My life has come full circle. Many of my earliest memories come from Sandhutton, current population 260, where my mother was head teacher of a two-teacher school which educated all the village children between five and fifteen years old. These days I visit the village weekly – it’s less than ten miles away. The school no longer exists, but my Spanish teacher lives there.
When I was five, my life changed a bit. We went to live in London (current population 8.13 million).
I was a student in Manchester (538,000). Then I went on to live in Portsmouth, in Wakefield, in Sheffield, in Leeds: all cities numbering their citizens in the tens,or even hundreds of thousands. I loved city life. I relished the opportunities only a city could usually offer, and the diverse populations living in them.
Thornton’s Arcade in Leeds.
No, just …don’t. A shoe shop in Leeds.
When we moved to Harrogate, some twenty years ago, I announced we were moving to a small town. A mere 75,000 people lived there.
But that was before we went to France. Laroque d’Olmes has a population of some 2,000 people, and its county town, Foix, has only 10,000. We came to appreciate small town life: its neighbourliness and our sense of belonging – the space to appreciate the countryside and mountains beyond.
When we came back to England, that small town of Harrogate suddenly seemed horribly large, traffic-infested and in every way untenable, despite its green spaces and lively community life. So here we are in North Stainley, population 730.
In fact we’re not even in the village, but in a little enclave just outside, with that walled garden I showed you last week. Population 8. It’s perfect.
But there’s no need to take framing so literally. There are other ways of a picture inviting you in.
Those fields of rape plot the path we may take over the hills.
Near Semer Water, North Yorkshire.
The Strid, near Bolton Abbey, North Yorkshire.
While these two suggest the limitless landscape lying beyond the dry stone walls.
And these sheep, this cormorant, highlight the vastness beyond them, just as the tree below, utterly unframed, suggests the famous bleakness of the Top Withens moorland near Hawarth, home of the Brontë sisters
Sheep near Conistone, Grassington, North Yorkshire.
A cormorant on railings at the end of the pier, Whitby, North Yorkshire.
Let’s finish with typical Yorkshire weather. A view taken in the Crimple Valley one very dismal day in May.
I never knew my grandmother, as she and my mother were estranged, and even though she lived until I was 14, she was never part of my life. All I knew was that on the early death of my grandfather, my grandmother forbade my mother, then eighteen, to take up the scholarship place at Oxford University that she had been offered just before her father died. She was to stay at home and keep house. In the end, my mother lived at home and went to Leeds University: but she never forgave my grandmother denying her the opportunity – still unusual for a young woman of her background – that she’d worked towards throughout her time at Grammar School. I grew up with no warm feelings towards this woman whom I had never met. In this piece, I’ve tried to look at my grandmother with fresh eyes and to see the world as it might have seemed to her.
Annie, the Vicar’s wife: c. 1925
She sat there: no thoughts, no plans. Just a fog of tiredness behind her eyes, gritty with exhaustion. A thin skin congealed on her breakfast cup of tea. Beside her, a loaded and overflowing laundry basket.
The children had long since disappeared to school. There was the Vicarage to clean. Always there was the house to clean. Mouse droppings in the kitchen, little rodents scurrying behind the skirting boards, day and night. Bats in the loft. Buckets in the bedrooms every time it rained.
Charles didn’t mind. Charles didn’t notice. He’d been brought up poor, but his brains had propelled him through school, won him a scholarship to Cambridge, while his sense of duty and his love of God had sent him to theological college, then to failing parishes, where he preached, visited, networked, did whatever God willed to fill the pews and make the church and parish life the centre of the community.
Where did Annie fit in with this? Fifteen years ago, Annie had been dazzled by the handsome young curate: his charm, his popularity, even his clear-eyed faith. What a privilege when they began to walk out together, and then to marry!
But Men of God earn very little. Men of God live in draughty, ill maintained and ill-equipped vicarages with large unwieldy gardens. Men of God rely on the women in their lives to run their parishes with them. What’s a parish without its Women’s Sewing Group, its Mothers’ Union, its Young People’s Fellowship? What’s a parish without a Summer Fair, a regular diet of church socials and a harvest supper? And who, unpaid and completely taken for granted, manages the fellowships and all these events?
Well, here in Morley, it was Annie, wife and mother. Mother of Betty, brainy Betty, hothoused by her father, top of the class in her grammar school in Leeds, and thinking of nothing but wanting to be the first girl in school to get a place at Oxford. Mother of Arthur, fumbling bumbling clumsy Arthur: a bit of a dunce really. What would he be fit for when he left school? Such a worry…
And besides Charles hadn’t been well, though hardly anybody realised, because he worked every single day. He said his was a calling, not a job: no days off for him. Only Annie knew that he had been diagnosed with diabetes. Only Annie was allowed to help him with his daily injection of the new wonder drug insulin. But he was supposed to be very careful, eating regularly to a strict diet. He did neither. Annie knew Charles could – probably would – die. And Annie knew what happened to vicars’ widows. When the vicar of St Agnes’ died last year, Mrs Atkins, poor Mrs Atkins and her four young children were put out of the Vicarage within the month.
Whatever would she do? Whatever would she, Betty and Arthur do when Charles passed?
Charles: a photo taken in the early years of their marriage, while he was still a curate.
Shock! Horror! Unheard of! Today we could be found (a) watching day time television and (b) it was a cycling programme.
The Tour de France, to be exact. Normally we only display an interest in this or any other cycling event if it passes our front door: as it did twice when we lived in France, and once, in 2014, when memorably, the Tour began in Yorkshire.
Today however, stage 15 of this year’s Tour took place in the area we called home, the Ariège. We had to watch. The struggles of the cyclists passed us by as we grew nostalgic, even damp-eyed as familiar roads, familiar landscapes appeared on screen.
Foix: today’s almost-finishing point.
But as I watched, I was reminded of an incident that took place in Laroque, back in 2012.
Every year, just before the Tour, another cycling race takes place in the Ariège: L’Ariégeoise. It’s divided into three levels of difficulty: the Ariégeoise itself (160 km,3,500 m. of climbing), the Mountagnole (118 km, 2,500 m. of climbing) and for wimps, the Passejade, a mere 68 km, and 750 m. of climbing.
That year, the route passed our way. That year, the routes of the two main races parted company in Laroque. And that year, there were no signs to say so…. and nor were there special marshalls for the Mountagnards.
As the riders arrived at the crossroads in town , they didn’t know where to go. Ariégeoises followed Mountagnards. Mountagnards followed Ariégeoises. It was hopeless. Riders tried to turn round, collided with those behind them, swore, and swore again as they saw their hard-won perfect timings being swallowed up in the chaos. With extraordinary presence of mind, I shot some video footage.
I heard later that following the event, the race organisers used my little clip for training purposes, to demonstrate How Not To Organise a Cycling Event. I’m guessing it’s part of every year’s Tour de France training too. That’s why it always runs so smoothly.
We’re back from Brussels. ‘We’ were a 60 strong group whose members, between us, had birthdates representing every single decade from the 1930s to the 2000s. And we had indeed come from Yorkshire just to say- ‘We’re for ever European’…
…. to ask ‘What shall we do with this rotten Brexit?’….
.. and to assert…..
We were cheered and moved to be tooted supportively by passing cars, told by streetcleaners, policemen, ice-cream stallholders, bar staff, passport control staff, passers-by that people in mainland Europe want us to stay, welcomed our efforts.
Wednesday was the day when we marched round the European Parliament campus singing and waving our European, Yorkshire and Union flags. It was the day when we toured the parliament building, having a question and answer session with Henry Wasung, British multi-lingual member of staff, and in the absence of our own MEP Richard Corbett, who was in London, with Seb Dance, Labour MEP for London. All of which assured us in our knowledge that only staying in Europe makes sense.
In the afternoon we were centre stage. We were at the Schuman Roundabout, focal point of the buildings of many of the EU institutions. So were members of Brussels Light Opera, Women for Europe, EU super girl and Young European of the Year 2018 Madeleina Kay. And we sang (see above!). Madeleina sang. Various British MEPs came to support us and to speak. Our own Shaffaq Mohammed and Magid Magid made speeches too.
Then it was four o’clock and time to go. Time to load the flags, the posters, the banners into the coach and make our way back to the ship, and to England.
We feel energised, optimistic, ready to plan the next stage of our campaign. Whatever we do, we’ll continue to make it fun and uplifting. No sour faces here.
…… all kinds of things about our love of Europe and our wish to remain in the EU. There are a dozen songs in the Yorkshire Remain Voice Song Book, pastiches of traditional songs, popular music staples, sea shanties and even hymns.
Sixty Yorkshire folk, all committed Remainer campaigners have arrived in Brussels to sing every one of them.
We’ve sung our way across on the overnight ferry from Hull to Zeebrugge.
We’ve had an entertaining and informative afternoon at the Comité Européen des Régions, and held an impromptu flash mob there.
We’ve practised in the park, and brought gratitude and tears to an elderly Belgian, remembering his youth, with its fascism, division and war.
And this evening, we went to Place Jo Cox, laid a wreath of knitted white roses, and sang in memory of the murdered Yorkshire MP. One of our own newly elected MEPs, Magid Magid (Green), who joined us, reminded us of Jo’s hallmark: her compassion.