Yesterday, my friend and I walked the land around Ireland’s oldest linen fabric mill, Clarks of Upperlands, in Mid-Ulster. A section of it is still working after 300 years, but much of it is disused and abandoned, but for a few dog walkers, quiet explorers like ourselves, and more than the odd ghost.
We walked along the high banks of the four lakes; all man-made, they once served the linen mills. I learned afterwards of their names: Craig’s dam, Island dam, Green dam and Lapping-room dam. We sat on the old locks, A. examining how they once worked, and figuring out if they still might. He showed me the mechanism for opening the gate and letting the water through. But they didn’t look like they had worked for years, so overgrown were they by high hedges overrun with honeysuckle and hemlock and more wild raspberries that I’ve ever seen and burgeoning nettles and incorrigible knotweed and enthusiastic clover and dancing banks of pink-skirted rosebay willowherb. Nature has reclaimed this place.
Deeper we went, towards the old abandoned buildings; finding derelict store halls and outhouses and factory floors now open to the elements. An imperious redbrick chimney stack stretching skywards was reflected in one of the glassy ponds, its image eerily interrupted by two gliding swans sending ripples across the water: the mirror crack’d from side to side. This is a silent place, a place that keeps its promises, secrets never to be divulged.
We paused at locked gates and peered through the bars into a hushed factory yard. Coils of buddleia grew out of walls, somehow suckling life from ancient broad drainpipes the likes of which A. said they don’t make anymore. Spindles of young sycamore breached roof tiles and everywhere thick ferns rose in fountains of green, almost, but not quite, covering the narrow rails that once carried a small train or tram. ‘Can you imagine how filled with people this place would have been one hundred years ago?’ A. asked me. It was more of a statement, really, he was thinking aloud. ‘All with particular jobs to do. Upkeep and maintenance on a massive scale. The community and purpose. The sheer activity of it all. I can hear them shouting. I can hear horses’ hooves on cobblestones and laughter.’ And we listened. And behind the song of the blackbird and a far-off bark of a dog, maybe I did hear something: wheels clattering and machinery clanking and men calling orders. Even if I didn’t, I could imagine the energy and bustle, the monotony and excitement, the courtships and weddings. Suddenly, I had a sense of lives unfolding, lives unfolded, and lives forgotten and discarded.
Back near the ponds, we paused to read names carved into the trunk of an ancient beech tree and others carved into a slender mountain ash. Made by locals, we reckoned, in the very near past, five or ten years ago, by people who are still here, unlike these ghosts we’re trailing, or who hover behind us, long gone, as forgotten as this place, but once as real.
Home to where A. lives, we walked the laneway tracing the channels that the rabbits make up the near hill. He showed me the boulders he lifted from the gateway when he cut back the hawthorn that was strangled by Atlantic Ivy, the ones from which he refashioned a dry stone wall and the hazel he has liberated. And again, we talked of ghosts; of who had lifted those boulders before him and who would be there in fifty years’ time to maintain and keep the wall when it tumbled. Are there fewer keepers these days, we wondered, examining an old rusted, mangled thresher lying in a field. A. said nothing, but I could hear him thinking as to whether or not he could put any part of the thresher to use – he’d already showed me a pair of iron gates that he found under a hedge and resuscitated. Now they’re hanging, glorious as Lazarus, between his and Pat’s field.
Before I left, we sat on the wall he built and watched the swallows, mindful of who has been here before us and who is coming behind, and we listened for the echoes of disappeared voices that we rarely take time to hear in the evening stillness. Do it, when you are next out and about in some forgotten, neglected place; pause and wonder and listen to what is carried on the air, to the stories that come to you. Who’s to say what you imagine wasn’t once the truth of it?