by John Morrison


92: Full House

You won't win many friends in Milltown by calling it a village. It's a town... but a town whose growth was constrained by the hills that rise up on all sides. Sometimes it can seem like the Hampstead of the North. Especially when your path to the bar is impeded by a rowdy gathering of concrete poets, dance animateurs and experimental film-makers. Singing those lusty bar-room ballads that concrete poets, dance animateurs and experimental film-makers know only too well. At other times Milltown can resemble a rest-home for the terminably bewildered. People with big ambitions, but short attention spans: an unfortunate combination of character traits.

Milltown is a crowded little community. When the mills and rows of terraced housed were built, mostly last century, they were shoe-horned into the available space with all the care and attention extended to Japanese commuters while they're being herded onto underground trains. The mill-owners, considerate to a fault, ensured that the mill-hands who laboured at the looms and spinning machines did not have far to walk to work each morning. The workers lived, literally, in the shadow of the mills. When they looked out of a window, they saw another wall.

The mill-owners, conversely, took to the hills, where the air was cleaner and the views more expansive. From their windows they could gaze with smug satisfaction across the sunlit uplands of their own prosperity. If they wanted to remind themselves of the source of that prosperity, they only had to peer down into the smoky, soot-blackened valley below, where the mill-hands looked to be no bigger than ants... and equally dispensable.

Travellers who crossed these South Pennine hills three hundred years ago would have seen only a river crossing, a sturdy packhorse bridge and a couple of strategically sited inns. Roads across the Pennines tended to keep to the high ground; travellers knew that a long descent to cross the boggy, undrained valley would be followed by an equally lengthy climb up to the tops once again. So our little community didn't start out as a destination; it was just an inconvenient diversion on the way to more important places.

Once the textile trades began to be mechanised, South Pennine society was turned upside down. Without a plentiful supply of water to power those first mills, the ancient hilltop settlements lost out to the new towns: spread out along the valley bottom like beads on a string. Milltown grew rapidly; before long the packhorse bridge was just a picturesque throwback to what we fondly imagine were simpler times. When all the level land had been filled with mills and terraced houses, the only way to expand was by building as far up the hillsides as possible. The distinctive 'top & bottom' houses were an imaginative response to the problem. Those with a head for heights can watch the never-ending street theatre of Milltown life from their lofty seats in the gallery.

Living so close to one another can be a problem too. You learn not to walk around naked if your house is overlooked; you learn to use binoculars discreetly if you are lucky enough to have an unrestricted view into a neighbour's boudoir. Those who value their privacy, beyond all else, might wish to live elsewhere. Purley in Surrey is said to be very nice at this time of year.

These cramped conditions have helped to make Milltown an egalitarian kind of place. Thankfully, keeping up with the Joneses is not a major preoccupation. No matter how squalid your lifestyle might be, you are sure to have neighbours who are even worse. The interior of many homes in Hippy Street, for example, have all the style and cachet of a terrorist safe-house. If you were to manacle him to a radiator, and draw the curtains tightly shut, Terry Waite would soon feel at home.

The insistent putt-putt-putt of a lawn-mower - the sound of the suburbs - is seldom heard in Milltown. Not in February, nor at any other time of the year. Lawns are a rarity here; few people own a patch of grass big enough to stand a deckchair on. A lawn-mower repair shop wouldn't last long in Milltown but, since unwarranted optimism is our common currency, you know that this won't stop somebody giving it a go. Any weed that's persistent enough to squeeze up between the flagstones can be dispatched, Rambo-style, with a single burst from a flame-thrower. You couldn't call it gardening; it's more of a scorched-earth policy.

You have to explore the hills above Milltown to find a less cramped milieu, and to spot the more ludicrous trappings of affluence. Converted farmhouses whose gateposts are topped with stone lions or eagles with outstretched wings. Luxurious dwellings that speak eloquently for the folk who live there: "I earn a fortune... this is my palace... piss off". Conversely, the little terraced houses down in Milltown seem to have a gentler, less confrontational message to offer: "Howdy, stranger... good to see you... come in. Erm... any chance I could borrow a fiver till Friday?"...

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