Angie and I set off today on our familiar ‘circuit’ on the tandem - from home down the C2C cycle path to Egremont, then back up the glorious Ennerdale valley, the land of my ancestors. It’s been one of those hot August days that feels like it’s an everyday occurrence when it’s happening, but that you yearn for all the rest of the year once the memory of heat prods you into acknowledging that those few days in August? Remember those? That was the summer.
We called in at Egremont cemetery on our way past, not something we do that often, although we often shout ‘hello!’ over the cemetery wall in case Nana and Granda are listening out for us. Bizarrely, it’s twenty years since we buried my Granda Jon here, next to my Nana Mary who’d died two years previously. Twenty Years is a lifetime in itself. I’m not sure what they’d make of me now. At least I don’t have long hair any more. “Unnatural”, Nana used to say. When I tied it up in a ponytail to avoid her scorn, it was, “tidy. But unnatural.” I don’t have any hair any more.
Egremont isn’t Ennerdale, but you can see it from Castle Croft and Orgill, where Mary and her sister Janie finished their days. Or if you can’t quite see it, you know it’s there. Mary and Janie’s journeys took them down the valley to the nearest town, where they pretty much stayed. Every corner of every street contains a part of them - the cut-through to the Red Gra, the Cons Club, the bank - they were as much the town as the town was them.
Cycling back up Ennerdale, we stopped at the churchyard where Janie and ‘Mother’ Pearson are buried, past the tiny school where they all went as children, come rain or shine. As we pushed up the two miles from Ennerdale Bridge to Croasdale where the family lived back then, I thought about the long trudge for them to and from school each day, no bus to help them on their way. Coming up the hill beyond Wits’ End Cottage - my ancestral home, long-since sold into private hands rather than tenanted - I remembered Janie telling me about her weekly 10-mile slog on a pushbike with no gears from Croasdale to Turner How in Lorton where she was ‘in service’. Coming through Lamplugh back then meant avoiding the kids who’d come out and shout abuse - none of that these days.
My grandparents’ generation lived as quiet a life as they could by the time I met them - no surprises, nothing to further shake their souls beyond what two world wars had wrought upon them. Content to be content, lives contained by and held within as familiar and predictable a routine as could be hoped for. They planted their feet all over the rich earth around them, and told stories, shared jokes, sang songs to keep the darkness at bay. As a kid, I used to think that life here was slow, that nothing ever happened, that it was a long way from the bright lights, never realising that that was the point. I know that if I ever meet them again - in some half-waking dream, or a chance encounter between the worlds, we’ll look at each other and be full of a sort of aching pride: them for a future they could never have imagined; me for a past I could never have shared. This valley especially is full of my ancestors - I can barely turn a corner without bumping into them. To be honest, it’s probably one of the reasons I moved back here.
Mary, Janie and their sister Annie may all have shuffled off this mortal coil now, but each have descendants living no more than three miles from the cottage in Croasdale where they all grew up together. Today, we cycled past a signpost for the house that Annie’s daughter moved back to when she retired. We hurtled past Janie’s son’s cottage in the quiet hamlet down from The Leaps, where the only nuisance is the cyclists who come hurtling past. And then there’s me. All connected, all part of the same ever-unravelling story.
So, when I try to make sense of this whole ‘being human’ thing, I inevitably ask myself the question, ‘who am I?’, and I invariably think of all the people who came before me - characters in this story that started long before I was conceived. A long line of human beings each dreaming of a future they would never see. One of the things I am is a song-writer - I’ve written hundreds of songs, and I have hundreds more in the pipeline waiting for a breath or a spark to animate them - but really I only have one song to sing, and it’s the only song that any of us ever really sing. It’s the song that tells the story of where we came from and where we ended up. Being human is all about the bit in the middle.