A phantom landscape

The French recherche means a quest, a search or enquiry. It suits me better than ‘research’ or ‘recollection’, as it comes closer to how I see the process of writing history. Recherche suggests how important impressions and surroundings can be, and how much rests on analysing conclusions and interpretations that other people have reached, considering different versions of the past. As for hard fact, of course there is such a thing in history, though often, as the historical quest presses on into new territory, facts are elusive and controversial. It’s rare that a question can be answered with a tape measure, in the way that the Bull Row matter was settled on Wednesday. 16 ft 6 inches, five metres. But then the real difficulty is, what to make of it? That is what history is.

Now this is why I like to pick away at the landscape. Very pleasingly, some of it is indeed easy to measure and define: the dimensions of Bull Row, the stone of which the houses were built, the roadside setting, the distances to collieries and other workplaces. Take all this together with photographs, the postcard of the street scene, the Ordnance Survey maps, and there is the start of understanding, appreciating a place, and seeing what it was to live there a century ago. What’s more, there is the bonus of an eye-witness account, Edith’s exceptional recollections of childhood in one of these houses.

But Edith can go only so far in satisfying the extent of our curiosity about the human aspects, our prying into how it was to exist in this struggling household. Living in the 1910s, writing in the 1970s, she had a sound insight into what interested the generations to come. But she could never re-capture the whole. There was so much more, never now to be voiced. This is a theatre with a ruined backdrop, fragments of a script, and the actors ghosts who speak no more.

In that world, poverty (that is, poverty by any modern measure) was everywhere. And almost everywhere it was half concealed behind the shallow respectability of clean windows and a front doorstep with rims coloured by donkey-stone, and indoors, a black-leaded kitchen range. So the daily struggle became more than financial.

The interior life is, it seems, largely beyond us. The exterior, though, the landscape, somehow manages to hold on to an imprint of what has gone. It’s a ghost of the past, and more real than a ghost. Parts of the setting have been destroyed, but there’s no exorcising the phantom.

And so it proved two days ago, on re-visiting familiar places. It felt like striking gold. There was the spectre of John Collier, James Matthews’s employer on Valley Road. His works and house are pretty well gone and abandoned, but the firm’s banner is easily visible on a gable end. And there was Strawberry Bank, the lane cut short when crossed by the railway in the 1840s. Part of the tiny eighteenth-century textile factory still stands, converted to a house. Replacing that older path, a tunnel under the railway is still open, leading into the site of Strawberry Bank colliery, partly reclaimed and overgrown. As Edgar saw, the surface buildings of Stanley pit, and the earlier Primrose Lane colliery, completely disappeared. It’s easy to recognise some of the spoil heaps, though, and the capped and fenced off shafts, on either side of Primrose Lane.


23 September 2016


John Collier, Valley Road; surviving section of Strawberry Bank mill, with detail; approaching the railway passage from the reclaimed site of Strawberry Bank colliery


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