This article was written by Isaac Towers and first appeared in Cumbria Magazine in April 1971. It is re-produced by kind permission of Cumbria Magazine.
CUMBRIA recently inquired about the late Peter Woods, who lived from 1835 to 1936 and was known as “Old Peter.” I knew him personally and have been told of incidents from his fascinating life.
The entry of his baptism in Bolton-Ie- Sands church reads: On March 9th, 1835, Peter son of Robert and Betty Woods of Nether Kellet, Labourer. Nether Kellet, five miles north of Lancaster, is famous for its limestone industries. As far as I know, Peter resided in and on the outskirts of the village all his life.
When he lived with his parents, his home was a cottage which is now part of the village school. Over the wall on the west side of the school stands the Congregational church, surrounded by a graveyard. Peter cultivated this ground as a garden before the church was built in 1869.
He told about growing vegetables on the very site of the building and also related that he travelled with his produce to the market at Kendal, nearly 20 miles away, using a horse and trap in his early life.
Peter delighted in attending Brough Hill horse fair in Westmorland, the fair being held on the last day of Septembcr, and no doubt would do some business there.
Another home at Nether Kellet known to Peter Woods was on the east of the village and known as Windy Harbour Farm. It is now in ruins. When his parents died he left the farm and became the owner of a ten acre field half-a-mile away further east.
These two properties, Windy Harbour and the field, are near to Donald [sic] Mill Cave; the mill was driven by waterwheel. Peter lived in a hut in the field until he died. He had his dwelling under a wall on the north side of the field and was monarch of all he surveyed.
His first hut burnt to the ground, and he suspected foul play, which was never proved. Until he procured another hut he found refuge with his nephew, late Mr. Henry Woods of Old Hall Farm. Nether Kellet. But a few weeks later he had returned to his field.
I remember seeing white-bearded Peter passing the school where I was a pupil. He lived all by himself until shortly before he died. His water supply was about 20 yards away, and not far from the living hut he had another hut, used for stores.
In his prime, Old Peter kept free-range poultry on his field and also on part of my uncle’s field nearby. Every week or so he carried his produce to town for sale, using large baskets slung over his back and arms. He thus trudged several miles to Halton railway station en route to Lancaster, disposing of his goods and buying food.
In his young days he worked for my grandfather, William Towers, of Stubb Hall and once, working in the field with one of my uncles, he took off his jacket and told his dog to sit down and guard it. When Peter needed the jacket he asked uncle to bring it to him saying:
“And mind how tha carries it; there’s a hundred pund (pounds) in it.”
This was true.
He remembered the last of the stage coaches passing over Halton Moor between Lancaster, Yorkshire and Westmorland. As a young man he helped to lay the track of the Furness Railway (Carnforth to Barrow).
When my late uncle, Frank Towers, bought his first motor car about 1922 he called for Peter each week and conveyed him to Lancaster, later bringing him horne again.
When Peter became a centenarian I visited him with uncle Frank, my father and nephew John Towers, a boy of nine. He sat in his armchair in the hut and, in excellent spirits, chatted to us about the Royal telegram he received and a birthday cake sent by someone over the Atlantic. Peter told my uncle:
“Cut intew it, and give lile lad some.”
We were privileged to get into his hut, for the hut was just one room and, all told, about five yards by three yards. The door was in the centre, the bed in the right-hand corner and a window on the left.
Peter’s stove was in the middle of the room with Peter’s armchair close to it. Something like a chest of drawers stood in a far corner.
The time came when Peter could hardly look after himself; he was feeble in body but not in mind, and when someone suggested that he needed domestic help this confirmed bachelor at once said:
“There’s naa woman coming here.”
A Lancaster man, James Merser, who was past his prime came to live with Peter and he stayed until the “hermit” died on March 23, 1936, aged 101 years.
l well remember helping the undertaker, Mr. Edward Stephenson, of Nether Kellet, to carry the coffin across the field to the awaiting hearse, which then proceeded to the Nether Kellet Congregational Church. My late uncle, the Rev. W. H. Towers,himself nearly 80 years old, conducted the service.
Peter had chosen to live a hermit’s life and remained unmarried to the end. Yet he was always tidy and respectable. He kept himself to himself, minded his own business and fully expected other people to mind theirs. Very possibly we shall never see his like again.
Cumbria magazine, April 1971 (cumbriamagazine.co.uk)