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Backwords: How Green Is Our Valley

Mike Shaw takes a fresh look at the Colne Valley in Yorkshire, where he was born, grew up and still lives.

This, sadly, is the concluding article in Mikeís Backwords series which has been running in Open Writing for almost three years.

The sun shone warmly from a clear blue sky and sparkled with diamond-like brilliance on the clear waters of the River Colne.

Colne Valley was at its beautiful best on the summer afternoon when I visited some of my schoolboy haunts.

It was a scene of undisturbed rural tranquillity and purity which sent my thoughts flashing back 50 years.

In those days, just after the war, we were lucky to see right up the valley for all the thick black smoke.

Just about the only time when the skies were completely clear was during the local holidays, when all the mills shut down.

For the rest of the year the smoke swirled up to the heavens from hundreds of house and factory chimneys like so many chain-smokers indulging in a non-stop fag bonanza.

Occasionally, if I got very close to a mill chimney, I could feel little pieces of soot which resembled black snowflakes falling on my carefully combed, Brylcreemed hair.

In summer, while walking through Marsden Park, I got coal-black hands from rubbing my fingers over the rhododendron leaves.

And in winter I remember trudging home through smog so thick that you could barely see a hand in front of your face and the buses were more or less at a standstill.

It wasnít only our air which was filthy, either. The river was just as bad. Except the pollution had a bit more variety. One day it could be black. But it could also be red, white or blue. Very patriotic but far from pleasant.

The Colneís swiftly changing colour enlivened many a boring hour as I gazed out over the river from an office window in Slaithwaite. The animated scene became even more interesting when the rats emerged, dripping, from the water to play on the grassy bank.

The old Colne Valley Council may have had its critics. And Iím the first to admit that they didnít always get things right.

But I do give them credit for cleaning up the valley. In the late Fifties and Sixties they launched a two-pronged attack on the muck which came centuries ago along with the brass that filled the mill ownersí coffers.

To get rid of the dirt in the air the council used new smoke-control powers given them by Parliament. And to stop the river being used as a sewer they built a proper one costing nearly a quarter of a million quid.

It sounds easy now. But it wasnít quite so simple then for the council men who had to put the theory into practice. Most people went along with the schemes. But there were -- as you might expect in the Colne Valley -- some awkward characters among both the bosses and the workers.

It cost some of the mill owners quite a bit to cut out their black smoke and put their waste into the trunk sewer instead of the Colne. And the people who lived in the new smokeless zones had to pay for what they thought was the doubtful pleasure of swapping their coal fire for gas, electric or something like the good old fashioned coke which used to be given away at Marsden gasworks.

Pals of mine from outside the valley scoffed at all the clean-up claims. Putting fish in the river and expecting them to live, they said, was about as daft as trying to rake the moon out of the cut.

It wasnít an overnight miracle, thatís true. But gradually things began to change for the better.

In the river the grey slime began to disappear from the rocks. And as we took a deep breath our lungs drew in less smoke and more fresh air.

What seemed nothing more than pipe dreams 50 years ago have come true. Anglers enjoy their fishing in the Colne that is a trout stream once more, and itís not only the residents who speak in glowing terms about the champagne-like clarity of our ale.

Now we can proudly show visitors how green is our valley.

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