After all those weeks of planning, shopping, card writing and frantic present wrapping Christmas and the New Year celebrations are once again behind us. Now we go back to our everyday lives, hoping that the winter weather isn’t going to be too unkind and looking forward to those first signs of spring. To give us something to look forward to many of us start thinking about our summer holidays, dreaming about exotic shores and warmer climes. Browsing through holiday brochures is one method but another way to escape is to immerse yourself into a good book and this month’s Derbyshire Library promotion ‘Armchair Travel’ encourages you to do just that. Whether you pick a travel guide or novel you can be whisked across the world whilst snuggled up in your favourite armchair with a nice cup of tea. But I for one don’t necessarily aspire to venturing too far afield. I’m quite happy to explore our own beautiful county, and to do that I too don’t have to leave the comfort of my armchair.
Derbyshire is a county of contrasts: gentle rolling pastures, hard limestone uplands, bleak dark peak moorlands, industrial mill and mining towns. It’s hardly surprising that these varied landscapes have been inspiration to writers for centuries and the local studies collection at the Derbyshire Record Office has hundreds of novels, poetry and short stories which showcase our beautiful county.
Way back in the year 2000, to celebrate the new millennium, Derbyshire Libraries held a Millennium Literature Festival. Our Local Studies Librarian at the time, Ruth Gordon knew that the Local Studies Library held a vast collection of local fiction but that our customers were largely unaware of its existence. Unfortunately space issues meant the books were hidden away in the back of the library, away from our open access area, and indeed even though we’ve now got wonderful new premises alongside the Archives service in the Record Office, the local fiction collection is so large that it is kept in one of the storage rooms in the back.
Ruth saw that the Millennium Literature Festival was a great opportunity to publicise and celebrate this collection. Over many weeks she diligently took armfuls of books home with her, and happily read them all. From all of this ‘homework’ Ruth wrote her Sense of Place booklet, which took a circular tour around the county listing all the books she had read and enjoyed. The booklet has been out of print for many years but you can still request copies to borrow through your local library. Although now 17 years old (how time flies!) and so missing out all of the great fiction by authors such as Stephen Booth with his popular Fry and Cooper crime series set in the Peak District, which has been written since the booklet was produced, it nevertheless still makes fascinating reading.
In it we see novels which describe life in Derbyshire’s mining community such as Frederick Boden’s ‘A Derbyshire Tragedy’ 1935:
They sat themselves inside the smoky, coal dirty cabin, as near the fire as they could get, unwrapping their food and setting to. “Grand to see a bit of fire” Albert said….biting at the slice of bread in his hand……. “Fine,” Jud answered, “Nowt like a bit of fire.”…….The screens and riddles thudded and roared above them, and feathers of dust shot from the wagons on either side of the cabin as the coal crashed down the iron shoots”
and Albert Rhodes novel Calico Bloomers (1968):
The whirr of the steel rope and the metallic clash of folding gates announced the arrival of the cage. Tubs rumbled past them as they strode over the rails. Steve saw they were full of rock and dirt. The banksman standing by the cage checked their lamps and said brusquely, ‘Tally?’….. They entered the cage and the gates closed. A moment of waiting; then the bottom of the cage fell away as they plunged into darkness. As the brakes slowly came on, senses reverted to make him believe they were going back to the surface. Filtered light brightened and with scarcely a bump they stopped.
Derby appears in many stories and an author who manages to capture much of the essence of the city is Carol Lake, particualry in her short stories ‘Rosehill: Portraits of a Midland City’ 1989 which won the Guardian Fiction Prize for that year:
“Rosehill Street in late May – the sound of birds and the smell of anise and early summer greenery; movement of the sighing wind. Here comes Tazilim, hurrying along to Mohammed’s, one hand leaden, clutched about her baby, the other makes gay protest at her chiffon scarf, which whips about her head and shoulders like May ribbons in the warm wind.”
South Derbyshire, although another area of industry, also has a rural charm such as in JG Layberry’s series of books about a farming family in the Repton area which opens in 1911 and takes us through to the late 1980s. This is from ‘Hayseed’ (1980):
“The broad Trent swirled round the bend, friendly and comforting. From its surface the evening sun reflected in sheets of dazzling brightness…..It always makes me glad to see the old river, mused Bob with affection. Meg responded to his mood at once. When I was at school I read that Americans call the Mississippi “Old Man River” because it affects their lives so much. The Trent is a bit like that for us. We played here as children, picnicked here, fished here- at least Sam did- bathed here, and once or twice skated here. And we never run out of grass at this part of the farm.”
Nat Gould, who lived out at Pilsbury, wrote numerous light thrillers with a racing background but he also wrote a couple of locally inspired works based on the local farming communities. Hills and Dales of 1935:
Mill Hill was a typical Derbyshire country lane. On one side a rugged stone wall stood on the top of a bank and fenced in the fields. On the opposite side was a thick hedge, through which the most obstinate sheep would have found it difficult to force its way, on account of the dense mass of briers and undergrowth, which almost hid the original hedge from view.
Alison Uttley’s timeless novels and short stories are all based on the dearly loved village of Cromford where she spent her childhood. “Lost in the creases of the hills, until one turned a sudden corner, and found the little stone houses clustering round the duck pond, climbing up the steep rocks and sleeping huddled together about the old market square.” (The Country Child. 1931.)
The limestone uplands of the White peak are captured in Berlie Doherty’s White Peak Farm, a vivid and sensitive description of a young girl and her farming family who are tied to the land:
“My home is on a farm in the soft folding hills of Derbyshire. Not far from us the dark peaks of the Pennines rise up into the ridge that is called the spine of England. We’ve always lived there; my father’s family has owned the farm for generations. He never wants to let it go.
Nothing ever seemed to change there. The seasons printed their patterns on the fields, the sky cast its different lights across the moors, but our lives, I thought, would never change…… And yet, about four years ago that change did come to us, casting its different lights across the pattern of our lives.”
In Katharine B Glaisier’s short stories ‘Tales from the Derbyshire hills’ (1907) the atmosphere of the White Peak is plain to see:
“ All colour seemed to have been washed out of the world about him….a stone cottage and a couple of barns looked more like exaggerations of the forlorn heaps of stones which had marked the ruin of bygone walls all along the latter half of his journey, than an actual place of human habitation. But in the grey vast of the November sky a thin film of smoke was slowly mounting.”
Crichton Porteous wrote several novels full of authentic rural detail based on his life as a farm labourer in the Combs area in the 1940s and 50s. These include Changing Valley, Man of the Moors and The Snow. The harsh climate is a recurring theme in all of these Dark Peak stories.
“He turned the knob and instantly the door flew inward…..Into the space flew a cloud of whiteness in which the storm-lamp burned momentarily incandescent, as in the centre of an immense halo. The next instant it went out. With the snow, cold leapt in.” (The Snow)
A few simple paragraphs can immediately transport you to another place and as the titles mentioned in the ‘Sense of Place’ booklet are largely available to borrow through your local library, why not try a spot of ‘Armchair travel’ yourself. No suitcase required.