Thursday, 9 April 2009

Memories of Wensleydale

This posting is not about cheese. I know Wensleydale cheese has experienced a boom since 'A Grand Day Out' (1989), the first Wallace and Gromit movie came to our screens. I have long been a big fan of the cheese which has a really distinctive white colour, crumbly texture and sharp flavour. However, this posting is about the valley of Wensleydale in Yorkshire, where the cheese is now made. Following enjoying writing a posting about the small town of Sables d'Or in France that I visited twice as a child I began thinking of other holidays that I had and the locations that I been to. Of course with time the memories tend to get smoothed out and you do forget all the tensions and the arguments in the car, plus the boredom of being on holiday when you were a child in the 1970s because you would be missing your friends and your regular television programmes as holiday homes rarely had televisions and there was nothing like videos or DVDs to watch or computers to play on let alone handheld games consoles and ipods that even primary school children seem to have these days; the highlight was listening to the very old-fashioned children's programme on Radio 4. So holidays in the 1970s were no different to much of life in general in the 1970s, for the bulk of the time, very tedious. Despite this I have fond memories of Wensleydale.

Wensleydale is an East-West running 'u'-shaped valley created by a glacier, which lies in the National Park of the Yorkshire Dales. For some reason I remember these facts from having done a project on the valley in 1974; in those days schools seemed hostile to parents even taking their children away out of term time, though ironically I know in those days it was in fact far easier than now to take them away during term time, perhaps it was the quirkiness of the schools I attended, which as I have acknowledged in previous posts, were peculiar even as schools in suburban southern England go and I have had corroborating opinions from outsiders to this. Anyway, you were always meant to feel that even when on holiday you should be working and so you ended up producing these 'projects' about where you had gone and sticking in every ticket you could.

Anyway, Wensleydale, now as then, is an unspoilt environment with nice green scenery and renowed for its waterfalls. Attention was first drawn to the region by the novels/memoirs of James Herriot, the pen name of James Alfred Wight (1916-95). Wight had been a veterinary surgeon in the area 1939-42 before serving in the Royal Airforce. He lived in Thirsk. The novels are written in the first person and are effectively fictional as the character comes to the fictional town of Darrowby in 1937 straight from veterinary college whereas Wight came three years later and having worked in Sunderland first. In the novels the narrator is given a partnership in the Farenon practice as a wedding gift whereas Wight had to wait eight years after his marriage in 1941 before he became a partner. The six main novels were published 1969-77 though Wight kept publishing until his death. There were two movies 'All Creatures Great and Small' (1974) and 'It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet' (1975) with different casts, and a television series with yet more actors which ran 1978-90, 'All Creatures Great and Small'. So through the 1970s-80s the region was constantly in the public view. These programmes were seen as comfy Sunday viewing.

Wensleydale remains a rural area with cow and sheep rearing. There is one town, Hawes and a number of small villages. Hawes has quite a few more facilities than when we stayed near there in 1974 and 1976. At that time there were two general stores and a single-room fish and chip shop was the only food outlet. Now there are a couple of cafes, a gallery, some solicitors, a sweet shop, a nic-nac shop and various wood craftsmen. I remember a fete happening in the village and the queue afterwards to the fish and chip shop ran right up the street. All they sold was 'fish' without saying what fish it was and of course deep fried chips. They may have had some pickled eggs too, but that was it. I remember one of the small shops right by the river as you entered the village had the river water lapping at its wall constantly and even in the heat wave of 1976 they had to have their heating on because it was so dark and cold inside. I remember there was a little park just before the main street of the town. In 1974 it looked quite run down and the wooden gates were dull and the slide and everything else was sticky from buds; I think the roundabout was broken. In 1976 I was not eager to return, remembering how desultory it was, but was persuaded to do so and to my delight it had all been tidied up, repainted and revived.

For both of our visits to Wensleydale we stayed in a large house half-way up the valley side on the South side of the valley, just East of Hawes. However, I used to think of the valley as running North-South with Hawes at the North end rather than at the West end as it is in reality. The house was 1.2 Km from the nearest surfaced road and you had to bump along a track to reach it. When we first went there in 1974 you had to jump out and open numerous gates along the way, by 1976 these had been replace by cattle grids, which made life easier for us but I remember a hedgehog trapped in one.

The house had apparently been built in Norman times (11th-12th centuries CE; the valley has had settlement at least since Roman times, probably longer) and you could see this in the shape. It was like a large rectangular block of dark grey stone with a slate roof and chimneys. In fact it was two houses welded together as there was two of everything: two kitchens, two lounges, two dining rooms and so on, presumably so it could be let to two families at once. It was nice to have the space and in the afternoons I would go into the spare lounge and sit in the window seat and pull the curtains closed to make my hideyhole. I would sit looking through the back issues of 'Punch' magazine that were stored there, reading all the cartoons, though given I was 7 and 9 on our two visits I do not expect I got much of the political humour, though the weekly caption competition at times seemed to produce funny material.

I also remember that incongrously there was a stone table for chopping up crabs by the front door. Wensleydale is in the middle of the country so it was unlikely to be a place where you would be preparing crabs. We needed this type of equipment some years later when my parents bought a crab for lunch when staying at a house in western France.

At the back was a yard with a huge quagmire of rotting cow dung that we used to throw stones into. I also remember sheep skulls everywhere which spooked us as we had never seen animal bones like that and to have them simply left around was rather eerie. We used to gather up the scraps of wool sheep left snagged on fences. One night my parents were awoken by a banging at the front door and thought it might be a lost hiker given that the weather was wet and windy. However, when they went to open the door they found it was two sheep huddling in the lee of the door against the bad weather. Another creature encounter came when a homing pigeon (it was a popular sport in the region at the time, we would see lorries carrying the pigeons on the road) had somehow mistaken the partially open window in the bathroom for the entrance to its pigeon loft and had flown in and was rather too scared by its surroundings to fly out again. This suggests it was not a particuarly good homing pigeon. It took quite a while for my parents to coax it back out.

Further up the hill side from the platform on which the house sat, and over a dry-stone wall was a stream which had cut a channel into the hill side as it went Eastwards from the valley rim to the floor. Me and my brother used to go there and sail sticks down the stream and bombard them with stones. One day I picked up a cube shaped stone of a yellowy colour and was about to throw it when I noticed it was literally covered in fossils of sea creatures, presumably brought from another region by the glacier. We also used to sit on the dry stone wall (these are walls famous in Yorkshire as they are not mortared and simply consist of large flat stones laid on each other to build a rough wall) and blowing the horn my mother's father, I think, had brought back from the French town of Carcasonne (renowed for its hunting festival) and doing this one day we caused the cattle in the field leading to the stream to all charge down the hill as if stampeding. Fortunately they stopped at the stream. Ironically in Norman times when the valley was heavily forested (there are few trees in it now, it is all just meadow) a man would blow a horn in Bainbridge every evening as a guide huntsmen and travellers.

If you continued up the valley side you eventually came to an exposed Roman road. We drove up there one day, the only traffic I remember was a single tractor. We stopped in what looked like the middle of nowhere and set up the table in the back of the camper van my father was driving and had our picnic with the scenery all around us. I remember it being windy up there though it was sunny. I also remember walking on a cloudy day along the valley to a village which I think must have been Bainbridge (though it may have been Burtersett), for a fete there. We won a goldfish and fed it for the remainder of the holiday in a bucket on bread. Not only did it survive that, but also the journey back home about 430 Km and a stop at my grandparents' house for lunch. The fish survived nine years, it must have been one of the toughest goldfish ever.

The thing that the area is famous for is its waterfalls. There is the triple set of Aysgarth (which featured in the 'Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves' (1991) movie and the even more impressive Hardraw Force which falls 33m and you can walk along a rock shelf that goes behind it, which as children we thought was great; this waterfall also features in the movie, despite it being over 210 Km from Nottingham. Of course in 1976 with the nationwide water shortage brought on by the incessant hot weather, these waterfalls were a shadow of what they had been in 1974. The other thing I remember about travelling around the area in 1976 was that the temperature was so hold the tar on the roads was melting and climbing out of the valleys in a 12-year old van was difficult. One day my father had to let us roll back down the hill and take a different route as we had insufficient power to climb the incline when the road was so loose.

I also remember making a number of visits to Bolton Castle (which like Leeds Castle in Kent, is not near the town it shares a name with) near Leyburn. It is was built in 1399 and is a very rectangular castle with square towers. It has remained in the hands of the same family since then, quite rare for British castles. It was a little ramshackle when we went there, I remember a pile of rubble left in the bottom of one of the towers. However, the outer shell was intact and there were bits you could go up and down. For some reason I remember we bought a book about the Ice Ages in Yorkshire from the castle shop. There was also an small, old disused artillery piece looking like it came from the 1940s, perhaps to defend Leyburn against German invasion. The shots of the interior show that in the past 33 years a lot of work has gone into smartening it up and it is now a venue for weddings and photo shoots. There were no gardens there when we went and I see they were restored in 1994 following archaeological evidence being uncovered about them and how they were there in the 16th century. I imagine they must have fallen into disuse by the 19th century when getting servants proved harder. There is a maze and even a vineyard there now.

On other days we travelled as far as Skipton where I remember the guide sheet for the castle which to me seemed to have immensely thick walls and to York where the castle on the mound and the railway museum stick in my mind and eating in a Chinese restaurant where they were suprised we did not want chips with the meal (saying that I encountered the same thing when in Ormskirk, Lancashire just recently and when I ordered a curry was asked if I wanted chips with it. I forewent the cooked breakfast at the hotel and they gave me a discount on my bill; you can see the impact of such policies in many of the locals and despite my open-minded approach to people, I found stereotypes of Yorkshire/Lancashire seeming to be real). The other trip out I remember was in 1976 walking from from Keld (the one near Richmond rather than Penrith) to Muker which is 5.1 Km by road but a couple of Km longer by footpath. It is very picturesque along the valley, but I remember it being so hot that the whole family stripped naked and went swimming in the splashpool of a waterfall along the way. You would probably get a fine these days if you tried that. I also remember the pub in Muker not letting children even come through the door so we had to sit outside in the baking sunshine at a wooden picnic table without even an umbrella while my father fetched food from inside. Of course family-friendly pubs were an invention 15-20 years away from then.

Anyway, this was another of my nostalgic postings. Wensleydale still looks like a nice place to visit on holiday and though it is clearly rather busier than back in the mid-1970s it does not seem to have been ruined. Given the availability of technology (cafes in Hawes have wi-fi) it is probably even nice if you are a child taken there for a fortnight as the technology will lighten the rainy days. Looking back I realise now that I have an ambivalent attitude to holidays there, but that is probably has more to do with the boredom factor than the location. However, in contrast to many postings I have made about trips I have organised as an adult, I realise that the two visits were far more successful than any holiday I have tried in the past decade, so for that reason it is worthwhile digging into the memories.

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