When Fred gave one of his last one man talks at the Opera House in Buxton, only a few months before his death, he stayed overnight opposite to the Opera House at the historic Old Hall Hotel, owned by a mutual friend, Louise Potter. Fred wasn't that keen on going to bed too early so we sat into the night with the proverbial Guinness reminiscing about people, traction engines, rallies and things. In fact he was unusually nostalgic and seemed to want to ponder the past. He talked openly and candidly about his cancer which he was more than willing to discuss in his own Fred like way, full of graphic detail with a lot of engineering logic thrown in to make it understandable. It was as if he was explaining a problem with a steam engine pointing to the various parts of his anatomy to illustrate the point. He was quite matter of fact about the whole thing and I suspect hid behind the belief that if he soldiered on and put it to the back of his mind it might go away.
His mind was entirely focused on the completion of the mineshaft he was digging in his back garden. There was something real and permanent about it which he could cling on to as a kind of shield from reality. I had a feeling that Fred could not accept that he was really going die. It was only when he became so weak and had to be confined to his bed that I think it finally dawned on him.
The following morning he didn't seem to be in any hurry to go back to Bolton so I took him on a drive across the hills to the village of Bradnop, near Leek to visit an old friend, Ted Riley, who was building a racing car with a Rolls-Royce Merlin Spitfire engine in it. Ted took us to see a wonderful old-fashioned engineering company in Leek where his wife Fiona was the company secretary. It was like something set in aspic straight out of the 30s and it was hard to believe that such a company could still exist in this high tech age. Fred thought it was a rare find indeed and was useful to know for the future especially as they still cut gear wheels for the odd steam traction engine.
Driving back over the moors to Buxton we stopped at an isolated stone built pub called the Mermaid. Fred asked the landlord how the pub had got such a name when it was so far from the sea, and the landlord said it was because of a local mermaid legend. Fred peering through the steamed-up window at the wet desolate Staffordshire moors said he couldn’t think of a more un-mermaid like place! He seemed to remember that mermaids only sat on rocks in blue seas looking into mirrors and tartlng up their hair to lure lusting sailors into trouble. The mermaid legend was centred on a pond a little further down the road, which we were told was reputed to be bottomless. Once upon a time, the story went, a lone traveller on this windswept and isolated moorland road encountered a mermaid sitting by the pond. Fred reckoned the poor bloke must have had too much pop in the pub and he was not in the least bit interested in the mermaid story - but the mention of the pond being bottomless really got his mind going! Needless to say, we had to pull up at the pond and get out of the car into the driving rain to inspect it. It was a very small and uninspiring pond, a complete let down, although I don’t really know what we were expecting to see.
"She must have been a bloody desperate mermaid to have lived in a crappy pond like that!" Fred commented dryly, lobbing a stone in and waiting to see how long the bubbles would come up for. We reckoned everyone who stopped at this pond knowing that it was reputed to be bottomless must have thrown a stone in, as the area around it was completely devoid of stones or, in fact, anything even remotely throwable. Fred must have unwittingly picked up the last stone. After a bit of contemplation and chin-rubbing, he wondered if it was worth a drive down to Leek, which was the nearest town, to see if we could buy some large balls of string. He wanted to tie a weight onto the end to see just how deep it was. This was typical Fred with his ever-inquisitive mind. Even though he was not at all well, he was prepared to solve this question of the bottomless pond, there and then. He had a thing about ponds, working on the theory that they rather invited people to dump things in them, just like canals. There was no end to the wondrous objects that could be recovered from ponds he believed, and his mind was working overtime. If this pond was reputed to be bottomless, it was an open invitation to dump all kinds of things in it. It had to be worth investigation.
We drove down to Leek, but, despite wandering about the main street in the drizzling rain and visiting what seemed like dozens of shops, we couldn’t find one which sold large balls of string. Mind you, we did find a good little greasy spoon café and had pie and chips and numerous mugs of tea. We eventually went into one shop where the rather large lady shopkeeper declared that string had gone out with savoury ducks. Everything, she said, was now tied up and stuck together with this modern Sellotape stuff! ”You won’t get any large balls of string in Leek, ducky!” she announced. Fred was doing his "Aye, aye, think yer right, love” bit, as she continued to eulogise about the sad demise of savoury ducks and how she used to love them. "What are savoury ducks?" I enquired innocently, realising as I asked the question that I should have kept my mouth shut. The large lady and Fred turned on me as if I was from another world and mouthing blasphemy. ”You've never heard of savoury ducks? Or the UCP shops that used to sell ’em?" she uttered in sheer amazement, rolling her eyes towards the ceiling. "They've all gone, like everything else with this modernisation and those supermarkets," she concluded with a great sigh. "Yeh, yeh, you’re right, love," Fred agreed. ”We used to have a big UCP shop in Bolton, and it had a good cafe. Me Mum used to take me in sometimes for tea.” He added that he wasn’t particularly partial to tripe, which they seemed to specialise in, but he liked their pies - and their savoury ducks. He emphasised that they sold none of this foreign stuff we get today. It was all good, basic, British grub. Now for those of you who are not educated in these things, a savoury duck was a kind of meat rissole you could eat cold and the UCP was a chain of shops in the north, mainly in Lancashire, specialising in offal products. I think it stood for United Cattle Products.
Fred was totally faithful to the good old Union Jack when it came to the culinary side of things. He didn’t care for anything with even the slightest hint of being foreign, or with garlic. The only edible delicacy originating overseas which he would he would eat was pizza, which he reckoned was originally invented in Scotland to provide sustenance for a marching Highland army - but that’s another story! His palate might have modified in later years, but early Fred was a true ancient Brit when it came to food. The large lady's husband came out from the back parlour recognising Fred’s voice and that was it! We were in there for nearly half an hour discussing pigs’ trotters, cowheels, tripe, faggots and chittlins (whatever they were). I refrained from asking and just nodded my head dutifully in agreement, as they went on to list all the honest to goodness tasty things you could buy before this awful modernisation.
By the time we finally got out of the shop it was full of middle-aged ladies all wanting autographs, as Fred held court about the demise of the real things of old. Different ladies kept on coming up with, 'Do you remember such and such a thing...?’ I think we covered everything from Izal toilet paper - which was hard and crinkly to the bum - to Dolly Blue. We never got the big balls of string, nor fathomed the bottom of the bottomless pond, but I do remember a vital pond recovery mission with Fred nearly 30 years ago...................
Roger's Reminiscences - Fred, the mermaid and the bottomless pond
Copyright © 2011 Roger Murray