Beyond the Wall

Another extract from 'Reading My Mother'.

Beyond the Wall

One of my mother’s favourite poems was W.B. Yeats’ Prayer for my Daughter. She was particularly fond of the line where he wished her to be ‘rooted in one dear, perpetual place’ – something my mother always longed for. But she had married a man who was restless and determined, perhaps something he’d inherited in his itinerant Irish genes. Ella was destined to become a nomad.
Just before my third birthday my father took a position as an assistant shepherd and we moved to a remote location on the Cheviot hills, in what were known as the ‘Debatable Lands’ beyond the Roman Wall. It was a kind of no-man’s land between England and Scotland fought over for centuries by Romans and Vikings and then generations of feuding Border Reivers. The shepherd’s croft, long ago swallowed by the Kershope Forest, was called Coldslopes and it was aptly named. It was a traditional Scottish longhouse, perched on the moors below Christenberry Crags. At one end there was a byre, with a hayloft above, and a door into a narrow kitchen, more like a passageway. This opened into a tiny living room going through into one bedroom that again led into another. There was an earth closet at the back. In those days there were no trees to break the strength of the wind off the Solway Firth; it was totally exposed. There was no road to it, only a rough track across the fell - not that it mattered as we didn't have a car. The croft was isolated and there were only two farms within walking distance: the Crew, whose lights could just be seen further up the fell, and, across the beck and down through the woods, the Flatt Lodge where the gamekeeper and his wife lived.
The nearest village, several miles away, was Bewcastle, with a shop and a small school attached to the church. It had once been an outlier of Saxon and then Viking civilisation, and the churchyard contained the Bewcastle Cross, carved with celtic knots and fantastical beasts, dedicated to Alcfrith, son of a seventh century king of Northumberland. My parents both loved history and they passed it on to me in the form of stories and images that fired a child’s imagination. Bewcastle was where I first learned the fascination of living in a layered landscape, the concept of ‘deep place’, a location marked by thousands of years of habitation.
Just before we left Raughton Head, My father bought a small Ayrshire cow, called Betty, and eight Sussex hens and arranged to have them delivered. His employers generously gave him a young border collie pup called Flo. On moving day a local cattle wagon came to take the furniture, while my parents were driven up by a friend who had a car. It wasn’t possible to take the lorry to the house, so the furniture was off-loaded at the roadside and taken across the moor by horse and cart. It was a bumpy journey and my mother watched, anguished, as her precious post-war austerity furniture bounced around on the cart, and the wardrobe fell off into the heather. But everything was eventually in place, a picnic supper eaten, the cow tied up in the byre, paraffin lamps lit and a small daughter put to bed in a strange room.
My father later wrote that: ‘Coldslopes became for Kathleen "Green Gables" and "The Little House on the Prairie" both rolled into one’. The kitchen door opened onto the moor and I roamed free among rushes as tall as I was, curlew’s nests, and mattresses of sphagnum moss. The sky seemed to go on forever. I played in the hayloft, searched the rush beds for hens’ eggs, and regularly fell into the small beck that ran just below the croft. My mother couldn’t keep me in and eventually gave up trying. After all, what could happen to me in such a remote environment? The family called me ‘Little Miss Independence’. I came in for tea filthy, wind-blown, tired and brown as a nut.

Mum was not so happy. She missed the sea, she missed the lakes and the mountains. An entry in her first reading diary records ‘March, spring, homesickness’. It was an intensely lonely existence for someone who had been brought up in a city and loved companionship. Even when she did go to community events she found that she had nothing in common with her neighbours. Most of the local farmers’ wives had had little education and most had never been more than thirty miles away from their homes in their entire lives. The radio became her lifeline during the day. In the afternoons we both listened to ‘Listen with Mother’. But her biggest treat was the three weekly visit from the mobile library.
Cumbria has a long history of mobile libraries. Back in 1857 a man called John Sanderson became the first person to provide a ‘Perambulating Library’ service. He walked pushing a box of books on wheels around isolated Lake District villages every six weeks, rain or shine. He was once reported to have walked a hundred and fifty miles in two days. Subscribers paid a penny a month to use the service.

It was all the idea of a northern philanthropist called George Moore, who was interested in promoting literacy and wanted books to be available in remote communities. By the end of WW2 the library had become motorised and resembled a removal van on the outside.  Inside you had to climb up steep steps into a dark corridor lined on both sides with books. The librarian sat in a little cubicle behind the driver’s seat, ready to stamp your books in and out. My mother always borrowed her maximum allowance.
The Cumbrian dialect is unique; a chaotic mix of Old Norse, Anglo Saxon and Celtic, which didn’t begin to modernise until medieval times when a few new expressions crept in, and even now it still has its own counting system. It was, and is, as Melvyn Bragg observed, better understood in Oslo than in London. My father spoke it at work, in the auction ring, or when mixing with fellow Cumbrians in the community; my mother never. The farms she’d worked on as a landgirl were in lowland areas where dialect wasn’t generally spoken. She was also regarded as rather posh because she'd had elocution lessons at school to iron out her Tyneside accent, and now spoke a clear middle English. I was expected to speak like that at home, but at school and in the playground I talked the same as the rest of the children. When someone came to the door and asked my mother, ‘Ist tha thrang?’ I knew that they were asking if she was busy, though she sometimes couldn’t make out what was being said. Speaking so properly, reading so prolifically, my mother had no chance of being accepted as ‘one of them’ by the local women. She was marked as an off-comer.
But to the small child we all seemed happy. During the day my mother did her domestic chores and read her books; my father worked among the sheep. If he was going up to the crags in search of strays he sometimes took me with him, perched on his shoulders when my legs needed a rest. There was a ruined house that had once been a way-station for whisky smugglers, and an old track he said had been a drovers’ route across the Scottish Border. He would stand, wistfully, looking at it and I wonder now whether he was thinking that perhaps his unknown Irish drover grandfather might have once walked this route. In the country beyond the wall, over the White Lyne river, nature still ran unchecked. He showed me adders and grass snakes, identified moss cheepers, curlews and lapwings. Once, he got me out of bed at dawn to climb up to the crags to see the wild goats. We hid behind rocks to watch them graze, slithering across the scree in search of better fodder. The old Billy was enormous, with huge horns that curved up and back as wide as the span of my arms. They had been here since the Romans introduced them, he told me, and had gone feral. (Later I learned that he was wrong – they are even older than that. The Cheviot goat dates back to the Neolithic period, introduced by early nomadic tribes moving north after the ice age.) As the sun rose higher, the mist began to rise from the ground and obscured our view. The goats vanished into the cloud and I’ve never seen them since.

A family picnic with my grandparents. You can just see the roof of the croft
In the evenings, once I’d been put to bed, my parents read and listened to the radio. As there was only a thin, badly made wooden door between my bedroom and the living room, I listened to the radio too. They weren’t fans of the highbrow Third Progamme, preferring the diet of light classical music and factual information provided by the Light Programme, which had begun in 1945, and the Home Service – a fore-runner of Radio 4. Sunday lunch was always accompanied by the mellow voice of Cliff Michelmore and Two Way Family Favourites. Sometimes on Sundays in summer, we would put sandwiches in a basket and go up the fell for a picnic. My father turned his underpants back to front and went in the river to fish for minnows. Even my mother tucked up her dress and paddled in the freezing water.
My mother had more courage than any woman I’ve ever met. She had gone through the war fearing that at any moment her family might be bombed out of existence, lost her first husband, attempted a man’s share of manual farm work, and was now more lonely and isolated than she had ever been in her life. ‘You make your bed and you lie on it,’ she used to say to me. ‘I knew what life would be like with your father and I chose it.’ She swore that, given the chance, she would have made the same choice again. Later, much later, she changed her mind. She had been brought up, and every book she had read had conditioned her, to believe that a woman followed where a man led. Where it led was not always comfortable, particularly for children. I was not so compliant. I blamed her for years for some of the decisions that blighted our lives.

Feeding the calves before bed
The people who wrenched a living from the land around us, could trace their ancestry back into the murk of pre-history; they belonged to that land as we could not. Around Bewcastle people were known, not by their surnames. but by the names of their holdings. There was Bobby the Shop, who was the blacksmith at Shopford, Dick the Crew who farmed the holding above us with his brothers Watty, Johnny and Ted. Then there was Olive the Row who regularly invited my mother and I to tea. The tradition didn’t apply to offcomers like my parents, or to our social superiors. My father’s immediate boss was the land agent for the estate called the Captain, who lived, for some of the time, with his aristocratic wife and little daughter at the big farm house near the Flatt Lodge. The Captain was said to have had a ‘bad war’, and suffered from what we would now call PTSD. He could be very kind, but had a ferocious, unpredictable temper and sometimes disappeared from view for weeks on end.
       His wife was the same age as my mother, but class differences prevented them from ever becoming friends. I was sometimes invited to play with Lady Caroline, who was the same age as myself, but led a precious life, never allowed to go anywhere unless accompanied by a parent or nanny. I have photographs of us together – she has pretty curly hair, is dressed in children’s clothes from Harrods and tiny, buttoned, kid slippers, while I’m in a home made pinafore and hand-knitted jumper (probably with scabby knees!). She had a nursery playroom all to herself, and it was filled with toys, including a story-book rocking horse. I had so few toys I can’t even remember them, kept in a cardboard box in a corner of the living room. On library days, and occasionally if we needed to see the doctor, we would be given a lift to the village in the Captain’s vintage Rolls Royce. It was the first time I became aware of class difference and the sense of social hierarchy that ordered our rural community.
My mother’s social life had contracted to the narrow isolated community we found ourselves in. It never occurred to me, as a child that she had been lonely, but she was. I was out on the moors appearing only at mealtimes, my father was up on the fells shepherding sheep, leaving Mum at home alone with only the radio for company. The trite lines she copied into her commonplace book seem to indicate unhappiness, if not depression.

Somewhere the sun is shining,
Somewhere the skies are blue
Then what is the use of repining
Because they shine not on you.

     Mum didn’t find housework in any way fulfilling. She hated domestic chores but, being by nature dutiful, she swept and scrubbed and dusted conscientiously. There were no labour-saving devices, and no electricity to make things easy. Carpets were beaten on the washing line, flagged floors scrubbed with carbolic soap on her hands and knees. She often took refuge in religion, trying hard to make the work a grace. She talked to me about Martha and Mary and how Jesus had excused Mary from domestic chores, justifying it to her sister Martha because she had chosen a more valuable route to salvation. I knew which woman my mother identified with. A poem Mum found in a woman’s magazine was quoted often. ‘Lord of All Pots and Pans and Things’.

Make me a saint by getting meals and washing up the plates,
Although I must have Martha’s hands, I have a Mary mind,
And when I black the shoes Thy sandals Lord I find . . .
Warm all the kitchen with Thy love and Light it with Thy peace
Forgive me all my worrying and make my grumbling cease.

But there were some social occasions to dress up for. The village hall was the venue for any celebration of birth, marriage or death, as well as all the traditional feast days of the calendar, and the whole community came, whether invited or not. So long as you brought a ‘plate’ of something, you could come. And, once seated on the benches at the long trestle tables, across the plate cakes, victoria sponges, jellies and potted meats, people talked. Beyond the reach of electricity and far from any cinema or other forms of entertainment, everyone told stories, while others played folk tunes and jigs on the fiddle or the accordion. As children we were never excluded. Wherever the parents went, their children went, however late at night it was. I listened to George the Underwood, who had been born in 1858, talking vividly about the lime-burners on the moors, and the drovers who had brought the cattle down from Scotland. I also heard about someone nicknamed ‘Pipe Head’, a shepherd who lived even further out than we did, who was renowned for his appetite and not particular what he ate. His wife was once reported to have removed a dead rat from the butter churn before continuing to churn it.

the 8th century Bewcastle Cross

I heard tales about the winter of ‘47. How Billy the Hope had spent three days floundering through the snow with a horse and sled to fetch supplies for his starving family. His story, as they told it, was a tale worthy of a Greek epic. I learned about travelling teachers and dancing masters who boarded at the farms for a few weeks and taught the neighbourhood children for pennies and their keep, though it must have been nearly a hundred years since these itinerants stopped coming. It was still an oral culture and things lived on in the minds of those who told the tales. First nation people have a saying that when an elder dies part of their own history dies too, because of the stories and memories that are lost.  My grandparents had been born at the latter end of the nineteenth century, their parents in the 1850s, one or two of their grandparents predated Queen Victoria.  That's a long memory line.
My mother's mother is the little girl standing next to her father  in row 2

My father's Irish gt grandmother born in 1840.

At home, visits from grandparents, uncles and aunts, led to nights around the fireside talking. It was here that I learned my own family stories as I listened to my parents’ parents talking about ancestors who went across the sea on sailing ships to bring back cargos of bananas and marry exotic women, of others who drove herds of cattle from Ireland to London, how they despaired over errant children, disinherited their offspring and fought bitterly over religion. These were stories they had learned from their own grandparents. I was aware, even at five or six, that I was listening to an unbroken memory line going back two hundred years – stories passing like heirlooms from one generation to another. The tellers seemed to know exactly what my Irish great great grandmother Bridie had said to her daughter Frances Theresa when she came home with a baby she wasn’t supposed to have – fathered by a footman in the fine house at Warren Point where she was in service. The fancy rooms, the uniforms, the very porcelain crockery she washed in a lead-lined sink were all there in the story, leaping like a hologram in the firelight before my eyes. The account of my great great uncle Edward who had stood preaching the gospel of temperance outside his father’s pub on a Tyneside quay, was pure Catherine Cookson. It was hardly surprising that I grew up with a love of history, language and narrative that was somehow equated with the wild, untamed landscape beyond the kitchen door.


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