A silver cord

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As soon as I was considered old enough to wander alone… a ridiculously young age by today’s standards… I would knock on the doors of the various elderly relatives that lived within a stone’s throw of home or school. Their doors opened onto another era that to my young eyes qualified as the ‘olden days’. There would inevitably be a cup of tea; none of your new-fangled tea bags or ‘gnats water’, but the rich mahogany brew that seethed in perpetuity beside the flames of the range. If I was lucky and timed it right, there would be a slab of fruit cake topped with a slice of tangy cheese or perhaps a curd tart, or we might toast a teacake in front of the fire on the toasting fork and I would sit and listen, fascinated as the old ones spoke of their lives.

Between my great-grandparents and their siblings, I was lucky to have a window on a bygone world, yet it was a window with a heart and a voice… and it told stories. I heard tales of the long hours in Victorian mills where they had worked as ‘bairns nobbut as big as thee, lass.’ Of how their schooling had to fit around their working day and of the dreadful accidents and conditions in which children had worked within living memory… this memory, the one that paused to take a sip of their tea before leaning back to continue. I heard too of first dances and maypoles and Christmas stockings that were rich if they held an orange. Of traditions and forgotten legends… and of wars and national rejoicing and mourning. I learned history in a way no book or museum could teach.

Sometimes we went over to Castleford to see my maternal grandmother’s family. Not so many mills there… but I would seek out Great Uncle John on his allotment filled with dahlias and he would tell me some of the lore of the coal mines and of the pit ponies who lived their lives in the darkness of the mines, even then. The last working colliery horse was brought out in 1999. I heard him tell how dangerous the job still was, for man and beast and saw with my own eyes the coal dust embedded in his pores that was never to leave him… it had filled his lungs too.

And when, as was inevitable, their ranks gradually thinned, I attended their funerals, paid my respects to them, one by one, laid out on the parlour table in their coffins. The families gathered. I was a child, but there was no thought back then of protecting children from the reality of birth and death. I was ten when I helped deliver my little brother. The women gathered…these were women’s mysteries, a domestic magic of sisterhood that took no thought for age or youth.

Contrary to the opinion of many today, I don’t think for a minute that it did me any harm to be part of that. Far from it. I not only learned history, I learned to value people and their individual stories. I learned that I was incredibly lucky to have been born into a time and place where I was allowed to go to school and learn for a few hours a day and then be free to play, to be well fed and warm and sleep in a bed on my own instead of with half a dozen others. So I learned gratitude too.

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It was only many years later that I realised I had learned something else; the old ones had enjoyed sharing their stories. They had enjoyed the company. Most of them were old, infirm and seldom left the house any more… in short, I realised that many of them were probably lonely and glad of a visit from the blonde urchin who usually had to remind them whose daughter or granddaughter she was. It didn’t matter… I drank in their words with the dark tea.

I was reminded of all this when I read an article on loneliness and its negative effects on both personal health and well-being and its greater impact on society, employability and even survival. Further research highlighted some of the links between loneliness and poverty. It makes interesting reading and raises a lot of questions.

Our society is so much richer than the world that our grandparents and great grandparents knew. To our children, even the era of our parents fits the term ‘olden days’… a far off memory of an almost unrecognisable civilisation. While technology and the sciences have advanced by leaps and bounds and our daily lives are full of gadgetry even the science fiction writers might have dismissed as far-fetched, some things have not changed for the better.

We are a mobile society and in search or upward mobility we have moved away from the towns and villages where our families have lived for generations. Families are spread across the globe in a more fragmented way than ever before in history… individual family units break down and separate with tragic regularity and relationships seem to bear the heading ‘disposable’ all too often.

I remember years ago a TV ad campaign encouraging people to check on elderly neighbours, offer to run errands, bring food or get the house ready for winter. It highlighted the isolation that can come with age and marked me enough to stay with me all these years. Back then I lived at the heart of a large and close-knit extended family… it was never something I thought could happen to me. But the world has changed and it could happen to any of us.

The support network that would once have honoured our old ones and cared for them has foundered in very many cases and, between that, the reduction in relative income and the very gadgetry we may fall back upon in solitude to fill the silence, we become an increasingly isolated society on a human level, while ironically being able to stay in instant touch with the virtual world and family members in the furthest reaches of the globe.

And we are losing the stories… the human thread that is woven through our lives from past to future. Our TVs and computers flicker in colour and capture our attention… We might even be watching programmes on history. But once our attention is captured, we don’t sit and listen to each other very often, even to those we might live with, let alone the elderly who ‘take so long and repeat themselves so much…’ Yet theirs are the only eye-witness accounts of our history that we will ever hear first-hand; theirs the silver thread in the tapestry.

There is the well-known concept of the silver cord that connects body to soul in life, remaining in place until death, just as the severing of the umbilical cord signals our entry into life. I have to wonder how much of the richness of life we are losing in our isolation from each other… how much our children… and we could learn… and how much nourishment the heart could draw from the silver thread of story woven by our ancestors… even those who still walk amongst us.

Going west – wild things

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As we walked towards Carn Llidi, we were surprised to see a little herd of Welsh ponies grazing on the hillside. These hardy and resilient ponies still live a semi-feral life here. They are beautiful creatures and very much a part of the land and its history, having ploughed its fields, carried its warriors and worked in its mines for centuries. It is known that there have been ponies here for well over three and a half thousand years…and who knows how much longer before that. At some point in their long history they were bred with Arabian horses and that bloodline too runs in their veins. I knew of the wild ponies of Snowdonia, a genetically unique group that was decimated in recent years by severe winter weather that wiped out almost half the population, but had not expected to see them at St David’s Head.

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I remember seeing the news story when the last pit ponies were brought up from the mines. Smaller breeds, like Shetlands and the Welsh ponies were preferred as they could go where even mechanisation could not, each hauling 30 tons of coal a day in eight-hour shifts. Ponies were used in the mines from 1750, and the last pit pony was retired only in 1999. I remember too my great-uncle’s stories of them and how they worked underground for years, though some were brought up for a short holiday annually when the mines closed. When they came out into the sunlight, they could not see… after so long in the dark it took them some time to adjust to the daylight. The ponies would be taken underground at four years old and could work, if they survived, until their twenties. In deep shaft mines, they were stabled in the mine itself and cared for by the miners as well as their owners. The management were looking after an asset… the miners for a fellow worker who shared both their labour and the danger. Even in modern times, coal mining was deadly work and there were many stories of how the ponies’ sense of danger helped save their human partners.

My great-uncle took me to meet some of the ponies one day during their annual break. He taught me, a small girl then, how to hold out the apples and the mints that they loved without risking my fingers. To see them grazing, wild in the heather, is a very different thing from seeing their coal-stained coats that no amount of grooming could clean… just like my uncle’s hands. Those, I remember well, large, shapely hands, calloused and strong, yet always tinged with black. The coal dust killed him in the end… a lifetime of breathing it unprotected, just as it must have affected so many of the ponies. It was an unnatural life, away from the fresh air and sunlight, away from the green… and a joy to see them free on the hillside as we climbed.

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The ponies were not the only wild beauties there. The exuberance of summer wildflowers alone was quite something to see. Many of them grow low to the ground in response to the coastal wind and weather… you do not see them from afar, but honeysuckle and wild rose ramble through the gorse and bracken. Tall spires of foxglove stand proud above the greenery and with every step new flowers turned multicoloured  faces to the sun.

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The sun was really beating down and we were all glad when the path reached its crest and began to descend ahead of us. We were hot and  tired…we had all driven a long way that day… and, not realising how hot it would get or the scope of the landscape, few of us had brought water. At a fork in the path, we should have ascended further, climbing Carn Llidi to the WWII gun emplacements and the twin chambered tombs on the slopes of the hill before climbing to the top. With some regret we went down instead… all but one of us, who climbed the hill alone. Much as I would have liked to see the tombs, my feet…clad, for once, in sensible walking shoes… were painfully protesting the heat and the abuse of the previous weeks. The shoes had to go…but first, we had to get down.

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The stone walls between which we walked were covered in flowers, bees and butterflies. Birds sang everywhere, but none as loudly as a tiny virtuoso perched on a thorn bush. I didn’t recognise him.. though I thought he was a warbler of some sort. I wondered if he might be one of the few remaining marsh warblers, famed for their song… he certainly deserved to be, both in volume and virtuosity. You would not believe that such a tiny thing could sing so loudly.

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It was both wonderful and shocking to realise this might have been a marsh warbler*. I am no expert on birds… but he looked rather like one when I tried to identify him later. If he was, then to see and hear him was even more of a privilege as there are thought to be only six or eight breeding pairs left in the UK and the little birds are on the red list for conservation.

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There were other birds too though…many of them just youngsters, newly fledged and wearing their juvenile colours. Like the young robin that frequents my garden, you cannot tell what they are at first glance… their feathers do not yet identify them and you have to see how they walk and how they hold themselves to know what they are.

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We expect a robin to have a red breast and a blackbird to be black. When they are not, we puzzle for a while to know what it is that we see. Expectations and appearances can blind us to reality, so we have to reach beyond them before we can see and know what is real.

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We finally made it down after a superb afternoon in the loveliest of places. Soon we would all gather for dinner in St David’s itself, but for the moment, there was a cool breeze and the shimmer of sunlight on the sea. The shoes and socks were off… the trousers rolled…and we let the clear waters wash away the heat from aching feet, leaving behind only the balm and memory of beauty.

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  • If anyone can give a positive ID on our little song-master, I would be very grateful!