A Journey into Scotland … Part 6
I leave Ulverston on what was a major highway of my life but on what, to most other people, would appear to be a small backroad heading out into the country. This one reached right into the most special and most mythical part of my childhood. I was here between the ages of five and eight. The time when hazy half memories become solid facts. An awakening from a dreamtime. A dawn between what is remembered in the wisps of dreams and what is recalled in the clear light of day. The hills above this town were where I spent my Alain Fournier and Pagnol years; my Tom and Huck years; maybe even my Jem and Scout years. There is no more poignant road in the country for me and there are few more beautiful.
The town is quickly left behind. Buildings give way to woods that lead down to Gill Banks are on the right and on the left the mysterious walls of the Stone Cross Special School. I never quite knew what went on there. The Stone Cross boys were kept inside the grounds and were strangely paraded through the town at different times of the year. We were told to steer clear and were led to think of it as a sort of borstal. I still don’t know but fear we were actually guilty of an intolerance of boys with special needs. The grounds were surrounded by high walls and the gates were locked. People talked of the magnificence of the the buildings and the grounds. My brother played a school rugby match there and spoke of the best pitch he had ever played on.
At the time of my journey it had recently closed. Stories have subsequently emerged that paint a less than ideal picture of life for the boys. The strong men who walked with them through the town were not always kind and the walls shielded wrongdoing from the outside world.
One road goes up to Rosside and the other into my past.
There were two great hills to climb. I’ve walked them time and again and seen them from the back of my father’s car and from the cramped and smelly minibus that was the school taxi to a dozen or more of us outlying children. The roads were also a protection for that. We didn’t miss many days school through illness but we got a few extra days each year because the taxi couldn’t reach us.
The first of the hills is Gamswell Hill and you keep Ulverston within view as you climb higher and higher into farmland. The farm was the home of our neighbours and landlords. They were as hardworking as it is possible to be. Good people in every way. The boys were about my age and we’d play with toy cars on the grass in front of the farmhouse but never for long. Even at the age of seven and five they were needed to help with the milking or the bailing. True farmers grow up faster than the rest of us. They absorb skills and a way of life. For generations they’d shaped the land and been shaped, in turn, by this glorious expanse. The farm sits huddled into a hillside; as natural a piece of architecture as you’ll find in the north.
And then the road drops into a hollow, a valley and then rises up a slope called Hasty Gill or Hasta Gill. I’ve never seen it written down. This was a challenge to the gearing of cars; though not many cars were on this road back then. At one in four it is seriously steep. We had good legs back then. The farm boys used to win the school cross country races. It was no surprise.
Good blackberries grew on the side. We thought nothing of walking to pick some for tea. It was a mile and you had to climb. If the taxi failed in the afternoon, we walked home from school. Both hills and over four miles door to door. I was six years old. My parents didn’t worry. It was how things were back then. People nowadays would say things were better then, safer, but I could tell you stories that contradict that idea. There were bad people around. Fortunately we didn’t meet them too often.
Over the top of Hasty Gill and the road levels out for a while before dropping once more. (It was on this downslope that I first learned to stay on a bicycle). And there, almost as perfectly in keeping with the landscape is Horace Farm. The only place we ever lived that we talked to. When we left it we’d always tell it we wouldn’t be long. It was the finest place I have ever been in and was lucky enough to call it home. I think my father tried to buy it but it isn’t the sort of house you’d sell. I know one of the boys from Gamswell farms it now and that is the way it should be. Were I to become unexpectedly rich, I’d return, like my old man, and make a serious offer. I’d want the farm to continue around me though. When we lived there the house was ours to live in but all the outbuildings, shippens and barns were in daily use. Cows and sheep herded in. Great days of the year were for dipping or sheering. Those tups looked huge and both wonderful and frightening to a small boy. We were a family of small children; they never brought the bulls here but the farm boys were brought up fostered alike by beauty and by fear.
It snowed up here in the winter. Often friends at school wouldn’t believe we’d missed because of blizzards when not a flake had fallen on the town. In our first winter we pushed a snowball so far up the road it became bigger than we were and then we couldn’t push it any further. My father tried to shift it and in the end the farmer came and pushed it aside with his tractor. Its remains were visible a week or more after the other snow had gone.
In one great snow my father drove an ancient green van to Barrow to fetch my grandmother who took one look at the vehicle and refused to come. My sister, wrapped up in layers of jumpers and coats had gone with him. When the van broke down at the foot of Snipe Gill the only hope was to stop a passing motorist. These were rare on summer days but almost unheard of in a squall like this. She’d be seven or eight years old at most. It would be a long way to trudge. Miraculously a car went by but was blind or uncaring; heedless anyway of my father’s waving arms. They were left in a hollow.
Somehow he got the motor started again. It had a crank that could take your arm off if you held on too long when it fired. The slope ahead was much too steep to climb from a standing start. Somehow he knew (he was an engineer) that the reverse gear has a greater pull on slopes so he backed up the way he’d come; each yard taking the van further from home and deeper into the blizzard. Once he’d got it rolling though, the huge wheels took the up slope in their stride. No little girl of his was going to shiver in the cold if he had his druthers.
Half way up they came across the bad Samaritan who hadn’t stopped to help, now trapped on the ice bound track and slewed to the side. My father had two choices. Did he stop, lose all the momentum and help this fellow who hadn’t stopped for him and his young daughter or did he drive on heedless. I know him well and know that if the man had offered the slightest help my father would have repaid it a thousand fold, but because he didn’t, it was with a joyous and profane stream of invective (highly poetic but highly unsuitable to the ears of his shivering child) that he drove on by in triumph.
The reality was that he would have become trapped himself. The truth is that he got safely home and once my sister was warming by the family hearth, he phoned the local farmers and told them of a car trapped on Snipe Gill and the fellow was rescued. The equal reality is that, at that moment, there was no one in England who got greater pleasure from the misfortune of a selfish man. Schadenfreude anybody?