There and back. A post-industrial journey, with cake

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.

The Ribble estuary and Blackpool in the distance on the marsh flats by the sea

The Ribble estuary and Blackpool in the distance on the marsh flats by the sea

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.

P1010893Our 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.


Part of the refurbished mill on the river bank

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.P1010888

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’.

Most of all, though, I like the flash of sterling silver, the bright purple stone with a core of rough crystal, flashing on my hand like some gaudy tropical butterfly.P1010929

What a great day out.

Beautiful landscapes.


And a hand-made silver ring, with a stone of imperial purple, from a commonwealth of crafters in our post-industrial world.


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10 Responses to There and back. A post-industrial journey, with cake

  1. Alison Parry says:

    Thanks for a lovely romp, Mary – a lovely piece. There’s a lot we could discuss there eg the rise of self-employment and demise of mass trade unionism… Can you remind me – did your letter from the labour party really say Comrade?! friends of mine don’t believe me and for me it’s symbolic of labour’s disconnect. It’s such an odd antiquated a word. I voted labour too but didn’t feel v confident about his appeal. How do we encourage people of talent and passion to take an interest in politics when we’re all so disenchanted? Hope my postcard arrived from Italy. Love Alison PS very pleased hip nearly there.


    • Hello Alison! I loved your card from Italy – working your way round the edges in Florence!! I’ll forward you the latest email from the Labour Party with its comradely beginning, yes. Hope to see you in early June … more by email Mxx


  2. EllaDee says:

    I feel similarly about Australian Made. Nostalgic. I rarely expect to see it. Even Australia Day accessories and ANZAC pins are manufactured overseas. Nor is Made in Australia with Imported Ingredients/Products much consolation. A Hand Made label is always welcome, or no label at all with the knowledge you’ve bought it from its maker. Then you know it’s not been produced in a factory where the conditions approach or exploit slave labour.
    What a beautiful purple stone in your ring. An agate I think. After many of my younger years wearing only gold, bought from a proper jeweller of course, I longed to wear lovely handmade silver jewellery. With gemstones and crystals, I love them. So a dozen years ago I took advantage of the opportunity to ditch it all… gold wedding rings… the lot, and made the change.
    I laughed, we are opposite. I love pastime walks, hate A to B and if I’m not walking to a deadline tend to get quite distracted.
    I love that your outings seem to lead you to cake.


    • I saw ‘Empire made’ the other day and it made me think of all those historic realities that changed so quickly – Made in East Germany for example. The purple stone is indeed agate and shh don’t tell I actually was bought two by my lovely husband – the other is translucent quartz with black intrusions that has a name I can’t remember but looks like perspex designed in the 1950s! I love silver, have no gold except a white gold wedding ring that I took off for my op and never replaced. I did have a couple of gold rings but they have been stolen.
      Walks – it’s a question of distance for me – if it’s less than five miles (or four, or three!) I can just about enjoy it – but any more and I am simply wanting it over! We once walked about thirteen miles and I was ready to kill my companion!
      Cake is very important. But teacakes (flat round white bread thing slightly spiced with currants/raisins served toasted with butter) – with a nice pot of tea – will suffice, especially around three or four in the afternoon! 😉


  3. mud4fun says:

    Lovely post M, reminds me of my Father dragging us kids around such places many years ago. I lost count of the mills we visited or the other industrial sites around the North.

    I’m glad to hear that you are up and about even if walking is not your preferred hobby 🙂

    PS. The party I voted for won so I can’t complain there 🙂


    • Thanks Ian! Glad you enjoyed it. I did take a couple of Land Rover pics for you at the steam fair but didn’t use them in the steam fair post – Fred Dibnah’s vehicle. Not on the desktop I’m using at the moment so can’t put one in here. Yes, so good to be out walking – and yes, never have been a big walker – more interested in looking around and find I can’t walk long distance without ending up either looking at the ground grumbling as I walk or at someone else’s heels as I trail behind!
      So you voted the austerity party back in – I’m shocked, shocked and stunned, I never would have guessed 😉 Well done. Goodness knows how we sad lefties go from here …


  4. edfarrell1 says:

    Greetings comrade!
    This reminds me that I once got a Christmas card from a friend with exactly that salutation under a stern picture of Karl Marx. This turned out to be a very bad thing in our straight-laced household. Still it was 1969. But, despite the promise of those halcyon days, not much seems to have changed on the human nature front (or indeed since the mill was thriving) and your almost allegorical day out seems to capture that whole range of social issues which seem to take a change for the worse as the last fortnight revealed its disappointing storyline.
    Brilliant and poignant writing as always Mary with your clever weave of event and context (and cake). I feel like I was there.


    • Ha! Good to hear from you, citizen Ed! Or do I just call you ‘artist, Ed Farrell’ now? Thank you very much for the praise, which is very welcome in these demoralising times. M


  5. Thel says:

    Such a nice day. And the stone is gorgeous!


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