Satirical Snapshots Bringing You Whimsy On A Wednesday
The other weekend I helped deliver an item to a family member who has just moved up to Cheshire.
The beautiful Northwest of England, situated within the stunning Peak District. When the sun is shining there is nowhere more picturesque and oh so typically English. And, the sun was shining making the trip through Snake Pass absolutely gorgeous. So long as you keep your eyes on the curves and don’t get distracted by the views and nearly run into sheep that meander into the middle of the road to try and kill you, Snake Pass is one of the best drives in the UK through a mountain pass but also one of the most dangerous.
I arrived at the beautiful hamlet of Bollington – known as “Happy Valley” and considered the best place to live in the northwest and once part of the Earl of Chester’s manor back in the Middle Ages.
However, being a cynical English person, going anywhere south of Manchester named “Happy Valley” has you thinking that everyone is likely to be “off their tits” on something and that’s likely how it got its moniker.
Talking of Tits
I arrived at the chocolate box stone cottage and stood at the front door looking out at the view and thinking, ‘What a fabulous place to live. To open your front door and see an unobstructed view of freedom meandering up a hill.’
Nice, right? Then I noticed a white building atop of the hill that looked like an elongated tit.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“That’s White Nancy”
Intrigue was set. “Oh?” My inner art philosopher demanded more. “And what exactly is White Nancy?”
“Dunno. Nobody really knows. It’s just a big rock painted white. Everyone around here is obsessed with it though. Even the local football team have it pictured on their shirts. Once a couple got caught shagging next to it and because of how the light fell you could see their shadows going at it all down the hillside. Pictures ended up on Facebook and it was the talk of the town for ages”
“Every Christmas a brass band walks up to the top of the hill and the locals go with.”
I could already see a Channel 4 Drama being played in my mind.
“But what is it?” I asked again.
It’s Just White Nancy
This is typical of the English. We just accept that things are there and they’re called something weird and it’s just how it is in England. But not me. I nearly killed myself on the way in wanting to stop and take a photo of a street named “Hooleyhey Lane” because I found it satisfyingly quirky.
I needed to know more about White Nancy and figured I’d just have to find out myself.
Research didn’t reveal much since there is very little history pertaining to Bollington before the 19th century, other than it is a structure on top of Kerridge Hill and is a designated grade II listed building.
Oh, what a playground for the storyteller! I closed my eyes, pictured White Nancy atop of Kerridge Hill, and summoned my experience from the Billy Wynt of Wales. Sure enough, the ghost of Nancy revealed herself to me and the story unfolded.
The Story of White Nancy
By Jules Smith
Back in 1794 at the start of the Napoleonic wars, a fair faced girl was born to a farming couple in the northwest. She was their only child, after years of trying, and they named her Nancy. She grew up on the farm and became a proficient milkmaid, sitting atop a cock of hay milking cows and then delivering milk, butter, cream, and cheese to alleyway markets and the Gaskell’s of Ingersley Hall. Milkmaids were known as the prettiest girls in the land and at the tender age of 21, Nancy was no exception. Her hair fell in ringlets the colour of scorched straw and her eyes were as grey as the mountain top clouds in November.
Nancy would travel on her grey draft horse called Prance with her deliveries on a small handmade cart. Once a week she would take the Gritstone Trail all the way to Mow Cop with cheese in her saddle bags for the Old Man O’Mow. Nancy loved to ride the day away, sometimes making as much as 40 miles, and spent her time wondering about the rest of the world that lived far off past the horizon.
John Gaskell of Ingersley Hall took a shining to Nancy. There seemed to be something other-worldly about the peasant girl. He wondered if she might even be a celestial being as her smile alone warmed him better than the great hall fire. She reminded him very much of his favourite aunt, also called Nancy, who had a way of endearing herself to people. John would watch Nancy bring cheer to his staff with her friendly manner when she delivered produce to the kitchen and found himself looking forward to her twice-weekly visits. So much so, he offered her some cleaning work polishing brass and silver in the hall so he could see her more often.
Now, John Gaskell was a much older married man and one may have thought this type of behaviour quite unsavoury. The Lord of the Manor and the scullery maid might be a story to tickle our fancies today but back in 1815, this sort of behaviour would be frowned upon. However, be that as it may, John’s intentions were far from anything but the purest of love. He could not quite explain it to himself, how he felt so attached to Nancy and had a deep yearning to make her life better as she, unknowingly, did so for him. John decided that his only surviving son, Thomas of Ingersley would be a better man were he to be betrothed to Nancy rather than his current lady- friend, Mary Upton Slack.
Nancy had a rudimentary literary education, being a farm girl, so John Gaskell would read her stories from his books and teach her of historic events whilst she cleaned the fender. He found her demeanour refreshingly guileless and unaffected by societal tiers. Nancy looked upon the world in awe and expected nothing from it. The simplicity of her life carried through to her way of looking at it and seemed to bring untold happiness and love to everything she did. Nancy appeared infused with tenderness. His son, Thomas would often be invited in to work on the land accounts with his father in the study whilst Nancy worked, in the vain attempt to form an unbreakable union. And it worked a treat, in some respects, for who could not become smitten with a girl like Nancy?
However, John’s wife, Elizabeth, and Thomas’ intended, Mary became incredibly jealous of the milkmaid and the attention being thrown upon her. Elizabeth often demanded that Nancy clean another room where she and Mary took afternoon tea. The pair would ridicule her and let her know in no uncertain terms that she was nothing better than a lowly bumpkin.
Elizabeth ordered cows to be sent to Ingersley Hall, refusing to buy what came from Nancy’s parent’s farm. She insisted that Nancy could milk the cows of Ingersley in the stables and stay out of the comforts of the great house and far away from her husband and son. Nancy could not refuse because her parents needed the money and rumour had spread around the village that Nancy had caused a terrible rift within the family which affected further sales due to gossiping ne’er-do-wells. She owed it to her parents to bring home what had been lost to them from Ingersley Hall.
Still, Nancy continued to work tirelessly and with good spirit, singing as she milked in her pale blue dress. On one warm August morning, quite a commotion occurred. Nancy’s great Shire horse had got loose and run amok in Ingersley Hall gardens. Elizabeth Gaskell came and berated Nancy and banished her from the house. A stoneworker and gardener who worked for the Gaskell’s had caught Prance and led him back to the stable. His name was Valentine. He found Nancy crying near a pail of upturned milk and tried to reassure her. Valentine had been working on some fencing on the land and had witnessed Lady Elizabeth and Mary untie the horse and spook it with garden hoes and rakes. Their intentions were obviously malicious and engineered whilst Master John Gaskell worked away in London. Valentine didn’t tell Nancy of what he’d seen, believing that such ill intent was better left residing in its vile inhabitants. Instead, he walked with Nancy up the Kerridge Hill where they sat sharing his bread and her cheese as the sun sank into the grass.
A beautiful union was made that day and continued thereafter. Valentine lived a humble life, residing in a workers stone cottage on the Gaskell estate. His mother had died of cholera and his father a drunk. His brother had been shot as a deserter from the British army and all Valentine had was a pocket full of memories. Now he had Nancy and he felt like the luckiest man in all the world. He and Nancy would spend many evenings on top of Kerridge Hill supping small beer they had collected from the Shoulder Of Mutton Inn and talking about possibilities.
However, upon learning of Nancy and Valentine’s union, Elizabeth Gaskell fired him from the staff, branding him a traitor and leaving him broke and homeless.
John Gaskell returned from London and became outraged at what had occurred in his absence. His son, Thomas, had weakly sided with his mother and Mary and could not see past his entitled status the opportunity he had passed. John searched for Nancy and Valentine and found them on top of Kerridge Hill, breaking bread and staring into the horizon. He offered them both their jobs back promising his wife would have no further dealings with them. But Valentine was a man of principle and said he would be seeking his fortune someplace else. Perhaps beyond the horizon where Nancy left her dreams. Dreams that floated across the Cheshire plain and reached to the far western mountains of North Wales and north and east across the Pennines.
The pain in Nancy’s eyes at Valentine’s announcement speared John’s heart with sorrow. When someone so kindly and innocent is caused hurt by the wrongdoings of others, a sickness envelops you. John could not bear the thought of Nancy being bereft and sad and knew she would not leave as she would feel a sense of duty to her parents. Beauty deserved company and the company she had found in Valentine was something made in Heaven.
Love fuels love and be damned that it dare be suffocated by another.
John Gaskell asked the pair to meet him the following day on top of the hill.
It is said that John Gaskell’s love for Nancy knew no bounds. Such as it is, with a purity of any emotion. He gave money and passage out of Bollington for the pair to make a good life somewhere past the horizon. He also saw to it that Nancy’s parents were well compensated and became the main supplier to Ingersley Hall kitchen.
The only thing left and found grazing on top of Kerridge Hill a few days later was a great grey Shire horse with snowflake markings on his nose. Some say this is where Nancy kissed her horse goodbye.
John Gaskell hired a man called Dod to build a folly on top of Kerridge Hill. A summerhouse, perchance for people to use when they needed respite.
Dod is known to have celebrated this work finding joy and cheer from the energy that floated atop the hill, often reciting his own jingle after a tot of Brandy:
Here’s to the mountain of Nancy
That’s built upon Ingersley Hill
Here’s good health, wealth and fancy
And give Dod another gill!
The folly was built in 1817 with stone benches and a table inside. A place to break bread and watch the shadows fall down the hill as they ran to pastures new.
Some say John Gaskell built the folly called White Nancy to commemorate the British victory at the battle of Waterloo.
Some say it was named after a great horse with white snowflake markings on his face that transported the materials to the top of the hill where Nancy would stand.
But, dear reader, I think we all know better. White Nancy, as white as milk and similarly shaped like a teet on an udder is surely a nod to a beautiful milkmaid from the Happy Valley.
And from that day to this, White Nancy is a landmark that shows strength over adversity, light over darkness, and love over everything.