Late March 1831
Ulverston, a small town crammed on to the side of an estuary, stood shielded by ancient fells. Whilst the growing high tide covered the last few remaining pieces of the decaying disused pier, a time before industrial advancement branded its mark on the area.
Bea sat alone on the old harbour wall, the sun barely visible behind Cartmel Fell and embraced the silence, the peace of the fresh crisp morning as the dew soaked into her old evergreen woollen dress. This was where she was at her happiest, waking before the family, with only the morning larks serenading her before she became bombarded by the mayhem of home. She watched the restless ships stretch out along the bank, waiting for their turn to enter the canal. The tide was already at its highest and in an hour, it would be gone again. Her Da had taught her the design of most of the ships – what they traded in; whether they were local, where they were going. Now and again a new ship would appear, hailing from a distant land, and she yearned to sail away, and to escape from her reality and the foreseen path ahead.
She had started to imagine a life outside her home, the moment her father had given her a copy of Gulliver’s Travels. In those rare moments of free time, late at night, he had taught her a few words on top of the basic letters she had gained from school, and the rest she memorised herself in secret. Her Mam didn’t believe that a girl should read; it gave her airs above her station. But Bea loved books, understanding how and why the changes in the human and natural worlds manifested themselves, letting herself believe that one day she might use her letters for other purposes. It allowed her to discover that the world was larger than this small town.
Over the last few years, the sea air had become thick with tales of travel and adventures; newspapers and books describing recent discoveries by some new explorer. Ulverston even had its own pioneer in the way of Sir John Barrow. Stories flowed through the streets about his most recent travels around the world, passed down through gossip and rumours, stemming both from letters to his family, and town chatter.
As she gazed at the ships in the distance, Bea saw that they were to dock at Lancaster and Liverpool, not Ulverston. All Ulverston traded in was iron ore, slate and linen brought down from the fells, nothing exotic about that, she thought. Every day the sailors would go about their jobs, preparing to come into port, fixing down the masts and bringing in the rigging. Their voices would carry across the stillness of the morn, animated at the prospect of spending their two days of freedom on shore before they became trapped once again on the open ocean, usually for weeks or months at a time. Ulverston was often full of the ebb and flow of sailors, and of girls of a certain age dressing to impress them, as they paraded up and down Market Street.
If Bea’s Mam could have her way, Bea would be doing the same, exhibiting herself to gain the interest of a potential husband. But Bea didn’t want just any man or sailor, and she certainly wasn’t interested in the examples her Mam had indicated as being suitable for her. She wanted to meet someone she could admire and learn from, to be their equal in every sense of the word. The suffocating knowledge that she could do more, be more, drove her towards a forbidden hope; that leaving Ulverston with someone worthy and interesting would allow her to truly become herself. And yet, what possibility was there to make a new life halfway across the world. It was just as likely as if she’d find a fortune buried on the shoreline, she thought ruefully.
To pass the time whilst watching the ships being dragged past, she and her Da had, on many a morning, taken turns at guessing if it was their own rope strung across each rigging below. The simple game never became old: it was a comfort, and a playfully competitive side shone through their banter on both sides. A smile would spread across her Da’s face every time he explained his victories, pointing out the colour of the hemp, and the even twist. He knew each length of rope he created like she knew every piece of lace she made. It became a part of them both, the act of watching something blossom from nothing. The proud accomplished feeling they enjoyed at the end of their labours. But for her Da, it came from somewhere deeper, in his bones, and in his blood. Rope was the Lightfoot trademark, a reputation her great Granda had built up and continued through to her Da, and on to her brothers.
As Bea listened to her Da’s tales, she found it difficult to picture Ulverston the way he described it in years past: a slow trudging town. To her, after every season that came and went, Ulverston grew bigger and louder thanks to the canal. If it had not come to be, would things be as they were now? Would the pier still have rotted away through lack of use? Would her Da still be a master at his craft? Would she have grown up in the workhouse instead of her family home?
But he was – and so they did not – and thus Ulverston advanced before its time. Ships able to sail into the town centre doubled the amount of trade and business, bringing with it in turn merchants, mills and the gentry, along with the promise of new jobs, and more workers than the small collection of buildings could house. One of which is ours, thought Bea, smiling with just a touch of irony as she turned to head home.
Back across the fields, an array of four miscellaneous cottages stood at the end of a muddy track, forming the small hamlet of Outcast. Amongst them was one which had become particularly tired-looking, with its sea-ravaged lime-washed cob walls. The neat edges had been smoothed and polished away. Even the windows had become opaque and milky in their small square lead boxes, as the relentless sea battered, blasted and bleached everything that came within its reach.
In the corner, a small wooden cow barn and a neatly ploughed vegetable patch waited patiently for spring to start, whilst hens roamed freely nearby. Ten yards away, a long narrow building signalled the start of the Ropewalk, housing the Lightfoot’s rope-making business. With the fires already lit, the smoky smell of coal and wood filled the air, blackening the newly formed clouds above. Bea opened the gate and slowly trudged up the muddy path towards the cottage, bracing herself for an onslaught from her Mam.
Bea steadily placed her hand on to the iron door handle and with a deep breath, she gave the door a slight push.
“Beatrice is that you? Where have you been? Have you been down to that harbour again?” In one breath Mrs Lightfoot bawled her three questions at Beatrice above a harrowing cry from her youngest sister. Sighing, Bea wandered reluctantly back into her suffocating home.
“Well, have you? Your father and I ‘ave been over this, it’s not becomin‘ of a young woman to be alone at such an hour down there. D’you want there to be rumours about you, about your character? How are you ever meant to get yourself a husband, if y’have a reputation of giving it away for free?”
Bea glanced at her Mam hopelessly and nodded; she heard this lecture most mornings. Over the years, she had learned to switch her mind off from the endless, biting noise emitted by her more outspoken parent. Through her teenage years, the arguments became more frequent, and Bea started to fight back. But that only ignited her Mam further, using it as an excuse to seek comfort from Mr Lightfoot, and make life at home unbearable for her daughter, who began to notice the enjoyment her Mam obtained from her angry reactions. So, Bea, storing up her rage and frustration, instead sought solitude in smaller acts of rebellion.
She placed her shawl on the back of one of the chairs and glanced around the room. Her family home had not changed internally in the last hundred and fifty years. The thick earthen walls were painted in a light blue lime, reflecting the glow issuing from the large open hearth which dominated the living space. The original table her great Granda had built, was positioned in the centre of the room with an assortment of chairs, each one eventually added as and when the previous one broke. Holly, her second youngest sister, was playing silently at the opposite end of the table, whilst Rowan, the youngest, stood in the pulled-out bottom drawer, grasping on to the sides, screaming for attention.
Mrs Lightfoot, perched at the head of the table, leant forward towards her visitor, a Mrs Dent, continuing to enjoy her role as overwrought mother. This morning she was using her company voice, a clearer, higher tone rather than her usual accent.
“D’you see Mrs Dent, how she doesn’t care? How her selfish actions could bring this family into dis-re-pute, but does she listen to me? No!”
Mrs Dent lived with her young children in one of the handful of other cottages in the hamlet. A quiet, quirky sort of woman, she was a harmless creature, who five years ago had lost her husband in an accident at sea. A large storm had raged over the Furness estuary, resulting in two ships crashing against the coast near Barrow. Mrs Lightfoot had taken her in like a beaten dog, controlling her every move, drowning her in charity to the point where she could not say no. Majority of the time, Mrs Dent seemed happy, grateful, and unaware of the games being played to gain an unnatural degree of loyalty.
Bea, however, saw it all too easily, and felt sorry for her mother’s companion. Somewhat under duress, Mrs Dent nodded her head in agreement at Bea, and glanced back at Mrs Lightfoot for approval.
“I hope you never experience this treatment from your daughters…?”, her Ma finished haughtily, her words dripping with reproach.
“Yes, I do see, I . . .” Mrs Dent’s meek voice barely audible.
Mrs Lightfoot interjected. “I am her better, her Mother…”
Bea wandered over to the far corner of the room to her sisters. Red-faced with tears, Rowan stretched out her little chubby arms.
“Oh Row Row! There there…,” Bea whispered in her ear as she scooped her up and wiped her hot, sticky cheeks. Automatically, Rowan placed her head into her nook of Bea’s neck and clung on tightly with both arms. Bea ran her fingers through Rowan’s fiery red curls and peeled off the loose strands glued to her cheeks.
“Beatrice do not give her any comfort, she is only doin’ it for the attention… she has been like this all morning! She must learn to never seek comfort in that manner, I won’t be givin’ to it, and neither must you. Poor Mrs Dent and I have not had a moments peace with her wailing . . . put her down, I forbid you to mollycoddle her!”
Bea gritted her teeth, and replied sternly, “I am just taking her to bed.”
As she made her way to the foot of the staircase, Mrs Lightfoot bellowed across the room.
“Have you finished the lace off yet? The gentleman who commissioned the piece, is collecting it today, this afternoon. So, yes, do take your little sisters upstairs and make sure you have it ready.”
Bea took hold of Holly’s little hand and guided her to the door, continuing to balance little Row-Row on her hip. Without another word to her Mam, she silently made her way to the bedroom, trampling down her fury and frustration with each step.
Upstairs, the space was comprised of low beams and small windows, perched low just above the oak floorboards. The two rooms sat side by side; one for herself and three sisters Beth, Holly and Rowan, the other held her younger brothers Matty, John and Peter.
The sun was barely visible over the top of the trees in the distance. A single lead-lined pane of glass was pushed open, allowing a funnel of salty breeze into the room. Staring out through the milky glass, Bea gazed at the fields in front of the cottage reaching out to the salt marsh as it merged with the sea, a scene unchanged for generations.
Once Rowan and Holly were safely cocooned in the patchwork blanket on their shared bed, Bea sat on the floor, and nestled a padded footstool between her legs. It was covered in a reddish-purple calico which she had dyed last summer, using the rotten berries, so that she could see the ivory threads clearer, making it easier to create a more detailed and intricate lace. Bea was starting to build a modest reputation around the local area for her lace by selling her pieces at the dressmaker’s in town. Her Mam had taught her the craft at the age of six to help bring in money for the family, but by ten she could match her on skill and design. By fifteen she had overtaken her entirely and started to teach herself skills and techniques, creating new designs in her own distinctive style.
This new piece was one of the best she had created, with its long, detailed panel of roses and leaves, designed for a proud young lady. She examined the lace. She felt the rise and fall of the design, the pins and smooth wooden bobbins sitting patiently at the end of the delicate threads. Like an old friend, she knew every intricate detail about her pieces, they held no secrets, giving her advice on where she had gone wrong, and how to remedy the problem. In the end she was sad to see them leave, as though bidding farewell to a loved one, never to be seen again. Bea stretched out her back and pushed her two palms together with only the back of her fingers touching, praying for a blessing from the angels of lace. She braided her hair back, weaving her long auburn strands in and out, as if it was practice for the threads. The lace was awaking from a deep slumber, and their conversation continued as if no time had passed. Her fingers moved without thought or conscience to the rhythm of the bobbins. She carefully placed a pin in the correct position, and under her hands her roses grew.
The last patch of late afternoon light highlighted the glowing crown of Rowan’s head. She gazed down, watching Bea’s fingers weaving in and out whilst she played with their ginger cat, who also loved to watch the bobbins move, trying slyly on occasion to paw at them herself. To help focus her thoughts, Bea sang some of the ballads her Da had taught her. Unable to pronounce majority of the words, Rowan loved to add her own, clapping and humming along. They repeated the same songs time and time again:
“As I walk’d thro’ the meadow
to take the fresh air,
the flowers were blooming and gay:
I heard a fair damsel so sweetly singing
her cheeks like the blossom of May.
Said I, pretty maiden, how came you here
in the meadows this morning so soon?
The maid she replied: For to gather some May,
for the trees they are all in full bloom.”
“Said I: Pretty maiden, Shall I go with you,
to the meadows to gather some may?
O no, Sir, she said, I would rather refuse,
for I fear you would lead me astray.
Then I took this fair maid by the Lilywhite hand;
On the green mossy bank we sat down;
And I placed a kiss on her sweet rosy lips,
while the small birds were singing around.”
Rowan clasping her little hands over her mouth, began rolling around on her back and giggled so hard her whole body shook, scaring the cat in the process. Not fully understanding the meaning behind the words the first time they heard it, she and Holly had asked Beth to explain. Beth hastily informed them it was naughty to kiss boys, and not to do it. Now each time Rowan heard the song, she thought it was hilarious.
“And when we arose from the green mossy banks,
To the meadows we wander’d away;
I placed my love on a primrose bank,
while I pick’d her a handful of may.
Then early next morning I made her my bride,
That the world might have nothing to say;
The bells they did ring and the birds they did sing,
and I crown’d her the sweet Queen of May.”
“Again, again!” Rowan pleaded, giggling.
“No, that’s enough for today, lovey.”
“Please Bea.” Rowan cast her big brown eyes with false sorrow towards Bea, who tried to distract her by holding up the lace for her to see. Downstairs, she could hear their small mantle clock chime out the hour.
“There – done – just in time. What do you think? Do you think it will be good enough for the gentleman?” Rowan smiled brightly.
Downstairs, a loud banging noise ricocheted through the cottage, causing the girls to jump and the cat to go flying, with a disgruntled meow. Rowan descended into a second fit of giggles.
“Beatrice, come down at once,” her Mam called up a couple of minutes later in a sickly-sweet tone, “and bring the Lace!”
Bea knew the gentleman buyer must have arrived. Her Mam’s tone placed her on edge; she had become almost embarrassed for the way her mother flirted with some of the clientele, and their indifference towards her in return.
“Coming!” she shouted back. Rowan, knowing already in her short years it was best for her to stay out of the way when there were visitors, instead sat playing with the cat, with Holly still sound asleep. Bea delicately picked up the lace and made her way down the stairs. The sooner she got this over with, the sooner she could go outside with the girls, she thought.
The gentleman stood leaning against the door frame, silhouetted with the sunlight peering round his coat tails. Mrs Lightfoot was standing rather close by, making flirtatious gestures, her best lace cap balancing on top of sagging curls. She turned mid-sentence and faced Bea.
“Forgive me, ma’am, I didn’t mean to interrupt. I was just bringing the lace down, as you asked.”
Bea moved slowly towards the centre of the room, holding out the velvet pouch. On closer approach, she saw the man had a handsome face, with hazel eyes and brown hair. The sunlight warmed his neat side-whiskers, transforming them to a golden red. His tall, broad stature filled the door frame, and his weather-worn tanned skin and uniform told her he was a sailor, and an officer of some sort. He had lost his youthful bloom, instead he was a man in every sense of the word.
He stared at Bea with a large smile on his face, and humour in his eyes. The stare made Bea uncomfortable. Awkwardly, she averted her gaze, her eyes skipping around the room, not knowing where to look. The gentleman chuckled gently at her response.
“Beatrice, this is Captain Hanley. ‘E is the gentleman who commissioned the lace,” Mrs Lightfoot interrupting, bringing the sailor’s attention back to herself. “Captain Hanley, this is my eldest daughter Beatrice, to whom I learned the craft.”
Captain Hanley broke through the gap Mrs Lightfoot had just made and stood in front of Beatrice. Instead of holding out his hand for hers to fall upon, he tilted his head with a slight nod, more customary amongst the working classes.
“Miss Beatrice Lightfoot, a pleasure to make your acquaintance.” His voice was strange, a mongrel of accents stemming from the lakes and Lancashire, all the way out to the Caribbean, instantly making him a great deal more interesting than anyone else Bea could think of in the locality.
“A pleasure to meet you Captain Hanley.” His sight lingered for a moment on her face.
“Was that you I heard singing outside before?” Bea hesitated; she felt a form of attraction building between them. “I must admit, I took a moment to stand and listen.”
Bea felt her cheeks become hot and flushed at his gaze fixated on her face. “Yes, sir, that was I, – I was singing to my sister upstairs, whilst I… finished the lace.”
He took a couple of steps closer to Bea. He seemed taller now, standing before her, his scent a distinctive perfume of smoke and spices. He had a presence about him that Bea had never encountered of arrogance, and power.
“Would you be so good as to show me the lace?”
Aware of her Mam’s gaze, she held out her hand in front of her with the small parcel on top. Gently, he placed his hand on top of the lace and slid it from her hand, the tip of his finger caressing the inside of her palm as he slowly pulled away. Bea slipped her hands back towards herself, placed them behind her back and swallowed hard. The Captain, without waiting for an invitation, dragged out a chair, and sat at the table. He pulled the lace out of the velvet pouch and began to explore the ridges of the delicate threads.
“Very impressive Miss Beatrice; truly, it is a beautiful and creative design. It is a match for any I have seen in Manchester, possibly even Boston. Your reputation is not exaggerated.”
“Thank you, Sir.” She had been remarked upon for her gifts in Ulverston, but never compared to Manchester lace-makers never mind the Americas. She knew he was a traveller.
“There you go Beatrice; didn’t I say she were talented? Manchester indeed! Taught her everything she knows, Captain Hanley.” Mrs Lightfoot took the complement for herself, delighted.
In one move, he pushed back his chair and stood up. “I don’t doubt you did, Mrs Lightfoot,” he muttered, throwing a second glance her way. He delicately placed the pouch into an inside pocket and leant towards Bea: “Thank you Miss Beatrice… I look forward to watching your gifts continue to blossom, with great interest.”
Copyright. All rights belong to H D Coulter Ropewalk
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