Jam so thick it sticks to an upside down spoon. Cream so thick it stays in the shape you mould it, and scones that taste like soft shortbread.
The signs were so tempting that in the end we pulled into a small tearoom just off a winding lane a few miles from Oakhampton next to Dartmoor.
The moment one of the two grey haired ladies who came to serve us spoke, I recognised the accent. Lancashire people roll their words in the palms of their hands before they speak them. Anyone not from there should ask them to say the word ‘mill’, and it will come out pre-packaged with generations of hard pressed peoples, the clacking of looms and the sweet scent of meadows well watered by the Westerlies.
“Why did you move down here?” I asked.
“Oh because we love the moors” on replied.
“What about the Forest of Bowland?”
There was a bit of a pause before one asked, “Is that abroad?”.
A quick glance at Audrey told me to move off the subject.
“Yes.” I said. “Two cream teas please.”
Our first tour of Lancashire was the first tour of our new career as singers/musicians, and it was a disaster. If we hadn’t booked up three tours already, we would have packed up there and then I think. More than half the clubs had double booked or closed, and where we had calculated that we needed £150 a month to pay all our expenses, we came away with about £50.
It was a very quiet tour, and so was the journey home.
Lessons come at a price, and if you aren’t prepared to pay, you will never learn them nor progress beyond them.
The next tour in Lancashire came with returned contracts for every booking, with a clause written in that if the club double books, we still get the full fee even it we didn’t play a single note.
No-one double booked, no club had closed down, and it was an excellent tour.
Someone once told me that there were Ospreys near Oswestry, and since then I have to do a double take on the name and decide which one is the town.
We either did a radio interview in Oswestry, or met someone, or did a gig there. Who knows now, but I remember it was getting a little late as we left the town and headed out to find a place to put up the tent. The nearest likely looking place was The forest of Bowland, so we headed that way.
As the time got to 4.pm so Audrey became a bit scratchy. She had an awesome intellect, but practical things required a lot of thought. I was the other way round, and you could blindfold me, tie my left hand to my right ankle, and I could still erect the tent in a force 5 gale. One of the few things that made me scratchy was Audrey getting scratchy!
“Ok just pull in at the next gate and I’ll go and ask” I said irritably.
It was usually my choice as to which farm we should stop at so we could ask permission to camp. This time, I had blown it.
Beyond the 5 bar gate was a granite chip drive nearly a quarter of a mile long, at the end of which was a beautiful sandstone Georgian farmhouse looking more like a small stately home than a working farm.
But I got out, opened the gate, and slumped my shoulders so I looked a bit ‘hard done by’ and began the embarrassing trudge down the drive. Embarrassing because I was convinced the smart, upper class owner was standing at the window watching a hobo coming down his drive with a begging bowl.
I hadn’t noticed the shed until I heard the sound of chopping coming from it. It was just off the drive, and was typically cheap, creosoted larch with no windows. Rather out of place really. But it was a relief. Inside would be an estate worker and I wouldn’t have to go any further, or it might even be a farmer in there chopping wood.
So I knocked on the door.
The chopping stopped, but the door remained closed.
I knocked again.
The door flew open, and standing there with an axe wielded like a toothpick, body the size and build of Shrek, was a frowning mongoloid.
“Oh sorry” I mumbled stepping roughly back in the direction of the gate.
“Wa?” he said, somehow getting between the gate and me.
“No, nothing, sorry. My, mistake. Just leaving”
“Wa?” he demanded.
“Well, nothing, I was just looking for a place to camp, but I can see you’re busy. I’ll….”
“Come” and the axe whizzed past my ear and pointed to the house.
I could die here, or die at the house. Neither way mattered really.
That was a long, long driveway.
And when we reached the house, the axe man directed me down the little alleyway between the back of the building and the fence by the farmyard.
Three steps, and the backdoor opened miraculously. Without having to be chopped down.
Inside was a typical rural farmhouse kitchen.
A large dining table meant for a large family, quarry tiled floor, a Welsh dresser opposite stacked with crockery and a slender woman in her late 30’s I guess, standing with her back to me at a stone Belfast sink, washing the dishes. Wispy strands of pale brown hair swung about her tied back hair as she continued her chore until she suddenly realised that no one was speaking, and then she turned.
There was a gentleness in her face, which gave me a modicum of hope that she would call off the axe man, so I told her that I had just come looking for a place to pitch tent, but I would be on my way right NOW and not cause any trouble.
But she turned saying across her shoulder “Come with me” (which really meant no) and disappeared through the doorway beside the dresser.
“Come” and the air whooshed with a deadly softness.
Through the doorway was a completely dark corridor and it would take a while for my eyes to get used to it, but a stomach pushed against my back and I stumbled along it.
I could see a flickering coming from another doorway just a bit further ahead, and I could hear muted voices.
Why is it that in horror movies, no one ever turns on the light?
When I reached the door, my heart sank.
This was where it would end.
Directly in front of me about two yards from the door were two high screens. Fixed to the ceiling was a hook the size of my fist, and from this hook hung a stout rope. The flickering fire cast the shadow of the rope across the ceiling, and grasping it was a hand.
The hand had a man’s voice, and I could her him and her plotting my demise, though I couldn’t actually pick out the words.
Finally she came from behind the screens.
“Follow me” she said, and to my surprise continued further down the corridor, opened another door and sunlight flooded in blinding me.
“Hello Harry, Go away Charlie. Shoo Harriet. That ones called Mabel”
Two rams and two chickens had names. Farmyard killers don’t name animals do they?
As we walked down the grassy slope beyond the back of the house, I was introduced to about 20 sheep and at least a dozen hens.
“You need shearing” she said to one of them “just down here” I think she said to me, and the chat flowed from animals to me such that I couldn’t decide whether Daisy was for the sheep dip next week or me.
The place she had chosen, I couldn’t have picked better. It had sloped just far enough away from the house to give us privacy, yet near enough to visit. A stones throw would splash the gently flowing waters of the brook, over which curved a graceful hand made wooden bridge. I could believe that fairies lived there it was so beautiful and tranquil.
I couldn’t wait to show Audrey, and any thought of the two of us being chopped up & served to the man behind the screens evaporated with the chirping song of a lark that rose at my feet.
We spent most of the fortnight there, going off to the gigs in the evening, returning around midnight, waking, going for a dip in the brook, and wandering around the farm & across the bridge during the day.
Occasionally, she would come and visit us bringing milk, or biscuits, and sometimes we would go to the farm & sit and have a cup of tea with her. We never saw the younger Mongoloid boy or the brother again.
Their parents owned the farm previously, but when they died, she and her brother had taken on the responsibility of running it. It worked well until he had a stroke, and now she was trying to cope by herself, but she was failing.
It was her brother lying in the bed behind the screens.
Of the mongoloid, well, some questions are best left unasked.
She was such a gentle and kindly person, that we felt an attachment right from the beginning, but often farmers keep themselves to themselves, and it is none of other folks business what happens in their lives, and she had that way too. She spoke little about the troubles, and I think she was well aware that talking wouldn’t change anything, but time surely would.
It was nearly a year later when we stopped again at the five bar gate, and crunched our way down the granite driveway.
We could tell things were not right since there was no lowing of cattle or bleating of sheep. The birds still sang, but it wasn’t a farm any more.
It was very sad. More so because we knew part of the story behind such a beautiful place that didn’t deserve tragedy.
As I walked off I found a small barn I hadn’t seen first time here, and noticed the wooden steps leading up to a gable end door, and I couldn’t resist peeking in.
The heavy door creaked on its hinges, and I stood gazing at a spotlessly clean workshop with varnished floors and a roof light window let into the slates. The beams of the barn were lap jointed with mortise and tenons also, and every joint was drilled and pegged. No nails in this place.
The bench too was clean and tidy, but what stuck me were the tools.
I have done a lot of carpentry work, and I know a lot of real carpenters and craftsmen, and none of us lay out our tools, we put them away when we have finished.
But these tools were laid out in an un-workman like way, very carefully and very artistically and with love.
I knew he hadn’t laid them out like that.
I knew she had.
And I guess it was one of the last things she did before she left the farm, as a sort of tribute. It cried out the words “I care”, and an unseen hand reached into my breast and gripped my heart for a moment.
“What’s up there?” Audrey called to me.
“Oh nothing, just a barn” I said as I climbed down the ladder.
It was a long time before I could tell her about the tools.
It didn’t seem right to stay there overnight, so we moved along and found another farm further down the same road. The owners told us that the brother had died, and that she had moved into town to live with relatives.
I desperately wanted to go and see her, but what would I say that would be of any value?
We were pleased that she was ok though, even if life had shaken things up for her. Time would cure that.
When and if I ever play Lancashire again, I hope I’ll get back to The Forest of Bowland, which isn’t a forest anymore, but was probably once a wonderful woodland chase. Whatever it was, it has the wildness of the moors now, with browning bracken and rocky outcrops, and is one of those few places where you can forget who you are. John T
The string theory proves that everything is connected, though it may just be in a different dimension.
I wondered where I was going wrong!