27 May 2015


By The River Derwent in Coppice Wood
The weather forecasters got it right on Tuesday afternoon. Grey skies gave way to sunshine. After visiting my desperate friend Higgy to deliver eight cans of "Red Stripe" lager and a "Guardian" newspaper, I set off for the Derbyshire village of Grindleford - just six miles from home. It was 5pm when I got there.
Scratching post
I parked up in the recreation ground car park, donned my trusty boots and crossed the village's old stone bridge over The River Derwent. Then keeping to the river bank, I set off along the edge of sheep pastures to Coppice Wood. The lambs are growing fat now as they munch on sweet spring grass.

In Coppice Wood I reached a junction of paths and headed up towards Grindleford Station. Just after the railway bridge I saw a wonderful carpet of bluebells in ground that must have been cleared a couple of years back. This was on the edge of Rough Wood which was magical in the late afternoon sunshine. The six o'clock train from Hathersage flashed past on the nearby track - heading to Sheffield via Totley Tunnel.

The eye of an old stone gatepost near Grindleford
Then I turned left on the path that leads to Kettle House where a white horse and a little black one were feeding on a bundle of dry hay that their owner had just delivered. Back under the Hope Valley railway line and along to a farmhouse called Harper Lees. But no mockingbirds there. Some sheep were using an old stone gatepost as a scratching place. It must be infuriating not having fingers to scratch with.

Then along through more sheep pastures and back to Coppice Wood. Along the riverside I noticed pied wagtails flitting from rock to rock and a yellowy coloured bird that I couldn't immediately identify and there were wild ducks too - swimming against the current.

Back through the pastures to Grindleford. A two and a half hour ramble punctuated only by photo opportunities and by the time I got back to Sheffield, Shirley was still not home from her "super late" shift at the medical centre. I am finding that if I don't get regular walks in, it's like missing a "fix" so the Grindleford walk was probably essential for my spiritual well-being as I hadn't been out and about since last Thursday when I wandered around Darfield, Thurnscoe and Great Houghton - once the very heart of The South Yorkshire Coalfield.
A carpet of bluebells near Rough Wood. This photograph has not been touched up in any way
Old cast iron footpath sign in Grindleford
Harper Lees
At Kettle House
Derwent Valley View

26 May 2015


DIY. Not Lady Diana, The Queen of Hearts but DIY as in Do It Yourself.

This semi-detached house we inhabit in the south western suburbs of Sheffield was built in 1925. It may have been the first owner who had an obsession with embedding old bricks and stones in the garden. I have dug up hundreds of them over the years.

But just beyond our decking, there was a strip of the garden that I had never properly tackled. Grass had overgrown what had once been a rough little path. I could tell this simply by pronging my garden fork down to the hard stuff that lay just beneath the surface. It was in my mind to do something about this area last summer but I had a knee injury and it wouldn't have been wise to do too much kneeling.

However, recently I have been feeling as fit as a butcher's dog - no knee problems - and with oodles of motivation in my fuel tank, I felt ready to begin the little garden project.

With the aid of a pick axe and sledge hammer, I removed all the stones from beneath the surface. To be carried away, a few of them would have needed two men. Lord knows what they once were but the cut marks speak of far distant times. Stone endures and it tends to get recycled so that if they could speak old stones would have fascinating stories to tell. Those stones I lifted will still be going strong long after we have all passed away.

Anyway, back to practical matters. With the stones all gone I set about laying a new path with block paving stones that I had had delivered from Paget's builder's yard on Broadfield Road. As our ground is clay rich, I didn't bother with a gravel and sand bed for the pavers. They are quite heavy  and after removing the turf,  I just butted them up against each other in a kind of jigsaw. making sure they were as level as possible. 

Then I set about building a little soil retaining wall using some of the stones I had dug up and also eight Victorian edging stones that I liberated from my son's house near to the Sheffield United football ground. I also had to shift a heavy stone trough that came from Holme Farm in Gunthorpe, Lincolnshire. That was where Shirley grew up and where her father and grandfather farmed all their lives. I also made a little stone shelf for an old grindstone that I found when I kept an allotment on Hagg Hill by Rivelin Valley Road - years ago.

I rebuilt the drystone wall beneath the decking and dug over the earth that had lain beneath the buried stones. Then I forked in a couple of sacks of compost before spreading four bags of topsoil over the surface.

Now after numerous sessions of labour over a period of two weeks, we were ready for the proverbial icing on the cake. Yesterday afternoon, we drove up to Bent's Green Nursery where Shirley and Frances - who was home for the weekend - picked various bedding plants to go in what is now a sunny new flower border. Last night I was still planting up at nine o'clock and this morning I watered the new plants in. By May 26th the danger of late frosts is almost certainly gone. We are on the very verge of summer.

It's nice to have a vision of something and then to see it through to completion. I know my little DIY project is not going to make it into the pages of any glossy garden magazines. Nor do I expect a visit from Prince Charles any time soon. What I did may appear unexceptional but it has improved our tiny bit of the planet and  having done it all by myself, I am pleased as punch with the end result.

25 May 2015


"Elliott". That is the name inscribed on Ebenezer Elliott's statue in Weston Park, Sheffield. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the statue's sponsors must have imagined that his fame was such that his surname would be sufficient. This statue used to stand in the middle of the city's old marketplace near the remains of Sheffield Castle but twenty five years after its erection it was moved to Weston Park, opposite The Children's Hospital. This may have been due to redevelopment of the city centre though perhaps that theory is rather too convenient.

You have probably never heard of Ebenezer Elliott and indeed the guardians of British cultural history may have conspired to reduce him to a mere footnote. But in his day Ebenezer Elliott was a giant of the literary world and revered throughout the land as "The People's Poet" or "The Corn Law Rhymer". He was self-taught and at first his poetry focussed upon the natural world but he was born in a time of political turmoil as the working people of Great Britain began to turn against their masters and demand better working and living conditions. As a consequence his poetry began to follow that theme.

He spoke up for the downtrodden and lobbied for social change. And the working classes embraced his verse. It was recited in taverns and work places, pored over in candlelight. This was not the introspective verbal wordplay of an ivory tower poet, it was outgoing and connected to the communities he knew. It was about the repeal of unjust laws and it appealed to those in power to mend their ways. A rallying cry that was heard throughout the land and even further afield.. No wonder the burghers of Sheffield wanted to put him on a stone pedestal after he had passed away.

Born in Masbrough near Rotherham in 1781, he died on December 1st 1849 in his retirement cottage at Hargate Hill near Great Houghton which is a village to the south east of Barnsley.  He was buried in nearby Darfield All Saints churchyard which I visited last week. I would like to think that his funeral was well-attended but perhaps that winter the masses that he had spoken up for were unaware that he had been sidelined to Great Houghton where in his last years he mostly pottered about in his vegetable garden living a  humble country life that echoed his childhood.

The People's Anthem
by Ebenezer Elliott (1847)

When wilt thou save the people?
Oh, God of mercy! when?
Not kings and lords, but nations!
Not thrones and crowns, but men!
Flowers of thy heart, oh, God, are they!
Let them not pass, like weeds, away!
Their heritage a sunless day!
God! Save the people!

Shall crime bring crime for ever,
Strength aiding still the strong?
Is it thy will, oh, Father,
That man shall toil for wrong?
"No!" say thy mountains; "No!" thy skies
"Man's clouded sun shall brightly rise,
And songs be heard, instead of sighs."
God, save the people!

When wilt thou save the people?
Oh, God of Mercy! when?
The people, Lord, the people!
Not thrones and crowns, but men!
God! save the people! thine they are,
Thy children, as thy angels fair:
Save them from bondage, and despair!
God, save the people!

The poem parodies The National Anthem and quite a number of Elliott's poems were set to music. But as well as being blatantly political, he could also be sweet and domestic. Here's a sentimental poem he wrote about returning to the village of Masbrough after many years away. It reveals an interesting picture of early nineteenth century rural life before the cities and industry began their unstoppable march:-

Rural Rambles - The Village
by Ebenezer Elliott

Sweet village! where my early days were pass'd,
Though parted long, we meet, we meet at last!
Like friends, imbrown'd by many a sun and wind,
Much changed in mien, but more in heart and mind,
Fair, after many years, thy fields appear,
With joy beheld, but not without a tear.
I met thy little river miles before
I saw again my natal cottage door:
Unchanged as truth, the river welcomed home
The wanderer of the sea's heart-breaking foam;
But the changed cottage, like a time-tried friend,
Smote on my heart-strings, at my journey's end.
For now no lilies bloom the door beside!
The very house-leek on the roof hath died;
The window'd gable's ivy bower is gone,
The rose departed from the porch of stone;
The pink, the violet, have fled away,
The polyanthus and auricula!
And round my home, once bright with flowers, I found
Not one square yard, one foot of garden ground.
Path of the quiet fields! that oft of yore
Call'd me at morn on Shenstone's page to pore;
Oh! poor man's pathway! where, 'at evening's close,'
He stopp'd to pluck the woodbine and the rose,
Shaking the dew-drop from the wild-brier bowers,
That stoop'd beneath their load of summer flowers,
Then eyed the west, still bright with fading flame,
As whistling homeward by the wood he came;
Sweet, dewy, sunny, flowery footpath, thou
Art gone for ever, like the poor man's cow!
No more the wandering townsman's Sabbath smile,
No more the hedger, waiting on the stile
For tardy Jane; no more the muttering bard,
Startling the heifer near the lone farm-yard;
No more the pious youth, with book in hand,
Spelling the words he fain would understand,-
Shall bless thy mazes, when the village bell
Sounds o'er the river, soften'd up the dell.
Here youngling fishers, in the grassy lane,
Purloin'd their tackle from the brood-mare's mane;
And truant urchins, by the river's brink,
Caught the fledged throstle as it stoop'd to drink;
Or with the ramping colt, all joyous play'd,
Or scared the owlet in the blue-ball shade.
The grave of Ebenezer Elliott in Darfield churchyard
He is buried with his wife - Frances Gartside.

This post was written in honour of Ebenezer Elliott and in hope that he will still be remembered in years to come. His story, his legacy and his poetry deserve  more singing.

24 May 2015


The 24th of May. It was my mother's birthday. She would have been ninety four today. And back in 2008 it was the day on which Shirley's mother, Winnie, died. That very day Hull City made it to The Premier League for the first time - beating Bristol City in The Championship play-off final at Wembley. The 24th of May 1959 was the day that Shirley was christened. In the past, and this was something my mother was quite proud of, May 24th was celebrated throughout the British Empire for it was Empire Day - a public holiday and a day for parties. Mum said that it was on one particular Empire Day that she saw and tasted an orange for the very first time.

Back in 1819 on May 24th, Queen Victoria was born and later today - May 24th - ny team - Hull City will learn their fate for next season as they take on Manchester United in their last fixture of the season while Newcastle United take on West Ham. It is us or them but the odds are on The Tigers to go down. Boo hoo! Only a year ago we were in our first F.A. Cup Final.

Apart from the usual significant days, do you have any other special dates when things just seem to happen?

22 May 2015


In my salad days, I travelled many hundreds of miles free of charge. I stuck out my thumb and almost magically, vehicles pulled in to pick me up. Actually, it was rarely as simple as that. Often I would have to wait ages for a "ride" like the desperate chap in the picture above.

Hitchhiking out of London back to the fair land of UpNorth was always a challenge but my late and much missed brother Paul taught me what to do. You had to catch the tube to Finchley North and then jump on a particular London bus that took you very close to Junction 1 of the M1 motorway. Then after waiting on the slip road for a short while you'd be on your way out of The Smoke and back to reality.

I hitchhiked long distances - up to Inverness and to The Isle of Mull, all the way round Ireland and across to Wales. Being at university in Scotland meant I would often hitchhike up and down from Yorkshire - saving train fares and making a little money at the same time for in those days students could claim back from the local council the equivalent of three return rail fares a year.

You never knew who would pick you up. It was all so beautifully random. Lorry drivers were a favourite. Their employers hadn't thought about anti-hitchhiker regulations or insurance restrictions and many men liked to have somebody to chat with  to help the tedious miles pass by.

I could tell you a lot about hitchhiking techniques and share stories of especially kind drivers who bought me meals or went out of their way to drop me off at more convenient places or about "rides" I had in America, Iceland, France and even Easter Island where some drunken Rapa Nui natives took me across the island in a battered old Toyota that had no seats in the back - just a big brown dog called Felix who stared at me as if I were a tasty carcass. And there was that single woman by the roadside in Glencoe, Scotland with a cardboard sign that said "No Fleas!" where you might have expected "Edinburgh" or "John o' Groats".

In contrast, my son Ian has had virtually no experience of hitchhiking. It is a different world these days and you just don't see anything like the number of hitchhikers you used to do. Apart from anything else, drivers have become afraid of strangers. Hitchhikers might rob you, steal your car, engage you in unwanted sexual activity or grab the steering wheel and force the vehicle off the road. Such is the mythology. Stranger danger. As a society, we used to be so much more open and trusting.

Anyway, in the summer of 2004 Ian and I flew over to Ireland to see Paul and his family in County Clare. I had a hire car and one sunny afternoon after a trip to Galway City, just outside the village of Kilcolgan we saw an older man with his thumb out by the side of the road. I quickly assessed him -as you do - and he looked fine - a good candidate for a free lift . I guess I thought it would show Ian some of the beauty of hitchhiking - people helping one another out. Random strangers.

As soon as this grey-haired fellow got in the car I whispered "Oh no!" to myself. He was as drunk as a Tory MP after day of  grouse shooting. Pissed as a newt and angry with it. Coming from deep in the bogland of western Ireland his speech would have been hard enough to decipher at the best of times but now it was all slurred so it sounded like a foreign language. He was speaking Guinnessish.

We were just taking him back to his home on the outskirts of Ballyvaughan - ten mile away. It should have been easy but he wanted to make an argument of it and the fact that we were English seemed to wind him up no end. But this wasn't the worst of it. 

The fellow's non-hitchhiking hand was bleeding. It was wrapped in reams of toilet paper and through his jumble of indecipherable utterances I worked out that he had been in a fight in a pub in Kilcolgan. He kept putting his bloody left mitt on Ian's front seat and the head rest too. Ian was leaning forward, slightly petrified by the beer monster in the back. I think he was called Paddy.

It was an enormous relief when we dropped Paddy off and drove away. There was so much blood on Ian's seat that he got in the back. Fortunately, when we got back to Paul's house we were able to clean the blood off. The upholstery must have been protected with some kind of spray guard. I think the incident will have put Ian off ever picking up a hitchhiker in the future. Not quite what my spur of the moment act of kindness as meant to achieve.

19 May 2015


Growing up in my East Yorkshire village, I was economically disadvantaged in comparison with my teenage peers. At fifteen, nearly all of them were working - on apprenticeships or otherwise employed. They had money in their pockets having truly entered the adult world. On the other hand, I was still at school, stumbling along in the sixth form to my A level exams. I had little money.

So for about three years I became a regular babysitter. It was very easy "work". The wives left me food and drink, the children rarely woke up and I could either watch TV or get on with some homework task.

At one house there were two little girls and in all the dozens of times I undertook babysitting duties there I don't think they ever woke up. At another house, there was a little boy with a brilliant first name - Neil. Once in a while he sneaked downstairs and sat on my knee while I read him a bedtime story. Like all Neils, he was a delightful child.

Years later, that same little boy had become a strapping young man and was working as an aviation technician with the Royal Airforce. He approached me unexpectedly in a pub, so pleased to see me though at first I had no idea who he was. Touchingly, he remembered those babysitting nights with great affection, sitting on my knee sharing stories..

In those now far off days there were no mobile phones so when the parents left the house there was no way I could get in touch with them. Furthermore, in those days of yore most of us knew nothing about paedophilia. It just wasn't on our radar. So the parents who employed me as a babysitter had no worries about leaving their precious offspring in the care of a hormone-fuelled teenage lad.

Nowadays, I am very conscious of sensitivities surrounding child abuse. I have seen it in people's eyes. They don't have to say a word. Yesterday I was near a primary school in north east Derbyshire just as the children were leaving and there were several parents waiting around. As I walked by, I studiously avoided eye contact with any of the children. It's too risky to do otherwise even though the prevalence of child abuse in our society has been massively exaggerated. Ninety nine per cent of men are disgusted by the idea of paedophilia and mean absolutely no harm to any children they encounter.

Tomorrow evening I will be babysitting again for a thirty something mother who lives across the road from us. She has two delightful little girls and a not so delightful absent husband who is in the final stages of divorcing her in favour of a German dominatrix he met on a business trip to the state of Baden-W├╝rttemberg in Deutschland. No doubt Cath will give me her mobile number and though she knows me quite well, I am pretty sure that the spectre of child abuse will have fluttered briefly on her mind's screen. That's how it is these days.

18 May 2015


It was probably intended to save water and perhaps to prevent flooding in non-domestic lavatories or "washrooms". I am thinking about the push tap. You must have encountered this incredible invention yourself. Only, it is not so incredible is it?

My experience of push taps has been like this. Firstly, I have soap on my hands and I press the tap only to find that there is no delay in the system. It's okay when the tap is pressed - the water flows - but immediately upon release the water stops and you are left with soap on your hands.

Secondly, the temperature of the water may be unbearably hot so you can't wash your hands under the push tap. Thirdly, after pressing, the push tap won't stop working as the continuously flowing water gushing from it threatens to empty the local reservoir.

I can only imagine that the push tap was invented by Margaret Thatcher, Joseph Goebbels or some equally horrible individual intent on bringing misery to the western world. Another despicable invention you find in "washrooms"is the electric hand drier but please don't get me started on those damned things.