I used to love seeing labels that said ‘Empire Made’ – engraved on an old pair of scissors or a battered decorative tin.
Such a feeling of immensity in that one word, ‘empire’. But I was a little girl then and didn’t know what empire meant. It sounded like the stuff of fairy tales – the kind with happy endings.
Those days are long gone. Yes, a few tiny patches of empire-territories-pink remain on the world map – and there’s still the Commonwealth. But the sun has long since set on the British Empire.
And I think that’s a jolly good thing. Empires bring subjugation and unfairness. A Commonwealth, now – that sounds like an ideal world. The whole world should be one. But it isn’t.
Anyway, let’s not go there, I’m avoiding idealism for a few days.
By way of distraction I’ve been getting out and about. Breathing fresh air. Walking without conscious effort. Carrying a single crutch in case I go too far and begin limping, yes, but wandering the beach or the park or a stretch of fragrant salt marsh as if I’m all mended. And I am, almost.
I never was a joyful walker. It’s a bit like a car as far as I’m concerned, walking. Fine to take you from A to B but not to be mistaken for a fulfilling pastime in its own right.
I know, how un-British.
But I love this wonderful country.
Our natural world may seem tame contrasted with the striking wildlife of Africa, the frozen north and its glaciers, the great coral reefs, but in learning to know its subtlety is great satisfaction. And in its subtlety is beauty.
It’s not just nature, though. History’s left its mark all around us. Obvious things – romantic ruins on lonely hilltops, urban monuments to civic pride, solid old manor houses, grandiose stately homes.
But then there’s our industrial heritage.
Last weekend we woke up to a miserable day, the second after our general election. The new British citizen was, if anything, feeling more dejected than I was – having cast his first vote to no avail. But his misery-busting solution was brilliant.
A trip to a mill.
Cake, as usual, came into it too, but the mill and its surroundings were the lure.
I find the places – and remains of places – where things were and are made fascinating. I enjoy seeing component parts becoming things, hearing the clattering machine making a woollen blanket – though I don’t have to hear it all day, or breathe in the airborne fibres, or risk life and limb with unguarded machinery.
But the mill we were heading to no long clatters and fluffs. There’s still a little weaving done, using some of the old machinery, by craft weavers, but not on the scale of the Welsh woollen mills I’ve written about before.
This mill’s in Yorkshire, on the western edge, nearing the lakes and peaks of Cumbria.
Here Yorkshire’s scenery treads a middle course between bleak and twee. Hills, not vast open moors. Not bleak, but not exactly cosy.
Cosy scenery isn’t really my thing. I love a bit of bleakness. But sometimes bleakness can be – well, too bleak. And on Saturday we weren’t in the mood for bleak.
The mill itself feels far from cosy, but nor is it entirely bleak. Partly restored, partly awaiting some TLC, it sits on the edge of a vigorous river, as most old mills did, for direct power or steam.
Stone built, it housed the new and dangerous technology that steadily drew the rural cottage weavers from their homes. That deprived them of their commanding positions as master craftsmen and made them wage slaves.
Not everyone succumbed to mechanisation straight away, there was still demand for the work of traditional weavers, but time and poverty wore most of them down in the end.
The textiles produced by northern British mill-workers – men, women and children – were shipped all over the empire from Liverpool. But imperial success was their downfall. The new textile factories of the Indian subcontinent soon undercut the Yorkshire and Lancashire weavers.
The mills and smoking chimneys of northern England were often identified with the territory, as if it grew that way. Some ill-informed folk still think it’s a land of mills and smoke. But today few red-brick, soot-blackened smoke stacks remain. Those that do stand proud, all the more noticeable for being rare. And rarity brings them value.
They’re heritage assets, not necessary evils.
This rural mill is stone built, not red-brick. It’s survived, first, through benign neglect and now by attracting craftspeople and visitors. Walkers and motor-tourists, roving around the dales in search of landscape, cake and heritage.
The café serves some damn fine cake. There is art, pottery, textiles. And there’s a Greek silversmith who works in the upstairs gallery. He lived in India and has a passion for stones.
That’s how I came away the richer for some fine silver jewellery.
Spoilt rotten, I know.
But I like to think we’ve helped, just a little, to keep the old mill working. Enabling craftspeople to make a living.
Turning one small wave back from the tide of industrial slavery to the freedom – albeit precarious – of self-employment. To valuing personal skill, creativity and uniqueness, in the face of cheap, mass-manufactured ‘perfection’.
What a great day out.
And a hand-made silver ring, with a stone of imperial purple, from a commonwealth of crafters in our post-industrial world.