Back to our roots 3

Back to our roots (part three)

Green shoots of optimism

   Water and chips attract visitors, particularly when the sleet abates. Such is the case at Hollingworth Lake on the outskirts of Littleborough. When I was a lad it was just a lake but nowadays it's a tourist trap – a place for townies to get some fresh air and devour heart-stopping grub. Consequently when the sun shines it's busy – much busier than I remember.

   It turns out that what we now have is a revival. Built as a feeder for the Rochdale Canal it was actually developed as a tourist resort in the 1860s. At the height of it's popularity, helped by the arrival of the nearby railway, the lake boasted three lake steamers and visitors flocked from Manchester, Bradford and Leeds.

   Look at this! This was written in Davenport's guide in Victorian times:

   “As you step on the embankment, which is considerable and scarcely looks artificial, the broad expanse of water at once presents itself to your vision. Your first feeling on beholding it is that of astonishment that so vast a basin, lying in that cup of hills, should not have become known to you before. ... You will see Blackstone Edge to the east, towering above its fellows, and preaching from its rocky pulpit sermons to the solitude around.”

   And I had the cheek to think it was just a lake! I suppose we have to bear in mind that in those days most people spend twenty-three hours a day under a flying shuttle. Everybody would have been exhausted and likely deaf so appreciation of the lake and pretty Pennine hills would have held more allure.

   It's now in it's second heyday (if you can have more than one) which started when it became an official Country Park back in 1974. Visitors are welcoming of, in ascending order of 'attractiveness', amusement arcade, chippies, restaurants, pubs, the lake, a wildlife conservation area and the surrounding beauty. These days cars bring visitors and surrounding roads get a bit clogged when the sun shines but the point is that we have something worth visiting and we should be proud of that.

   Some things are faster, like the dash for the open surgery during a snuffle epidemic. Some things are slower, like buses trapped on the A58, a clogged artery between Littleborough and Rochdale – basically a long, thin car park. Some things are more frustrating, like trying to find a village-centre parking spot or traversing a street where those unable to find a designated spot (or can't be bothered to walk a few yards) abandon expensive vehicles wherever they feel like it.

   But reassuringly some things trundle on as before in the name of fun, good causes or social networking. These nuggets (referred to in the previous article) have always been there, it's just that they are rather harder to find these days.

   Local Knight, Sir Charge A Lot, a solicitor of some billing aptitude, is head of the local Round Table. The Townswomen's Guild (TG) still dispense beverage and biscuit with determination and coiffured diligence. You can still get a good pint of ale - though one in particular is proving to be a bit dangerous. It's offered by a local establishment that brews it's own beers, including a strong lager at about 8%. According to a friend it's the local equivalent of poteen (or potcheen). He (only) had four pints and staggered home. Disturbingly, as the brew continued to mature he begun to have hallucinations and spent most of the night wide awake fending off imaginary invaders. I worked with him the following day and he had that thousand yard stare, as if he'd just survived a particularly nasty battle. The opportunity for a good meal has increased. At least two new eateries have recently opened their doors and have great reviews on the local discussion pages (where you get found out pretty quickly if you put a foot wrong). You can also walk the canal towpath or trek in the hills.

   U3A (University of the Third Age) is a relatively new institution where folks of a certain age can learn new skills and participate in group activities, learn Latin or have a bash at the ukulele for example. The local branch is only a couple of years old but has nearly outgrown it's 100+ meeting room, so popular has it proved.

   Other things seem to have disappeared into the mists. When was the last time you saw a hopscotch grid? Been a while I bet and there are probably sound explanations why. Firstly, youngsters can play virtual hopscotch, prodding away with lightening-fast fingers from the comfort of an unmade bed in mission control. If they did venture outside they'd likely be arrested for chalking the pavement - after washing off dog leftovers. But before that they'd need to find a level bit. Despite personal injury lawyers best efforts they are maintained worse than the roads. Any child under four feet tall is in danger is hopping straight down a pot-hole never to be seen again. They would join the ghosts of their forebears deep underground hacking away at a coal seam. Friends would record another's demise on a gadget, post it on Facebook and share a giggle. What's not to like? Then there are taxis parked on the footpaths and 4 x 4s passing at such speed youngsters are likely to be sucked off the pavement by a vortex. Safer to watch telly.

   There is a glimmer of light. Kids play football on the pitches near our house egged on by eager parents. They're certainly learning from their professional counterparts judging by the pile of discarded water bottles strewn about after the weekend. But it's great to see youngsters charging about, free of electronic comfort blankets for a while. Mind you, they're a pitch down on yesteryear because one has been turned (expensively) into a swamp. It's actually part of a flood-alleviation scheme where a pitch was excavated to create a six-feet-deep pan. Although it prevents people's gardens flooding up the hill it now floods an  ex-football pitch instead. Looking optimistically there could be twitcher potential here? Cranes, razor bills and egrets could break their journey between Blackburn and Huddersfield attracted by this new wonder-wetland. Townhouse Mere Wildlife Swamp - has a ring to it I feel.

   Local services are rather hit and miss. At the end of our avenue there is a street light in danger of becoming overwhelmed by rampant foliage. The light failed so one of our neighbours phoned the utility company and the light was repaired within a day. Spurred on by this success he then called the council to have the trees trimmed back so the light could operate at maximum efficiency and illuminate the adjacent swamp.

   'Certainly,' said the polite official, 'we'll put you in the waiting list.'

   'Wonderful!' replied our neighbour, 'how soon do you think you'll be able to get here?'

   'The waiting list is currently four years.'

   When we bought our little house it had seven wheelie bins – seven! As far as I'm aware was the only domicile in town where the bins were worth more than the house. One was pinched and I gave another away (to someone else who'd had one pinched) so we're now down to manageable proportions - plus the waste food bin of course. Gone are the days when one metal bin was humped into a foetid truck by operatives with Herculean strength. These days things generally are more disposable – like fridges and televisions and more detritus seems to end up in country lanes. The cost of disposal is the problem, it's easier to open your van's back doors on a slight incline than pay to go to the tip.

   In Holland, where we lived for a spell, they are VERY strict on waste disposal. You drive up to the tip, your car is weighed and you're charged on both the weight and recyclability of what you're dumping. Wood is free, old insulation is expensive. But the policing is diligent and fines hefty for those breaking the rules. Holland is flat and the majority of people live in the south west of the country, it's like a snooker table with a leg missing. But it's a very clean country, almost to the point of sterility. Where we are now is rather more ramshackle and hilly – and I prefer that.

   Littleborough is a large village and expanding. We could really do with a road-widening scheme to help us get in and out. Sadly that's unlikely because it would mean the compulsory purchase of a couple of thousand road-side houses and shops and the odd church. What we do have is a glimpse of yesteryear as cobbles are revealed where previous years' road-patching has given up the ghost.

   Our high street shops are all occupied and a good mix they are too. Yes there's one  'budget' shop (where you can pick up a variant of a well-known toothpaste, with Cyrillic writing on it) but also quality establishments like bakers, a deli, butchers. There are a couple of 'designer' clothes places too - I'm told that at least one Coronation Street star visits. Is that a recommendation?

   One thing that has changed in the last generation is the exponential rise in consumer goods designed to make us more anti-social. TV's, fancy phones and portable entertainment gadgets all enable us to inhabit a virtual world where personal contact is rendered unnecessary. The authorities have considerately removed most post boxes so gadgeteers watching a 'big-bottomed-lady video' don't crash into a pillar. We scrimp, save or borrow to buy the biggest, fanciest accessories so we can watch and listen to an ever-increasing back catalogue of drivel in splendid isolation.

   A friend of ours came to dinner the other night and he was wearing a 'smart' watch. It was a monster and permanently illuminated (so people have to ask about it). A marvellous piece of kit indeed. It had GPS (global positioning satellite) technology which tells you, at the press of a button, whether you are in the kitchen or the lounge. Plus, not only will it warn you that your heart-beat is reaching danger levels while walking to the chippy, it also tells you if it's raining. I'd not come across one before so did a little research. Apparently you can search the internet and get 'important notifications sent straight to your wrist' (!!?). Apparently you can pay for your groceries without getting your wallet out. I can see me having a row with mine when it fails to recognize my pin number while standing at the front of a busy line, 'no you thick moron, I said 65**.'

   It's not only the capital cost of these things, its the on-going subscriptions. Well over a thousand pounds a year – more in many cases (considerably less in ours). That's very nearly a train ticket to Cornwall for goodness sake. I worked at a house recently and they had four TVs all better than ours – and ours isn't bad. Smart is the in word.

   Anything I really want to watch on TV is subscription only – sport mainly. Though I realize that balls is not everyone's cup of tea, it's something that I would have to pay for if I was so inclined (or adequately solvent). My alternative is watching a bunch talentless dipsticks arguing over the (staged) cost of antiques or overblown cookery experts using ingredients that any self-respecting health expert tells us will kill us. For those on and around the minimum wage, and there are plenty of them, you have to work for the thick end of a month to pay for your gadget's subscriptions. There's not much smart about this as far as I can see. 

   So what's improved in the last twenty years? Well, the availability of stuff perhaps. Shopping is easier (if you can get there) with the advent of more competition and choice of goods. Our German friends have shaken the traditional outlets out of any complacency they may have had. We can now buy buffalo and reindeer or procure fruit and exotic veggies year round. And of course you can shop on-line. Without doubt there are savings to be made compared to the high street but it's a bit too easy to surf on your gadget and end up buying what normally would only have been a 'possible'. However, thanks to the rise in courier companies, it's easy (too easy?) to return goods. I've heard that people buy an article of clothing, wear it once, then send it back. Wouldn't have happened in the gentlemen's outfitters of times past. I can only imagine the proprietors response if I took back a jacket with a ketchup smear on it.

   My brother-in-law wanted a radio so I suggested a DAB type. Now whether that was good advice or not is open to question but I went to buy him one from a major electronics retailer. They had a number of models in stock and a few in our price range, so I asked for a demonstration. All except one sat there and hissed at us - and that was playing Punjabi music. I pointed out to the (very helpful) assistant that this wasn't over-promising. 'They don't work inside this building very well,' she said, 'it's the roof I think.'

   'Oh,' I replied, 'my brother-in-law has a roof. Will he have to sit in his back yard to listen to something?'

   I paid a few quid extra and bought a water-resistant model, just in case.

   The best things are still free. Fresh air hereabouts or the innocent smiles and sparkly eyes of our grandsons (unless they are teething or have the shits when they are best left alone). Seeing my brother-in-law chuckle (while sitting outside in the drizzle listening to his new radio) is a joy after the hand he's been dealt. We still have pockets of snowdrops and daffs which haven't been buried under concrete and brick. Cherry blossom still dazzles in our park and we're fighting the designer dog poo battle with determination on many fronts (or rears). Yes, the local park is a gem. We meet dog-walkers and see kiddies playing in the play area. As far as I can tell it's all kept clean and tidy by a lone lady park-keeper who does a fine job charging about in her high-viz gear.

   The park was originally the private garden of Hare Hill House, home to a wealthy local businessman in times gone by. The house is being restored by volunteers for the benefit of the community and was snatched from the clutches of the local council who wanted to turn it into flats (or apartments - they would have been a bit posh to call flats). My wife and I volunteer at social functions at the house. She as a waitress / hostess where she banters with guests. She's a bit of a character and at the most recent function wore a large pair of butterfly wings and coloured her hair green with chalk paint in deference to St. Patrick whose birthday we were all using as an excuse to get sozzled. I help out on the bar (which is a bit like sticking a camel in an oasis). The other volunteers are a great bunch from a variety of backgrounds with a varied selection of skills, some of them relevant. But we all have something in common – doing something for nothing for the benefit of the village. That is not meant to sound pompous or self-righteous, it's fun, with nice people. I think we all get a cosy feeling when a function goes well. We're reminded that we need to keep at it because at the Irish function rain water dripped into a couple of buckets behind the bar, a symptom of the knackered roof.

   You see, it takes time to come to terms with all the frustrating stuff, but when you do, there are gems. Overall we're getting there. My problem is that I was basing 'now' on 'then' and I can't do that – things are not the same, never will be, however much I wish it. We have to adapt and live today.

   I bumped into a friend with whom I used to play cricket and golf. He now goes crown-green bowling. 'Come along,' he says, 'its fun. We generally play for an hour or so then go for a pint.'

   Now that sounds more like it.

   Dawn, it appears, is breaking.

   © Jo May 2017