It never used to happen like this. I’d arrive home – my former family home, a detached 1970s house in the West Yorkshire village of Menston, not far from the quietly salubrious and much better known inclines of Ilkley – immediately my mother and I would have to jump in the car (one of my eternal old bangers) and travel to a town.
Were we trying to avoid the gentle space of actually being together? Probably. My mother – she was 82 at this time, she’s 89 now – and I occupied polar positions re our ways of living, for much of our relationship. She was in the all-knitting, all-gardening, verbally restrained corner; whilst I was in the all-partying, all-reading, (not at the same time, obviously), hysterically over-expressive corner. And rarely did the twain meet.
However, over the last decade, a welcome blurry middle ground has appeared. I’ve witnessed her courageously battle and overcome cancer, then get over the death of my father, and then how she learned to live her own freedom without him. I’ve come to admire her Yorkshire feistiness (I’ve noted that she’s passed it on to me) and I’ve observed signs of her all-dancing side too. On those frequent cruises where she is apparently keen to rumba every evening.
I’ve also started to understand more about scented stock seedlings and composting. I’ve got to know and like her friends in the village. We’ve also taken to going on little adventures together, for instance exploring the savage beauty of the Northumbrian coast and the quirkiness of Whitby. Yes, there has been a mother/daughter melting. Although I, thankfully, have yet to learn to knit.
We’ve also started to re-visit old family walks. Now when I get there from the urban madness that is Harlesden, we have lunch and simply step out of her front door and carry on walking. There’s no longer any need to visit a town.
At the end of August last year, we decided to go blackberrying. We’ve always been a blackberrying family. I remember taking French O level revision out with me, there’d also be the corned beef sandwich-centred picnic, the tartan rug and lots of empty Tupperware bowls for those juicy berries. Oh, the exquisite pleasure of mum’s blackberry and apple crumble as the dark, red juice seeped into the custard like a pudding version of bonfire night.
First of all, we wandered down the main street, past the distinctly non-contemporary Menston Arms – whatever happened to that handsome doctor’s son that I used to meet here? – and up the moor road. On the right, there is a spectacularly mundane, little park where I know my grandmother used to bring me in the pram. I’ve seen the photos. It remains untouched by modern park aesthetics.
We reach the beginning of Bleach Mill Lane on the right. Ah, the memories. Of course, it’s the lane that was dug by the owners of the 19th century mill so they could get their vehicles down here. But the mill never entered my head as a child. To me, it was simply the way to the pond where I’d find sticklebacks with exotic red bellies and three strange spikes on their backs. I’d fill a jam jar full of pond water and try and keep them forever as proof of the mysterious ways of the universe.
As we’re walking this time, mum says: “You know your grandmother used to walk down here as a 9 year old school girl. She took her father his sandwiches at the mill every day at lunchtime.” Maybe, she’s told me before but today, they seem now and shiny. Like coins pushed into my imagination’s slot machine. For a moment, I see my grandma skipping down this uneven track to the mill where yarns from local mills and linen were bleached. I’m reminded that my grandmother’s grandfather, William, originally came over from an impoverished Derry in the 1860s to work there. His son, Isaac, followed him into the mill.
As we walked and talked, I realised that six generations of our family have made their way down this track, but for two different reasons. My great, great grandfather, Isaac, my great grandfather, Ralph, my grandmother, Jane, then my mother, Nancy, and her three children, me, Rowena and Clive, then, finally my own son, Marlon. The first wave came to work, the second for leisure.
There’s something deeply reassuring about walking this often, muddy lane, which has been trodden by so many generations of my family. As my and my mother’s feet keep touching this earth in the same dips and puddles as our forbearers, I get a whoosh of permanence and stability in a world that seems to offer less and less of those particular qualities.
At last, we find a few blackberries but they’re dried up and hard. Victims of a bad summer. To the right are endless fields across to Otley – where I was born – and to Almscliffe Crag, one of the everlasting, gritstone boulders that marks this west Yorkshire landscape. Standing and gazing is an integral part of our walks.
Very little has changed. We walk for a few minutes, and there it is on the left. The pond. Where so often as I child, I’d bring my fishing net and scoop out squirming tadpoles as well as those enchanting sticklebacks. And when my son was a toddler, I’d bring him to this same Bleach Mill pond to encourage him, to appreciate and understand more about nature. To be able to distinguish flag irises from king cups and milkmaids. But this late August Monday, there are bulrushes and water boatmen instead.
Inevitably, my mind’s eye casts itself back to carefree summers. Both my mother and I experience a frisson of recall delight.
The lane ends at the still existent, 19th century Bleach Mill House. We peer over the hedge to see speckled hens and the disorder of a smallholding. The house itself looks a little rundown. They used to do B n’B and cream teas but it seems no more. There’s a solitary sign for freerange eggs.
Now we’re on the narrow footpath, which takes us up the glen. Just round the corner, in a place where the tinkling beck turns into a flat pool, there are one or two millstone grit stones. These are probably from the mill’s chimney, incidental reminders of a big past.
Today, we’re more interested in finding some decent blackberries. We’re in luck at last. Next to the holly bush – this is the very place we used to visit every year every pre-Xmas to gather its very special, red-berried branches – stands a bush with a late summer treasure, succulent blackberries.
For half an hour, my mother and I stand amongst the cow pats and thistles, immersing ourselves in the job at hand. These juicy jewels fall into our hands mostly without bruising. We chat about the 1930s holiday homes in the next field, little wooden huts, which meant so much on these walks. Magical little houses in the nearby Hag Farm’s fields where people from Leeds and Bradford would spend weekends in the countryside. During my childhood, they were still there, proud and tidy. Now, they’re falling apart.
It’s 24 years since my father died, but here we are, mother and daughter, former enemies, now firm friends, continuing this family tradition. I’m sure William and Isaac must have sneaked over and sampled some of nature’s best gifts a hundred years ago.
I smile as I notice the look of contentment on my mother’s face, and as I realise that blackberry and apple crumble with custard is definitely on the weekend menu.
Rose Rouse has written a series of pieces on her relationship with her mother. This one charts earlier changes when they were still walking together. She will next explore how her mother’s Alzheimer’s has transformed their intimacy levels once again.