Get lost in Lancashires secret garden

Childhood holidays on a country estate in Lancashire fired Peter Conchie's imagination. Returning as an adult he found the magic hadn't faded

I was in my late twenties when I saw the film and, strange as this may sound, it vividly recalled childhood holidays in the comparatively humble Trough of Bowland in Lancashire. For a week each summer my family rented a semi-detached house in Quernmore on a large country estate owned by the family of a colleague of my father. We stayed a mile from the main road and my parents' red Renault 12 made its way gingerly along a pot-holed gravel track that passed a Franciscan monastery and a high-walled garden. The house itself looked on to fields of cows at the front and woods at the rear, and our next-door neighbours were farmers who let us walk their dogs.

It was not this pastoral idyll that Powell and Pressburger's vision recalled. Rather it was a memory of my own secret and - perhaps in common with Niven's delusional RAF pilot - quite possibly imagined stairway in the woods behind the house.

Like many a brother with elder sisters, I needed to escape from time to time and woods, as any small boy knows, are perfect for this. The track into the woods at Quernmore ran uphill past the entrance to the farm courtyard and thereafter offered a series of left-right options which, if you remembered them correctly, led to a circle of dark water surrounded by high trees and dense bushes. Running around its left-hand edge was a springy-floored footpath that followed a tunnel inside the rhododendrons little higher than I was. This ran for a hundred yards or so, after which another left turn took you deeper into territory where a whisper of leaves felt menacing and home seemed far away indeed.

The path eventually came to a giant conifer. And it was here, each year, that I began to think my mind was playing tricks on me. Behind me, deep in the realm of nature, hundreds of stone steps incongruously ascended a wooded slope. Each was around 10 feet wide, a foot high and two feet deep, the sort of substantial arrangement that might lead to a hill-top church. I remember climbing them hesitantly for the first time, their destination obscured by the overhanging branches of oak, and being astonished to find that there was nothing at the top. The steps led nowhere. Why were they there I wondered. Was it the secret entrance to a lost city? Or was I deep in what I would later think of as David Niven territory? I returned last summer with my own family to revisit old friends and rationalise my overactive childhood imagination.

We discovered Quernmore Park in the 1970s thanks to my father's former head-teacher and friend, the redoubtable Emmeline Garnett. Over dinner in Quernmore with my parents and family last year, she sketched a history of the estate and revealed that the steps owed their existence to events thousands of miles from Lancashire. Quernmore Park was bought by William Garnett in 1842 and remains in the family today. Emmeline's great, great-grandfather William made the first of his fortunes in cotton trading and invested the profits in the nascent railway network; he was an original director of the Liverpool to Manchester railway. William Garnett died in 1863 leaving the estate to his son, William James.

Clearly, then, the Garnetts had the money to build the steps, but why pursue such a labour-intensive project in the middle of the woods? During the American Civil War in the 1860s, the northern states blockaded the ports of the southern states to prevent exports such as cotton. As a result mills in England were starved of raw materials. Workers were laid off and the Cotton Famine devastated towns such as Bolton, Bury, Manchester and - a few miles from Quernmore - affected workers in Caton and Lancaster. As a rich landowner, and a member of a family who had made their money in cotton, William James may have felt honour-bound to help.

But what could the mill workers do? They were set to work on a set of ornamental steps leading up to a stone summerhouse with a view across the valley. Construction wasn't ideal work - cotton operatives worked with downy materials in humid conditions and had notoriously soft hands - but work it was. The stone was taken from a quarry a few hundred yards from the planned summit of the steps. Emmeline recalls that the quarry is known in the family as Hard Times, the Dickens novel being published approximately a decade before work began.

So, contrary to my childish imaginings, the steps did indeed have a purpose and were so well built that they outlasted their intended destination. When I returned with my toddler and expectant partner, we found the steps intact but only a few stones remained of the summerhouse. Hard Times quarry was out of view and out of reach, at least to anyone without a machete. On the first night back at Home Farm, I set out at dusk and discovered that the rhododendron tunnel had grown over and was now inhabited by alarming and explosively squawking grouse.

Returning to the house in the dark with my nerves shredded, I poured a stiff drink and recalled other memories, notably my progressive father's subtle attempts to nurture a non-conformist streak. Reasoning that Quernmore Park was a private estate and therefore not subject to the regulations of the Highway Code or the DVLA, as soon as our feet could depress the pedals, Dad taught my sisters and I to drive. I can still remember the thrill of reaching third gear on a flat patch of grass alongside the gravel drive to the cottage. He also taught me how to drink. Each year the family would go to the Old Thythe Barn near Garstang with Bill and Jenny Burton, the farmers next door. Dad would order me half a cider and I would stand by the bar, suppressing a grin and nodding along with the adult conversation.

On occasion, we would rise early and wander next door to "help" Mr Burton with the milking and I remember how the cow's tongues felt like wet muscular sandpaper. Once he took me to Lancaster cattle market where the straw was warm underfoot and the babbling rat-tat-tat of the auctioneer made the purchase of sheep and chickens sound very important indeed. My sisters and I would exercise the Burton's dogs, always an entertaining excursion given that Wendy the red setter was the world's dimmest dog. Considering the violence of her reaction, in her scrambled setter brain "sit!" seemed to translate as "cat!" and "down!" as "run for your life!" and our walks largely consisted of unscheduled tours through the undergrowth.

While the history of the steps is now established, one thing remains unclear; a definitive figure for their number. It is something that even the extended Garnett family are unable to agree on. Climbing them again last summer, on two August days with my son, father-in-law, mother, mother-in-law, father, sister and partner, a unanimous answer eluded us, too, with guesses ranging from the high 130s to the mid 140s. As we stood at the top, talking numbers, catching our breath and admiring the view, my two-and-a-half-year-old son Louis slipped away.

"This is the universe," the narrator announces at the beginning of A Matter of Life and Death. "Big, isn't it?" I thought of this line as Louis sat on the top step by himself, as I had 25 years earlier, swinging his legs and looking over the tree tops to the valley beyond - and I wondered what he was thinking.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The nearest rail station is Lancaster. National rail enquiries: 08457 48 49 50; www.nationalrail.co.uk

STAYING THERE

Home Farm in Quernmore Park can be booked through English Country Cottages (0870 197 6890; www.english-country-cottages.co.uk). A short break costs from £195, a week from £276.

VISITING THERE

The Bowland Festival takes place from 3-11 June (01484 861148; www.forestofbowland.com).

MORE INFORMATION

Lancashire Tourist Board: 01257 226600; www.visitlancashire.com

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