Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Dem stones

Towards the end of True North there's a section on the numinous nature of the region's wild landscape. Religious or not, visitors are seldom unmoved by landscapes such as Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, and shrines such as the little chapel of the 'Four Cs', saints Cedd, Chad, Caewlin and Cynebil, at Lastingham. One regular walker is the rock musician Julian Cope (The Teardrop Explodes, Brain Donor et al) who is greatly interested in other rocks - the mysterious monoliths and stone circles left by our ancestors in the distant past.
Penny and I, and a group of friends from my old Bradford Telegraph & Argus days, discovered the excellent circles and other remains above Boot on a week's walking holiday at the end of last month. Take the path through Eskdale Mill (run by a delightful family and still grinding flour with its two huge waterwheels), climb the fellside through an abandoned group of farm buildings and loop gently to the left. At least three circles lie in the tawny grass with views of Harter Fell one way (above) and the Scafells another. Certainly a numinous place.
Cope doesn't describe these ones but he has a good selection from the North in The Modern Antiquarian,  (Thorson's 2000), including some in places since disturbed by modern man, such as fields by the M6 at Shap. The book's only disadvantage is its vast size, a monolith in itself and impractical to take on walks.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Walk cheerfully over the world

Cumbria's fells are associated with my great namesake, Alfred Wainwright, whose seven guides to the Lake District mountains contain much interest beyond his meticulously detailed, spidery ways to the summits. As a person, alas, he holds very little appeal for me. Read Hunter Davies' biography Wainwright (Orion 2002) and I think you'll see why. More appealing in character, although not so inspired an author, was his immediate predecessor William Palmer, whose output was even more prolific than AW's. So prolific, indeed, that some suggested of his more far-flung walking guides that he might not actually have been to the southern parts of the UK which he described.

I spoke about Palmer to a meeting of the Wainwright Society a year or two ago, after a friend lent me one of his early books which had handmade drawings on the lines of AW, although nowhere nearly as accomplished. Was Palmer an influence on the great man, I speculated? Anything he could do, AW could perhaps do better? And if something such as the Palmer book could get into print, then why not Alfred's own work? It cannot be proved, I don't think, after working my way through assorted Palmer papers in the Cumbria county archive. But books such as Wanderings in the Pennines (Skeffington and Son 1951) froms whose endpapers I took this map, are an enjoyable read and have odd treasures, rather as the Pennines' barren wastes do too.

A walker really after my own heart was Benny Rothman, the Manchester Communist who played a robust part in the opening-up of miles of previously private footpaths, notably on Kinder Scout where he was arrested at the Mass Trespass in 1932. I devote a long section in True North to the radiant idealism of men such as Rothman and the joy which they took not only in the hills and wilderness - something eloquently shared by Wainwright - but more important, in seeing their fellow human beings indulging in the same delights. AW surely had that deep down, but he knew how to hide it. Rothman and his pals feature deservedly and heroically in Freedom to Roam by Howard Hill, published by Moorland in 1980. Does anyone recognise my title for this post btw? It's George Fox's famous instruction to Quakers, which continues: "answering that of God (or we might also read Good, MW) in everyone."

Lights, action, lakes, mountains...

When you get to Cumbria, one of the joys is the Theatre by the Lake in Keswick, the classy phoenix which rose from the ashes, or at to be more mundanely accurate, the departure of the famous old Blue Box mobile stage. My family and I had a memorable evening in the latter during its final Cumbrian days, swaying in the wind as we gripped our seats in the curious assembly of a convoy of lorries which adapted - like one of the 'transformer' children's toys which were a fad at the time - into a full scale theatre, complete with auditorium and ice-cream girls. Alan Hankinson tells the story of this Northern wonder in The Blue Box, published by Bookcase in 2009. My illustrious colleague on The Guardian in the North, David Ward, has brought the story up to date in sparkling style with Encore!, also published last year by Bookcase, which tells how the fine new building came to be. The original Blue Box is now at Snibston, near Coalville in Leicestershire, no longer mobile but up and running under its proper title of the Century Theatre -  see 

Much instruction and joy is to be had from both, as from a plethora of local histories of West Cumbria, the Lake District's plain sister, where I hoovered up booklets such as this The Parish of Lamplugh, edited by Betty Marshall and Anne Lister and published in1993 by Lamplugh parish council. I was enjoying a week with friends in the serene beauty of Ennerdale at the time. Reading the booklet at night, after crawling up to bed following a day on Pillar or Gable, reminded me usefully of the great industries which flourished - Seker, Marshon et al - and still flourish - Sellafield notably - so close to the quiet paradise of the fells. And of those which flourished and still flourish in the heart of the National Park, such as the slate-mining at the top of the Honister Pass. The sky doesn't really look like that at Lamplugh, btw, Sellafield nothwithstanding.

North-Westward Ho!

No one has complained (yet) but the last few posts have been shamelessly Yorkshirist. Time to go somewhere else, and how better than on the Settle and Carlisle railway line? The southern extension of this to Leeds, and ultimately London, runs below my house in the Aire valley near Apperley Bridge; and I was looking at the most dramatic point on the whole line only on Sunday, when a group of us strode in bright sunshine from Ribblehead to Oughtershaw. The famous viaduct and the ghostly site of its once swarming 'Navvy Town' was behind us all the way.

It is hard to believe, nowadays, that the line very nearly closed in the 1980s. The Battle for the Settle & Carlisle by James Towler (Platform 5 Publishing 1990) tells how determined and knowledgeable community activists saved the day. Towler, who died in 1999, was a mighty warrior who was once told by an opponent: "The trouble with you is, you travel on too many trains." How pleased he would be, today, to see how the line which he helped to save, as the dogged and learned chair of the north's regional transport users' consultative committee, has become a thread connecting regeneration between the West Riding and the Cumbrian-Scottish border.

Cumbria. That means floods, and much has been written about recent ones, from Carlisle's inundation in 2005 to Workington and Cockermouth's devastation last year. Coincidentally this excellent study Floods in North West England: a history c.1600-2008, came out from the Centre for North-West Regional Studies at Lancaster university in December, the 16th, impressively, of their occasional papers. I must collect the other 15. It was providential to me, putting some of the more dramatic headlines and analyses into a long, soaking context of unruly rivers and rain. I apologise to the joint authors for my inept scanning which has removed their names. They are Sarah Watkins and Ian Whyte.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

God's own council

One of the great shames of modern life is the absence of the West Riding county council, which was probably the best local authority ever known. Its combination of Labour members from what is now South Yorkshire, Liberals from the textile belt and Tories from around Ripon made for an atmosphere of vigorous but co-operative debate; a sort of coalition atmosphere before its time. As mentioned several times already on this blog, it also employed the greatest local authority education officer ever known in the UK, Sir Alec Clegg. I was reassured (with justification as it later turned out) when my two sons went to our local high school, Benton Park, and I read that it was originally commissioned by Clegg (who, typically, used a leading firm of architects, Sir John Burnet, Tait and Partners. In Sheffield, he commissioned a comprehensive from Sir Basil Spence. Shades of Zaha Hadid designing the new Evelyn and Grace Academy in Brixton; trying to raise everyone's game).

I read anything I can about the WRCC, and declaim at talks, to the point of tedium, my nostrum about schooldays when I was proud to come not only from England's biggest county (Yorkshire, of course) but also its second biggest (the West Riding, which was larger on its own than rivals such as Lincolnshire or Devon). The West Riding County Council 1889-1974 by Brendan Barber and Maurice Beresford (published by the successor West Yorks Met County Council in 1979) is a concise introduction. Its cover may inspire you to go to Wakefield where the original County Hall is well-maintained, down to the proud stone collars carved with WRCC which hold in place its mighty drainpipes. Meanwhile publications such as Leeds Archives 1938-1988 (West Yorkshire Archive Service 1988) show the continuing lively existence of some services which the WRCC ran so well. The splendid Headingley Test ground lawnmower and other ancient material shown in the picture at the top come from that.


Leeds has an interesting tradition of thoughtful architects, from Cuthbert Brodrick who built the mighty Town Hall (and then retired very young to live with a mysterious woman in a Paris suburb), to the current Civic Architect, John Thorp. John is the last person in Britain to hold this title, and has lived to see the city's architecture department shrink to himself from over 400 staff - such has been the reduction of directly-run municipal services in the UK. John's book on his skilful and patient 'urban dentistry' in modern Leeds is due out in the next year and much anticipated. Meanwhile, I have made use of, and much recommend, these books: Leeds, the back-to-front, inside-out, upside-down city (Stile Books 1979) a short but typically original series of ideas about the city by the late Patrick Nuttgens, who was professor of architecture at York university before becoming director of Leeds Polytechnic, now Leeds Metropolitan university. And How to be a Happy Architect (Black Dog Publishing 2008) a similar sparky collection of notions from Irena Bauman, who stirs up things architecture and planning-related most successfully in contemporary Leeds.

Barnsley chaps

The Aspects of... series is one Britain's biggest and best collection of books on local history and - Hooray - its publishers Wharncliffe are based in Barnsley. Their excellence lies in commissioning local historians to contribute examples of original research which build up fascinating local histories, free of the endless recycling and repetition which - however useful for an introduction or general knowledge - limited the use of guidebooks for True North. This volume on Barnsley itself, for instance - and note that it's the fourth - has pieces on a shepherd, a Victorian 'magnetic healer' called The Superlative Professor Best, and mediaeval stained glass. There's also a fascinating piece on two brothers called Illingworth, sons of a Barnsley farm labourer, whose energies were released by emigration to the United States where both became steel-making magnates and millionaires. The cover of this volume also points up the way that the series reveals the whole context to cliched images of placess. You wouldn't maybe think that this vast mansion was in Barnsley. But it is, Wentworth Castle, sister stone elephant to Wentworth Woodhouse mentioned three posts below. It now flourishes as the Northern College, which gives a second chance at higher education to those who missed out first time. The gradual restoration of its gardens (one of the best rhododendron collections in the UK, among other things) has also won many awards.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Breaching the peace

Considering the strength of the average Yorkshire Tyke's sense of identity, it's interesting how many battles have taken place across the county. I remember being taken to Marston Moor (1644) when I was still at primary school - actually because my father was campaigning at the time for Parliament to be moved there from Westminster (it's a nice open space close to York and a move would still be an excellent plan). A street in east Leeds called Penda's Way recalls the elusive battle of Winwaedsfield (655), whose supposed site shifts about wildly depending on archaeology's latest metal-detecting extravaganza. Wherever it took place, it was hugely influential in Britain's progress from paganism to Christianity. The Northumbrians beat the Mercians ten-nil. Yo!

Another great local battle always fascinates my mother, ever since she was told as a child that the Cock beck on the outskirts of Leeds, towards Tadcaster, flowed red with blood for days afterwards. This probably was the case, since the Roses battle of Towton (1461) was the bloodiest ever fought on British soil. Some 26,000 men died (but the Yorkists won, so that was all right). We've also got Stamford Bridge (1066) and a sea battle off Flamborough Head (1779) which I've written about in the Guardian many times because divers are always trying to find the main ship involved - the Bonhomme Richard, whose commander Paul Jones was the buccaneering first 'admiral' of the American rebel fleet which won the engagement. Even more embarrassing for the Royal Navy than HMS Astute's recent problems off Skye. Yorkshire Battlefields by Ivan Broadhead (Robert Hale 1989) has been a trusty friend.

Well met by moonlight

There was a time when many people would have been unable to complete the artist's name on this catalogue, which I have only managed to scan in part. Not any more. Just last week, a painting by the Leeds policeman's son John Atkinson Grimshaw went for over £100,000 at auction in Alnwick, Northumberland. The couple selling the moonlit study of Liverpool's Salthouse dock had bought it for £100 in the 1960s. That was in London's Burlington Arcade whose dealers always charge premium prices. The value of money has changed since then, but only enough to mean that the £100 is worth £1440 today.

What is it about Atkinson Grimshaw? Easy, most people would say. The moonlight. And there is another example of a point I bang on about in True North: the fact that easy cliches about dark grimness in our region are tosh. The book gives lots of examples of Northern light, from Leverhulme's Port Sunlight on the Wirral to 1930s Fresh Air & Light schools in colliery towns all over the region. Grimshaw is another example and I specially like his work because, as the introduction to the book featured in my picture says, "Grimshaw's moonlight fell on all his subjects, from landscapes to city streets. Always, though, there are people about..." Their presence (even though I have failed to scan in the oarsmen and other figures on my picture, maybe because it's of London...) is another attraction of the True North. The book, incidentally, is the Catalogue of Leeds City Art Gallery's exhibition in 1979 which gave the AG revival legs. The introduction is by Dr David Broomfield who was then head of art at Liverpool Polytechnic, and a Grimshaw specialist.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Making do

I argue the case in the book True North that the tradition of inventive manufacturing up here is alive and well. The story of the late Jimi Heselden is an example which I would like to add to future editions: a charismatic inventor who used his mining redundancy after the 1984/5 strike to set up a hugely-successful business making his Bastion gabions which defend NATO bases and hold back floodwaters all over the world. He also illustrated another argument which I try to make - that many of the industrialists were great philanthropists too, a tradition obscured in both social history and - especially - fiction by the dramatic struggle of the workers against less enlightened employers. I don't mean to plug my operations generally, but I recently tried to make this point on Comment is Free on the Guardian's website - see - after attending Heselden's funeral, held at his factory. The thread was interestingly sympathetic.

Anyway, here are a few books relating to this subject. First, from the very non-industrial paradise of the Hambleton Hills, comes Robert Thompson, the Mouseman of Kilburn by Peter Thompson (Dalesman 1979) which tells the story of the famous woodcarver whose mice delight children (and others) who hunt them down in churches and other places where Mousey's work is to be found. The skill is what normally excites people about Thompson, but I also admire a man, son of the village joiner, who set up a lasting business and prompted many others to start. I remember doing a Guardian piece about the remarkable cluster of furniture-makers which has grown up around Thirsk, including Antony Gormley's older brother John, sadly deceased, who started the firm of Treske, by Thirsk train station.

I referred to Sir Titus Salt in my Comment is Free piece, and I have mentioned some of the many, instructive books about him in posts below. Less well-known is Sir James Roberts, who bought and rescued Salt's (and the village of Saltaire) when the mill went bust in 1892. He revived both and is properly remembered by Roberts Park, on the far side of the river Aire from the village. I've got this excellent article from the Yorkshire Journal about him, Silk-hatted Bradford Millionaire by Peggy Hewitt, which she sent me in a photocopy. The YJ was a beautiful and interesting but short-lived production in the 1990s and early 2000s by Smith Settle of Otley.

Finally for now, you can still find excellent bargains at the works outlet shops of Northern businesses. This Factory Shop Guide by Gillian Cutress and Rolf Stricker, who first published it themselves in 1987, is out-of-date now and such things are largely replaced by the internet. But we used it to our advantage, as sweeping velvet curtains bought at a bargain price from the factory shop in Lister's titanic old mills on the hilltop in Manningham, Bradford, remind all visitors to Wainwright Towers.

Get ready for a bit of reading

Aaah... Bit more time now, with my companion moths blog just gone into hibernation. So I will try to catch up after the very erratic progress of True North in recent months. Sorry.

I was on the M1 near Rotherham this week and just caught a glimpse of Keppel's Column, one of the four great follies on the Wentworth estate (above, from above and beautifully betrayed to GoogleMaps by its shadow), whose history and beauty - as a great dark hole at night amid all the lights of urban South Yorkshire - is so well described in Catherine Bailey's Black Diamonds, praised in a post some time ago. Follies are always fun to see and explore, but they almost always have a deeper interest; in the case of the Wentworth ones, they introduced me to the strength of support in 18th century England for the American rebels. The Wentworths, including the Marquis of Rockingham who was twice Prime Minister, were staunchly in this camp. Their own, Northern, sense of independence was one of the reasons why. As for Keppel, he was another sympathiser with the Americans, a highly political admiral who was also an MP and would, I am sure, be full of comments about British foreign policy were he alive today.

Follies and similar curiosities are everywhere in the North. Just two examples of books which have helped me with them, for now, but I'll add others. The Story of Nun Monkton by Rosemary Enright, a beautifully-produced and characterfully-written book, published by a group of local villagers, has this nice picture of the Payler monument in the Priory's grounds. It serves as an excellent introduction to the dead end community near York, where the Alice Hawthorn pub, named after a racehorse, has - thank goodness - reopened after a period of closure.

The East Riding Treasure Hunt by Howard Peach (Smith Settle 1995) is full of goodies in this, often-overlooked part of the North. My favourite is the Waggoners' Memorial at Sledmere, erected by Sir Mark Sykes to honour 1200 farmworkers from his estate who formed an expert battalion of horse-handlers in the First World War ( a similar operation to that so eloquently dramatised by Michael Morpurgo in The War Horse). I especially like it in part because it gave me the chance to fulfill one of my ambitions - to get the word 'wainwright' into The Guardian as a common noun. Sad, I know, but we all have these whims.