Land of my fathers

Footpath near Burwains Farm. © Copyright Chris Heaton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
Footpath near Burwains Farm. © Copyright Chris Heaton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

I’ve been reading Henri Lefebvre’s Rhythmanalysis lately. I’m no expert on continental philosophy or cultural theory really, so I’ve enjoyed this – it’s light and possible to read in an impressionistic sort of way, glossing over all the Bachelards and Nietzsches, the Objects and Subjects. Lefebvre’s key ideas throughout his career were around the ‘everyday’ – the mundane, the ordinary use of space and time, the opportunities and the inevitabilities that dominate our existence. Comparing everyday life to music in which melodies are never on their own but wrapped up in others to create harmonies, and all are guided by a rhythm, our everyday lives are a blend of interweaving events, rhythms, narratives that peak and trough. There’s surely parallels with Michel de Certeau‘s vision of the city.

Lefebvre, the classical urban theorist, uses the example of the view from his window onto 1980s Paris. It reminded me of a recent conversation with someone who prefers their landscapes with human intervention – the city. It got me thinking, though, of WG Hoskins‘ (a historian casting an even longer shadow over his field than Jim Dyos over urban history) maxim that in fact, no landscape is without human mediation. The rhythms of everyday life apply just as much to anywhere humans settle – the urban or the rural, the full or the empty.

One of Lefebvre’s key points on space is that it all means something to everyone, whether that’s feeling or memory, possession or rejection, or so on. I’m not so bold as to imagine any sort of genetic predisposition here, but I sometimes wonder if memory around a type of space can be passed through time. Like many historians, I first developed some of my interests through researching my family history. As far as I knew, my father’s side were urban working class through and through, but there’s more to it than that. My dad, on leaving school, eschewed the typical Mancunian work/life and headed to the fells to learn shepherding. Though he wasn’t a sheep farmer by the time I was born, our holidays reflected this love of the great British high moorland – the Preseli hills, Shropshire and Exmoor featured where Norfolk, Lincolnshire or Kent did not.

For a small, overpopulated island we do a fine line in bleak moorland, full of memory and meaning for all its emptiness. When I was a child I had a book of fairy stories of piskeys and witches from the West Cornwall moors; the bogeymen of course came closer in the sixties. The fells of Cumbria and the mountains of North Wales inspire rapture and a fierce possessiveness, perhaps best embodied in the grumpy, solitary figure of Alfred Wainwright. The Highland moors of Scotland are synonymous with tragedy, yet continue to inspire.

Ramblers taking part in the mass trespass on Kinder Scout, April 1932. Somewhere among these may well be my great-great-grandfather. Photo from
Ramblers taking part in the mass trespass on Kinder Scout, April 1932. Somewhere among these may well be my great-great-grandfather. Photo from

Although dad’s family were several generations of Mancunian, his grandfather was one of many city-dwellers who took a fierce pride in their moorlands. James Ryder was part of the infamous Kinder Trespass of 1932, in which the Peak moors were claimed for the ordinary man (an ongoing work, by the way). The trespassers disrupted a very settled rhythm of moorland life, but one predicated on power and exclusion. Time moves more slowly on the moors. It’s measured in the size and shagginess of its sheep, in the hue of its heather. From time immemorial there was no opportunity for the majority to enjoy a break from the everyday working life of time-work discipline; the emptiness of the moors was reserved for the privileged, whose own (rhythmical) movement across space between the city and the moorland was dictated by the biological rhythms of whatever poor animals they wanted to kill.

Well I thought, but I still couldn’t see
Why all Kinder Scout and the moors roundabout
Couldn’t take both the poor grouse and me
Ewan MacColl, The Manchester Rambler

Further back and we are still moorland people. Thanks to this tremendous body of research, the Briercliffes are traceable right back to the 12th century, an astonishing thing really. We’re named after a now-depressing non-place at the edge of Burnley, formerly a mill village, but the realm of the Briercliffes was high up on the hills.

Briercliffe is in one of the bleakest parts of Lancashire, in the Pennine range, and in the early days a large part of its surface was waste. The cultivated or occupied parts were gradually increased by inclosure, but at all times the riches of the yeomen must have consisted in the fewness of their wants, for the productiveness of the soil was not great.
Ernest Axon

Thursden Valley, by FZappa.
Thursden Valley, by FZappa.

As the industrial revolution loomed in the background, the hill farmers of the East Lancashire Pennines continued in the perpetual everydays of pastoral, rural life, seeking to make something of their lives. In 1742, Lawrence Briercliffe died in the debtors jail at Lancaster Castle, the last of the landowning Briercliffes who had made their estate at Burwains Farm. He was the first – and last – of our line to be described as a ‘gentleman’, and after his demise the debts kicked in, the house and land went, and the family were forced to move into Burnley and later Manchester in search of work in the mills to be guided by the rhythm of the mill engines, the working week, the gravitational pull of the big city. But for hundreds of years before that there had been a Briercliffe at Burwains, nestled in that exceptionally bleak part of the world. The first named was Robert de Brereclyf – after all, these were Norman times – and he held copyhold land at Briercliffe in the 12th century, part of the vast de Lacy estates. In my idle moments, I like to think that rather than emigrées from Normandy, my people were Viking descendants, or maybe something to do with the nearby stone age settlements.

A Lefebvrian analysis of the slow rhythms of moorland reminds me of the varying scales of time and space found in Braudel’s epic writing. But more than that these are rhythms which cross time and space, which proceed each at their own pace, which sometimes culminate in an event (the Trespass, the downfall of the landed Briercliffes), sometimes just continue. The melodies and harmonies of the everyday are stark, sparse yet rich up here, compared to the restless, myriad musics found in the city; as different as, say, John Tavener from Fela Kuti. Perhaps the distant memories of moorland rhythms have stayed with me – I’m seldom happier than when I’m high up, surrounded by heather, hills and air.

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