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Posts Tagged ‘past lives’

By the Goit, White Coppice

Six days after the most appalling storm, I’m here at White Coppice, in sparkling sunshine. There’s not a breath of wind, and the ground is hard with frost. Most of the trees are bare now, with only the oaks still clutching, defiant, to the tatters of their leaves.

In my previous piece, I put up an extract from my first novel, the Singing Loch. That story dealt with the way powerful forces shape small lives, and sometimes erases them. And it asked: what does that mean for the small lives? And what does it mean to us who, in the course of our own small lives, examine their traces? What can we learn, about ourselves, and the world?

Here at White Coppice, we look out across the always-summer green of the cricket field, with its attendant little whitewashed cottages. Winter begins where the moor rises, atop the line of the Brinscall fault. Sometimes moody, sometimes benign, the moor has a look of wild desolation. But it was not always so. Much of it is criss-crossed with drystone walling, marking the early enclosures. And there are piles of worked stone, overgrown, now, with moor grass, and clumps of soft rushes. These are the remains of farms, each a late formed tumulus, and a marker of past lives. Then there were any number of quarries, and small mines scratching out rare minerals. They’re all gone now, swept away by time, and, in the case of the hill-farms, by the need of burgeoning cities, and their industries, for water. In the small lives of the lost farms, here, there are untold stories of love, endurance and tragedy. We are left only to imagine them, and imagine them we must, or the only story remaining to us is one of catching water into the reservoirs, and delivering it to Liverpool. And where is the awe and the reverence in that?

It’s quiet at White Coppice this morning. We park without difficulty at the cricket field. Things are getting back to normal, after the scramble for green spaces during the peak of the lock-downs. I’m not planning a long walk. I’m looking for trees. There are some fine ones here, some I know, some specimens I’ve read about, and which I’m searching for. This is my own Covid legacy, this late found friendship with trees.

We begin by following the line of the Goit. This is a shallow canal, between the reservoirs around Tockholes, and the larger Anglezarke and Rivington system. Just here it is natural in appearance, and pleasing, but becomes more industrial and dull, further upstream. We turn off, at the edge of the woods around Brinscall, and enter the still crisp, frosted meadows of the Goit valley.

Ash tree, Goit valley

There’s an ash tree here, looking beautiful with the sun caught up in its boughs. We try a few shots, then seek out a likely spot for lunch. There’s a mound of stones nearby, with some flat bits we can sit upon. So we sit, and dig out the soup pot.

The old maps tell us this was a farm, called Goose Green. There are tiny mushrooms sprouting from the mosses. I imagine their myclelial network feeding from the dissolving timbers, deep below us. Mycology is beginning to interest me. We’re taught to be terrified of mushrooms, except the ones you can buy from Tescos. And, fair enough, some mushrooms will kill you, but most won’t. That’s not so say I recommend foraging, unless you know what you’re doing.

The more secret mushrooms, the magical, psychoactive ones, aren’t difficult to spot. They’re especially profuse in England’s climate, so it’s puzzling they do not form a greater part of our story than they do. These particular mushrooms are not of the magical variety. But if they were, to pick one, and put it in my pocket, would put in me in possession of a class A controlled substance. Interesting. I make do with Chicken soup.

This is one of the many Lost Farms of the Brinscall Moors, as documented in David Clayton’s fascinating book of the same name. It looks centuries old, this ruin, but, within the memory of my grandfather, it was still standing, and these now bracken and reed choked pastures, fallen to bog, were being worked.

You couldn’t reach this place with a modern vehicle, but there are the walled remains of old track-ways, designed for horse and cart. Some of them are walkable, others have reverted to nature. Our way traces one such track, up the steep slope of the fault-line. From the looks of it, the mountain bikers have made a big dipper of it. It looks an exciting way to descend. We’ll see where it leads us.

There’s a sunken track, deep with ancient use, but now filled with tussocks and reeds, and heather. There are a couple of gate posts, indicating the way down to another of the farms. This would be Fir farm, I guess. The census records tell us it was home to a young couple, the Warburtons, in the 1880’s. Not bad going for paper records. I wonder what will be left of our digital fingerprints a century from now? Will there be any trace of us? Will there even be a machine to read them? I couldn’t read what’s on the 3 1/2″ floppies in my attic, and they’re not twenty years old.

One of the gate posts leans in at a precarious angle, and looks weathered enough to be thousands of years old, rather than a few hundred. The way down to the farm looks impassable. But what a beautiful place to have lived! It colours the moor differently, to know the name of the people for whom this place was home.

We stick to the high ground, following the narrow ways, that could either be the trod of man, or of sheep. As we close with the line of the ridge, the walk takes on an airy, exposed feel. It’s mostly imagined, but it lifts the mood. There look to be ancient ways up onto Brinscall moor, and worth exploring another time. Another pair of gateposts provide foreground interest for a grand old tree, stunted by the weather. After I take the shot, the sky darkens, as a blanket of finely textured cloud rolls in, and the perceived temperature plummets. Time to press on, then, to wend our way back to White Coppice. I’d forgotten that unforgiving bite of winter.

On Brinscall moor

It’s an intriguing area, one I’ve often passed through, on the way to somewhere else, but as with all these places, it’s worth the slowing down, and taking a closer look for stories in the composition of stones and reeds and weathered trees. Worth it too are the old maps, and the census records that retain the names of lost places.

So, to answer the question, what does all this mean to the passing of small lives? Well, from a rational, clinical, left-brained point of view, it means nothing. But we don’t have to look at things that way. We can layer the world instead, with a vision that is essentially romantic. It’s not difficult. You’ve only to sit a while to feel it. And then, no matter the changes that sweep our small lives away, there’s always a discernible trace that’ll make a difference to someone, as it has made a difference to me, this morning.

Now, as I write, in this, during the dark of the new moon, it’s blowing a gale again. The rain rattles hard against the glass, and there’s a devil in it. It’s laughing at us, perhaps for what ecologists have widely hailed as the depressing, but the entirely predictable failure of the COP 26 summit. I have not seen the sun for days, which reminds me it’s all the more important to enjoy it whenever we can.

Oak tree, Goit valley

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