From this hill the view is larger than God,
the weather less forgiving.
Rough land, honed by a battering wind
that thrums over the houses
and howls inside the head like a chained dog.
This is the cold that cracks stone,
breaks open keens on calloused fingers
for the few descendants of the long-forgotten dead
who moled the lead seams under the Pennines,
leaving their poisoned bones
in unmarked graves.
Their cottages are fallen stone
and the roofless church
has a congregation of nettles.
They lived, not without language
or music, or the violence
of loving and birthing and hunger.
Only a death brought them down,
ill-suited in their mildewed best
to walk twelve miles to church -
buried, christened, married in job lots.
Crossing their brief marks against the register
of unrecorded lives.
Even their work is hidden
in pipes, drains, the linings of coffins,
or beaten flat in the gutters
of redundant churches, divers’ boots,
the hems of old velvet curtains, fishermen’s weights,
the deadly interior of a nuclear flask.
Up on the moors near where I live are many abandoned lead mines and the ruined dwellings of the people who once worked there. Neil's great-grandparents were among them and we went to visit the ruined house they'd once occupied. We spent a lot of time among the archives of the county record office, finding out about the people who'd lived there, tracing his family history and uncovering the story of an unbelievably bleak way of life.
Most of them were illiterate, and their lives are often 'lost' in official histories because they were too poor to have gravestones and unable to leave any written record. Even the mining company didn't record their names - only the jobs they did. The work was backbreaking. On winter days they went underground in darkness and when they emerged it was dark and the men could go for months seeing the sun only once a week on Sunday. The women worked the smallholdings - growing what food could be persuaded to grow in such a bleak landscape - tending goats and sheep. The community had a reputation for drink and lawlessness and there was a lot of illegitimacy! One of Neil's ancestors died after becoming lost in the snow on a winter's day. Most of the others died young, often from lead poisoning. Even the food they grew was tainted with the ground water from the mines.
The poem is an attempt to capture the atmosphere.
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