Notes on the North

Michael Barrington left the North in the 1960s. The region he found when he returned this summer is one of proud heritage and reassuring permanence – as well as some decline and decay

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Despite more than 40 years living in California I’m still at heart a Lancashire man. And after two years of being unable to travel I really wanted to return home, visit a few special places and recapture memories of my youth. My Manchester roots go back to 1760. My mother was from Ancoats, and my dad’s family from the Bradford district. They’d been miners for as long as anyone could remember.I grew up in Droylsden but, from age 13, was in a boarding school in the Lake District. I am now a writer living near San Francisco.

My grandfather was the tenant-landlord of the Shamrock Inn in Ancoats from 1906 until 1938. He was from Roscommon, Ireland. His only son, Fred, an athlete, was selected to represent Great Britain in the 1916 Olympic Games in Berlin, but due to the outbreak of the First World War, they never took place. Fred was conscripted and later wounded.

For many children the Point of Ayr Lighthouse became a symbol of freedom

My grandfather volunteered and joined the Royal Flying Corps, so both served in the war. As an Irishman he supported the Irish War of Independence in 1920-22. He stored guns and ammunition in the pub, for use by the IRA in Manchester. Police friends warned him when they were about to raid the place so he instructed my mother to throw them over the wall into the neighbouring yard. Family history claims that Eamon De Valera, who later became president of Ireland after he escaped from Lincoln prison in 1919, stayed at the Shamrock, which he used as a safe house. He later sent my grandfather a large, inscribed portrait of himself, thanking him for his support. It hung in the Shamrock until his death in 1937 and then in our front room.

It was sad to see St Michael’s Church in Ancoats’ “Little Italy” now used as a community centre. My parents were married there. The old mills surrounding the Shamrock have been preserved, remodelled and gentrified. But walking around the cobbled streets the spirit of the old place was tangible. It’s impressive, and I now have new memories to share of Ancoats, and many other places in the North that held particular historic significance for me.

Even the National Trust guides working at Sizergh Castle were unaware of some important history. Due to the outbreak of war in 1939 the Holy Ghost Fathers, a French Catholic missionary order, had to repatriate its British students. Thirty of them arrived in England courtesy of a Polish troop ship and, with nowhere to go, Mary Strickland, grandmother of the current owner of Sizergh and herself a fervent Catholic – as the Stricklands had been for 800 years – heard of their plight and offered the castle as a seminary. From 1940 until the end of the war, it served that purpose.

The tiny chapel was too small for large liturgical ceremonies, so students were ordained priests in St George’s parish church in Kendal. Among them, in 1944, was my uncle. Henry Strickland, the current owner, was gracious enough to allow me to visit areas of the castle off limits to the general public and as I walked in my uncle’s footsteps, I wondered how the students survivedin such an ancient draughty building with only the most basic amenities and no central heating.

Few people know of John “Iron Mad” Wilkerson (1728-1808), an English, somewhat eccentric inventor who pioneered the manufacture of cast iron during the Industrial Revolution. Born, legend has it, in the back of a farm cart, Wilkerson worked in his father’s foundry in Lindale near Grange-over-Sands before moving to the West Midlands. He patented an extremely accurate method of boring iron cannon barrels and helped James Watt perfect the steam engine.

His iron madness reached its peak in the 1790s when he built the first iron barge and several coffins. He arranged for his own death, laying out a cast-iron coffin in the garden in readiness for his demise, constructed an iron obelisk and composed his own epitaph. It now stands on a small plot near the crossroads in Lindale village.

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There he also built Castlehead, a beautiful Georgian mansion, in 1778. It was used as a boarding school from 1906 until 1980, where I completed my secondary education. It is now a field study centre. I had mixed feelings as I walked through and around the buildings, as a mature adult now able to appreciate their value and place in history. But even after all these years, some of my negative schoolboy memories almost spoiled the day. Unlike the fantasy and fiction of Harry Potter, we were treated to a spartan regime with early morning runs in all seasons, only cold water for washing, and Sunday was the one day when there were no classes. Almost every minute of every day was regulated, recreation was minimal, study times excessive and the letter of the law imposed in the strictest and most punitive fashion. It was a regime, we were told, that would turn boys into men.

As an adult I spent ten years working in West Africa and three years in Puerto Rico as the rector of an international seminary training missionaries for Latin America before emigrating to California. There I joined an international humanitarian organisation as a specialist and travelled to more than 40 countries either implementing, monitoring or fixing water systems and overseeing the construction of schools or medical projects. I learned to speak six languages.

Meanwhile, three of my sisters followed the path of many Mancunians in the 1960s and moved to Blackpool to open guest houses. Visiting them there now I rode the tram from Stargate to Fleetwood, which was a revelation.The new modern German-made car was both comfortable and attractively decorated. But I missed seeing the old ones – it was the perfect day to ride inan open top tram.

The friendliness and helpfulness of the two conductors, Brian, a Brummie, and Don, who was in training, really impressed me. They welcomed each person, laughed, joked, and epitomised impressive customer service. I admired the new South Shore sea wall and could only assume that gone were the days when the winter high tides would swamp many of the hotels and shut down the tram service, and I would slosh my way to my sister’s house. I loved the major improvements to the promenade with its green belt and skateboard, jogger and bicycle-friendly paths.

I had a strange feeling looking at the North Pier where there was no longer a jetty. I had fished there so often with my father. It now looked truncated, handicapped and incomplete, as if it had lost a leg. But the Tower was more imposing than ever with its red-brick façade, terracotta arches and stained-glass windows, brought back to its original design. It’s a wonderful reminder of a classy Victorian era and what Blackpool offered the world.

I looked for the lifeboat house, but it had moved – a new one was built in 1999. On a later Wednesday evening, I witnessed training as all three boats were launched. Ian Butter, the enthusiastic chairman of the boathouse informed me that only a handful of stations have three boats. “We’re very busy. I believe we are the busiest station in the North West and one of the busiest in the country. We had 150 ‘shouts’ in 2021 – three times as many as only five or six years ago.”

By June this year, when I chatted to him, he and his team had already been called on 56 times, the day before with two in quick succession.

But as I noticed the tawdry and often dilapidated boarding houses along the front, boarded-up stores everywhere, including part of the town hall, and dirty pavements, I wondered if these were just the effects of Covid. Surely the council could pass a regulation ordering the owners to bring their properties up to code and impose a fine for failure to do so. It was never like this before. My initial happy mood slowly changed from optimistic and cheerful to one of sadness and concern.

Blackpool’s isn’t the only beach that I wanted to visit. For many children, especially from Manchester and Liverpool, Talacre Beach and the Point of Ayr lighthouse on the coast of North Wales became symbols of freedom. They were evacuated there during the Second World War. My parents had built a holiday home there, and we spent all of our Easter, Whit Week, and summer holidays running wild and waving to the pilots of the Spitfires and Hurricanes, as they swooped over the sand dunes, seemingly just above our heads.

I was filled with many emotions and memories as I climbed the hills we had slid down as children, the fine sand filling my shoes. I stopped a couple of old men with their dogs and asked if they would take a photo of me in front of the plot where the summer house used to be (the whole area was cleared years ago, and all houses removed – it is now a preservation area). As we spoke, our faces lit up in recognition. They had lived in a summer house just behind ours.

I spent an amazing and exciting half hour reminiscing as we shared our common happy memories of times gone by. I walked the wonderful beach where we had swum, crabbed, collected shells, and played for hours in the sea with our ex-RAF military-issue rubber dinghy. I reached the old lighthouse and stood there next to it. Time stood still – nothing had changed.

I was moved by a deep sense of history being shown around the well-preserved 13th century abbey, Chapterhouse of Cockersand, situated on a windy, rocky, barren outcrop facing the Irish sea.Bob Parkinson, the guide, was extremely well informed and made the place come alive. But he really surprised me by telling me that in 1947 his mother made national news as the only female lighthouse keeper in England. Plover Scar Lighthouse, also known as the Abbey Lighthouse, is an active 19th-century structure sited at the entrance of the Lune estuary near the Abbey. Bob told me that the static light was fuelled by paraffin and on many occasions as a young man he had carried cans of it there to keepthe light working.

I had similar feelings visiting Arrowsmith House, a beautiful Tudor building in Hoghton, Lancashire, that reeked of history. It’s a daunting task, looking after this grade II listed building, Maria Hall, the owner, told me. The house dates back to circa 1580. According to tradition, St Edmund Arrowsmithsaid his last mass here before beingtaken to Lancaster, where he was hung, drawn and quartered in 1628 for beinga Catholic priest.

As well as the sights I encountered some hugely nostalgic sounds of the North too. As a child I was especially attracted to brass bands. Almost every town around Manchester had its own. My two uncles and my father played with the Royal British Legion, Metro Vickers, Altrincham Borough, and Beswick Prize bands and participated many times in the annual competitions at Belle Vue Gardens. Growing up, I had marched with them, and went around, hat in hand, knocking on doors as they played carols in the streets in the weeks leading upto Christmas.

Hearing that the famous world champion Leyland Band was playing at the Lowther Pavilion in Lytham, I just had to go. They played for two hours including, unbelievably, a horn solo of the theme from the second movement of the Concerto de Aranjuez by Rodrigo, one of my favourite pieces and one I had just that morning been reminiscing about with my sister. I was transported back to a very special time filled with fond memories and a good dose of nostalgia. Is this whyI had come back home?

Michael Barrington is the author of novels of historical fiction that draw on his experience as a humanitarian worker and missionary. His latest, The Ethiopian Affair, is out now

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