Peeling Back the Years. Murtaghs’ Hill and the Haunted House.

Murtaghs' Hill 020

Sketch c.1949 courtesy of Leonard McGloughlin. 

I discovered only recently that there is a facility on Google Earth , a clock icon, that can roll back time. I decided to look at Murtaghs’ Hill in or about 1955, but sadly Google didn’t exist then. What kept them? Arthur C. Clarke foretold geostatic communication satellites in 1946. He forgot to patent the idea. It took another 16 years for Telstar to glide across the night sky, the first of a myriad of satellites to bind the world in  a web of voices and pictures. Clarke envisaged a time when nation would speak unto nation . Peace and understanding would spread throughout the world and indeed, the Universe. He suggested that communications would be revolutionised by reducing all phone charges to the local rate, irrespective of distance. All you would have to do is crank the handle and ask the operator to connect you  to Proxima Centauri or the other side of the galaxy..and hang the expense…4d or so.  He never anticipated Skype. I can never think of Telstar without hearing the tune……Jackie Farne and his Cordovox, an alien tune from interstellar space, ‘Big, Wide Space’ as my little grandson calls it. He is familiar with Skype and wockets that fly up to Big Wide Space. The Cordovox was an electronic instrument played with a stylus. Similar results could be achieved by inserting the stylus into your inner ear and scraping vigorously. World peace will have to wait a while longer.

Ardla 2008    Ardla 2013

Google Earth  can go back as far as 2003, so this is what I got: 2003 and 2013. The hill is gone. Don’t look at me. It was definitely there the last time I walked that land. So was the ring fort. I’ll be honest. I was aware that it was gone. From the railway platform now you can see Ardgillan woods and white houses on The Black Hills. There was once a green hill, a graceful parabola, an esker that had strayed southwards as part of the freight of the last glacier. It was dappled with furze and fringed with a few gaunt scots pine. It had a haunted house. It had an ancient ring-fort to tease the imagination and a melancholy swamp to frighten the unwary. Who lived there down all the years, since the ice surrendered its plunder? Why was the house haunted?

2014 June garden train hattons wood 072

There was a comic strip in the evening paper: King, of the Mounties. The comma is important. He wasn’t the king of the Mounties. He was a sergeant. He wore the incredibly glamorous red coat, although we saw it only in black, grey and white. Our grandchildren think that we lived in black and white. In winter, King wore a fur hat with ear flaps. Try getting children to wear such a thing. Eminently practical. However, King always caught the bad guys, tracking them over the endless arctic wilderness, through impenetrable forests and down raging rivers interrupted by vertiginous cataracts. The bad guys were often renegade Indians or French-Canadian fur trappers  My older siblings had to read the speech bubbles for me. I used to wonder why anyone would steal another trapper’s furze. There was plenty of furze on Murtaghs’ Hill, enough for everyone. The bad guys had great terms of abuse. My French is limited but I remember ‘pig-dog’, a good one to be used in times of stress, when arguments about what King, of the Mounties shoulda’ done, got out of hand. That was every night. I never wanted to be a Mountie though. I think it was the hat. It’s not a proper cowboy hat at all… and he had a flap on his holster. More flaps. I still know where to find lots of furze. I have some old tennis racquets in the shed, in case a blizzard closes in. There is even a plastic snow-bullet toboggan in there too. Pig-dogs beware.

What has the British Empire ever done for us? Well, the Ordnance Survey was one thing. You can out-Google Google Earth by means of the Ordnance Survey maps. You can go to The Griffith Valuation of 1847-52 (Google it) and look at the first Ordnance Survey. You can read the names of the land-holders of every field. You can trace every stream and lane of your childhood and houses that are now mere ghostly shells, if any trace remains.  You can see the ghost of Murtaghs’ Hill and the ring-fort that once became a quarry, a foul smelling chemical dump, a rubbish tip and now an unprepossessing, swelling of the ground, ‘landscaped to ‘blend in with its surroundings.’

Scan0024    42345

Once upon a time we met an old woman wading in the swamp, collecting water cress. ‘Wather grass’, she called it. ‘Very good for you, but be sure to wash off the snails.’ God help her, she was a ruin in her own right, as if she had come out of the haunted house to find her dinner. She hadn’t a tooth in her head and always seemed to be astray in herself, but an amiable poor soul.  The wather grass hadn’t done her much good. Fashionable chefs will garnish your meal with wather grass but be sure to check for snails… unless of course, you have ordered snails. By the way, the swamp is now a corn field and perfectly dry underfoot… no geese or frogs or reed-warblers or snipe darting from the rushes and no wather grass.

There is definitely no gravelly hill. It was trucked away to build the Dublin suburb of Ballymun. I wonder where the ghosts live now.

A Passage of Time. The Guttery Lane.

Garden, Guttery Lane 007                        Guttery lane

We called it The Guttery Lane. I don’t know if that is the official O.S. name. On the map it is no more than a double line between the corn fields and the low-lying fields on my right.   It was always synonymous with mud and muck. At the height of the heatwave I thought that I could make it, all the way to the end. The ground was parched. I was an early morning lepidopterist, netting not butterflies, but memories. I was no more than a few hundred yards from the railway, but the early morning traffic was merely a distant murmur. It occurred to me briefly that a search party might find me after many days, crawling along, croaking for water. That’s how it works in the movies. I would, of course, have been driven completely mad by the chimaera of a distant mirage. Vultures would be circling overhead. I needn’t  have worried.

Garden, Guttery Lane 006

Garden, Guttery Lane 018

Sometimes it is enough to ramble with no definite purpose. Thoughts and memories rambled with me. I thought of young men fighting through lanes like this, the bocage country of Normandy, exactly seventy years before my morning walk. This would be no country for tank warfare. This would be a place for sudden and deadly ambush. As kids we fought our wars in these fields. ‘Bang!  You’re dead.’  ‘No, I’m not. You missed.’  ‘No, I didn’t.’  ‘Yes you did.’  Our wars were inconclusive. ‘I know where there’s a wren’s nest, in the wall. Do you want to see it?’  I can still see it, after sixty years. Peace broke out. The fields beyond the railway were special. They held the possibility of endless adventure. The lane was a portal to a place of magic.

I noticed the change. This was once a lane for horses and carts. There were two narrow wheel  ruts. The vegetation in the centre was beaten down by hooves. It made it easy for the plodding pedestrian. I walked on, hoping to reach the spring. I brought children there a quarter of a century ago, to look for frogs. The frogs out-witted us. The spring emerges from the high bank on the left and seeps into the lower field on the right. At least, that’s what it used to do.

Garden, Guttery Lane 015

Tractor traffic has  gouged the lane into two deep ruts, anything up to two feet lower than it was in the past. The water cannot escape.  Halfway along, the track becomes a morass. It more than lives up to its mucky reputation. I could see that cattle could manage to get past, but they have a leg at each corner and no rubber boots to leave behind them in the squelching mud. I thought of the poor soldiers. They hadn’t the option of turning back. If I lost a boot, the young lads of memory would go on without me, to search for linnets’ nests in the gorse on Murtaghs’ Hill, (Murtaghs’ Hill is gone) or put up pheasants in Hatton’s Wood. (Never caught one.) A hare might show them a clean pair of heels on the final  narrow stretch of the lane. That was more than I could do. It was time to retreat.

Garden, Guttery Lane 014

It was no more than a tactical withdrawal. There are other ways of reaching the end of the lane, but on this morning the challenge was to retrace  the beaten track. It beat me too. There was nothing for it but to have a civil word with the inquisitive heifers and enjoy the profusion of life in high summer. There were butterflies in abundance, but they were not my quarry. There were horseflies and gadflies, but they had not yet got into their stride. They were humming and getting ready for the day’s work.

I came out onto the road. There was traffic. Normal life resumed. It was time for a cup of tea and a look at Plan B. Perhaps a snorkel and wetsuit next time.

Garden, Guttery Lane 025