Page Turner: On the black, green, grey and purple hill
Sunday 15 February 2009
Every so often a book comes in that I simply have to pilfer. Such a one is Alastair Lee's
Pendle (Frances Lincoln £14.99), a photographic essay on Lancashire's Uluru, Pendle Hill. You might think that no one but a homesick Lancastrian would be interested in such an obscure topic – and I admit that I grew up with a magnificent view of the hill through my bedroom window – but Lee's Cézanne-like obsession with capturing and recording a rocky feature in all lights, conditions and weathers, make his quest a fascinating one.
What's so special about Pendle? It's famous, or infamous, for the Pendle witches, a group of underprivileged and ill-favoured women and men who, in the early 16th century, were hanged on Lancaster moor. Alice Nutter, Old Demdike, "Squinting Lizzie", Chattox and others came from Barley and Roughlee, Windle and the Pendle Forest. The witch trials, coming so soon after the Gunpowder Plot, sound like the equivalent of modern terrorist trials, with crazy allegations and tales of vast malignity swallowed whole by a fearful public – though Lee points out that, for the time, the legal process was a fair one and some were even acquitted.
While it's a dramatic story, the brooding presence of Pendle itself is more than just a backdrop. When I was growing up, it didn't take much imagination to find the whole area spooky, especially in winter and at Hallowe'en. Lee himself admits the hill is "a tiny lump 559 metres high in a wet and miserable corner of East Lancashire" (steady on!). Yet it has many moods and aspects; from some angles its sides look vertical, and its distinctive humped profile gives it a tangible personality. Living with a hill gives you a sense of rootedness, of rightness. "Despite the unrelenting wind and rain Pendle remains solid, secure and unchanged. It is home," says Lee. I remember as a child being quite disconcerted when I saw it from the other side. Something seemed to have gone wrong in the universe.
Not the highest of the Pennines, "it has the most impressive vertical scale on all sides", explains Lee. I didn't know you could see Blackpool Tower from the top, or that to the east, nothing is higher until you get to the Ural mountains, or that George Fox, the founder of the Quaker movement, had a vision on Pendle's "Big End". All in all, a terrific book. Shame about the typos. Penine, indeed!
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