Review of ‘Around Meerbrook’, by Sheila Hine

This review is by Julie Bunting, and was published originally in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 20th December 2004, and is reproduced with Julie's kind permission.

by Sheila Hine
Published by Churnet Valley Books
ISBN 1-904546-23-4 (2004)

Compiled by Sheila Hine, Around Meerbrook is a gathering of memories from 20 men and women relating to a wide area around Meerbrook and Upperhulme, touching Rudyard, Rushton, Swythamley, Gradbach, Flash, Longnor and Leek. Recollections handed down by the contributors' forebears take some stories back several generations, to when children left school as young as 12.

It is humbling to read how hard life has been in the North Staffordshire hills into quite recent times. Lives were cut tragically short by events from childbirth to accidents and both men and women had little leisure time. Women 'didn't go in pubs then' and a divorce 'would make the News of the World'.

Hours worked on the land were exhausting, even for boys and girls kept from school to help with the harvest and threshing. At school there was thrashing - one mischievous girl was caned every day for a week. The walk to school was often long and lonely, trudging there and back in clogs, perhaps with the agony of chilblains. Coal could be fetched by handcart from a pit at Three Shires Head, while children around Goldstitch Moss were sent onto the shale hillocks to gather coal uncovered after heavy rain. Water was fetched in churns from one village pump until 1975.

But the memories are mingled with a strong sense of country humour, from tales of a flock of emus which pulled all the buttons off Uncle Jim's clothes, to a disgusting trick with a pig's eye, and a gruesome way of dealing with mice which got into the baking flour. There are the two old-timers who started smoking pipes at the tender age of 9 and were still puffing away at 90 and the salutary tale of a titled landowner taught his manners by one of his tenant's children.

It now seems safe to reveal the dirty tricks played upon each another by two brothers with rival milk rounds, or to tell of the barn where 10 women took up residence in wartime and were much visited by American soldiers from a nearby army camp, not to mention other groups of women making their way to the camp under cover of darkness.

Around Meerbrook contains over 180 privately owned photographs and Sheila Hine has left the voices to speak for themselves, dialect and all. This is a wonderfully nostalgic read for anyone with farming or country life in their blood and will strike chords all around the Peak.

Review by Julie Bunting

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