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RURAL PARADISE

  A glimpse of life in 18th century Walsden

 

The year is 1750. Imagine, if you will, an extensive plateau of moorland and pasture, wild, exposed, peaceful and idyllic. There is no one about although the sheep are plentiful, grazing amongst the long spiky tufts of grasses. The ground undulates in a haphazard way rising another 500 feet above the plateau then falling steeply down to craggy outcrops of rock, which when viewed from below, overhang and appear to be joined together with heather, grass and gorse, tumbling down to the valley below. Peer down from the plateau and you will see nothing but a stream gently weaving its way along the floor of the valley between the woods and marshes.

 

 

The odd traveller may come in to view, probably on foot with his load on his back, or maybe with a horse and rickety old cart.

 

Dotted about there is the occasional farmhouse, some having been there for centuries, and each with smaller cottages and outbuildings attached. They are built of stone with earth floors covered with straw, many are lime washed, and each one has a chimney spewing spirals of smoke into the air to welcome any weary passer-by. Narrow tracks link the farms, some just about suitable for wheels, but many simply worn by the feet of the local people. There is just one through route, paved with slabs of stone, allowing single passage of strings of horses carrying merchandise from one town to another. The trail follows the contour of the plateau with the occasional limb breaking off to zigzag down to the bottom of the valley and on up the more gentle slopes on the opposite side. The floor of the valley is too wet and marshy for any packhorse to cope with. If one travels at all in these parts it is either on business or to attend church, and is on foot or horseback.

 

 

There are some small communities dotted about along the heavily wooded lower slopes. Here the cottages also have lime washed stone walls, and have gardens, barns and stables. Wherever there is a plentiful supply of water there are corn mills with giant water wheels. This is a century before steam power comes to the valley and more than that before the gas mantle is to replace the candle.

 

The houses are built to withstand the bitterly cold winters and the damp summers and they have large fire places in which to burn whatever fuel is available, mostly wood and peat or dung. The children play until they are big enough to work. Lots don't survive, but most do. Disease is a problem, but less so on these rugged moors than in the towns, for the water is fresh and clean and the inhabitants have space in which to dispose of rubbish and sewage. The girls help their mothers and the lads do errands and odd jobs for whatever they can earn. They all help on the land and in the weaving sheds attached to their homes.

 

Further north along the valley lies the village, nestling at the junction of three main valleys. It isn't much of a village. The church is perched on a small eminence, adjacent to which is Todmorden Hall, recently sold by the Radcliffes who have met impecunious times. There is an inn, which is linked to the church by a farmyard. There is also a free school, built in 1713 at a cost of £150. The schoolmaster has gratuitous use of the schoolhouse but he must be careful for his appointment is by majority vote of the freeholders of the township. Apart from this, there are just a few cottages and an odd shop or two. There are no roads in the valley.

 

Over to one side in the distant Burnley valley there is a large manor house known as Scaitcliffe Hall. The gentry from this house can sometimes be seen, and heard, as they hunt and shoot the game on the moors. The squire, Mr. Anthony Crossley and his brother, Mr. Luke Crossley, were both army officers during the Scottish Rebellion a few years past and Luke fought with the Dragoon Guards at the Battle of Culloden. The Crossleys have been at Scaitcliffe since medieval times.

 

The gentry at Scaitcliffe own much of the land. The people on the tops are mainly tenant or yeomen farmers. They spin and weave wool from their own flock of sheep, keep a few cows, poultry, pigs, and maybe a horse or two, and grow crops such as oats and barley. The ones down below do whatever they can to put food on their plates and clothes on their backs. They work in the corn mills, or as carriers or labourers, they grow crops for their own consumption and tend a few animals to produce milk, butter and cheese. To supplement their meagre incomes most of the households rent handlooms for the weaving of wool obtained from the farms on the moor. Every one is self-sufficient.

 

Porridge, bread and milk are the staple diet of most of the ordinary folk. This meal is repeated three times a day with occasional rabbit, pigeon and potatoes or a small piece of bacon for dinner. On special occasions a piece of parkin may be baked on the back stone and served with mint tea sweetened with treacle. Some households have tea and coffee but have no idea what to do with the leaves or grains. It is quite common for the leaves to be boiled in water, the water to be drained off, and the leaves eaten with treacle! This is then served with a pot of milk to drink!

 

On Sundays they all go to the Church in the village, dedicated to St. Mary, and they have a long distance to travel. Several miles, in some instances, across rough terrain and in all weathers.

 

St. Mary's Church in the village

 

There is a lady in the village who looks out for the hill top farmers and their families each Sunday. Her name is Mally and she lives in a small thatched cottage almost opposite to the church. She sells bread and confectionary to the hungry worshippers and obliges them by looking after their umbrellas. Fir trees surround her cottage and she is affectionately known as Molly o'th'Firs.

 

There is no abject poverty - there are too few people - and life carries on at a very slow pace. Church on Sunday, work the rest of the week; the women look after the children, the home and their men. Water has to be fetched from the wells, fires are laid, bread must be baked, clothes are washed and the floors cleaned; the men do the labouring and bring home the money, or what is left after the nightly visit to the tavern for a pint or two of ale and a chat with the other men of the area. Yes, each hamlet has its own alehouse. There is little else. The people have to walk to the village with the church to find a boot maker, tailor or general shop. The "Old Shop" has been there for years, providing everything from baskets to lamp oil.

 

There is little education. The free school serves those who can afford it -for the word "free" should not be taken too literally, although there are a few free places for those of outstanding ability. Few are able to read or even write their names. The only books are Bibles. These low levels of literacy among the people mean that the clergymen and the pulpit are vital for the spread of knowledge. The taverns and the village well are the only other meeting places where news is spread.

 

Nothing lasts forever, and no more did this rural, peaceful scene, for this village is Todmorden, changed forever by the coming of cotton and modern innovation. The people in our stories are just some of the folk who changed it.

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