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Posts Tagged ‘lancashire’

great wave croppedI lost an evening writing because my laptop, which runs on Windows 10, decided to update itself. I’ve tried various ways of stopping it from doing this, but it’s smarter than me and it will have its updates when it wants them, whether I like it or not, even at the cost of periodically throttling my machine and rendering it useless. Then I have to spend another evening undoing the update.

I don’t suppose it matters – not in the great scheme of things, anyway. I mean it’s not like I’m up against any publisher’s deadlines or anything. I feel it more as an intrusion by an alien intelligence, adding another non-productive task to the list of other non-productive tasks of which my life largely consists these days.

No, in the great scheme of things it doesn’t matter if I write, or what I write, or how I write, because there’s this aphorism that says something to the effect that in spite of how we feel, virtually all the time, things can never be more perfect than they are right now, that attaining this glorious state of being is simply matter of removing the scales from our eyes, of seeing and feeling the world differently. From that perspective, blogging’s just a big box I dump my spleen into now and then and my novels, what I once thought of as my reason for being – struggles for plausibility, for meaning, authentically channelling the muse, desperately seeking the right ending and all that – I mean,… really, who cares? It’s just some stuff I made up.

As you can tell, I’m feeling very Zen at the moment. Either that or depressed. The difference between Zen and depression? Depression is to be oppressed by emptiness. Zen is to embrace it. It’s to do with the same existential conundrum, I think, just opposite ends of the scale.

The writing life is one of negotiating distraction. You hold the intention to write at the back of your mind while being diverted by all these other activities – making a meal, washing it up, You-tube, Instagram, mowing the grass, cleaning your shoes, scraping the squished remains of that chocolate bar from your car seat,…

Such tasks are not unavoidable. You could simply ignore them, flagellate yourself, force yourself to sit down and write, but sometimes if you’re too disciplined, you find the words won’t come anyway because the muse is slighted, or out to lunch or something. So you fiddle about, you meander your way around your distractions, all the while building pressure to get something out, to sit down when you find a bit of space and peace, usually late in the day when you’ve already promised yourself an early night, and you’re too tired to do anything about it anyway. And then you find Windows 10 is in the process of updating itself.

Damn!

So what is it with this technology anyway? Does a writer really need it to such an extent? I mean, computers seem to be assuming a sense of self importance way beyond their utility. I suppose I could go back to longhand, like when I was a schoolboy, pre-computer days, or for £20 I could go back to Bygone Times and pick up that old Silver Reed clatter bucket and eat trees with it again – do they still sell Tippex? Neither of these options appeal though, being far too retrograde. No, sadly, a writer needs a computer now, especially a writer like me who relies upon it as a portal to the online market – “market” being perhaps not the best choice of the word, implying as it does a place to sell goods when I don’t actually sell anything. What do you call a market where you give your stuff away? Answers on an e-postcard please. But really, it doesn’t matter, because remember: nothing could ever be more perfect than it is right now.

Except,… everything is weird. Have you noticed? America’s gone mad, and we Brits, finally wetting our pants with xenophobia, have sawn off the branch we’ve been sitting on for forty years, gone crashing down into the unknown. And if this is the best we can come up with after all our theorising and thinking, and our damned Windows 10 with its constant updates, it’s time we wiped the slate clean and started afresh with our ABC’s, and a better heart and a clearer head.

I don’t know,… if I actually I knew anything about Zen, it would be a good time to retreat into monkish seclusion, compose impenetrable Haiku, scratch the lines on pebbles with a rusty nail and toss them into the sea. We’ve had ten thousand years of the wisdom of sages and the world’s getting dumber by the day. How does that happen?

Not to be discouraged, I bought a copy of Windows XP for a fiver off Ebay. It’s as obsolete as you can get these days while remaining useful. Indeed, it’s still probably controlling all the world’s nuclear power stations – except for those still relying on DOS – so I should manage okay with it. I have it on an old laptop, permanently isolated from the Internet, so the bad guys can’t hack it, and it can’t update itself. It responds like greased lightning. Okay, I know I still need Windows 10 to actually publish stuff, but at least I have a machine I can rely on for the basics of just writing now.

But did I ever tell you I don’t like writing about writing? Well, here I am doing it again aren’t I? But have you noticed, if you search WordPress for “writers”, or “writing”, that’s what tends to pop up, all of us writers writing about writing, when what I really want to read is their actual stuff, what they think about – you know, things, what the world looks like from their part of, well, the world, and through their eyes and their idiosyncrasies, and all that, which is what I thought writers were supposed to do. Or maybe that’s it these days and, like Windows 10 we’ve been updated beyond the point to which we make sense any more, become instead a massive circular reference in the spreadsheet of life, destined soon to disappear up our own posteriors.

Okay, we’ve tripped the thousand word warning now, when five hundred is considered a long piece these days – just enough to sound quirky and cool, while saying nothing at all.

Brevity, Michael! No one likes a smart-arse,… especially a long winded one.

Graeme out.

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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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pendletrig

Pendle Hill Summit

Lancashire, driving roughly north and east along the A59, in the vicinity of Whalley. It’s a fast road, whisking you towards Clitheroe, then beyond to Gisburn and the Dales. Just here though, to the right, there comes into view a big hill, dun coloured, or sometimes more darkly dappled according to season and cloud. Or sometimes, in the wet, the clouds will take it, and you won’t even know it’s there. But on the clear days, like today, depending on how the light falls, the hill will sing a siren song, and if you’re susceptible it will infect you with a strange longing, calling you to a closer intimacy. This is Pendle.

I was heading for the Dales, but the shifting light on Pendle’s warm western flank seduced me, brought me off the A59 at Chatburn. Then it was the perfect little road, through Downham, and on to Barley. Imagination and myth lends this area an atmosphere of mystery; this is the heart of Lancashire, one in which abides dark tales of ancient witchcraft.

There are also accounts of holy visions. George Fox, founding father of the Quaker movement, had one. Others have told of doors that open onto other places, and of unspeakable ghostly encounters befalling travellers alone on the hill by night. And there’s a mess of lies too, like those that fetched up ten souls in 1612, had them hanged at Lancaster for murder, supposedly by witchcraft. As late as 2009, a petition was presented to parliament to have the condemned posthumously pardoned – the Witchcraft Act itself having been repealed in 1957. But the petition was refused, and the convictions stand. In Pendle it’s still official: death by witchcraft. And so the myths perpetuate.

But there are lighter stories too, a sense of humour in the tales of Sabden’s treacle mines, and the Boggarts who eat the treacle, and then there are the Parkin Weavers,… and maybe the Black Pudding Twisters too, or maybe I’m mixing up my stories now with a greater Lancastrian lore.

barely

Barley

It’s a big hill at 557 meters, and somewhat bleaker in appearance here on the steeper eastern face, at the bottom of which the little grit-stone village of Barley nestles in a broad green vale. Barley welcomes. It’s just a pound to park your car all day, and a welcoming tea-room close to hand. Most visitors come for the hill – either to look at it, or to climb it.

There are many ways up Pendle. I’ve done them from all points of the compass, in all weathers and seasons. The most direct and least interesting is the shortest, by the eastern face, from Barley, just a couple of kilometers up the stone-set tracks that slant diagonally across the face to left and right. But a more interesting, and less direct way leads you away from the hill for a while,  by the reservoirs of Ogden Clough.

I last did this route with a friend, some twenty years ago, when I recall the hill being alive with little frogs, black and shiny, a vast hoard of miniature obsidian reptilia, all crossing the moor, leaping over the toes of our boots, sweeping purposefully east, as if answering the call of a biblical plague. But the route that day, being shared with another happy soul, did not seem so lonely then as it did now. Today there were no little frogs, only the sound of the wind, and the feel of the curious eyes of the Faery on my back.

Don’t believe in the Faery? Well why would you? It’s a ridiculous notion. They are simply my own daemons, and not an unkindly breed – it depends which windows of imagination you go poking your head through.

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Ogden Clough

There are two reservoirs in Ogden Clough, the lower and the higher, both narrow slits of water, reflecting alternately the lead grey, the shock white, and the deep blue of a changeable September sky. Beyond the higher reservoir, the track bends to reveal the far reaches of the Clough, and no more desolate a place will you find anywhere in England. For a moment here the silence took my breath. It was what the hill had wanted to say, I think, or rather to show, to remind me of this silence, this emptiness, this palpable stillness. Of course the feeling, like the feel of the Faery, was as much to do with an inner frame of mind as by the mere lay and remoteness of the land, but it was a connection I had been lacking of late, and I was glad for a fresh glimpse of it. Hills are always different when you walk them alone; they have so much more to show you.

A stone bearing the chiseled image of a falcon marks the parting of the track, and the route to Pendle. It goes up the Pendle Way, along the narrow nick of Boar Clough, then a couple of kilometers, moderately steep, across an open, windy, heather-hissing moor, to the summit trig-point, and the company of other pilgrims. Until now I had not seen another soul since leaving Barley.

The obvious reward for your efforts is the view of course, opening suddenly from the ridge to the north and east – lush farmland, little hamlets and the shining eyes of ponds and reservoirs. The character of a hill is first felt in the look of it from below, then in the pleasure of its routes, and in the change of perspective it offers the climber on his lowland life. For a moment, from the top of a fine hill like this, we cannot help but transcend the ordinary. In all of these respects, Pendle pleases, but also it reminds us that for all of our modernity, the land can still be a daemon haunted place, one still bound up in myth-making, a place where the imaginary can still be felt as a physical presence.

Not all hills can do this.

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waughEdwin (Ned) Waugh was born in Rochdale, Lancashire, in 1817, the son of a shoemaker. He worked first as an errand boy, then became indentured to the Rochdale bookseller and printer, Thomas Holden. He was self educated, picking up whatever learning he could from the books his father kept at home. As a young man he became a journeyman printer, his travels taking him all over the country. A rags to riches story? Not quite. By the age of thirty, he was back in Rochdale, his health shot to bits by addiction to alcohol and snuff. He was also broke, and his marriage was on the rocks.

After a promising start, his life was in ruins. Many in this position would not have made forty, but Ned began to write, and through his writing discovered not only solace and healing, but succeeded also in turning his life around. He kept a personal diary, also dabbled in prose and poetry, submitting pieces to the Manchester press. He met with only modest success at first, but in1856, he published a poem written in the Lancashire dialect, called: “Come whoam to thi childer an’ me”:

Aw’ve just mended th’fire wi a cob;
Owd Swaddle has brought thi new shoon;
There’s some nice bacon-collops o’th hob,
An’ a quart o’ ale posset i’th oon;
Aw’ve brought thi top-cwot, doesto know,
For th’ rain’s comin’ deawn very dree;
An th’hastone’s as white as new snow;-
Come whoam to thi Childer and me.

And so it goes on – a loving housewife’s lament, trying to entice her husband away from the pub and the company of friends, back to hearth and home where she and the children are missing him. And his eventual, equally loving reply:

“God bless tho’, my lass; aw’ll go whoam,
An’ aw’ll kiss thee and th’childer o’ round;
Thae knows, that wherever aw roam,
Aw’m fain to get back to th’owd ground;
Aw can do wi a crack oe’r a glass;
Aw can do wi a bit of a spree;
But aw’ve no gradely comfort, my lass,
Except wi yon childer and thee.

The poem was an instant success, and Waugh was suddenly making a tidy living as a man of letters.

Dialect does not always travel well beyond those regions in which it was written. The only dialect poet of any wide renown is the Scot, Robert Burns, who, like Waugh, wrote verse in the language as it was actually spoken in his day. Dialect is more than just a funny way of speaking – it possesses a quality that conveys the spirit, the individuality, and the character of a people, far more than is possible with standard English. To be English is one thing, to be from Lancashire is quite another.

I was introduced to Waugh by chance some thirty years ago, when rambling along the Rossendale Way, east of Edenfield – an area known as Scout Moor. This is a wild and windy spot, its shaggy, treeless hills scarred by old quarries and mine-workings. Atop the moor, close by the levelled ruins of Foe Edge Farm, there’s an impressive memorial. This is Waugh’s Well, dedicated in 1866. It’s an evocative spot, a place he’d come to write his verses, then test them for their lyrical quality by reciting them to the accompaniment of his fiddle.

When I first visited these moors I was impressed by their exhilarating outlook and their grand isolation, but things are rather different on Scout Moor today, the last decade having seen the area transformed by the erection of some twenty six giant wind generators. These awesome beasts now dominate where once there was only the wide open sky, and instead of the imagined strains of Ned’s violin we have the steady mechanical chop-chop chopping of blades wrestling energy from the wind.

Whatever the arguments for or against such things, they are symbolic of a changing world and a reminder nothing is immune to progress. Even the words we use, and the way we say them are subject to change. As populations become more mobile, our regional accents become diluted, and our dialects, our unique regional variation on the language itself, is lost, left only to a handful of revivalist entertainers in their quaintly parodic costumes of clogs, waistcoats and flat caps.

When I was a kid, the older generation spoke the dialect fluently, spoke it in the pubs, the workplace, in the streets and at the football grounds, but I don’t hear it spoken at all now. I’m losing what bit of it I had too. When I first read Come Whoam, I struggled with it.

The thing with dialect is it’s an oral tradition and doesn’t always translate well to text. Dialect poetry in particular harks back to an era when folk would turn out on a wet weekday night to attend public readings of poetry. Reading Waugh now stirs the ancestral memory, it loosens the frigid grip of standard English, it restores a sense of regional connection, but sadly mine is the last generation for whom spoken dialect will have any relevance at all as a living thing.

For me Waugh’s story is first of all a reminder of the healing power of creative expression. But it also reminds us the working man is not the ignorant, page three gazing buffoon popular culture would have us believe. Given an equal chance – or even sometimes denied it – anyone is capable of finding a means of expression that touches others, be it through writing prose or poetry, painting or music. It will not always bring riches, but it always adds immeasurably to the richness of life itself.

I leave the last word to Waugh:

“If a man was a pair of steam-looms, how carefully would he be oiled, and tended, and mended, and made to do all that a pair of looms could do.  What a loom, full of miraculous faculties, is he compared to these—the master-piece of nature for creative power and for wonderful variety of excellent capabilities!  Yet, with what a profuse neglect he is cast away, like the cheapest rubbish on the earth!”

Ned Waugh died at New Brighton on the Whirral in 1890, aged 73.

For the full version of “Come Whoam”, and a handy translation of those tricky words: click here.

For more on Waugh’s writing: click here.

Reet then. That’s me done.
Aw’ll be seein’ thi.

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PS_20150130152500Heavy rain this morning, driven in great curtains by a roaring wind that had even the stoutest of trees swaying. The Motorway was shiny-slick with an ominous standing wet, visibility down to as far as the end of old Grumpy’s bonnet, so we crawled along at a cautious fifty, buffeted by unpredictable gusts while the fast lane streaked by pretty much as usual, sending up smoke.

It was turning to snow as we approached the borders of Greater Manchester, translucent splats landing like suicidal moths upon the screen, to be brushed away at once by Grumpy’s fussy, squealy wipers. The wash I’m using is all smeary, though it advertises itself as Super-clear, and Streak free! But like much in life our words these days boil down to little more than shallow promises. We have to look deeper for the truth of things.

Visibility clears but slowly, and by then the wipers are crossing again, dragging out more smeary mess. They mark time, mark the blurry rhythm of my life: forty miles a day, two hours drive-time, and a day job shift between. 38 years, this year. Winters are the hardest. There is nothing else to do but buckle down and weather them.

The car was a warm cocoon against the elements, against a season that is characteristically bitter, laughing at our scurrying haste, at our fragility. There was an accident here, some weeks ago, four cars caught up in what I guess began as a nose-to tail-ender. It finished with one car crushed beyond recognition, the others bent and spun off at dizzy angles. I was two hours late that night, a night lit up with the combined electric blue halo of a fleet of excited cop cruisers. The whole filthy, roaring ribbon of road was hushed, three lanes bottled down to one, the rush-hour tailback ten miles long. Meanwhile, the coppers brushed furiously at crystal shards, as I waited my turn at the clearing-gate. Others stood guard over the fluorescent coned perimeter, brusquely waving on the rubber-neckers.

I was two hours late home last night too. I don’t know what the problem was; it’s often like this now – just the way things are. I waited out the gridlock on a shopping mall carpark rather than inching bit by bit along the road. Depressing places, shopping malls on a cold winter’s night, but they do at least have food of a fashion, and toilets for the marooned. While I was there, I wandered into a swanky bed-shop, thinking to kill time by browsing pillows. I’ve had a stiff neck lately, and I’m thinking my old saggy pillow might be the problem. The lady sat in this cavernous emporium, presiding over rows of inviting divans – she was middle aged and smartly uniformed in the livery of her employer’s brand. Her smile dimmed only a little when I told her a pillow was all I wanted.

So she showed me her pillows, and I liked the way her hands patted them down and fluffed them up. She invited me to try them out on one of her beds, to lay my head upon them and feel their quality. There was something sweet in this, my fatigue lending the encounter something of a surreal quality – just she and I in this vast palace of beds. I said I would be embarrassed, which was strange, and she laughed, said I mustn’t feel that way. But I also felt unwashed and unshaved, too dirty from my day for any of her nice clean beds, and this of course was a thing not for explaining. She was, I think, in the briefest moment of our exchange, proxy for a curious kind of muse, and my sense of unworthiness was itself a telling thing.

I was persuaded there is much to be said for a quality pillow. It is, after all, where we lay our heads at the end of the day, their comfort a balmy isle, oner would hope, from which we set sail each night, on course for the more distant land of dreams. She did not tell me this, of course, but I was thinking it. And as I handed over my card I noticed her nails were shapely and painted different colours, and I fell momentarily in love, as an adept with his priestess. But I’m an old hand at spotting the faerie and I know such creatures are not for loving, living as they do inside our heads, and only pretending to be at large in the world. I crawled home at going up for eight; indigestion from my McBurger-tea, and a coffee hardly worth the name, but I slept well on my fresh duck-downy pillow, dreamed of windmills blown flat, and crumbling towers spilling grain into the wind like vast murmurations of tiny birds.

So,…

Where are we now? Coming up to my junction.

A motorbike roars past me, doing seventy. I’ve ridden a bike in the long ago, and I know the rain stings at forty, that it mists your visor so you can barely see. A twitch, a sneeze, the slightest unexpected thing, and down you go. I know; I’ve gone – hit the deck and rolled – the bike one way and me the other; walked away, then ached for years.

If he would only back off a little, tuck in behind me and old Grumpy for a while, he’d surely be safe. At least I hope so. Pray God, don’t let me die on the commute! Let it be on a warm summer’s day with a vaulted sky, on a hushed mountain top, or laying down among the bee-buzzed heather, with the larks rising; not here on this filthy stretch of miserable road, grovelling for a crust. I’m reminded though the Reaper rarely works to a time-table that permits us such dignified exits, that he has a penchant for hammering in the full stops. Before the sentence is properly ended. It’s wise to be cautious, not to tempt fate in the teeth of a howling gale, but he’ll get you however he likes in the end, so maybe we should just say to hell with it? And crash on recklessly.

Not a good choice of word when driving on the Motorway: Crash.

Mornings are a fraction lighter now, dawn advancing to the drive-times, so I arrive at least in daylight. The nights are still a hopeless case though, darkness overtaking before I’ve even joined the tail end of the red lighted queue that’ll ever so sluggishly lead me home. It’s at home my flighty little rag-top dozes under a dust-sheet in the mouse-scented garage. She only emerges these days, sleepy eyed, when the rare dry spells, and that pale winter sun, coincide with a weekend. Then she gambols in the brief openings such short days afford, while Grumpy sleeps, his week’s commuting done. She’s waiting for the spring, dreaming of a summer like the last one. And so am I. A part of me rests with her now, warmed by the memory of other times, while the remainder of me sits in this rain-washed traffic yet again, buffeted by the wind, a dull chatter coming from the radio, a voice bleating on about all the snows yet to come.

mazda in garageI think of the feel of that quality pillow, and I think of the woman who picked it out, sitting alone among her beds, late into the night, each night, and I wonder if she remembers me. I fancy the pillow has a comfort now charged with meaning by those hands that so nicely plumped and patted as if to bless, and will surely guide me safe to much warmer, and more fertile climes than these.

Sweet dreams.

 

 

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rivington lakes (1877) - frederick william hulme

The Rivington Lakes – Frederick William Hulme 1872

It’s that season again when the wheel of the year turns to the bottom, or the top, depending on your point of view. November t’ May-brew. In northern climes it’s when our many of our elderly depart for the next life, and we who remain are left nursing the memories of their lives, and of their going. It might be for that reason my steps were drawn to the Yarrow reservoir on Friday – memories of walks with those who are no longer with us. Or it might have been the wind – cold with a kind of hungry despair, and something wet and snowy in it persuading me to stay away from the hill.

It’s about 3 miles round, starting in Rivington village and a favourite walk for when I’m out of sorts, and I can’t tempt myself any further or any higher. I’ve even done this walk at dead of night, with a torch, when I was feeling hemmed in by winter and incessant wet.

Begun in 1867 by the Liverpool Borough Engineer Thomas Duncan, and completed in 1877 by Joseph Jackson, with a bit of help from a nameless and forgotten army of largely Irish labour, the Yarrow is one of a series of reservoirs supplying Liverpool. They were considered a marvel in their day – a combination of Victorian Engineering prowess, and sylvan beauty. The painting by Frederick Hulme (1872) depicts the nearby Anglezarke and the upper and lower Rivington Reservoirs, and though somewhat romanticised, it’s not a bad representation of what you’ll see today if you make the climb up by Lester Mill quarries. The Yarrow reservoir (still under construction at this time) is tucked away, a little higher up on the left of the picture. Nowadays the plantations are much more mature and the reservoirs have bedded into nature nicely. Only in the dry season, when the levels run low do they become ugly.

round rivingtonI prefer a circular walk. There’s something philosophical about it – travelling out, never covering the same ground, yet by a trick of navigation we wind up right back where we started. I’ve a feeling life is like that too. For weather I had hailstones and greenish skies setting out, clearing to brief intervals of a gloomy grey.

There’s a holly tree I know en route, all berry bright, by which I paused, thinking to clip a seasonal sprig. The legality of this is debatable, with townies being surprisingly more pedantic about it than us country folk. I know if everyone clipped the holly there’d be none left to admire by Christmas, but in a couple of weeks that bush will be stripped bare anyway, the holly stuffed into wreaths for sale on the market at £20 a go. Well where else do you think it comes from? So what harm in snipping a sprig for my hall table?

There’s a lot of pagan lore about the holly, and like much pagan lore, dates to about 1954, most of it rather a beautiful, romantic nonsense. It’s a pretty thing at this time of year – the sharp, shiny leaves and the red berry, pitched against the unremitting bleakness of the season. It is about the only thing to brighten our days as the light dims and darkness comes creeping back by mid afternoon. The berries are a terrible purgative – though I do not speak from experience! The wood is beautiful – greenish when stripped, but dries white like bleached bones.

hollyA shaman will leave behind an offering when taking something from nature – a pinch of salt perhaps, or a palm of grain for the wild creatures. But I’m not a shaman, and had brought nothing with me other than my contemplative mood. Should I take the holly? I would be careful with the tree – use a good, sharp knife, take only a few, symbolic sprigs for my hall table. There would be no bark-stripped like a stepmother-jag for infection to seep in – though I surmise the wild holly is a hardy thing and would not take offence.

Just here the land is farmed. A public way crosses the meadow, but the holly bush is tucked down in a little hollow, away from the path. It is, I suppose, for the land holder to strip the holly bush and sell as he pleases, just as his sheep grow fat on the meadow’s sour grass. Even to admire it as I do and take its photograph, involves a short trespass. To actually clip a sprig would be to deprive the holder of his due coinage, and therefore constitute a robbery. He might be an understanding soul and turn a blind eye, or he might not and instead call down a rain of pedantry on my head. But the cops would be a while in coming; it’s remote up here and windy-wild. They might have sent a chopper I suppose, but at around a £1000 an hour I wager they would not think a sprig of holly worth the scramble. I’d be sure to make it home Scott free with my prize.

I imagine the ancient ones decorating their huts with holly as the days slide down to the solstice. Similarly I imagine they decorated their huts with heather in late summer. Perhaps they uprooted the slippery white bluebell bulbs from the woodland to plant around their huts too. Nature would have been more to us in those days. It would have been our only calendar, accurate to plus or minus a week or so and good enough for the times. Nowadays nature is nothing – the wide spaces fenced off and, in monetary terms, useful only as a resource for sheep to graze upon. Meanwhile we wander blind, not even knowing if the moon runs to dark or bright.

Well do you?

The reservoir was mostly empty – a grim tide-line of stones, sucked down in ugly mud, a shallow puddle of brown at the bottom. Terrifyingly deep, these reservoirs, when you see them drained like this, and deathly cold. The embankments are grassed and neatly mown. I spied a courting couple sitting out upon the Turner embankment, as if for a summer picnic. This was a bolder trespass than mine, though I would be the last to tell them.

My mother would pick holly each November to decorate her little house. She did it as a girl in wartime, and it was a tradition she carried on until her later years, when arthritis finally rendered walking even to the kitchen sink a terrible ordeal. Yet she would insist on brewing tea for my visits, brushing aside all offers of assistance.

Sharp. Prickly if not handled with respect. Hardy. Bright eyed.

Like the holly.

Yet I recall she was not so disabled that “Authority” saw fit to grant her the ease and dignity of a blue badge, then she might have parked closer to the doors of the supermarket. If the kitchen sink was a struggle, what was two hundred yards of busy carpark? Twice she was rejected, and even further rebuffed with advice that any appeals would be futile. I remember it well – also her stoic acceptance, and saying she would manage somehow. I can only think those who carry their blue badges, yet seem able to walk into the supermarket perfectly well, were more articulate in their application than she. Still, these are hard times for authority – budget cuts and all that. She was a proud woman, my mother – that she even applied for the damned thing was a measure of her need. She died as she lived: quietly, independently and invisible to the world, except to those she loved. It’s a good way to be.

A strange season of life, this: both parents gone on ahead of me now.  By chance I had my pocketknife with me. Grand things Swiss Army knives.

rivington village green

Rivington Village Green

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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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