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Posts Tagged ‘chorley’

barn

Rivington Barn

Friday, and a late lunch at Rivington Barn. It’s crowded, bikers slurping mugs of tea outside, and a clamour of woolly hatted conversation within, the place clogged with skewed  buggies and children whining as if it were a half term holiday, but it isn’t.

I order my egg and bacon butty and I sit, number poised clearly on the table’s edge. It is a long, raised, communal table, empty when I sit down but soon to be dominated by a nuclear family: corpulent dad, mute, invisible mum, and a pair of hyper-active pre-pubescent nitwits who enjoy banging about in their seats so the vibrations travel the length of the table and into the bones of any unwitting neighbour, such as myself. Notwithstanding this endless, tedious violation of my repose, there is also the threat of a sticky soaking from the pop bottles said nitwits take delight in shaking up into a fizz and from which they then squeeze off an ominous, hyperventilating hiss.

Oh, I know, long week and all that, and all I want is a bit of peace, sitting on the end of this table, first come, and already my body space is invaded by Corpulent Dad’s ever spreading bulk. Some people seem to take up much more space than others. It is a kind of biological imperialism. He pretends to take no notice of me, but he’s a nosy bugger and I can feel his eyes over my shoulder as I scroll the news on the delightfully ergonomic Washington Post app. Yes, I’m with Sheldrake on this one – the sense of being stared at is a reliable instinct.

I know, the Washington Post, it’s not your usual media for informing the rural north of England, but America appears to have gone mad and I’m trying to understand what archetypes are afoot here, if they bode ill for my retirement nest egg or not and if we’ll have Russian tanks across the Rhine again like we did in the bad old days, which curiously enough seem more and more like the good old days, days when there was at least a kind of certainty to world affairs, grim though they were. And my egg and bacon butty is taking an age, and my cup of tea is already half gone, and these kids are banging the table, cutting clean though my pre-weekend ease, and my desire to just settle in for a bit and think.

The Post, though earnest and informative is of no help to me, this lone Englishman, and only confirms his suspicion that even America cannot quite believe it. Jung would have had an insightful take on things, but voices like his are few. While the kids continue to fizz the life out of their bottles, I try Chompsky, a familiar guru in these troubled times, but there is little comfort there either. Corpulent Dad is talking, winding his kids up into ever greater heights of irritating behaviour. Mute mum says nothing. Neither make an effort to check their offsprings’ rudeness. I recall I made no effort with my kids either, but I could at least take them anywhere without worrying they’d annoy other people. But then again Corpulent Dad isn’t worried they’re annoying other people. We are the same then, he and I. We simply differ in our approach to life.

What?

My egg and bacon butty arrives and I wolf it down to the point of indigestion. This is sacrilege. These are the finest egg and bacon buttys in creation, not to be rushed. But I am rushing, a voice in my head screaming for air now. So I head out to the car, relieved to be shot of my obnoxious interlopers. Such is the lot of the misanthrope, I’m afraid. Nothing is resolved. For all the seriousness of my intent to understand, all I have now is indigestion and the first stabbing throb of a headache.

The weather had been clear, encouraging of a certain optimism, but during my brief stay in the Barn, it has clouded, the air turned grey and cold. I am not encouraged to don my boots and climb the hill, so I drive to Chorley instead, to the Autofit place. I have two nails in my tyre. It’s been holding pressure, but clearly needs attention if I am to avert future calamity. I am expecting it to be irreparable.

The guy does his plucky best, but pronounces it goosed. There’s a tone of apology I read as genuine. My shed of a commuter-mule wears Michelin Premiums. They come at a premium price: one hundred and nineteen pounds each. These are supercar prices for a car that has proved itself to be anything but a super car. I really must get rid of this thing before it bankrupts me. It is becoming my own personal financial crisis.

“Is that fitting and everything, I ask?”

“Sure,” says the guy, “we’ll even put air in it for you.”

There is the ripple of a smile about his lips as he speaks, as if trying to winkle out the humour in me. The place is grey and February cold, overhung with a century of grime, his overalls seriously besmirched with his labours, but there is also something Puckish about him, defiantly irreverent. He mends cars.  He smiles a lot, and jokes. I drive a PC. And don’t joke much these days.

But, wait. There it is. My smile comes up like something fondly remembered. At times like these we need a sense of humour. It’s just a question of having the courage, or the sheer bloody mindedness to let it in. The lid is off. The trickster is risen from the collective and is laying waste to the convention of entire continents, destroying the perceived corruption of the world with a less subtle corruption of its own, and we’d better get used to it because I’ve a feeling it’s going to be a wild ride.

I’ll see you on the other side.

 

 

 

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greenbelt

My walk home from school was more pleasant than my walk to it. The meadows were darker on the way there, more restless and brooding, but brighter, greener, fresher on the way back. Thus the land reflects emotion, amplifies it, responds to imagination. To know the land for long enough is to have it become a part of who we are, mirror to our mood. To know buildings is not the same. It is only in the land the spirit of place can dwell, and when the land is gone, covered over with the built environment, the spirit dies.

There was a little brook by the roadside where we used to stop on the way home from school. I remember it as a dappled oasis, a stream full of little stars and reward aplenty for the indignities suffered during the school day. I remember too the faces of my pals, hear the echo of their voices, feel the mood of joyous play.

The brook has gone now. It was a nuisance to grown-ups, and is diverted through a culvert, buried beneath the entrance to a housing estate, as indeed every meadow along that mile long route to school is similarly built upon, the spirit of place expunged by “development”.

In similar vein my childhood bedroom looked out over the green of the Yarrow Valley, a place of quiet contemplation and leafy walks, to which I am still regularly drawn. To lose oneself in the quiet of a moving meditation is to envision the land with a magic others cannot see or feel. The romanticism of past ages touched me there, rendered me sensitive to dimensions beyond sight and ordinary knowing, and it’s to that place I owe my writing. But like my little stream of stars, there are rumours it too will soon be gone. Others say the rumours are false, but I’m unsettled by them all the same, grown cynical and lacking trust in my old age. Housing has encroached so much in past decades, it seems a natural progression for them to take what little remains here. 

I remember coming up from the river once, crossing a particularly lovely stretch of meadow. I was brooding on a girl I knew – or rather a girl I wanted very much to know. It was a glowering dusk, and against the skyline there was a huge, wind-blasted tree, sculpted by centuries of leaning against the prevailing wind, and there was the gentle curve of a hill, very feminine in outline, and a hint of thunder in a hot wind that rendered the leaves restless – all of this a perfect mirror for my mood. The meadow too was dewy, my footsteps forming a lone trail, lightly drawn as if upon a silvery veil, reflecting the fragility of the moment. It was such a long time ago, but whenever I return I am reminded of that night, the way my imagination connected, and how the land spoke.

Today that same perfect curve of skyline is broken by the jackknifed outline of houses, and there are these possibly pernicious rumours that speak of ripping up the meadow, as the houses move yet further south into this still glorious belt of green. I have watched the inexorable march year on year with a mixture of profound regret and puzzlement. Can it really be that, like my childhood stream of stars, it will be gone? And why do so few of us value it so much, when others value it so little they can blithely trade it on the market and dig it up.

Developers talk of greenbelt as if its preservation is an encumbrance, a distraction from the target to build and monetise an otherwise unproductive resource. But uninterrupted green is important too, its value intangible of course, at least in terms of pounds and pence, and if all we have left is a quarter mile belt around our towns, sufficient only as a place we take our dogs to defecate, we have already lost too much.

Of course there can be no permanence in the material world. All things must change; we all grow old and die, and sometimes the storms will come and fell the mighty oak, known and loved by generations. Likewise our footsteps, traced across the dewy meadow, will be gone by morning, lost to a new dawn. But let them be dissolved by sunlight, taken back into the eternal memory that is the spirit of the land, not obliterated by the ignominy of several thousand tons of brick and concrete.

 

 

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surface-hands-ellerbeck-abt-1913

Surface Hands, Ellerbeck Colliery, Coppull, 1913

The valley of the River Yarrow has suffered much under the march of modernity. Greenbelt erosion from the north has extended Chorley’s suburbs over meadows I’d once thought sacrosanct. Even the historic and achingly romantic Burgh Hall was flattened to make way for a housing estate. It was there, legend has it, Livingstone spent his last night in England before embarking for Africa, or was it Stanley who went after him? I forget now, but this alone is surely interesting enough a fact to give pause, while in another, entirely irrelevant. I presume the developers took the latter view before sending in the wrecking ball.

All I know is I miss the hall when I walk along Burgh Lane at twilight – often a lone lamp in the window flickering out a morse code of myth across the misty green, now extinguished by the alien orange brick of modern housing. I suppose those massed ranks will weather in eventually and take on a more authentic ownership of the land, but for now the betrayal of my memories by their harsh present day reality is too much to bear. I am left wondering if perhaps I dreamed the past as a prettier place, and it troubles me, the thought the world might always have been this ugly.

Meanwhile to the south, across the Yarrow, at Coppull, there are rumours of plans  for several hundred new homes, this on the 108 hectare site of the present Yew Tree Farm dairy – indeed an entire village addendum, including a school and health centre, overlaid like toy-town across a particularly picturesque run of pristine, sylvan glade. I find the planner’s pastel shaded impressions disturbing in their simplicity, conveying much in terms of bold change, yet nothing of the quiet treasure of green that is to be consumed in the process.

The location also surprises me, sitting as it does atop extensive disused Victorian mine-workings, and in particular the deep shaft of the Coppull Colliery. Unlike the stories of Burgh Hall, disused workings are not so easily dismissed as myth, since a void in the earth has a somewhat uncompromising quality about it. I would certainly be afraid to live there, no matter what assurances I was given. As children there were two risks we ran when exploring that side of the Yarrow – one being the boot of the farmer, the other falling through into old workings. And insurers have always taken a dim view of properties prone to subsidence.

The shafts and tunnels of the Coppull Colliery link up with workings of the similarly vanished colliery at Coppull Hall, just a little to the south of Yew Tree Farm. Coppull Hall Colliery is quite another story, being the site of an appalling disaster in 1852. Here the ground shook and the shaft spat out a column of soot and slack, result of an explosion of firedamp. 36 men and boys were lost, many burned, others suffocated by chokedamp. 90 were pulled out injured.

It was not an unusual occurrence in Victorian coalfields, nor was it anywhere near the largest of our losses to King Coal, at least in Lancashire, that particular grim accolade going to the Pretoria Pit near Westhoughton for its 1910 explosion that claimed 344 lives. But the Coppull Hall disaster was sufficient to have rendered the echo loud, at least in local memory, and especially for later generations of pit-men and their descendants. The combined shafts of the Coppull Collieries are now but dimples in the meadows that hug the river. Unfenced, void of warning, they are ominous only to those with local knowledge. The mine-buildings are gone, demolished, buried under the council refuse tipping that went on here until the 70’s, and now all nicely grassed over.

There is a quietness to this stretch of the Yarrow, and a sweet melancholy in the sound of the river. It’s hard to imagine such horror taking place underground when the environs above are so lovely. The shaft of the Coppull Hall Colliery is over six hundred feet deep, and miles of tunnel fanning out dendritically among the seams, joining with other tunnels from more ancient mines dotted all along the vale. And wandering their traces I imagine the ghosts of lost men and little boys.

One such man was John Turner. He and a friend were escaping towards the shaft that morning, when Turner went back into the mine. Men often worked underground in their smalls because of the heat, and Turner had gone back to where he’d left his clothes, perhaps his dignity demanding he did so irrespective of the risk. He was later found, head pillowed on his neatly folded garments, his clogs beside him, removed as if for bed, sleeping the eternal sleep.

I am struck too by the boys, as young as seven, the so called “pit-lads”, who died that day, and I’m reminded that in a culture of unbridled avarice, the poor man, no matter how brave of heart, is lower even than cattle to the man who owns him.

In the churchyard at Coppull Parish, there is a memorial to the mine manager’s son, John Ellis, a young man of 24, killed in the blast. It’s an unfussy flagstone slab, barely legible now, but with patience one can make out mention of the disaster, as if staring back through the mist of time. It is the only memorial to what took place. Ironic, how I once sang “All Things Bright and Beautiful” in that church, innocent as all the lambs who died. Older eyes tell me now there is but a thin gloss to the world, that while it’s stories aspire to godliness and beauty, we do well to remember it is mostly a vile scramble for loot in a world built upon the broken backs of working men, and their children.

There are no deep mines in Lancashire any more, indeed none in England. Even in modern times they were terrible places to work, and I might be glad they’ve gone except we have only exported the danger and the tragedy to the poor of other countries. Wherever in the world men still dig coal, their stories are the same as those of the Lancashire coalfield and of the Yarrow Valley. In this we find grim fellowship as, in a smaller way, there is fellowship among those who have seen their once precious green sacrificed to the god of progress and little orange houses.

If the development of Yew Tree Farm goes ahead, if my fond memories of place are to be once more betrayed by the harsher reality, I hope at least the story of Coppull Hall Colliery will be remembered, that they will teach it in the new school, that the residents of those new homes will pause in the mowing of their lawns, and the washing of their cars, that they will spare a thought for the likes of John Turner, dreaming the dream of eternal sleep, deep beneath their feet, just one of many thousands of forgotten souls, brave men and boys, all lost in the earth.

References:

Lancashire Mining Disasters 1835-1910 – Jack Nadin

The Chorley Standard, May 22nd 1852.

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original BeavisThe River Yarrow is one of Lancashire’s tributary rivers. It rises at the high moorland pass of Hoorden Stoops in the Western Pennines and meanders down to the Douglas near its confluence with the Ribble, and from there to the Irish Sea. About half way along its course, just south of the little market town of Chorley, the Yarrow flows through a densely wooded vale that makes up part of the former Duxbury estate.

Both British and American historians have long been fascinated with this place, its “big house”, Duxbury Hall, being home to the Standish family, and possibly the birthplace of Myles Standish, one of America’s most celebrated founding fathers. Myles’ English ancestry has been much debated, but the problem is that while it seems very likely he was indeed born somewhere in this area, the documentary evidence that would clinch it has been mysteriously lost. Some say this was the result of nineteenth century skullduggery, when various usurpers were presenting themselves as rightful heirs to the estate. Others say the records, basically seventeenth century Parish Registers, have simply perished as a result of nothing more sinister than natural decay.

I’m telling you this in order to put Duxbury on the map for you, but the pedigree of Myles Standish is not the only mystery here, and certainly not the one I want to talk about. The one I want to talk about concerns a dog.

I grew up in and around these woods, and a grand place for boyhood adventure they are too. But if you brave the mud of Duxbury park today, you’ll find little to suggest this was once the private domain of one of England’s oldest aristocratic families. Time has certainly taken its toll; the big house, Duxbury Hall, was pulled down as an uninhabitable wreck in 1956; the landscaped grounds to the east are now a golf course, and of the wooded park’s former manicured glory, there remains only an anomalous stand of soaring pines amid the native birch, a few alien rhododendron bushes scattered among the wild balsam, and a curious old plinth, marking the grave of a dog called Beavis. The memorial reads:

“All ye who wander through these peaceful glades,
Listening to the Yarrow’s rippling waves,
Pause and bestow a tributary tear.
The bones of faithful Beavis slumber here.”

1842

This remembrance erected by Susan Mrs Standish, 1870

The story of faithful Beavis goes like this: one night, the big house caught fire and Beavis raised an unholy din, rousing the incumbents from their slumber, thus saving them from an inferno. The house was partly destroyed and had to be substantially rebuilt. In gratitude, Beavis was rewarded with this fine riverside memorial.

A touching little story indeed. But there’s something wrong with it.

Unfortunately, the original statue of the hound did not survive. Beavis lost his head, then the rest of him disappeared. By the time I came along in the ’60’s only the inscribed plaque remained, though a more recent statue of the dog has now replaced the one that was carried off by vandals. You’ll often see flowers by the memorial, a tradition that suggests throughout the trials and tribulations of history, and even the eventual demise of the Standish family itself, the memory of Beavis has been kept very much alive. It surprises me then that no one else has commented on the anomaly.

It’s the dates you see?

The memorial appears to be telling us poor Beavis barked his last in 1842. If that’s so, then Beavis couldn’t have been around on the night of the fire, which records tell us broke out the night of March 2nd 1859. He’d been dead for sixteen years. The legend is wrong, yet it persists. We must be missing something. But what?

Is it the date of the fire? Could it have been earlier? 1839, perhaps? But several sources confirm the night of the fire was March 2nd 1859. One of these sources is the journalist George Birtil (now deceased), a much respected local historian. It was George, writing in his column for the Chorley Guardian, who also reminds of the tale of Beavis’ barking, rousing the house on that dread night, but George does not query the fact that Beavis, according to the memorial at least, was already a long time dead!

Was there another fire, earlier? And why wait so long to commemorate the hound’s bravery? 27 years seems curiously neglectful if indeed, as myth suggests, the Standishes were so grateful for their skins. Did the stone-mason make a mistake and chisel 1842, when what he meant was 1862? Surely Mrs Standish would not have permitted such an error to go uncorrected!

Questions. Questions. Questions.

And the answer? Well, I really don’t know. It has me stumped.

All I know is when I’m here, this long dead dog haunts me. His is a myth still weaving its mischievous way through time. And in the shapeshifting way of all myths, it’s a curious twist that Beavis achieves more by way of immortality than any of the illustrious Standishes who once hung their hats here. Walking through Duxbury at twilight, listening to the Yarrow’s rippling waves, it’s hard not to imagine the barking of a lithe hound as it flits playfully through the shadows, always just out of view.

I know what the mystery of faithful Beavis suggests to me. It’s a little corny perhaps, but a serviceable yarn in the making, though one I hesitate to pen for fear of tainting the purer myth of this magical place with a more recent invention of my own. But is this not how myths survive, by endless embellishment down the centuries?

How would you explain the dates? Where would you take the story from here?

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