I awake in Blackrod, dark clearing; nestling atop and along the bottom of a hillside, it was probably covered in thick tree cover once up on a time. It is now a small commuter village just west of Horwich and the larger Bolton. This ancient seventh century settlement has been more recently know for coal mining and industry, and is now edged by the M61.
I go with my sister to Wigan, and later to Bolton, in search of OS maps and a Lush shampoo bar*. It is built up all the way. These once villages and towns that encircle Manchester are now consumed by it making Manchester a conurbation rivalling London, and mimicking America like a poor cousin. It is a horrendous culture of long hours of commuting miles to do meaningless work on a treadmill of beaurocracy fed by poor nutrition and alcohol with Consumerism as its god.
Bolton, beautiful old market town I remember as a child, is now a clone town and the old market hall so similar to the beautiful one Leeds have restored to its former glory is now a shopping mall, and I use the term mall intentionally – to have ripped the heart and soul out of a town and its market so effectively deserves the acknowledgement of an alien name; the alien culture that has viciously replaced ours in ancient Brigantia.
Brigantia was the region of England stretching northwards up from Chester and Sheffield, and is one of the most anciently inhabited areas of land on our island; much of the south was under the sea in those early times and a lot of evidence of prehistoric settlement has been identified on the Lancashire moors.
The ancient Queens of our land, Boudiccea in the south, and Cartimandua in the north, fought, and lost to the Romans, and slowly, insidiously, alien cultures, so different from our ancient nature- honouring heritage, have systematically over the centuries wiped out traces of our connected and ancient traditions till we stand defeated; addicted to consumerism, our land ravaged and robbed of its vitality, and too down trodden to sit up and claim back our roots and say No to the pits that are still being dug from the earth’s belly for sand for yet more housing as the population grows exponentially and will continue to do so as long as we continue to remain unconnected to our land and its carrying capacity; becoming as a parasite upon it, building roads across the original settlements; dual carriageways straight through the heart of towns, destroying our own communities. How did the people of this region become so disempowered, so seduced by the poor gifts offered in return; cigarettes, alcohol, TV, and shops full of things designed to numb the pain?
My parents have travelled north to see me and are tired from the journey. Dad reminisces about the journeys on foot he regularly made as part of his work, making house calls on customers; the winter of 1947 when snow drifts were recorded 12 feet deep on the Lancashire moors over which he walked , making it home; the last one over before the roads became impassable for the Winter.
The next day we visit my grandmother, 97, and who now lives in a nursing home. She is really pleased to see me though past the stage, unfortunately, of being able to tell or listen to tales, she has Irish blood and was a great storyteller up until a few years ago. She asks with tears in her eyes when we will be coming again and I impulsively say the next day, wishing she were nearer then I could visit regularly.
At Bury market, renowned in the North West at least, for being the biggest and best fruit and vegetable market in the country, I eat for old times’ sake the typical fare; small steamed potatoes in their skins, parched black peas, and black pudding, from stalls at the bottom end of the site where they have always been. It is Friday and busy. The black peas, in my childhood only sold as a treat on Bonfire Night, are as delicious as ever, tasty in their own sauce, but the potatoes are no longer served in their small white paper bag as they always were but in a horrid polystyrene tray; the vendor must have had previous comments for when I ask about it he is quite short as he defends his choice by saying that at this time of year the skins haven’t “set” and would peel off and stick to the paper of the bag. I haven’t come across this term before, or the phenomenon, and am interested to understand; the vendor is not interested in telling me though. The potatoes don’t taste as they did, though the steaming machine looks the same…maybe it is something to do with the variety of potato that is ready at this time of year?
The black pudding, from Chadwicks, the family firm since 1954, from whom we always bought is also a disappointment; the pudding didn’t peel away from its black skin like it should. I wonder if it has been boiled too long, or for not long enough. We try to order puddings to send to loved ones across the country but they don’t perform this service. I find it fascinating how our different regions have retained their local recipes; these market day treats are not to be found anywhere else that I know of.
Later Alex and I have fun trying out the red henna we have brought back from Lush and entertaining her new cat who loves to sit on laps and objects greatly to the presence of a laptop on what she perceives as her place!
The next day I feel somehow rather cheated of the chance to see Ramsbottom, the town where I grew up, the way I would have wanted to have seen it, on foot, soaking in each element of it, and pausing at the places that have a place in my personal album of memories, but my choice to stay with family dictates the programme and with the distances involved between Blackrod and Ramsbottom and my father’s now disabled state of only able to walk 100 yards or so, we have to resort to sitting in pubs to catch up with one another’s news. This is made more challenging by the presence of my sister’s new boyfriend, adding the inevitable awkwardness always present when introducing someone brand new into a close family unit. We don’t get to talk in the way we would have done as the dynamic shifts subtly to accommodate a new person into the group.
With all of this going on, my walk and purpose are subsumed and I feel as if I have stepped out of my now familiar and enriching life and in to someone else’s, which is not altogether pleasant. This is the life I left, stepped out of, rejected many years ago as not being a way for me to develop my potential, to give and receive all I can in this lifetime. Sitting in the back seat of my sister’s car, feeling motion sick from all the cigarette smoke it is as if I have stepped back into all I left behind, the disempowerment, the hopelessness, the meaningless treadmill of impossibilities. Life in post industrial working class Lancashire, and its god, Retail Therapy, feels not dissimilar to scenes you can watch on the screen about the America parts of England seems hell bent on emulating. I wonder to myself what my experience I would have had if I had succeeded in getting in touch with Transition Wigan and seen some of their projects.
When we sit at the cricket field at the tiny village of Greenmount for my dad to watch a game at the place where he was once fast bowler and where my mother was once score girl I catch a glimpse of life as it was before the alien culture insidiously snuck in and taught us to worship the Consumer god. These are families doing what they have been doing for hundreds of years, sitting round the village green watching the local men playing. The field, my dad tells me, hasn’t changed in 60 years. It is still there, then, this other world, and I am relieved that other circles and layers of life still exist here.
For in the pub the droves of families out to eat are largely overweight and/or in wheelchairs; symptoms of years of unhealthy living; physical and emotional, and unquestioning worship of the Consumer god. It is pitiful to see; if it weren’t for the promise I made my grandmother to come again in the autumn I would never again set foot in this place for I cannot bear to see people so alienated from the earth.
Holcombe Hill, the local landmark, topped with Peel Tower, a memorial to Robert Peel, the man who founded the police force, now sports a long line of wind turbines. I wonder what the story was with those, if there were local protests, or if there was support. They will certainly generate plenty of power; there is a lot of wind up there.
We take my granny a bouquet of flowers and watch her face light up with delight. She doesn’t talk much nowadays; she is very hard of hearing, but she is thrilled with her gift and says I have a lovely smile. Once up on a time she would not have needed to have been so isolated; when several generations lived together, learning from one another, and offering help and support. I feel that I do not know how to remedy this situation in my grandmother’s case; I have no real home myself to be able to offer her.
*I have become a supporter of Lush since staying with Sophie Pritchard & Andrew Butler of Transition East Lulwich. They work for the Poole based family run business promoting Transition, and environmentally and socially conscious projects through the company’s in-shop magazine. (http://www.lush.co.uk/) I bought a nettle- and- not- much- else shampoo bar from the Southampton branch in April and it has lasted as shampoo, soap, and clothes washing bar ever since! Remarkably good value at less than £5 for 3 months all purpose washing substance that is excellent for my hair and for the environment, it contains no chemicals whatsoever. Lush take great pride in their products and their staff are excellent; friendly, helpful, knowledgeable, and totally enthusiastic about the fun, attractive ranges of unpackaged herbal skin and hair care for both genders that are handmade at Lush’s small family run factory.