First published at thesundaytimes.co.uk 4 Sept 11
Standing at the entrance of what had been Morton Colliery in Derbyshire, I struggled to feel much connection with the place. True, this is the mine where my grandfather worked, I had never been here before and, I am prone to a whiff of sentimentality about ‘coalfield communities’.
But, the pit closed in the year that I was born, and my grandfather worked his last shift long before that. He died in 1947 having retired from mining on health grounds even earlier.
Little more than two doors up the village’s main street is the school at which my grandmother subsequently taught. I suspect that part of the existing building might date back to her day, but so dramatic has been its redevelopment since then that I doubt she would have recognised the place.
It was the road that took me there – over the Derbyshire dale’s dramatic peaks and troughs – that held the magic with which I hoped to connect, however.
My mother, Megan Dawson, who died earlier this year, was an enthusiastic teenage cyclist. Weekend after weekend in the early 1950s, she set out from Morton on her bicycle to meet other members of the Chesterfield youth-hostelling group. She was among the youngest of the gang made up mainly of miners and steelworkers who pedalled their way around the surrounding counties.
So magical was it to be young and on the roads in the 50s, that her tales of companionship and discovery, not to mention her enthusiasm for the bicycle, were, two decades later, easily enough to inspire my two brothers and I with the joys of life awheel. Initially she led us, out of the West Riding of Yorkshire, where we grew up, into the wild Dales, with their rocky peaks, gritty villages and long-abandoned abbeys.
But soon we were off on our own, enjoying an independence that, as a parent now, makes me squirm with concern, but at the time was an ecstasy. We had quickly covered most of the Dales and soon rode much, much further – up into the Lake District and into North Wales and beyond.
Cycling in Derbyshire last week, I knew that I was on the very same roads that my mother had come to love. The B6014 which links Morton with Matlock must surely have been one that she rode almost weekly?
It splits from the A615 a mile or so east of Matlock to climb the charmingly named Slag Hills. They don’t give cyclists much to laugh about, though. This rocky ridge is part of the southernmost tip of the mighty Pennine chain. It tops at close to 1,000 feet above sea level and the road itself not far shy of that. Gradual climbs are interspersed with short brutal walls, some as steep as 20%.
Its hill-farming country, with remnants of quarrying behind almost every shoulder of land. Many of the nice stone farmhouses now look trim and have two or three expensive new cars in their drives. The fields behind, and the sheep that totter up and down them look as hard-bitten as they must have done 60 years ago.
Straining to turn my gear on the steepest sections, I wondered how my mother had fared on these ascents. They certainly inspired her love for hilly countryside, and those for whom it provided a living – although I suspect that she was never a climber, in a cyclists’ sense of the word.
As I crested the hill riding from Matlock, a huge panorama of eastern Derbyshire opened itself up to me, and I knew in an instant that she would have stopped here. She would have admired the undulating countryside and distant church spires. She would have lapped up the rolling sea of fields and woods that lie between the ‘Derbyshire lighthouse’ on the peak above Critch (a tall, hill-top memorial to the 11,400 Sherwood Foresters who lost their lives in the Great War), and her own bedroom, five miles distant, into which its light shone.
There is much about the outlook that has changed, almost beyond recognition, of course. Her home was almost certainly identifiable, as it was close by the colliery’s winding gear. Beside that would have been the pit tip, whose spontaneous combustions she had feared were the work of spies sending messages to German aeroplanes during the second world war. There were once dozens of mines, as well as coke ovens, blast furnaces, pumping gear and gas works in this landscape.
At one time, 10% of all the coal arriving in London came from the area over which I was gazing.
It is a far more rural outlook today. The towns and villages don’t quite exude prosperity – but nor do they appear grindingly poor. The Clay Cross Company, which owned nearly all the industry in these parts from Victorian times only ceased to exist in 1998 – although as a shadow of its former self, post coal nationalisation. But the continued existence of these communities is almost certainly only possible as commuter dormitories.
But the minor roads connecting the villages and towns are those that my mother loved. Their rises and falls, switchbacks around barns, curves beside the grander house’s perimeter walls, and drops to the side of reservoirs are, beyond doubt, the ones over which my mother rolled.
But, although in large part that area formed my mother, and provided a living for her family for some 30 years, they always considered themselves outsiders – migrants from their native North Wales. The Ceriog valley, in Denbigshire provided the fixed point in their identity – when they left Derbyshire, they scarcely ever returned. My brothers and I spent countless holidays in Wales – but had hardly visited Derbyshire before last week.
Criss-crossing these roads one sunny morning, I would have loved to have believed that somehow they took me closer to her. But while I don’t entertain fantasies that her spirit is somehow abroad in the world, I have no doubt that it lives within me. And for so long as I am able to pedal among fields, and dry stone walls, to battle uphill and to fly downhill, I know that it is her who has taken me there. And if occasionally, I need to retrace her pedal strokes to be reminded of that, it is good a way to remember her as I can imagine.
TD Sep 11