A Journey Around the British Isles … Part 105
There are plenty of English villages that are still very much alive and Ipstones is one of these. There are people going about their jobs and duties from the moment I pass the village sign to when I emerge from the other end. During that time I see a lively and prospering village and climb the best part of 500 feet. Ipstones is a Staffordshire village; it’s on the side of a Staffordshire hill.
Young people have gathered in groups to play, to commune, to plan or just to enjoy their summer holidays. There’s a lively kick-about game of football happening on the field, teenaged girls cluster around a bus stop though I don’t get the impression they are going anywhere, and younger children copper up to see if they can afford a packet of biscuits to share. There’s nothing dubious or untoward. These are young people you’d be happy to have in your class, happy for your children to bring home as friends.
Ipstones is a bit bigger and this could be the secret. It isn’t millionaire’s row. There are plenty of heritage houses. There are plenty of second half of the twentieth century housing including a number that look as if they were built for council tenants. It’s a mixed village and this is the key to its success. It has managed to hold on to two shops and three pubs (though one of these, The Linden Tree, is for sale … an increasingly familiar sight in Britain), a thriving village hall and, most importantly, a village primary school.
The views are astonishing. Almost every vantage point gives you a panoramic sweep of the county out towards Cheadle and beyond. The BBC Staffordshire webpage describes it as a place where loads of people come for the peace and quiet “of which there is loads”. The web page is the sort that also lists “funky facts about Ipstones” which probably explains the difficulties with grammar and vocabulary. The fact listed is that the village once boasted a witch who turned herself into a white rabbit. All over England there are stories of old women who could turn themselves into hares. A white rabbit is a nice variation. One wonders if it is a fluffy, cuddly, domesticated rabbit or a Grace Slick/Lewis Carrol one that you tend to see in the appropriate pharmacological state.
I queue behind the biscuit buying children and treat myself to a choc-ice on a stick. The shop is of the tins and sliced loaves brought in from warehouses type rather than one that sells you a home made pasty or a pound of local heather honey, but it does well enough. I’ve climbed yet another hill, everyone seems full of the joys of a sunny day and I’m enjoying my fifteen minutes.
Beyond lie the Staffordshire moorlands. Not heather and bracken and gorse like in North Yorkshire. Most of Staffordshire is pastureland of one sort or other. Up here the only crops I see are hay and grass for silage. This is livestock country. Where possible it seems to be the choice between beef and dairy and where cows can’t, then sheep will safely graze.
Once I’ve crossed the main Leek to Ashbourne road I’m entering the land of my ancestors. When I was first brought here, in the 1960s it seemed I was related to every other family. Now there are very few and the stories are beginning to die out. It is our duty to write them down. They matter enormously; maybe not to others, but our family stories are what made us. They survived over the generations when there was no way of recording them, they survived by being told to people who wanted to hear them, by people who had shared in them. But now they are dying. The family has been scattered. Buildings that had been lived in by generations of relations are now the proud and happy homes of other families. Families who have equally cut their ties to their hinterlands of memory, tradition and family history.
I’ve never lived round here, have been an infrequent visitor and yet feel a sense of belonging that is stronger than I feel for almost all of the places I have legitimately been able to call home. This feels different to any of the thousand miles I have pedalled. Those miles were cycled alone by an observer. These miles are being ridden in company. The village names have resonance. I’ve heard of all of them; know stories of snow drifts and sledging, rivers that disappear into the ground and fine places for picnics. My family never aspired to the tables of the gentry, unless they were there in service. But for hundreds of years they had cultivated the fields, looked after the stock and built the walls that give this part of the world its unique flavour.
The long ride down into the valley of the River Hamps at Onecote promises an equal hill on the other side. I’m looking for a particular house and a particular memory. It has a very young me and a very young T walking the lanes from Ecton to Leek and wondering if the bull tethered in the field was safe to pass or whether we add a big detour to our route. I’d spent plenty of time in the country which had given me a healthy mis-trust of bulls. A few facts float into my head. One is that bulls can smell fear. It isn’t a helpful fact.
A youth of about our age watches us over a farm gate. He has a rather beautiful red setter dog with him. He’s chuckling.
“Is that bull safe?” I ask.
“He’s tethered.” comes the reply.
“Safe then?” I state in that asking for final and absolute assurance sort of way.
“If he wanted to, he could easy pull out that stake.”
It isn’t the most welcome of observations. We pass the bull safely and spend our day in Leek. On the way back the youth is there again. He’s a quiet and kindly young man who shows us the setter and the four week old puppies that he was keen to sell. They’re in a cardboard box in the farmhouse kitchen. All rich wooden dressers and the smell of supper. I’m not a great one for red setters but these were a fine brood. The mother was the sort of dog you’d kidnap just so she’d show up well on family photographs. Tea is made, by his mother who welcomes these two moorland wanderers as though it was the most natural thing in the world, and an hour is spent in which we are persuaded that all our lives lack is a red setter pup.
They are the kindest and most unassuming of people. They have every right to be. They live in the most perfect of country homes and they live in it like it is supposed to be lived in.
Later my cousin Peter tells me. “Oh you talked to them did you? They’re famous they are. Quite the local celebrities.” I remembered the story from when I delivered newspapers. These were members of a family who had literally survived the savage sea. Had sold up all they had to buy a yacht to sail around the world. Seventeen months into the journey, having crossed the Atlantic and into the next great ocean they were attacked by a pod of killer whales and survived 38 days in a life raft in some of the most heroic of conditions. I buy the book and read the story. It’s a story that follows me through life. As a teacher an extract from the book comes up on an examination paper; the story is mentioned in the book and film of The Life of Pi. So the quiet young man had gone through all of that by the age of thirteen. No wonder a bull tethered in a field is something that can be joked about.
I’m not sure if I recognise the place at all. It was all along time ago and I’m reaching the age when a clear memory is no longer proof of an accurate one. It does mark out the difference for me though. I’m now cycling through these memories, hazy or otherwise. I’m pedalling through my past and I’m happy to slow down to soak it in.