My Aunt Fanny ran a fishmonger’s stall on Bury Market towards the end of the 17th Century. As you can tell by the timescale she was not a close relative, being distant from me by some generations, great, great and all that. She held the charter for a small, some might say, ‘pop-up’ stall on the fringes of the market proper. This charter was written on parchment in very dodgy penmanship and was a document that made its way through the centuries to finish up lining the budgie cage at my Grandma Edith’s house in 1978. If family myths are to be believed then this scrap of certification had been stashed in much worse places. It had been sweated into by bosoms, crumpled into bloomers, crushed behind a barricade of whalebone corset. It was once waved in the face of the Lord Lieutenant of Lancashire in a brawl that began with a toe and a waggon wheel and ended with a bent insignia. ‘It’s Tin! It’s Tin!” became a war cry for the small revolution that sprang up from this. Expunged from the history books,the Jericho Fracas was an uprising of local people keen not to pay the shoe tax imposed by the Lord Lieutenant for the purposes of raising a Chinese temple in the grounds at Clitheroe Castle. Many ran barefoot, waving their shoes in protest. The monies were extorted but later refunded.
My Ancestral Aunt had a habit of ‘popping up’ anywhere she liked with her displays of fish. These, you might wish to learn, were not the usual wet fish. She specialised in trout, tench and roach fished directly from the river nearby. There was an official fishmarket in a palisaded building at the edge of Kay Gardens, this was chiefly operated by the Guild of Filleters, a men only club from which my Ancestral Aunt Fanny was barred. However, by the use of a swagger coat and a beard she knitted from cats fur, Aunt Fanny became the High Knife of this secretive and lucrative club. Her portrait can be seen in a private collection at Hartfield House.
It was 1697 and King William was busy being the Donald Trump of his day by being Orange and on the throne, not that such matters bothered my Ancestral Aunt as she slapped flounders and smoked kippers. Yes. I know. It is a terrible habit. Royalty were not in the habit of paying visits to the North. Or so history would have you believe.
My family history concludes differently. Many are the emperors, conquerors and warlords that have pulled up a chair in my family’s various kitchens. My family fought the building of the Roman Road HSII in AD49, my great x 287 grandmother impressing the Emperor Vespasian with her sock manufacture so that the road was squiffed a bit sideways and she won the contract to supply the empire with woolly footwear.
Harald Hardrada stopped off for a picnic and loo break on his way back to Hastings in 1066.
Amongst the royalty that made their way northwards over the centuries, there was none so exotic and eccentric as Peter the Great. He had come over on a barge from Oostend on the northern leg of his western Europe tour. Tired with the trammels of London and Wolverhampton he wended his way still northwards and happened upon Bury on market day. He had no money at that time and was hoping to trade skills for food. So it was that he built my Ancestral Aunt a dasha on a bit of scrap land at Heap Bridge in exchange for board and lodging.
They could often be seen on their raft, skulling down the River Roach towards Bolton. Peter, it transpired, was a competent sailor and fisherman and they began to trade in eels and crayfish. He was also a good cook and passed on many recipes which have come down through the generations of my family. These include Fishki pieski, Crayfishski, Kipperski and Bortsch. It was my Ancestral Aunt’s distilling talents that also intrigued Peter and the pair concocted a new liquor from the local Lancashire delicacy of black peas. This liquor, christened, ‘Samogon’ by Peter himself, was a clear liquid, reportedly nutty in flavour. It was so potent it was measured out in sips and half-sips. One rum soul opted to go for a whole teaspoon and was flammable for weeks, earning some pin money as a firelighter by breathing on grates.
When Peter the Great returned to his empire my Ancestral Aunt did not travel with him. She couldn’t be doing with all that snow and, shortly afterwards, she met my soon to be Great-to-the-power-something-quite-large, Grandfather, Gideon Stanning.
Met? Did I say met? I mean ran over. Fate is a funny and ingenious lady.
I like a shed. There, the secret is out. Until recent times the shed was always seen as male territory, a bunker for retreat. Now there’s the idea that women like sheds too. Really Sherlock? You think?
In the past the shed was always the getaway for harassed menfolk beleaguered by requests from wives to put out bins or replace a slate on the roof. Where could a man loll and do his crossword? Not in the living room where he was likely to be asked to lift his feet so that his good lady could vacuum up the crumbs from the biscuits she had baked for him. Not in the kitchen, no, heaven forfend, no male brogue should tread those hallowed linoed floors, not because the place is sacred but in case they were asked to do something. Clear a table. Wipe a worksurface. Sniff the milk.
So, they hid in the shed with their collection of airfix models (fill in speciality vehicle here) amongst the spiders and the plant pots and the hoes. Ah, peace perfect peace from the hurly burly of the domestic female life. Did she have to mow the lawn right NOW?
I think most women find that their domestic life is hurly burly and resembles that lived by Mrs Doyle in Father Ted. In one of my favourite episodes she has to lay off retiling the roof until the wind dies down and ‘there’s less chance of me being killed…’ a line spoken with full pinny, heavy duty gauntlets and a builders hod slung over her shoulders. Women get on with stuff a lot of the time. We have since primeval times when we foraged and gathered and had to have the nous to say ‘those berries are almost ripe, I must remember where they are for next week and I will invent the pie.’ This whilst simultaneously juggling babies and other needy relatives.
We invented the pie. Then we headed down to the shed to eat it in peace. I love a shed as I have said. Ours is a big tumbledown construction held up by ivy and slugs. I like the smell of a shed, the old wood and woodlice combo that ought to be made into a tincture and sold in old brown medicine bottles along with the scent of tomatoes in a hot greenhouse.
That last, that whiff of green and growing, is a Proustian trigger for me, recalling summers of my dad’s tomato crop, rolling around the house in drawer and on sill. It is more evocative by far than any Dior fragrance. That scent means something.
My dad has a shed. It is the same shed he had when we were kids and its been shored up and repaired over the years. Only the other day he was up a ladder in a high wind (he’s 80) screwing down the rather recalcitrant new corrugated plastic roof. It’s a bijou shed, barely big enough to sit in but I sat in it as a girl and I loved the light and the smell of the place. This shed has always been a disorganised space. We are not an obsessive compulsive kind of family, unless obsessive compulsive untidiness is part of that OCD spectrum. It’s a lucky dip in there, the tool box like a pirate chest randomly stuffed with nails and bradawls. The hose pipe was used to illustrate the Ashley Book of Gordian Knots.
My grandad McKiernan, my maternal grandfather, had a workshop. They lived in a council house in Little Hulton and part of the 50s ethos was to clear the slums of Salford and build new social housing where the houses had every convenience, including a brick workshop. It was whitewashed inside and orderly. He was an electrical engineer and liked to mend clocks and watches and spent all his spare time wearing blue coveralls. He didn’t potter, he tinkered or adjusted. He soldered. The workshop was a lovely place, it smelt of cold in a clean, fresh way and as I say it was busy and orderly. The workbench was loaded with wires and parts so that at any moment it looked like he might be defusing a bomb rather than making a light box for our Nativity scene.
The seeds of Shed were sown. You might, so far, think that this is conforming to shed type, these were He Sheds filled with man stuff. The spell is not yet done.
Elsie, a friend of my mum who lived down the road, had a wash house.
Yes. You didn’t read that wrong. Wash House. Her house had been built in the 20s and she had lived there all her life with her parents. When we knew her she was middle-aged and a spinster, something that is also a throwback to different times. In her garden was a black and white, windowed wooden hut that was called ‘the wash house’. There were old but good curtains at the small cobwebbed windows, historic 20s textiles even back then. The concreted floor held a mangle and other vintage washing implements which looked as if they might do far more damage than any screwdriver or shovel. It also smelt of cold in that clean fresh way of my granddad’s workshop.
In the summer, whenever we popped over, my mum would have a cuppa in the living room with Elsie and chat over some knitting as myself and my sister whiled away the time playing in the wash house. That odd wooden space meant more to me than any tarmac floored playground. This was an imagination space, nothing to do with the rough and tumble and grazed knees of the Rec. It was a mind space and it still is, existing as it does in my cobwebbed memory, mangle and all.
Our actual shed was, until recently, filled with, well, stuff. Amongst the inventory was a mouse chewed paddling pool of Olympic proportions, three lawnmowers, a pelloton’s worth of bicycles and some of Britain’s Biggest Arachnids who vied with a dead jackdaw and a family of rats for floorspace. In light of this, several years ago I decided that it might be quite lovely to have, ahem, a summerhouse. After some careful research I ordered one from the internet and it duly arrived and was put up by two gentleman in exchange for several mugs of tea. I myself had made the brick base for it to rest upon.
“I like your new shed.” said my then neighbour, a man with a selection of powertools all primed and ready to use on any given Bank Holiday. I baulked slightly. This construction does not contain any braces or bits, not a socket set or bucket in sight. There is a wicker sofa that I bought from a Gardenalia shop. But my neighbour persisted with ‘your shed’.
It is basically, fundamentally, intrinsically, a shed. However, it is a butterfly shed. Where others remain a cocoon of wood and felted roof, this Summerhouse Shed has a ship lap roof and a lot of long thin windows that look out and indeed fold out onto the garden. It smells of a Scandinavian forest, because, I suppose, a vast tract of one was shaved bare in order to supply the wood. It is warm in the sun and has its own light, burnished gold by the wooden interior. It looks like a little house and it is one of the best things my writing has ever bought for us. My husband who was initially sceptical, loves the place and many are the summer afternoons we while away reading a book and pouring another cup of tea inside it. Even in Autumn or Winter it is a little haven, a getaway from the house, from the untidiness of my kitchen and the clamour of my grown up kids and their lives. The glazed doors give you a particular creaky welcome as you tug them open, balancing your tea mug and your book.
I have written several books in this space, sometimes hunkered into my favourite old coat and a blanket, ice forming over my tea. It is headspace, L-space, sanctuary. You can’t hear the road any longer. The sound is altered within the wooden walls, you step into the forest past of this small square footage. Restorative.
I settle myself in the Adirondack style chair, the slatted seat covered with a sheepskin. The wicker sofa is the preserve of the spiders and who am I to argue?
One of the good things about local tv news is that it sometimes turns its bloodshot eye to a local place of interest that you might very well have not known existed before. This happened for us with the Purton Hulks.
There being little news about bin collection and rabid newts that particular while ago, the intrepid reporter was sent out to drum up something and to be fair he found a stonker. He was pictured on the windswept shores of the Severn Estuary standing amongst the ribs and keels of a series of historic ships.
They aren’t historic in the way that The Golden Hind or the Victory are, nothing nationally momentous or involving Nelson happened aboard these vessels, rather they are historic because they have come from history. They were each wrecked or beached on purpose at the shoreline at Purton after it was realised that the erosion from the Severn estuary was starting to compromise the safety of the Gloucester Sharpness canal. Over time they’ve become an odd collection of maritime history, different vessels from different decades making up a perfect whole.
I say nothing nationally momentous happened aboard these vessels but I can’t say that for certain. Each old girl lying in the sand, draped with grass or hidden amongst the reeds has her own history. Every vessel had her crew and sailed the waters of the world for a minimum of twenty years. Some of the ships are older than others, the oldest, if memory of the information board serves, began her time in 1879. A lot of tides have risen and fallen beneath these old girls’ keels.
For a site that is, to all intents, post industrial, it is a wonderful and tranquil place. The estuary is very beautiful and on the day we wandered over there, not at all busy. There were no ice-cream vans and hoards of people or even very many dogwalkers. We parked up at the swingbridge and then headed onto the canal path. I think I’ve blogged before about my love for canals and the Gloucester Sharpness is impressive, a new favourite. It’s very wide, rather like the Caledonian canal on account of the fact it was built for bigger ships coming in and out of Gloucester, not just the narrowboats with their cargoes. It serves up a double whammy of canal and coastline too. On our return journey we were treated to the sight of a three masted tall ship just skimming by.
Over the swingbridge and we turned off at the sign saying ‘Purton Hulks’. Already the hair on the back of my neck was rising at the word ‘hulks’. There is a creak to the word, a heaviness. The place does not disappoint. The path leads you to the shoreline and there are instantly two or three heavy ship corpses draped in the sand of time and tide, swirled with long grass. Bows poke out of the ground, concrete and iron rust and crumble and yet they are still strong, powerful shapes. A rudder lifted into the wind that whips off the water.
The further you go the more there are, some just a last timber or two, skeletal and hard to make out in the sea of grass. Others appear to have vanished utterly until an angle in the grass catches your eye and you see the stern, the timbers stretching, a rusted porthole. Others are like ribcages, bony with rivets. At each there is a small plaque giving the name and some information about their timeline. It is a collection, a reverse archaeology, of trows and barges, docklighters and schooners.
It is one of the most wonderful places I’ve ever been to. There is a deep magical feel, increasing in intensity until you reach the far reed beds, the vessels there lying hidden in the wind whispered stalks.
These were all working vessels, hardworking, lugging and tugging and tonnage. As I stood on the edge of the estuary I had a thought that they are a ghost fleet, anchored and resting. If you needed to, you could call on these ships. Someone somewhere might suggest you’d need a particular kind of sorcery or necromancy to reanimate the ship spirits and bring them to your aid.
You might consider what is required of you and your summoning spell to dredge them from the bank; your desperate need, your panicked beating heart, the prickling at the back of your neck, a high wind and the right words. Ahoy might be brought into play somewhere in the manner of Abracadabra.
You’d be wrong. All you’d need is a bosun’s whistle and they’d come to you my lad.
For more info just click here folks: http://www.friendsofpurton.org.uk/purtonthevessels.html
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