Back in August, I spoiled myself by sending off for a couple of books published by Little Toller; they’re one of my favourite indies, issuing wonderful nature-focused works, and I’ve covered a couple on the blog already. The two titled I picked up were “The Unofficial Countryside” by Richard Mabey and “Millstone Grit” by Glyn Hughes; and typically for me, having drafted my end of November post where I thought I might spend December wallowing in classic crime, I then went and instantly decided that the Hughes would be my next read!!

Little Toller’s nature classics are beautiful works; slightly larger format than usual, with striking covers, illustrations (at least in this case, by Peter Hollings), interesting forewords and French flaps. Glyn Hughes, a new name to me, hailed from Chester and had a varied career, teaching and writing. In 1971 he moved to Mill Bank, Sowerby Bridge, where he died in 2011, and the landscape of West Yorkshire was obviously a huge inspiration. “Millstone Grit” was first published in 1975 and it’s a fascinating look at the north at the time when the region was undergoing significant change.

The book comes with an  introduction from Benjamin Myers, and “Millstone Grit” is hung upon a fifty-mile walk Hughes takes through the West Riding and East Lancashire, exploring the moorlands alongside the industrial towns of the Pennines. The landscape is unforgiving, and the industries in decline, with most of the cotton mills closing down, the villages decaying and people moving away. Hughes, however, has been drawn back to the area after his marriage collapsed, and the location and closeness to nature informs his work.

… I love quiet the more because I live in an age that appreciates it so little; one of sound pollution that is ignored more than other environmental adulterations. I was able to listen to the pleasant sounds of birds, wind, rain, or sporadic human noises: the postman, milkman, or forlorn door-to-door sales people combing their most desperate beat.

Hughes’s writing is indeed beautiful and he draws into his narrative musings on nature, the histories of the areas through which he’s passing, memories of those who lived and worked in the Mills and poetry, both his own and that by others. The result is a lyrical book which explores the millstone grit landscape from a fascinating variety of viewpoints. As I mentioned, at the time when the book was written the cotton industries were in decline, and the many of the villages of the region would not survive this. Those that did were ones which inevitably were being gentrified, and Hughes recognises the issues this created.

As transport improved and initially hippies moved into the area, the changes were not so great. But the villages came to be seen as viable for commuters, and so old cottages were demolished, new buildings put up which were out of keeping with the landscape and a divide created between original residents and incomers. It’s a situation still relevant today, and unavoidable it seems. No-one wants to live somewhere with no plumbing or electricity, in primitive conditions; but not all developers will make changes with sensitivity.

The shaping of stone, whether by masons or by the wear of humans, animals or weather, always stirs me. Here, every paving stone had been worn into a saddle-shaped trough by the passage of horses and men. It is the same shaping that one sees in the stones of mill stairs, and it moves me to think of the working men, women and children whose feet sculpted those shapes, their only memorials to a hundred years of daily labour. Yet when mills and passageways are demolished, they are broken or thrown away.

Hughes ranges far and wide over the landscape of the north, passing by Heptonstall (where he mentions the grave of Sylvia Plath), the notorious Saddleworth Moor, and of course Haworth; even then the latter was being consumed by Bronte tourism and though I’d love to visit I doubt I could cope with the level of commercialism involved nowadays.

“Millstone Grit” is very much a book of its time, although parts of the landscape Hughes explores are timeless; and interestingly, I occasionally picked up hints that the author’s attitudes were of his time, too. The odd description of the land using unusual metaphors of female anatomy; the fact that many of his male friends appear to be on the run from domesticity, leaving the women and children behind; nothing overt, but just a feeling that some of his attitudes might not quite have agreed with mine!

But this is a minor point, because the book is a wonderful and evocative read, exploring landscape, politics, art, poetry, change – life itself. The text is accompanied by the aforementioned excellent photographs by Peter Hollings (I would have liked to have a little more info about him included in the book), and captures the sense of bleak space of the northern moors. A great reissue by Little Toller, and I’m rather keen to continue with a little more nature writing now… ;D