Like many old dwellings, Keepers Cottage, Orgreave boasted a wooden threshold gently gouged concave with age, but not at the front door, through which I was ceremoniously carried, when we became its owners. No, this one had been fashioned by the tread of generations of feet passing between what were, at the end of our time there, the cottage’s commodious kitchen and its smaller, square, sitting room.
Up at the top, revealed when renovations began, the arrangement of the roof timbers, and the treatment of some of the brickwork in the loft, suggested to my father that the worn threshold might mark an old entrance point, where stoutly shod feet would have passed indoors from a dusty yard where the brick lined cylinder of the well we discovered still plunges secretly beneath a safe, thick, layer of concrete.
In the time of our predecessors of the last 200 years or more, this now internal doorway divided what were described as the “offices” of the scullery and sunken pantry from the busy living kitchen. This was the arrangement of rooms remembered by our older neighbour, from his childhood in the 1930s. Where a wood burner now cheered our television-watching evenings, once had burned a bright fire in the black-leaded range. Bill could still see his young self, with his friend Brian, warming themselves there, as they enjoyed a piece of bread and dripping thrust into their small hands by Brian’s mother, Mrs Johnson, the gamekeepers wife, to keep them quiet for just a minute. The boys wouldn’t sit still for long, eager to run back outside amongst the hedgerows of hawthorn and holly and the planted spinneys of aspen and Scots Pine, where Harold Johnson seasonally found wild partridge to nurture. The unfortunate hatchlings would be shot with great pleasure by Mr. Harrison and his aristocratic guests, come autumn. Bill recited some of the famous names who had been refreshed by Mrs Johnson’s comestibles and their own hip flasks in the “parlour” of our cottage, but I have forgotten who these tweedy, moustachioed Edwardians were. Despite my having no small amount of firearms training from my father, why should I identify with them?
I felt lucky to be given Bill’s word-portrait of the cottage’s former layout, but tangible evidence of the old life was already all around. See the bars at the pantry window, so that cool air could be let in but intruders kept out? And the salt-saturated walls, that still, decades later, bled stains into the renewed render and plaster. They were the legacy of the curing upon the thrall of the flesh of many a poor old piggy, reared a few strides away in what was our woodshed now. The low walls of the old sty had been raised in the 1960’s, according to the date neatly scratched by the Wychnor Estate’s builder in the concrete. The same effort of modernisation had seen an indoor bathroom installed, and almost swept away traces of the old privy, still covertly marked in our early days there by the scattered bricks of its footings and a vigorous patch of nettles, which love a nitrogen-rich earth to weave their nets of gingery roots through.
The arguments began immediately. Me, in favour of a meditatively slow soaking and scraping of the remnants of pre-war wallpaper from the undulating lime plaster surface of the walls and ceilings of the cottage bedrooms. He, my fiancé, an alarmingly masked and be-goggled alien, a colourful plastic carrier bag tied protectively over his curly hair, is armed with a scutch hammer. He loathes the old plaster I am trying to preserve. Back in the farm hand’s 400 year old tied cottage in Hickleton, Yorkshire, which, at 19 years old, he had begun his first married life with his late wife in 1963, the unsealed limestone walls had coughed dust into the air, to their constant annoyance. The dust might get worse before it gets better, but our old plaster, fortified with the hair of forgotten horses, has to go.
I watch sulkily at he kicks up a thick, choking, puther of pale pink particles. He abrades the chalky flesh from the venerable skeleton of Keeper’s Cottage over the course of the next couple of week-ends. The debris is wheelbarrowed down the garden, where, for years to come, it helps to raise the pH of the already hospitable loam of the vegetable plot. Earth to earth. He doesn’t hold back from throwing all of his considerable strength and energy into what he sees as this necessary job. These walls have perched sufficiently solidly on their sandstone block foundations for centuries, but now they rhythmically tremble because of a late-millenial desire for cleanliness and straight lines that I simply don’t share.
My father winced in time with those blows. He had considerable experience of working on old cottages round and about Lichfield, and he had an oft-repeated theory: that they stand up, despite their single-skin construction, despite any sags and twists in their structure, or even in seeming defiance of gravity, simply through the almighty “Force of Habit.”
You disrespect the proper, incremental pace of their movement at your peril. But Keepers Cottage survives, and now lives its next long day as yet another family’s home.
Now long ago, in the Summer months of 1991, whilst I still could, in the sitting room, before the excavation, before the plastic membrane, and, onto it, the gravelly retchings of concrete from the wheelbarrow, I took joy in the fact that the floor we inherited was still paved with red clay pammets. They were laid directly onto the sandy earth. When they were lifted, pieces of a broken clay pipe gleamed whitely beneath them like old chicken bones buried in the dust. I wheeled round on my heels in the little square room, in those early days, before we were married, wondering what my future life would be like in my new home. It was a comfortable thought that generations of housewifely shoes had pattered, long full skirts brushing around them, across these very blocks of terracotta, laid a very long time ago by a workman who paused in his labour to enjoy a screw of baccy through his clay pipe. For all I know, that stack of baked earth pieces that we removed, that jumbled floor, custodians of faint ghosts of a million purposeful footfalls, will remain piled at the edge of the garden where we left it in the lee of the Dutch barn, until frosty winters finally erode them beyond re-use.
Why the weight of meaning to stepping on the invisible footprints of the dead? I often thought about my predecessor, Mrs. Ivy Johnson as I trod where, in neat apron, so house-proud, she herself had daily trod for sixty years. I knew her at the end of her life. And I can read from the 1911 census that in that year, it was Mrs. Lizzie Blake, aged 30, who had watched through my windows for the return of her husband, the butler, George. Of her, I hold a detailed mental picture, although it may be almost entirely inaccurate. What of my earlier counterparts? Those who had bent over a cooking pot there, or, just as I did, as a prelude to the working day, brushed morning dew off the greenness of the singing springtime Staffordshire verges as they passed on an early walk?
They are a fellowship of anonymous individuals.
The wealthy and literate have left a surer trace of their movements in the locality. This time of year, in my later years at Orgreave, I was lucky enough weave my dreamy way through the bluebells that unfurled into a haze of sapphire charm around the grounds surrounding what used to be Yoxall Lodge, then open to visitors. I brought to mind the gentle poet John Gisborne, who was brought up there in the late 18th century, and continued passionately to love the natural beauty of Needwood Forest throughout his life. It was his brother Thomas who was to make the lodge his family home in adulthood. In the Autumn of 1806, according to a careful record of his life by his daughter, Emma, John Gisborne and his wife Millicent, (a step daughter of Erasmus Darwin), moved to Orgreave Hall from their home near Newborough, because they were appalled by the irresistible changes afoot as a result of forest enclosures.
When I was young, my dad would often drive us around the pretty lanes beyond Yoxall, within the bounds of the old Needwood for a Summer afternoon outing. The landscape of frothing hedgerows and little green fields seemed the epitome of an unadulterated rural landscape to me then. I knew nothing of “enclosure,” or that the weighty oaks surviving at the field corners, or displaying their imposing silhouettes to good advantage isolated amidst a field, were remnants of a once magnificent Forest of Needwood. The tall, attractive, Georgian farmhouses, built with lovely symmetry in that warm, familiar, plum-red brick, seemed as if they had grown out of the earth there, so well do they suit their position within their ring-fenced requisitioned acres, accessed from the arrow straight lanes that had been driven through the forest.
To my peasant antecedents of the district, seven or eight generations back, I now realise, they must have seemed like brutalist symbols of dispossession, their geometrical lines fierce in contrast to older, lower, rambling farmhouses near the sides of the winding lanes.
Sunday afternoon tea with a customer whose cottage at Hadley End my dad had worked on was a treat. There, I remember finding the new flavour of “granary” bread and butter an exciting revelation, and the glory of the antique-stuffed, gentrified, little cottage was very attractive, but necessitated walking sideways. Mom kept me well away from a marble bust positioned on a plinth, although it drew my attention mightily.
Hoar Cross Hall – not yet an hotel or “spa”- was newly open to the public in the early 70’s, and we visited many times in the following years. The eclectic mix of displays of arms and armoury, collections of period costume and textiles, and generally dusty and magically atmospheric corners in lofty panelled rooms meant that there was something there to fascinate each of us. The old family had gone from the grand, Elizabethan style house. We knew that they had been the fox-hunting Meynells, and that a pious widow of their number had commissioned the stunning Church of the Holy Angels near the hall, in memory of her husband. That woman was Emily Wood, who was born at Hickleton Hall, a century before and a mile away from where my future spouse entered the world. His family’s bread and butter – and jam and cheese – got onto their tables through the indirect agency of Emily’s relatives, the Lords Halifax, coal owners. They were also granted the tenancy of a spacious, modern house and garden, all in return for the hard labour that maimed and poisoned and choked their menfolk into early graves.
The church of St Michael and All Angels, adjacent to the old manor at Hamstall Ridware had captivated us even before the commercial enterprise of the “Ridware Arts Centre” opened in the early 1980’s. My mother, never usually given to spiritual pronouncements, declared the site of the bench outside the South front to be the most inspiring spot she knew, suffused with a feeling of auspicious calm.
With visitors encouraged in to purchase crafts and pottery in the barn, and to view the restoration of the stables and cart sheds surrounding the yard, it became possible to approach close to the old Manor House itself, sit in its garden, and wander around the detached Tudor tower and incongruous gatehouse, too. The nearby looming mass of Rugeley Station is barely perceptible from the village, and 30 years ago, when the lanes suffered less traffic, and the new-builds had only just begun to sprout, you could imagine that the appearance of Hamstall Ridware had changed little in the 200 years since the Leighs finally ceased maintaining the manor house as a residence, if you were to ignore the gradual deforestation of the surrounding land.
Closely related via their Leigh family connections, in 1806, the Rector of Hamstall Ridware, Edward Cooper received a lengthy visit from his – later – more famous cousin, Jane Austen. The as yet unpublished writer spent five summer weeks in the rectory along with her mother, and sister Cassandra, as guests of Edward, his wife, and their children. Some scholars have found many parallels between the landscape of the Ridwares with the fictional Dorsetshire village of Delaford in her novel “Sense and Sensibility”. Indeed “Ridware” means “dwellers by the ford.” Others see a less than flattering portrait of Edward Cooper in her portrayal of Elizabeth’s unsuccessful, pompous suitor, Mr Collins, in “Pride and Predudice,” although local Midland obituaries of him on his death in 1833 seem sincerely complimentary.
Apart from the evidence of her later fiction, we have no record of Jane Austen’s activitiesin Staffordshire , her most Northerly sojourn. Other of Reverend Cooper’s visitors described outings to Tutbury Castle, to Lichfield, or making visits to notable local families such as the Ardens in Yoxall, (descendants of relatives of Shakespeare’s mother), so it is easy to presume that Jane and her family enjoyed these diversions too. But was the modest Queen Anne mansion of Orgreave Hall of sufficient interest to warrant the short enough carriage ride from Hampstall? Did the kid leather slippers of our most feted female novelist make contact with the grounds I walked in on a thousand mornings?
One of Edward Cooper’s closest friends and neighbours was Thomas Gisborne of Yoxall Lodge. For the two friends, along with Thomas’s brother John, 1806 was a year of bitter disappointment. The meetings and the protests that they had attended in opposition to the enclosure of Needwood Forest had been in vain, and the act that facilitated it was passed by parliament. Edward’s intelligent, sociable cousin could not fail to be interested in the contentious issue of local enclosures. Did her cousin’s fellow campaigner, John Gisborne invite her to view the home he was to move to in just a few weeks’ time, to escape the excruciating sight of the destruction of his beloved Needwood?