Native of Eskdale – Another Country by Margaret Armstrong Elliott

Hayloft Publishing, 249 pages, £12.00 from the Ratty stations and other local shops.

Margaret Armstrong Elliott was born in 1931. Her family farmed at Paddockwray and the Woolpack, also running the Inn. The farms were separated by Christcliff, inconveniently occupied by a hostile Mr Vicars. From Eskdale High School, where the teacher was her Aunt Gladys, Margaret gained a grammar school place in Millom, but was unable to take it up for want of transport. At the suggestion of two teachers who were regular guests at the Woolpack, she went instead to a Spartan girls’ boarding school in Southport, and later to university in Newcastle. During the holidays she returned to the Woolpack as a maid of all work. Finally leaving Eskdale in 1958, she travelled extensively, before becoming a teacher and landscape artist in Canada.

As the subtitle suggests, the author is strongly aware that before the War, time had moved more slowly in Eskdale than elsewhere. Horses were still used rather than tractors and cars were rare, although her father owned one, and Auntie Gladys was a famously erratic driver. Such agricultural machinery as there was would have been familiar to Victorians, and life was dominated by the weather and seasons. The farms were not only self-sufficient in many foodstuffs, but also provided most of the vegetables and fruit for the inn. Valley fields were still being ploughed, and the Woolpack had a large garden. The use of chemicals was unknown, until introduced as part of the war effort. Even the impact of rationing was hardly felt.

The clarity of recollection in the book of life as a young child, in surroundings surviving from another age, is remarkable. Long unaccompanied walks in complete safety, close observation of nature and farm animals, the confining of conversation to the outdoor work of men, and a detailed account of women’s endless indoor labour, make us realise both what we have lost and gained. There are some wonderfully evocative photographs. The author remembers Eskdale mill as a going concern, and Ned Bibby, the last miller, who died in 1937. But her memory of ‘the wooden wheel – scooping up the water as it flowed past’ does not seem quite right.

Surprisingly, the Armstrong family seem to have thought of the inn as of less importance than the farms, even though they had arrived in Eskdale only in 1914 and had previously run hotels elsewhere in the Lake District. Margaret Armstrong Elliott regards tourists, hikers and other refugees from urban reality with the sardonic eye of an Eskdale native. When she last visited the valley in 2006, she was rudely shouted at by an off-comer (who can this have been ?) for approaching Boot mill outside hours. Perhaps the experience influenced her dismissal of the mill as a tourist theme park. Food for thought, as we seek to change its presentation, but not its essential character, over the next few years.

Paul Pharaoh