I’ve always been happy and comfortable with the working class roots of both sides of my family from Scotland and England respectively. Not at all in a show of inverted snobbery but a genuine affection for the types of hard and honest communities my mother and father rose from either side of the border. Both came from families of ten children, there are so many aunts, uncles and cousins that I have to admit there are some I’ve never yet met.
Hucknall’s iconic statue commemorating the mining industry
I saw a nice story today on BBC East Midlands TV news and it reminded me of that family feeling, a feeling of my roots.
The story below is a report on the commemoration of 150 brave miners who lost their lives in the three pits of my mammy’s home, Hucknall Torkard and Linby village in Nottinghamshire. Good and honest working class communities were built around this industry and the hard, resilient men who travelled down underground to put food in the mouths of their families. My own father, a miner at one time, himself survived a serious fall underground having his ear viciously ripped off and needing it sewn back on again. Some were less fortunate.
I have nothing but deep respect for the men who did and still do this job.
We will remember them.
The First of May.
Is this day one of the nicest on the calendar? Spring is rushing in after a long dark winter. Birds are happily singing everywhere, trees have that beautiful and fresh translucent green in their leaves that is seen at no other time of year. Everywhere is finally becoming active, people remember their smiles and thank their blessings all over again. We emerge into Springtime once more.
My First of May this year was partly spent with a friend walking from the local village of Papplewick through the graceful and historic Newstead Abbey, ancestral home of romantic poet, Lord Byron. Vividly coloured peacocks fought for scraps, visitors sipped tea lazily and appreciatively whilst all was well with the world for those precious moments. Water burbled and gurgled over stepping stones whilst a moorhen sat pacified mid-stream. Canada Geese took the sun on the finely-clipped grass.
The second part of our sojourn into local history began with lunch at the Horse and Groom public house at Linby, Notts. Linby is a tale to be told all of it’s own, perhaps it’s most famous claim to fame is that the humble pancake is said to have been invented in the village. The story is not greatly sympathetic to the erstwhile menfolk of Linby parish, apparently they fled when confronted with the might of the invading Viking hoards in around 800 BC or so. Not so the stout women of the village who stood squarely against any of that raping and pillaging nonsense and sent the Scandinavian warriors packing. The ladies then invented the pancake as a celebratory dinner to commemorate their triumph. It’s not recorded what the running men ate that night.
Sitting cheek by jowl with lovely Linby is the community of Hucknall, nee Hucknall Torkard some fifty years ago and before. Hucknall is a firmly working class town but with a claim or two to immortality. It is here that the poet, Lord Byron is buried in the church of St. Mary Magdalene overlooking the large market place. More of that later. Hucknall is also renowned for the world-wide brand of Rolls-Royce. Most famously the ‘Flying Bedstead’, the first vertical take-off aeroplane was first tested and flown here. Not cars these days but aero engines. The testing of the huge machines can still be heard for several miles on odd days.
Hucknall has many personal memories for me as it was here that my own mother was born and brought up. She was intensely proud of the town of her birth and throughout her life loved it like no other place. Perhaps this was due to the fact that her most treasured and loving times were spent here being brought up with her family of nine brothers and sisters. As a youngster I failed to understand the appeal of Hucknall. It seemed so much more pleasant, comfortable and wealthy where I was brought up but perhaps later on in life I can now fully understand her feelings towards the town as let it not be said that this is a place without a soul.
Driving down the main Annesley Road and past mum’s familiar old three-story family home we approached the ‘bottle-neck’ as it is known, a sharp bend that leads into Hucknall market place. Thirty or forty years ago Hucknall market on a busy day was an impressive place. Row after row of stalls selling anything one could imagine were laden with goods. Housewives would do most of their food shopping there before the days of supermarkets and take their local produce home to their families. These days Hucknall market appears to have have adhered to the national trend of deterioration. The stalls are thin in both number and useful goods. Perhaps sad to see but the humble market feels and looks like an irrelevance to many nowadays. In truth the bargains are few. An exception to this in my personal view is that of the bookstalls still seen on most markets and perhaps the buying and selling of books will never die. Let’s hope not. On that note, a few pound coins changed hands between the Hucknall bookstall holder and myself in exchange for a couple of Inspector Rebus novels.
As the skies over the old mining town darkened we stepped into the churchyard of St. Mary Magdalene which stands sentinel over the market place and is very much the central point of the town. A walk amongst the graves manifested the burial place of one Ben Caunt. No ordinary person, Ben, he was no less than the bare-knuckle boxing champion of England in his day. He and his great adversary Bendigo from Nottingham pounded each other for round after round in their day and both were true champions. The grave displayed the sad fact that Ben’s two children perished in a fire at the tender ages of only six and eight. The Caunt family it seems lived with much grief.
Very luckily we spotted a worker alighting the locked-tight church and asked him if we might go inside for a look around. St. Mary Magdalene has a special poignancy for me in that it was the church that my mother attended and loved as a child. It is a place of worship that was inextricably interwoven into her family history. Of course the most well-known fact about the place is that is the place where Lord Byron is interred. According to a worker in the church crypt, along with twenty-six other Byron family members within a small space of 6x8x8ft, amazingly. My mother’s family, Houldsworth, had a member, Sylvester, a local headmaster who was one of the very select group of people to see Byron’s body exhumed in 1938. Perhaps the reasoning for that exercise was somewhat flimsy – Byron had often said that his ‘heart was in Greece’, this was taken quite literally by the local people of the day who imagined that the organ had been physically removed. The exhumation proved otherwise however and Byron’s embalmed body was said to be in almost perfect condition, save for his crippled foot which had become dislodged from the rest of the body. The crypt is not necessarily easy to find being denoted by a smallish plaque in the floor only. It was difficult to imagine how access would be gained at all.
A ghostly tale that surrounded the church was of Canon Barber hearing footsteps following him down the aisle on one occasion in an empty church back in the 1930’s. Not a standard ghost story this one as the minister claimed that the noises he heard indicated someone with a bad limp caused by an invalid foot – much like Lord Byron’s actually…
St. Mary Magdalene, Hucknall
Before leaving the church we signed the guest book and looked at the various names from all over the world, undoubtedly many would have been Byron devotees coming to Hucknall to pay their respects. I paid my own respects with a few words to my my late mother in there. Perhaps she was looking down on me in her old church. Rest peacefully now Grace Marian.
So back into the mid afternoon Friday rain into present day and to pass the relatively recent addition to the town of the tram terminal from Nottingham aligned with the ‘Robin Hood Line’ railway to the same destination. These two factors may well prove extremely influential in the continued history of Hucknall, much as Rolls-Royce, the two coal mines and legend of Lord Byron were in the past.
Hucknall’s route to the future?