to imagine how she adapted to the dramatic change in circumstances. Did she try to fit in? Probably not. Grandmother related that the ever darkly clad Bolton women looked askance at Mary Ann’s bright print dresses. In my mind’s eye I see the colourful flash of free-spirited obstinacy that brought her to that place. It’s like the light flickering through the trees and onto the Derwent stepping stones.

The death of Mary Ann’s first husband coincided with her father’s decision to leave Callow Farm where his family had been tenant farmers for four generations. Derbyshire farmers were having a hard time in the early 1890s: prices for crops were low, and rents were high, and landowners unwilling to compromise on the rents. It seems likely that some of the proceeds of the farm sale of stock, crops, horses and household belongings were used to secure the licence for the inn in Hollinfare, Cheshire, where Mary Ann began a new life as innkeeper.

My aunt said the Fox family had decided that taking the inn was the best means of securing a home and living for her with three young children and an adolescent stepson. It  stood on the south bank of the great Manchester Ship Canal, which linked the vast industrial heartland of northwest England with the port of Liverpool. It was only recently opened in 1895 when she took over the inn, and doubtless the Foxes thought they had made a wise move, anticipating plenty of passing trade.

Mostly what it brought, it seems, was another marriage to another widower – one Charles Rowles, a ship’s pilot on the canal and a former sea captain. My grandmother disliked him, although she adored her young stepbrother, Giles, born a year later. She said that it was only once her mother had married, that Charles Rowles produced two teenage daughters from his first marriage, the said young women moving into the inn and thereafter trying to rule the roost. This would not have gone down well with my grandmother. If there was any ruling of roosts to be done, she was the person to do it.

For various reasons I’ve tried to discover more about the Rowles family. Scouring the census returns, I discovered that it rather looks as if Mary Ann’s younger brother, George Fox, eloped with one of his sister’s new stepdaughters. Louisa Rowles was possibly only 15 when she married George, although she claimed to be older. He owned a large pub in Manchester, but she, too, was left a young widow, and in the 1911 census is listed as a servant, working in another Manchester pub. What happened to her remains to be discovered.

As for Mary Ann, in 1905 she was widowed for the second time after ten years of marriage, and she herself died at the age of 46. So, as grandmother said, a sad woman indeed. As I took this photograph, these were some of the thoughts running through my head. It is all too easy to look back to Mary Ann’s growing up at Callow Farm and see a rosy past. It’s how we tend to view things: the glamour of an imagined rural idyll – the stepping stones back to happier days. I had hoped to be able to cross here too, and get a closer view of the farm, but there had been a heavy rainfall in the night and there was too much water in the river to attempt to cross without rubber boots and a stout stick. A quest, then, for another time? Perhaps.

Mary Ann Williamson Fox of Callow b.1863

Mary Ann Fox (1863-1909) sometime before her marriage, and before her father sold her pony. He had threatened to do this if she persisted in jumping the farm gate on horseback. She did not listen.

Copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

 

 

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