When, in the early 1960s and recently graduated as trained teachers from Goldsmiths’ College, my friends and I were looking for somewhere outside London to ply our trade, and we decided, after a relatively small amount of research, that Nottingham was just the place. Rents were significantly cheaper than in the capital [nothing changes] and, according to the back pages of the TES, there were jobs. A couple of brief visits aside, however, our knowledge of the city and its environs was less than well-informed. We’d seen, and been braced by, Tony Richardson’s film of Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night & Sunday Morning; seen and just managed to stay awake through Jack Cardiff’s tame version of D. H. Lawrence’s Sons & Lovers, a novel I would have read as part of my English studies, Lawrence being more academically respectable then than I believe he is now. [Except at the University of Nottingham, of course.] We’d heard and half-believed the rumours about there being 10 young women for every man – or was it a baker’s dozen? What clinched it, however, was the opening, in 1963, of the newly designed Nottingham Playhouse – Peter Moro’s modernist building, John Neville’s fine profile and artistic reputation … if the city could support a theatre like that, well, there had to be something special going on … and it was only a few hours away from London.
As it happened, my friend John Phillips and I ended up getting jobs in South East Derbyshire, some ten miles west of Nottingham in the small mining town of Heanor, just across the Erewash Valley from Lawrence’s birthplace, Eastwood.
I was born nearly forty-four years ago, in Eastwood, a mining village of some three thousand souls, about eight miles from Nottingham, and one mile from the small stream, the Erewash, which divides Nottinghamshire from Derbyshire. It is hilly country, looking west from Crich and towards Matlock, sixteen miles away, and east and north-east towards Mansfield and the Sherwood Forest district. To me it seemed, and still seems, an extremely beautiful countryside, just between the red sandstone and oak-trees of Nottingham, and the cold limestone, the ash-trees, the stone fences of Derbyshire. To me, as a child and a young man, it was still the old England of the forest and agricultural past; there were no motor-cars, the mines were, in a sense, an accident in the landscape, and Robin Hood and his merry men were not very far away.
D. H. Lawrence: Nottingham and the Mining Country, 1929
Most mornings, unless we chose the alternative route through Ilkeston, John and I would drive out, often in thick fog, past the hosiery factories on the outskirts of the city, on and on towards Eastwood, then down into the valley and up again into Langley Mill, on the edge of Heanor, which was where both our schools – secondary modern in my case, primary in John’s – were situated. It was a journey rarely undertaken without another section of Lawrence’s essay playing somewhere at the back of my mind.
Now Eastwood occupies a lovely position on a hilltop, with the steep slope towards Derbyshire and the long slope towards Nottingham. They put up a new church, which stands fine and commanding, even if it has no real form, looking across the awful Erewash Valley at the church of Heanor, similarly commanding, away on a hill beyond.
So, somehow, those sentences, that essay ‘placed’ the area for me in a writerly way, gave it a kind of added resonance, just as, I suppose, Sillitoe’s writing did for much of inner-city Nottingham. I continued to read Lawrence for my own pleasure [The Rainbow & Women in Love] and read his poems – Snake! – and the short stories with my classes – Sillitoes’s stories, likewise. All of this without any suggestion, any idea or ambition that I might one day attempt to be some kind of writer myself; that was to come later, more than a decade later, and from a quite different direction. Though I suppose, in retrospect, what was learned, what was carried through, was some belief that story and character were best told, best seen and understood, when they were most closely allied with place. Which, in my case, has most usually been Nottingham – that and the few other areas I’ve spent enough time in to feel I know beyond the lines and contours of a map.
And speaking of maps …
The above is ‘borrowed’ from the newly redesigned website of the Haggs Farm Preservation Society – https://haggsfarm2.wixsite.com/lawrence – an organisation dedicated to encouraging the preservation of the farm buildings and reinforcing the vital importance of Haggs Farm to the early formative years of D.H. Lawrence’s development as an internationally renowned writer.
The farm was the home of the Chambers family, both farm and family being inspirations for much of Lawrence’s early writing; the daughter, Jessie, being the clear model for the character of Miriam in Sons and Lovers. The farm, unfortunately, has been uninhabited for over 50 years and is on private land with no public access. Despite being a Grade ll listed building since 1966, the house is in a serious state of disrepair and I would encourage readers to log on to the society’s site and pay the small amount [surely, it should be more?] it takes to become a supporting member.
Looking at the map above took me back to the many times I’ve walked, usually with friends, from the site of Moorgreen Colliery, north along the sparsely wooded side of Moorgreen Reservoir and then across the open fields towards Felley Mill, with Haggs Farm off to the west, turning then towards Beauvale Priory and round in a sweep back to Moorgreen. Beautiful country, indeed.
Since the summer, I’ve been reading – a group at a time – through the two-volume Heron Books edition of Lawrence’s Collected Letters, and just recently came across the following, written in response to a request from H. A. Pilcher, a writer of travel books.
from Del Monte Ranch, Questa, 17 April 1925
Dear Sir: I received your letter only last night.
The scene of my Nottingham-Derby novels all centres round Eastwood,Notts (where I was born): and whoever stands on Walker Street, Eastwood, will see the whole landscape of Sons and Lovers before him. Underwood in front, the hills of Derbyshire on the left, the woods and hills of Annesley on the right. The road from Nottingham by Watnall, Moorgreen, up to Underwood and on to Annesley (Byron’s Annesley) – gives you all the landscape of The White Peacock, Miriam’s farm in Sons and Lovers, and the home of the Crich family, and Willey Water, in Women in Love.
The Rainbow is Ilkeston and Cossall, near Ilkeston, moving to Eastwood. And Hermione, in Women in Love, is supposed to live not far from Cromford. The short stories are Ripley, Wirkswoth, Stoney Middleton, Via Gellia (‘The Wintry Peacock’). The Lost Girl begins in Eastwood – the cinematograph show being in Langley Mill.
I hope this will meet your requirements.
Now you know!