If anyone out there is old enough (or young enough!) to remember Dire Straits you might remember a song they used to sing called “Industrial Disease” and today I experienced another dose of it as I walked south through the still industrial mid south Lancashire landscape.
I was fortunate in having my very own personal guide, Christine Kirk of transition Leyland (or South Ribble Transition Towns) to accompany me all the way in to Blackrod, where I am staying with my sister, Alex, and cat Othello. Christina had prepared for this walk over the past few months by walking small sections of the 12 mile walk whilst waiting for her daughter to have her music lesson and had discovered that it was excellent “me time” and had really enjoyed it – I feel delighted and amazed that yet another good outcome had come of my asking for support.
We start the day talking about Christine’s profession as a homeopath and how fitting a transition skill this is; using as it does minute dilute amounts of herbal preparations meaning the plants won’t be overpicked. I learn about candula, a common cheerful orange garden flower; a tincture of which makes a good substance to apply to open wounds.
We start off along a tiny path out the back of Christine’s house and are straight onto a pond populated by ducks and moorhens. I learn that the land we walk through and all of the area where the new 1979 houses stand was once the estate of the Clayton’s and am shown the remains of a once grand house; plundered by its own owners and reduced to low lying ruins. It is a glimpse of the previous landscape; that of rich estate owners; and peasants growing their own. It is to be hoped we are able, in our descent from the cheap oil era, to create a new model for living and do not revert back to what was before.
Though the company is good and the guiding so excellent we never have to consult the map I still manage, on today’s walk, to feel quite sick at times, that queasy feeling I have always had around industrial sites and even at some farm sites too if they are running their farms factory style; to make money. You can recognise them a mile off, large ugly concrete buildings, ugly cemented farm yards, angry chained up dogs, no people in sight.
The first uncomfortable experience is Buckshaw village; a new purpose built village that attempts to mimic the way of traditional villages, even to the extent of building the homes in the style of different ages. What’s my difficulty? This was the site of the MOD Royal Ordance ammunitions factory, that was still employing people until the turn of this century and the workers had had to sign the official secrets act for what was going on inside. There is a large grassy hill off to one side, a mound created from the scrapped off contaminated soil from the site, and beneath it in some yet to identified area; a whole load of mercury, meaning inhabitants have been warned not to plant any fruit or vegetables in their gardens.
The site is enormous and it takes us a while to cross it; within in two or three old houses that survived from before the MOD took the site over, to one side an old Tudor house, restored but all boarded up, and huge industrial buildings. It is almost impossible for me to recognise that this is part of our earth so soulless it is, ravaged and poisoned and cut off from its roots; memory of time when we were so interested what was going on out there in the world that we forgot to tend and love the very land we lived on and were supposedly protecting.
We walk on south and see plenty of livestock, often kept together in the same field, cows and horses, sheep, and at one point, a pig farm; if it could merit the name – the pigs forage in the undergrowth and on mounds of rotting potatoes and peanuts thrown out from lorries onto the side of a minor road where a few scruffy out houses huddle. It is a picture of deprivation, hopelessness, and one of the real consequences of our cheap oil era. Farms we pass through are poor, and smelly, the invisible farmers displaying no sense of place, or connection with the animals. It makes my heart heavy to see and experience this and know just how many things there are to tackle in our own back yard whilst we feel we can go out into the world and comment and interfere with the problems of others, even to the extent of waging war.
Christine laments the lack of care and love displayed on these farms; she grew up on Cheshire farms and remembers how well loved the animals and the lifestyle was. She laments that her father did not have enough money to buy back the family farm which ended up being sold to someone with money no skill or love of the land, and how the neighbouring farm had been turned into fashionable housing and all sense of the farm it had been lost.
We stop for tea and cake at a garden centre (Birkacre Nurseries) and pickup a leaflet advertising PV microgeneration and the new feed-in tariffs.
We walk in often pouring rain for most of the day so that even the river side walks along the river Yarrow are not the pleasant experiences they have the potential for. And even here in the river Yarrow Country side Park where we pick up a leaflet that tells the history of Birkacre* I can feel no connection with the land as I felt in the ancient woodlands of Alum Scar. This is reclaimed and replanted industrial land, and it will take several generations of tree and plant life to re colonise and make this land wholesome again.
The devastation of the earth is not a dim and distant memory either; sand is being quarried from it now; sand to build yet more houses for yet more people to crowd into an already overpopulated world. I remember as we walk having had exponential growth explained to me quite recently; how growth is never steady; growth doubles in size each time so that 1 becomes 2 becomes 4 becomes 8 becomes 16 becomes 32, and how catering for growth of population by building more houses, and growing more food will only extenuate the problem and cause the population to continue to grow and wonder at the fact that we are still digging more wounds into the body of the earth.
We get lost crossing a slag heap over the site of an old coal mine, myriad tracks made by kids on bikes crisscrossing over it and come out over a fence onto the road and I have to keep reminding myself not to feel discomfort over the land but remember that this must once have been beautiful living land and that the reason for this feeling of dread I have is our having plundered the land to feed our need. I find myself longing for an end to it; a time when no one would dream of having a child without first having an intimate relationship with the land around them, and the community around them, and having first determined that a child would be of benefit to the land and the community; a needed new person, not another member of our parasitical society that takes without giving back.
We pass a landfill site and I remember the pleasure with which John Lamb has shown me the landfill site which was being reclaimed; but here we are still making more. I recall how a shop from supermarket brings home rubbish and how a trip to local shops, the allotment and the hedgerow brings home no rubbish at all, just raw material for the compost. Where is the education system here? How is it that people are still buying from supermarkets when they now there is nowhere to put the rubbish but in heaps that are later buried “out of sight, out of mind” style.
We take a short stroll along the Leeds Liverpool canal and then cut off for the final leg into Blackrod and down the old funeral path; a cobbled track way down from the village on the hillside to the road below, remnant of the time the coffin bearing group would have had to have carried their dead to the nearest church for burial, and repaved when the railways came to give the locals access to transport.
We come out at the train station and Christine catches a train back to Leyland and I walk out to meet my sister who lives in new flats tucked behind warehouses; commuter homes for those that work in Manchester. They are modern, clean, spacious, and incongruous on the landscape.
Alex and I reminisce the night away from grandparents to men; from work to parents. We haven’t seen one another for a year and a half.
*Birkacre had a mill on it from the 1300s because of the good running water of the river Yarrow. The corn mills were joined by cotton fulling mills in the 1400s where fabric was “walked” with fullers earth to thicken it but it was not until 1777 that a purpose built cotton mill was built, and leased by Richard Arkwright “the father of the industrial revolution” which effectively did away with the domestic trade of the spinners and weavers. In 1779 the Birkacre Riots took place and men trying to protect their small businesses razed the factory mill to the ground. Unfortunately within 2 years the mill had been rebuilt as a textile finishing business; printing, dyeing and bleaching. Water power was superseded first by steam, and then coal in 1880. By 1939 the colliery and works had already closed down; a short lived victory for those that sought to replace human scale power with the earth’s precious resources.
Lancashire became the centre of the cotton industry because it had water for power, a damp climate in which the making of cotton was facilitated, and later a good supply of coal. It is to be hoped that in the future these precious resources will be put to better use than making virtual slaves of freemen, and rape of the earth’s body.