Twenty-two feet across, the big wheel turned 75 times a minute, 40 ropes and 40 tonnes of piston and plate. Scarred-up lungs from the cotton dust and slowly deafened by the noise, the workers wove from dawn until the sun went down over Rochdale. Beneath the footbridge, the canal that once provided water for Arrow Mill’s great steam engine, curves away in front of me. Yesterday’s snow, illuminated by the lights on the towpath, lies thinly blown across the frozen surface. On a flat-roofed warehouse, a robin starts singing its inquisitive song, but the bird is hidden in the blackness behind the coiled razor wire. Further along, a door graffitied with a silver cock and balls opens and a man in a blue hat and blue overalls steps out, leans on an air vent beneath an orange bulkhead and puts a cigarette in his mouth. He’s most of the way through before he seems to notice me, and when he looks in my direction I turn away and cast my eyes over the ledges and the red brick chimney rising up against the dark cloudless sky. I take in every bit and then find, on glancing back, that he is looking up too, as though trying to decipher my secret but there’s nothing to see anymore. The lapwings stopped coming some time ago. He flicks the cigarette onto the gritted tarmac and the balls swing shut. Nobody is quite sure when lapwings roosting on roofs in the North West really began, but if you ask around enough, you’ll be told stories of them swirling over old industrial buildings as long ago as the 1970s. Initially, it seemed to be unique to Rochdale, and Arrow Mill was probably the first roof they ever took to, but in the 1980s and 90s it started to be observed more widely, with a list that eventually ran to 16 sites, including bakeries and factories, from Wigan to Monkey Town. In more abundant times past, there were rare reports of flocks of up to six hundred, but it’s been decades now since even half that number was seen flighting in across the Manchester sky after a hard night’s feeding.
It isn’t totally clear why the flat roofs have proved to be such attractive places. Some reckon the lapwings like the warmth, but in truth they don’t have much choice. The fields where they once roosted in their thousands have been cut up and turned into housing or have had tarmac poured across them to provide parking for industrial estates and out-of-town garden centres. We claimed the places that were theirs and they were forced to take refuge on what we left behind. Once, just over twenty years ago, a pair stayed on a Rochdale roof the whole year round and reared young. The chicks apparently scraped by on invertebrates clogged up in a drain but for the most part, the flocks head off in early March in search of wet forgotten corners where they make their nests.
In the spring of 1908, during Britain’s coldest ever April, just a year after the first brick was laid, Arrow Mill was declared open. At the ceremony, Mrs Waller, the wife of the Chairman, christened the steam engine ‘Reliance’. The mill was a fine building then and it still looms grandly in the darkness, but as the sun comes up and cold blue seeps into the sky, I see that the windows are smashed and buddleia is pushing its way out of the cracks in the bricks. Up the lane, in the terraced houses, a radio plays and lights are starting to shine between the gaps in the curtains, people climbing out of bed for another Monday.
The air is sweetening with the taste of diesel and I’m trying to work out where the fug is coming from when the cry of Canada geese sounds over Castleton High Street. The noise draws closer and closer but the birds don’t appear until they are almost overhead, seven dark shapes above the willows, wings set, dropping onto the canal behind the footbridge. When they land, a rich cracking sound draws across the ice.
On Sherwood Street, in the shadow of the Mill’s balustraded water tower, a red, white and blue sign on the Queensway Fryer promises a full English from 7 a.m., but a metal grill has been stuck across the door and there are plywood boards nailed to the windows.
A Mini tears up the fast lane, T reg and green, but the motorway, otherwise, is quiet for a mid-afternoon Monday. Kane Brides and I are standing on the flyover, huffing hot breath into our hands, coffees steaming on the rail. Knowing what he does now, he tells me it makes him feel a bit ashamed but he thinks that in truth it was what gave him a love of lapwings. ‘Frank, my grandad, would take me down to a farm, only about three miles from here, and we’d flush the bird off its nest.’ He shakes his head and pulls a pair of gloves on as he talks. ‘The mother would swirl above us, calling in alarm, while grandad would show me the beautiful dark brown, dark greenish speckled eggs.’
When Frank was a child, before he left school at 14 to go down Pretoria Pit – where just a couple of decades earlier, 344 men lost their lives in one of Britain’s worst mining disasters – most little boys collected eggs. The real prize, he told Kane, on one of their walks, was having a whole clutch – in the case of the lapwing, everyone wanted the full four. As a boy, Frank spent hours on the land that stretches out in front of us. It was all grass then and he knew every tussock and every glade, all the secret places where a bird might lay an egg. Almost half a century later, in the 1990s, when Kane was small, the fields were still much as his grandad had known them and Kane remembers ‘goodly numbers of breeding birds’, but in the space of just a few years almost all the lapwings went. Not driven away by excited little boys with boxes under their beds to fill but pushed out by all the new houses being thrown up along the side of the motorway. ‘It was greenery right the way to that stadium,’ Kane tells me, pointing into the distance, ‘I was four when that was built, the home of the Bolton Wanderers.’ When Kane and Frank went out birdnesting, the old man would tell the boy that they were only looking. Taking, at that point, due to its formerly catastrophic impact on lapwing numbers, had been illegal for years. In the nineteenth century, droves of pickers poured over the countryside every spring in search of nests. Norfolk was particularly hot and in just one year, a lone picker managed a bag of 2,000 eggs from an estate near Potter Heigham on the Broads. At a going London-market rate of three shillings a dozen, the haul would have sold for a similar sum to a farm labourer’s annual income. Usually hard boiled and sometimes covered in gravy, the eggs were sold as ‘plovers’ eggs’, owing to the birds’ older name, the green plover, which derives from the Latin for rain, pluvia, on account of lapwings flocking in autumn when the weather starts to turn.
By the 1880s, most of the countryside had been stripped bare as far up as Lincolnshire, and shipments of lapwing eggs had to be sent down from the north where the birds were holding on. Throughout the late nineteenth century and into the early twentieth, naturalists voiced concerns that unless something was done, England was set to lose one its most beloved birds. At just after eleven on a rainy early-March night in 1928, the Protection of Lapwings Bill was read out in the House of Commons. The minutes record that talk of soldiers’ pensions had dragged on all evening and the members were sleepy, but a change of step, from war to peace, brought them back to life. The bill proposed that it should be prohibited to pick eggs, to be sold for human consumption, between 14 March and 11 August. The hope was that this would end the lucrative exploits of commercial operators while still allowing the odd one to be taken for a person’s own dinner, as well as leaving little boys like Frank Brides to their collecting. It seemingly didn’t occur to the MPs that little girls might like birdnesting too. Sir Joynson-Hicks, the puritanical Home Secretary who spent most of the 1920s in a flap about nightclubs and everything he suspected happened in them, read out the bill. He reminded his comrades that lapwings, as birds that eat crop-devouring crane fly larvae, are great friends of the nation’s farmers, but added that what with plovers’ eggs being so succulent he felt terribly sorry for ‘the epicures’. At well past dinner time, when Joyson-Hicks was struggling to keep members on track as they coughed up cherished memories of boyhood birdnesting, Colonel Applin, the Tory MP for Enfield, made his contribution by asking why they’re called lapwings. It seemed, he thought, ‘quite a country name for the green plover’. Joyson-Hicks replied that the birds are known as lapwings throughout the whole country and assured him ‘it is a good old English name’. He was right at least about the origin. In the fourteenth century, they were known as lappewinkes because of their jaunty flight: wince meaning to waver and lap being to leap. The Glasgow MP, George Hardie, Keir’s younger brother, wondered ‘why not peewits’ – and beyond Britain’s cities, particularly in Scotland and the north, on account of their piercing ‘peewit-peewit’ cry, they still often are. Ayrshire Minister, James Barr, the Member for Coatbridge, was keen to add that he knew them by their less- common name, the green-crested lapwing. It is possible he had come across the term in Robert Burn’s Sweet Afton, in which the poet asks the screaming ‘green-crested lapwing’ to let ‘sweet Mary’ sleep. The last word went to Lieutenant Commander Kenworthy. The prolific author and radical liberal was worried that unless they added some definitions to the bill, ‘country lads’ from his Hull constituency might set out in search of lapwing nests, innocently thinking they were only picking ‘peewit eggs’.
Twenty-six years later, in 1954 when the Wild Birds’ Protection Bill was debated, a total ban on collecting lapwing eggs was narrowly fought off by Lady Tweedsmuir, daughter-in-law of the novelist, John Buchan. Displaying a degree of knowledge that would be largely absent in the second chamber today, Tweedsmuir argued that lapwings can lay up to five clutches during the breeding season and noted that the first one seldom survives due to harsh conditions or being smashed up beneath the plough. Tweedsmuir’s belief was that if the first clutch was taken, it would encourage the lapwings to lay again, when spring had come and the weather was kinder. But by 1965, it was generally accepted that the experiment had been a failure. A proposal to extend the protected period was raised in the House of Lords and was enacted two years later.
Three hundred yards down the motorway, behind a wooden fence beyond the hard shoulder, two herring gulls float over the green warehouse roof of a recycling plant. ‘My lapwings were up there all last week,’ Kane tells me, ‘and I was hoping this cold weather was going to anchor them for us, but they’ve maybe gone west to Ireland.’ He puts his binoculars down. ‘That’s their favourite spot. There by the skip hire building.’ Kane can’t remember where they were headed but they were driving north and he was 14 at the time. It was his dad who spotted them first, all flocked up and displaying over the motorway. My coffee has gone cold and I pour it into the drain by our feet. ‘I’ve just always loved a proper performance,’ he continues, ‘whether it’s white-fronted geese or lapwings, ever since I was small.’ He smiles and shrugs. On the way back from wher- ever it was they’d been, Kane had his nose pushed to the window, hoping to see the birds up in the air, but they’d settled on the roof, tucked up on the green steel. Ever since, whenever he’s driving back home from Slimbridge, on the banks of the Severn in Gloucestershire, where he carries out research into wildfowl and wading birds, he comes up onto the flyover just to check if his birds are still there. Lately, he hasn’t been able to get back to Slimbridge and he thinks it might be some time yet. During his months at home, he’s seen more of the lapwings but the flock is smaller than he remembers.
Recently, Kane has been reading up on the impact of foxes and badgers on ground nesting birds and he suspects that part of the appeal of the roofs is that they give the lapwings some respite, but predator pressure and houses being thrown up where they once roosted are far from the only problems they face. Following the ban, in the 1920s, on picking eggs commercially, lapwing numbers started to stabilise, but the positive impact was subsequently swept away in a century of agricultural intensification. ‘It’s a whole load of things,’ Kane tells me solemnly, ‘so at one time, up until about the 1970s and ‘80s really, farmers would be drilling crops in spring but now we’ve got so many winter cereals. The crops are basically sown in autumn then harvested the following summer.’ He lifts his binoc- ulars to watch a heron cut across the motorway and continues talking as he tracks it, ‘so when the lapwings are starting to look for breeding spots the crops are now too tall for them. They like swards of between 5 and 15 centimetres. Anything higher than that and they’re really not happy birds.’
The boom in winter cereals, as part of the story of Britain’s agri- cultural intensification, is the chapter that followed the dawn of our agro-chemical age. While lapwings were lauded in parliamentary debates for being the farmers’ friend on account of their hunger for crane fly larvae, they were no match for synthetic insecticides like the now-banned DDT, which fulfilled the lapwings’ pest-control function with clinical efficacy and left them to starve.
The road beneath the flyover is becoming busier and the sky out to the east, over Winter Hill, is darkening with grey snow clouds. On the walk back to the services, Kane stops to glance through his binoculars, but the dozen shapes gathered in the middle of the field beyond the petrol pumps are only magpies. The following day, Kane must help his grandmother pack her things. She has lived in the same house for 46 years but it is time now for her to go to a care home. ‘Suffering from dementia, bless her,’ he tells me, fondly, ‘but we were having a cup of tea yesterday and she was talking about the mills. She worked in the cotton mill in the same town where grandad was a miner. She said she just loved getting up early in the morning and going off to work. She was reciting it all as though it was last week. It was really quite beautiful actually.’
Image © Robert Vaughan
This is an excerpt from In Search of One Last Song by Patrick Galbraith, out now in hardback with William Collins.