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A Journey Around the British Isles … Part 106

Past the Jervis Arms and over the river. I no longer drink beer nor have I ever really taken to fishing but I could easily be tempted into a pint in the beer garden of this most villagey of village pubs, and I could spend an hour or two on the banks of this little river. It isn’t just the family connections with this part of the world; it is that this part of the world still has something that the rest of England lost in the last century. The Staffordshire Peak District isn’t as frequented as the Derbyshire Peak. It’s still more about farming and the making of a living from the fields. It’s about the true country way of life not about the accommodation of visitors. Of course there are comers in. Look for old wagon wheels in the paddock and you’ll have the home of a wealthy displaced townie. Look for uPVC windows and you’ll have someone a little out of kilter with the country way of doing things. But these are the minority in this valley.

Photo by Dandly

Photo by Dandly

You’d feel it in a car but you can’t miss it on a bicycle. This is countryside pure and lovely. Peace and quiet in abundance. Birdsong, yes, but even that in moderation. This is after all August and the early afternoon. I’m taken by the almost perfect proportion of trees in the landscape. This is farmland not woodland yet there must be a hundred full grown oaks and sycamores as well as well grown hedges. By the river are willows and alders.

The sun is warm now and I’m cycling with the ghosts of people I’m descended from and memories of the times I’ve been here before. I was at the other end of adulthood then and saw the world in a different way. I’m cycling my own life. My mind a charm of memories half caught and fleeting; not to be held onto. Like dreams they are there but cannot be caught. I ride on and turn right towards Butterton because that is the way we went when we were younger.

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I’m missing half my gears but have the luxury of choosing which half to manage without. The front cog changer has fouled. I can force the chain across by hand when not riding. The choice is big downhill gears or little ones for the hills. This is Staffordshire.  I need the smallest gears I can muster. Gravity can look after the downhill.

Just before Butterton, the Manifold Valley suddenly opens out below. It is a captivating sight. This is the true land of my fathers. Well my mother’s fathers, and back into time.

Butterton is beautiful. It seems to have combined it’s new role as a dormitory village for Leek, Ashbourne and Stoke with being the hub of the agricultural life that goes on around. There’s a decent shop and a pub that calls on this non-drinker in a way that most hostelries fail to do. I resist the pull but am unable to pass the church. The matching of architecture to location and purpose has seldom been better achieved. The spire is slender and elegant and can be seen from many parts of the valley. Take away churches from the English landscape and you take away a great deal. The rising finger of the church is a relatively new addition being only 150 years old.

This place is known as a Thankful Village; a village where all the sons who went off to the Great War returned home safely. It is the only one in the county. I knew people here when I was younger. They now lie in the churchyard under gravestones that have acquired much lichen. I sit with them for a while and simply remember.

Ecton Hill rises boldly above the valley. It’s not the highest in the county but at 1200 ft it’s a good climb to the top. There you find windblown grass (I cannot remember a time when the wind didn’t blow strongly on these tops), sheep and fenced off mine shafts. There are few properties around here now but this was once the heart of industrial Staffs. Copper and lead has been mined here for three thousand years. In the eighteenth century enough ore was dug out of this hill to copper-bottom the British navy and to fund the building of The Crescent at Buxton. I’ve been underground here; deep underground. The hill is honeycombed with shafts and tunnels and passages. Some regard it as one of the few hollow hills in England. There’s still a mighty bulk there. It dominates this part of the Manifold Valley and overlooks the village of Warslow.

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It’s yet another steep climb from Ecton to Warslow, but this time it isn’t too long. Only one stop to pretend to be studying nature while actually gasping for breath.

Warslow is the family home. My mother was something of a skilled storyteller and wove tales around her childhood in the valley. A handful of photographs and memories of these stories are all that remain. I still have my cousin Peter at Ecton and believe there are still some folk around here that connect. The fact is that both my mother and father kept their family stories obscure. I’m following myths and cyphers.

In the churchyard of St Lawrence’s Church I know I am among family. Just about every other gravestone declares the fact. My grandfather is buried here but he died in the depression of the 1930s that took away the living and the family farm. He’s somewhere to the side and the rear of the church according to another cousin but there is no headstone. The family simply couldn’t afford one. My widowed grandmother and my mother and aunts left the valley shortly afterwards.

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I take a wander down the lane where they lived. The house is now rather lovely; has been built onto in a way that fits with the original building. It’s in good hands. You can tell by the planting in the garden. These aren’t the latest ideas from the garden centre but a deep dyed-in-the-wool English garden techniques with established plants of fine vintage growing into each other with the apparent random beauty that only comes with great skill. I want to sketch it but there is nowhere to sit other than right in the driveway and that might be a little intrusive. I take a quick photograph and make my sketch from this.

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I have little skill with a pencil (in this case charcoal) but find the act of drawing brings me closer to the object drawn. You notice more. You become a part of what it is. I’ve heard of this building before but I’ve never seen it. I’m charmed in more ways than one.

At one time, not very long ago, everyone in this village was tied together by a way of life. They followed the seasons and they were tied to the soil. Now the villagers come from further afield and are tied together by little more than living in the same place. My grandfather and his brother marched off to the trenches of Flanders, they played in the silver band and they sheered the fleece and bound the sheaves. I’m not saying that the village has turned for the worse but something has been lost and it won’t come back again. My Auntie and uncle returned to live here after forty years of city life. They took to it well but were astonished that the new residents found so much to complain of in living in the country. One asked a farmer if his cows could make less noise as he brought them in for milking. Another made a formal complaint that she was being woken every morning by a noisy neighbour who climbed onto a nearby farm wall and screeched a full throated cock-a-doodle-doo! to the village. “I wouldn’t mind if it was just once.” said the complainer. “But the damn thing did it again and again.”

If I hadn’t lost my way between Cheadle and Waterhouses I would have missed all of this. I feel very happy in a rather melancholy sort of way. I know these stones and these streets are part of who I am, of where I came from but I equally know that they are not me, not mine; that they are now part of somebody else’s stories; and I’m quite happy about that. This town isn’t all that big but it is quite big enough for more than one set of memories and remembrances.