England's largest county is also one of its loveliest, as
Jill Malcolm discovers in Yorkshire.
In 25 years, Jessie Winn, who lived at the end of my street
in Dunedin, has never been back to Yorkshire - but she never
lets you forget it.
"Oh it were a gran' place, Yorkshire," she says at least once
in every conversation.
Or "well yer miss it don' yer, a place laike Yorkshire?"
All I had in my mind's eye was a large batter pudding with
the Bronte sisters hovering somewhere in the background and
James Herriot delivering steamy calves in mucky barns.
And then I visited Jessie's gran' place and she is right.
There is no doubt that England's largest county is also one
of its loveliest, with its lofty fells embracing emerald
dales and its swollen amber moorlands. It also comprises one
of the least populated areas of the nation.
The higher lands are only half tamed and the lower valleys
neatly manicured and scattered with small clustered villages
built of stone quarried from the hills.
No-one can visit Yorkshire without feeling the pulse of its
long history, for the signs are everywhere, tattooed on the
landscape. Two thousand years ago the Romans built roads for
their legions and in Wensleydale I traced the course of one
that is still clearly imprinted leading up over Wetherfell
from the village of Bainbridge.
After the Anglo invasions, the Danes settled across Yorkshire
and became the ancestors of today's men and women. And it was
the Danes who divided the county into three: North Riding,
East Riding and West Riding (the word riding comes from the
Danish word Thriding or "third part"). Their boundaries
remained unchanged until 1974.
Later, the Normans left castles and great ecclesiastical
buildings, many of which still survive. And in the 18th
century the aristocracy, who held the franchise in rural
land, built, as symbols of power, mansions set in landscaped
parks. But just a century later, the whole face of the
country was dramatically altered when it was opened to
industry by road and canals and the railway that was pushed
north to serve the mushrooming cotton and woollen mills and
mines of coal and lead.
Today, when people rhapsodise about the beauty of Yorkshire
they are usually speaking of the dales in the north which
were designated a national park in 1954. I felt at home in
this green, rolling farmland, for there are more sheep than
people - not merinos or Romney Marsh, but black-nosed
Swaledales reared for their long wool and hardy disposition.
Familiarity, however, ends there, for unlike the ragged sheep
country of much of New Zealand the dales have been neatly
divided into a maze of fields by an intricate pattern of
dry-stone walls. Simple stone barns (laithes) are dotted
across the land and gracefully arching bridges span the
becks. The villages and towns are small and compact with
buildings that date back 200 years or more eyeing each other
across narrow cobbled streets.
I couldn't attempt to cover the whole of the Dales Park in
one visit, for it is 680 square miles in area. I concentrated
on one dale and got to know it well. This quiet, unhurried
part of England is best appreciated at its own pace. And
dales people are hospitable if you spare them the time of
Jessie swung my choice. She came from Leyburn, a small market
town on the doorstep of Wensleydale.
From there the road leads downhill to the town of Wensley and
a sudden dip brings into view the first wide vista of the
valley and the River Ure, which gurgles cheerfully under a
graceful stone bridge, built in 1430.
Wensleydale is said to the fairest dale of all. I can't
compare of course but my heart was stolen by its little
villages like Asygarth, Hawes and Askrigg with its steep,
crooked streets of squashed-up houses and tiny shop interiors
with bells over the doors that tinkled when I entered.
Askrigg served as Harrowby in the James Herriot TV Series All
Creatures Great and Small. No sign now, of course, of actors
Christopher Timothy and Robert Hardy, but ask any local and
they will tell you there is no doubt James Herriot and his
pen put the Yorkshire dales on the map.
This brought a flow of tourists, which were badly needed for
the region's economy. But there is a price. A whole way of
life and picturesque landscape are now in danger of being
trampled under the feet of the millions of people who pour in
every year. Come summertime, life in the dales still has its
quaintness but loses its tranquillity.
In Askrigg I sat sipping cider at the bar of the Kings Arms
Hotel (called the Drovers Arms in the TV series) and the talk
turned to conservation and what is being done about it - the
repair of crumbling barns and dry-stone walls that are
fundamental to the scenery and of walking tracks and
waterways. A local chap called Geoffrey talked mournfully of
"The wilder environments have taken a hammering," he said,
taking an extravagant sip from his tankard of ale.
"Much of the county is criss-crossed by walking tracks and
vehicle trails known as green lanes.
"These were made some 300 years ago but to be used by horses
and carriages not four-wheel drives and trail bikes. They've
really suffered with modern use."
He frowned and sipped again.
"Just don't get me started!"
I listened with interest, happy it wasn't my problem.
That evening, my last in Yorkshire, and enjoying things as
they were, I drove up the Buttertubs, which is a high fell
behind Askrigg named for its treacherously deep sinkholes. A
soft, pink mist had enveloped the stony villages of Hawes and
Gayle far below, and ropes of light from a setting sun
dappled the pastures of Wensleydale.
From up there the whole world seemed to be holding its
breath. Then the plaintive cry of a lone curlew broke the
stillness and a puff of icy wind hissed through the tussock.
It was one of those stunning, time-frozen moments that happen
every so often, and now that I am home it has replaced the
batter pudding and mucky barns in my mind's eye, echoing
"Yer don' forget a place laike Yorkshire."
- Jill Malcolm is an Auckland-based writer.