What’s on your mind?

Isn’t it strange how random memories come to the surface when you least expect them. Especially when you wake in the middle of the night, and your mind seems to race away.

I’ve not been sleeping particularly well in recent weeks. I’m not sure if this is due to Covid-19 anxiety or what. Whatever the cause, it’s increasingly annoying to wake up around 1 or 2 am, then lying awake for an hour or so, while your thoughts are whirling round and round. That’s what happened a couple of nights ago.

All of a sudden I found myself thinking about the cinemas in the town where I grew up. Leek, in North Staffordshire. My family had moved there (from Congleton in Cheshire, 12 miles away) in April 1956 when I was seven.

I have no idea what sparked these memories, because none of this had crossed my mind before I went to bed. In fact, I can’t remember ever thinking about this topic. And this is all the more strange because I have very little interest in film. I watch the occasional movie on TV (I like a good Western), but I can’t remember the last time I went to the cinema. Might be 35 years ago when my daughters were small.


Anyway, let me fill in some details. In 1956, Leek boasted three cinemas: The Grand Theatre (on the corner of High St and Field St); The Palace (at the end of High St on the corner with Salisbury St); and The Majestic (on the corner of Union St and Horton St, off Stockwell St). Leek doesn’t have any stand-alone cinema today. [1]

The Majestic was destroyed in a fire around 1961. Part of the Buxton and Leek College has since been built on that site. The Grand closed its doors in 1986 and was demolished and replaced by housing in 2003. The Palace (later renamed the Regal) converted to a bingo club in 1963. After the bingo club was closed down in 1987, it became a Kingdom Hall of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It was also demolished in 2003 and replaced, like The Grand, by housing.

The photos below show (clockwise from top left): an aerial view of High St with The Grand in the center (you can just see the curved roof of The Palace on the right); The Grand Theatre; The Palace; and The Majestic after the fire in 1961. These photos were originally posted by members [2] of the Facebook group, The History & Heritage of Leek and the Staffordshire Moorlands.

The Grand also had a stage, and each year a local amateur operatic society, The Leekensians, staged a production there, generally one of the Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas.

The Majestic was somewhat of a ‘fleapit’, rather run down. I don’t think it was much of a loss to the town when it burnt down.


Anyway, there I was, still lying awake around 3 am or so, wondering why on earth memories of cinemas back in the day were coming to the surface. I haven’t lived in Leek since October 1967 when I moved away to university—apart from short visits to my parents.

To complicate my ‘insomnia’, I then wondered what ‘memorable’ films I had seen at each cinema. And, as if by magic, the titles of three films spontaneously popped into my mind, films that were released in 1956 and 1957: High Society, Old Yeller, and The Mountain. While Old Yeller was a ‘children’s film’, I’m not so sure why I was allowed to see the other two.

No wonder I wasn’t able to sleep. The films are quite different genres (musical, family adventure, action), none regarded as blockbusters in their heyday. But there they were, emerging from the deep recesses of my mind.


Cole Porter in the 1930s

I watched High Society, starring Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, and Frank Sinatra at The Grand. It is a romantic musical comedy, and was directed by Charles Walters. This was the last film that Grace Kelly made before she gave up this kind of stardom and married Prince Rainier of Monaco.

The film features many classic songs penned by Cole Porter, but among the most memorable are Who Wants To Be A Millionaire performed by Sinatra and Celeste Holm, and the duet between Crosby and Sinatra, Well, Did You Evah!, (originally written by Porter in 1939 for another musical, and adapted for High Society). The film also featured Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong and his Band (as themselves).

High Society was a commercial success, and is revived on TV from time to time. But I’ve never seen the next two films again since the 1950s.


Old Yeller, a ‘family picture’ directed by Robert Stevenson, was released in 1957 by the Walt Disney studio. It starred Fess Parker (of the Davy Crockett miniseries fame) Dorothy McGuire, and a young Tommy Kirk. The film is based on the 1956 book by Fred Gipson. I watched this at The Palace, with my elder brother Ed, and I think with my Mum and Dad.

The film tells the tale ‘about a boy [Travis] and a stray dog in post-Civil War Texas.’ The dog, Old Yeller, is a labrador-retriever cross.

The bond is strong between Travis and the dog that, in the course of the film, is attacked by feral hogs while out hunting. Old Yeller develops rabies, becoming aggressive. Towards the end of the film, Travis takes it upon himself to shoot his dog. You can watch that scene on YouTube.

Quite a powerful message for a young audience. Typical Disney.

In 2019, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.


Now the third film, The Mountain (directed by Edward Dmytryk) is quite dark. I know I went to watch it with my mother at The Majestic. But on reflection it probably wasn’t altogether suitable for a boy of eight or nine.

Set in the french Alps and starring Spencer Tracy and a young Robert Wagner, The Mountain was based on the novel La neige en deuil, a 1952 French novel by Henri Troyat. This novel was inspired by the crash of an Air India flight in 1950.

Spencer Tracy (in 1948) and Robert Wagner (in 1967).

A plane crashes on Mont Blanc and is reputed to be carrying gold bullion. Christopher Teller (Wagner) persuades his reluctant elder brother and skilled mountaineer, Zachary (played by Tracy) to take him to the crash site so he can rob the dead passengers.

When they arrive at the crash site, they encounter one of the passengers, a young Indian woman, still alive in the wrecked fuselage. Despite greedy Christopher’s insistence that they should leave her to die, Zachary prevails and they begin the long climb back down the mountain with the injured woman. Christopher attempts to cross a snow bridge (against the advice of his experienced brother), and falls to his death.

For some reason this film has always had a ‘hold’ on me. The moment when Zachary and Christopher discover the injured woman (probably the first time I’d seen an Indian woman) has stayed with me. It’s strange how these things can have an impact although not dramatic.

The Mountain was not a box office success. Maybe it was the implausibility of Tracy playing an older brother to Wagner. He was, in fact, thirty years old than Wagner.


Since this bout of ‘cinema insomnia’ I’ve actually been sleeping somewhat better. Having brought these remote memories to the surface they are no longer niggling away in the background, so to speak. I wonder if others have this same problem?


[1] Local Leek historian Neil Collingwood recently published a couple of articles about the town’s cinemas in the town’s Post & Times newspaper, and he has kindly shared them with me here.

[2] Matthew Adams; Jason Brown; Neil Collingwood (x3)

Forever my ‘home town’

I was born in Congleton, but my family moved to Leek in North Staffordshire when I was seven, in 1956. I haven’t lived in Leek for more than 50 years since I moved away to university in 1967, and afterwards to distant parts across the globe. Despite not being a native-born Leekensian, I always consider Leek, the Queen of the Moorlands, as my ‘home town’. My deep memories of Congleton are really few and far between.

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I had tickets to the RHS Chatsworth Flower Show, and rather than try and make it to the show in one day from our home in north Worcestershire (a round trip of almost 200 miles by the ‘fastest’ route) we decided to spend a couple of nights in Leek, and take in other visits to Biddulph Grange Garden on the way north, and return home via Lyme Park which is southeast of Stockport.

Leek was an excellent base for these excursions. And it was a great opportunity to see how the town had changed since we were last there in September 2011. 

Leek (from Ladderedge in the west) in the 1960s, with The Roaches and Staffordshire Moorlands beyond.

Many of the mill chimneys have disappeared from the Leek skyline, but four (maybe five) buildings still stand out: the tower of the Church of St Edward the Confessor on the left, the green ‘dome’ (now grey) of the Nicholson Institute (centre), and to the right the spire of the Catholic church, St Mary’s, the Monument, and the tower of St Luke’s. What a magnificent panorama! No wonder Leek keeps drawing me back, even if it is only once in a while.

I have included here just a small sample of the photos I took during this visit. There’s a larger collection in this album for you to enjoy.


One thing that struck immediately me on this visit: just how much traffic and congestion there is in the town now. We had traveled into Leek along the Macclesfield Road and Mill St en route to our hotel, the Premier Inn next to the Monument. We followed a long line of cars and trucks (some of them behemoths).

The roundabout was removed after 2013.

The roundabout at the junction of Derby St (Leek’s main shopping thoroughfare), Haywood St and Ashbourne Road has now been replaced by traffic lights. I couldn’t fathom how this change had improved traffic flow, except that it must be easier for large commercial vehicles making their way through the town, rather than having to navigate a rather tight roundabout. Through traffic is routed this way to and from Stoke-on-Trent. 

Removal of the roundabout was a cause célèbre among Leekensians at the time. I don’t know whether that has now died down. There does seem to be some nostalgia for it on a couple of Leek Facebook groups that I joined. Personally, I quite like the ‘new’ look around the Monument and the end of Derby Street, with the development of Sparrow Park and its seating areas. But we did find one aspect very confusing. Given the layout there and along sections of Derby Street, and the types of paving used, we often did not realize which parts were traffic free or not. Or maybe I was just having a senior moment.


Leek is about half the size of where I live now, Bromsgrove. But Leek seems to be thriving better than Bromsgrove. Maybe it’s the proximity of Bromsgrove to Birmingham. But the shopping in our High St is rather run down compared to Leek.

In another blog post I commented on the high number of pubs in Leek compared to Bromsgrove. It never ceases to amaze me when wandering around the town just how many there are. However, it seems some are not doing so well, like The Quiet Woman at the bottom of St Edward St, where there was a notice stating that the pub was closed until further notice.


I was interested to see renovation in some parts of the town, such as the opening of Getliffe’s Yard, off Derby Street. I had no idea it was there, and it’s now a haven for a number of upmarket boutiques and a very decent restaurant, Leek Café Bar & Grill, with a Mediterranean (Turkish) flavour. We had an excellent meal there on our first night, washed down with a couple pints of Efes lager.

It’s good to see how a number of mills, like the one on the corner of Shoobridge Street and Haywood Street are occupied once again. But it’s also disappointing that too many are empty, particularly the one that dominates Mill Street that is now in a bad state of repair. Is conversion to apartments not feasible? After all, these mills are a solid part of Leek’s industrial heritage.


I decided to go and look at the six properties around the town where my family had lived since moving to Leek in 1956:

  • 65 St Edward Street, until 1961/62; we lived above the shop
  • 56 St Edward Street, 1962-1963
  • 26 Market Place (an apartment above the former building society that’s now Costa Coffee), 1962-1963
  • 19 Market Place, 1963-1976; we lived above the shop
  • Greystones, Stockwell Street, in the first floor apartment
  • 13 Clerk Bank – my mother (as a widow) moved here in about 1986, until 1989 when she moved into a care home.

My dad took over a photography business at No 65 when we first moved to Leek, but when the lease came up for renewal (around 1960) he knew he had to find somewhere with better footfall. In the interim we moved across the road to No 56 (taking over from a retailer of fine china) and living part-time in a room behind the shop until we found the apartment at 26 Market Place.

Around 1962/63, my parents purchased and renovated No 19 Market Place, and stayed there until their retirement in the summer of 1976. They then moved into the first floor apartment in Greystones on Stockwell Street. My father passed away in April 1980, and my mother stayed on in Greystones for a few more years before the council found her a terraced bungalow on Clerk Bank. Suffering a stroke in 1989, she moved away to a nursing home in South Wales, and our direct link with link was severed.

Behind No 19 was a ‘court’ with a couple of cottages, that were no longer occupied when we moved there in 1963. After a year or so, the cottages were demolished, and Mum and Dad began to build their urban garden. No-one passing by in the Market Place would have guessed there was such a jewel hiding there. We decided to see how it looks today, and were disappointed that subsequent residents of No 19 had let the garden decline.

Leek town centre is very much lived in. We enjoyed strolling along the streets off Derby Street, like Bath Street or Ford Street. These seem very much like communities, and can be seen radiating out from Leek town center, a legacy, no doubt, of the town’s industrial past in silk weaving.


Another thing we liked were the ‘blue plaques’ placed on various buildings around the town by the Leek and District Civic Society. Two of the properties which we’d occupied have blue plaques: 56 St Edward Street and Greystones. No 56 is now a photography business once again.

At the entrance to Clerk Bank is a small sandstone cottage, with a blue plaque stating the the Leek and Moorlands Cooperative Society (LMCS) had been founded there in 1859.

By the end of the 1890s, the LMCS had moved to a new premises on Ashbourne Road, next door to the White Lion and across the road from the Talbot Hotel, now Leek’s Premier Inn. This building was being refurbished, and the plaster reliefs depicting some of the town’s trades then were looking splendid. In style and colour they closely resembled the reliefs that adorn one of the original buildings at the Leek School of Art, now the Buxton & Leek College on Stockwell Street. I have it on good authority that the reliefs are by the same architectural sculptor, Abraham Broadbent.


Before we left Leek to return home, we couldn’t resist one last stop: Leek Oatcake Shop on the corner of Haywood Street and London Street. Delicious!


One thing I’d had forgotten was just how beautiful the Staffordshire Moorlands are. One of the finest landscapes in England. Here are a couple of dashcam videos of part of our journey to the RHS Chatsworth Flower Show on 6 June, from the Premier Inn to the Longnor turnoff on the A53 (first video), and from there to crossing into Derbyshire at Crowdecote (second video).


 

How we speak . . .

I’ve just finished reading the novel Anna of the Five Towns by Arnold Bennett, set during the late 19th century, in the Potteries of North Staffordshire. And now I have started his 1908 novel (considered his finest), The Old Wives’ Tale, that is set in the 1860s and beyond, also in the ‘five towns’.

Bennett used the local Potteries dialect sparingly throughout his novels. I came across a new dialect word while reading The Old Wives’ Tale this morning, which has perhaps taken on a new meaning nowadays: He admitted a certain feebleness (‘wankiness‘, he playfully called it, being proud of his skill in the dialect) . . . And this use of dialect came to my mind in light of something I read about recently (more of which at the end of this piece).

One author who did successfully write in Potteries dialect was William Bloor. His work has been archived at Keele University, and is available online where there’s this interesting comment: On the written page the dialect has the appearance of an arcane language, with mangled vowel sounds and harsh consonants rendering it incomprehensible to many.

You can find a list of Potteries dialect words here. Better still, listen to local Potteries author Alan Povey tell one of his Owd Grandad Piggott stories in dialect. Can you understand? I can (mostly).

Potteries dialect is much less known (and appreciated, perhaps) than Cockney (London), Brummie (Birmingham), Scouse (Liverpool), or Geordie (Newcastle upon Tyne). Today, there are probably few people in North Staffordshire who still fully speak in dialect as many did up to the 1950s. The influence of radio and television has surely brought about a standardization in the way we speak.

But what are the Potteries? They are the six (not five) towns, north to south, that comprise the City of Stoke-on-Trent: Tunstall [Turnhill], Burslem [Bursley], Hanley [Hanbridge], Stoke [Knype], Fenton, and Longton [Longshaw], and so named because they became a center of ceramic production in the early 17th century, due to the local availability of clay, salt, lead and coal.

I grew up in North Staffordshire, in the small market town of Leek (Axe in the Bennett novels), on the edge of the Staffordshire moorlands, just 10 miles to the northeast of the Potteries. Between September 1960 and June 1967 I traveled the fourteen miles every day from home to school in Trent Vale on the south side of Stoke. In Leek and the Potteries I did hear people talking in the local dialect, but rarely at school. Boys of my age had moved on linguistically, so to speak.

I don’t speak any dialect, but I clearly have an accent that, to many, sounds ‘northern’ because of the short vowel pronunciation characteristic of my speech. In this clip, I’m reading the first few paragraphs from Bennett’s The Old wives’ Tale:

But while I don’t speak dialect, I do use a few dialect words such as nesh (sensitive to the cold) or mithered (bothered). Growing up, I often heard the term of endearment, duck (used for men and women), but never used it myself.

I guess my accent and pronunciation (like anyone else) is a consequence of what I heard at home growing up. And has been modified by years of travel and living overseas. My mother was born in London’s East End, but grew up in Epsom, Surrey. She emigrated as a young woman to Canada and the USA in the 1920s. My father was a Staffordshire man, from Burton-on-Trent, but he moved away as a young man to the Cotswolds and then to sea, traveling the world as ship’s photographer. The way they spoke must have influenced me. For example, I pronounce schedule in the American way: skedule, not the soft shedule. That came from my mum, because that’s how I heard her pronounce it, something she probably picked up while in Canada and the USA.

A week ago or so, a rather interesting ‘quiz’ about British-Irish dialects appeared on Facebook (originally from The New York Times), and was widely shared. It wasn’t your run of the mill Facebook quiz. It seemed to have a purpose. Several people I know took the quiz, including my eldest brother and his wife. I took the quiz. We were all amazed at the accuracy of pinpointing where we came from,based on words we use in everyday speech. This is what my brother posted afterwards: Regarding myself – it says that I formed my language/speech style as being SW Derbyshire and SE Cheshire, which is ‘Spot-on’, Pauline’s was correct also being Perthshire and Aberdeenshire.

I guess the algorithm behind the quiz used certain ‘signature’ words from different parts of the country (like nesh in my case) and gave them extra weight.

My result pointed towards Stoke-on-Trent northeastwards past Leek into southern Yorkshire, but with a greater probability in North Staffordshire. Also spot on! Just click on the link below and try for yourself.

 

Three score and ten . . .

18 November 1948. Today is my 70th birthday. Septuagenarian. The Biblical three score and ten (Psalm 90:10)!

Steph and I have come away for the weekend to celebrate my birthday with The Beatles in Liverpool.

We are staying for a couple of nights at Jurys Inn close to the Albert Dock. Later this morning we’ve booked to visit the National Trust-owned Beatles’ Childhood Homes (of John Lennon and Paul McCartney). And after lunch, we will tour The Beatles Story where I’m hoping to see, displayed there, something special from my childhood.

How the years have flown by. Just a month ago, Steph and I celebrated our 45th wedding anniversary. And I find it hard to believe that I started university over 50 years ago.

That got me thinking. I’ve written quite a lot in this blog about the years after I graduated, my time working overseas, about travel, and what Steph and I have been up to since retiring in 2010.

However, I written much less about my early years growing up in Cheshire and Staffordshire. This is then an appropriate moment to fill some gaps.

A son of Cheshire
I was born in Knowlton House nursing home in Congleton, Cheshire (map), third son and fourth and youngest child of Frederick Harry Jackson (aged 40), a photo process engraver, and Lilian May Jackson, also aged 40, housewife.

Mum and Dad, around 1959/60 after we had moved to Leek

My eldest brother Martin has been able to trace our family’s ancestry (mainly on my father’s side) back to someone named Bull, who was my 13th great-grandfather, born around 1480 on the Staffordshire/ Derbyshire border, just one of my 32,000 plus direct ancestors then. I must be related to royalty in one way or another (as are most of us), although looking at the occupations noted for many of them in various official documents (birth and marriage certificates, census data), we came a long way down the pecking order. Definitely below the salt! We’re Irish on my mother’s side of the family.

A punk before it was fashionable!

I am also a child of the National Health Service (NHS) that was founded in July 1948. In fact, I’m (approximately) the 190,063rd baby born under the NHS!

Knowlton House on Parson Street in Congleton – it’s no longer a nursing home.

I wonder who assisted at my birth? It could well have been our family Dr Galbraith, or Nurses Frost and Botting.

Dr Galbraith (R) was our family doctor, who (with his partner Dr Ritchie) often attended births at Knowlton House, and is seen here with resident midwife Nurse Rose Hannah Frost, who assisted at more than 3000 births. There is a very good chance either Nurse Frost or Nurse May Botting (who ran the nursing home) assisted at my birth. In this photo from 1936, Dr Galbraith and Nurse Frost are holding the Nixon triplets. Photo courtesy of Alan Nixon, who was apparently named after Dr Galbraith.

My dad registered my birth¹ on 22 November (Entry No. 442). There are few ‘Michaels’ in the family; Thomas is my paternal grandfather’s name.

My eldest brother Martin was born in September 1939, just a couple of days before war was declared on Germany. My sister Margaret was born in January 1941. Martin and Margaret spent much of WWII with my paternal grandparents in rural Derbyshire. My elder brother Edgar (‘Ed’) is, like me, one of the baby boomer generation, born in July 1946.

The difference of around 55 years – 1951/52 and 2006

I’ve often wondered what sacrifices Mum and Dad had to make to give us all such a good start in life.

Growing up in Congleton, we lived at 13 Moody Street, close to the town center’s High Street.

There’s not much to tell about my first couple of years, other than what I can surmise from a few photographs taken around that time when I was still in my pram or just beginning to walk. Two things I do remember clearly, though. The hens my father used to keep, and even the large henhouse he constructed at the bottom of the garden. And our female cat, Mitten, and all her kittens. That must have been the start of becoming an ailurophile (cat lover).

My best friend was Alan Brennan, a year younger, who lived a little further up Moody Street at No. 23 (and with whom I reconnected through this blog, after a gap of around 60 years!).

With Alan and his parents (and friends) at Timbersbrook, in 1955. I clearly remember Mr Brennan’s Vauxhall car – a Wyvern I believe.

We didn’t go to the same primary school. Like my brothers and sister before me, I was enrolled (in September 1952 or April 1953, maybe as late as September 1953) at the small Church of England school on Leek Road in Mossley, south of the town. By then, Martin had moved on to grammar school in Macclesfield; Margaret had also transferred to secondary school in Congleton.

Each morning, Ed and I would catch the bus in the High Street together for the short, 1½ mile ride to Mossley. And even as young as five, I would sometimes walk home alone from school during the summer months, along Leek Road and Canal Road/Street. How times change!

I remember the headteacher, Mr Morris, as a kind person. My class teachers were Mrs Bickerton (on the left) and Mrs Johnson (on the right). Courtesy of Liz Campion.

There was a real community of children around Moody Street, Howie Lane/Hill, and Priesty Fields. In summer, we’d all wander up to play on the swing bridge over the Macclesfield Canal (beyond the cemetery – where we would also play in a WWII air raid shelter). The bridge has long been replaced, but from comments on a Congleton Facebook group I belong to, it seems that over the generations, many children enjoyed the swing bridge as much as we did.

In winter, we had fun in the snow at Priesty Fields just round the corner from Moody St. And, as you can see below, we enjoyed dressing up. Happy days!

In the upper image, taken on Coronation Day in 1953, I’m fifth from the right (carrying the stick). Alan Brennan is the little by to the left of the ‘clown’, and in front of the ‘pirate’, my elder brother Ed. The lower image was taken on May Day, probably 1953 or 54. I’m on the left, carrying the sword, uncertain whether to be a knight or a cowboy.

c. 1955. L-R: Veronica George, Carol Brennan, Jessica George, my elder brother Ed, me, Margaret Moulton, and Alan Brennan. Taken in the garden of No 13 Moody St. The George sisters lived at No. 21 Moody St.

I often joined my father when he went out on photographic assignments for the Congleton Chronicle (where he was Chief Photographer), often to Biddulph Grange when it was an orthopedic hospital, also to Astbury, and out into the beautiful Cheshire countryside.

I remember one outing in particular, to Little Moreton Hall in May 1954. This is my father’s photo of Manley Morris Men dancing there, an image that stuck in my mind for many years. So much so that when I went to university in the later 1960s, I helped form a morris dancing side, the Red Stags, that’s still going strong (albeit in a slightly different form) 50 years later.

The Manley Morris Men at Little Moreton Hall on 8 May 1954.

For family holidays I remember those in North Wales, at a caravan park or, on one occasion, a camping coach, a converted railway carriage alongside the mainline to Holyhead next to the beach at Abergele.

During these early years, until July 1954, rationing was still in place that had come into effect at the start of the Second World War. I often wonder how my parents managed to raise four children during these difficult years. One thing I do recall, however, is how we shared things, particularly confectionery. No individual treats. My father would buy a Mars bar (I’m sure they were bigger then) and cut it into six pieces. Funny how these things stick in one’s memory.


The move to Leek
April 1956. A big change in my life. My family upped sticks and moved 12 miles southeast to the market town of Leek in north Staffordshire, where my father took over a retail photography business. As I was only 7½ when we moved, I’ve come to regard Leek as my home town. My parents lived there for the rest of their lives. My father passed away in 1980, and after my mother had a stroke in 1990, only then did she move away from Leek to spend her last couple of years in a care home near my sister in South Wales.

We lived at No. 65, St Edward Street, and within a couple of days of arriving there, I’d made friends with three boys who lived close by: Philip Porter (next door), Geoff Sharratt – whose father was publican at The Quiet Woman pub a few doors away, and David Phillips who lived over the road. Geoff’s younger sister Susan sometimes joined in our games, as did Philip’s sister Jill. We were the ‘St Edward Street Gang’.

Here we are in the late 1950s (probably 1958), in the yard of The Quiet Woman pub. L-R: Sue, Geoff, me, Philip, and Dave. And again in 2018.

Geoff was my best friend, and we spent a lot of time playing together. There were several upstairs rooms at The Quiet Woman, one of which was the Lodge of the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes (RAOB, the Buffs, a fraternal organization somewhat similar to the Freemasons). During inclement weather, we often took refuge in the Lodge, playing among the benches and high chairs.

Playing with my Hornby ‘O’ gauge clockwork train at ‘Congleton’ station – it would be a collectors’ item today. Taken around 1958.

I was also a cub scout, as was Ed.

Around 1960, the lease on No. 65 came due, so my father decided to to find a better location for his business. First, he moved across St Edward’s St to No. 56 (while we lived in a flat at the top of the Market Place). In 1962/63 my father acquired No. 19 Market Place as premises for his photographic business, with living accommodation above. This was just what he had been looking for, centrally located in the town, lots of footfall. But the whole property had to be refurbished; there was only one water tap – in the cellar. He did much of the refurbishment himself. I’ve never ceased to be amazed at his DIY talents, something I sadly have not inherited to the same degree. My parents remained at No. 19 until they retired in 1976.

Sandwiched between Jackson the Optician (no relation) on the left, and Victoria Wine on the right, No 19 Market Place was my parents home for 14 years.

Around the same time, Geoff’s parents left The Quiet Woman and moved elsewhere in the town. I was also traveling every day to school to Trent Vale on the south side of Stoke-on-Trent (a round trip of about 28 miles), while Geoff continued his education in Leek. As a consequence, we drifted apart, but through my blog we reconnected in 2012.

Mr Smith

My mother’s family were Irish Catholics, and although we had not been brought up in the faith while in Congleton, both Ed and myself were enrolled in St. Mary’s RC primary school on Cruso Street, a short walk away from home. We were taught by Sisters of Loreto nuns. Headmistress Mother Elizabeth or my class teacher, Mother Bernadine, were never averse to wrapping us across the knuckles with the sharp edge of a ruler. In my final year at St Mary’s (1959-60), we were taught by Mr Smith. But my recollections don’t tally so much with many others who also attended St Mary’s. And I have been horrified at some accounts of how unhappy they were at the school in the 1950s and 60s.

In the late 50s and early 60s, just Ed and I would join our parents for holidays in Wales, most often camping or in our own caravan.

Some of my happiest memories though come from our visits to my grandparents² (my father’s parents) in Hollington, a small Derbyshire village between Ashbourne and Derby. My grandfather was almost 76 when I was born; Grandma was 68.

Family picnic at Hollington, c. 1952, with cousins. Grandma in the center, my mum is on the left. I’m center front ‘guarding’ the bottle.

With Grandad and Grandma Jackson, and our cousin Diana, c. 1959 at Ebenezer Cottage.

Grandma and Grandad celebrated their Golden Wedding in 1954, the occasion of a large gathering of family and friends in Hollington.


Enduring high school
I passed my 11 Plus exam to attend a Roman Catholic grammar school, St Joseph’s College, at Trent Vale on the south side of Stoke-on-Trent. Founded by Irish Christian Brothers in 1932, the school took boys only (but is now co-educational). I had to be on the bus by 07:50 each morning if I was to get to school by 09:00. This was my daily routine for the next seven years.

On reflection, I can’t say that I found the school experience satisfying or that the quality of the education I received was worth writing home about. Yes, there were some good teachers who I looked up to, but much of the teaching was pretty mediocre. I’ve written elsewhere about the gratuitous use of corporal punishment at the school.

Perhaps one of the school’s claims to fame was the priest who attended to our ‘spiritual needs’. He was Father John Tolkien, son JRR Tolkien, the author of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. My first impressions of Fr Tolkien were not favorable. He came across as cold and authoritarian. When I got to know him later on, however, I found he was a warm person with a good sense of humor. I was saddened to learn that his last years were blighted by accusations of abuse, later dropped.


On to university . . . and faraway places
I was lucky to secure a place in October 1967 at the University of Southampton to study botany and geography, beginning three of the happiest years of my life. I’ve already blogged about various aspects of my time at Southampton, and you can read them here. Little did I think that I would have a career in botany, and that would lead me to fulfill one of my ambitions: to visit Peru.

Even though I graduated in 1970 with only an average BSc degree, that didn’t hold me back. I had ambitions.

I was fortunate to be accepted into graduate school at the University of Birmingham, where I completed MSc and PhD degrees in plant genetic resources, and returned there in 1981 for a decade as Lecturer in Plant Biology.

After my PhD graduation at The University of Birmingham on 12 December 1975 with my PhD supervisor, Prof. Jack Hawkes (L) and Prof. Trevor Williams (R) who supervised my MSc dissertation.

My international career in plant genetic resources conservation and agriculture took me to Peru and Costa Rica from 1973-1981, to work on potatoes for the International Potato Center (CIP). And then in July 1991, I moved to the Philippines to join the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) for the next 19 years as head of the genebank then as Director for Program Planning and Communications.

I had good opportunities to publish my research over the years, in terms of journal articles, books and book chapters, and presentations at scientific conferences.

I retired in April 2010, at the age of 61. But I haven’t rested on my laurels. Scientifically I have:

In the 2012 I was honored to be made an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, or OBE, for services to international food science (in the New Year’s Honours).

I set up this blog in February 2012, and have written more than 460 stories for a total of around 470,000 words since then, and posted thousands of images, most of which I have taken myself.


Family
Steph and I were married on 13 October 1973 in Lima, Peru. We’d met at Birmingham during 1971-72, and after I’d moved to Lima in January 1973, she joined me there in July and also worked at CIP.

At La Granja Azul restaurant near Lima (on the left) after our wedding in 1973. And on the right, exactly 45 years later during one of our walks at Croome Court in Worcestershire.

Hannah, our elder daughter was born in Costa Rica in April 1978. Philippa was born in Bromsgrove in May 1982, a year after we had moved back to the UK (in March 1981). When we moved to the Philippines in 1991, they both attended the International School Manila, and then went on to university in the USA (Macalester College in Minnesota) and Durham in the UK, respectively. In 2006 and 2010, they completed their PhD degrees in psychology, respectively at the University of Minnesota and Northumbria University.

PhD graduands! On the left, Hannah is with her classmates in Industrial-Organizational Psychology at the University of Minnesota, Emily and Mike, on 12 May 2006. Philippa (on the right) is with one of her PhD supervisors, Prof. David Kennedy of the Brain, Performance and Nutrition Research Centre in the Dept. of Psychology at Northumbria University on 7 December 2010.

In those same years Hannah married Michael, and Phil married Andi. We now have four wonderful grandchildren: Callum (8), Elvis (7), Zoë (6), and Felix (5). The family came together for the first time in a New Forest holiday in July 2016.

On holiday in the New Forest in July 2016. L-R (sitting): Callum, Hannah, Zoë, me, Steph, Elvis, Felix, and Philippa. Standing: Michael and Andi

The 2018-19 school year started for Callum and Zoë in August, and for Elvis and Felix in September. It was also Felix’s first day at school.

In September, Steph and I spent a week in Cornwall exploring many National Trust and English Heritage properties around the county.

Foldes and Fenner family photos in July and September


So, as I look back on the past 70 years, I can’t say I have much to complain about. Steph and I have a beautiful family. An interesting career took me to more than 65 countries (and Steph to some of those). We’ve lived and worked in three countries and made some wonderful friends.

Je ne regrette rien

At 70, though, what does life have in store?

I think Fleetwood Mac (one of my favorite bands) sum it up quite nicely. If it was fine for Bill Clinton, it’s good enough for me.

Retirement is sweet. Who could ask for more?


¹ I no longer have my original birth certificate. That now sits in an archive somewhere in the Miraflores Municipality building in Lima, Peru. When Steph and I married there in October 1973 we had to present our original birth certificates, not realizing these would be filed away in perpetuity and never returned to us.

² I did not really know my mother’s parents, who died before my sixth birthday. They lived in Epsom, Surrey.

Just a few taps is all it takes nowadays

I own an Android smart phone. It’s a Doogee. Nothing remarkable about that, you might say. Certainly not.

However, I’ve had a smart phone only since May 2016. Before that I used a basic Nokia that allowed me to make calls and send SMS messages. While I was recovering from my accident in January that same year, I’d thought more about the advantages of having a smart phone, and decided to invest in one that wasn’t too expensive. I have a SIM-only plan with Talk Mobile that gives me a respectable number of text messages and calls to other phones on a monthly basis.

To be honest, I rarely use my phone, mainly to keep in touch with family by text message, or some social media use, and occasionally phone calls. However, it seems that almost anything you want to do these days, places to go, assumes you have access to a smart phone. I also find it reassuring to have a mobile phone in my pocket when we travel, in case of emergency.

But, and it’s a very big but, I could never see myself spending upwards of £1200 here in the UK on an iPhone X, for example, or any other model approaching that cost, never mind how great these gadgets are, much as I wouldn’t say No if someone gifted me one.

We take our phones for granted. No doubt. They have become indispensable. They have more computing power than took us to the Moon 48 years ago. But the history of mobile phones stretches back not much more than than 30-35 years in reality.

During the 1980s, in my home town of Bromsgrove, local Anglican priest, the Rev. John Eley of All Saints was often seen using his ‘mobile’ phone in the High Street. Known as The Cooking Canon, the Rev. Eley was a regular on the BBC show Pebble Mill at One, demonstrating his culinary skills, always wearing his dog collar. So, having a mobile phone—rudimentary as the technology was then—must have been quite important for him to be able to keep in contact for the ‘show business’ side of his life.

I use the word ‘mobile’ advisedly. It was more like a brick that he carried around, rather like the model (but not the same) illustrated below. Heaven knows how much it weighed, a couple of pounds at least. So much for mobile, and keeping in touch, on the go (but slowly).

This phone, a Nokia, is not the one he used as far as I can recall, but it’s of the same sort of dimensions as that he used to haul around. How far we have come, and how much we take mobile telephony for granted. Just a few taps of the screen and you can be talking to anyone on the other side of the world.

But of course it wasn’t always like that. For many decades after the invention of the telephone, an operator had to connect the call. Direct dialling by the customer, or Subscriber Trunk Dialling (STD), didn’t come to my home town of Leek in North Staffordshire until August 1968. And my Dad, Fred Jackson, had something to do with its first use.

We moved to Leek in 1956 from Congleton in Cheshire, about 12 miles away. In Congleton, Dad had been elected a member of the borough council in the early 1950s, but once we’d been settled in Leek for a few years, he sought election to Leek Urban District Council (LUDC, subsumed many years ago into the larger Staffordshire Moorlands District Council) in 1960, as an Independent. He couldn’t abide party politics in local government (Conservative or Labour, or whatever) that have unfortunately became the norm today.

By 1968, he’d moved to the top of the councillors’ roster, so to speak, and was elected Chairman of the LUDC.

Then, a few weeks later there was a special ceremony, Chairman’s Sunday, when the installation of the new chairman was celebrated in the town.

Chairman’s Sunday in Leek, outside the Parish Church of St. Edward the Confessor. L-R: Church warden, Mrs. Gibson, Vice-Chairman Stan Gibson, Rev. Duder (of St. Edward’s), Dad, Mum, Chief Executive of LUDC, Rev. Cyril Greene (an old friend from Congleton), Verger

At the Chairman’s Ball in Leek Town Hall

A council chair has to fulfil many ceremonial functions during his/her year of office, and among those that fell to my Dad was making the first STD phone call from the new Leek exchange on Thursday 22 August 1968.

My elder brother Ed had married his first wife Christine in Brighton just a few days earlier, and they were preparing to depart the UK for a new life in Canada, where Ed was to start graduate studies in the Department of Geography at the University of Calgary, Alberta. Who better to make the call to.

Just yesterday I came across the original program for the opening of the new exchange. It’s interesting to note that my Dad had written the Brighton number to be dialled in his copy of the program, in case he forgot. Just click on the image below to open a full copy of the program, read about the history of the telephone in Leek since 1892, and why a new STD exchange was needed. Also there are newspaper clippings about the background to the new telephone exchange, and that first call.

My Dad also told me although the call had been pre-arranged with my brother, Ed let it ring five or six times before picking up the receiver, leaving those at the Leek end somewhat concerned that maybe there was no-one home.

Who would think that making a phone call before STD was so labour-intensive? But what to me are even more amazing are the recent innovations that allow you to phone ‘on the go’, almost anywhere. Who would have predicted how our lives would be revolutionised by this technology, or even dominated by it? Such a lot of progress in 50 years, and over the past 15-20 years in particular. You have to be connected.

 

 

Earning a crust in the 1960s, part-time

It was not uncommon during the 1960s (when I was a teenager) for many young people to have a part-time job to earn some pocket-money, me included. From 1964 for almost three years I worked on Saturdays at a local garage in Leek, my hometown in north Staffordshire. Peppers Garage, on High Street, next to the Grand Cinema. The Grand was one of three at that time, the others being the Palace a little further down the same street on the corner with Salisbury Street (and a converted skating rink), and the Majestic across town on Union Street, I believe—a real ‘flea pit’. How times change. All the cinemas have disappeared, and from what I saw today on Google Street View, there is now a vacant lot where the garage once stood.

The vacant lot where Peppers of Leek once stood. The new building to the right occupies the site of the former Grand Cinema.

I ‘inherited’ this Saturday job from my elder brother Ed in the autumn of 1964 (maybe a little earlier) when he went to university at the London School of Economics. I had to get to work around 08:30, if not earlier, and stayed there until the garage closed around 17:30 or thereabouts. For this I was paid the princely sum of £0 15s 0d (that’s ‘old money’, pre-decimalization). In ‘new money’ that’s equivalent today to £0.75, but of course that belies the real equivalency of about £13.33. Given that the current minimum hourly wage for under-18s is £4.05, I was paid about £1.66 an hour. Child exploitation!

But the pocket-money came in handy. I bought myself a record player, and a pair of binoculars (I was a keen bird-watcher then) among other things. It gave me a sense of achievement to save this money and spend it on things I really wanted, but my parents couldn’t afford.

Looking back, I can’t say it was a hard job. They assigned me to the car parts sales section, and also to attend the gasoline (petrol) pumps (no self-service in those days). All the vets from a local practice would come by on a Saturday, fill up their vehicles, and sign for what they had taken. We had a select group of customers who signed for their gasoline and were billed monthly.

Peppers sold car models made by the British Motor Corporation (Austin, Morris, Wolseley, Riley). Of course nothing was computerised in those days, so when someone came in looking for a particular part, we had to work our way through voluminous parts manuals (once we’d identified what the part was actually for), and then see if we had it in stock. There was an old geezer working at Pepper’s who must have been there for years by the name of Bill Wragg. He was a real rough diamond, but generous, who had an extremely colourful vocabulary. Maybe I learned to swear effectively from Bill and others working at Peppers.

Once I’d turned 17 and had a full driving licence, I was allowed to move cars around, and even collect new models from a distributor based in the Potteries (Stoke-on-Trent) some 10 miles to the west. These jaunts took me out of the garage (and the tedium) for several hours, and I looked forward to these occasional assignments, and learning to drive different cars.

Being the junior, so-to-speak, I also had to make the twice-daily brew of tea: plentiful, hot, and very sweet! But once I went off to university if October 1967 I left all this behind me.

But being a budding car parts salesman was not my only venture into part-time employment. In those days, during the Christmas rush (from about 15 December onwards) the GPO (as it was then known, today the Post Office) took on extra temporary staff to take care of the huge increase in mail. Many of these temporary staff were from local schools. I was among them, and did my Christmas mail shifts for about four years from when I went into the Sixth Form at high school in 1965 until the Christmas of my second year at Southampton University in 1968. What was remarkable, looking back on it, was that we were actually given permission to take a few days off from school to help with the Christmas mail. It wouldn’t be allowed today. The first year, all I did was deliver mail that others had sorted. The second year I was assigned only to sorting, keeping nice and warm inside while others braved the winter weather. In the third and fourth years I was assigned my own ‘walk’, and had to sort and deliver all the mail for a particular route in the town, carrying a very heavy bag of cards and packages on the handlebars of an old GPO bicycle. But it did mean I got many more hours of work.

After I had completed my pre-university exams in June 1967 (I can hardly imagine that the 50th anniversary is upon us; the Israeli-Arab Six Day War was fought and over while I was sitting my exams), I took a job with Adams Butter in Leek, as driver’s mate on large, refrigerated articulated trucks like the one below.

Adams Butter (now part of Ornua Foods) was a local company, a big employer in Leek that processed butter, repacked it and distributed it to outlets all over the country. I had to be at work very early, often around dawn to begin the day’s trip to deliver butter. The trucks carried about 25 tons of butter, packed in 28 lb boxes. All these had to be shifted by hand. We had a strict delivery route as the trucks had been loaded accordingly. Often it was a question of arriving at a supermarket, waiting around for some time until we could back into the off-loading bay, then 30 or more minutes of hard graft picking up the boxes and throwing them out of the back of the refrigerated compartment. Today everything is delivered on pallets, and fork-lift trucks take the pallets away. It was brute force in 1967. I suffered for the first few days, but once I’d learned how to pick up the boxes without hurting myself, and throwing them to the driver for stacking (or vice versa) I became a dab hand, and quite fit.

Once the truck had been unloaded at our last drop off, we then made our way to the nearest port to pick up a consignment of ‘raw’ frozen butter that had come in from the Irish Republic, Australia or New Zealand. This is what Adams would blend and redistribute. Mostly we went to Liverpool Docks, picking up our load from huge cold stores on the quay. Now these boxes, completely frozen, weighed 56 lb each, and rather difficult to man handle. Once again, it took some practice to safely lift and stack these boxes, and the dockers (known as longshoremen in the USA) didn’t hang about, and certainly didn’t make any allowances for a rookie like me. Three or four days into my work every muscle ached. I didn’t think I was going to be able to continue. But, you know, it was probably the fittest I ever was once I’d been working for a week or so.

I never knew from one day to the next who I would be partnered with. On my very first day, heading up the M6 motorway towing an empty flatbed trailer towards Liverpool Docks, the brakes caught fire and we had to abandon our trip and wait on the hard shoulder for several hours until rescued by mechanics with a replacement trailer. Some times we had deliveries much further afield, to the northeast in the Newcastle area, or even to Glasgow. These were usually three-day trips.

I made particular friends with one driver. I remember his name was Harold, but I can’t remember his family name. Sheldon, perhaps? I often worked with him, especially on the overnight trips. He was very widely read, and had a passion for archaeology. I remember one day out we made with his wife and young children to Wroxeter Roman City near Shrewsbury. Happy days.

I’ve only been to Liverpool once since 1967. That must have been around 2000 when I gave a lecture at the University of Liverpool. Liverpool has changed enormously over the past 50 years. It’s very much on the tourist map, particularly for its connections with The Beatles and the Liverpool Sound. And talking of The Beatles and the Beatles Story, I really must go back there and see for myself the large poster about skiffle near the entrance of the Beatles Story that features my brother Ed and me in the late 1950s.

Sammy Jackson visiting The Beatles Story several years back. Sammy is the son of my nephew Alex.

As of three weeks ago, it was still there among the exhibits, so my good friend Prof Brian Ford-Lloyd informed me. And it was Brian’s comments about his visit to Liverpool that got me thinking about doing the same, remembering about my visits to the city, and the other ideas that came to mind that I have related in this blog post. Funny how one little idea can cause so many others to resurface.

 

Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing . . .

It’s one of the big ‘what ifs’ of British history.

Lost_Portrait_of_Charles_Edward_StuartHow would Britain as a nation and British society have evolved had the 1745-46 Jacobite Rising of the Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie (or, to give him his full name: Charles Edward Louis John Casimir Sylvester Severino Maria Stuart, born 31 December 1720, died 31 January 1788) been successful. Would there still be a Union? But he wasn’t successful, and this uprising ended with the last battle fought on British soil at Culloden in 1746. It had a long-lasting impact on Scotland, particularly in the Highlands.

He raised his standard at Glenfinnan on the west coast of Scotland on 19 August 1745 in a bid to reclaim the throne for his father (The Old Pretender, James Francis Edward Stuart, son of deposed King James II, and accepted by many as the rightful heir) from the ‘usurper Hanoverians’.

During our recent road trip round Scotland we came across a number of sites associated with Bonnie Prince Charlie and the 1745. Having made our trip counter-clockwise, we reached Glenfinnan on the penultimate day of our holiday. The weather was atrocious: driving rain and strong winds. In fact I had wanted to make the 15 mile or so detour west of Fort William to see the Glenfinnan viaduct on the railway connecting Fort William and Mallaig. For all you Harry Potter fans, the steam train that runs on this West Highland line featured as The Hogwarts Express in several films.

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The Glenfinnan Monument.

When we arrived at the Glenfinnan visitor centre, I realized that I had seen the Glenfinnan Monument (that commemorates the raising of the standard) on a couple of previous occasions, but never in such weather. We did get tickets to climb the monument—maximum four people at a time plus the guide. It’s an extremely steep and tight stone spiral staircase up the monument, and you have to almost limbo dance to squeeze out through the manhole, that couldn’t have been more than 18 inches square. I did manage my photo of the viaduct from there, and just as we walked back to the Visitor Centre, we heard the steam train puffing its way through the station, where we had been no more than 20 minutes previously. No-one had cared to advise us that the steam train was expected imminently!

During the 1745 uprising, the Jacobites marched south into England, reaching Derby by early December. And it was at this point that they effectively lost their campaign. Some historians believe that the Hanoverian government forces could have been defeated at that time, but Charles Edward Stuart turned round and led his forces back into Scotland, where they were caught and defeated at the Battle of Culloden on 16 April 1746. The battle site is just east of Inverness, managed by the National Trust for Scotland property, and seemingly the site for pilgrimage by people of Scots ancestry from all over the world. The displays and explanations of the battle in the visitors centre are excellent.

1746 Culloden battlefield, east of Inverness.

Site of the Battle of Culloden, east of Inverness, on 16 April 1746

In South Uist we passed by the birthplace of Flora MacDonald, who helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape into exile after Culloden, and also near where she is buried in the north of Skye.

While compiling information for this blog post, I’ve discovered a ‘personal’ link to Bonnie Prince Charlie. My home town is Leek in North Staffordshire: The Queen of the Moorlands. The Jacobite army passed through Leek in December 1745 on its way south. After turning round at Derby, it passed through Leek once again and there is anecdotal evidence that Bonnie Prince Charlie stayed the night in a small house at the top of the Market Place, just across the road from where I used to live, and next to the vicarage of the Church of St Edward the Confessor (where Jacobite soldiers sharpened their swords on a stone cross in the churchyard).

Yesterday, however, I read another account that states that the Prince did not stay in this house after all, but lodged instead in a much finer house, one built in the late 17th century, and located about 200 m east on Stockwell Street. Now a listed building, ‘Greystones’, was once divided into two apartments and rented by the local authority. From 1976 until the mid-1980s, my parents resided in the apartment on the upper two floors. I never had the least inkling whenever I visited them there that this just might have been the place where Bonnie Prince Charlie lay his weary head and dreamed on what might have been.

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‘Greystones’ is a late 17th century listed building on Stockwell Street in Leek. It stands in front of the local library, art gallery and museum, the Nicholson Institute, the tower of which can be seen behind. ‘Greystones’ was once occupied by silk manufacturer Joshua Nicholson, who built the Institute in 1884.

With a little help from my friends . . .

These days, I feel I can easily remember things that happened decades ago during my childhood. Ask me what I did yesterday or at least during the past few days and I often struggle to remember the details.

But recently I’ve been reminded of things that did happen 50 or more years ago that I had most definitely forgotten. And through the power of the Internet, and most probably Google, I have reconnected with a couple of childhood friends who I had not been in contact with for more than 50 years.

When I started this blog more than two years ago I never expected that long-lost friends would be in contact with me.

Almost two years ago, on 5 April 2012, I posted a story about the Beatles and my childhood love of skiffle music. I included this photo, and mentioned that the boy and little girl listening to me and my brother Ed were my best friend in Leek, Geoff Sharratt, and his sister Susan. A few months later I was contacted by Susan who had been doing some genealogy research and came across my blog. I’ve been in touch with Geoff on a regular basis since then, and posted another story in November 2012 about us renewing our friendship. We certainly had a lot to catch up on.

skifflepic

The Jackson Duo strutting their stuff, watched by their mother and friends Geoff and Susan Sharratt

5. Geoff, Sue and Mike Jackson above Rudyard Lake

Geoff, Susan and Mike in the late 50s, overlooking Rudyard Lake near Leek

Geoff and Sue

Geoff and Sue

Then in the middle of February, out of the blue I received a message from Alan Brennan, my first and best friend when I was growing up in Congleton. Alan has certainly filled in some gaps in my memories. I left Congleton in April 1956 when I was seven; Alan is 13 months younger than me. Although we lived just a few doors away from each other we didn’t go to the same school. But whenever we were home it seems to me that we were inseparable and got into some scrapes.

That’s me in the center of the photo below, partially dressed as a native American (sans war bonnet) and carrying a stick. Alan is to my right, the little boy looking rather shy in short trousers in front of the pirate, my elder brother Ed.

Coronation Day 1953

Alan has continued to live in Congleton, and like me has now retired. Here are a couple of photos he sent me recently. In the 1955 photo we were having a picnic at Rocky Pool near Timbersbrook, just east of Congleton. Alan’s parents are standing, a family friend is seated. In the background is the Brennan’s car – a Vauxhall Wyvern. I mentioned to Alan in one of our emails that I did indeed remember the car and thought it was a Wyvern, which he confirmed. The old memory was certainly working on that detail!

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May Day celebrations, pre-1956. That’s me on the left, and my brother Ed on the right. I’m not sure if that’s Alan standing on my left. Looks like Alan’s Dad’s car in the top left corner.

Alan with his wife Lyn

Alan with his wife Lyn

Leek – Queen of the Moorlands (updated 2018-11-05)

April 1956. Did my world fall apart? I probably thought so at the time.

We moved from Congleton in Cheshire (where I was born seven years earlier) to the small market town of Leek in north Staffordshire. Less than 12 miles away, but it could have been another planet for all I was concerned.

New town, new home, new school, and new friends.

When I say ‘small market town’ I always was under the impression that Leek had a population of about 20,000 when we moved there in 1956. So I was quite surprised to note in the 2001 census that the population was a smidgen under 19,000. It seems the population has changed very little over the past century.

I’m not sure that I could say that Leek is a picturesque town, but it’s certainly a very interesting one, with some remarkable features and history (the link gives a pretty comprehensive account). And it’s surrounded by some of the most glorious landscapes in the country, the Staffordshire moorlands on the southern edge of the Peak District (the UK’s first national park). Although I was not born there, and actually only lived there for a little over a decade before moving away to university (and moving on) I still think of Leek as my home-town – and proudly so!

In the 1960s panorama below, taken from the top of Ladderedge (on the southwest of the town, besides the main road linking Leek with Stoke-on-Trent – the Potteries) looking towards the northeast, you can see many of the distinctive features of the Leek skyline.

1-13 Leek

Just to left of center is the square tower of the 13th century Anglican Church of St Edward the Confessor (although there is some evidence for a pre-Norman church in the vicinity), and to the right of center, the tall spire of the Roman Catholic church, St Mary’s (which we attended), built in 1887, although there had been earlier churches.

Church of St Edward the Confessor

To the right of St Mary’s spire is the white clock tower of Leek’s impressive war memorial, the Nicholson War Memorial, commonly known as The Monument (at the eastern end of the main shopping Derby Street), and to the right of that another Anglican church, St Luke’s, with a square tower and a small spire to one side.

The Nicholson War Memorial (the Monument), photographed in April 2012. The roundabout has now disappeared – a great local controversy – as part of road ‘improvements’ to ease the flow of traffic. The video below shows its dedication in 1925.

And in the middle of the panorama rises the impressive green copper dome (no longer green) of the Nicholson Institute, housing the public library and art gallery (including a facsimile of the Bayeux Tapestry) and (in the past at least when I was growing up) a celebration of much of Leek’s wealth that was built on the silk weaving industry. Indeed, textile manufacturing and dyeing were among the main industrial endeavours in Leek, and quite a few of the mills and their chimneys can be seen on the Leek skyline. In the mid-60s a couple of these were destroyed by fire within the space of just one week – very dramatic happenings in a small town. William Morris, a prominent member of the Arts and Crafts Movement, may have resided in Leek for several years.

The central area of Leek is bounded by five streets: St Edward Street on the west, Stockwell Street on the north, Brook Street/Hayward Street on the south, and Ball Haye Street on the east. And these are through routes connecting Leek with Buxton to the northeast, Macclesfield to the north-west, the Potteries to the southwest, and Ashbourne to the east.


We lived in a couple of properties in St Edward Street where my father established his photographic retail business between our arrival in Leek in 1956 until 1962.

Then my father was able to purchase a prime site in the Market Place, which he kept until his retirement in 1976. I’ve recently discovered that 19 Market Place is now a shop selling home-made jewellery – Little Gem. That’s quite interesting since my wife’s main hobby is making bead jewellery. We must visit next time we are in Leek. But I digress . . .

Leek was granted a charter to hold a market on Wednesdays during the reign of King John at the beginning of the 13th century. And that market thrives today. In the valley of the River Churnet, and on the north-west of the town lie the rather depleted ruins of a Cistercian abbey, Dieulacres; many of the stones were used in local building after Henry VIII’s men had done their business, and particularly in the Abbey Inn that is found close by.

Leek was connected to the growing canal system in 1801, with a branch of the Caldon Canal. It closed in the mid-1940s, and was eventually filled in (now part of an industrial estate on the southeast side of the town). Famous 18th century canal engineer James Brindley lived in Leek for many years. Until the 1960s Leek was served with rail connections, but after these ended, the station was demolished in 1973. The last steam trains from Leek in 1965 are shown in the video below.

I read recently of plans to try and reopen the mothballed railway link between Leek and Stoke. The web site has some stunning photos of steam locomotives near Cauldon Lowe.

Close by the Monument is the bus station, opened in the 60s on the site of the former cattle market (that moved afterwards close to the site of the old railway station. Thanks to my old friend Geoff Sharratt for sharing these two photos with me.

We never talked politics at home. I suspect my parents voted Conservative, but I do not know for sure. When we lived in Congleton my father was elected to the local council – Congleton was a borough with a mayor. Not long after we moved to Leek my father sought election to the Leek Urban District Council – as an Independent since he strongly believed that national political affiliations had little or no place in local government. In 1968 he became Chairman of the Leek Urban District Council.

In the 1950s and 60s as I was growing up in Leek the annual Club Day, a 200 year-old tradition, held in mid-July was (and still is, apparently) a very important event in the town’s calendar. Held on a Saturday afternoon, it brought together churches and Sunday schools of all denominations in an ecumenical celebration, held in the Market Place. It was a riot of colour and best outfits, banners and bands, with the children and their parents and friends processing from the individual churches to the Market Place, and afterwards around the town.

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Today it seems that Club Day in Leek is rather a different celebration altogether. My elder brother Ed and I took part for a number of years with the St Mary’s 5th Leek Cub (cub scout) Pack. Here we are in our Cub uniforms.

Me with my brother Ed (r) in our Cub uniforms in the late 1950s.

Me with my brother Ed (r) in our Cub uniforms in the late 1950s.

After my parents retired in 1976 they took up residence in a first floor apartment in Greystones, a 17th century town house on Stockwell Street, just in front of the Nicholson Institute. After my mother (and the lady on the ground floor) moved out in the mid-80s, the property became a tea room.

Greystones, with the Nicholson Institute behind.

Greystones, with the Nicholson Institute behind.

But in many ways it’s the location of Leek that is one of its best assets, nestling as it does in the shadow of the Staffordshire Moorlands, with close access to the Peak District National Park, and particularly the Roaches, Dovedale, and the Manifold Valley to mention just a few special places, and the famous ‘double sunset‘ that figures in the old coat of arms (two suns).

Here’s a video I found recently on YouTube (2014-04-25) about the Staffordshire Peak District – all within a 10 mile or so radius of Leek:

I visit Leek rather rarely now, but when I do walk around the town, and look at how it has changed over the decades, my mind fills with good memories of a happy childhood. It was good growing up in Leek. And it seems that many around the world also hold fond memories of Leek, as comments on the Visitors’ Book at Leekonline show.

And finally, here are some recent photos of Leek that I have put together in a short video.

The Beatles, blogs, and long-lost friends . . .

Since I started this blog in February, I’ve had more than 8200 views, an average of almost 30 per day; these come from 127 countries, with only 15% of these representing a single view.

I’ve now published 87 stories. It’s interesting to see which ones have attracted most attention. The stories about potatoes and Norman Borlaug are up there, and early on, my post about Fred Astaire had many hits. In terms of searches, one of the most commonly searched terms concerns attending an investiture at Buckingham Palace. Before my investiture in February I had also ‘agonized’ over what to wear. It seems there are quite a few folks out there having the same worries.

I have my blog set up such that spam comments are automatically blocked by the site, and I can review them, but all legitimate comments are not posted until I’ve had chance to review and approve them. I haven’t had that many comments added to my posts, but there was one recently (at the end of October) that certainly caught my attention – but not in relation to the actual post to which it was linked (about running the IRRI genebank). It came from someone who I have not seen for over 50 years, and who had been directed to my blog while researching her family history.

Earlier this year I posted a story about skiffle music, and how a photograph of my elder brother Ed and me had been used in The Beatles Story in Liverpool  Here’s my great-nephew Sammy standing in front of the exhibit.

Sammy at The Beatles Story exhibition in Liverpool. That’s Ed on guitar, and me on tea chest bass.

Watching in that photo are my mother (she must have been about 50 or so when the photo was taken in the late 50s; she passed away in 1992), and beside her is my best friend at that time, Geoff Sharratt. Sitting on my Mum’s knee is Geoff’s sister Susan, who must have been about three or four. And it was Susan who commented on my rice genebank post!

Well, I was – to say the least – quite gob-smacked. Imagine, after more than 50 years. I contacted Sue by email, and through her I have now been in contact with Geoff, and we have been able to exchange quite a few memories and photographs of growing up in Leek during the 1950s. Geoff and Susan’s parents, Geoff Snr. and Rene, were the licensees of the Quiet Woman pub in St Edward Street, just a few doors down from No 65 where my father had opened a photographic retail business in April 1956 when we moved from Congleton, a small Cheshire town just over 10 miles northwest of Leek.

The Quiet Woman pub in St Edward Street, Leek. Our home, No 65, is just to the left of the photo.

Approaching the St Edward Street crossroads and traffic lights, near the Quiet Woman pub. Our home, No 65 is just to the left of the photo.

However, Geoff was not the first person of my age I met when we moved in. That was Philip Porter and his sister Jill who lived next to us – their father was a tailor. But quickly I got to know Geoff and Sue, and with Philip, and young David Philips who lived across the street, we formed ‘the Army Gang’, and often went out on manoeuvres to the local Brough Park, where we’d play all day long – weather permitting – especially in a large clump of rhododendron bushes that made an excellent hideout.

The ‘Army Gang’, l to r: Sue, Geoff, me, Philip Porter, David Philips, taken in about 1958.

And if the weather wasn’t so good, we always had access to the lofts and other rooms at the pub, especially those used by the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes (RAOB) – the Buffs – a ‘fraternal organization’ (I guess a bit like the Free Masons). Well, these rooms were magic – lots of chairs and high benches to play around, and hide in. Geoff had an attic bedroom that had a door leading into a loft, and he recently reminded me of some of the mischief we got up to – like melting lead soldiers to make new ones, playing with mercury, testing the ‘courage’ of his sister who wanted to join our gang, so we apparently tied a rope round her waist and lowered her from a first floor window!

Playing in a tributary of the River Dane at Quarnford, near Flash, the highest village in England; with Rene Sharratt.

 

Beside Rudyard Lake, with Mike on the right, and Geoff and Sue on the left. We have no idea who the other little girl is, next to Mike.

Beside Rudyard Lake, with Mike on the right, and Geoff and Sue on the left. We have no idea who the other little girl is, next to Mike.

On one occasion, my brother Ed, Geoff and me went trap bottle fishing (today kids use old plastic Coke bottles; we used a wine bottle with the bottom ‘dimple’ opened) in the River Churnet where it crossed the Newcastle Road in Leek at the bottom of Ladderedge, just over a mile from home. Well, silly me, I leaned over too far to retrieve one of my traps, and tumbled into the water, base over apex – and at that time (it must have been 1958 or 1959) I couldn’t swim. And although beside the bank, I was certainly out of my depth. Geoff raised the alarm to Ed (so it was reported in the local newspaper, the Leek Post & Times), and he came running along the bank and dived in after me. Meanwhile, as the drama unfolded, the golfers at Westwood Golf Club on the opposite bank stood and watched. But one kindly gentleman did come to our aid, and soaking wet, drove us home. Both Ed and I remember that our mother (who I recall was not well at that time, and in bed) was not best pleased when she saw a couple of rather bedraggled urchins dripping water all over her kitchen floor.

In 1960 I moved on to a Catholic grammar school in Stoke-on-Trent, a 12 mile or so daily journey. Geoff attended school in Leek, and gradually our paths diverged. I hadn’t realized until he told me recently that his parents left the Quiet Woman in 1960, and by 1963 had moved to Rocester, about 17 miles away (and quite close to the area of Staffordshire-Derbyshire where my Jackson-Bull ancestors come from) to manage another pub. By 1963, we had also moved away from St Edward Street into Leek’s Market Place where my father bought a property and transferred his photographic business there until his retirement in 1976.

And until that comment on my blog from Susan a month ago, I’d had no contact with her or Geoff since about 1961 – and I’d often wondered what had happened to them. And what a pleasure it is to be in contact with them once again. Ah, the power of the Internet!

And here’s the difference that 50+ years make.

Ed on guitar, Mike on bass, and being watched by Sue (on my Mum’s knee) and Geoff.

Ed in 2011.

Mike in October 2012.

Geoff and Sue at the wedding of Sue’s daughter.

As for the other members of  ‘the Army Gang’, neither Geoff nor I know anything about Philip Porter’s whereabouts. But I am in contact now and again with David Philips through Facebook – he now lives part of each year in Florida and the rest of the year in Leek. His father Jimmy was a painter and decorator whose parents were the licensees of The Wilkes Head pub at the very top of St Edward Street. David’s mother Gwen was a ladies’ hairdresser and did my Mum’s hair every week.