A Journey into Scotland … Part 4
“Remember it!” cried Scrooge with fervour; “I could walk it blindfold.”
The woman was in the garden, smiled and asked if I was travelling far. The bags on the bicycle were quite a statement of intent.
“I’m travelling to all the places I ever lived.”
“I was born in this house.”
“Blimey. You’d better come in then. Do you want a cup of tea?”
And so I came to be inside a house I had fond but distant memories of. It had changed both structurally and in internal decoration. I wouldn’t have recognised it from the place of my childhood. The woman was obviously very proud of it and had made it her own. At this distance of time I cannot remember if I was given the full tour or if we sat and drank tea. She insisted on taking a picture of me. Only the beams would have been in this picture fifteen years earlier. The window didn’t exist and there never would have been that many ornaments or the furniture designed to display them.
She didn’t know much about the history of the place. I didn’t like to tell her that it was the house that introduced the bubonic plague to the area and wiped out half the population of Dalton. She wasn’t aware that the path that went past her front gate was one of the oldest in Furness and that it had been trodden many centuries before the monks of the Order of Savigny walked it to found the abbey that grew to be the second most powerful Cistercian Monastery in England. She was a nice lady but, she didn’t seem much interested. My guess is that she would have happily swapped eight hundred years of history for straight walls and a power shower.
I thanked her kindly and took a photograph of her in the garden. Though she was as kind as kind could be, I felt a double usurpation. She was living in my house and I was intruding into hers. Two houses, one building. We said our good-byes and I pushed the bicycle back up the lane.
I was torn. Do I attempt to cycle up Mill Brow; the hill that had been the litmus test of my cycling legs as a boy? Or do I push the bike along the Low Road? The Low Road was the original road through Low Furness. It went back through my own history as it went back through the history of this corner of England. Celts had marked this footway to be followed by Vikings (I don’t think the Saxons ever extended this far), Normans and then the monks. My own history was marked by the solid floors that were all that were left of the railway cottages where I remember a family called the Rounds lived. Across the lane mint still grew in what you could just about discern to be their cottage garden. Under the railway arch and across the fields that led to Dalton.
Once the capital of Furness, Dalton’s claim to fame, apart from being a superb little town, is that it was once mentioned in the Guinness Book of Records for having the most pubs per head of population of any town in England. I’ve never been in a Dalton pub. I was too young when I lived there and it is far too early in the day as I ride slowly through. They look good pubs though and have the right names; The Red Lion, The White Horse, The Black Bull. And of more local flavour, The Cavendish Arms and The Miner’s Arms. The latter picks up on the iron stone that isn’t just present as ore but stains the very soil of the fields. If you played an away fixture against a Dalton school, you always had a struggle to get your kit clean afterwards.
There is a castle here which was built to protect Furness from marauding Scots and in the churchyard a plaque commemorates the victims of the 1631 plague. Nearby is the grave of George Romney the great portrait painter who was born in the town. Dalton is quietly proud of its famous son but doesn’t make too much fuss.
I Pedal on through Lindal, another ironstone mining town in its time, and one where the village cricket team (one of the most successful in the amateur game) came to play a match one day and found half the square had disappeared into old workings. By the time I reach Swarthmoor I can see Hoad Monument ahead. I was spoilt for choice. Every road around here had a dozen or more memories. The coast road was where I went for my first all day bicycle rides, the ride through Urswick would have taken me by High Carly Hospital where, not wishing to put too fine a point on it, I was extremely poorly but where, once I was off the red list I nabbed the bed by the illuminated fish tank and was able to read all night. I came out of hospital a much better read young fellow than I went in. I could have crossed Birkrigg with memories of picnics and kites, stone circles and school cross country runs. I could have headed for the hills and the happiest memories of my childhood. I’d be detouring that way later in the day. For now I was passing the birthplace of the Quaker movement and a place where everybody seemed to be rather friendly.
Within another ten minutes I was in Ulverston. I lived here from the age of nine to the age of fourteen. It held a lot of memories. It was quite a day for nostalgia.
I snapped a quick photograph of my old secondary school (since demolished). It was in the days before schools became fenced off fortresses but I wasn’t keen to be seen lurking outside taking photographs. Very little had changed. The old buildings still looked impressive while the new blocks were worthy of the bulldozers that would arrive in time. This was the old secondary modern where the supposed non academic youth of Ulverston were prepared for the practicalities of life. Even after it became comprehensive (a non-selective educational philosophy) the timetable still assumed that many of us would find work among oxy aceltylene torches and soldering irons rather than in the fields of Academe. On Fridays, boys had quadruple woodwork or metal work while the girls did domestic science.
The metalwork teacher was the most amiable fellow I can remember though he took his duties lightly. Once he’d lit his pipe he was happy to spend the first double slowly showing us how to light the forge. By the time we came in from playtime the forge had gone out so much of the rest of the morning was spent re-lighting it. Once someone in the class (it could easily have been me) made a screwdriver. The class took it in turns to show it to the mild preceptor. Over the course of a term everybody got a mark recorded for making a screwdriver. Everybody got a different mark.
We had a house system and a school song and we carried hymn books in the pockets of our blazers. The houses were named after the lakes of the nearby National Park. I was in Coniston which was the yellow house. Grasmere was red and Rydal blue. They abolished Thirlmere House when the school became non selective, so hand-me-down green football jerseys were of no great use in the early seventies. I pushed the bike along Fountain Street. It was lunch time and I wanted to see if you could still buy Bennett’s meat and potato pies.