by Jenny Palmer
alcoholic Dandelion and BurdockWhen I first moved into the cottage, the garden was completely overgrown. I found bits of old guttering and drainpipe, lying around in the undergrowth. Saplings from nearby ash trees had taken root and sprung up all over the place. The dry-stone wall between the garden and the meadow had collapsed, raising the possibility of flooding from the nearby syke which flowed past the house. I couldn’t make out any flower beds, because of all the nettles, dock and ground elder.
The first thing I did was to hire someone to cut down the saplings and rebuild the wall. During the winter there would be plenty of indoor jobs to be getting on with. The rest could wait. In the following spring, I was overjoyed to see snowdrops appearing, followed by daffodils and bluebells. I planted a few rose bushes and some low maintenance shrubs to form a hedge - Hebe, Box, Spirea and the like alongside Buddleia and Forsythia to attract bees and butterflies. They would also provide privacy from next door, and be somewhere to sit behind in summer, if there was a summer.
I pruned the hedges using some rusty old shears I found in the shed but ended up putting my neck out. After weeks of neck pain and costly osteopathic bills, I gave in and invested in a piece of hi-tech gardening equipment in the form of a brand-new, state-of-the-art hedge trimmer. It went through the hedges like butter and I did the job in half the time.
I’d never had a garden before although I’d always been keen on Gardener’s World. I used to find it relaxing at the end of the week to order a Chinese takeaway, put my feet up and watch someone else slaving away in their garden. During that time, I must have picked up many a handy tip, such as how to test the pH nature of the soil, the best way to deal with slugs or the best time to take cuttings. But I’d never had the chance to put any of it into practice and it had remained textbook knowledge.
Probably I should have laid carpet or cardboard over the weeds, as the experts suggested, but I hadn’t and now it was too late. The weeds had taken over. I pulled the nettles up by the roots and cut off the dock leaves at the base. But the roots of the ground elder had spread underground and I couldn’t dislodge them. I became despondent when I saw that once you had it, you had it for good. I racked my brains and eventually came up with a new approach. I would intersperse the weeds with wildflowers that grew naturally in the area and let them battle it out. I planted poppies, ox-eye daisies, and foxgloves and left them to it.
It was while I was cutting back the low-lying branches of the lilac tree that I noticed a patch of bare soil without any weeds in it. It was probably because of the lack of sun. As I was raking over the soil and noticed something glinting. I fetched a trowel from the shed and started digging. The object turned out to be a piece of rock with some silver streaks running through it. It wasn’t like the rest of the stones in my garden, which were largely limestone. I knew that because of the preponderance of fossils in them.
I remembered there had been lead mines in the area. So, I went inside to look it up on Google. The lead mines were only a couple of miles away across the fields. A Roman road ran straight past them, so it was thought the Romans had worked the mines. But they were famous for another reason. The lead contained a proportion of silver and back in the sixteenth century the mines had belonged to a family called Pudsey who lived nearby in Bolton-by-Bowland. One William Pudsey had become notorious for minting a stack of illegal silver coins.
The authorities had got on to him and were determined to stop to his activities. He escaped, as they were giving chase, so the story goes, by leaping across the River Ribble on horseback. ‘Pudsey’s leap,’ as it came to be known, gained mythical status. It was attributed to the silver bit in the mouth of his horse, which had been fashioned out of the very same silver he had used in the minting of the coins.
Legends aside, I discovered that the mines had been worked until well into the nineteenth century. It felt imperative to find out who had lived in the house before me. I knew the house had been built in 1752, the same year as the one next door, where the date is clearly inscribed over the chimney breast. On the 1850 census, it wasn’t exactly clear who had lived where. The names of some of the houses had changed over the years and a couple of houses had fallen into disrepair. But each house had contained a family of anything up to eight members. There was a thriving community of farmers, cotton weavers, quarry men and miners.
Then I had a hunch. It was quite conceivable that someone, possibly a miner, had once lived in the house. One day he’d thought fit to bring home a piece of silver-laden rock unbeknown to his boss, and sequestered it in the garden, until such a time as he could find a suitable outlet for it. And what if said miner had died before he was able to benefit from his stash, leaving his treasure trove to the vagaries of fate? If my theory was true, there could be more of that rock lying around in the garden. I could be sitting on a silver mine.
I couldn’t wait for the next day to come when I could get out and start digging again. As a student, I’d once participated in an archaeological dig. In those days I’d been excited at the prospect of finding anything that had lain in the ground for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, of uncovering some ancient relic, which would add to the world’s cultural and historical knowledge. In those days I was happy enough to spend hours in the sun, carefully brushing away sand from the small patch of ground, which I had been allocated by the site supervisor.
Now I had an opportunity to do archaeology in my own garden. Who knew what I might come across? If not chunks of silver, it might be something else. Ancient artefacts were often found in the area: Bronze Age axe heads, Roman pottery, a Roman helmet even. And back in the nineteenth century, one of the largest ever silver Viking hoards was found by a group of workmen on the banks of the River Ribble at Cuerdale. The bulk of the find now belonged to the Crown and was housed in the British Museum but the workmen had been allowed to keep some of the pieces.
I resumed digging the patch of earth under the lilac tree. When I didn’t find anything there, I graduated outwards. I dug all day long, frantically pulling out the weeds in the process. Before I knew it, I’d dug up the whole garden, plants and all. The garden looked like a disaster area. I had found nothing of value, but my garden was finally weed-free.
About the author
In June 2019, Jenny Palmer published her first collection of poems, called Pendle Poems. It is available from the Pendle Heritage Centre, Barrowford and from No 10, Literature and Lifestyle, Clitheroe. She has also written two memoirs Nowhere better than home and Pastures New and a family history book Whipps, Watsons and Bulcocks. Her collection of short stories Keepsake and other stories was published by Bridge House in 2019 and is available on Amazon in paperback and on Kindle. Many of her stories are on the Cafelit website. ‘A 59’, ‘Fatal Flaws’ and ‘The Visitors’ are in Best of Cafe lit 3,5 and 7 and ‘The Visitors’ is in the Citizens of Nowhere anthology.