Year’s End

So, here we are at the end of another year. It’s a dismal afternoon, definitely one for staying in the warm and taking comfort from a hot mug of tea, the light and scent of favourite candles and the endearing murmurs of a sleeping cat as she dreams her dreams beside me on the couch.

Nowadays, I don’t make much of New Year’s Eve, even though both Eve and Day were quite a big deal in my childhood home. The late evening getting together of family and neighbours for an enormous pan of potato hash, with mushy peas and a bit of red cabbage or pickled beetroot on the side, preceded the mandatory countdown … 10 9, 8… until Big Ben chimed the hour. Nobody did fireworks then. I remember fondly joining the circle to sing Auld Lang Syne, crossing arms and linking hands of parents, aunties and uncles, siblings, neighbours and friends from along the Lane who had also been allowed to stay up late to see out the old year and welcome the new.

New Year rituals – at least in my locality- differed slightly from household to household but were usually variations on the same theme. I’m smiling now as I recall my dad asking us little ones to keep a look out for a man walking past the house, who had as many noses as there were days (left) in the year….. the key word being left out of the instruction. Of course, despite keeping our little eyes peeled for the longest time, we never did see that mysterious character with the very strange face! There was also another ritual which involved a late night procession which started out of the back door, snaked around the side of the house, and ended at the front door. Leaving the old and bringing in the new. For us children, the favourite New Year tradition was leaving our shoes out for Old Father Time to fill with shiny new coins and sweets. I’m not sure today’s youngsters would be as delighted with such innocent games, and would probably expect bank notes. I don’t know if anybody does any of it any more, but I am grateful to have had those happy times and my memories of those now perhaps forgotten little rituals of my early life.

We can create new rituals and traditions as we like. We can own them or we can share them. One that I’ve favoured for a few years has been a walk on this last afternoon of the year. Knowing that today’s weather wouldn’t be suitable, or at least wouldn’t make for a pleasurable experience, I set out on one of the nicer mornings this week for a stroll around the local flashes and down to the canal.

Now a very popular recreational space, a favourite with walkers, cyclists and water sports enthusiasts, this part of Wigan, between Poolstock, Ince and Bryn, was a massive expanse of heavy industry in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Thousands of men and women worked in the coal mines, deep underground hewing out the ‘black diamonds’, on the surface, sorting and bagging at the pit brow, loading the coal wagons, or in another of the numerous related occupations.

The pits are long gone, the shafts flooded to create several deep flashes, and it’s now quite a stretch to imagine this beautiful, relaxing landscape as the grimy, harsh hive of backbreaking industry that it once was.

A place to sit and enjoy the wildlife and count our blessings

Of course, it’s no coincidence that mine shafts were sunk near to waterways. Canals were often diverted or extended to facilitate the transportation of coal by boat. The Leeds & Liverpool Canal was the highway of its time, serving the Yorkshire and Lancashire coalfields through links to other waterways and to the Irish Sea via the port of Liverpool.

The Leigh branch of the canal which you see here is one such diversion from the main navigation, constructed to serve Wigan and Leigh, where ‘coal was king’.

Leigh branch lock no. 2
On the right in the above photo is Pennington, the largest of the flashes and a base for numerous water sports.

I wonder what rituals Victorian mining households would have enacted on New Year’s Eve. There probably wouldn’t have been many spare shiny new pennies to put inside the shoes of children from those typically large families.

Alongside the canal is Westwood, a relatively small woodland with a cemetery at the other side, the final resting place of many who worked on this land. Hard lives, not always long or always healthy. Those lives too would have been punctuated, like ours now, by traditions, occasions, rituals, no less exciting for lack of pyrotechnic displays, and possibly more meaningful when community meant more than now.

I imagine a spectral gathering winding its way through Westwood, from the cemetery, through the skeletal winter trees, a procession led by a man with as many noses as days left in the year. Emerging from the dell onto the canal towpath they take in the vista: the moon reflected on the surface of the still water where Pennington pit used to be. As nearby St. James’ church bell announces the new year, they wish each other all the best, as they did in life.

I’ll end my last post of 2022 by thanking all my WordPress readers most sincerely for taking the time to read my scribblings this year, for your comments and your encouragement. I look forward to a new year of blogging and wish you all a happy, healthy and successful 2023.

A stroll on the sand

Here in the north west of England we are into day four of a very cold spell. Cold for us, that is. Temperatures have dipped below zero every day since Wednesday, and this freezing weather is set to continue for at least the next week. It’s unusual here to have such a succession of cold days , especially in early December, and English winters have been milder in recent years.

Being off work this week, and knowing that the weather change was imminent, I decided to take full advantage of a chilly but beautifully sunny Tuesday to jump on the train and head to Southport, the nearest coastal resort to my home town, just 33 minutes away along the West Lancashire line.

Arriving in the town I opted for the quickest route to the beach which took me up a side street, busier in the warmer months selling ice creams and confectionery to holiday makers, but eerily quiet in winter, empty and rather forlorn.

Reaching the promenade, I was glad to find it was low tide. I usually check in advance but not today. The golden sand looked inviting and was firm under foot, revealing a scattered sea-bed haul to the winter sun before the dark waves would reclaim it in the moonlight.

The mud flats are precarious along this part of the beach, so walking is limited to the short stretch of sand. That’s fine by me.

I sat and appreciated the views, glad of having the opportunity to be by the sea on such a lovely winter day.

Birds circled and swooped above the sea grasses and the mud pools, on the look-out for rich pickings.

Apart from the birds and the occasional cyclist whizzing past, my quiet little spot was my own for the most part. Zooming in with my camera, I spotted the familiar outline of Blackpool, further up the Lancashire coast, its famous Tower unmistakable and the white-knuckle roller coaster at the edge of the Pleasure Beach.

A friendly dog brought me out of my daydream, happy to be petted and complimented before rejoining his person and running off excitedly in the direction of the Pier. Elevated above the sand, a few folk walked the wooden boards, perhaps heading for the refreshments kiosk at the end that serves hot drinks in all weathers. Perfect.

Riding into the sunset

Having enjoyed an afternoon mooch around sunny Southport and a stroll on the sand, I headed back to the train station for the journey home. It was 15:17 and the brightness of the afternoon was fading fast. The journey would take just 33 minutes, but dusk was approaching, and the last of the winter daylight would almost have gone by the time I arrived back in Wigan.

Just a few minutes out of town, behind us now the retail park and long terraces of B&Bs, we reach the start of several miles of mainly agricultural land.

I have my Kindle poised, ready to resume the le Carre I started reading again yesterday, more than 20 years after being enthralled by the paperback publication, later made into a film with Sean Connery in the lead role, playing a very different sort of spy.

The Kindle’s still poised as I find my attention drawn instead to the view from the window, one scene quickly changing into the next as the train speeds ahead through the arable landscape.

The track cuts through a patchwork of fields, a vast open space as far as the eye can see in shades of gold, ochre, muted and vibrant greens, rusted oranges and rich browns. The sky is still blue, and the light plays on water and earth, casting shadows or setting on fire.

A few stops outside Southport and a ticket inspection is underway. At this time on a week day afternoon, we passengers are small in number and a well-behaved lot, every conductor’s dream. In this carriage there’s only me and a young woman sitting behind. We both produce our tickets and receive thanks and a winning smile. The conductor moves on.

Back to the window. In the few minutes that I’ve been distracted, the light has faded a little more, creating a somewhat mysterious effect.

Acres upon acres of farm land lie mostly dormant, long since harvested, recovering and reenergising for the next planting, though some reveal signs of recent working and a few even show off healthy winter crops. An abundance of cabbages and kale are grown in West Lancashire.

The train slows as we approach the next stop, the attractive station house now defunct and possibly under development for another use. The lady announcer reminds us, if we are alighting, to take all our belongings and mind the gap between the train and the platform edge. A passenger from the next coach heads towards the door nearest me, belongings in hand and ready to watch for the gap. She wishes the conductor a good evening and good luck in the next round of strikes next week. Did I really hear that? I must have, as the conductor laughs and replies, “We’ll need it.” Satisfied that no more passengers are going make a last minute dart out of or onto the train, she steps up from the platform, locks the doors, and we’re off again.

A gorgeous full moon is now visible behind the thin clouds, though it has failed to appear in these photographs. Look at the sky and it could be 10:30 pm in mid-June, only the bare-branched trees and the russet hues revealing the true season.

A couple of stops before home, the enchanting views gradually subside, replaced by scenes of industry and domestic life. Russet grasses become trackside rusted metal, and vast housing estates replace furrowed fields. Street lights, Christmas lights, traffic and hubbub announce our return as we slowly pull into Wallgate station. The lady announcer gives the reminder about belongings and another gap to watch out for, and thanks us for travelling with Northern Rail. On the platform, the pleasant conductor gives another winning smile. I don’t mention strikes.