Short story publication set in Cottonopolis

Cotton mill, Yorkshire, Hebden Water, Gibsons Mill
Image : Pixabay

I grew up in Derbyshire, just a short, uphill train ride from Manchester.

Living in a small town there was little excitement – scouting for bargains at the local Kwik Save supermarket, a tatty nightclub on the market place called the Gaslight, Saturday nights watching drunks evicted from the Gaslight fighting outside Kwik Save …

In comparison, Manchester was impossibly exciting, kind of glamorous in a dirty, dishevelled way and not a little unnerving.

Yes, it was grubby back then, all tumbleweed chip papers and drunks begging for a light, and the valleys of old mill buildings channelled the wind so your face was constantly sandblasted by good Northern grit, but even before its financial and cultural renaissance over recent decades, the city held its head high.

All those towering brick edifices spoke of the great wealth that had poured into 19th century Manchester as the cotton spun in its many mills poured out (The city had 108 cotton mills at its peak in 1853, hence the sobriquet Cottonopolis) and that impressive architectural legacy left an impression on me.

Perhaps that’s why I’ve set my People’s Friend short story

A Straw Hat for Hetty’

in nineteenth century Manchester. The young heroine has grown up in the shadow of the mills, in the choking city slums of the Industrial Revolution.

Writing Hetty’s story has given me a grand excuse to use a smattering of the dialect words I grew up with – ‘summat’, ‘owt’, ‘nowt’ – and to explore the slums of Angel Meadow and the mills of Ancoats.

If you’d like to learn what happens to Hetty, The People’s Friend Special number 171 is due out tomorrow.

So, stop mitherin’, pour yersen a brew and let me spin you a tale, lad.

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Wild is the Wind

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Buxton in Derbyshire- ever heard of it? It’s a spa town one thousand feet above sea level, built among the rolling, pitching hills and moorland of the Peak District.

Being so high, it has its own micro climate. There’s many a time I’ve caught the train from Stockport on the way to visit my mum, and as the engine pauses at each little station- Davenport, Woodsmoor, Hazel Grove– the grass beyond the window becomes low and scrubby –Middlewood, Disley, New Mills– the incline of the track grows steeper- Furness Vale, Whaley Bridge– and there might even be a smattering of snow on the limestone peaks. By Chapel-en-le-Frith the temperature in the carriage begins to dip and once the Dove Holes scrap yard has flown past the window, you know you only have five minutes to grab your bag from the rack and wrap up warm.

Brace yourself is my advice. It’s usually windy, always a few degrees colder than even Dove Holes (pronounced Duvuls by some locals) and most streets rise up or round a hill, meaning that in the winter you struggle up or slide down to the shops. Every road out of town snakes through open moorland, so most years it’s cut off from the outside world as the snow descends, and when it does, it feels as though the town itself hunkers down to wait for the thaw.

When I was twelve, we moved into a house similar to the ones in the picture above. See the funny dormer window, jutting out of the roof? That would’ve been my bedroom, the one I shared with my fifteen year old brother. Even the sandstone’s similar, except ours was sooty and blackened from a century of coal burning.

I remember ice on the inside of that little window: hunched by a one bar electric heater, colouring in my Doodle Art posters: listening to Wild is the Wind by Bowie, the scratch as the arm lifted from the record, the click as it settled into the opening grove- that song always on repeat.

I tried to paint a mural on that sloping roof-wall. It was intended to be a castle-topped crag, fire-breathing dragons swooping majestically around the turrets. But the paper was wood-chip so impossible to paint on and anyway my artistic skills let me down. Dissatisfied by my ow inadequacy, I went off the whole idea. I still remember being offended when my mum painted over my grey and black splodges.

I don’t have many shining memories of that house. We’d left behind a semi on the outskirts of town, a vegetable garden and the wilderness of the hills, for a terrace near the town centre, where there was nothing but a mossy-flagged back yard and the serenade of drunks singing and laughing their way home from the pub.

I passed through the years of mental illness people call their teens in that house. I skipped school from there, scraped a few ‘O’ Levels and dropped out of ‘A’ Levels, all whilst sleeping under that roof, staring through that dormer window.

And now I live in another terrace house. It’s in the South-West of England, where the weather is many degrees warmer and the spring flowers come up a good four weeks before they do in Buxton. I still live on a hill, but because the winters are kinder, the Gulf Stream closer, we don’t hunker under the same snow-laden skies.

And anyway, I look on that old house more kindly now. I’ve walked past it several times since we all moved out and it’s bright and cheery, a pleasant family home.

It seems the blackness left the place when I did. Funny that.


Writing 101- Today’s Prompt: Where did you live when you were 12 years old?Which town, city, and country? Was it a house or an apartment? A boarding school or foster home? An airstream or an RV? Who lived there with you?

PS Can’t believe I forgot Wild is the Wind when I talked about my favourite songs the other week…