Cuckoo!

Saturday, 26th April was Cuckoo Day in Marsden, a small town tucked away under Saddleworth Moor in the Colne Valley. Legend has it that the good burgers of Marsden, who included my forbears, spotted a link between the arrival of the cuckoo in spring and an improvement in the weather. Actually, that was quite an an achievement since the weather is generally pretty appalling in those parts of the Pennines. Be that as it may, spot the connection they did (without any fancy statistical analysis) and they decided to prolong the sunshine by building a wall around the cuckoo, so that it should be confined for the duration. Sadly the wall was not high enough and the bird flew away. As they said, it were nobbut a course too low! Or, as a participant in the revels said to me thinking me to be a stranger in those parts, they wor' a bit thick round 'ere, like. How unkind! These days you might well get a Ph.D for an embroidered version of little more than the observations of the Colne Valley Cuckoo Laboratory.

 

Nowadays, we don't need walls to keep cuckoos in with a view to climate change. We are all at it, cheerfully burning all that fossil fuel and generating all that methane from our ruminant livestock. These industrial and agricultural activities had a very direct bearing on the history of Marsden, for it was here that the woollen industry was set up using the sheep which grazed in the hills and where, at the start of the 19th century, significant mechanisation was introduced, initially based on water power but later on coal, which led to the creation of those dark satanic mills of which Blake complained. To the local folk they certainly were demonic since they took their livelihoods away. In 1812 there were substantial acts of sabotage (the Luddite riots) culminating in the fatal shooting of a Mr. Horsfall, a mill owner of Marsden, for which three men in their early twenties were sentenced to death at York Assizes on 6th January 1813; they were hanged in public two days later behind York Castle, where the Assizes had been held, in the presence of a significant force of arms. The judges ignored the pleas of the jury for clemency in the case of one of the condemned men; an example had to made of these people, who had generally proved very difficult to apprehend. At the same Assizes no less than 18 men were condemned and executed by 16th January; the Prince of Wales, afterwards George IV, issued a proclamation offering a pardon to all who came forward and confessed to being involved with the Luddites. It is not recorded how many availed themselves of this opportunity. Within a few months the unrest had largely ceased.

 

The mills are still in Marsden; one, indeed, is the largest mill in the country. It is empty. Lower down the valley mills have become warehouses for supermarket chains. There is still one working mill in Marsden making bespoke carpets for the rich and famous. It has a somewhat hand-to-mouth existence. The closure of the mills, so sought by the Luddites to preserve jobs, has paradoxically left behind high unemployment. Given their legendary luck with avian harbingers, the folks of Marsden remain between a roc and a hard place.

 

John Marsden/taxon@pavilion.co.uk