In Search Of Lost Time In Eyam And An Outbreak Of Plague

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This very unusual wall sundial is to be found above the Priest’s Door on the east side of Eyam parish church in Derbyshire. It dates from 1775, and was designed and made locally. I discovered it when were in the village doing a spot of family history research – not researching in any organised way I might add – more a matter of walking ancestral paths and acquiring a sense of place. Eyam is anyway a village with an awful lot of history, not least the story of how its inhabitants dealt with an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1665-1666 by imposing a cordon sanitaire around the village boundary, and for over a year sticking to it so as not to spread the disease to neighbouring communities.

Over the fourteen months that the outbreak persisted, 280 out of the 800 population died. It is thought the infection arrived in a parcel of fabric, sent in late summer from London to the Eyam tailor, Alexander Hadfield. The package was opened by his assistant, George Viccars, and it was he who was the first to fall ill and die. Thereafter, the disease spread rapidly throughout the autumn, slowed over the winter, and returned in full force in the following spring and summer. In the worst month of August 1666 seventy eight villagers died.

Eyam’s self-imposed quarantine was managed by the young village rector, Reverend William Mompesson, and Nonconformist minister Reverend Thomas Stanley. It was agreed that every household would bury their own dead and, in a bid to  maintain morale and give comfort to survivors, church services were held in the open air so people could gather together, but not too closely. Local landowner, the Duke of Devonshire, and others from neighbouring villages saw that supplies of food and other necessities were left at the village boundary.

It is a harrowing episode that demonstrates great human resilience and bravery, not least by the Reverend Mompesson, whose own wife was among the last victims. And today, as you wander around the village, the event continues to be marked by commemorative plaques outside the cottages that were once the homes of the families who were particularly afflicted.

It could seem mawkish, crass even, to make a visitor attraction from this horrific episode, but somehow it isn’t. The village quietly embraces you in a reflection on shared humanity – now and back through time.  In fact the sun dial says it all: Induce animum sapientum –  cultivate an enquiring mind. And then on the two supporting stone corbels, which you can’t quite read in the photo: ut  umbra sic vita – life passes like a shadow.

I especially like the way that when it is noon in Eyam, the sundial shows the relative times in Calicut, Mecca and Panama, to name but a few of the far-flung places inscribed on the dial. It also includes a chart for longitudinal adjustments of local True Sun Time to Greenwich meantime, and throughout the year. Somehow it is uplifting to feel that in this isolated Derbyshire village, and over the centuries, the gaze of its inhabitants has extended to a world beyond its village boundaries.

So far I haven’t mentioned why we were visiting Eyam or explained presumed family links with this locality. Researches into the Fox family of Callow in Hathersage (covered in other posts) suggest that a possibly direct ancestor, one Robert Fox, yeoman farmer and lead miner, was living in the area between 1678 and 1699. I have a copy of his will and household inventory, so I know he owned 13 cushions and several field beds in one or more parlours. There were no Fox plague victims in Eyam, although Robert Fox’s second wife, Margaret Mower, had lost an uncle, Rowland Mower. His will is included in the 1842 book by local historian, William Wood, The History and Antiquities of Eyam ~ with a full and particular account of the Great Plague.

The Fox family connection is all a bit of a yarn, which may never be unravelled. So for now some more views of the village:P1050536

Eyam Parish Church and its 8th century Saxon Cross complete with Celtic influences.

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This is Eyam Hall, very much post-plague, and built between 1671-6 and incorporating a much smaller existing property in the heart of the village. Its builders were newcomers, the land-owning-merchant Wright family, and their arrival signified revival, and an increasing interest in developing the lead mining potential the area. Landowners large and small were keen to exploit this highly valued mineral. And although lead had been mined across Derbyshire since Roman times, there is almost a ‘gold rush’ feel about the exploitative zeal from the late 17th century.

It is possible that post-plague opportunities around Eyam attracted the likes of putative ancestor, Robert Fox. My band of fellow Fox-hunters has not been able to establish if he was an incomer or if there were existing family connections with Eyam. His father was a tenant farmer at The Oaks, near Highlow, a few miles away, and he and Robert’s brothers may also have been involved in the lead business,  possibly smelting.

Robert owned four small parcels of lead-bearing land in Foolow, two of which adjoined Wright land. When he thought he was dying in 1691 and wrote his will, he was very concerned to make it clear he had ownership of them, and that the proceeds of his property should be managed by his brother and brother-in-law for the upbringing and education of his four children – James, William, Mary and Robert. In fact he did not die until 1699, and it is not clear what happened to his family. We think the eldest James became a shoemaker in Eyam, and that Robert was possibly a very successful joiner in Wirksworth, the lead mining capital of Derbyshire. William is the one we have our eye on as the possible ancestor for the Callow Foxes, but his baptismal record has so far proved elusive, which is most annoying when we know that his three siblings were baptised in Eyam church. Ah, well. Such are the fascinations and frustrations of tracking down traces of families long past.

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From: William Wood The History & Antiquities of Eyam 1842

Black & White Sunday: Traces of the Past

 

JOSEPH SIDDALL

P.S. A number of readers have asked what became of 3 year old Joseph Siddall. The Eyam Museum researches seem to indicate that there were in fact two surviving Siddall children, and they went to live with relatives in Sheffield, not that far from Eyam. There is quite a dynasty of Siddalls in the Eyam-Stoney Middleton area of Derbyshire, so they would not have been left without any family connections.

Some Favourite Horizons ~ the Silurian Sea Effect And The Changing Seasons

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Here in the small English Midlands town of Much Wenlock,  we live in the lea of an upthrust ancient sea. (I may have mentioned this once or several times before). As I took this photo I was standing on the petrified flanks of Wenlock Edge – the compacted deposits of shallow tropical waters that teemed with giant sea scorpions, sea lilies,  corals, trilobites and all manner of brachiopods in the long ago age before fish, or indeed, before life as we know it.

In fact, as the photo well shows, we sit in a bowl, lodged between several folds in the landscape. It is a place of naturally rising springs, which is probably why St. Milburga’s family of Saxon Mercian princes founded an abbey here in the seventh century: pure water and the presumption of godliness going hand in hand. The town also has several other holy wells besides those associated with Milburga. It seems to have been the equivalent of a calling card. Every saint who visited Much Wenlock left us a well to remember them by. Then in the 1930s the good burghers of Wenlock decided they were a risk to physical well being and had them all capped.

Milburga’s Well, though, had especially enduring powers. As I have also mentioned before, the legends that tell of the life of this Paris-educated abbess, are routinely associated with springs bursting hither and thither. In fact so potent is her association with pure water sources that even in the late nineteenth century, rain collected from the roof of the parish church – a building founded on the remains of Milburga’s abbey, was still considered to be an essential ingredient  for beer brewing (never mind the additional mossy deposits). Likewise, water from the actual well was absolutely expected to cure all manner of eye disorders, as well as reflecting in its glassy surface the identity of husbands-to-be to the lovelorn Wenlock lasses who, come May Day, would rush to look there for signs of their future partners.

Anyway, I suppose the point I’m trying to make is that there are certainly great disadvantages to living your life in a hollow. It can limit your vistas in every sense. But there are advantages too. In our case it also means that whichever way you strike out of the town, you are always in for a fresh horizon. In every direction we have them; one for every moment of the day. So here are some of my favourites.

In June to the south of the town we had an outbreak of poppies. It was stupendous:

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Then in late summer, standing at the southerly end of the town, among the wheat fields and looking north, I discovered this fine view of the Wrekin. Some trick of the light/perspective/geography has made it seem extraordinarily looming and close:

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When it comes to the other quarters, if walk from the town centre, in an easterly direction, down the Bull Ring and out past the ruins of the 12th century Cluniac Priory, you will find the once monastic parkland where the Prior went hunting before the place was asset-stripped and sold off to Henry VIII’s faithful servants, and thereafter to generations of would-be gentry. This photo was taken a few days ago. A winter’s view then:

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And then looking east from the north end of the town – this time from Windmill Hill:

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Also there are the ever-changing westerly false-horizons as seen from our house that backs on to the foothills of Wenlock Edge:

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Finally, if you leave the town and climb on to Wenlock Edge itself, and if you can find a suitable gap in the trees, you can look west across Shropshire and towards the Welsh borderland:

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And the reason why I’m posting all these views?

Well, this week the WordPress photo challenge invites us to pre-empt the New Year making of resolutions and post a photo impression of what that resolution might be, or if not a resolution, then of some envisaged new horizon; to look ahead beyond life’s present busyness.

This made me consider my own horizon-watching habit, which daily fills me with a sense of wonder.(For one thing I am very lucky to have the time to do it at all – a luxury of luxuries). It is a form of day-dreaming, or watchful meditation and a good way to rest a racing mind. I also enjoy posting views of my homeland landscapes because I believe we cannot love the world too much. But I’m wondering, too, if we don’t do altogether too much ‘looking ahead’, ‘looking for more/the next/the new.’

The fresh horizons we may be seeking are not really OUT THERE. “Look within to the universal self.” Inside each of us, that’s where all the work needs to be done if we want to see real change. I know I can change myself, though I recognise that I might need some assistance. I also know that I definitely cannot change others, much as I might wish to in these times when too many people appear to define their identities through their fear, envy and hatred of others. If anyone ever wants to know where hell is, then it is there.

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

 

New Horizon

Echo Of Time Past ~ Hunter’s Lodge, Kiboko

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I’ve not done an Old Africa post of a while, and this photo is rather the worse for wear. But perhaps that is fitting in all sorts of ways.

I also thought I’d post an excerpt from our 1990’s travels in Kenya – an account written not long after my arrival in 1992. During the eight years we lived there, we had many sojourns at Hunter’s Lodge on the Nairobi – Mombasa highway. Graham was overseeing a research project at the nearby field station and had to make regular visits. The Lodge had been built by great white hunter, John Hunter, around the late ‘50s – early ‘60s – his retirement home after a long career of game control, grand safaris and general  rhino and elephant slaughter.  He saw no irony in choosing a spot that had once been his favourite place for watching elephant at a sunset waterhole on the Kiboko River. He dammed the stream to make an ornamental garden lake for his guests’ pleasure. And instead of elephant, the place attracted a marvellous array of birds. The soundtrack here, then, is endless weaver bird chatter in the papyrus, and the clatter of stork beaks up in the fever trees. Oh yes, and the nonstop whine of crickets…

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Monday 17th February, my two bags packed once more and Graham’s few belongings assembled, we set off for Kiboko. Although it was still early morning, the sun was already beginning to scorch my arm through the open car window; sweat trickled down my spine. But I was pleased to be on the move again; and Graham, who was watching me from the side-lines – to see how I would react to a new land, confined himself to saying that he hoped I would like the lodge where we would be staying for a few days.

I imagine I will, but at that moment it was not my main concern. I was excited at the prospect of my first safari. Too opulent a term for us perhaps, conjuring up an entourage of well-provisioned trucks each manned with a local African guide and tracker, bullish Europeans in khaki shorts, legs the colour of seasoned olive wood above long woollen socks, bush-hatted and safari-jacketed, a powerful rifle to hand to fend off attacks by a raging buffalo. But no, there was none of this; just a couple of bags and a few supplies for the field station in the boot of a modest Peugeot saloon. And anyway, in Swahili safari simply means journey, and so it was the journey itself that I was looking forward to, even if it only involved a few hours’ drive down the Nairobi-Mombasa highway.

We left the city by the same route I had come from the airport two days earlier. Now I could take it in with a more focused eye: the newspaper and magazine sellers out in force, and stepping between the traffic with all the ease of those who have taken up walking the plank for a living and survived to tell and retell the tale; the avenues of yellow blossomed acacias; the screens of puce pink bougainvillea; palm trees; throngs of citizens everywhere, waiting, milling, buying, selling, chatting, reading, walking; the welter of city centre multi-storey office blocks in as many styles, from oriental chic to Dallas smoked glass; the air heavy with dust and oily exhaust fumes and the smell of roasting maize cobs.

And as we head south out of Nairobi, through the flatlands of the industrial zone you feel that you could be leaving any city anywhere in the developed world. There is a Slumberworld bed centre, another for well-known names in bathroom and sanitary ware, a detergent factory, a Toyota showroom, a cut-price cash-and-carry warehouse, builders’ yards, air freight offices, the outposts of many a multi-national company, all neat brick buildings flying their corporate banners behind well-tended and irrigated flower beds.

At this point, you can only just glimpse the plains beyond. It is easy to think you are on familiar territory: the industrial estate, a modern major thoroughfare with white lines, UK road signs, traffic police operating speed traps, Esso service stations, driving on the left. The British-born may believe too quickly that they know all the rules, the received codes of behaviour that pertain here. After all, it did used to be “ours”; you would expect some sense of familiarity.

Or would you? The British of old empire days were not overly concerned about establishing decent infrastructure in the countries they colonized (“standards” maybe) beyond building railways to ferry their administrators and export their hard-won commodities, or erecting imposing edifices that represented the institutions of law and taxation used to control indigenous peoples, who though in their own land, found that it was no longer theirs. And so, having built the Uganda Railway across Kenya Colony, the British seem to have fallen short when it came to road building. For much of their sixty-year stay, the road between Nairobi and Mombasa port was three hundred miles of gut-twisting dirt corrugations that, if you were lucky, took a day and more to traverse. It was only on the last lap of occupation in the 1960s that the tarmac was laid, reducing journey time to a mere seven or eight hours.

And so quite quickly I see that we should not set too much store by apparent similarities, and the seeming familiar artefacts. The things that we British recognise now in Kenya are not necessarily the issue of what we left behind. Or, if there are remnants of our abandoned institutions, then it does not follow that they have exactly the same meaning or function for modern Kenyans. Therefore, lest they lead us astray or cause us to make wrong assumptions, we should ignore their supposed messages altogether; think of them as laying a false trail, for this is Africa and, as the locals would often tell us, anything can happen here.

It soon becomes apparent, too, that when the highway itself was being built, every effort was made to ensure that the ‘surface’ went as far as possible. There is only a thin skin, a makeshift causeway to hold the bush at bay. And while some stretches have been recently upgraded, for the most part it is rag-edged and pot-holed and, south of Nairobi, gives way altogether to a several mile detour on dirt road.

And even though it is not a busy road by European standards, it is one of Africa’s major transport routes, the main users being massively laden freight lorries hauling their own weight and the same again in trailers hitched on behind. Bales of iron rods from the Mombasa rolling mills; crates of Tusker beer; petrol in rusty tankers as battered and misshapen as badly squeezed toothpaste tubes; cargoes of maize; transporters filled with new white Japanese cars. That their drivers think they will ever make it to Uganda far to the north, or to Zambia way down south through Tanzania, or even to the next market pull-off twenty miles away often seems to be an act of supreme faith. Many of course do not survive the test, but are pulled off the road, the cabs bowed to the ground like broken-winded beasts, their drivers sprawled out asleep between the wheels to avoid the sun’s glare while waiting for rescue or inspiration.

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Much of the first hour out of Nairobi was thus spent leap-frogging trucks, and it should be said that African lorry drivers are very courteous, using their right indicator if it is not safe for you to overtake, the left when it is. Once past, I would watch them in the wing mirror, grinding along slowly in our wake, their exhausts billowing out evil-smelling clouds that lingered in black fog banks for many yards behind. But we were out in open country now, to the west the pale grasslands of the Athi Plains extending and merging into the distant blue horizon, to the east and south the land falling away into thorn scrub valleys, undulating hills and blazing outcrops of red igneous rock.

There were problems of perception here as well. The landscapes which the road bisects are on too vast a scale to fit a single frame; to absorb. Always too much foreground, so that the mind switches off and dismisses the whole as featureless bush: thorn scrub followed by thorn scrub, stretching as far as the eye can see, across plains that are scarcely interrupted by the scatter of old volcanic peaks – which would be impressive, if only you could find some sense of proportion.

That is one perspective. Another might be to take heart at the sight of so much space, to acknowledge the inherent grandeur of mile after mile of untamed, uncultivated, unbuilt-on land that yields only sporadic evidence of human activity beyond the margins of the road. Yet a third might be to wonder at the apparent absurdity of driving down a main road along with Mercedes, Land Cruisers and BMWs and seeing ostriches loping away beneath the spans of power lines beside the highway, or to pass by a large farm field fenced off against the bush, and to realize that in amongst the well-contained herd of grazing domestic cattle are also Thompson’s Gazelle and hartebeest.

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Nearly three hours out of Nairobi and we are bowling across the lowland plains, through the large dusty market settlements of Sultan Hamud and Emali. It is much hotter down here and the tarmac, straight and undulating before us, at one moment fragments into a heat haze and in the next, reforms, only to fragment again with each successive horizon. The bush now presses in against the bare dirt verges; it seethes with insect call; a callous thrust of sharp-tempered thorns. Yet not wholly impenetrable for this is Maasai country and, through occasional breaches in the bush, I could see baked terracotta drovers’ trails, worn and smoothed, season to season, by hoof and heel. We begin to see Maasai herders at the roadside too, men draped in their distinctive tartan shuka shawls. Always red.

Lads hare past on bicycles, the shawls now red capes caught up in the breeze and their cattle prods poised in hand as if heart-fired charioteers on the charge. And then there are the women, striding out along the track, tall and self-possessed; handsome heads shaved and dressed with strings of small coloured beads whose blues and greens mean God, and heaven and peace.

But as for us, we were by now hot and wet and dusty; our clothes welded to our backs. As we passed beneath an arch of tall fever trees, the first shade on the road in a hundred miles, we realized the urgent need for coolness; to stop being bounced and shaken and broiled. Only a little further. It was the next stand of fever trees that was to become our landmark over succeeding months. Here the Akamba woodcarvers have their stalls; here is a large petrol station with a cafe that sells bottles of chilled mineral water (the percolated snows of Kilimanjaro, or so the label suggests). This is Kiboko. And this is where we turn off the road for Hunter’s Lodge.

 

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A misty, mysterious Kilimanjaro pushes through the clouds. Its appearances are usually fleeting, caught here from the Nairobi-Mombasa highway, where the road descends to the lowland plains of Ukambani.

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The pool at Hunter’s Lodge – a bird-watcher’s paradise; or just plain paradise. I spent hours just watching.

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It became a ritual. So you might call afternoon tea on the bar terrace a libation. We were usually accompanied by the resident peacock who liked to steal the sugar if he got the chance. The tea tasted sulphurous from the local volcanic spring water, and the milk needed sieving because it was delivered daily by the Maasai, and the hotel staff subjected it to heavy boiling before serving. Even so, we always looked forward to it – the interlude before twilight and the firefly fly-past over the pool, and the prelude to supper and a chilled Tusker beer.

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Paula at Thursday’s Special prompted this post with her December ‘pick a word’. So here we have aquatic echoes, an amiable Graham with chai libation, and a misty mountain protrusion. Cheers, Paula! Please visit her for further sources of inspiration.

Rambling Yesterday On Wenlock Edge ~ “The Holly And The Power Station”?

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We went for a tramp along the Edge Wood at midday yesterday. It’s three fields up from our back garden and quite a haul to reach it. Once there, a breather is definitely called for, and so it’s a good moment to stop and look at the old Ironbridge Power Station cooling towers.

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Some find them ugly, but I like them. They are true landmarks – geologically and historically speaking. They stand on the banks of the River Severn, England’s longest river, which rises in the Welsh uplands and descends through the Midlands to the Bristol Channel. The towers stand on a piece of landscape – the Severn Gorge – which was only created 15,000 years ago – a mere nano-second past in Earth History Time.

But the thing that most fascinates me is that the River Severn, presently running south past the towers, once flowed north, so meeting the sea on the coast between North Wales and Chester. This remarkable change of direction is all down to the last Ice Age and the fact that the land was glacier-locked as far south as Shrewsbury, our county town. The Severn’s northern outlet thus became blocked by ice, and so the river backed up, forming a great lake (Lapworth) as the water lay trapped between the ice sheet, and the limestone ridge of Wenlock Edge.

Little by little, as the Ice Age drew to a close, the river wheedled its way through the northerly end of Wenlock Edge and carved a new course, cutting through, and so exposing the Industrial Revolution-making strata of coal, ironstone, fire clay, and limestone. And as I’ve said in other posts, this part of Shropshire lays claim to being ‘the cradle of the Industrial Revolution’, though crucible might be a better metaphor, given the emphasis on iron production.

However, the 18th century pioneering ironmasters of the Severn Gorge were not the first to take advantage of the local geology. Nearly two millennia earlier the Romans were already exploiting these resources. Their military camp of Viroconium (Wroxeter) lay just to the north of the Gorge and, once the locals were suitably subdued, so the camp transformed into a great city, one of the four largest in Britain. There is evidence of glass making and iron working in the area, and local clays would have served for brick and tile production. In fact one of the brick-built basilica walls still rises impressively above the surrounding farmland, a surprising survival when so much of the city fabric was recycled through succeeding centuries.

Back in the Gorge, and many centuries after the end of Roman rule, the mediaeval  monks of Buildwas Abbey and Much Wenlock Priory were also busy making use of local natural resources on an industrial scale. They had mines, decorative tile works, iron-making forges and bloomeries. They also had a thriving export business along the River Severn. There’s a record from around 1200 that states that the Prior of Buildwas was fined because twelve of his barges were blocking the river downstream at Bridgnorth. Probably not your usual vision of what monastic enterprises got up to.

Given so much entrepreneurial and manufacturing business afoot in the Gorge AND a navigable river with access to the great port of Bristol,  it is not surprising that when the monasteries were dissolved in 1540, and their properties distributed to the king’s friends and favourites, that the place should attract a rash of opportunistic London merchants, lawyers and aristocrats, all out to get rich and exploit the former monastic concerns for themselves. Soap  making, cold tar exploitation, coal mining, iron production, steel-making experiments were being conducted by very unlikely people of the well-heeled sort across south-east Shropshire.

Such industrial fervour was further stoked by Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) who offered a prize for anyone who could find a way to smelt decent iron using coal instead of charcoal. The loss of the nation’s great trees, needed for naval purposes and the protection of the realm, was causing the monarch much concern. The prize, however, was to remain unclaimed. It would be a good century later before  Abraham Darby arrived in the Gorge and, after remodelling a former monastic iron works in Coalbrookdale, perfected the much sought-after technique.

His discovery helped shape the world we occupy today. See what geology has to answer for.

And here’s some more of quite another sort: the Wrekin. We have the best view of it on our homeward path back down into Wenlock.

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The plain to the left of the hill was the location of the glacial Lake Lapworth. The Roman city was in that vicinity too. The Severn Gorge is off-screen to the right of the Wrekin.

I’ve written about the Wrekin’s mythological and geological origins HERE, but I may not have mentioned there that it has an Iron Age hillfort on the top. This was a stronghold of the Celtic Cornovii  i.e. those who  were duly subdued and citified by the invading Romans. Under Roman rule Viroconium became the Cornovii regional capital, which they continued to occupy until the late 600s – 700 C.E. when the site was abandoned.

We were always told at school that Viroconium’s last days were due to Saxons or Vikings marauding up the River Severn, but there is no sign that the exit from the city was anything but peaceful. I remember working on the excavation of the presumed road-of-retreat long ago as an archaeology student. I have to say that at the time I wasn’t altogether convinced by the site director’s interpretation of the remains that we were uncovering. At least it made me consider that much depends on the way you excavate a site. This site was being stripped across a whole field, rather than being investigated through the judicious placing of exploratory trenches. It seemed to me that certain trowelling techniques, as applied by willing and enthusiastic novices, might be responsible for creating features that aren’t actually there at all. An interesting thought on how the past might be re-created and invented.

And now just to prove how cold it was on our ramble, and not just gloriously, and so unexpectedly sunny: next some ICE, a phenomenon not witnessed in these parts for several seasons. Which brings me back to the start of this yarn, but hopefully not to the start of a new Ice Age as long predicted by certain climatologists. There have been enough tangents along our path already.

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copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

 

Jo’s Monday Walk  Please take a turn in this quarter for another fabulous ramble with Jo in the Algarve.

Who Sells The Pasts-That-Never-Were ~ Are We Seeing The Danger Signals?

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The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

L P Hartley The Go-Between

I’ve cropped and re-cropped this image in hopes you can put yourself right there on this path amid the fallen leaves. I’m hoping, too, your eye will be drawn further down the trail, that you will be wondering what lies beyond: where is this path taking us?

The ash trees and goat willows arching overhead make the path tunnel-like; mysterious, but not threatening. Slashes of light fall in from the right. They relieve the gloom of the overgrown embankment on the left.

Other impressions might occur. That this is a peaceful place: a perfect resort from the technologized maelstrom we have created for ourselves.  That it must be especially lovely in summer: birdsong and windrush through the greenery. Love-sick souls might wander here; those seeking solace from other cares; writers who have lost their plots; small boys intent on secluded thickets for a new den; dog walkers; girls on ponies: all seeking, consciously or not, the perceived restorative, imagining powers of wilderness.

As you take in the scene I might tell you that where you are standing is an ancient green lane, a once busy rustic thoroughfare used for centuries by the lay workers of Much Wenlock Priory. You can imagine them hauling carts of grain to the mill for grinding, or mule trains bringing in bales of wool from a shearing of the Prior’s flocks. I could throw in tales of St. Milburga, the seventh century abbess, who was renowned for striking springs of pure water from bare rock, or tell you that this path was one of the haunts of resistance fighter Wild Edric, the local Saxon lord who challenged Norman rule.

But no. That’s not it at all. Nothing in that last paragraph happened here as far as I know. What a shame. It had all the makings of a good yarn. We were beginning to identify with the characters. We were starting to confer on them certain notions/images/memories, conjuring a past we think we recognize.

Wait though. Here’s another version.

Into this tranquil scene comes what? A TRAIN?  Turn around and you will see what all the din is about. A large locomotive is rumbling out of the railway siding. It is hauling many wagons loaded with limestone from Wenlock’s vast Shadwell Quarry, which lies out of your sight behind the path embankment. The limestone is destined for the furnaces of South Wales and the West Midlands Black Country, used as a flux in the smelting of iron. This scene belongs to the 1860s when the United Kingdom was still a world leader in heavy industry, the monster-offspring of the 18th century Quaker Ironmasters who pioneered iron-making techniques just a mile or two away in Coalbrookdale.

Other scenes can be added: weekly earth-shattering blasts from the quarry; the land, lanes, town in a grey-dust pall; air filled with fumes from lime-burning kilns; a man burned one day in a kiln collapse; Wenlock’s Town Council of the late 1940s complaining that the blasting was shaking stones from the Wenlock Priory ruins; 1981 and rocks from a quarry blasting landing on the neighbouring secondary school, injuring three pupils.

Here then are a few clips from Much Wenlock’s many ‘pasts’; ones that actually happened. The path you are standing on is the track bed of the former Severn Valley Railway branch line. It once linked Much Wenlock to the rest of the world in a way that the River Severn had done in times past. This railway once served the nation’s industrial heartlands. And most of us have forgotten this now. Or never knew it. Looking at it now, it is anyway hard to believe.

In this particular case our forgetfulness or ignorance or disbelief is probably of little consequence. We have a lovely place to walk, and doubtless most of us will protest should anyone try to turn it into a car park or a housing development.

And yet?

I still have a niggling query. Should we not all be a good deal more knowledgeable about own histories, the actual lives of parents, grandparents and great grandparents? Should we not all be well versed in our nation’s last hundred years, including understanding our responsibilities as citizens, and knowing precisely how our land and its people make a living?

I’ll leave these questions with you, because I want to talk about the quotation. It has haunted me for decades, and is the opening line of L P Hartley’s novel The Go-Between. But it was not in the novel where I first read these words. My first encounter was in the title of quite another book. It was 1985 or 1986, and the book in question had not long been published. At the time I was employed as the seemingly grand, if poorly paid Leverhulme Research Fellow at the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. (This being the sprawling Shropshire heritage enterprise that lays claim to protecting and interpreting the ‘birthplace of the Industrial Revolution’ aka the aforementioned Coalbrookdale – a location which thus has a very great deal to answer for).

In those days, the IGMT had recently set up an Institute of Heritage Management offering postgraduate diplomas to professionals in the heritage business. It was at one of the Institute seminars that I encountered David Lowenthal, American historian and geographer, and Professor of Geography at University College London. (He is at UCL still, Emeritus Professor at the age of 93.)

Lowenthal’s book The Past Is A Foreign Country is regarded as one of the classic works of cultural history. It was described by one erudite reviewer at the time as ‘a meditation on misuses of the past in contemporary culture’.

I will repeat that phrase in bold:

‘a meditation on the misuses of the past in contemporary culture’

In the light of recent events – the outcome of the US election and Britain’s Brexit vote wherein proponents’ projection of a perfect national past formed a key part of the ‘sales’ pitch – it seems to me that this is a phenomenon that should worry us all.

The past that was being sold was not an old past either, but one deemed to be within someone’s living memory – you know, that happy land just over the brow of the hill where everyone resides in the rosy glow of unchallenged prosperity and inviolable national sovereignty and with no incomers.

When did that place have its heyday? Can anyone tell me. I’ve been alive quite a long time, and I can’t pinpoint it. When I grew up in the 50s there was still post war rationing. Kids were getting polio. Pregnant unmarried girls were considered the scum of the earth, and hustled into homes. Racist language was the norm. Homosexual acts were criminal offences. There was the Korean War, the Suez Crisis, the Kenya Emergency, the Malayan Emergency, the Cuba Missile Crisis. The Cold War threat of nuclear missile strikes hung over us for decades – fear still lingering until 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. All local authorities had their nuclear bunkers in place. Some are still extant.

So the golden age must have been earlier then – ‘40s, ‘30s, ‘20s? Surely not. Ah silly me. It was obviously the ‘80s when Thatcher and Reagan let all the bankers off the leash to start wreaking unmitigated financial mayhem across the globe…

Anyway, you get the picture.

It is doubtless a common human affliction to wish to turn back the clock whenever things go badly wrong. It also a well held fallacy that there is some perfect place from which humanity has been excluded – a sort of expulsion-from-Eden syndrome – and that maybe we can get back there?

Lowenthal points up our maladjusted relationship with the past  when he says:

…we also preserve, I suggest, because we are no longer intimate enough with that legacy to rework it creatively. We admire its relics, but they do not inspire our own acts and works.

He suggests too that “the past conjured up is…largely an artefact of the present”, “shaped by today’s predilections, its strangeness domesticated by our preservation of its vestiges.”

The past has become commoditized as escapism, a state endlessly replicated in the kind of costume dramas that lure us into thinking that people back then thought just as we do. It is an on-going process of re-invention that becomes ever more ‘real’ and so I think predisposes many us towards a hankering for a past that contains none of the things that so upset us now. It was so much better then.

Wanting to turn back the clock to a time-that-never-was suggests feelings of helplessness and hopelessness; of depression, hardship and broken spirit. Hanging on to such a notion is obviously not going to help solve any of the problems that face us.  In the short term it leaves us vulnerable to those who would sell fake pasts for our future salvation (and politicians have always manipulated history to confound us – some on a megalomaniac scale). In the longer term, when the lie is exposed, it will bring only further incapacitating disillusionment. It might bring worse too.

And how did we get into this position – we, the rich nations of the northern hemisphere? How did all our great assets reduce us to such impoverished and desperate ways of thinking? Why do we not know enough about ourselves and our nations to see off the self-serving opportunists who feed us fantasies and divisive hate-stories?

These are questions that surely have very many answers, and for now I’m leaving them with you too.

Interestingly, David Lowenthal decided to do a re-write of his book. It came out last year.The Past Is A Foreign Country – Revisited. It earned him the 2016 British Academy Medal, and here’s a nice review by Robert Tombs. The reason he apparently chose to do a new book was because the past he had addressed in 1985 had, over three decades, been so transformed as to be an entirely new realm. Well, who’d have thought it!

I have this mad, optimistic hope that one day we might get some slight grip on reality – before it gets a grip on us. And now it’s clearly time I took a walk. Back up the old railway line then. It is far more peaceful there.

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

Postscript:

This post was written as a result of recent ‘conversations’ with poet Robyn at Jambo Robyn and scientist Swarn Gill at Cloak Unfurled. Many thanks both for the thought-provoking exchanges.

Derbyshire’s Arbor Low ~ They Call It The Stonehenge Of The North

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Unlike Stonehenge a visit to Arbor Low does not include accompanying hosts of fellow enthusiasts, tacky gifts and bad coffee, nor the parting with large sums of money to go in (adult ticket £16.50). In consequence there are absolutely no facilities, no opening or closing times, and thus no need to pre-book to avoid the rush.

There is, however, an honesty box by the farm gate, and a requested fee of £1 per person. This is fine by me. The monument, though scheduled, is on private land. The farmer has to put up with the repeated nuisance of standing stones devotees, although on the September afternoon of our visit, takings suggested that scarcely a couple of dozen others had preceded us that day, and as we set off from the car there were only three people ahead of us on the track.

The only problem with Arbor Low is that once you’ve trekked through the farmyard and across the field to visit Derbyshire’s most important Neolithic henge (one’s head inevitably full of Stonehenge images, and lots of anticipation) it all looks decidedly flat when you get there, and so quite lacking in the upstanding drama of its more famous southern analogue. And while Arbor Low surely has considerable edge when it comes to setting (a thousand feet up on a limestone crest of the White Peak)  one wonders why the comparison has been implied at all. Isn’t Arbor Low its own special place?

I suppose, then, that mentioning the two sites in the same breath is really more about emphasising their prehistoric importance than suggesting any correspondence in physical scale or appearance. Arbor Low is anyway a much smaller circle. But it does have its own unique features, apart from the recumbent stones that is. These include a very impressive encircling ditch and an outer rampart with the added extra of a later Bronze Age round barrow built across its southerly bank. You can see it on the right of the next photograph.

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So now that I’ve raised the vision of Stonehenge with its great sarsen lintels, I want you to forget it, and think about digging. The time is some four and half thousand years ago. I am the foreman, and I am handing you an antler pick, and maybe a cattle bone shoulder-blade to use as a shovel. We have marked out a circle some 70 metres across, and now you have to start digging 3 metres down into the limestone bedrock, while shovelling up your spoil to create the outer bank.

After many, many, many man-, woman-, and child-hours you can step back and regard the massive earthwork thus created. The freshly dug limestone of the rampart will doubtless have an unearthly white-grey glow. It will be visible from miles around, despite a more wooded landscape than today. At sunrise and sunset it will look spectacular against the skyline, the bank much taller and with a sharper profile that the present remains. In other words, it cannot be mistaken for anything other than a highly prestigious, and momentous man-made structure – the visual shock equivalent of coming upon a designer high-rise in the middle of a wilderness. Or maybe Starship Enterprise.

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After all the digging you are left with a central oval platform around 50 metres across. Perhaps the limestone slabs are already located there, set up on end, and bedded, after much hefting and shunting, in the rocky ground. They could have been worked during the making of the ditch, or sourced from somewhere nearby. In any event, they would have involved considerable effort given your limited toolkit of stone, wood and bone.

From outside the earthwork – and because of the height of the outer bank, you cannot see either the stone circle, or to observe anything that is going on within. Stepping through the entrance to view the newly built monument is thus perhaps a deliberately contrived catch-your-breath moment: the scene before you covert, unnerving, awe-inspiring, drama-filled. If some ceremony is in progress – a narrative declaimed or sung, the outer bank will amplify the sounds in mysterious ways – echoing, resonant, other-worldly; it may be a place of loud whispers.

There will perhaps be no grass cover, just an exposed limestone arena. Around the oval platform you will see some forty standing stones.

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In the centre there is also some kind of sanctuary, a rectangular configuration of more standing stones. The barrow on the southern bank is not yet there. It will be another thousand years before this spot is used as a burial site – perhaps by strangers, perhaps by the distant descendants of  you henge builders. These newcomers have also built another barrow, Gib Hill, just across the field from Arbor Low. Here they raised their own tomb atop the long barrow built by your forebears, a monument that possibly long preceded the stone circle. And so although you can no longer remember the rites and customs of these ancestors, you do know that, like the great mediaeval cathedrals of Europe with their roots in Roman and Saxon times, this place was considered ‘sacred space’ for a millennium and more…

*

And so back to reality and the flattened circle we see today. No one knows when the stones were laid low or why. There are other so-called recumbent stone circles in Britain. Sometimes some of the stones have also been buried. Superstitious dread could have much to do with it: an attempt to neutralise the stones’ power perhaps. There is also archaeological evidence in other contexts that suggests that the prehistoric occupants themselves have ritually ‘closed’ particular sites, perhaps prior to moving to a new centre of operations. There are other more practical reasons too: later farmers came along and simply re-used or moved the stones because they were ‘in the way’.

I also seem to remember from my student field-trip days to Avebury stone circle in Wiltshire that one of the stones had been buried in mediaeval times to cover up a murder. When the stone was being restored to its upright position, beneath it was found the grisly remains of a surgeon-barber, identifiable by the tools of his trade that were still with him. More fanciful interpretations of this find could of course suggest the presumed continuing practice in pagan sacrificial offerings, i.e. the kind of activity that we modern folk so very much like to associate with all ancient stones.

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I suppose one of the most surprising things I discovered about Arbor Low is that there has been no archaeological exploration of this site since early Victorian times when the local antiquarian Thomas Bateman of Lomerdale Hall, and serial excavator of prehistoric barrows, tackled the place. It was he who discovered a human burial in the stone circle barrow and, during his Gib Hill excavation, uncovered a stone cist (a slab built tomb) in which the cremated human remains were placed along with an urn and offerings of meat and flint tools. And this, it seems, is all that is known.

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So many mysteries then, and no likely answers. Instead I’ll leave you with the words of Thomas Bateman and his description of Arbor Low from his Vestiges of the Antiquities of Derbyshire 1848:

…the solitude of the place and the boundless view of uncultivated country are such as to carry the observer back through a multitude of centuries, and make him believe that he sees the same view and the same state of things as existed in the days of the architects of this once holy fane.

 

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

Maintaining A Web Presence Despite The Big Windows 10 Update Ambush

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The blogging schedule, and life as I knew it went haywire last week after Microsoft (welcome to the totalitarian state of cyberworld) inflicted on us the apparently much vaunted (though I actually didn’t know a thing about it until it happened) anniversary update of Windows 10, so sending thousands of worldwide users into a state of serial rebooting frenzy.

While it is true that my newish laptop made it through unscathed, my older PC, on which I do all my writing and blogging, was completely banjaxed web-wise. And not only could I no longer access the internet or my email for more than five minutes together, and then finally not at all, the update transformed my printer into a fax machine. Now that is clever. I do not own, nor have ever owned a fax machine. Needless to say, my virtual fax gadget would not print off Marilyn Armstrong’s corn bread recipe that I had downloaded from her blog. Rats and double rats.

I should have known that things were not going well for the PC when it took hours and hours and hours to complete the update. The temper was thus well frayed before I discovered what Microsoft had done to my settings. I mean, how dare they? HOW DARE THEY!

I was well into a second day of cursing and fretting and attempting all sorts of unnecessary and time-consuming procedures (defragmenting, dis-installing Google Chrome, rebooting, removing all weighty files from the PC to an external hard drive, re-setting the router, disconnecting from internet provider) when I finally went to the laptop and googled ‘Windows 10 update problems’. And low and behold, there revealed was the worldwide extent of the Microsoft mess-up.

In an article in Forbes Magazine  lovely, lovely Gordon Kelly addressed the problem of those inflicted with rebooting-itis, and in so doing revealed that it was possible to go into computer SETTINGS  and find the option to revert to pre-update settings.

Select and press enter.

Well, for goodness sake!

It sounded too simple for words. But, by Lucifer, it worked. Astonishing. One click, and my little corner of the internet universe was restored. The printer stopped masquerading as a fax machine and printed the corn bread recipe. The only problem is, will this work the next time Microsoft inflicts an unwanted all-system update on us? What settings might my machine revert to next time? Should I not risk it? Should I try to go back to Windows 7, which was perfectly adequate for my purposes? Is it even possible to do that now I’m infested with Windows 10, or will everything be screwed up?

Mr. Kelly says Microsoft really needs to unhook security updates from general operations, AND more importantly, give people an option. I should think so too. Mr. Kelly also informs us that Microsoft mean to instigate charges for the use of their wretched system with its overblown advertising and unnecessary apps and gizmos which take ages to clear out of one’s machine.

He says that to start with the $7 per month fee will only be charged to commercial users, but one can see where this is heading. Frankly, I would like a bit of compensation for two days of wasted time and utter fraughtness. Apart from which, what if I had been running a small business that was dependent on internet function; what if the laptop had been afflicted too, and I hadn’t found a solution that avoided calling in a computer expert and cost me money?

Mostly though I would like to be assured that Microsoft is NEVER, EVER going to do this again. No organisation should have this kind of power – to have total control of my machine on my desk  in my own home, and without a by or leave. I mean, what have we let in here? A cyber version of Pandora’s Box?

And now I’ve wound myself up again, I’ll go back to where I started with a soothing image of an untainted kind of a web, as seen yesterday in the corner of the kitchen door. This version even comes with its own rainbow and strangely displaced hydrangea reflections from across the garden. Looking at it now, the Luddite lifestyle option suddenly seems appealing – out with the hi-tech machines, back to the solitary writer’s garret and a quill pen? Hm. Maybe not. But perhaps I’ll log off and go and make Marilyn’s corn bread. Far more wholesome.

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copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

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

Disconnected Sunday: Plane…Sheep…Cloud…And Then…?

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I was attracted by the sheep doing an ovine impression of Landseer’s Monarch of the Glen –  as spotted last week during our short break in the Derbyshire Peak District. Its posing place of choice is Hordron Edge, below Moscar Moor and Stanage Edge. We were walking up here on what he-who-is-usually-the-team-leader suspected would turn out to be a Tish-type wild goose chase. In short we, or rather I was in pursuit of a Bronze Age Stone Circle, otherwise known as the Seven Stones despite the fact that there are apparently eleven stones in the circle, and three more besides nearby.

I should admit straight off that I’m not renowned for my accurate map-reading, and so once we’d passed the sheep, walked for ages in surprisingly hot sunshine for late September, and then found ourselves on a path which kept wending onwards and upwards with absolutely no sign of a megalithic monument anywhere on the sky-line where I was expecting it, even I began to think I’d misread the map, and that we were definitely on a wild goose chase. Worse still, we’d left the lunch picnic in the car, so there wasn’t even the possibility of making the best of a bad job. And it was just the day for a moorland picnic too, not a state of affairs you can rely on in England’s uplands whatever the time of year.

‘We’ll just go to the next bend’ – I said – ‘so we can see over the brow of the hill’. But as always happens in such situations, we never came to the bend’s end. In fact the path began to rise very steeply. Then we noticed that exposed here and there beneath the turf were signs of a stone-paved trackway. Very puzzling in this middle of nowhere, but at least it suggested that we were headed somewhere. (I surmised later that it must be the relic of an old packhorse road up to Stanage Edge whither the locals once went quarrying to make millstones and grind stones).

And so as we pushed on, drawn on by the stone road, and quite unexpectedly Moscar Moor and Stanage lay before us. It is an awe-inspiring landscape, and so it is scarcely surprising that this whole area is rich in prehistoric cairns, circles, and settlement remains.

Also, by now I could see that my map-reading had been spot on, although the stone circle really took some finding in the heather.

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So I hope you weren’t expecting Stonehenge. Because here it is – the Seven Stones Circle of Hordron Edge, probably dating from around four thousand years ago.

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The tallest stone is the one seen here in the foreground, and is about 1 metre high. It stands on the south west edge of the 16 metre circle, and has been dubbed the Fairy Stone. You can see it on the far right in the middle ground of the next photo. P1050638

Its particular significance is taken to be its relationship to the two conical hill tops, Win Hill on the left and Lose Hill on the right, the top of the stone possibly mirroring the landscape features. Peak District archaeologist John Barnatt has apparently observed that at the traditional start of winter and spring, the times of age-old festivals, the setting sun appears to roll down Win Hill.

Perhaps the placement of stone had something to do with the gathering of sun-power? Or the marking of the seasons in relation to the farming calendar? We can never know. All we can be sure of is that these monuments were important to the people who created them – gathering places for discourse, rituals, trade, or all of these. More recent local folklore has its say too – hence the naming of the Fairy Stone, and tales of strange lights being seen around about it.

And what do these monuments say to me? Well the main thing is that we should never underestimate the capacities of our ancient antecedents. Also that we should never equate current technological whizz-kidery with intellectual superiority. These people  of the past  knew how to make a life in this challenging territory – a life charged with meaning and a deep sense of their place in the landscape. I feel too, we have lost much of our ancestors’ capacity for poetry and metaphor – the exchange between fellow humans that relied almost exclusively on language – the songs sung, the tales unfolded, the riddles set, the nuances of double and treble meanings.

But before I get too carried away with highfalutin notions, we decide that lunch is now too far away for comfort. We retrace our steps down the old stone trackway. It perhaps does date from much more recent medieval times. I’ve been unable to find out anything about it, although there is medieval packhorse road along the top of Stanage Edge.

As I descend the steep hill on a sunny Indian Summer day I wonder what it must have been like to urge pack horses up this route in a blizzard, the wind slicing under your cape, threatening to snatch your bonnet, the biting cold, the darkness. Just imagine…

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copyright  2016 Tish Farrell

Hordron Edge Circle
Bronze Age Stone Circle
East of Ashopton, Derbyshire  OS Map Ref SK21528685
OS Maps – Landranger 110 (Sheffield & Huddersfield), Explorer OL1 (The Peak District – Dark Peak Area)

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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