Some time ago, I took off to the wilderness for the day with my lads, David and Joe. Nan came along too, riding shotgun. It was especially good to spend time with David as it felt like I’d been spending more with Joe lately. It had been a while since we’d last ventured out into the Forest of Bowland.
We were only ten minutes late starting off from the house. Remarkable in itself. When we got to Nan’s, she was ready. ‘Off we go’, I said but Nan had other ideas. ‘We just need to pop into the Health Centre. I’ve just got to drop off a prescription. Won’t take a minute and it’s on the way.’ ‘Well, sort of, er, mum.’ I said, looking at her. ‘Not exactly and…’, my voice trailed off.
Another time, another place, I would have put my foot down and said no, impossible. It will put us behind schedule. We’re already late enough and, anyway, couldn’t she sort it out on Monday when she was at the Day centre. But I didn’t. We pulled up outside the surgery and dropped her off. ‘Won’t be long’, she told us and off she popped. We waited. We waited some more. I decided to turn the car around so it was facing the exit – to save time, to make a speedy getaway. Still no sign of her. Still we waited.
For sure, she likes to talk to everyone she meets but surely she must realise we have to get going? ‘Joe, you go see what she’s up to and bring her back out’ I barked. No answer. Was he completely ignoring me or maybe he’d just not heard, engrossed as he seemed to be in his book. Hard to tell. ‘Right, ok, you go, David, you’re nearest.’ ‘No way, man. No way, I’m not going’. Ah, pointless. ‘We’ll just have to wait then till she comes out.’ What on earth was keeping her?’ She’d only gone in for a repeat prescription. I looked again at my watch.
A few minutes later, out of the Health Centre came a happy, beaming nan . Trying to get into the car through the driver’s door as usual, she remembered she couldn’t drive and moved round to the other side. She’d handed in her prescription, she said, and made a doctor’s appointment. Doubly pleased with herself, she levered herself back into her seat with a bit of effort . ‘Seat belts on’, I bellowed and away we went. O, mudder!
We set off again towards Switch Island and the roadworks. Regular radio bulletins had warned me that diversions were in operation to reach the M58 and possibly a detour round Maghull. I was prepared for something as I set my jaw and looked ahead. The three lanes slimmed down to two. The middle one – the one I’m in, driving behind a large, blue van – is long. The left-sided lane seems lighter. Should I take a chance and switch? By this time, we were heading to the big V fast. Maghull to the left, motorways to the right. ‘Go!’ So, I found myself on the unwanted M57 to the right. If only I’d waited another 100 metres on the left, I’d had had the whole M58 to myself and been able to rocket up the motorway. Unfortunately, I was already on the M57 and heading back the way I’d come.
But all was not lost. ‘Aha’, I thought, ‘doesn’t the first exit at Junction 1 take you just the short hop across to the M58?’ Of course, it does. It must do. I wondered how nan and the lads were taking my little misadventure? Judging by their complete lack of concern or any disbelief at missing the yawning mouth of the M58, prising open the snapping jaws of the M57 instead, they all seemed quite happy with a tour of Kirkby. There goes Kirkby stadium. ‘That’s a good stadium.’ observed Nan. How does she know? Maybe, it’s in the Bootle Times or could it go back to her more athletic, younger past, one she’s kept largely secret. Could this burly, robust 74, soon to be 75-year old with curly hair have a hidden track record, bordering on the Olympian?
Further questioning to follow but for now, where was the M58? At last, a roundabout with a signpost appeared, pointing blue to the motorway. More roundabouts followed, open green spaces, and civic buildings (how many civil servants are employed in Knowsley?) and, at last, we made it onto Junction 1. I put my foot down, accelerating up to 50, 60, 61 mph. We were finally on our way and, with that, the heating kicked in too. ‘Doesn’t get any better than this?’ I told them. And away we went.
A motorway journey gives you time to think. You talk to your family members, reconcile your differences, and respect each other’s opinions. You come to an understanding over perceived slights and put matters in their proper perspective. I was looking forward to finding out what was going on in the daily give-and-take of my two sons’ and my dear mother’s lives, as we traversed across the north west of England.
Soon, Skelmersdale hove into view. The skies were grey but not for long. We sighted the sign for Chorley, indicating the M6 was coming. My family members, all pillars of the community by this time, were caring less about talking to me and more about their own pillows and dreams. David, to the left of me, had long turned on his MP3 Creative Zen Micro. 2000 tracks of space and he was in the zone. Joe was demonstrating the gut churning feat of reading in the back as the car thundered forward at close to 65mph. What a constitution! By the way, light reading for Joe consists of ancient and modern world battles. Would there be echoes of past civil war conflicts on this journey, I wondered? We would soon be running the course of the Romans at Ribchester.
Approaching the loop onto the M6 from the end of the M58 gives you plenty of time to reflect on your life. What are you pleased with? How many mistakes have you made? Would you change certain things, if you could turn the clock back? I know I am coming up to a junction. Sometimes, this particular one acts like a pond, pinched by a drop of rain, sliding onto the surface. More likely, as you view your mirrors and see the surrounding streak of heavy lorries, revving to a crack on the motorway, bursting through like multiple, double-barrelled shotgun reports, I try not to grip the steering wheel too tightly. I can’t help noticing how white my knuckles look. Suddently, you’re between the lines, racing toward the slipway. How busy is it? Will you find a way in? You always have in the past but this is now? Foot hard on the gas, ease back in your seat, glance in the mirror, you’re on, edging out in front of the artic’ truck, which has kindly pulled out to let me in.
Here we are. M6 driving, Joe reading, Dave on MP3 and Nan, eye lids drooping. Let’s just get there. From the M6 to the M65, this is East Lancs, not the eastern way out of the north end of Liverpool but the rolling hills and moors of rural East Lancashire. Great names sweep past – Blackburn, Darwen, Accrington, forever linked with one of the world’s most famous football teams, and Rawtenstall. We’ve no time to pause. We’re on our way east, heading for Pendle Hill.
Within touching distance, I explain to my boys the significance of this lump of hillside. It was here that women were burnt on the pyre, having been accused and found guilty of acts of witchcraft. Their ‘crimes’ today would be recognised as complementary therapy in these more enlightened times. George Fox, one of the founders of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), climbed to the top of Pendle Hill, where he had a vision, exhorting him to tell people about a direct, personal relationship with God. ‘Ye, Dad…’
At one spot, a crossroads of ancient folklore and Christian dissent, the top of Pendle Hill, is surely a confluence of spiritual forces. I mused to myself, as you do, that one day I was going to die (hopefully, not for a long time yet but it could even be today, who knows). Wouldn’t it be lovely if my ashes could be spread, carried by the wind from the top of the hill. I would save this thought for another time. Looking around my not so fit and athletic family – nan excepted, of course – who could get me up there? My two teenage sons showed as much enthusiasm for hill walking as they did for washing up, tidying their rooms or emptying the dishwasher! Just don’t get me started on taking the compost down to the bottom of the garden. ‘Joe, listen to me, son, there really is nothing down there.’ Never mind, I’ve got plenty of time to work on their good nature.
An unexpectedly good lunch
We arrived at the main car park at Barley, a small village in the lea of Pendle. A toilet stop beckoned and a café. We queued, we viewed, we misconstrued. I mean, I misread the sign, not deliberately, that bacon and sausage toasties for which my growing boys have such a liking were off menu after half eleven. The staff told us it took too long to make during the café’s busiest period. I looked around me. There were four people sitting down in the whole place. This called for an executive decision. Where was Karen when I needed her? Where was that voice within, telling me what to do under all circumstances? ‘Use the porch, Bern. Use the porch.’ Alack and alas, she was back in Liverpool, elbow deep in sandy yellow paint and could not help me here.
‘Come on, we’re not staying,’ I told Nan and the boys. ‘We’re going somewhere else.’ Nan chipped in with ‘You’ve just lost 30 quids worth of business’, (if you include pudding and drinks). ‘Hope you’re happy.’
Outside, I fumed, ‘No sausage or bacon but we can have cold beef stew with lard and onions! No thanks, I don’t think so.’ And so, we were out of there, springing across the orange, water-pitted, gravelly car park. But what now? David cried out, ‘Oh no, my trainers! What am I going to do about my trainers?’ The soles had picked up some of the local colour of the car park, leaving their imprint on the floor of the car.
Could it get any worse? Grumpy, disgruntled and hungry, this was getting serious. It needed something to happen or the whole day would descend into Stygian murk. I needed a Dante figure to guide me through the mean badlands of Barley. And then, there it was… in the shape of a chalk board.
The main street through Barley is too narrow for two cars to pass each other. I had stopped to let a car through. To my right was space enough for just one car. I glanced across. ‘Hey, look everyone, the Barley Tea Rooms.’ ‘Oh, no’ came shouts from the back. ‘Not muffins and cakes, I’m not going there!’ Was that David or Joe? I’ll leave it up to you to decide.
‘Look at that special board outside.’ I pointed. It promised us beef stew and pastry platter, Yorkshire pud, sausage and gravy and the very best cheese and onion pie ever made in East Lancashire. Should we stop? I was already winding up the handbrake and somersaulting through the open door into the warm and permeating smell of home cooked delights. We had indeed been saved as we took our seats around the table.
It was then that I saw the tea cosy, lying on the floor. It was a hat, a white and yellow woolly hat but it so closely resembled a tea cosy that I thought perhaps it was one. It lay on the floor beneath one of the tables. Two women were sitting there, chatting away, unaware of the woollen garment on the ground. Funny thing but tea cosies must be a thing of the past or I don’t get out enough. You don’t see them as often as you used to. They made it through the twentieth century just about but the twenty-first has killed them off. ‘Apart from this one’, I thought, ‘the last of the tea cosies in the village of Barley’. I had to act. ‘Excuse me, but I think you’ve dropped your tea cosy,’ pointing to the woolly garment on the floor. ‘Oh, my hat!’ exclaimed one of the women. ‘Thank you, young man,’ she smiled at me. I beamed back, happy to take that compliment.’What?’, I said, catching Joe’s look.
In the tea room, we were treated to a scrumptious meal. David chose the beef stew platter, as did Nan. Joe went for sausage in gravy with two large Yorkshire puddings. David cast envious eyes over one of Joe’s puds but he held him off, using his special powers, successfully resisting the pressure to part with any of his dinner and tucked in. I had the traditional cheese and onion pie and homemade chips. We all agreed that we had turned despair into a triumph in finding this lovely place to eat.
Pudding would have to wait until later though. ‘Look at the time. It’s almost two o’clock,’ I balled and we’d hardly begun. Refreshed, we headed back to the car. ‘Anyone interested in exploring the rest of the village on foot?’ I asked. There were no takers, just as well.
The US is famous for its place names – Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, San Jose even. Here we passed through some of the more evocative places in the area – Whitewell, Dunsop Bridge, Newton and Slaidburn. Yes, Slaidburn. ‘S-L-A-I-D-B-U-R-N’, nan spelled it out. ‘That’s how you spell it!’. ‘That’s unusual,’ she mused,’ wonder why it’s called Slaidburn?’. As none of us had an answer, we pressed on up the road, passing up the last chance to eat cake, before driving on to the open moors. Groans came from the back. ‘I couldn’t eat another thing.’ It would be some time before we found more cake-eating opportunities. Soft-centred mints would have to keep us going for now.
‘Are we going up now?’ someone asked. We had left the villages behind and had started on Quiet Street, thirteen miles of narrow B-road, leading to the small town of Bentham. Nan expressed her surprise and admiration that I knew where we were. How did I do it, she asked? Was it innate talent, a built-in, automatic compass in my head, pointing to true north? Of course, it is all true. I felt the warm tinge of ancient memory connecting me to my adventurous forebears. It also had something to do with my expert planning of the route the day before but enough said.
As you drive up through the valley, it is not hard to wonder at the force of nature. The scenery around was bare rock and heathland. White water descended rapidly. Not a place to need the AA if the car breaks down. Suddenly, David shouted, ‘Look! Over there!’ ‘What, where?’. ‘Over there, there, you’ve missed it now’ as we rounded the next bend. ‘You missed the snow capped peaks of the mountains along the tops’, he shouted at us.
But we were not to be denied for long. We drove over and pulled up on the side to admire the views. To the east lay the snowy hill tops, pointing towards the eastern lakes. All around us, snow lay like a knitting pattern on the rocky outcrops. The sheep eeked out every spare blade of grass. The wind blew in off the west coast. It enveloped us in its icy chill. We took a photograph for the family album and it was back on the road again.
‘Where’s Wray?’ I asked myself. ‘He’s next door,’ chirped Dave, quick as a flash. Ray is our next door neighbour. But this Wray was on our way and I wanted to pass through it. It rang a bell somewhere and I couldn’t remember why. What could it mean? Could it have anything to do with destiny? Or was it in Wray where we stumbled upon that really good café that served the most delicious sticky toffee pudding? Surely not! Yet, as we swept round the curve of the bend, there was the sign, ‘Café on right’.
Without hesitation, I turned off the road. Joe murmured to himself, ‘I know this place. This is the sticky toffee pudding place.’ It was like yin and yang coming together for the first time to form the complete pud. He closed his book.
Inside, the boys were as one – two sticky toffee puddings; two scone, jam and creams for me and Nan. We fell silent, enjoying our food. Afterwards, Joe jumped onto the mini-roundabout outside. David is too old for such things, although you could tell that he really wanted a go. It was self-propelling but David was on hand to give his brother a shove. He also threw in a good kicking to help propel his younger brother forward when needed, if not asked for.
Having visited the Old Barn twice now, it’s become a family tradition to race all comers to the end of the drive and back again before we leave. Fair to say, it’s getting to the time when my boys are close to beating me at most sporting things but I still hold the Wray sprinting record – just! Joe faded only feet from the finish line, beaten more by his dad’s pace, less by his sticky toffee pud, I’d like to think.
Just before we reversed away from the barn, I pointed to an image in the brickwork. It showed a bat nibbling on an apple. ‘Where, where?’, asked Nan. ‘I can’t see it.’ Until, finally, she said, ‘Oh, you mean that picture of the apple in the wall?’ ‘Yes, mum’, I said, shaking my head. And so, we headed off to the climax of our day, to where all our thoughts had been bending – to the terrifying descent of the Trough of Bowland.
Nan had already told the boys the story of the first time we’d taken this route. It was in my first ever car, an old Renault 18 automatic. It was complete with electric windows and specially selected by Karen’s dad. It was a beaut. My first car! In putting it through its paces, I had driven at hair breaking speed up the Trough, only to find out sometime later that whole sections of the floor underneath were solid rust. The rust bucket was a death trap. I couldn’t help but cast sideways glances at my fellow escapee, my lucky charm. Would we fare so well this time?
‘This is it, boys!’ I cried, spying the tiny diamond of a sign, the Trough. ‘Hold onto your hats, people! Here we go!’
Shooting out of the forest, I engaged third gear and gunned my engine towards the rapidly setting sun. One eye on the road, with barely room for two cars to pass by either side, the razor sharp edge of the road threatened to tear up my tyres.
You roll up and then down the Trough. It’s exhilarating as you wind your way through the hillsides and wooden glens. It’s so easy to get carried away with the adrenalin rush, imagining yourself speeding in a motor rally. Reality, though, keeps a grip on your wheel. It was in the distance, just over the crest of the hill, that I spotted two blue cars, racing in my direction.
They disappeared. I wondered if they had noticed me. Maybe they had pulled over into a passing place as some cars had on the way up, allowing us to pass safely? I just had a moment to note the position of the road’s edge when the first car leapt over the brow, closely followed by its chasing companion. ‘Keep left, be calm, stay on the road, if you can. With a slight jerk of the wheel to the left, then back to the right, we passed but how tight it was! I looked about me. Nan and the boys were laughing and joking about the journey. Between us and the passing cars was probably only a handful of millimetres and I would not be so easily moved out of third gear for the remainder of the descent.
Driving at night, in wet conditions, along the M6 South is interesting. Tail lights lead you on. Blinding headlights flash suddenly in your mirror and then are gone. Dark shadows slip by in parallel lines at frightening speed .
For once, the journey back to Nan’s passed quickly. I dropped her off outside her door. As she made her way down the drive, I wound the nearside window down and called her back. She poked her nose through the window. ‘What have you forgotten?’ she asked. ‘Mind your toes!’, I said, ‘and don’t forget to shut the gate after you.’
With that, me and the boys started to pull away. ‘Where to now, dad?’ asked Joe. ‘Well, that’s a good question, son. Me, I’ve always had a hankering to go out exploring round those there South Liverpool parts.’ ‘Sounds good to me’ said Day. ‘Me too’, murmured Joe. ‘Then, we’re outta here!’, I roared. The engine purred good as we launched into second gear and were gone in a cloud of dust, nan waving us off at the gate.
Originally written in June 2006 and updated in November 2012.