The Circle and The Square

On Saturday I visited Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery to catch the end of an exhibition I’d only recently found out about but which I was very keen to experience on its final weekend.

Normally, I would avoid travelling into Manchester on a Saturday, battling through the shopping and pub crowds, and facing the prospect of train chaos, but there’s a fast bus I can use that goes from Leigh, my neighbouring town, down Oxford Road and stopping opposite the gallery, so ideal for my purpose.

The Circle and The Square is the creation of public performance artist Suzanne Lacy. Between 2015 and 2017, Suzanne brought together diverse communities from the East Lancashire town of Brierfield, to take part in a unique musical performance incorporating traditional shape note singing and Sufi chanting. According to Suzanne Lacy’s website, the object of The Circle and The Square is to explore: ‘the demise of the textile industry as an economic and social driver in the North West of England and the resulting separation of South Asian-heritage and white communities who used to work together in the vast mills there.’

Brierfield is a place I’m familiar with, having visited quite a lot when a close friend lived there for a few years. It’s typical of similar towns in that part of Lancashire: streets of stone terraced houses, running parallel and very steep; high unemployment and social deprivation and with a large percentage of its population being of South Asian heritage. Brierfield Mill overlooks the train station, an imposing building, closed since 2007. The Brierfield connection is what initially piqued my curiosity about a project that would bring together diverse communities through the medium of traditional folk song and spiritual chanting. Many of the participants would be former Smith & Son employees, possibly even former co-workers.

A former worker talks about her long working life at the mill, now abandoned and disintegrating

The performances and interviews were filmed over three days in the empty mill, voices made all the more rousing and powerful in the cavernous space which once housed deafening looms and where lip-reading helped workers to communicate through the mechanical din.

The installation consists of a split screen film and approximately 25 short interviews with members of the Nelson and Colne communities, accessed through eight monitors with headphones. Those interviewed include former workers at the mill and members of their families. Together, the interviews and the film (which lasts about 20 minutes) tell a story of work, place and productivity connecting people from the same locality whilst at the same time very far apart in background, culture and religion. It also explores what happens when that connection ceases.

This short video by producers, Superslowway, gives a short insight to the background of the project and its production.

The Circle

Sufi chanting is a form of Islamic devotion involving repetition of sacred words and phrases, practised throughout the Islamic world, including South Asia. Joining in a circle expresses the idea of unity and eternity, no leader, no breaks in the connection, all equal. the participants are mainly Asian, some in traditional Sufi dress. Focusing on repetition the same words – usually the attributes of God – helps devotees to achieve a mindful state.

The Square

Shape note singing, a form of traditional 18th century folk song, harks back to an England of yore, often narrating the life experiences of the poor and disempowered. It was also popular in the southern states of America in the 19th century. In this installation, the singers include professionals, brought in to give instruction and to lead the performance. On the music sheets, notes are represented as shapes, making them easier to recognise for those not formally trained in reading music. Projected into the huge, bare space of the empty mill, the song – narrating the story of a working life that started at the age of six – is very powerful.

The Circle and the Square

The split screen creates an impression of both groups performing simultaneously, separate yet together. On closer observation, it is clear that both performances have been filmed separately and then juxtaposed on screen, and it appears that a few people are taking part in both.

The interviews

The performances are impressive and moving, audibly and visually, but are only one half of this installation. For me, it was the insightful interviews that provided most food-for-thought. Made up of former workers from across the communities, family members of some who are no longer around and local people who, whilst not having worked in the mills, are affected by its legacy and its loss as the main local employer, the interviewees speak candidly about life, work and inter-community relations. I probably got to listen to about half of the 25 – 30 short recordings, and was struck by the vastly different – in some cases quite polarised – views, some quite surprising, such as the middle-aged Pakistani chap who blamed local high unemployment on eastern European immigrants and by extension the EU, for there being too many “foreigners” in the area: “We shouldn’t have joined the common market in 1973. We shouldn’t let them in.” The Circle and The Square was completed before Brexit, so perhaps he is happier now, though possibly not, as many of those Europeans will now have settled status in the UK. He seemed unaware of the irony of his position.

Some interviews were about factory life; older men and women spoke of days of high employment and having the pick of work in an abundance of local mills and factories, literally walking out of one and into another on the same day. Work was hard, but skills were shared and passed on, there was camaraderie but also sexism: one lady described the intense antipathy towards her from male workers who she had been put in charge of, thus enabling her to earn more than them. She related an incident in the rest room where one of the disgruntled chaps pulled out a chair from under her, causing her to fall onto the floor and injure herself. He got a telling off from the boss, didn’t speak to her for the next three months but eventually became a friend.

A couple of the contributors spoke in their Asian mother tongues, presumably interviewed through an interpreter. No subtitles or voice-over translations were provided, the artist allowing the audience to draw its own inferences and to experience that language barrier, not knowing if the speaker prefers not to speak English, or is unable to, though he has presumably lived and worked in the locality for decades. It also made me think about us, the audience, and if that barrier was there for all, or most? Who would the audience be? Who would be engaging with this art?

A young woman, certainly just a small child when the mill closed, expressed her hopes for better integration in the future and her enthusiasm for diversity. In contrast, other contributors felt that there was greater polarisation now than ever. The hub of work where diverse lives intersected daily had gone, and nothing had replaced it; links were broken, the divide had widened, comfort zones inhabited and positions entrenched.

Another young woman, London-based, recalled her grandparents’ lives in the mill. Indian Muslims originally, they were relocated when partition came in 1948, suddenly finding themselves part of the new Pakistan, whether they liked it or not. An opportunity presented itself to bring their skills and dexterity to Lancashire; a new life, initially lived in shared, cramped houses with extended family, until they could establish themselves and make their own way. They embraced life here, retaining aspects of their heritage and culture, having the best of both. The third generation interviewee is and feels English; the fabled old country a place resigned to family history, and she is understandably frustrated when asked – not infrequently – where she is from. Conversely, within the performance spaces, others of the same age as her, and younger, choose to wear the traditional clothing of their elders, though they may never themselves have set foot in their ancestral lands.

Some residents speak of a bleak future in a rundown town, where shops have closed (‘Morrisons has killed off the food market’) and drugs are rife, whilst others remain optimistic: the good times will return and community spirit is as strong as ever.

The mill stands empty: shabby, crumbling, useless. There’s an interesting and somewhat ironic tale about the looms. Becoming obsolete in the defunct mills of Lancashire, they were found new lives in the emerging and growing economies of India and Pakistan, shipped overseas to where the work is.

Below are a few of those interviewed

Former workers describe their lives and work at the mill

So, what did I take from the installation? Integration is perhaps an ideal that cannot be realised, at least not in the lifetimes of those first generation immigrants. Over time, that may change as their descendants choose their own identities, holding onto those aspects of culture and tradition that they still cherish, and leaving behind what they no longer feel connected to. But in the same way that the circle and the square cannot merge to form an inseparable whole, they can co-exist, side by side, mutually complementary and allowing for movement between the two. Is tolerance, acceptance and coexistence a more authentic ideal than a determination to force homogeny? I was left feeling quite saddened in one sense, but with a lot to ponder. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the exhibition immensely and would certainly have returned to watch the rest of the interviews if there had been time. That all of these people desired to take part in the project, playing their part, telling their stories and bringing something to the mix is perhaps the most positive message of all.

Manchester Cathedral: stained glass and gargoyles:

This post was first published in 2017, but as Manchester Cathedral appears on Lonely Planet’s guide of suggested places to visit in 2023, I have decided to post it again. Cathedrals, by definition, stand the test of time, so I doubt there has been much change since the post was originally written, except that perhaps those gargoyles have a few more stories to tell.

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Two of my favourite things are stained glass windows and gargoyles. I decided to spend a quiet hour on a rainy Sunday afternoon in a spot where there are some splendid examples of both.

Manchester Cathedral, or the Cathedral and Collegiate Church of St. Mary, St. Denys and St. George to give it its full title, stands at the north eastern edge of the city, near to Victoria Station and to the border with the city of Salford. Cathedrals are mostly grand imposing buildings, designed to command attention, to make their presence felt; Manchester’s feels like it’s tucked away behind a screen of shops and a mock Tudor pub, its grounds a haven for lunching office workers and, at the weekends, huddles of teenaged goths. World renowned Chetham’s Music School -home of the Cathedral choir -is adjacent.

Ask anybody to tell you what they associate with Manchester and their replies will probably include some of the following: Oasis; New Order; The Hacienda ; premier league football; the Peterloo Massacre; The Smiths; a certain coconut-covered custard tart; ‘Madchester’; ‘The Village’ and, more recently, the northern quarter. The cotton trade, early trades union movements and political activism might also feature……………..and rain. The city is synonymous with it. It’s unlikely that anybody will mention the Cathedral.

Visitors rarely arrive here by accident –  unless they take a wrong turn when visiting the Christmas Markets or heading towards Harvey Nicholls . Most would have sought out this almost hidden gem, perhaps pulled by the promise of the gorgeous windows which are – in my opinion – the big attraction. The Cathedral is not a crowd puller and this is to its credit. A trickle of sightseers drifts in and out, leaflets and maps in hand. Admission is free, where the same, sadly, cannot be said for most other British cathedral churches, perhaps an admission – or exploitation – of their change of status from spiritual centres of the community to local visitor attractions.

From the outside it is not possible to appreciate the aesthetic impact of the stained glass windows. Yes, most churches have at least one or two, usually depicting biblical scenes whose subjects have been attributed suitably anglicised features: haloed blond martyrs fail to fend off marauding beasts, and blue-eyed virgins gaze longingly into the distance, hoping to be swept up into the sky by a heavenly wind. We’ve all seen lots of examples, and one is usually much the same as another. Not so in this case.

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All having been added during the last 50 years to replace originals destroyed by war time explosions, the stained glass windows of Manchester Cathedral form an intensely colourful folk-art collage. Non- traditional designs, vibrant and engaging, are apt in a city which prides itself on modernity, openness and progression, not to mention diversity.

Remembrance goes hand-in-hand with reconciliation within the design of my favourite ‘fire window’. Situated in the chapel dedicated to the Manchester Regiment, the window designed by Margaret Traherne pays tribute to lives lost. The orange flames represent the blitz, but as fire destroys it also clears the way for new beginnings. The glass used in this window, significantly, was created in Germany. On a sunny day the flames come alive as the light pours through the glass. Today the rain patters against the panes.

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The spirit of inclusion and the celebration of the colourful spectrum we find in nature and in all life is evident in this building. Art work depicts the community which the Cathedral serves and welcomes into its fold. This space feels unpretentious and welcoming.

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Back outside, look up and you will see the marvellous array of gargoyles and grotesques which adorn the stonework and guttering. The word gargoyle originates from an old French word meaning throat, hence the verb ‘to gargle’. Technically, to qualify as a gargoyle there must be a spout for the purpose of channelling water away from the building. The non-gargling varieties are more accurately described as grotesques or chimeras and were added to places of worship for decorative effect and to ward off evil spirits from the buildings, evil spirits being prevalent in the mediaeval mind-set.

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I’ve been fascinated by gargoyles for many years and enjoy photographing them, though I don’t do that as much as I used to. Fantastical in appearance, comical, terrifying, grimacing and gurning, the rows of stony faces tell stories of a world long past. This is the post- industrial north and some are exceptionally grimy and grim. Each one seems to have its own personality and it amuses me to imagine their discussions about the passage of time:

Dragon: “It’s a bit glum for the time of year.”

Beast: ” Yep! Where’s all this rain come from? It’s more like November!”

Dragon: “It reminds me of that washout of a summer we had in 1546. My spout got blocked with moss. It played havoc with my waterworks and no amount of gargling would clear it. I flooded in the end”

Beast: “I remember it well. We all suffered. That rising damp really gets into the mortar! The serpent on the east wall took such a battering by the storms that his forked tongue dropped off. “

Dragon: ” I know, poor sod. You can’t make out his features now. ‘Erosion’, I’ve heard those surveyors call it. We’re all losing our looks. Mine started to go downhill in the 1700s.”

Beast: “I sometimes feel like we’ve been forgotten about. Even the evil spirits don’t come up like they used to back in the day. Health and safety regulations……”

Now we have new cathedrals made of glass and steel, temples to the gods of commerce and celebrity. The nearby football museum rises like a glass obelisk. Across the city, Manchester Hilton looms on the distant grey skyline. The Cathedral will witness other grand designs have their moment and will still look on, sagely, as, in time, they too disappear.  

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Manchester Jewish Museum

Yesterday, I read that the Lonely Planet travel guide has proclaimed Manchester to be the cool city to visit in 2023. The nearest city to my home (very slightly closer than Liverpool), I don’t think of Manchester as being particularly exciting or attractive – the city centre at least – though there are locations beyond the bustling centre that are well worth a visit.

It is said that familiarity breeds contempt, which I don’t necessarily agree with, but perhaps I should try looking at Manchester through fresh eyes. Inspired by some of the Lonely Planet recommendations for Manchester day trips and short breaks, I plan to explore more of the city throughout 2023, highlighting some of my favourite places and discovering others, including some lesser-known gems. For once, it seems I am ahead of the trend, having already made my first trip to Manchester in this first week of the year.

There has been an established Jewish community in Manchester since the 1770s, based at first in the commercial district on the northern edge of the city centre, and later expanding further northward, towards Salford and Bury, as the community grew. It continues to grow, being the largest Jewish community outside London, its numbers increasing year-on-year as the cost of living in London makes Manchester a more affordable option. I was surprised to learn that the only other British Jewish community which is still growing is in Gateshead.

Cheetham Hill is a relatively short walk out of the city centre though, as the name suggests, it is actually a hill, so regular readers will not be surprised to learn that I did not walk, opting instead to take a five minute bus ride. The Jewish Museum is on the site of the former Sephardi synagogue, established in 1874 and designed by Jewish architect Edward Salomons to serve the thriving community. The stunning interior design reflects the Moorish architecture and aesthetics of Spain and Portugal where Sephardi Judaism has its roots.

By the 1970s, the Cheetham Hill Jewish community started to move further towards the suburbs and numbers attending the synagogue started to fall. In 1982, planning began to turn the synagogue into the Jewish Museum, a place to capture the history and heritage of Manchester Jewry and to tell the stories of its people. Opening its doors to visitors in 1984, the museum is now a grade 2 listed building. In 2019 the museum temporarily closed to undergo a £6 million capital development including full renovation and restoration. Conservation experts, historic painters and stained glass specialists were all involved in painstakingly researching and restoring the synagogue to its original condition. An extension in a modern Moorish style wonderfully complements the 19th century building.

Booking is recommended, as the museum hosts school parties and other large groups of visitors, but I turned up on a wet Wednesday afternoon when it was quiet. The £6 admission fee includes as many return visits as I like within one year, which is excellent value and which I will be taking advantage of, in order to view the beautiful stained glass in the better light of a sunny day.

The outside wall of the former synagogue meets the sleek clean lines of the new annexe.
One of the synagogue windows illuminated by the soft light within
Moorish-style fretwork metal window screen cleverly hides the car park outside

As it was quiet, I was very fortunate to have the volunteer guides almost to myself at certain points in the tour. An informative and enthusiastic lady allowed me time to take photographs (I had thought I might not be allowed, but there was no problem at all) and led me through the exhibition areas of the new building, where there is a lift for any who need it and toilet facilities. My guide explained that the museum had been successful in its bid for National Lottery capital investment because of its unique pitch: to tell the story of Manchester Jews. Where many Jewish museums focus on the holocaust, the diaspora and Zionism and the state of Israel, this space was to be about the narratives, experiences and contributions of Jewish people and communities in this city.

Along one corridor were several display cases housing artefacts of Jewish life in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Photographs showed families and individuals who came to live in Manchester in those years, some of them having recorded their stories for posterity. It was quite moving, listening to voices from the past, relating their experiences of arriving and settling in their new country and in Manchester specifically. The term ‘Landsleit’ refers to when Jews from the same towns and cities in Europe emigrate and set up new communities. Manchester immigrants sought the familiarity and support of those with a common background and language who could help them settle into their new lives. It was bittersweet listening to one old lady describing her efforts to learn English as quickly as possible because she didn’t want to speak German any more. Mancunian voices with hints of accents told tales of arriving by boat in Liverpool, or by train, and making their way to Manchester, grateful to be welcomed by family or friends already here. Another spoke of starting work in a sewing factory, already with some experience of using a machine and eager to become an accomplished seamstress. She refused to make the brews and sweep the floor, insisting that she had come to learn how to “make a coat,” a goal she achieved.

Map showing the synagogues of Greater Manchester, orange still active and green, no longer, though some of the buildings still exist and have been repurposed.
Abraham’s Ark: a portable cupboard or ‘ark’, last owned by Abraham Duinkerk, born in London in 1907, his family of Dutch origin. Abraham’s family would have used the ark to store their religious items, such as prayer books and shawls.
Jewish Manchester bee

I had never been inside a synagogue before, so was quite excited to enter the older part of the museum. My next volunteer guide, David, took over. Another visitor joined us, coming to the museum as part of a trip to Manchester, possibly or possibly not inspired by Lonely Planet. David explained how the synagogue had come into being, the role it played in the Sephardi community throughout the century it was in use and told us about its layout and design. He was happy to answer our questions and, being a member of the Manchester Jewish community himself, had first hand knowledge to share.

Looking down from the former women’s gallery
The women’s gallery, which covers three sides, would originally have been screened
Torah scrolls in the Ark: there are five, because more than one might have been required for the readings at some special services. I love the Moroccan-style metal cover of the one on the left, though apparently this less ‘breathable’ type of receptacle is not necessarily the best for preserving old parchment.
Commandments in Hebrew above the ark; the ornate glass window shows the seven stick menorah and commemorates former Synagogue President, Ezra Altaras, who died in 1913.
Another of the 40 stained glass windows that depict biblical scenes
Congregants would each have a numbered seat with space underneath to store their prayer books and religious accoutrements, which they wouldn’t have been permitted to carry to the services under Sabbath laws
Memorial to Manchester Jewish soldiers who died in the Great War.
The rabbi would have led the service from the lectern, the seats in front set aside for other officials.
Design inspired by the Sephardi region

Having thoroughly enjoyed my visit and feeling much better informed about a faith group and culture which has played an important part in Manchester’s history – especially its commerce – I left the museum to a visual treat. Darkness had descended and the building illuminated the streetscape beautifully, a very definite upside to visiting on a short, winter day.

A visit to Quarry Bank Mill

The first bank holiday of 2023 began gloriously sunny and dry as we headed to Quarry Bank Mill. Owned by the National Trust, the property occupies 400 acres of Cheshire countryside along the valley of the river Bollin; it is the second largest National Trust property in the north west of England. The website advertised the grounds as opening at 08:30 with the other parts of the estate following at 10:30. Rolling up at 10:45, we were amazed to find the car park already very busy, mainly given over to families wisely decked out in wellington boots, loading their rucksacks with thermos flasks and snacks before heading off on long walks, many with dogs, around the extensive woodland paths.

One of the defining businesses of the early Industrial Revolution, Quarry Bank Mill was opened in 1784 by industrialist Samuel Greg, whose vision was for a one-stop shop for spinning cotton on an industrial scale. His site incorporated all stages of the process from raw cotton to finished material. Eighteenth century mechanical innovations had transformed the cottage industries of weaving and spinning into big business on a massive scale, which created immense wealth for manufacturers. Richard Arkwright had invented the water frame, which revolutionised the speed of spinning, in his own mills in the 1770s. When Arkwright lost the patent in 1885, other industrialists like Greg were free to install their own frames.

The Quarry Bank complex developed over the decades to include the five-floor mill, apprentice house with kitchen gardens, cottages for adult workers and their families and chapels for them to attend for Sunday worship. In 1834, Greg’s engineers reshaped the river Bollin to power the huge waterwheel inside the mill which ran the machinery. Originally built as a country escape from their home in Manchester, the site included a house for the Greg family, which stands very close to the mill. Mrs. Greg, not keen on the noise and smoke of the city, decided that the family would live permanently on the estate, which resulted in the development of acres of woodland and pleasure gardens for the enjoyment of her children and herself. Unfortunately, the house was closed when we visited, due to staff shortages, but all of the garden areas, woodland and river walks were accessible. We didn’t stray too far as there was a lot to see, opting to explore the wider grounds on a return visit in the summer.

Path leading into the woodland. Robert Hyde Greg, Samuel’s son, later expanded the landscape to include folly bridges and exotic trees.
Giant Christmas bauble display
Trees adorned for the season

The Christmas theme extended into the orangery, where cute hand-crafted decorations were on display.

Some of the orangery was given over to more traditional occupants. In the 18thnand 19th centuries, gardeners would have grown pineapples and other exotic fruits to impress the family’s guests.

Records show that the Head Gardener in the Gregs’ day was one William Brough, who started life as an apprentice at the mill. He married and lived with his family in the gardener’s cottage which you can see in one of the above photos, situated behind the tropical greenhouse. Quarry Bank’s archives have evidence of some other former apprentices who made good and were elevated to positions of responsibility on the estate.

Styal, a tiny hamlet prior to the arrival of the mill, was extended several times by Greg, to provide cottages for his workers, two chapels, a school and a shop. As the still small village sits within the boundaries of the estate, it too is owned by the National Trust. All of the properties bar one – number 13 Oak Cottages – is let to tenants, with National Trust employees being prioritised. The waiting list of would-be tenants is long – unsurprisingly – and properties rarely become available. Number 13 is usually open to visitors, but staff shortages meant that, like the Gregs’ house, it was closed at the time of our visit. The village looks idyllic now, but in the mill workers’ day, each cottage could house up to 10 people, sometimes with more in the cellar.

The apprentice house

The majority of the mill employees were child apprentices, 90 of whom were housed at any one time in the apprentice house. Being small, fast and nimble-fingered, children could move quickly beneath the spinning machines, keeping operations running smoothly, except for those occasions when, exhausted during their 12 hour shift, they lost concentration with sometimes horrific results. Like all mills in the years prior to child employment legislation, many children were maimed or even killed whilst at work. Quarry Bank archives holds records of a boy, Thomas Priestly, who lost a finger from his left hand in one of the machines. A court record gives a detailed account, based on Thomas’ testimony after his arrest for absconding from the mill and making his way, with another boy, to the London workhouse from where they had been personally selected by Greg and where their mothers remained. Following his injury, Thomas wanted to see his mum and, impressively, made his way back to the capital and got back into the workhouse where he stayed under the radar for several days before being discovered. He was charged with breaking the terms of his 10 year apprenticeship and returned to Quarry Bank. It says it all that young Thomas preferred the workhouse – the absolute last resort for those fallen on hard times.

After their 12 or 13 hour day in the mill, the children would undertake a range of domestic duties in the house, including tending the cottage garden for the boys and sewing and cleaning for the girls. Life was grim. The house supervisor, a much more severe lady than our tour guide, would have regarded the children as her personal servants, attending to her guests and being at the beck and call of her husband and herself.

This straw-filled bed in the girls’ dormitory would have been shared by two female apprentices between 10 and 21 years of age.
The kitchen, where up to 90 children would eat twice a day.
The children worked six days a week but would have had a little time to play on Sundays, when they were not walking the 4 mile return journey to church, twice a day, first for the service and later for Sunday school. It’s a wonder they had any energy left for toys.

…. or for learning

Children were recruited from workhouses all over the country or were found in other destitute circumstances. Hand-picked by Greg, they had only to be (or pass for) 10 years old and appear reasonably healthy, in order to be productive. Many did not know their own ages, but that wasn’t a problem as long as they looked right for the part. Indentures surviving from the time show the children’s crosses, signing away their lives for the next 10 years. Their payment: their food and board. A few did well out of it, learning a trade and staying on at Quarry Bank as adults; some of the less fortunate are buried in nearby St. Bartholomew’s church yard.

The mill is still operational today, run by volunteers, and produces cotton fabric which can be purchased from the gift shop by the metre for home sewing projects, and is used to make napkins, toiletry bags and other items which can be purchased.

Three of the mill’s five floors are open to visitors with volunteers on hand to demonstrate the processes and machinery

Floor 3 includes informative displays, highlighting the development and expansion of the textiles industry and acknowledging the human exploitation which contributed to its growth and the vast wealth it created for some.

The day passed so quickly, unfortunately with a substantial chunk wasted queueing for toilets and refreshments, about an hour and forty-five minutes in total spent standing in line. We twice joined the queue for the garden cafe, only to give up after about 20 minutes on each occasion, seeing that there were no seats, inside or out, anyway. Next, we tried the restaurant, eventually reaching the counter after queueing for another 25 minutes, only to find that everything had sold out except for pasties, at £4.50 each, and then waiting again for the food to arrive. My friend opted for the Cornish whilst I was lucky to get the last cheese & onion, or there would have been nothing for me to eat. They were good though, homemade and tasty, if not worth the price tag or the queue. A lady at the next table, who had been lucky enough to get the last bowl of spicy parsnip and apple soup, told us that when she arrived at 11:15, the car park had been full and new arrivals had had to wait for other cars to leave. According to one of the guides, the day’s 3,500 visitors had not been anticipated, perhaps fair enough considering it was January and the weather might well have been miserable. Staff sickness had also played a part. Considering that many are volunteers, I was impressed overall and will definitely be returning.

It was dusk when we left, not having seen everything but having filled the day. We just had time to pop very briefly into one of the little shops but again decided not to join another long queue to buy a drink for the drive home. The sun was sinking over the river, another area we hadn’t had time to explore. We’ll plan our return trip for sometime in the summer, when we’ll definitely be taking a picnic.

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.

November’s saving grace

I am not a winter person, though I have in recent years become more appreciative of the season which is, perhaps for many of us, a period to be got through rather than to savour. I realised years ago that my mood can be greatly affected by natural light, or the lack of it, though thankfully not determined by it.

During my winter working week I leave the house before the sun rises and return after it has set, making those weekend day light hours all the more precious. I hope for bright, dry days and the opportunity to get outside, even if it’s cold, and even if it’s only in my own tiny garden.

My personal perception of when winter starts is more in alignment with the old Celtic calendar, beginning on 1st November when the temperatures drop and the first frost arrives (though this year has been exceptionally mild) and ending at the start of February when the earliest of spring flowers start to emerge from the still frozen ground and the world slowly starts to become green again. The midwinter solstice is a big clue to how our ancient ancestors calculated the seasons. So, in my world, we are already a month into winter, even if it’s still officially autumn.

It will get worse before it gets better. The lack of light, that is. As the weeks roll on towards the December festivities, the nights will draw in ever earlier, with lamps and candles being lit by mid afternoon, just to provide a comforting glow to defeat the gloom outside. Even though the days are shorter still by then, December is redeemed by the air of festivity, the bright twinkling lights and merriment, the general goodwill and coming together. January brings a sense of new beginnings, a new year on the calendar, starting again and time in reverse, visibly stretching out that bit longer. November has no such merit. It’s a no-man’s land between the splendour of October’s rich palette and lingering warmth and the primal energy around midwinter. The autumn colours have mostly faded, temperatures plummet, it rains – a lot- leaving the oppressive odour of dampness that penetrates wood and bone. All but the most valiant of the summer flowers have died back and faded away.

November also brings some sadness, a time of losing loved ones, human and furry friends, memories of other dark, rainy days when the sun never really came out.

If you are still reading at this point, not yet discouraged by the miserable tone of this post thus far, please take a second to look back to the title. Feeling a tad guilty about my maligning of November, and a touch unappreciative of this dull and unremarkable time of year, I embarked on a little reflection and a very short walk close to home to rediscover November, which, I gladly concede, has a certain grace and its own subtle appeal.

The bold and bright petunias, lobelia and marigolds are long gone, but the ivy, in new hues of pink and pale green, is offering its exquisite winter display. Even the flowerless stalks now have a new form, different but no less engaging. The last of the flowers appear even more resplendent in their scarcity.

Nature keeps on giving.

A perfect antidote to grey sky, an abundance of bright and lustrous berries hang heavily from trees and shrubs, not only a joy to see but providing much needed nourishment to feathered neighbours.

…and snails in trees

When, perhaps more than any other time of year, there is little new growth, it is even more exciting to come across an unexpected surprise. A flourish of delightful pink roses, still faint with perfume, pushes through a fence to exhibit its last flush to an appreciative audience, all the more wonderful in the month of November.

For me, getting outside, regardless of the weather, is a necessity. Fresh air and movement. Observing and taking part. Appreciating the beauty in the mundane. It’s there if we want to see it.

On those days when going out isn’t an option, it’s no coincidence that so many Scandi-Noir have been filmed or are set in November: bleak, Nordic days when the sun never shines, providing a tense and angsty backdrop for a chilling crime. Keep the lights low, make a hot chocolate and enjoy the season.

Ruminations

Colours of the sun

Welcome again to the little garden. Autumn has arrived, bringing the great harvesting of summer’s abundance, before the gentle time of falling and fading as the earth prepares to rest and recharge through the dark months.

The garden still has much to offer at this time of the year; colours intensify, offering a shock of late summer splendour against a backdrop of grey sky.

Little creatures dart from flower to flower, hunting and competing for the ever decreasing supply of sustenance.

The morning and evening air is colder now, though the days are still beautifully mild.

Enjoy the words of mediaeval Persian poet Jamaladin Rumi, who had much to say about gardens.

Beauty surrounds us, but usually we have to be walking in a garden to know it.

‘Beauty is the garden scent of roses, murmuring water flowing gently. Can words describe the indescribable?

My heart rushes into the garden, joyfully tasting all the delights. But reason frowns, disapproving.’

Raise your words, not your voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.’

Be crumbled, so wild flowers come up where you are. You have been stony for too many years. Try something different.’

True beauty is a ray that springs from the the sacred depths of the soul, and illuminates the body, just as life springs from the kernel of a stone and gives colour and scent to a flower.’

‘No more words. In the name of this place we drink in with our breathing, stay quiet like a flower, so the night birds will start singing.’

Every tree and plant in the meadow seem to be dancing, those which average eyes would see as fixed and still.’

Thank you for reading.

Something about nothing in particular

One of my readers recently asked me who I write my blog for. They went on to observe that I don’t have a particular writing style, with some posts being quite whimsical and florid whilst others are straightforward and more simplistic (maybe that’s polite speak for boring). Could that be, they suggested, because I don’t have a specific audience in mind when I put fingers to keys? I would say all of that is fair comment.

The stunning North Yorkshire Moors on a baking hot August afternoon
Purple heather for as far as the eye can see and a cloudless azure sky. I feel another ethereal post coming on……

My style of expression will vary depending on the subject of each post and probably my mood at the time of writing. Inspired or moved by a beautiful landscape or naturistic tableau, I may wax lyrical or I may write very little, letting images speak for themselves. Reflecting nostalgically on then and now, aided and abetted by a glass or two of red wine, I may gush excessively or lament.

Southport now, just a shadow of the place I remember from childhood

A summary review of a recently visited place of interest, offering information, suggestions and my opinion to other would-be visitors, will be in a format and style which is different again.

Living Wall, RHS Bridgewater
The greenhouses at RHS Bridgewater didn’t make it into the final edit of my recent post

So, who do I write for? In one sense, for myself. I write something that I would enjoy reading or would find useful. And I write for whoever else wants to read. I may never know those readers or what they think. Only other WordPress members can ‘like’ and comment (without having to submit their email address). Most of my followers, and readers generally, seem not to be WordPressers. If one person reads my blog and enjoys it, that is who I have written it for. They are my target audience.

Because I write here primarily for my own pleasure, I don’t tend to check stats very often. It’s a tiny blog and I’m not interested in tailoring my content to attract legions of followers, ha ha. Of course, I value and appreciate everybody who takes the time to read my humble scribblings, but I’m not doing this for fame or fortune. The chance would be a fine thing! When I do look at the stats, I am quietly delighted to see that a stranger, having looked at one of my posts, has enjoyed it enough to read on.

I write for that person and for anybody and everybody who is interested in reading my words, regularly or just the once. Everybody is very welcome and I’m thankful that each has taken the time.

One thing I haven’t done, up to now, is write for the sake of it, hence my reduced presence over the last couple of years when I have been out-and-about less and haven’t had as much to share.

I could write endlessly about my cats
Or maybe even about houseplants

I suppose this post could be said to be an exception of sorts, arising from one reader’s thought-provoking comments.

Our reasons for writing are as varied as we are as writers. If having read this you feel inclined to share your own story, I will be sure to read it.