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.
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’.
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.