Ewan MacColl and The Manchester Rambler 


I love the way blogs lead to places. Avenues open to new ventures, new ideas,  to follow or discuss.  Or is that life?

The Peak and Northern Footpaths Society’s walk in May in commemoration of the opening of the Snake Path  and subsequent Mass Trespass, led not just to the Snake Pass and a well deserved half in the Snake Inn, but to music and poetry too.

The Manchester  Rambler, Ewan MacColl’s folk standard sung by folk heros across the land stems from the 1932 Mass Trespass that Ewan MacColl took part in. The story is in the song.

The  bastardised version we sang in pubs in our misspent student days, only ever joining in the chorus and getting it wrong to boot belied the serious undertow. We knew more of whiteslaves than wageslaves and we knew precious little of those either. Perhaps in this era of austerity and the misery of zero hours contracts it is time for a re release.

The Manchester Rambler

Ewan MacColl

Lyrics

I’ve been over Snowdon, I’ve slept upon Crowdon

I’ve camped by the Waynestones as well

I’ve sunbathed on Kinder, been burned to a cinder

And many more things I can tell

My rucksack has oft been me pillow

The heather has oft been me bed

And sooner than part from the mountains

I think I would rather be dead

Ch: I’m a rambler, I’m a rambler from Manchester way

I get all me pleasure the hard moorland way

I may be a wageslave on Monday

But I am a free man on Sunday

The day was just ending and I was descending

Down Grinesbrook just by Upper Tor

When a voice cried “Hey you” in the way keepers do

He’d the worst face that ever I saw

The things that he said were unpleasant

In the teeth of his fury I said

“Sooner than part from the mountains

I think I would rather be dead”

He called me a louse and said “Think of the grouse”

Well i thought, but I still couldn’t see

Why all Kinder Scout and the moors roundabout

Couldn’t take both the poor grouse and me

He said “All this land is my master’s”

At that I stood shaking my head

No man has the right to own mountains

Any more than the deep ocean bed

I once loved a maid, a spot welder by trade

She was fair as the Rowan in bloom

And the bloom of her eye watched the blue Moreland sky

I wooed her from April to June

On the day that we should have been married

I went for a ramble instead

For sooner than part from the mountains

I think I would rather be dead

So I’ll walk where I will over mountain and hill

And I’ll lie where the bracken is deep

I belong to the mountains, the clear running fountains

Where the grey rocks lie ragged and steep

I’ve seen the white hare in the gullys

And the curlew fly high overhead

And sooner than part from the mountains

I think I would rather be dead.

Songwriters: Ewan Maccoll

The Manchester Rambler lyrics © The Bicycle Music Company

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Truth better than Fiction. A postscript.


The poet Dave Toft has sent me a correct version of the events following the 1932 Mass Trespass. Good to have the facts straight. I take the liberty of posting it here (with permission).

“There was no physical battle – just one scuffle. The gamekeepers were overwhelmingly outnumbered. One was injured in the single scuffle – he tried to hit someone with his stick and they took it off him and hit him with it.

The five who were sent to prison served up to 6 months hard labour. There was a public outcry but they weren’t freed because of it, they served their time

4 of the 5 were blacklisted and lost their jobs. The 5th was expelled from Manchester University and instead took up a place in Cambridge

The oldest of the trespassers was 21. The leader was 20. Jimmy Miller, better known as Ewan MacColl the famous folk singer, was 19, but not arrested. They would have all been working in the mills since being 14.

At least 2 were killed in the Spanish Civil War.

They were almost all in the Communist Party, which was not unusual amongst progressive young left radicals in that period,who wanted a fairer society and who opposed the rise of fascism. The repressive nature of Stalin’s rule was not known at that point.”

For the Many Not the Few

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This weekend marked the 120th anniversary of the granting of freedom to roam on the footpath in Derbyshire known as The Snake. A recognition of the rights of the working man to enjoy at least a few hours away from the grime of factory or pit.

In 1932, barely thirty five years later the freedom had been rescinded.   The grandiose promise of ‘for ever’ was fragile.  Four or five hundred ramblers mostly from Manchester trespassed en masse,  having to fight a pitched battle with gamekeepers  especially enrolled by landowners to keep them at bay. The ramblers won. Trespass was not illegal, but men were accused of rough handling the gamekeepers and a handful were arrested.  Thanks to public outcry they were released and once again freedom of access to wilderness was restored.

The good things in life should be accessible, if not free, to the many not just the few.

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Dave Toft, himself a child of blackened back-to-backs of salford, and introduced to the life changing joy of the wilderness at an early age, read his poem to the 75 of us who had gathered on a grey Sunday to retread those footsteps into the wilderness of Kinder.

Climbing Kinder (for the 1932 Mass Trespass)

To these slopes

Here on the sides of this great and ancient plateau’s edge,

Where the curlew sings on a summer’s day

Its solitary, swooping note

Like a crystal drop of Kinder water –

A song far sweeter

Than any music humans ever made –

The walkers came

To claim for all who’d follow

The right to hear that song

To breath that air with smog- bruised lungs

To taste the sweetness of the open space

To pause a moment from the draining race

Of hard industrial existence

 

And they called those walkers ‘trespassers’

As if by claiming back these stolen treasures

By repossessing all these hard won pleasures

It was they who were the criminals.

 

But when you climb up Kinder now

And feel your legs strain hard against the earth

And fill your lungs with fresh free air

And watch the long white hare

Kicking its legs in the very ecstasy of life

Remember there are those who would have kept this from us

And those who even now would, if they could

Keep us from the silver stream and open moor

And windswept wood.

 

 

Going away and coming back again

We have been away for weeks.  Long enough to have forgotten how it feels to be us, to be at home with our little routines.  We have even forgotten what we look like.

We have walked  to sun soaked villages perched high on rugged mountain passes. Not strictly true as I have a mortal fear of narrow paths and long drops, but we nearly did.

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We have seen such sights and done such things, such that life will not be the same ever again.

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And yet, pretty soon the couch slouches the same old way, sagging to the  shapes of of our butts. The TV overheats from overuse and as the fire warms us to a stupor, the memory of the bright times reflect in the fire’s flames in our eyes.

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Coole Park

The wind was up all week, the tail end of a hurricane blown across the Atlantic.
We had blown in ourselves on a whim to drive part of the Wild Atlantic Highway, seduced by the romance of the name and stopped at Yeats’ Tower and then Coole Park, an unexpected find as we made our way back through Galway to the airport.

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It was closed of course, the little cottage and the tower restored by Yeats himself for his wife. Was it this river he wandered and worried for Ireland and his daughter?

A Prayer for My Daughter

Once more the storm is howling, and half hid
Under this cradle-hood and coverlid
My child sleeps on. There is no obstacle
But Gregory’s wood and one bare hill
Whereby the haystack- and roof-levelling wind,
Bred on the Atlantic, can be stayed;
And for an hour I have walked and prayed
Because of the great gloom that is in my mind.

I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour
And heard the sea-wind scream upon the tower,
And under the arches of the bridge, and scream
In the elms above the flooded stream;
Imagining in excited reverie
That the future years had come,
Dancing to a frenzied drum,
Out of the murderous innocence of the sea.
A gardener , ruddy faced, rake in hand looked up, surprised, as we passed, not saying anything. The path was thick with wet sycamore leaves themselves covered with large black blight. He waved the rake at them as if by scaring them they would take themselves off. Perhaps it was us he wished to frighten off after all for disturbing the peace of his dank afternoon.
On to Coole Park and time enough before the plane  for the walled garden at least. Bronze leaves settled on the few cars in the car park. A man changed his shoes for some serious walking.

‘How’s it going?’ He asked us.
Well, it was good.

The house itself has gone but the walled garden remains, a peaceful place between grey walls  and the age and beauty of  trees.  I wondered if it was symmetry and the elegance of  straight lines that gave the place its atmosphere but decided that indeed the garden had its own aura.  Possible to imagine Yeats nursed back to health here and inspired by beauty and grace of a patron.  Possible to imagine the bygone era and the  literary greats flown like swans.

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Solitude. This is what you need, the tool collector said
Imagine walking in those footsteps, carving initials in Lady Gregory’s autograph tree, never going out in the lanes, like Synge, but spending all the time in the woods or within the walls of the garden, protected from all sides bordered, secluded writing and thinking.

I would be as the leaf collector – happy to wander, rake in hand, not doing much but soaking it all up.

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Let’s hear it for mangel-wurzels

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It was high time for a walk if only to take a break from the manuscript.

The usual linear walk over the top to the nearest town often reveals something new, no matter how often we walk it, trees ravaged by high winds, mountain springs swollen to torrents.

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We stopped to gaze on a high hill pass, Bwlch y Rhiwgyr,  (Drovers’ Pass),  anticipating the view which on a clear day  takes in the Mawddach Estuary and the Lleyn Peninsular  and were seduced by the sight of a flock of  sheep safely grazing a field of  winter fodder – turnips I guess, but mangel-wurzel sounds better. The sheep were too busy to notice us as we ploughed on  through.

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A crossway of paths leading to and from a pre-historic trio of standing stones  known as Arthur’s Quoits  had been carefully delineated by the sower of the turnips and stood out green and clear, tapering to a distant point.

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What also become clear was a way forward with the novel, a  story and set of characters that have hung about me for long years now, refusing either to go away or become clear.  A character I have named Hennessy, whose face, as broad as a potato  and round as a turnip drifted across the sky in cloud formation was the key.

Pretentious, but true.