Day 38 – Off-Path – Sheffield

A day far from the Wales coast at a wedding in Sheffield, but hearing tales of inundation and a images of journeying.

I had not been intending to write for this day as I was off path, at the wedding of the daughter of Keith Albans, who had taken me to the MHA homes the previous Tuesday.

However, themes connected with the walk recurred during the day.

Fiona and I had stayed the night at the Strines Inn, a glorious place that has been trading since the days of the Turnpike Road across the moors, and still captures some of the spirit of the 17th century, with four-poster beds and carved wooden chests. At 8:30 there is a knock on the door and breakfast is served, with a table for two overlooking the reservoir below. The peacocks call (as they had, loudly, with the dawn chorus) and sunshine plays across gold-green grass and softly rippling water.

But the scene was not always this idyllic. On the wall of the bedroom is an original, hand-written copperplate poster, a poem remembering the great Sheffield flood of 1864, when one of the local dams burst, drowning over 200 people and leaving thousands homeless as a wall of water tore down the valley, destroying everything in its course.

I assume it is the folk memory of this incident that inspired DH Lawrence‘s ‘The Virgin and the Gypsy‘, where the gypsy gallops ahead of the rushing waters, on his full-membered stallion, and plucks the young woman, the first eponymous protagonist, into an upper storey where they ride out the waves.

Later as we stop at Malin Bridge to pick up another wedding guest from the tram I see a plaque on the wall of the Malin Bridge Inn:

The Malin Bridge Inn
was known as
The Cleakum Public House
at the time of
the Great Flood
on the night of
March 11th 1864
The Inn was occupied
by George Birby
along with his wife
five children
who all drowned

Thoughts of inundation have never been far from mind along the entire North Wales coast and also the first two days of the walk, whether the regular battering of high tides on struggling defences, or the tsunami in the 17th century that flowed up the Severn Estuary. Later in the day I talked to someone who had spent some years in Monmouthshire (in the days when it was ‘officially’ part of England), who told me that the devastation of the Somerset levels had been even worse than on the Welsh side, with floods extending 30 miles inland.

So much of our housing is built either on river flood plains, or on tidal flats. On the concrete promenades of North Wales, I often saw large metal doors, which could be shut to keep back exceptionally high tides, but I also heard that not infrequently this has failed over the years, with waters overtopping the sea defences and flooding homes. With climate change both raising sea levels and also making extreme weather more frequent, it is not clear how many of these defences can be maintained, or whether areas will be strategically abandoned, just as has happened with coastal erosion on the east coast of England.

Drowned valleys are also intimately part of the growth of the Welsh language movement and Welsh nationalism in the 1960s, when the drowning of a Welsh village beneath a reservoir, to serve Liverpool, created waves of protest. As a tiny child I recall the romance of hearing about the Free Wales Army on the radio, as they blew up water pipelines; but probably more significant, albeit less exciting to hear about as a six-year-old, were the peaceful protests of the nascent language movement that changed the landscape of Wales. When I had been little there were no dual-language signs, and minimal Welsh radio and television. Now, when you go through Wales, you are clearly in a nation with its own language, whether or not you speak it!

The politics of water are once again dominating many parts of the world, with both internal disputes, like those between states in Australia or the western US, and external, between countries in the former USSR, or Africa. In the Rivelin Valley running into Sheffield, the outlet of the mill race from one watermill would often flow directly into the mill pond of the next, leading to clashes if mills were redesigned, perhaps eating into the head of water of a neighbour.

My childhood images of the Free Wales Army were based purely on the romance of the name, but it was not until many years later that I fully understood some of the social and economic issues.

After my Dad died, Mum survived on a widow’s pension and half-board guests in the house: students, workmen, and theatre folk. She was marvellous at managing the small amounts of money that came in and the substantial costs of maintaining a crumbling Victorian house and a growing family. Once a year the rates bill came, what is now called ‘Council Tax‘. It was a big bill, but as we had a small income, we qualified for a large rebate, usually around 90% of the total bill, making it manageable.

However, there was an equally large bill that came once a year, the water rates, which covered provisions of water and disposal of sewerage. While this was equally large, there was no rebate and it all, in those days, had to be paid at once. As I said, my Mum was a wonderful financial planner, but no matter how well prepared, the water rates bill was always a massive impact, especially in the 1970s, a time of galloping inflation, where bills could easily rise 20–30% in a year.

Roll on the years and I am in a rented house in Bedfordshire and have to pay housing taxes myself for the first time. My water rates bill came and was about £60, but when I asked Mum I found that her water rates bill in Cardiff was £300, which doesn’t sound so much today, but, at the time, was equal to my whole take-home pay for a month.

The difference in cost is because each water authority in the UK is independent and the costs of piping water in Wales, with a dispersed population and mountains covering the heart of the country, are far higher than in flat central and southern England. However, unlike these relatively dry parts of England, water is one of Wales‘ natural resources. The valleys of Brecon and North Wales are full of reservoirs, waters flowing out to Birmingham and Liverpool, but of course not pound notes flowing in the opposite direction.

The issues in the Tryweryn valley, which incensed and inspired the Free Wales Army and Welsh Language Movement, were not just economic, but also the actual and symbolic loss of culture in the drowning of a Welsh village for English economic growth, and the fact that despite all but one Welsh MP voting against the reservoir, it was still passed at Westminster.

Moving on from the politics of water, the theme of the wedding service was very much about the married life as a journey. One of the hymns was Sydney Carter‘s ‘One more step along the world I go‘ and one of the readings from Dr Seuss, ‘Oh the places you’ll go‘. Of course the metaphor of life in general, or married life in particular, as a journey, is common, but instead of space it is the changing events of life that are passed through, emphasising that intimate connection between place and event, pathway and lifeline.

2 thoughts on “Day 38 – Off-Path – Sheffield

  1. Rather trivial compared with the weightier matters discussed further down, but your mention of the Strines Inn reminded me once again of my distant youth when in a number if occasions I walked or cycled with friends from Upper Midhope where I lived, near Stocksbridge on the northen edge of the moors, via Strines and the other valleys to Castleton Youth Hostel

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