Funny how you can spend years whizzing round the world without really knowing your own country. Big mistake I’m at last realising. So for once, tucking away my carbon bootprint, I headed north from London by road and, again for once, the partner was in tow. Or rather he was towing me. We drive very differently. I tend to go hell for leather and catch up on lost time burning up motorways, while he, of a distinctly more patient frame of mind, deals with city traffic ten times more efficiently. My other big wheels forte is twisting through hills and, in the case of this little sortie, dales. These Yorkshire specialities nestle between spectacular moors, so I was in my element.
We left the Oxford Book Festival in the snow (that’s Christ Church above, looking pristine under snowy icing as I was on my way to an enlightening talk by travel-writer, Rory MacLean). Tipping down, the huge white flakes were unseasonal, but soon gone, melting into nothingness. With my foot hard on the accelerator, it didn’t take too long to cover a few hundred kilometres and find ourselves in North Yorkshire. The clouds parted, the sun shone, tiny woolly lambs frolicked madly and swathes of brilliant green hillsides undulated before us, crisscrossed by meandering lines of drystone walls. In the crystal-clear spring air it was quite beautiful. The River Wharfe flowed energetically past the semi-ruined arches of Bolton Abbey and wild daffodils nodded madly, altogether making a kind of parody of Romanticism. The larks were in full song too, fish swum frantically in tune with the currents – and those sheep, they were everywhere. Altogether an entirely bucolic England.
Just as impressive were the immaculate towns, their grey stone houses proudly maintained, inhabitants smartly dressed, no litter and, oh joy, not a chainstore in sight. Harrogate is like a model town, with a general sense of prosperity bubbling below the surface, even at the sulphurous old bathhouse. Stupidly this institution stopped functioning in the 1970s due to lack of demand – if only they’d waited a decade or so, as it’s so much more atmospheric than the characterless ‘spas’ of today. The only chain shops we saw were the many building societies that have grown out of the solid Yorkshire temperament – were they the ones who coined the expression ‘where there’s muck there’s brass’? They’ve certainly got brass and no muck in sight, as some of the shops were a delight, real timewarp stuff where boiled sweets were dished out of large glass jars, butchers sold organic local meat and sausages and cheese-shops piles of free-range eggs. They almost felt still warm. Yolks can’t be yellower – we’ve been feeding on omelettes of all kinds ever since our return.
Then there’s Bettys tea-room (that’s without an apostrophe) – in fact several of them are scattered across the county – dating back to 1919. So elegant, such cake, such ‘proper’ tea. You suddenly feel grown-up wishing you were in a tweed suit, hat and high-heels, a bit like a character out of Brief Encounter. The boring monotony of London’s chains of Starbucks and Costas and now, tragically joined by Patisserie Valerie, fade into deep insignificance. At Bettys (sic) in Harrogate there’s taste and there’s class. Very Yorkshire. I bought the local paper, the Craven Herald, which still covers its front page with boxed advertisements as the Times did until a few decades ago, and settled down for a comfortable read. Later, after we’d left, winds gusted, clouds filled the sky and we knew where we were. Climbing uphill to Ilkley Moor, we breathed deeply and thought of the incredible emotions of Wuthering Heights – in fact the Brontes’ village, Haworth, was just over the hill.
Apart from those prolific sisters, Yorkshire has two great high-profile artists: David Hockney and Alan Bennett. Although Damien Hirst hails from here too, he’s distinctly less attached to his roots. Hockney’s art work is highly visible at the gigantic Salts Mill at Saltaire near Shipley, an Alice-in-Wonderland style building where you feel like a midget. It was saved from dereliction and brilliantly conceived as a multi-purpose centre by a friend/ buyer of Hockney in the late 1980s. Now you can indulge in art, interior design, great food and good books – all managed with friendly efficiency. Hockney’s works are everywhere but thanks to the scale there’s never over-kill. Here’s a pic of the place – somehow the expression ‘up at t’ mill’ takes on its significance. Surprisingly, the terraced workers’ cottages of Saltaire are now a World Heritage Site. Again – immaculate.
The playwright Alan Bennett is said to occasionally retreat to the little village of Clapham, on the far western side of the Dales and picture-postcard perfect. Quaint, idyllic, another world, another time. Both of these great Yorkshiremen still campaign for local causes, despite living away from their native land for years. If only the same mentality reigned down south. Somehow it feels like we’ve got lost in the big smoke.
And then we reached the Lakes – another time, another story.