filbert cobb is a regular commenter on this blog and has been since its early days (since February 2012). I suspect filbert cobb may not be his real name. He wrote a brilliant guest blog here two years ago (The Sunken Garden) and I have been looking forward to his next one – and here it is.
When I was a boy we lived in North West Kent which became Greater London but my Dad’s family lived at a place called Oop North in Lancashire which became Greater Manchester. They didn’t realise what an important place it was or it would become sitting as it did at the edge of the West Pennine Moors – to them Oop North it was just Horwich, a small industrial town that they called Home where they industriously built and repaired locomotives in great big long red brick sheds just off the road from Bolton to Chorley before it passes the Anglezark and Rivington Reservoirs under the looming mass of Winter Hill and its sinister sentinel Rivington Pike scarred with old workings where miners mined minor mines.
My forbears included locomotive foundry workers, a wages clerk, a Sanitary Inspector, coalmen, labourers, a gardener, an oilskin cutter, a Mrs Mop, housewives. All of whom lived and toiled in damp grimy smutty smoggy areas of Lancashire and London and whose lives were focused on paying the rent and keeping warm, fed and clothed. Despite living in the days of those days when Everyone was Connected With Nature no-one had thought to tell them that and for the most part they did their best to avoid it unless you count the grass and mud of the pitches at Wigan or Millwall or the mud and poppies and gas and scattered body parts of Flanders or the cold black filthy scummy oily waters of the Surrey Canal or the Wakes Week outings to beaches at Blackpool or Beanos on a charabanc to Southend or the still-warm Lancashire black puddings made from fresh pig blood in Mr Markland’s shop or live eels from a stall on East Street Market in Walworth that swam in the big white kitchen sink before they were boiled to jelly or winkles from the Winkle Man who wore a white coat and a straw boater and rode a tricycle and rang a little bell to make everyone salivate for his salty wares in their brown paper bags so that Grandma and Great Grandma could sit in the steamy kitchen at the table covered in gingham oilcloth extracting them from their black shells with long hatpins whose primary purpose was clearly not to keep their hats on. Oop North, Auntie Joey had a Canary.
Oop North Grandad had worked for the London Midland and Scottish railway as a wages clerk and so as not to forfeit any unused travel allowance Grandma was dispatched Down South every couple of years to collect me and take me back Oop North again for a “holiday” whether I wanted one or not and when we got there Grandad would greet us at the wash-house door in his shirtsleeves and Trilby with a peevish “You’re three hours late”. When I had been filled with parkin and stewed tea he liked to frighten me with dark yarns of Death and Murder on t’ Moor – Scotsman’s Stump, The Two Lads, ghostly horsemen, aeroplane crashes in t’ fog and t’ like. Apart from the Good Friday Fair on t’ Pike people didn’t seem to go up there (although they surely did) but to me it was a sinister place and I tried to avoid looking up to the skyline in case I could see t’ Pike glowering back at me but now and then I would take a peek and sure enough, it was. The house in Horwich was a place of smells and things now half-remembered – a blue haze of Tam O’Shanter smoke, a Tommy lighter, a spiky pipe-scraper, Ronsonol, All Bran, boiled fish, potato peelings in a colander, a kitchen range, Grandad’s big chair with the green seat stuffed with horse hair, dank wet flagstones in the wash-house, carbolic, the Washer, the Copper, red rubber hoses, a tin bath, the Wash-Stick, Grandad’s picture of St Ives that won a prize endlessly reprinted and rinsing in circles in the big white wash-house sink. Grandad did conjuring tricks and I never understood why he wasn’t rich because he could always produce a sixpence from behind your ear but he never appeared to have more than one. He played Wedding of the Painted Dolls and other Ragtime Era tunes on an upright piano in t’ middle room with little enthusiasm and less nuance than a pianola which clearly influenced my Dad who became proficient on a ukulele fitted with a head made from a pig’s bladder from Mr Markland’s that he played in the style of George Formby to entertain the troops in their gun pits in Tunisia and make the War seem longer than it really was. But I digress …
Grandma was a kindly gentle soul, “meek and quiet and sane, always smiling and soothing away all pain” my distant cousin Edmond wrote in his “Hennets”, who wore her hair in a bun and a pinny and Lisle stockings and sensible lace-up shoes and who read “Just So” stories to me at bedtime after a day of skivvying tirelessly for Grandad so that he always had a clean shirt and a starched collar to wear for his busy day of reading the Daily Herald and strolling to the Co-Op that he pronounced “Kworp” to buy dry sour Lancashire cheese and some more Tam O’Shanter. She liked to take me to Quiet Hour at her Chapel and for trips on buses that were maroon and cream and had the stairs in the wrong place and folding doors in the middle that were no good for jumping off of before you got there and for tuppence we could go via Bottom o’th’ Moor and Doffcocker to Hall i’th’ Wood to see the Spinning Mule that Mr Crompton had invented to make spinning cotton thread much easier and faster and upset a lot of people whose livelihoods depended on it being harder and slower.
Oop North, all the women except Grandma were called Auntie – which they called “Anty” – and all the younger ones were called Cousin, unless they were Second Cousins in which case they were also called Anty. For a small boy it was bewildering to be alone together with these familiar strangers who all knew more about me than I did and I’ll probably never know Who was Who because they are all now Lyin’ in the Graveyard, Dead. But there was just one relative who far from avoiding nature actually lived cheek by jowl with it. Grandma had an older sister called Harriet who was also called Anty Atty. They were very similar with similar silver hair in similar buns and similar pinnies and similar sensible shoes although Anty Atty often wore an old brown gabardine mac and wellies to cope with the wind and the rain and the boggy black peaty ground because she actually lived up on t’ Moor on the lower slopes of t’ Pike. Not by choice but because she stayed on in a cottage rented from Liverpool Corporation in the watershed of the Rivington Reservoirs after Great Grandad died following a life of sanitarily inspecting Horwich. She had married a New Zealander and was a nurse in the Great War and, so the Story goes, had nursed her injured husband in a field hospital Over There before he died anyway. Somehow she had acquired his service revolver and some ammunition which she kept in an oily brown cardboard box in the cupboard by the Inglenook. It was big and blue-black and so heavy I could hardly hold it in one hand but she said it worked and she would use it if necessary – “Because I’m just a little old lady all alone on t’ Moor, Luvvi”.
Grandad didn’t like his sister in law because of her “Airs and Graces” which included riding a Bicycle and having changed her religion to one he didn’t approve of. Grandma read Kipling to me but Anty Atty’s choice was Beatrix Potter and I wondered whether she was Beatrix Potter but wasn’t letting on. Her garden behind the cottage on the slope of t’ Moor was criss-crossed by tiny stone pathways that twisted and turned with steep stone steps that led up to nowhere and back again past a stone beehive shelter that had no beehive in it. There was a small stone barn that Anty Atty called The Shed where she kept her firewood but a Barn Owl flew out of it one day silently wafting our heads as we walked in so it must have been A Barn but I didn’t argue because after all she had the gun. Every other day she trudged out on t’ Moor in her mac and wellies carrying the spade to find a new place to dig a hole in the boggy black soil for the contents of the big white chipped enamelled bucket that provided the sanitation in the outside privy because even the Sanitary Inspector didn’t get mains sewerage up there on t’ Moor. She would return with her pale eyes watering from the cold wind behind her rimless glasses perched on her nose above cheeks ruddy with spidery veins and draw some more water from the pump in the kitchen and peel some more potatoes for the hot-pot. If I was lucky she would show me her collection of sad colourful butterflies pinned inside glass-topped boxes.
Around the Cottage there were plenty of real rabbits about but no Mr McGregor unless Anty Atty had told him not to call while I was there. One morning on the flagstones outside the back door I found a small pile of “something” that Anty Atty identified as rabbit’s innards. I’d seen innards before on Grandad Down South’s kitchen table when he was salvaging a soft egg from a Rhode Island Red but I didn’t know that rabbits had them as well. “It’ll be that Wild Cat that comes visiting”, Anty Atty explained. I looked up “Wild Cat” in one of her books and discovered that it must have wandered a long way from its home in Scotland to Higher Derbyshires Cottage in Lancashire that also sounded a long way from home. I was also a Small Boy Long Ways from Home and for the first and only time ever fell victim to what Anty Atty diagnosed with nursey “Stop crying if you want to be Home by Christmas” brusqueness as “Just Homesickness, Luvvi” and cured it with cocoa and The Tale of Pigling Bland.
Outside the Cottage garden railings was hillside that was between moor and meadow. Your feet sank into the black peaty soil even in the summer and every few yards glistening streams that you could step across trickled past on their way to Lower Rivington Reservoir. There were rabbit and sheep droppings and cowpats all over t’ place covered with big yellow hairy flies so you had to look where you were putting your feet because you only had the one pair of shoes and they had to do for School and this made progress across the hillside very slow because the coarse spiky moorgrasses and rushes and cotton grass scratched your legs until you learned to step between their hummocks. Wanting to conquer my fear of t’ Pike – “it’s only a Tower, Luvvi” – and t’ denizens of t’ Moor I set off resolutely up the hillside through the boggy ground and across the streams and over walls to where it was drier but was pestered by a cloud of large black flies with dangly legs that wouldn’t be swatted away so I ran from them until I came to a road then ran even faster along that but the flies were better at flying than I was at running and what was more they were stacked up in a tall black buzzy column that was following me with sinister intent because they were the Pike’s flies and I was an intruder on their Moor and no-one knew where I was and the flies were ruthless and had done for the Scotsman and the Two Lads who also recklessly strayed up there when they could have been eating hot-pot with the Ghostly Horseman safely at Anty Atty’s kitchen table so I turned around and fled sheepishly back down through the spiky grass ignoring the scratchiness and bogginess and cowpats until I reached the familiar safety of the little garden with its winding paths and steps and the friendly kitchen door beyond which was safety and kindly Anty Atty in her pinny making tea.
In the years between the two World Wars my Dad and his siblings and cousins and friends escaped from the backyards and cobbled ginnels of Horwich and went up t’ Cottage to pick Whimberries and play and fight battles between imaginary armies with blue fingers on the slopes and in the cloughs of t’ Moor where there was no gas, no shells, bullets, or machine guns and the Brave Soldiers had rifles made of sticks and were back to Anty Atty’s for bread and jam and tea leaving the bare stone shelters and ruined walls on t’ Moor to the sheep and rabbits and wind and rain. And then before they had time to become Men off they went to be in a real War and The Fort and Fox’s Den and Bob’s Brew fell silent and when they came back it wasn’t the same because they had grown up and killed people and had been strafed in their convoys and had seen starvation and suffering and death and the Opera in Naples and although there was still a fondness for their grimy home town and its neighbouring Moor they knew more of the World now and the bond was broken and they followed their lives to far away.
This same tale could be told differently a thousand times over by different folk with different names from different towns in different times but their stories in the round would reflect the spirit and character of the people and the nature of life lived at the edge of the Moors. Horwich evolved and stopped producing locomotives, cotton, bleach, tiles, bricks, lead and coal and remnant scars on the Moor remain as scant evidence of its industrial past. Anty Atty departed for her Daughter’s and died in Diss and a new house stands in place of The Cottage. My memories date from back then when cars had running-boards and front wings and proper headlamps but somehow an affinity still remains, just from those few brief visits. What is it – nostalgia? A form of grief for something lost? As far as I know you can’t measure the memory or the spirit of a Place even though it performs an ecosystem service for the Mind but whatever it is, however much a place is vicariously appropriated, surveyed, designated, measured, indexed, regulated, restored and reduced to someone’s imagining of what it might once have been there is no changing what it meant to the people who lived there in the past whose stories are what make a place a Place – because “everything is stories and Stories are everything and they are our way of understanding the World and our Place in it”.
So when I see the words “West Pennine Moors” – “SSSI” or “NNR” or “NCA”, “fragile”, “scarce” or “precious” don’t spring to mind, but – “Ah, Yes! I once knew a little of those places and a few of its people with all their Faults and Foibles and Stories and half of Me is made of Them”. And when I look in the bathroom mirror which is not often it is as often as not Grandad who is looking back, ready to find a sixpence behind my ear.