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The Emperor in Lancashire

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.

lancashire mapMy 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.


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