MEMORIES

By 'the late' Robert Benson (transcribed by his sister, Helen McKenna, 1985) 

Fifty years ago, Walney Island was a much different place than now (1985).  For instance, most of the land was given over to farming, both dairy and agriculture.  The names of some of those farmers remain in my memory. South End farm was Hunters, and in Biggar there was Backhouse and Robinson, Senegals, Crossley and Robinson.  At North Scale there were McLung, Birkett and Gilliland and at North End, J. Barnes.  Crops of corn, barley, wheat, Swedes, mangolds, kale, carrots, cabbages, potatoes, horse beans and peas and good crops of hay were grown every year. Of course it was Hitler who started the rot…..

My father was a great man for setting lines.  That is, putting out a baited line on the sand banks about low water, then, after the sea had covered the line then ebbed, he would go and collect the fish.  The lines would have from one hundred to three hundred hooks on them about a fathom apart, and would be baited with lugworms.  Good catches of plaice in the autumn and cod in the winter could be had, and a lot of locals pursued the same.

I would be about nine and my brother Joseph eleven, going with our Dad to bait up – that is if the weather was not too bad.  My father often had to go away to work and the next time we went we took over the fishing.  Mother owned an old pram, one of the big wheeled type and we used this to carry the gear. We dug the worm – hard work –then baited the lines at home, and coiled each down into the basket like father did.  Together with the stakes or pegs the lines went into the pram and off we went to the North Scar, or Diamond, as it is called.  We set  the line and returned home at sunset.

We were up at 4.30a.m. on a wild and winter morning and, with a lighted hurricane lamp, off we set, my mother saying “be careful” and no doubt worried sick.  However, we had a great teacher – the best – and we had confidence in ourselves.  I sat in the pram and Joe pushed, then it was his turn and so on until we reached the sands.  The wind was N.W. and wet but we ploughed on to Diamond.  Using the craft we had learned from our father we soon found the line.  The lamp had gone out but that did not matter, the line was laid in such a way we could have found it in a fog.  With hearts pumping with excitement we followed the line over the sand.  A hump on the ground turned out to be a fine cod, then a whiting followed by more cod, we had a real good catch.  After baiting up again we set off home, the wind behind us wet and cold.  We had no ‘wellies’ but happiness and pride in our catch dulled the cold.  Dawn was breaking as we came to the lane and there we met up with Mr Jackson the ferryman.  He looked at our catch and said “You have done well lads”!  Words like that from him were praise indeed!  We gutted our fish on the shore, got home, stripped off, dried ourselves and slid back into bed.  We were up again at 8 o’clock and in school at 9.00.  Mother sold some of the fish and we bought hooks with the money.  After that we were always fishing.

In those days we all cooked over an open fire and any wood was always collected for fuel.  Joe and I used to go wrecking, that is going along the tide line looking for wood etc.  We used the old pram.  Numerous bamboos used to be washed ashore in those days.  Dad said they were jetsam from cargo boats and were used for lining the holds.  We used to get four of them and stick one in each corner of the pram, then stretch elastic out of an old golf ball round the tops of the bamboos.  As we roamed along the tide-line the wind would play us music.

All manner of fruit, including oranges could be picked up from the tide-line.  We would eat them without compunction, coconuts and all kinds of things.  Of course, this was the day of the ocean liner and a vast variety of things were thrown overboard.  Very happy were those days but, of course, we got older… In those early days my brother Joe and I used to lie in bed on winter nights and listen to the waders crossing the land from one shore to another.  Curlews and Seapie, shanks etc, and we used to hear the Green-plover flying low over our roof to land in the wet meadows close by.  Their wings made the noise, their own peculiar sound. 

Everybody had a garden or an allotment and songbirds were numerous, song thrush and blackbirds filled the air with their music in the spring of the year.  We had a pair of mistelle thrushes that nested for years in our hedge.  Cold February mornings meant nothing to the cock.  He used to sing and brighten up the winter day.  In the winter we would get the Redwings and Fellfines, they hunted the open fields for food.  Flocks of widgeon and shelduck visited the salt marshes, and masses of knots and dunlin mixed with our resident shanks, curlew etc.

My brother Joe joined the Royal Marines and was killed at Hong Kong fighting the Jap's.  Like I said before, that chap Hitler started something the answer for. An airfield was built on our farmland and flats, and once that was under way farming at North Scale came to an end.  No more would you smell the sweet perfume of the bean fields or see the fine potatoes come out of the good earth.  No more cattle would wind their way to the farm at milking time and the bellowing steam tractor, driving the threshing machine at the end of harvest, would be heard no more.

Houses now stand in our village green and on the west and the north of the village.  I suppose this is progress but which way?  Most of the land on Walney now stands sour and stale, most of it waiting for the ‘developer’, but given over to the right owner, with hard work, it could be again the garden it once was.  We used to shoot the duck for the ‘pot’.  There were no Asdas, fridges or freezers in those days.  Meat was expensive and money scarce, rabbits and duck as well as fish were looked upon as normal items of diet.  But remember, we shot only what could be eaten, we never tried for ‘record bags’ like they do now, and what we shot were a very small part of the fowl population etc.  Close seasons were strictly upheld and woe betide the lawbreaker.

Walney was a wonderful island in those far off days.  My old friend, Ambrose used to say “Nobody need want on Walney, there’s wood and coal on the sea shore, ducks in the marshes and rabbits in the warren”.  That was certainly true and is still true up to a point but the people outnumber the wildlife and the way of life is akin to the towns and cities from where they came. Only the sands retain their freedom.

 

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