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Feather's Miscellany: Moorlands

...these moors have a supernatural atmosphere. Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age man wandered across them and left their mark in strange carvings on rocks and upright stones where they worshipped their gods, and since then countless others have tramped them to refresh their souls and bodies...

John Waddington-Feather tells how the moorlands around his native Yorkshire town have had an inspirational effect on his writing, particularly his wonderful Chance Child trology which has been serialised in Open Writing.

Moors played a large part in my young life, for they were the lungs of the mill-towns like Keighley, which lay in the Aire Valley below them. As I grew up in the 1940s and 1950s, Keighley was a thriving manufacturing town mainly centred on textiles. It was one if the richest in England famed far and wide for its worsted cloth, but it was also had heavy engineering factories and foundries. They may have made the town wealthy, but they also made it filthy, especially in winter when fogs rolled down the valley and filled the streets with thick, purple smoke. I can tell you, the snow didn’t remain white for long when it fell in Keighley. Within minutes it changed into horrid soot-ridden slush. In those dismal days from November to March, I used to walk home from school with my scarf wrapped tightly round my mouth, for the air was so dense you could almost chew it.

However, mercifully the muck was confined to the valley bottom, for sweeping up the hillsides surrounding the town was farmland which reached to the moors; and there the air was pure, wiped clean by the breezes constantly blowing over the Pennine Hills. So walking over the moors to Ilkley in the next valley, Wharfedale, was very popular among the town-dwellers. Going to Ilkley from Keighley was like escaping from Limbo to Elysium.

You couldn’t have had two more contrasting towns separated by only a few miles of moorland – and what moorland! It’s superb! And it’s been walked across for thousands of years; by Stone and Bronze Age nomads, by Roman troops marching to their fort at Olicanum (Ilkley) and by countless mill-workers during the nineteenth century when the Industrial Revolution hit this part of Yorkshire. Once a year at Whitsuntide they hiked to Ilkley and back on Whit Monday, one of only three days holiday they had annually; the others were Easter and Christmas. And what a change it must have been that annual hike across clean, open moorland after slogging away in “dark, satanic mills” the rest of the year.

The freshness, the sheer purity of the moorland air must have revived them spiritually as well as physically, for there is no doubt at all that these moors have a supernatural atmosphere. Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age man wandered across them and left their mark in strange carvings on rocks and upright stones where they worshipped their gods, and since then countless others have tramped them to refresh their souls and bodies.

One dry June when I was seventeen years old, I took sandwiches and books up there to revise for my A-Level exams just before I went to university. It was much more peaceful there than the noisy street I lived in where I had to study in a hot attic. So it’s not surprising that those moors impact now on my writing; especially my trilogy of romantic historical novels set in the region and based on the lives of mill folk, both workers and tycoons.

At crucial points in all three novels, the moors play a leading role evoking the right atmosphere. In the first novel, “Illingworth House”, the moors are the setting for the hunting down and killing of an escaped mad man, Timothy Illingworth. He’d been locked away in the care of farmer tenant of Sir Luke Illingworth, his father, who didn’t want his son on public view in the local asylum. One day Timothy escaped from the room where he was locked up armed with a carving knife. The police were called out to hunt for him and his younger half-brother, a war veteran, joined them armed with his service revolver. The following extract captures the part the moors play in the action of the novel at this point.

“Now it had come to this, thought his father. He’d broken out and was at loose somewhere on the moors. Pray God they found him before he injured someone…or worse! He couldn’t stay at the farm after this. They’d have to get him into an asylum, locked up permanently somewhere in the south far away from Keighworth.

He sighed deeply and stared at the horizon. Sir Luke owned all the land he could see and over the crest in the valley were his home and mills, which spread into the next county. Yet no money, no power on earth could make his son right. He’d spawned a monster more crazy than any of the simpletons among his workers’ families. Timothy had hung like a weight round his father’s neck right from birth and had almost scuppered the Illingworth empire which would have had no heirs: but after his first wife’s death, Sir Luke had re-married and thanked God for Abe and his new grandson John.

The sky turned leaden as he stared out and storm clouds blew up across the moors making them blacker than ever. It began sleeting and he wondered how Timothy was faring, poor lad. He was glad Abe had gone with the men. He’d make sure Timothy wasn’t manhandled – and he’d look after Timothy when he was gone. He’d make sure he was cared for.

He didn’t know that Abe was carrying his old army revolver under his poncho and the grim look on his face showed he’d use it if need be. He knew the moors well and was leading the search, drawing the line towards Ilkesworth where he suspected his brother would be hiding, to an old primeval stone circle overlooking the town in the next valley.

Then, as they struggled through the gathering gloom, the storm that had been threatening all day broke with a vengeance. They slogged on and on through the pelting sleet and were just about to call off the search, when one of the men shouted. He’d seen Timothy, hiding among the stones.

He was crouching sodden behind the largest one, watching the lightning jump from stone to stone, bewildered and frightened. His hair was matted and as he stared at the light flickering all about him, were it not for his dress, he could easily have been one of the primitives who’d erected those stones millennia before. As Abe entered the ring, Timothy stood upright and glared across at him brandishing his knife, scowling and growling like a dog. Abe ordered his men to stay back as he approached his half-brother cautiously. “Timothy,” he called gently. “You’re going to be all right. We won’t harm you. It’s me, Abe. Your brother.” But he got no response, only a look of intense hatred.

Then, without warning, Timothy rushed at him, his lips drawn back snarling like a beast, holding his knife high above his head ready to strike. Nothing could have saved him had Abe not been armed, but he threw back his poncho, snatched his revolver from its holster, took aim and fired. His brother stopped dead in his tracks, lurched forward a pace, then fell sprawling wildly in the heather at his feet.

Abe knelt over him and felt his pulse. He could see at once he was done for and ordered four of his men to take the body back to the farm. “Poor fellow,” was all he muttered as they lifted him up, carrying him away like the carcass of an animal. Then Abe returned his revolver to its holster, pulled his poncho closely about him and followed the bearers in silence.

Sir Luke saw them returning and hurried downstairs. He sensed at once his son was dead and when they laid him out on the kitchen table, he gave vent to his grief, crying over and over again, “My poor boy! Oh, Timothy, my poor, poor boy!” while Abe simply looked on stony faced.

When his father had wept his fill, Abe gently lifted him to his feet and led him away. “He’s at peace now, father,” he said quietly. “He’ll never suffer again. Better this way than locked up for ever.” But the old man wouldn’t be comforted, and some months later followed his son to the grave.”

In the second novel, “Chance-Child “(part 1) the moors evoke a very different kind of atmosphere. They are the setting for a chance meeting between John Illingworth and his cousin, Rosemary, who all her life has been madly in love with him and who, though married, had a brief affair with him and bore him a daughter, unknown to John. In this episode, John has been badly injured in the RAF as a fighter pilot and burned about the face, yet he recovered enough to fly into action again, and is on leave prior to returning to his unit and final fatal mission.

“But in Keighworth John became a recluse. He’d no friends there and
spent most of his time at home, reading in the library or sitting alone in
the conservatory musing on the past and Helen [his dead fiancée]. At other times he would
go walking by himself on the moors as he had done with Helen, and it was while he was walking across the escarpment above Ilkesworth near the Swastika Stone that he
and Rosemary met for the last time.

He had gone on leave early in 1945 and had been on a long walk on
the moors between Keighworth and Ilkesworth, when quite by chance he met
Rosemary, who had driven up there to cool off after yet another blazing row with her husband. Though John saw her several times at Illingworth House (which had almost become second home to her) he never visited Rosemary Nook, nor did he ever see Clemence or Grimstone again. They avoided him like the plague.

She had driven there for the afternoon with her children and their nanny
to get away from her husband who had been drinking hard and turned
nasty. Their son Rodney was now eleven and his sister seven. Both were
spoiled rotten and fought like cat and dog all the time. The boy was very
like his father and the girl, like Rosemary, unmistakably an Illingworth.
She was a beautiful girl and would be a real stunner like her mother when
she grew up. It was equally clear that the boy would be like his father for
he was loud-mouthed and devious; an overweight, obnoxious brat.

Before they met, John had srtolled down to the Swastika Stone and sat there
thinking of the times when Helen and he had walked there. Directly across the
valley was the sanatorium where she had died and his son had been born. He lit a cigarette and let his mind drift back to the past: those first meetings at that dingy café behind the office; their courtship on the moors the other side of town; and, when they were engaged, that final weekend together at the coast. It all came back as he sat there looking across the valley, drinking in the scene.

The day was cloudless; one of those frosty, crystal-clear days towards
the end of February, when the sun was finding new life. Daylight was
drawing out and with it the first signs of spring. Back home snowdrops
were whiting the borders, emblems of Epiphany and new light which
honed razor sharp on the black moors about him.

Below, the valley bustled mute. No noise reached him up there as he watched
the tiny strings of traffic on the roads moving like ants in and around Ilkesworth
A bus crawled to Adley trailing its convoy of cars. On the hillside opposite, windshields
winked in the bright sun, and about him, the moors were already expectant with life,
ready to burst at the growing sun’s touch.

When the light began to fade he made his way back to his car. Dusk
would be well set by the time he reached Keighworth and he had another
call to make that night before he went off leave. He didn’t want to be late
for that.

When he had almost reached his car, he noticed a second car there, Rosemary’s.
She’d recognised his car and had decided to wait for him while the nanny
took the children for a short walk. She was reading a magazine but when
she saw him, she got out and hurried down the track to meet him.

Her face was alight and she said brightly, “Surprise! Surprise!” but
something in her voice told him all was not right and he sensed she
was putting on a brave face. He’d heard from his father that Harry
Clemence had been giving her a rough time, and when he asked if she
was all right, she poured it all out. “I just had to get away from him,” she
began. “He’s on the bottle again and when he’s like that, he’s a beast.
He started first thing this morning.”

John noticed a bruise on her cheek. Harry had struck her in a drunken
temper, she said, but when John said she ought to leave him she replied
shamefacedly there was too much at stake. Somehow he’d collared most
of her money and there was the children’s future to think of. No, she
couldn’t leave him. “He’ll be asleep when we get back,” she ended,” and then
be as nice as ninepence – till the next time.”

John took her hand. She needed support as much as he did. It was
like old times as children, when they had gone up the farmland behind
Illingworth House, walking hand in hand, innocent and free of any cares.
The bright light caught her hair blowing in the wind. She was still very
attractive and had kept her figure, unlike her husband who had gone
badly to seed. Only the heavy make-up she used jarred. He had once
told her it was out of character. She was beautiful enough without it, but
she’d laughed it off for she enjoyed making herself up each day

She didn’t laugh much now and her make-up hid her age and the lines her
marriage had engraved on her face. Though she and Clemence led separate
lives, he knew how to put the knife in when he wanted and revelled in humiliating
her whenever he could.

Their conversation turned to what would happen after the war, now
drawing to its close; but like his father, Rosemary dreaded every time he went
back off leave and resumed flying. “Thank God it will soon be all over,”
she said. Then, “I wonder what we’ll all do when it’s finally finished. So
much has changed since it began. You and I and our little world.”

He shrugged his shoulders. “I suppose we’ll all jolly on much as before –
those of us who are left,” he added grimly.

The way he said that chilled her. He and his father were all she really
had left since her mother died. Her life would be devastated if anything
happened to him, and Sir Abe’s would simply fall apart.

“There isn’t much left for some of us to jolly on with,” she replied, and
there was no mistaking the bitterness in her voice. He glanced quickly
across at her and she could have bitten out her tongue. She had been
thinking of herself, not him. “I didn’t mean it like that, John,” she said
hurriedly. “I was referring to life in general. Life for me. It will be empty
once the voluntary work goes. You still have your career. All I have are the kids
– and Harry.”

“You will find something,” was all he said and for a time they walked in silence,
pausing when they reached an old stone cross that served as a way-mark.
They turned and had a final look across the moors in all their dark
splendour. He had a faraway look in his eyes, and glancing up at him,
she thought how handsome he still was. She walked on his good side,
the side they’d patched up, and for an instant she saw him as he’d
once been and a great warmth filled her heart. He looked down and
caught the wistful look in her eyes and instinctively put his arm round
her shoulders for the rest of the way, she chatting about the past, trying
to cheer herself up.

“We can never go back, Rosie. Life isn’t like that,” he said at length.
“We must always look to the future.” She realised he wasn’t speaking
only about their past but a universal one. He had never spoken like that
and she knew then how greatly he had changed.

But there was till something left of his old self. Where outwardly he had
been badly scarred, inwardly he’d healed after the trauma of Helen’s
death. He felt her presence near him still and was at peace with himself and
all the old bitterness and hate had gone. Above all, Rosemary was grateful for that.

He’d turned the other way when she glanced up again and the sad wreck
of his face presented itself; yet his words were meaningful and gave her much
comfort, much hope. She remembered them the rest of her life.

As they reached their cars, they were greeted by her children, who came
running towards them, but drew up when they saw their mother was
with a stranger. The boy stared at John sullenly, but the girl curiously. Rosemary
told them to come and meet John for she’d talked about him often.

Rodney, the boy, remained silent, scowling and staring at John’s face. The
little girl danced up and gave him a kiss; but her brother turned rudely and got into
the car with the nanny when Rosemary asked him again to come and meet John.

She shrugged her shoulders and sighed then turned to face John. In a few
moments they would have to part. She held him close and whispered in a broken voice, “Goodbye, Johnnie.” And he saw she was weeping.

“Goodbye, Rosie,” he whispered back and kissed her brow.

She brushed away her tears and smiled. “You will write,” she said. “Your
letters mean so much to me.”

“Of course,” he replied, as they drew apart. “Take care of yourself – and

She nodded and got into the car, waving at him as she swung it round.
Her daughter, too, waved vigorously from the back till they were well
down the road. She reminded him of little Miriam in Prague, the day he
took her to the station, and he waved till they out of sight.”

In the final novel of the trilogy, “Chance-Child”(part 2), the next generation has grown up in the post-war era of the 1950s. John Greenwood (John Illingworth’s son) and Ann Clemence (Rosemary’s daughter) fall in love unaware that they have the same father. Rosemary Clemence has the unenviable task of telling them their true relationship and why they can never marry. The episode below captures the mood as the young couple, who have been meeting secretly on the moors, return to Rosemary Clemence’s house where the shocking news is broken to them

“Ann and John continued to meet secretly on the moors above
her home . Up there, away from the prying valley and their
families they felt free, free to draw closer and revel in each
other’s company undisturbed. The stark moorland with its few stunted
trees and black mosses, empty except for the uncurious sheep and
wildlife, went about its own business and left them to theirs. Up there
they were free, at one with the wind and all nature about them.

They met throughout that winter and then through a long hot summer,
which cracked the peat and turned the landscape brown, making the
huge rocks glimmer and jump in the heat. There were no gentle hedges
up there to parcel out the land, only bleak grey stone walls which veined
the moors, adding their own stretching solitude to the wilderness.
When the rain did come it hurtled from the sky, bursting in deluges to
transform the land. Becks roared madly down the hillsides, brown and
brackish, tamed only when they reached the valley and poured into the

When it rained, the weather brewed its own brand of malice, catching
them unawares and lashing them as they trudged sodden through
the heather, seeking shelter where they could under the walls or in
shepherds’ huts, so chilled they clung to each other for warmth. Then
John loved her most, stroking her streaming face and hair, as they drank
in each other’s kisses, lost in the passion of love.

Across the moor from Keighworth, on the Ilkesworth side, was an
ancient boulder on which Stone Age man had carved arcane signs. One,
far bigger than the rest, was a swastika, carved millennia before the
Nazis adopted it as their vile logo. Cup and ring symbols were also
carved in the nearby rocks, and in places on the moor, the same ancient
people had hauled from goodness knows where huge monoliths and set
them in circles. For what reason no one knew; probably to worship their gods
but simply to stand inside them was in itself weird.

Once when Ann and John were at the Swastika Stone a thunderstorm
broke. When the sky turned suddenly dark and the wind blew up, they
raced hand in hand for a nearby shelter, flurries of sleet pelting them all
the way. The wretched sheep had already begun to hug the shelter of
the walls, a sure sign of snow.

They’d arrived breathless, stopping under the low doorway and shaking
off the wet from their coats. Outside the wind gathered force, tearing
through the crippled trees and ripping out tufts of dead heather.
“We made it just in time!” gasped Ann, pushing back a lock of wet
hair from her forehead. They huddled close to keep warm, watching
the storm through the empty doorway. Then a blinding streak of lightning
had slashed across the boulder before them followed by a deafening crack
of thunder, making them jump and hold each other closer.

For seconds at a time the lightning continued to dance about the
rock like some demon, highlighting the ancient signs with incredible
clarity. They looked on stunned and blinded by the flashes, until, as
suddenly as it had started, the storm passed, leaving behind it an acrid
smell of sulphur. They were too stunned to speak for a while. They’d
experienced something they didn’t understand; some force trying to
drive them apart.

John spoke first shakily, for the storm had put the fear of God into him.
Indeed, he’d been praying. Any moment, he thought, the lightning
would hit the hut they were in and finish them off. He stared at the
writing on the rock and said hoarsely, “What happened? I thought any
minute the lightning was going to strike!” But her eyes were riveted on
the great boulder. She was pale and shivering and John pulled her close
and kissed her.

When she spoke she was more composed. “No one will believe us,”
she said. “What did it all mean? I was terrified.” It was so quiet now they could
hardly believe it had happened. The sleet had stopped and only wind soughed
in the pine trees nearby; quite unlike the demented thing which had howled
all about them moments before.

“We ought to be getting back before it starts again,” said John. “If
we’re late and your mother finds out…” but she cut him short, telling
him to stop worrying about her mother. She could handle her. They
rarely mentioned her now, not after that time John had seen her with Grimstone.
He’d mentioned it to Ann, but she already knew her mother was having an affair
with Grimstone. It wasn’t the first one, she said; so casually it surprised him.

On the way back they spoke little. The storm had made such an
impression it seemed a premonition, but of what they didn’t know yet they were soon
to find out. There’d been something about it, something supernatural in it, which
reached into their innermost being.”

So you can see how those frequent jaunts on the moors when I was young made such a big impression on me and influenced my writing. Of course, I wasn’t the first writer to be influenced by those beautifully wild Pennine Moors. There were others including the three Brontë sisters, who lived on moorland south of Keighley at Haworth. Winifred Holtby, John Braine, Phyliss Bentley, J.B.Priestley, Ted Hughes are among other West Yorkshire writers who bring moorland into their work for atmosphere or to enhance characterisation which make their novels so powerful and popular today.

John Waddington-Feather ©


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