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07/10 Forty years later: My English home town revisited

After more than forty years living in California, USA, I’m still at heart a Lancashire man. 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 Bradford. 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. 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 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 neighboring 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 was used as a 'safe house.’ He later sent 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 Ancoats in “Little Italy” now used as a community center. My parents were married there. The old mills surrounding the Shamrock have now been preserved, remodeled, and gentrified. But walking around the cobbled streets the spirit of the old place was tangible. Well done, Manchester, it's impressive, and I now have new memories to share. But why call the place New Islington? Wasn't that a slum area of London?

Even the National Trust docents working at Sizergh Castle were unaware of some important history. The Holy Ghost Fathers, a French Catholic missionary order, due to the outbreak of war in 1939 had to repatriate their British students. Thirty of them arrived in England courtesy of a Polish troop ship! With nowhere to go, the Hon Mary Strickland, grandmother of the current owner of Sizergh, and herself a fervent catholic as the Stricklands had been for eight hundred 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, including my uncle in 1944. Henry Strickland the current owner, was gracious enough to allow me to visit areas of the castle off-limits to the general public. As I walked in my uncle's footsteps, I wondered how the students survived in such an ancient drafty building with only the most basic amenities and no central heating!

So 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, John 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, laid 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. There he 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 Center. 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.

Riding the tram from Stargate to Fleetwood was a revelation! The new modern German-made car was both comfortable and attractively decorated. But I still missed seeing the old ones. It was the perfect day to ride in an open top tram! The friendliness and helpfulness of the two conductors, Brian, who is a ‘Bromy’ and Don, who was in training, really impressed me. They welcomed each person, laughed, joked, and epitomized impressive customer service. Were they the new face of Blackpool, I wondered? I admired the new Southshore sea wall and could only assume that gone were the days when the winter high tides would swamp many of the hotels, 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, incomplete, as if it had lost a leg. But the Tower was more imposing than ever. Its red-brick façade, terracotta arches, and stained-glass windows have brought it 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 them training as all three boats were launched. Ian Butter, the enthusiastic Chairman of the Boathouse informed me, “Only a handful of stations have three boats. We’re very busy. I believe we are the busiest station in the Northwest and one of the busiest in the country. We had 150 services (‘shouts’) in 2021 – three times as many as only 5 or 6 years ago. And we are already at service number 56 for 2022, as of yesterday evening (June 7th) when we had 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 sidewalks, I wondered if these were just the effects of COVID. Surely the council could pass an ordinance 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. When I return to California, I will have to choose my words carefully when my friends ask me if they should visit Blackpool.

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 World War II. 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 but 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 dingy. I reached the old lighthouse and stood there next to it; time stood still; nothing had changed.

It was moved by a deep sense of history being shown around the well preserved thirteenth century Abbey Chapterhouse of Cockersand, situated on a windy, rocky, barren outcrop facing the Irish sea. Bob Parkinson the docent 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 fueled by paraffin and on many occasions as a young man he had carried cans of it there to keep the light working.

I had similar feelings visiting Arrowsmith House, a beautiful Tudor building in Bamber Bridge, that reeked of history. “It's a daunting task, looking after this Grade 2* Listed Building,” said Maria Hall, the owner, “which dates back to circa 1580. According to tradition, St Edmund Arrowsmith said his last mass here before being taken to Lancaster where he was hung drawn and quartered in 1628 for being a catholic priest.”

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 competition at Belle Vue Gardens. Growing up, I had marched with them, and went around with the ‘hat’ knocking on doors as they played carols in the streets in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

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

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