Where bishops fear to tread

April 5 2010

The forbidding character of the physical environment in which [the] Pennine industrial zone is set was brought home to the writer of this Study once when he had occasion to travel by road from the rural spot in the east of Yorkshire, in which he is writing these lines at this moment, to a place in Shropshire within sight of the Wrekin. After traversing York – a city not less reminiscent than Canterbury of medieval England – we drove on south-westwards across a fertile plain still innocent of other products than crops and cattle, till we reached the frontier of the industrial zone at a village which is celebrated for a legend. The legend is that, a century ago, a certain Anglican prelate whose diocese extended over the West Riding used to appoint the church of this village as his trysting-place with West Riding candidates for confirmation, because, he declared, this was the farthest point west, towards the new terra incognita of industrial squalor, to which any gentleman – in orders or out of them – could be expected to ride! And indeed, when we passed that prelate’s legendary bourne now that the squalor beyond it, on which he had refused ever to set eyes, had had a hundred years longer to grow, the aesthetic side of our nature protested in sympathy with the prelate’s scandalous ultimatum to the lost souls in his industrial cure. Beyond this village, the fertile lowlands came to an end and at the same point the fells and the factories began.

In their outward aspect, the “dark satanic mills” seemed a fitting match for the bleak grey landscape; and at the same time the tour de force of these monstrous works of Man, erected in defiance of the wilderness, had all the moral incongruity of an abomination of desolation standing in the place where it ought not. In this pullulating, throbbing, squalid life in a forbidding landscape, there was something portentously unnatural; and the acme of unnaturalness was reached when we paused on the summit of the Pennine Range itself – a hand’s-breadth of fell-country that had been left still inviolate in its state of Nature – and looked down, this way and that, towards Leeds just behind us and Manchester just ahead. When, at nightfall, we found ourselves passing through Shrewsbury – such another mellow city as York in such another pleasant countryside – our glimpse of the West Riding and South Lancashire already began to fade into the unreality of an evil dream.

Manchester from Kersal Moor, Salford, engraving by Edward Goodall (1795-1870) after a painting by William Wyld

A Study of History, Vol II, OUP, 1934

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