Set in a sunlit clearing between two World Wars, this personal narrative describes the author's earliest memories of life at home and on the farm, of family, relatives and friends, school and chapel, and the excitement of travelling fairs and Christmas 'dos'.
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A Pennine Childhood
By Ernest Dewhurst
The History PressCopyright © 2012 Ernest Dewhurst
All rights reserved.
Lamp Lighting at Tum Hill
I stood tip-toe upon a little hill ...
Dad farmed on a slope. If I'd lived at Tum Hill for a lifetime I might have developed a slant. The farmyard sloped, the middle field had its tilt and the top pasture bucked and dipped like an unbroken colt as if to indulge its elevated status. It resembled an assault course and may have been one, for it was once part of an Iron Age hill-fort. With its hint of the empty Brontë moors beyond, it could never expect the mowing machine. If mowing had been attempted horse, machine and man could have rolled down towards the house. The bottom meadow was odd. It was flat.
The slopes were no threat to a growing boy founded on milk and eggs. The darkness was. I had never known such darkness. It fell each evening as if some monster had blown out the sun and thrown over us a heavy tablecloth like the one under which we played tents but a million times bigger and with no escape flap. Inside it haunting shapes and figures loomed up like the ghosts on Dad's box camera negatives. The black one watched us through windows and leaned against the door, waiting for Dad to light his storm lamp, go outside and be gobbled up by it. He always came back. The bedside prayers saw to that. Even when stars pinned back the night sky shadowy arms clawed out at me. The glow of oil lamps and coal fire inside the farmhouse could not shut it out entirely, and upstairs, first to bed, I had to have a small lamp and the stairs door left open on the thin gauze of fireside conversation. My fears would linger long, and even in bolder years Dad would post a storm lamp at the top of the short brow to the farm, a lighthouse to wink me home from winter school or Sunday School events.
Winds would howl like wolves up the farmyard, snatching at doors, scattering dogs, cats and buckets and licking up the rainbows of oil leaked into puddles from the milk van. Sheltered in the first years of life in the valley below town I had never been aware of such gales and expected them to send barn roof, hens and dad bowling off into Yorkshire. But snow was a silent intruder. It came by night, quieter than a whisper, and besieged us inside soft barriers. Looking back, neither blizzards nor gales were too common and were relieved by the armistice of a benign spring giving impartial warmth to cowslip and cowpat. Darkness was different. It called every night, but then everything was black or white to a boy.
The farm was a dozen miles across the Pennines from where the Brontë sisters had imagined their way into world literature over a smoky peat fire. Their moor was in Yorkshire, ours in Lancashire. Somewhere among the becks and cloughs and waterfalls on the weathered fells a change of vowels marked the boundary almost as vividly as stone wall or stream. Our hill was not nearly so bleak or solitary as their wuthering heights but to a boy shorter than the lower half of a stable door the farm seemed prey to every tantrum of weather even on ours, the lowest rung of the climb. Charlotte, Emily or Anne were not mentioned much in our home. Dad was more absorbed with his lamp-lit keeping of milk and egg records and simply buckling to than the novels of three quaint sisters in a consumptive parsonage, though the subsequent death of one of our relatives from tuberculosis was an echo of their damp times.
Dad had been apprenticed to iron-turning and was a convert to farming. The farm scene had been more in Mother's blood as granddaughter of a farmer and the oldest of six children of a farm auctioneer and valuer who died at forty. Mother and Dad clicked to courtship on their way to different chapels and when I was born lived in Blacko, a hillside village little more than a shepherd's whistle from Yorkshire but enough to give my accent its red rose tinge. The cottage was on an old turnpike where tolls had been charged at a toll house opposite the George and Dragon Inn at Barrowford. At one time a horse passed through for 1d, a horse with chaise for 6d and twenty cows for 10d with a fee for dragons overlooked.
In the year that I emerged, 1926, the world lost Rudolph Valentino and gained Princess Elizabeth. My entry, ginger and whining with a hint of freckles and fidgeting to come, may not have been as conspicuous but I was not held responsible for the General Strike. We moved to Linedred, between river and Leeds and Liverpool canal. From there Dad jingled milk by horse-drawn float with ornate lamps into the Victorian new cotton town of Nelson which owed its name to the old Nelson Inn and, in turn, to the admiral himself. A jalopy with running boards and rooftop sales slogan followed but by the time of Tum Hill Dad had moved up to a small blue van with his name in gold letters on its door. 'What yer gooing up thear for? It'll be that cold i' winter.' We went and wrapped up. The flitting van, probably the ubiquitous Wesley Clegg's, climbed through town with our belongings in the early 1930s and squeezed along a lane and through the yard of Gib Hill Farm which had more land than us, a milking herd and Irishmen for making its hay. Ours was Little Gib Hill, the farm at the end of the lane, and marked out by that small prefix as junior neighbour. On medieval maps the name may have meant Tom Cat Hill. Whether the removal men saw any tomcats was never made clear but perhaps the grumbling of their gears on that last tight brow by a colour-washed old cottage put them to flight. If Dad had known all the chains and sacks and ashes needed on it in ice or snow he might have himself turned tail and fled with his flitting downhill again. I was glad he didn't.
Gib Hill was one word on old maps and may have referred to the bigger holding of our neighbours, Mr and Mrs Walter Bather and their two daughters; in the seventeenth century a Mr Ridiough kept six cows and fifteen hens on 9 acres there. Dad's land stretched further than a boy could see, even on tiptoe, though some may have dismissed his 14 acres as 'nobbut a pocket 'andkerchief of a place'. But there for a year or two he was to persevere with hens, a few stirks, a snuffling of pigs and the delivery of another farmer's milk into Nelson with over 30,000 people. The town smoked away between us and Pendle Hill, where a beacon had blazed out the defeat of the Armada and George Fox had a vision before founding the Quakers. We looked across the valley of Pendle Water, a river, to Pendle, which fell short of mountain status by 170ft. If capped, some said, we could expect rain. It seemed fond of its cap. The Tum Hill area was also known as Castercliffe. Our farm, the lesser Gib Hill, was a humble living but it had a soul.
We were a household of four, two parents, an unmarried aunt, Martha, biblical by name and practice, and the one ginger fidget. For one period there was extra help on the milk round and for specials like haytime aunts and uncles would bolster the labour force. The farmhouse had its back to a middle meadow and was tethered to a barn, shippon and stable in line abreast. The small house had a living room warmed by black oven and boiler range, kitchen with stone slopstone and water pump, cool store and bedrooms. Three stone flags from the front and only door gave on to an earth yard and a flagged path hugged the buildings to the bottom gate. The coal shed was handy but the lavatory anything but a convenience. Lavatory was a euphemism for a board with a hole over a short drop and a draughty door with scraps of the Nelson Leader on a nail. It was somewhere down the yard, and paying calls could be a gamble on a foggy foggy night – especially if the newspaper had run out – and it was some relief that chamber-pots were still in fashion.
As with any house removal, and more so to a farm, there was the novelty of settling in with fresh sights, sounds and smells. There was little garden but Mother, who wasted nothing, needed no more than eyes, fingers and scissors to exploit nature – young nettles for nettle beer in spring, wild flowers to deck the home in summer, holly over picture frames for Christmas. In autumn her purpled fingertips and scratched forearms forecast blackberry pie, and if on her searches she chanced on the eggs of a truant hen in grass so much the better. The farmhouse took on a homely smell of its own, our smell, mingling the outdoors, with woodsmoke and paraffin, with whatever was the domestic ritual of the day, Rinso and bubble and squeak on Mondays, baking on Thursdays, furniture polish on Fridays, a timetable rarely altered.
There were times when the nose could have used a peg, like when Mother's hand was inside the reverse end of a chicken, 'cleaning it' on the big square table with its heavy tablecloth (mainly for weekends and the eyes of visitors) temporarily removed. I would be engaged in Custer's Last Stand or some Great War attack on my side of the table but there would be no retreat for the general-in-command or later Meccano constructor from that stink of surgery, and the toy farmyard was more in keeping with such table sharing. Outdoor smells could outflank sound or sight and the nose had to be educated into new encounters, from hen pellets and creosote to the patron saint of pong, the Muck Midden, with its dining club no one would wish to hear about. The provender shed smelled almost appetising and grass had seasonal treats for the nose, first when newly cut and then when rafter high in the barn, giving off a fusty, cuddly warmth of which cats, dogs and less domesticated squatters took advantage.
One of Mother's customs was to make a soft cheese and suspend it in a little cloth bag from the slopstone tap, drifting out an acceptable aroma. Baths had to be taken in a tin bath off its peg on a wall and as I bathed, with little enthusiasm, in lamplight by a flickering fire the hot water freed a metallic smell. Sometimes the hearth would be shared with a sickly chick or two on hay in an old hat and, almost inevitably, the wet nose of dog.
I slept at the back of the house. My bed overlooked changes of season in the middle field. Footprints and pawprints in overnight snow did not require Sherlock Holmes to deduce that Dad had been with Towser to feed the pigs. Manure heaps spaced with erratic geometry promised sweet green growth in spring; summer offered swathes of cut grass and, in autumn, leaves would be blown like brown paper bags against the top wall. At times the sky flashed with lightning, then growled with thunder, a barracking that found the ginger head underneath the bedclothes, ears pillowed, praying that the front door had been left open to let the thunderbolt out. None of us had met a thunderbolt so we wouldn't have known what to look for anyway.CHAPTER 2
Don't be too hard on parents. You may find yourself in their place.
The farm was like a draught of spring water to a man who'd served an apprenticeship in the fumes of a town foundry with workmates in wide cloth caps and moustaches like Mexicans in the old westerns. Dad swapped the town fug for upland air but, unlike the foundry, the farm never closed. Between milk rounds he was at work somewhere on the land and a boy could always pester him to mend a bicycle puncture or give advice through a snowstorm of feathers, nails clenched in teeth, the steam bath from stable manure. He was a lean wiry Christian man with the assurance of belt and braces and a khaki smock with big pockets for the milk round. The Protestant faith had invested him with a quiet manner and voice, disciplined workstyle and oath-free language. I caught him out only once in our days at the farm when a barn door trapped his foot and tortured out of him a suppressed 'damn'.
Dad's belt may have been a threat and, with braces in reserve, was available but it never touched me. Religion stopped it, I'm sure, though there was no Commandment against a leathering. Conversely, the mild man took to calling me Matey which I accepted as pally enough compared with the copper-knob, carrot-top and 'has yer mother left yer out all neet' of the schoolyard. Matey also had a Norsey feel to it and Norse was in some local names.
The family album lived in an old dusty suitcase under a bed and its contents suggested that Dad had patronised an Imperial Studio in the town several times as boy and youth, posing first in broad white starched collar and knee breeches, then with narrow collar and trouser turn-ups and once with thirteen chapel-going male friends uniformly well groomed in suits with waistcoats, polished shoes and partings right, left and centre, all a credit to the faith. It was a group at which Kitchener's finger was pointing largely in vain as most were then too young for dispatch to the trenches though some, including Dad, saw service at home eventually. Those chic portraits of the farmer as youth did not chime in with my image of him later when responsibility and muck without bullets required him to get hands, face and clothes dirty.
He'd worked for a time at a wood yard where one of his duties was to fasten roller skates on to patrons of the firm's rink. With a friend he also dabbled in cycle repairs and was cycling home one night when he fell foul of the law. The constable accused him of riding without front light and pointed to the alleged offender, one of the old carbide lamps. 'It must have just gone out. It was lit when I set out.' Dad offered truth from that honest chapel face. 'I doubt it, son,' the law said, and gave the lamp the finger1–touch test of the time. He burnt his fingers.
Though a lifelong abstainer from alcohol Dad had taken to smoking, perhaps in the Army, and developed a habit of docking a cigarette half smoked and pocketing the tab end for further reference. Whether that was his way of saving money or smoking less I never knew but the build-up of nicotine in the butts could not have helped his health in later years. A teetotal lifetime would be borne out by the fact that the only time I would see him walk into a public house would be for water – a canful for an overboiled radiator.
His work in Walton's Foundry fitted him for minor repairs on the farm. His first name was Simpson, after his grandfather, and if called on to hump something heavy like a sack of provender to a hen hut he'd give a chuckle and quip 'Hey, my name's Simpson, not Samson.' Some might have called him an improviser but many farmers had to be. They would 'make do' with odds and ends that lived around the place like heirlooms. 'It might just come in handy, that.' Some came in handy for my Christmas stocking, a home-made farm or garage perhaps, finished in paint left over from some other job. The family album had the three of us pictured on some promenade with Matey bowling along in a home-made buggy with two wheels and a single handle. Sawn-off bits of wood or broken stones came in for fencing or wall dentistry and as he plugged gaps against the bleak hillside it was a scene frozen in time, the make-do-and-mend of centuries.
The arms of both my parents seemed to be in perpetual motion as if, like the huge mill engines in town, once stopped they would take some starting up again. Hard graft was handed down. When Mother's father died in the second year of the First World War his black-edged funeral card had the melancholy homily:
Wife and childen shed no tears
For hard I've laboured many years
I always strove to do my best
And now I've gone to take my rest
Sadly, he took his rest at forty, leaving a widow and six children. My mother, Mary Ann, the oldest at fifteen, had to help with the others and graduated in the Protestant work ethic which at Little Gib Hill she was practising further. Sometimes I would see her leave house or outbuilding with arms folded or in apron pockets as if on sabbatical. Much of the time they were plucking poultry, washing eggs, darning, sewing, raking ashes, mucking out, carrying buckets. Ironing had to be done with that inherited tip of spitting on the base of a hot flat iron to test its sizzle against the risk of singeing a petticoat. All the work was done thoroughly, as if for inspection. I, for one, could see no point in ironing handkerchiefs that would be opened up and blown on. By the time of Tum Hill I wiped my nose and tears myself and the trial of inviting me to spit on a hanky to dab facial smudges outside some non-smudge event had been abandoned. Her rite of hand-wetting my hair to smooth it down had a longer life.
Baking day was a weekly outing for nose, eyes and mouth, with rhubarb or apple pie, Quaker Oat biscuits, potato pie, scones and, after school, the honour of licking a spoon after use. Baked batter from flour, eggs and milk at times became Yorkshire pudding, an export to Lancashire which we copied without shame. Sad cake, a currant production, lived down its name by cheering us up. 'Can I look?' I'd say, with fingers everywhere. 'They look with their fingers i' Bacup,' Mother would reply with a pretend tap on the wrist. I never knew why Bacup was so fingered. If a morsel of food fell on to the farmhouse floor she would assure me 'it's lost nowt'. My worry was whether it had gained anything. Toast was a favourite, especially topped with beans or sardines, signalled by the smell of the toasting fork rite over a red wound in the fire. Bilberry pie was the last act in some moorland excursion with Mother and Dad on hands and knees hunting the purple like bloodhounds in full sniff. Autumn pie -making and jam tomorrow followed prickly assaults on blackberry bushes before the mildew arrived. The plumpest were always out of boy-reach or hidden but the vision of the jam pan being hauled out of hibernation made up for the scratches and scrubbing out of purple stains from fingers.
Excerpted from A Pennine Childhood by Ernest Dewhurst. Copyright © 2012 Ernest Dewhurst. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
Overture & Beginners,
1. Lamp Lighting at Tum Hill,
5. The Shining Hour,
8. Thespian Hens,
9. Black, Blacker, Blackest,
10. The Milky Way,
11. Bread & Water Magic,
12. The Phantom Painter,
13. The Unquiet Tuesday,
14. A Schooling,
15. A Team Selector's Nightmare,
16. Hay & Hop Bitters,
17. A Windfall of Uncles & Aunties,
18. Grandmas Mainly,
19. Grandma's 'Do' & the Winter Scene,
20. Bread of Heaven,
21. Ghosts on Cardboard,
23. The Jesse James Affair,
24. Spy Catchers,
25. A Funny Thing Happened ...,
26. An Affair with Marge,
27. Girl in the Blackout,
29. On the Pink,
30. Another Upper Room,
31. A Past Revisited,