The modern, mini-suburbia of Sandyfoot clusters to the rear, while to the immediate North and South woodlands blur into the distance. Looking East from the building’s Gothic frontage, the Saddleworth Road weaves along the moors, herons wade the brooks which thread their tenuous ways through the surrounding moors to the Calder.
Barkisland its self,a small Calder Valley village, is like a country of its own - too remote to feel very connected to the Calder Valley’s busy towns like Halifax or Hebden Bridge, too full of big, grand buildings to feel truly pastoral or rustic. Indeed, when I first read the name on bus timetables I remember imagining, based on my assumption the pronunciation was "Barkisland", a strange river island inhabited entirely by canines!
Apropos of its unusual name, one might also fancifully assume a connection with London's Isle of Dogs, and yet, its cricket club, its mid-Nineteenth Century chapel, its dignified War Memorial rising over the hills, neatly bracket Barkisland as traditionally rural.
The village is quiet, gentle, at times it is possible to walk along the Scammonden Road without hearing even the remotest car.
Yet Barkisland’s history is a great deal less genteel than its present-day tranquillity suggests.
Barkisland Workhouse was erected in 1827 with money from the sale of coal from local White Birch farm, of which, reads the 1827 plaque records, the interest that arises there from, is to be distributed to such poor people of Barkisland as have no Parochial Relief. The local stocks, which still exist, and are in fact classified as a Grade 2 Listed Building, can be seen on passing through the village, on the same site where they were once used.
If the poor were not to subsist in workhouses, or sink through devilment to the penury of the Stocks or worse, the main option locally was mill work, yet conditions here were often harsh. Look at the conical towers of Bower’s Mill, pointing steeply at the Heavens like the hats of ruthless Puritans. This Eighteenth Century fulling mill, a colossal testament to water-power, stands half obscured by trees, one wall facing the soft stream of Barsley Clough in a windowless hostility, like the cold hard flank of some military prison. Above, like frightened eyes glancing over blankets, small windows look out onto the hills. Over the centuries, the mill was used for corn, worsted, and wool, and the last textile company to occupy the premises, J&S Taylor Ltd, relocated to Sowerby Bridge in 1991, while nearby Bottomley’s, now demolished, was a corn mill. Bowery’s is now rented out to small businesses, but until recently, Barkisland Hall its self rose like a ghost above the watery wilderness, fronted by a reedy tangle of weeds and woodland. Now a residential building, it still appears like a relic of the Industrial Revolution, the pretty floral displays beside its stone gateposts doing little to dispel this grim impression. The Hall which, as documented on the excellent website, Malcolm Bull’s Calderdale, was built in 1638 for John Gledhill, part of the locally important Gledhill family who married into the Barkisland line in the 1300s. John Gledhill's initials appear along with his wife's above the main doorway. Barkisland Hall was bought not long after it was built by the Hortons of Howroyd, who retained possession until recent years. M. Eli Sutcliffe, cotton spinner, was the next resident. As well as the ordinary features of a Stuart structure, it has a three storey porch, a carved oak fireplace and ornate plasterwork. Unlike other contemporary houses of the area it is of three storeys.
Several local schools were built in the hope of providing education for poor infants. In 1657, landowner Sarah Gledhill bequeathed the sum of two hundred pounds current English money unto the use of a school master, for teaching such poor children of Barkisland, whose parents…shall not be able, to bring them up in learning.
By the eary 19th Century the building was a Grammar School, and its Master was the poet John Baxter. Born in 1790, Baxter presided over Barkisland Grammar from 1807 until his death in 1830. In 1818 he published a book of advice for the country’s young, modestly entitled A compendium of Christian Knowledge: consisting of a Series of Lessons on Morality, Virtue and Religion, carefully selected from the best Authors. Compiled chiefly for the Instruction of the Young, in their Religious, Moral and Social Duties, and to imbue their minds with the love of Piety and Virtue. Intended as a Class-Book at School; especially for the use of Sunday Schools. Intended for the Use of Young Persons, of both Sexes, at School, and for Families. Or, more snappily, The Young Christians' Cyclopædia.
Baxter’s God-fearing Christianity was also expressed in his poetry, in particular the strident 1824 polemic The Thunder Storm and The Atheist, which he suggested in the preface, possessed little merit … (and is) too trifling to gain or to deserve the Attention of the Public. The “trifle” begins with Latin quotes about the wrath of God, before Baxter launches into a threatening premise:
The gath’ring clouds portend the coming storm,
And a deep, solemn gloom o’erspreads the sky:
In mazy dance the forked lightning darts,
And lights the hemisphere with sudden blaze.
Hear now the distant thunder’s solemn roll;
The lofty hills reverberate the peal:
Near and more near approach th’ explosions dire,
Til o’er our heads bursts forth the awful voice,
And speaks aloud th’ Omnipotence of God!
This fearsome passage seems at odds with its author’s account of how, in composing the poem, he afforded himself a pleasing relaxation from severer Studies. One dreads to think what studies might prove more severe than the contemplation of Such fire and hail as smote curs’d Egypt’s land, but nonetheless the relaxing Baxter hopes that should his poetry yield the least Amusement to others, his Wishes will be attained. With demonic - or perhaps Godly - energy, the poem rolls on, through a storm, in which after A loud crack swipes terror to the soul, the villagers (presumably of Barkisland) watch helplessly as:
The raging flood, impatient of restraint,
O’erflows its banks, and inundates the plain…
The well made hay, that late made the meadows crown’d,
Glides swiftly down the stream! The rip’ning grain,..
Lies prostrate on the ground, cover’d with sand,
And now appears a miserable wreck!
The exclamation marks suggests a certain zest in these descriptions, as if far from reflecting with regret, the poet actually wants to celebrate, or at least draw dramatic emphasis from, the watery misfortunes adding fresh terrors to the stricken villagers. Asking provocatively, Is this the God to which ye bow the knee? the eponymous atheist is mocked as impetuous wretch and Infidel. Baxter holds that this appalling, elemental war, which he acknowledges might seem bad to a jaundiced eye, is actually something to be happy about - for it clears away airborne impurities and makes it safe to breathe. The storm is now simply a refreshing breeze, and rather than address the question of how to love a God responsible for carnage and depletion, he urges readers to embrace worship instead of Avarice and Lust, leading into an assault on the atheist (and all thy sad fraternity) whose scepticism is more symptomatic of Mammon-worship and a life of stealing, than genuine disbelief. Those who do not worship are simply Harden’d in wickedness, for even though they blaspheme and deny that God exists, secretly that he exists thou know’st, but they dupe themselves into believing otherwise in the hope that by denouncing Christianity they will not suffer punishments in the way a believer might - like a criminal who claims not to have realized he has broken the law. Baxter goes so far as to declare, Rebels, not Infidels, in truth ye are, and soon after his repudiations are concluded, he is able to delightedly proclaim:
The raging storm (note his reversion to dramatic language) has passed. -
The parting clouds,
Glitt’ring with burnish’d gold, as they withdraw
Unveil the fair face of heav’n.
For all its contradictions, hollow arguments and at times pompous tone, Baxter’s poem contains striking passages, and a vivid picture of early Nineteenth Century Christian fervour, which must have been allowed to develop into manifold extremes in such places as Barkisland, which takes long enough to reach from nearby cities today but which two centuries ago must have been almost inaccessible at certain times of year.
The profusion of churches in and around the Ryburn Valley is a good indication of how deeply many of Baxter’s neighbours, far from taking the derided atheist’s position, would have endorsed the poet’s point of view, or at least of the significance of Christianity to the local population, and while towns such as Sowerby Bridge and Todmorden, with their gradual increase of Irish and Scots labourers, were to see the status of Nonconformism strongly marked on their heritage, Barkisland would remain anchored to tradition. Christchurch, built in 1820, is Barkisland’s only church.
But the history of Barkisland stretches further back than 19th Century Christianity. Archaeologists have uncovered a thousand year old axe, further evidence that Barkisland, later a Dane stronghold, was an Anglo Saxon settlement.
In the Hebden Bridge magazine Village Voice, an article entitled The Early Inhabitants of Barkisland appeared in February 1991, explaining there are the remains of an ancient British settlement called Meg Dike. This earthwork was built on a rectangular pattern and it included the site of an artificer's workshop. From here there was a track which led directly to the Ring of Stones (an ancient Druid place of worship)
In 1775, John Watson, Curate of Ripponden, published his History and Antiquities of the Parish of Halifax, where he explains: Barsey or Barkesey are Anglo-Saxon words meaning low-lying enclosures where birches grow. It also is the Anglo-Saxon for a district where there are wolves.
In 1836, John Crabtree’s Concise History of the Parish and Vicarage of Halifax states:
(the name) may be derived from the Anglo-Saxon word for a wolf, and land... as much as to say, the country remarkable for wolves; in this case, the place in the township called the Wolf-fold, must be looked upon as having actual reference to this animal.
The site of the Ring of Stones, Wolf Stones as called by some, stands at the outer reaches of Barkisland, near the reservoir lapped by Great Northern Divers and Canada Geese, near where the motorway throbs through Scammonden and where thin, trickling streams melt into the moors. The scene can hardly have changed throughout the centuries. Looking around at the vast, airy expanse, it is easy for the mind to slip back to bygone times, to the days of Danes, Druids, and wild wolves.