Great Aunt Hannah

My Aunt Hannah changed very little over the years as I grew up, in fact almost the only change I remember was her hair.  It was glossy dark brown when I was a small child, it reached almost to her waist as she brushed it, and was strong and thick, and shone like a polished nut.   She wore it drawn back from her face into a bun at the back of her head, and she had a trick of gathering it together with a flick of one hand, and there is was all coiled round neat and tidy.

She was a tall woman, straight as a ramrod, with a smooth polished face and twinkly eyes.  She always wore calf length dresses, black usually, with three of four petticoats underneath and a gold and garnet brooch at the neck.  On top of everything she wore a large white pinafore which she called a bishop.  Whenever she did any work she put on what she called her ‘handling apern’.  This was a hessian apron which tied round the waist, to keep the bishop clean.

I lived at Aunt Hannah’s house until I was three years old, and even after I went back to my parents I spent more time with Aunt Hannah than anyone else.  I had no grandmother so Aunt Hannah ruled all the family, and the neighbourhood.  I never remember her door being closed.  Everyone stopped for a few words as they went by, and they came to her with joys and sorrows.

A relative of ours kept a public house, although Aunt Hannah thought it was not really very nice.  They had one son who was a weak spindly child.  When he was about five he had pneumonia, the doctors said he had no chance as he was already a weak child.  Aunt Hannah, with a face like granite took charge, and told them they were a load of stupid fools.  Once he was out of danger she wrapped him in her shawl, and brought him home for a year or so.  My sister and I disliked him intensely as he was thoroughly spoilt, although Aunt Hannah sorted that out before he went home again.

Once every year Aunt Hannah gathered the whole family together, packed enough food for an army, a large supply of empty bottles, and we all set off for Stoodley Pike.  This is a monument set on a remote hilltop to commemorate the Crimean War.  Getting there involved a five mile walk uphill all the way, and over very exposed moorland, with almost no regular track.  We had to pick our way over sheep tracks, edging round marshy spots and bog holes.  Someone always fell into one of these holes and the rest of us had a hard time pulling them out.  It was usually near midsummer when we went, as the moors would be impassable most of the year.  The air is very clear up there on a sunny day, larks and pewits would be soaring above us, just black dots against the jewel blue of the sky.  The bird song and an occasional sheep bleating was the only sound, as the sun and clouds made moving patterns on the hills which rolled away on every side like waves on a frozen sea.

The bright green bracken fronds were all curly at the ends, they made a carpet all around us.   The only snag was sheep would lie down amongst it, and we couldn’t see them until they jumped up from under our feet and charged off.  

Even though she was by far the oldest of us, Aunt Hannah usually managed to reach the Pike first.  It had a stone spiral stairway curling up inside, leading out to a stone platform at the base of the long spire which crowned the top of the monument.  We all duly climbed the stair, which was no easy matter either, as we usually met a frightened sheep coming down, and the stairway was pitch dark.

Out on the stone platform it is always windy even on the hottest day, but the view is breathtaking, brown and green shaded moors rolling away beneath us with no sign of human life on the quiet unchanging hill tops.  I always felt very small and frightened up there.  I never could stand heights anyway, but Aunt Hannah always seemed to know, although she never said anything, she just took my hand whilst we stood and looked out together, silently.

Back down the stair, and time for lunch, the food always tasted wonderful as we all tucked in with sharp appetites after the long morning walk.  After lunch it was time to go and see the object of the long trek, this was a spring on the moor, not very far from the Pike.  Aunt Hannah insisted the water was very good for us because it was a mineral spring, and would benefit all kinds of ailments.  We all protested loudly that we didn’t have any ailments but ‘an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure’ was the only answer, so we had to drink it anyway.

Every year the shock of it was the same, slightly bitter and icy cold.  The grown ups made a ceremony of it, toasting each other, but we children just drank it as quickly as we could, then ran off to round up the sheep.  When the bottles were all filled we set off to retrace our steps for home, singing along the way, rousing hymn tunes mostly, as my family were great ones for hymn singing.  The way back was all down hill as the going seemed easier and there was a farm just over a mile from home where we always called for butter milk.  The barn was grey stone, as were the rest of the buildings, and all the walls.  Aunt Hannah made us a crown each with plaited straw as we sat and drank the cool milk and she told us how they used to make plaited dolls, and big sheaves for the altar rails at harvest time, when she was a girl herself in the 1860’s.

By now we were all very tired, and no-one sang on the last bit of the way home.  The grown ups grumbled and couldn’t think why they had gone but Aunt Hannah just smiled.

Every spring my sister and I went dock picking with Aunt Hannah, we took two clothes baskets, the old fashioned oval kind, woven wicker work with handles at each end.  She baked all her own bread so we took home currant teacakes and lemon barley water in the bottom of the baskets.  Until the 1st of May we could go into the hayfields and there were usually more docks there than anywhere else.

Dock pudding is a delicacy unknown outside our valley I think, the docks for it are only supposed to grow where blood has been shed, so our valley must have been a great battlefield once upon a time.  My sister lives in Rochdale now but each spring she brings her own children to pick docks as she has never found any in Lancashire/

We had favourite places to pick first, as did almost every other family, and Aunt Hannah took us to see the bluebells and the new beech leaves on the way.  She would never let us pick any though.  ‘Leave them to help others along the way’ she always said.  People used to come from Manchester and other towns for the day and pick armfuls of bluebells and I always thought this was most unjust.  We would spend hours picking the docks, it was hard back breaking work, but Aunt Hannah always managed to pick twice as many as my sister and I.  We got sixpence each for a clothes basket full to the top with young green docks, no grass or dirt either.

We sang as we worked, hymns mostly, or old music hall songs.  ‘Two Little Girls in Blue’ was Aunt Hannah’s favourite, or else she would tell us a story.  These were usually about people or places in the section of the valley where we are working at the time.  Old mills which had been there and were now gone, about the people who had worked there living in slum houses with sanded floors.  They walked many miles to church or chapel on Sunday, taking sandwiches with them for lunch, or had what she called a Jacob’s Join, which meant all the food was put together and everyone got a share.

Or she would tell of boggarts which haunted houses or woods, and how the country people would not pass them at night, or the will o’ the whisp lights which dance over the moorlands at night.  It is a pity those tales were never written down, they were fascinating, but no-one remembers them any more.

Once the baskets were filled we set off for home, Aunt Hannah in the middle with a basket and a child on each side.  The baskets creaked and groaned as we walked along, two very grubby children, but she was as neat and tidy as when we set out, she never scolded us for getting dirty as she said a little dirt was good for children.

When we arrived home the docks had to be picked again to take out all the stalks.  They were then put into a large tub and thoroughly washed before being put on to boil in large pots, with oatmeal and onions.  The result looks rather like cooked cabbage but it is eaten, after being fried, with ham or bacon, and is delicious.  The last task was to fill jam jars, which everyone had been collecting for weeks, and then help Aunt Hannah give it out to friends and neighbours who were not able to go out and collect the docks themselves.

My Aunt Hannah was a very special person, she was never idle, and yet she was never too busy to spend time with us when we were children.  When I remember the way she would bake, wash, make preserves of all kinds, cure hams, go sick visiting, all without any labour saving devices.  I often wonder how she found time to play with us, and tell us stories, as she never seemed flustered, or in a rush, as I often do.

Written by Sheila O’Brien in the 1970’s

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Wild Rose Heritage and Arts is a community group which takes it's name from the area in which we are located - the valley ("den") of the wild rose ("Heb") -  Hebden Bridge which is in Calderdale, West Yorkshire.

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Pennine Heritage Ltd.
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Hebden Bridge
HX7 8DG

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