During last year, I was contacted by Sheila Birch who said to me that some of my artistic responses to the Mosses resonated with her experience of the landscape. Although she no longer lives in the area, she still has family connections with Bettisfield and is a regular visitor. I invited her to recount some of her childhood memories:
Andrew: You mentioned to me your sense of place growing up near the Moss, what are the particular feelings and memories that create that sense of place?
Sheila: I grew up at Church Farm in Bettisfield in the 1970s. I was always struck by the community’s (and my own family’s) reactions to the Moss and our sense of place. As kids, the Moss was out of bounds and so we viewed it as somewhere potentially dangerous and nervously exciting. There were snakes & fires! No doubt anyone living near the Moss had to be resilient and quite independent. For such a small rural village, I remember the area having a real mix of characters. Perhaps there’s something about the local landscape that over the years has been conducive to that. In the late 1970s/early 80s, I remember the village became home to a travelling showman’s family (complete with fairground rides resting for the Winter months) and a women’s Buddhist retreat centre.
John Piper & John Betjeman visited Bettisfield in the 1930s when they were preparing the Shell Guide to Shropshire (Piper was a huge fan of the architect GE Street who built Bettisfield Church*) and I love his moody sketch, which he completed in the 1950s, I think, when the Guide was finally published. I always wonder what he would have made of the Moss landscape.
Andrew: Boundaries seem to have been an influence in how you related to the landscape? How have these boundaries shaped your thinking about the Moss and sense of identity?
The idea of boundaries and identity from your work really resonated with me, as I realised after talking with my family that none of us have actually ever visited the Moss from the Whixall “end”.
We’d visit the Moss from Bettisfield & Fenn’s Bank, Bronington but even my brothers who had Summer holiday jobs working on the Moss in the late 70s/early 80s “walling” never went there. (Walling was literally building up square blocks of peat into a wall which would then be left to dry out.)
[View archive photographs taken by Geoff Charles of peat cutting at Whixall Moss at the National Library of Wales]
As children, we had a strict boundary line as to how far we could play on the approach to the Moss before we had to turn back. To cross that line risked getting lost in an otherworldly, dangerous place. We grew up with stories of snakes being chased out of kitchens; a friend’s dog being bitten & nearly dying; how if you got lost, especially in Whixall, you’d never find your way out! All probably exaggerated to keep children in check but I was reminiscing with old friends who heard the same. Growing up, perhaps in keeping with a border village, there was also a sense of who were English or Welsh families.
Seeing your pictures of Furber’s scrapyard were amazing. I never went there but I actually remember there being two scrapyards. The larger one in Whixall that you’ve visited but also another smaller yard in Bettisfield. Very apt to have one on both sides of the border!
We would quite often get asked for directions to Furber’s or have people show up at our farm looking lost. Our stock response was “go over the two bridges, turn left and keep going until you can’t go any further…” That sense of it being the end of the world was always there.
Andrew: Visiting the Moss myself, I have a sense of remoteness both in distance and in time – there is something timeless or nostalgic about the area. Did you have a sense of that when you lived there, or is it something that has become more apparent with living away from the area?
I don’t know if you’ve ever come across the book “Bad Blood” by Lorna Sage, who grew up in nearby Hanmer. Although it inevitably did upset some locals, in her book she perfectly captured the sense of those border villages of the Maelor being disjointed and essentially a land that time forgot.
My family is long rooted in the area. My Mum still talks of her Granny and her allotted patch on the Moss at Fenn’s Bank where she was entitled to cut her own peat. My Dad was on the local Community Council and worked with Joan Daniels when the environmental significance of the Moss was realised in the Nineties and he’d recall the locals’ mixed reaction to it. I still visit my Mum and the area regularly (lockdown permitting) and have now resolved to finally make a visit to the Whixall side of the Moss.
Image licences can be found at The National Library of Wales
As a postscript, I shared a draft of this blog post with Sheila, and found coincidentally that she was making a home visit the following day at the same time that I was on site making sound recordings. So we met up at Morris Bridge for a short walk on Whixall Moss for a well timed opportunity to see the swathes of cotton grass. We continued our conversation, rich with anecdotes and memories of the area. Sheila is rightly proud of her Welsh heritage, with a keen interest in its history and culture – perhaps all the more so, given how the Maelor sits uneasily as a Welsh peninsular intruding into England, possibly regarded as “less Welsh” by the rest of Wales. In common with many other borderland territories, it is often the case that the closer one approaches the border, the more people seek to assert their identity.
I am aware how nuanced and finely grained everyone’s life experience can be and I have a sense of responsibility in sharing these family/community memories. This post just gives a glimpse, and does not really enable us to join the dots and say “this is what that community is like” … but it does build up a fascinating richness to the landscape.
* St John the Baptist’s Church was built in 1873 by Lord John Hanmer to a design by acclaimed architect George Edmund Street. No expense was spared, as stained glass was supplied by Clayton and Bell, bells by John Taylor of Loughborough and tiles by Mintons of Stoke on Trent. It was built after an earlier wooden chapel in the village became overcrowded.
I met Phil Jones, resident of Bettisfield and church warden, at the Church and heard about plans for the building to become more of a venue for community events. It is certainly a very striking, handsome church in a prominent and picturesque location.
** I went on to read Lorna Sage’s autobiographical “Bad Blood” quite recently, and it is an excellent book about the experiences of a young girl growing into adulthood. I understand why some people living in the area would be upset by it, and clearly there are aspects which are specific to Sage’s experience and not necessarily representative of the community of the 1950s-70s or now. But I did get that same sense of the isolation/remoteness of the place that I have noticed myself when visiting. The Maelor is within Wales but somehow disconnected from it, encircled by England.
Whilst the mere at Hanmer is mentioned in the book, I was struck by the fact that the Mosses are not referred to at all, apart from a passage in which Lorna goes to collect sphagnum moss for wreathmaking (presumably from Fenn’s Moss.) Perhaps not so surprising, when one thinks that during the 1960s the Mosses would have been a forbidding industrialised landscape of bare peat, a processing works and tramways, where visitors were likely to have been discouraged.