To the cynics, the world has been totally mapped and digested. There are no more unknown places, and certainly not in Britain—the most written-about country on earth. But Yorkshire, with its steeply undulating dales, its long austere moors, its rough coast, is very much an unknown place, even to Britons.
The locals go further. The locals will tell you that Yorkshire, for all its beauty, simply does not exist. Your map may confirm this, and refer to the North Riding, West Riding, and East Riding—boundaries that are still used by everybody except the government. But Yorkshire?
“Noo such place,” a white-haired, corpulent under-sheriff in York told me. “There you have it, sir. Just the three ridings. ‘Riding’ cooms froom ‘thriding,’ which means three. That’s why there’s noo South Riding. Simple enough.”
Fortunately I’d already decided on a route, and wouldn’t let myself be swayed by such controversy. I would start in the ancient town of Yor k—easily accessible from London. Swing westward and through the dales, James Herriot country, for several days. Cross east-northeast to the moors. Finish my week by veering sharply up to Whitby, birthplace of Dracula and Captain Cook, then wend my way down the coast (all journeys should end by the sea). Thus, I thought, I might discover Yorkshire’s existence for myself.
I took the bullet train northbound one morning from London, in October sunlight, and watched suburbs give way rapidly to neat fields and meadows with sheep grazing like tiny clouds. My elderly taxi driver in York, like most Yorkshiremen, was at heart a philosopher, and like most philosophers he’d discovered that a life of thought does not pay suitably. He was also, he said, not really a local.
“Noo. sir. Far from it. I’m from twelve mile oop the road. Use’ t’be a farmer, meself. But too mooch o’ the hard labor, ’n’ me back’s gone out. I tell you, if I had it all t’do o’er again, I wouldn’a work atchall. Not the hard labor. Wears out the joints. I’d ha’ me soom cooshy job, in the government, like. And I’d practice the yooga every day. There ye have the problem with the world. Not enough o’ the yooga. If everybody spent their time readin’ o’ the Good Book and practicin’ the yooga. we wouldn’a ha’ so mooch trouble today.”
He let me off in King’s Square, where I bought a baked potato at a street oven that looked like a miniature locomotive, and set off to explore the shops and hidden churches in the squeezed narrow streets. York has been a Roman walled town, a Viking walled town with merchant contacts as far away as the Black Sea, and a medieval English walled town. Though only two and a half miles square, it seems much larger due to such a concentration of influences, and I took my driver’s advice and walked around the top of the most recent set of walls to get a sense of the town before descending. Because Yorkshire is mainly villages and hamlets and lone farmhouses, York’s comparative size can be misleading.
The town was all style and atmosphere: rare-book dealers. expensive antique stores of all kinds, confectioners, tea shops, handknit-wool shops. York was England the way Americans wish it to be—cobblestoned England, country-squire England. Dickens’ England. There were pubs with names like the Golden Fleece and Trafalgar Bay, all full of Americans. Occasionally, passing the fashionable shops, I felt I was being asked to furnish a Masterpiece Theater set.
But this was history, too, for York has been a trading center for centuries, situated on the river Ouse (pronounced “ooze”) that leads conveniently to the sea. The 9th century Vikings, after their usual pillaging and raping along the coast, quieted down and made York as much of an international arts-and-crafts center as it is today. So the merchant tradition, and the slightly dour Viking expression, are in York’s blood. All the streets are called “gate”—Micklegate, St. Saviourgate, Whip-ma Whop-ma Gate—but despite the Shakespearian sound, the suffix “gate” derives from the Norse word for “street”. The same holds true for many of the place names.
I’d been warned not to visit York because of the fire a summer before at the great church, the York Minster, which dates back to the 13th century. There’d been much speculation—and exaggeration—about the July fire, started by a bolt of lightning one night. Only a day earlier, the extremely controversial Bishop of Durham had been ordained right in the south transept, and many were still calling the fire an act of God.
If so it was a small gesture, since fortunately only the south transept roof burned—about ten per cent of the total, gigantic roof area. At evensong in the late afternoon, as the voices of the hidden choir rose and echoed up the nave, it was easy to walk across the great stones toward the altar and feel oneself a pilgrim to this grace. These Gothic British churches, with their soaring limestone and arched stained-glass windows, are as expansive, as clean to the mind, as an open meadow. They are a human equivalent of the dales; they give a sense of infinite space without an oppressive hugeness, and they never fail to exhilarate—perhaps because they are places where, as T. S. Eliot put it, “prayer has been valid.”
Within twenty minutes’ drive from York lie several of the “stately houses” of Britain, including Harewood House. I plumped for Castle Howard, where much of the TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited was filmed. Driving up the long colonnade of trees—so familiar, from the series—I kept expecting soundtrack music. As Horace Walpole wrote, “Nobody had informed me that at one view I should see a palace, a town. a fortified city, temples on high places, woods worthy of being each a metropolis of the Druids, the noblest lawn in the world fenced by half the horizon, and a mausoleum that would tempt one to be buried alive; in short, I have seen gigantic palaces before, but never a sublime one.”
What I fear he exaggerated was the taste of the whole extravaganza. There is something unfeeling about taking a beautiful site in the heart of Yorkshire, bounded on one side by a brimming lake and on the other by the serene dales, getting Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor to create an architectural marvel of a palace and a series of stately gardens, then filling them both with an unending catalogue of relics from the classical and ancient world: drab paintings of the Colosseum surrounded by nymphs, copies of copies of Greek and Roman statues, third-rate plunder. On the grounds, among mythological statues, stood a needlelike obelisk and a giant pyramid, absurd against the English countryside. Peacocks were strutting among the maze-like hedges. Around Atlas, rising from a fountain to hold up the world, several mermen were all blowing trumpets, and the net effect of Castle Howard was just that: too much trumpet-blowing. It was like a monument to vain collectors everywhere, and the splendor of the house and gardens could not counteract that impression. Castle Howard looked as if it were waiting for the right Texan to come along and buy it, and I came away hoping that the televised version—inside, you can see the staircase on which Sebastian, played by Anthony Andrews, crumpled and wept—would persist more strongly in memory than the house itself.
In Harrogate, west along the A59, under a glowering grey sky I went for a walk in the Valley Gardens, just past the great Royal Baths. Elderly women with spry dogs and men strolling with canes were also ignoring the weather. Together we passed a long bank of dahlias, in purples and yellows and reds and pinks and blues. It was like an exuberant reef of flowers, built up over the years until they were as tall as I. Small signs on stakes gave the names of the dahlias: Respectable, Tangle, Bloodstone, even the Vicar of Copthorne.
Nearby, in the center of the gardens, was a wishing well with the bronze figure of a baby clambering over its lip to peer in. Past it a merry-go-round was slowly revolving, though there was nobody on it.
In these winding gardens, with grand hotels peering from among tall trees, Harrogate seemed like the Britain that had been fought for in the war. four decades ago now. It was a kind of ideal Britain, far from the slums of London, from punk fashions and even, it seemed, from Yorkshire miners’ strikes. Beside me a man in spectacles said, “Mind you, it’s trying to rain.” As he spoke, fat droplets started to come down, and we both ran for cover. Even the sky looked amazed.
I’d stayed a couple of nights in York, and now I shifted to Bolton Abbey as a good central location for the dales. One morning I set out early, while mists still hovered, holding the fresh light. I drove along close-shaded lanes and up narrow climbing roads, with stone walls, lumpen as fallen cakes, higher than the car on both sides.
As the mists lifted the dales were revealed, valley after valley, and the sight was almost too much for the astonished eye—a swelling sea of vivid green, its currents marked by stone walls, its horizons bounded by trees being swept along on its flood. Sheep, too, were swimming slowly across the beautiful green vistas, making themselves at home—but it was the walls that most attracted one’s eye.
These wobbly stone barriers, intricate and lichened, had seemingly insinuated themselves all over the tumbling landscape, so that they appeared inseparable from it—as if they’d been there so long they’d been able to take root and spread out of their own accord. Their jumbled appearance made light of their permanence, for many dated back to the 13th century and few were more recent than 1789, when a government act dictating how property divisions must be marked was passed by Parliament. As they crisscrossed the dales they gave each valley a discreet, if unfathomable, order; and their stalwart decay brought back Robert Frost’s line: Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.
They were more than just picturesque fences for wandering sheep, however. A Yorkshire sheep farmer uses the walls as a kind of diet, for he moves his flock from a contained grazing pasture in one season to another wall-enclosed pasture in the next. The result is a vast network of walls climbing over the dales—a system that sometimes fails, since one frequently sees stray sheep. Indeed, several farmers confessed to me that there were just too many to keep track of. even though farmers often mark their sheep with blue dye, in a telltale blotch on the back.
One sheepfarmer said to me, “And do you know. sir, that’s why when you go to purchase a blue sweater, it’s so expensive? Can you imagine how many o’ the creatures it takes to make up that much blue wool?”
I drove up through Appletreeswick. and across a small bridge rocking-horsing over a brook. In tiny Burnsall the gardens were wealthy with roses, and the rising sun caught the few white houses among the usual grey stone ones and made them into white handkerchiefs tossed across the greenswards.
In Grassington, steeply laid out across its dale, wood smoke was rising from chimneys, and the scent made me stop to walk around. Everywhere I saw tall, irregular walking-sticks leaned against garden walls. On Rymer’s Fruit Shop, on the white stone outside, a sign read:
This shop is the original smidy
owned by the notorious
in the year 1766.
Inside, a young blonde girl with a milkmaid smile explained the enigmatic “notorious”.
“He was the blacksmith, y’see. And he was a terrible criminal. He used to murder and rob the local miners when they got paid. But the doctor, y’see, found out, so Tom Lee waits till dark one night the doctor was makin’ rounds. Then Tom murders him, and buries him up in Grasswoods. But all the peat kept the body preserved, so old Tom went to throw the doctor off a cliff. Down in Burnsall. But it was a moonlit night, they say. and everybody saw him and that was the end. They hanged him, down in York.”
It was a fine story to hear on a crisp autumn morning—it seemed to say a good deal about unchanging attitudes toward the medical profession. Outside the shop, I could see wood smoke dispersing across the dales. Here they had an innocent beauty, and seemed to convey a full sense of life. A few stone houses always stood in view, a brook, an old church, a bank of trees, the slow curve of the dale’s edge against the deepening sky. Sheep were always seeing to their duties, keeping the grass cut, sleeping fitfully, or kneeling as if in prayer. They never seemed to notice my car.
As I drove north there were fierce outcroppings of white rock, high up the dales. I drove across to Arncliffe, the landscape changing dramatically from fervent green to a rusted gold that was almost like Kansas. In Giggleswick were boy’s schools hidden in copses, with the uniformed lads trooping down the muddy lanes past herds of cows, carrying valises and soccer shoes and calling to each other in high purling voices. Settle, slightly larger, was a small market town where dale dwellers might come down to have a drink or buy groceries.
All these villages—some only a cluster of half a dozen stone houses, one of which (at least) might be abandoned—had their own individual atmospheres. But here was the eerie thing: often they seemed uninhabited. In the smaller hamlets, especially, I rarely saw anybody about. Perhaps all sorts activity was going on behind closed doors, but it remained secret to me; and since I travel in order to enter another way of life, “to un-self myself” as V. S. Pritchett says, I felt I was missing a great deal of the true life of Yorkshire. My one regret of my week was that I did not leave a night or two open, to simply stop in one of these hamlets and stay in a bed-and-breakfast cottage or a farmhouse with a family. Many caught my eye; it would’ve been easy. Yorkshire, it seemed, had little to do with my inns.
The next morning in Bolton Abbey I borrowed a pair of Wellingtons, since it had rained heavily in the night, and walked along the Wharfe River. The banks were richly green, with gigantic trees so thick they made the land look curly-headed. Just up the bank, mists were drifting among the tall ruins of the 12th century priory. (Later, owing to the Reformation, the tower was abandoned at the level of the nave roof.)
To see the far pastures through the empty archways, the small trees growing hardily from the old blanched stone, the cows idly assembling before the abbey, the silver winding river, was more moving, I thought, than if the abbey had been whole. Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang, sang Shakespeare. Grass covered the stones in an open part of the priory ruin, forming a fine carpet, but beside the ruin the main part of the abbey was intact, with medieval stained glass, fresh flowers on the altar, and finely-carved narrow pews.
“How impressive, then,” wrote Henry James, “must the beautiful church have been in the days of its prosperity, when the pilgrim came down to it from the grassy hillside and its bells made the stillness sensible.” Bolton Abbey, half-ruin, half immaculate living church, made me think that of all the abbeys I saw across the dales—including Byland, Rievaux, Jervaulx—those in semi-ruin seemed most accessible, most at ease. Set in the landscape like stone islands of faith in a sea of perpetual grass, they seemed to imply, half-fallen, that some compromise had been reached—a bridge between man and nature.
That afternoon I made a brief pilgrimage to the Bronte parsonage at Haworth, a rather bleak industrial town to the southwest. (There’s an entire other Yorkshire, made up of towns like Leeds and Haworth, full of the “dark satanic mills” that Blake wrote of.) Haworth, where the three writing Bronte sisters spent their adult lives, has changed considerably since their day, when it was simply a country settlement.
Nowadays it is the second most-visited literary shrine in England, after Stratford-on-Avon, and it shows the strain. The parsonage-museum, with its small graveyard and church, is unfortunately surrounded by tourist junk-shops of a quaint “Bronte village” type, and so little of real note remains that unless one is really passionate about the Brontes, it seems hardly worth a visit. A better, deeper homage would be to study the books closely and spend time in the specific Yorkshire countrysides—the moors, for instance—they wrote of with such feeling.
After Haworth I made my way north into the dales again. On the road past Cray, on top of the dale, there was a wilder feeling—gashes across the land—and the afternoon light caught the walls so they looked like dark grooves in the slopes.
In West Burton, said by James Herriot to be “possibly the most beautiful village in all England”, a boy walked past me swinging his coat sleeves around and around lackadaisically, and biting his lip. The village proper (I would nominate West Tainforth as competition) ran neatly on either side of a green, and up into hillside farms. Following a narrow track I came upon two horses, one brown and one a flecked white. When I produced some raw carrots bought in Ilkley and whistled the horses over, they both managed to fit their eager heads through the open car windows while I fed them.
Coming across Stainton Moor, at the northern tip of the dales, in the middle of miles of wild bracken and heather a young mother was wheeling her baby carriage while a grey dog, tongue lolling, came following patiently after. The road back to Kettlewell and Grassington followed the river valley all the way, and here the land seemed to have a more experienced beauty: it was less stately, and the river gave it a wildness.
All the dales—there are more than a hundred—have their own distinctive personality. It may be difficult to state it with precision, but there is no mistaking it once you’re there; and these distinctions have rubbed off on the people. “Each dale has its own accent,” a wiry man named Terry Parker told me. Parker runs the James Herriot Walking Tours and other Yorkshire treks with Lord Willie Peel (descendant of the Prime Minister who started the bobbies) out of Grassington. “Each dale has its own character, and this is why a dalesman would consider which dale he was from more important than which village, and speak of going up-dale or down-dale, to market, say.”
Part of the beauty of each village was sensing its position in a dale, its importance relative to the other nearby villages, and in the small distinctions: how the houses faced the green, or stood apart, or nestled near an abbey. As the days flew past and my eye grew more experienced, I began to see hidden beauties—the precise lilt and fall of a country road among trees, or the white trim on a grey cottage, tempered by fiery scarlet creepers.
In Middleham, a market town with great medieval gates, I wandered up a hill to see the castle where Richard III—in reality, nothing like the monster Shakespeare described—wooed and married Lady Anne Neville. Set looking across a plain, the castle’s jumbled remains were suggestive of the complex castle life of the times, and it was amusing to think that without the play, Richard would be just another half-forgotten monarch with a short untidy reign. As it is, he seems more vivid in our minds than many of our closest relatives.
Crossing toward the moors the next day, near Ripon, I found myself driving slowly behind a man pedalling methodically along on an old bicycle with a woven basket perched on the handlebars. He had buttermilk hair and a snub face, and he wore a dusty blue jacket. He kept such a steady speed, as if he were walking, that I pulled alongside to talk to him. On his jacket lapel was a red badge with gold lettering: Royal Mail Service.
“So you’re the postman,” I called out. In his basket was a modest pile of letters peeping from a brown sack.
“Aye, that I am.” He cocked his head and kept pedalling. “’At’s why I ha’n’t been knoighted yet.”
“Do you have far to go every day?”
“’Bout sixteen moiles,” he said shortly. “Keeps me fit enough. Still, I ha’n’t been knoighted yet.”
I drove past Thornborough to Thirsk for market day. In Yorkshire the market shifts from town to town on different days. and a wise visitor will be careful to find the local schedule and catch the market somewhere. Thirsk had its town square lined with barrows of fresh vegetables and fruit, sweaters knitted from local wool, household hardware, fresh toffees and cheeses, baked goods, animal supplies, and every manner of clothing. People seemed to have descended from all across the nearby moors to do their shopping for the week.
In looking for a place to park in Thirsk I inadvertently found the veterinary office of one James Herriot, author of All Things Bright and Beautiful and All Creatures Great and Small, among others. Despite vast literary success, Herriot still maintains a practice along with the Siegfried of the books; though as Siegfried’s brother Tristram told me, “Nowadays it’s five million Americans for every Alsatian.”
It may come as news to some readers that none of these names is correct, that “James Herriot” is a pseudonym, though enough fans have discovered his true identity to warrant the sign outside the office door: James Herriot away on vacation, regret no autographs.
Beside it was a windowbox of flowers, and ivy climbed the white stone; up the road a hundred yards stood the church where Herriot and his wife were married— the scene will be familiar to his readers. (The town of Darrowby of the books is a conglomeration of Thirsk and Leyburn.) I will not give Herriot’s real name, though it is no secret in Yorkshire, nor is the office’s location—but while the good veterinarian maintains his professional practice, it is fair to warn avid readers that he only sees people “on literary matters” between two and two-thirty on Friday afternoons, after surgery.
I was there at the right time, but I’d caught him on holiday, and Siegfried was out on call. Still, there out front hung the original placque that was the honeymoon present to Herriot from Siegfried, offering him partnership in the practice—and it brought all the stories back.
After the frustration of the Bronte tourist trap and the absence of Dr. Herriot, I had little hope in a literary venture to Coxwold, skirting the moors, to Laurence Sterne’s Shandy Hall. But Sterne, the preacher who wrote most of the abundant Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey in Coxwold, is a writer who never fails to give pleasure, and his house and small village were no exception.
Until twenty years ago the house was on the edge of decrepitude and abandon, before it was taken on, in trust, by husband-and-wife Sternists named Monkman. They have restored the house and turned its garden and study and dining room into living homages to the writer.
Most houses lose a great deal by becoming museums, by not being lived in, but with the exception of Sterne’s study—lined with the appropriate old editions of the works that were in his library—the house is fully used. Rowlandson prints of authors quarreling with publishers, 19th century illustrations of Sterne’s characters, caricatures of Sterne himself, give the place the exact perfume of Sterne’s work—and anybody visiting the intimate village and house will come away with far more interest in reading (or re-reading) the works than, say, a Haworth visitor. The house became Sterne’s in the last seven years of his life, when he’d all but retired from preaching. His writings show how happy he was in Coxwold, near the abbey on whose grounds he lies buried, under a jesting tombstone of his own devising.
In a Helmsley pub where I stopped for lunch I asked a thin-haired man with a peering gaze how Yorkshire folk were different from the rest of the English.
“For one thing, they’re t’only ones that’ll talk to ye. T’others have all their noses stook in t’air. I wen’ down t’ London t’other day an’ t’only man wit’ any sense to ’im was a taxi driver. Well, lad, when it cooms to that stage o’ things— ” He broke off to watch a man hoist up his trousers and slide tenpence into a gambling machine. “T’ere goes another fool,” he muttered.
On the moors—with a more savage, serene beauty than the lush dales—I stopped in tiny Beckhole, by some sheep, to have tea at the Birch Hall Inn by a fire and listen to the drumming rain outside. The moors were a dramatic world unto themselves, higher than I’d anticipated, with occasional sharp chasms. Walls were rarer now, and generally in real disrepair, and the villages seemed less related to each other, more solitary and independent. There was no sense, on the moors, of a dale’s scattered but strong community; and yet in these pubs there was photograph after photograph of members of local quoits or darts teams. I decided that the moors’ relative bleakness made each village more tight and friendly within itself.
It was hard to believe, though, that here on the moors I was only a few miles from the ocean. But as I drove on the sky seemed lower and, in the cloudy distance, scars of sunlight indicated clearing over the sea. Then, unexpectedly as I topped a rise, the sea hove into sight, so high a horizon line that at first I thought it was a bank of clouds. It was a thrill after being so long inland to sees gulls mewing above me. When the road dipped I was back in the moors again, and it was difficult to imagine the town of Whitby, on the coast, only ten miles away—since the difference was an entire way of life.
Whitby is a packed harbor town with curious associations. Bram Stoker, trying to leave a life of theater management behind, wrote Dracula there in the summer of 1890, taking a fashionable house on Whitby’s West Cliff. The town figures in the book, though the Count himself never sets foot or fang in England. But Stoker used a number of that summer’s real events in his novel—like a captainless ship coming into harbor —thereby starting a rumor that Whitby was the true home of the vampire.
Whitby was, in the afternoon, a very un-eerie place. The toy houses set above the toy harbor, with fishing-boats bobbing in the nearly Nordic light, gave the place a cheery aspect, and a seaside seediness too. The tumult of the sheer coast bespoke the great mariners produced here, including Captain James Cook, who got his training in Whitby for twelve years as a young man, and whose statue looked out to sea from one bluff.
On another bluff the vast skeleton of a medieval abbey gazed across the harbor at wide-shouldered, turn-of-the-century hotels along an esplanade. Farther up the coast, two dark cliffs thrust into the sea like the paws of a lion.
Late in the day I walked out a long, high pier beside the lighthouse at the harbor entrance. The wind was chill, and the North Sea was raging. At the end of the pier a lone man was fishing, his rod propped against the railing. He had his hands in the pockets of his dark pea-coat, and the hood up.
“How’s the fishing today?”
He gave me a timid smile. “Very quiet today.” He seemed glad of company. “But I’ve had some quiet times out here, and I’ve had some breezy times. I caught the fishing bug when I was eight, and this is me fiftieth year in Whitby. I took a long rest from the fishing, though, and I’m only just now returning.”
“Why the long rest?”
“Domestic issues.” He gave the rod a tug. “Me wife didn’t like me coming out here. But I decided to leave her in the house today and go back to it.” He glanced out at the roiled surface of the sea. “Herds of white horses out there today.”
I wished him luck and continued down the coast to Robin Hood’s Bay, the prettiest town I saw by the sea. Jammed into niches in the cliffs, Robin Hood’s Bay had houses with names like Sherwood Cottage and Bow Cottage. Lifeboats were pulled up from the water at a narrow slip between two pubs, and lanes connected the different mezzanines of the village. It was like a small fantasy place of pack-and-jam cottages looking over each other’s shoulders to the sea, with gently sloping roofs and a few cafes and one black and white cat licking itself on a gatepost.
Night had fallen, and I drove down the coast to Scarborough. In morning light the great bay looked idyllic, with its wide curved beach and massive shoulders of dark cliff. A few people were walking their dogs among the tidepools, and the huge white hotels on the cliffs above—where people came for their “hols”—looked down benignly.
This was where Yorkshire folk came to look out to sea, turning their backs on the more private oceans of the dales and the moors. In summer the town would be packed; now it seemed just right, enough people to nod to and still have it for oneself. It seemed the place to end my journey.
I ate breakfast and walked beside the pummeling surf for an hour, watching the fishing boats lope out to sea. Earlier, in the ballroom of one of the Victorian hotels, I’d seen elderly Yorkshire couples, in Scarborough for the weekend, dancing to the lilting strains of record-player tunes from the time of their courtships. Now, glancing up the cliffs from the beach, I could still see them through those high windows, like phantoms waltzing to old silent songs. I watched them as the mist burned off the water; the bellowing surf was their accompaniment now. When the far dancing stopped, I climbed a staircase up the cliffs and started back to York.