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Backwords: Clattering Clogs

…No single sound from the past conjures up such vivid memories of Colne Valley’s history as the clatter of clogs on cobbles…

Mike Shaw recalls the days when mill workers clattered their way to and from work.

No single sound from the past conjures up such vivid memories of Colne Valley’s history as the clatter of clogs on cobbles.

Sixty years ago the hillsides echoed morning and night to the noise of clogged feet stamping on millstone grit.

The twice-daily clamour created by thousands of cloth-capped men and shawl-wrapped women on their way to and from the mills symbolised the basic texture of valley life.

At our house, as in so many others, the clattering clogs acted as an alarm clock in the morning and like a warning gong for high tea in the evening.

I cursed under my breath and wrapped the bedclothes more tightly when my father’s footsteps on the stone flags woke me at an unearthly hour on cold winter mornings.

But at tea-time the same sound was greeted with eager anticipation by hungry
young lads as stew and dumplings appeared on the table when the breadwinner walked through the door.

Colne Valley is criss-crossed like spider’s web with green roads, stony lanes and winding footpaths. It’s a network that grew up by design rather than coincidence.

Most of the routes date back 100 years or more, when people needed a way to walk from their cottages on the tops to their work in the bottom.

As a small boy I used to watch from the garden in the late afternoon sunshine of summer as the mills released their homeward-bound hordes to stream up the steep hillsides.

It was hard going as the workers -- already weary from their long day’s labours -- struggled up the narrow lanes running either side of our group of houses.

Gradually, in the ensuing years, the hill-climbing weavers and warpers dwindled into an ever-smaller band until eventually they disappeared altogether.

Once the clogs stopped treading the lanes twice a day, nature took over in no time at all. A few years later they were overgrown and even blocked in places where rocks had tumbled down the hillsides across the track.

What in bygone days were essential paths became almost forgotten routes, used only occasionally by ramblers and others out walking for pleasure.

In some strange way many landowners and farmers seemed to take this as a signal to stop the lanes being used altogether. The result was that walkers often began to find their way barred by a bizarre variety of obstructions. Sideboards, hen huts and lavatory pots are among the obstacles I have had to negotiate.

Some of the perpetrators proved obstructive, too, and I recall more than one angry confrontation as I tried to establish my right of way in the face of a newly erected barrier.

The nastiest moment came when I was admonished by a shotgun-carrying game-keeper for straying off a vaguely-defined moorland track. He may have been justified in rebuking me. But I didn’t relish the close-up view he gave me of both barrels of his weapon.

It’s a remarkable fact that every single one of these rights-of-way clashes took place here. Right on my doorstep. Not in the Yorkshire Dales, the Lake District, the Scottish mountains, the Welsh hills or the byways of Ireland, where for years I have walked freely without hindrance.

Ironical, isn’t it, when you think back to those clog-wearing walkers from the past who pioneered the use of our hillside paths?

I can’t resist recalling William Blake’s lines in the great hymn, Jerusalem, about those feet in ancient time walking upon England’s mountains green.


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