On a scrap of paper Bella the maid found between the pages of the Gideon when she cleaned his room after he’d gone – why she had been leafing through the Gideon was anyone’s guess for Bella was not a particularly religious girl – the writer had made the following note:
Lambden: population a shade under 2,000 and dwindling – a dull grey town set in the desolate north – renowned for little in the past – known for even less now.
And in the wastepaper basket, all crumpled and discarded, but in the same careful hand, the prelude to a tale he must have felt, ultimately, unworthy of the telling:
The original settlement of Lambden, even before it was called that, had formed along both banks of a minor river at a point where the water was shallow enough for horses and carts to ford safely. The origins of the settlement, and the nature of the people who had chosen to settle there, however, are not known. Some have speculated that it has existed since Roman times, but there is no evidence of Roman occupation and the records held in the Town Hall and the local churches date only from a much later period. Back in the nineteen seventies, there was a flutter of enthusiasm when a retired army colonel settled in the town and, for want of anything better to do with his time, embarked upon a project to discover and record the local history. It had been his intention, once he had completed his research and written up his findings, to publish a book on the subject which he planned to dedicate to the people of the town. Even the sudden death of his wife did not dampen his enthusiasm for the project, and once all the funerary formalities had been completed, he returned to his labour with renewed vigour. But unfortunately, his own history ran out before his task could be completed. Nor did his papers survive for long after his demise because the housekeeper he had subsequently taken, a dour spinster woman for whom he had not provided in his will, destroyed everything that could not be sold at auction and the house was eventually converted into a refuge for young people afflicted with drug addiction, of whom there was an increasing number in the town.
Where the ford had been in medieval times, a stone bridge eventually joined the two halves of the town together but since this facility was constructed in an age when modern vehicles were not yet imagined it was not made wide enough to allow two motor cars to pass side-by-side. Every so often, support would swell for a new bridge to be built but after the pit closure and the resulting economic decline of the region, major infrastructure projects had become little more than a pipedream. The part of the town on the southern side of the river never flourished, mainly due to the inconvenience of the old stone bridge. On the northern side, however, beyond a narrow flat running alongside the river, the land rises sharply and the slopes are lined with squat stone houses, anchored defiantly in terraces to the solid rock substrata that was carved out millennia ago by a slow but determined glacier. This escarpment is scaled from bottom to top by three narrow cobbled streets; and the area in the ensemble is known to the locals as the “Old Town”. Bridge Lane, the least narrow of the streets leading up from the river, and connecting the old stone bridge with Lambden Cross, was once the main shopping street of the Old Town.
In the years after the pit closure, the Town Council had wrestled with the question of how to revitalise Lambden; but in a climate of post-closure disconsolation, the few ideas proposed lacked creativity or innovation or the energy to evolve into any sort of action, and ultimately support for development had foundered in a malaise of apathy. With the possible exception of trout fishing in the river, there were no existing sporting facilities to attract visitors. The town did not even have a golf course. And with the loss of the Colonel’s research material, there was no reliable historical narrative, no known Roman road or Norman castle in the vicinity, no battlefield or birthplace of a person of prominence, no topographical or geographical formation of interest, no architectural landmark or treasure trove of cultural artefacts that could be opened to the public, not even a folly – although there were some as said town issen were a folly – and no scientific, horticultural, zoological or ornithological capital to be exploited in the cause of rejuvenating the ailing community. The only drawcard the town had to offer, according to those good burghers who still retained a scintilla of optimism, was the picturesqueness of Bridge Lane as it tumbled tortuously down the steep slope to the river and the little hump-backed bridge that was too narrow to be of any practical value now to anyone other than pedestrians and cyclists. The shops that lined the street were uniformly low of ceiling, small of window and short of door, with simple shingle roofs and a haphazard appearance that gave it a distinctly Dickensian flavour. The shop owners had resisted installing modern signage. There was no hint of neon on the street. But while the streetscape might have appealed to painters and photographers, it was only ever of passing interest, and the tills of Lambden were not unduly exercised by those who came to see it.
The town had existed long before coal was discovered nearby. It was once an agricultural hub, a point of supply for farmers, a market town for their produce; even the name, Lambden, owed its origin to the sheep-rearing culture that had existed on the moors around the town for hundreds of years. But coal-mining had flourished in the 19th Century and carried the town into the 20th with brave optimism; and as the times changed, as England was transformed from a languorous agrarian economy to a booming industrial one, mining superseded farming as the town’s beating heart. But recently, the mine had been shut down; and the heart was failing.
Bella sat on the edge of the unmade bed reading, with a mixture of sadness and admiration, the tract that the writer had discarded. How wonderful it must be, she thought, to travel the world from town to town and all you have to do is write down whatever comes into your head. But just then her father’s voice came roaring up the stairs, impatiently demanding to know what was keeping her; so she picked up the crisp new £20 note that the writer had left on top of his pillow in the hollow his head must have made, and tucked it down the front of her bodice with a thrill of delicious anticipation.