Bickershaw: a plant-potted history

At the weekend, inspired by the arrival of spring, I visited Bickershaw Hall Nurseries, a small garden centre just outside Wigan.  This friendly family-run business also sells seasonal plants, fruit and vegetables at the town market, so as I was passing by I decided to have a look around.

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Despite the record-breaking warmth of the past week, it is still February after all, and the big greenhouse looked almost bare apart from a few splashes of colour. This time next month it will be fragrant with herbs and bursting with botanical brightness.

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Whilst perusing  the perennials I chatted with the owner who told me her family had established the business nearly 50 years ago on land which had been bought much earlier following the demolition of Bickershaw Hall in the 1940s. Built in the 17th century, the Hall fell into disrepair, made uninhabitable by coal mining subsidence. The only remains are this house which had been servants’ quarters and the cattle shelter which you can see below, now both used by the Nurseries.

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Our conversation turned to another local history connection. In 1972, the land where Bickershaw Hall had once stood had gone to seed. Bizarrely, a consortium of Manchester business people and others from the music industry selected the site to host a massive music festival. One of the organisers was a certain Jeremy Beadle, and the headline band was The Grateful Dead. Other illustrious artists included The Kinks and Bryan Ferry, and the list went on… It was to be a spectacular event and the crowds arrived from all over the country.

Of course, by today’s standards the special effects look unsophisticated. A high-diver who descends gracelessly into a burning paddling-pool even seems comedic.

Unfortunately, severe rain made the event a washout, and the field looked like a scene from Glastonbury but without the associated coolness. The Grateful Dead were not feeling very grateful as this short clip shows.

The festival-goers, bless them, still seemed in good spirits despite their tents having sunk into the mire. This would have been an unprecedented occasion for them, and they would probably have just enjoyed being part of it.  I like the interview with a local shop keeper who describes the weird and wonderful foodstuffs he has stocked for the pleasure of the Bohemian showbiz types including yogurt, something he’d previously ‘heard of’ but ‘never seen’. Well it was only 1972! 🙂

My curiosity roused, I asked for directions to the festival site. A short walk led me to a path off the main road with woodland to the left.

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A couple of cars passed me from the direction I was heading, making me feel less wary about venturing alone  into what seemed quite a secluded place. I smiled to myself, picturing the hoards of party people ambling this way in the summer of ‘72.

The path opened out into a car park at what I could now see was a fishery: artificially created ponds stocked with fish for paid-up anglers to spend whole days trying to catch. One pond looked quite tranquil with nobody around.

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Whilst others took on a more sinister appearance. I hope that was a just scarecrow….

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I followed a path to the right in the direction of a familiar looking field, but not before passing the remains of a burnt tree stump, strangely decorated.

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Then there it was…. the venue!

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Try as I might, I wasn’t feeling that vibe. The festival spirit had been washed away in that July deluge.

Bickershaw Festival has achieved a quiet cult status; the 40th anniversary reunion held in 2012 (a much, much smaller affair) was even covered by the BBC. Needless to say, Bryan Ferry and the Kinks were unavailable on that occasion.

 

 

 

 

 

Cake and contemplation

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Today I went into Manchester to have lunch with a dear friend. Such is the pace of life and its many demands that we don’t get together as often as we would like. With both of us being off work this week it was an ideal opportunity for a catch up.

I arrived in the city with a couple of hours to spare so I decided to head to one my favourite food places, Earth Cafe at the Buddhist Centre. It’s run as a separate business nowadays but still serves a delicious and healthy vegan menu.

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It’s an informal cafe where the staff are always polite and accommodating if not exactly gregarious  – though that can vary from one visit to the next. For me, it’s just so refreshing to not to have to enquire about any ingredients, and everything is fresh and tasty.

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Manchester Buddhist Centre is within a repurposed former industrial building whose design legacy still remains, incorporated into the very different 21st century space.

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In near solitude I quietly enjoyed my food for thought: coffee and walnut cake….

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…..with only the laughing Buddha for company.

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I pondered the changing face of this city where industry had been replaced by commerce and hospitality, including the very spot where I sat. What would the Mancunian industrial giants of  a century ago make of all of this? Of how we can choose to live now. Of our choices about what we consume. About what we revere and how we find spiritual expression in the 21st century.

Manchester, one-time exporter of textiles to the world, now weaves philosophies from the east into the fabric of city life. No wonder the Buddha is laughing!

I still had nearly an hour until I was due to meet my friend so I decided to have a look around the Buddhist Centre ethical shop where there was a selection of statues, books and meditation accoutrements…

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….and a comfortable and peaceful place to sit and read…

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I chatted with one of the staff who told me that yesterday had been an important date: the anniversary of Buddha’s death. For the community, this commemoration had been the focus of a special meditation ceremony which took place at the main shrine. I was asked if I would like to take a look, and of course I happily accepted.

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The larger of the Centre’s two shrines is a peaceful and airy space painted in an uplifting shade of sunflower yellow. Its focal point is a beautiful and unusual representation of the Buddha, of somewhat European appearance, including blue eyes.

 

Placed around the shrine were some photographs of loved ones who had died within the last 12 months, along with floral tributes, trinkets and treasured possessions. I haven’t included any photographs close up for obvious reasons.

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A special reminder of a loved one

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A bowl of white flowers, still fresh and slightly fragrant, will remain in place until they fade and finally decay, at which point they will be removed; a reminder of the natural cycle of life and death.

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Left to look around on my own, I sat for a while enjoying the peace before bidding the dead farewell and returning to rejoin the living and life in all its colour.

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Out on the tiles

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Readers of some of my other posts may know that I am very fond of ceramics, in particular the high-glazed pottery tiles synonymous with the Victorian arts and crafts movement. I love the lustrous decadence of the rich intense colours from the period, and  the opulent crackle of the glaze.

Some of the best examples can be found beneath our feet gracing the ticket halls and the platforms of subterranean train stations or even the humble relics of gentlemen’s public conveniences. I have been known to visit places ( not men’s toilets!)  just for the tiles, whilst on other occasions I have made unexpected discoveries, sometimes in unlikely places. Here are three of my favourites in the city of Manchester.

1. The Principal Hotel ( formerly the Palace Hotel). This grade 2 listed building on The corner of Whitworth Street and Oxford Street was built between 1891 and 1895 by the architect Alfred Waterhouse for the Refuge Assurance Company, a very successful insurance business. The outside of the building is nothing extraordinary….

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…but the inside is glorious!

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I love the glamour and the sense of the exotic conjured by the pillars and foliage. The design is of glazed brick and Burmantofts faience, a decorative style of architectural terracotta and glazed pottery which used warm cream, buff, rich orange and rusty tones. The Burmantofts company emerged in Leeds in the late 1850s with Waterhouse being one of their patrons.

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An overseas-based friend and I meet in Manchester once a year when she visits family in the city. Our venue of choice is almost always the Palace where for a couple of hours we can escape the Manchester rain and the hustle and bustle of the world outside and marvel at the sparkling chandeliers’ reflections on the glossy surfaces of the walls around us as we indulge in afternoon tea.

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2. Peveril of the Peak. This iconic Manchester public house has stood near the Bridgewater Hall since the 1820s and is named after the novel of the same title written by Sir Walter Scott (better known as the author of Ivanhoe) in 1823, but set in the 17th century.

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Peveril is brilliant. It’s actually nothing special inside, but wonderfully incongruous in its modern and muted surroundings this Victorian pottery pub is also grade II listed. Some of the outer tiles were added in the 1920s but have remained unaltered since – happily for those of us who like its style.

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3. J&J Shaw Ltd. This is my favourite doorway in Manchester.

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J & J Shaw established the furniture warehouse in 1924. This place is a hidden gem, tucked away close to Oxford Road train station.  I love the colours and the detail and can never resist tracing the shapes of the smooth leaves and fruits when I pass by. Its gorgeous art-deco entrance hints at the possibility of stylish furnishings that customers might have perused once they had stepped through the pottery portal. How exciting! They don’t make doors like they used to, do they?

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Spring is in the Air

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We are on the cusp of seasons. Spring is tantalising us, slowly but surely shedding her outer layers and revealing flashes of warm light and emerging greenery. In my little patch the daffodil bulbs, which I thought I’d left too late when I planted them in December, are pushing through towards the sun. Today has been a cold day but I felt the occasional warm ray on my face, enough to power up the solar garden lamps which are gracing the dusk for a little longer each day. It is still light when I arrive home from work which is bliss! The new energy is almost tangible.

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February 1st was the ancient Celtic festival of Imbolc: for Pagans the first day of the ‘quickening’ – the turning of the year, and later adopted by Christianity and renamed as St Bridget’s day. It is a fire festival and marks the advance towards light and warmth….. even though in these parts we had seen snow just a few days earlier.

Although there’s still a way to go before we can put away our winter coats and scarves, it is heartening to see the early signs of renewal and enjoy the lengthening days. It’s a special time.

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I am often guilty of forgetting about the many lovely places close to my home in favour of more interesting locations further afield. At this time of year when the grand houses of the National Trust have not yet opened their stately doors to the public, and when the countryside has not yet come into bloom, there is still much beauty to be found locally.

Scotsman’s Flash is one of many ‘flashes’ in the Wigan area, lakes formed as a result of mining subsidence on the sites of former coal mine workings. Scotsman’s is the largest and is a designated area of scientific interest due to the presence of rare plants and migrating birds such as Reed and Sedge Warbler. It is popular with canoeists, and people like my friend who sometimes walks her dogs there at the weekends.

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Our stroll took us along a stretch of the Leigh branch of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal.

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A new road – a busy dual-carriageway – which will ‘fly over’ the canal and the edge of the Flash is in the early stages of construction after decades in the planning stage. The next few months may be the last chance to enjoy views like these. It remains to be seen what the impact on the wildlife will be, so all the more reason to enjoy days like this one whilst I still can.

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Snow and trees at twilight

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The early hours of Tuesday saw the first snow fall of the season in my part of the world. It has all gone now, having stayed for little more than a day. The bizarre temperature fluctuations continue; today we’re back in double figures.

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I am not lamenting the snow’s melting. Yes, it makes for a pretty scene when viewed from the warm side of a window, and undeniably there is pleasure in the crunch underfoot and the sight of animal prints in freshly fallen ground cover. I dread the yellow-grey slush which follows, seeping through shoes, dampening trouser bottoms and treacherous when it freezes over, turning pavements into ice rinks. I have twice fallen victim (literally) to icy ground, as X-rays and a now very faded suture scar would bear witness.

The daylight lingers for a little bit longer each day, which is wonderful. It won’t be long before we see the arrival of the first signs of early spring. I love that time. Today, it was almost five o’clock when the streaks of twilight dipped behind the trees near my home. I took some photographs of the bare branches, appreciating the cycle of the seasons but looking forward to greener times ahead.

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Last week saw the death of one of my favourite poets, Mary Oliver, whose observations of the natural world strike a chord with me. White Eyes is a poem about winter and about a bird, about the promise of things to come, and about life ….. perfect for this time.

White Eyes – Mary Oliver (1935 – 2019)
In winter
    all the singing is in
         the tops of the trees
             where the wind-bird
with its white eyes
    shoves and pushes
         among the branches.
             Like any of us
he wants to go to sleep,
    but he’s restless—
         he has an idea,
             and slowly it unfolds
from under his beating wings
    as long as he stays awake.
         But his big, round music, after all,
             is too breathy to last.
So, it’s over.
    In the pine-crown
         he makes his nest,
             he’s done all he can.
I don’t know the name of this bird,
    I only imagine his glittering beak
         tucked in a white wing
             while the clouds—
which he has summoned
    from the north—
         which he has taught
             to be mild, and silent—
thicken, and begin to fall
    into the world below
         like stars, or the feathers
               of some unimaginable bird
that loves us,
    that is asleep now, and silent—
         that has turned itself
             into snow.

 

 

This Sensation of Flying

On 15th September 1830, actress Fanny Kemble was one of a group of lucky VIPs gathered in Liverpool to be part of a very spectacular event: the world’s first inter- city train journey.

The train – Rocket – set off from Liverpool on its historic journey to Manchester. Rocket’s coal-hungry furnace fired its powerful pistons, driving the steam engine to a mind-blowing top speed of 35 miles an hour; no great feat to the 21st century passenger, but Fanny Kemble and all those on board would surely have been awe-struck.

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Fanny is reported to have said of the experience, “ I closed my eyes and this sensation of flying was quite delightful, and strange beyond description.”

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This print from 1831 on display at the Manchester Museum of Science & Industry shows an early journey on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway
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Also on display at Manchester Museum of Science & Industry, this sketch shows the variety of goods and passengers and the range of carriages in use

In 1830 the Industrial Revolution was in full swing and Britain was renowned as the workshop of the world. A railway linking the port of Liverpool to the coal and textile centres of Manchester and the rest of Lancashire would make for speedy transportation of goods and raw materials and would offer fast passenger transport to those who could afford it.

There had been other steam locomotives before, but Rocket was the first of its typeinvented and built by father and son George and  Robert Stephenson at their works in Newcastle-upon-Tyne for the Rainhill Trials in 1829. The Trials had been set up to choose the best locomotive for the new Liverpool and Manchester Railway which would open the following year. Despite a tragic accident where Rocket struck and killed the MP for Liverpool, William Huskisson, near to what is now Newton-le-Willows station,  Rocket won the contest and became the design template for almost all steam locomotives that would follow.

Rocket continued to run on the Liverpool to Manchester line into the 1840s before becoming obsolete when better engines were developed. After 150 years at the London Science Museum and a short stint in Newcastle in early 2018, Rocket returned last September to the site of her maiden run at Manchester Museum of Science & Industry.

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A few weeks ago I travelled, by train, to nearby Manchester to see the world’s first inter-city loco, which will stay in Manchester until April before moving to the National Railway Museum in York.

 

 

I had been expecting Rocket to be bigger, but that apart I was fascinated and quite moved to be up close to this historical ‘game-changer’.

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It was easy to imagine how those first passengers, having only been used to travelling by horse and carriage or possibly on a canal barge, must have felt as they moved at a fantastical speed.

Rocket arrived triumphant at Liverpool Road Station, which was built for the occasion in 1830 and is the oldest railway station in the world which is still in existence. It is within the Museum of S&I where it has been lovingly restored.

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An 1830s view of Rocket as she zooms past
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The original track

Inside the station, visitors can enjoy some of the original fixtures and fittings.

 

 

 

 

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The booking clerk’s desk 

The spacious exhibition area provides a sense of the proportions, comfort and overall impressiveness of the station in its glory days. Anybody who was lucky enough to travel by train must have felt quite important.

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The exhibition is interesting and tells the story of train travel from that first journey to the present day.

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As with all new technology, railways were not welcomed by everybody, especially those whose commercial interests might suffer. This sketch of the time shows thin and redundant horses singing for their suppers because of the decline in canal traffic
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Bust of George Stephenson
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I would love a copy of this print

Within the Museum’s large engineering exhibition hall I found another of Stephenson’s locomotives, Planet, whose improved design later rendered Rocket obsolete.

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My journey home on another Northern line was somewhat faster once the train eventually arrived, 40 minutes late and with two of its four carriages out of action. My carriage seemed considerably more congested than those depicted in the 1830s sketches looked to be, but at least I wasn’t open to the elements. Things have come a long way since Fanny Kemble’s delightful sensation of flying……… possibly 😉.

Formby Point: the beach beckons

Happy New Year to all – and welcome to my first post of 2019! I’m really excited about the year ahead and about sharing some of my adventures with you as we travel around the sun one more time. I’m quite new to blogging myself and have been inspired by some great writers who I have found over the past year or so;  I look forward to following my favourite blogs again this year and to making some new discoveries.

And so it begins. January arrived, dry and bright. I carried on with the ruthless clear-out I started after Christmas, and I even got out into the garden for a bit of a tidy up in preparation for the start of the new growing season. Spending time in the sunshine always makes me feel good, no matter what the time of year.

Today was reasonably mild and the sky a joyous blue, so I decided to make my first seaside outing of 2019.

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Formby is a coastal town between Liverpool and Southport in the north-west of England. Its abundance of very rich and celebrity residents (including premiership football players) and luxury properties has resulted in the dubious nicknames  Califormbia and Formby Hills. The chances of me recognising (or even having heard of!) a reality TV ‘star’, a current ‘soap’ actor, or a football player are roughly equal to the chances of one of them recognising me. I was really hoping to see some of Formby’s other famous locals, the indigenous red squirrels whose abode is the large area of National Trust pine woodland which stretches out along the Formby coast. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be on this occasion.

Temperatures had dropped overnight and the ground frost sparkled in the sunshine. Sections of felled fir trees had been left on the path.

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There are two approaches to Formby beach: the first which is shorter and probably more popular involves a very energetic scramble over a range of steep sand dunes; the second – which I opted for – took me on a longer, beautiful meander through the dunes along a sandy path. The azure sky and the landscape reminded me of long ago Aegean holidays.

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Several benches along the walk have been dedicated to the memory of people who loved to spend time here. What a lovely way to be brought to mind each time a loved one or stranger sits for a while to admire the vista.

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On top of the dunes, sand mountaineers looked out to sea.

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Squawking magpies kept their own lookout from the trees tops.

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And apparently it’s never too cold for an ice cream.

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The National Trust has laid a long board walk to make the beach accessible for prams, wheelchairs and folks like me who don’t climb dunes.

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The entire path from the Lifeboat Road car park down to the beach is navigable for wheels and bad knees. Here, I made some new friends in their stunning hand-knitted jackets.

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The board walk ended and the wide beach came into view. The tide was out and the firm sand was perfect for walking. whether on two legs or four.

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One of my new colourfully-clad friends insisted we had a long game of throw and fetch the stick. Fortunately, he did all the running!

With my playmate called away to rejoin his family pack, the steps of the lifeboat station served as a convenient bench for me to sit for a while and enjoy my first beach visit of the year… hopefully, the first of many.

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