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Three Weeks One Summer

A Cycle Around the British Isles

I spent some of the happiest days of my childhood living on a farm, above the town of Ulverston, in what was then North Lancashire. My father wasn’t a farmer but he had an occasional eye for unique places to live. The farm was a working farm. The byres and shippons (cow barn or shed from the Middle English schepon; used in Furness, Westmoreland and Cumberland) resounded to the sounds of cattle morning and evening. The farm was a beef producer but several cows were kept for milking and this was done  by hand while sitting on three legged stools. The seven year old Simon was known to lend a hand. I also helped out with the Augean task of mucking out, rounding up and sending out. I don’t suppose I was of much use. The farmer lived on the neighbouring farm which lay over a big hill about a mile off. He had two sons, the eldest of whom was in my class at school.

In summer I was in very heaven at haymaking. The sense of being involved (my labours lay somewhere between help and hindrance), the sweet smell of the harvest, the generous glasses of Marshes lemonade, the bailer dumping bound bails onto the field, the gathered man (from the other farms) all shirt sleeves rolled up and cap a pé… never bare chested or bare headed. The farm dogs free to run and play. I’m sure my memory romanticises but the memory is a true one to me. I really do remember it like that.

The farm sat high on the Furness Fells. You could see Lake Coniston. On a clear day you could see the South West Highlands of Scotland, The mountains of Snowdonia, Blackpool Tower and the Three Peaks of the Yorkshire Dales. At least I have my father’s word for this. I remember him pointing them out, though I’ve grown a little sceptical about the Welsh mountains.

It sat in the centre of the old parish of Osmotherly (not to be confused with the Yorkshire town of that name at the western end of the Lyke wake Walk). I spent my holidays, when not helping on the farm, visiting our other neighbours. A mile towards Kirkby (silent k) in Furness, was the dark forbidding farm called Harlock. The farmer was called Mr Hutchinson and was as friendly as a farmer could be. This didn’t stop me finding his premises forbidding and the scene for any ghost stories I had a fancy to write. (I did write as a little boy but never completed anything. It was a habit I have maintained ever since). A little lane led off to the right up onto the open moor. (Actually Harlock was the boundary for open moorland on three sides; a feature that did nothing to lessen its perfection as a setting for tales of the supernatural). A few hundred yards along here was the gamekeeper’s cottage, home of Harry and Dolly Coates. It was my favourite refuge.

They had a smallholding. He double dug the soil and grew giant cabbages and leeks. He kept chickens and had a shed full of turkeys which grazed freely in good weather. As a gamekeeper the place was alive with pheasants. I had no idea that they were being bred to be shot. Harry was a kind man. I could never have seen harm in him or thought badly of him. He let young me scatter grain for them. All pheasants are arrestingly decorated. Harry had a range of species. I made it my ambition one day to own a golden pheasant. It seemed almost unbelievably beautiful to me. On special days he took me up onto the moor and showed me buzzards nests and where I could find lizards and grass snakes.

Dolly was generous and gentle. There was often something to be shared from her baking or a red apple from the fruit bowl. They can’t have been well off and it is probably just as well that I had developed solitary ways as a  child. To have arrived with all my siblings (we were seven by the time we left the farm) would have left them a little short. In the spring she took in orphaned lambs and let me hand feed them from a bottle. They both agreed I had the makings of a farmer. I’m not sure if I had the total unswerving dedication but I would have liked to have given it a try. I feel at home on farms, have always had an affinity with livestock and whatever my failings elsewhere have never shirked work that had to be done for the benefit of others.

All this digression into a contented six and seven year old boy wandering the lanes of the Furness Fells in the mid sixties is simply to make a comparison. Once I had left Abbeylaix I was into a quiet and rural world that took me back to Osmotherly and Horace Farm, and Rath Vale and Gamswell and Rath Moss and Harlock as quickly as a French novelist could eat a biscuit. After miles of flatland I could hardly be surprised at the uphill on the road to Ballinakill. Here I passed cyclists of an altogether different sort. These were people who rode to get around. A young family on a jaunt, a teenager off to visit his friend, a farm labourer making his way home for an early tea so as to be ready to drive the combine until the daylight fades. No lycra, no sponsorship logos, no helmets, no rush. But lots and lots of uphill. And so like the hills and country roads, I was brought up on, that I was almost there. I remember things about those days that I had forgotten. Learning to ride a bicycle on a tiny red and blue thing without a saddle. It was a case of sending it downhill and seeing how long you could stay on. The advantages of staying on were pretty enormous. As well as no saddle, the bicycle had no brakes.

Ballinakill is a village in no great rush. It is a village of long conversations and slow happening events. It isn’t a backwater or in any way behind the times. To my way of thinking, finding peace and quiet, and keeping it that way, shows rather advanced thinking on these islands. I thought I might find this sort of rural Ireland far up in the north or out in the west. I might have found an alternative multi racial way of life in some of those places, but here I found a peace that was entirely Irish.

The continual uphill kept my pace down. I wouldn’t have been rushing under any circumstances.