A NEW booklet written by historian Helen Wallbank, administrator of The Slaidburn Archive, takes a look at the fascinating history of peat turf collecting in the Upper Hodder Valley.

It explains how the peat was dug to keep the fires burning

The book, Bringing Home The Turf, is the culmination of eight years quiet research that was inspired by Helen Wallbank’s late father-in-law, Alwyne Wallbank, who cut peat (or turf as it was known locally) to use as household fuel for the family up until 1957.

After hearing his reminisces, Helen felt that it was a lost tradition that should be recorded before it fell out of living memory.

Turf was cut for hundreds, if not thousands of years on the fells to be burnt in the house for warmth as well as cooking. Indeed it has been said that it was more important to get in the turf than it was to get the hay in for the animals. No means of cooking could mean the family may starve and so, although it was a laborious and time consuming task, it was an essential part of the country calendar, especially for outlying communities such as those in the Hodder Valley. Now situated in the north-east of Lancashire, the Hodder Valley formed part of the West Riding of Yorkshire prior to the boundary changes of 1974.

Helen began by seeking out people she felt may have been involved or remember their parents cutting turf. Many have since died but the tales passed on to Helen have now been preserved in her book.

Turfing was often started in late May to June, after lambing time, but before haytime and after the cows had been turned out, so a good long day could be spent on the job. People described in detail how they cut the turf - taking off the top few inches with a flaying spade and put it at the bottom of the turf face to stand on and help regeneration. Using a special turf spade that had a ‘wing’ at right angles to the blade some people dug down in the peat to extract the turves, whilst others stood in front and pushed horizontally to cut a 25cm block around 5cms thick. One man described how his employers started at each end of the face, one of their spades having a wing on the right hand side, the other a wing on the left meaning they could meet in the centre, his job as the young lad, was to place the turves on the barrow and wheel them away to be dried.

After being cut, the turves were laid out on a clear area of land to dry, as when first extracted they were soft ‘like butter’. Some people spoke of their time as children having to help their parents; they learnt to be ‘very careful with them as our small fingers sank into the soft turf’. They would return several times to turn and upend the turves, before they could be stacked into large beehive-like heaps to finish drying over the summer. ‘We went backwards and forwards, day after day, laying them out to dry.’ They were finally brought home in the autumn to be stored in a building near the house known as a ‘turf house’. Peat was said to warm you twice, once during cutting and again when burnt on the open fire, where it ‘glowed red and hot, with a sweet pleasant smell’.

After talking to people, Helen then went out to look at the sites mentioned and recorded what was still evident, in many cases the area of turf extraction could still be seen. Sometimes turbary stones marked the area, turbary meaning the right to get turf. These rights were sometimes detailed in old deeds and Helen has pored over many such documents to gain unique references, some dating back to the 16th century.

As well as first-hand accounts and historical references the booklet is lavishly illustrated with old and new photos. It will surely appeal to anyone interested in the old ways of the countryside and is available price £9 plus £2 p&p from Slaidburn Archive, 25 Church Street, Slaidburn, Clitheroe BB7 3ER.

After conversation with the Forest of Bowland AONB, they kindly offered to fund the printing costs, feeling that it was an important record, meaning that all proceeds can go directly to the Slaidburn Archive, where Helen works as administrator. The Archive, housed in a quant 17th century building in the village, aims to preserve the history of the Hodder Valley and has a wealth of local, family and social history of the area. It is open for research each Wednesday and Friday from 11.00am to 3.00pm by appointment. Please phone to book on 01200 446161 or see www.slaidburnarchive.org