If you’re a Brontë fan, particularly of you’re a Wuthering Heights fan, you’ll know all about bleak, cold and windy Top Withens, where Catherine Earnshaw, love interest of tortured anti-hero Heathcliff is said to have lived.
The last time I was there it was a sunny and cheerful day, perfect for striding out on the moors.
But even on a day like that, Top Withens still looks starkly austere. Enclosing it in a square makes it less so, so I include the original photo too.
I thought I couldn’t let January end without a final entry for Becky’s Squares: January Light. So here we are at the car wash.
Frankly, though, I’m not really in the mood. Not the day that the UK leaves the EU. I’m looking forward to this evening though, when North Yorkshire for Europe is holding two parties, one in York, and one in Harrogate, where we’ll be. The group’s invited EU nationals who’ve made their home in Yorkshire, so we can say ‘Thank EU 4 being here‘. We’ve already been mentioned on the Today programme, and …. well, we’ll just have to see.
Winter’s not all bad. The day begins well for us. Winter light. If we push breakfast just a little bit later than usual – just before 8 o’clock say – we can watch the sun rise, and the sky lighten and brighten in Neapolitan ice-cream colours as we sit near the kitchen window and chomp through our cereal.
Go outside in the daylight, and we can enjoy the snowdrops, and watch green shoots thrusting through the soil.
The trees are handsome, statuesque as they thrust their naked branches skyward.
Long shadows reach across the fields in the thin, clear January light.
And back in the house … there’s still some Christmas cake left in the tin.
Last Friday night was the first real winter’s night. Temperature of minus four. Saturday morning saw intrepid members of North Yorkshire for Europe climb into every bit of warm clothing they could round up, and head for Harrogate …..
…. and the Big Red Bus for Remain. For one week only – this week – if you live in Yorkshire you’ve a chance of seeing this re-badged Routemaster bus parked up in a town square near you. Parking place secured, members of the Yorkshire Remain Choir, plus assorted brass instrument players (with a tuba, a euphonium, a saxophone to name but a few) and guitar-players clamber off the bus, secure a vantage post, and sing.
It’s the Christmas period now, so in addition to all our tried and tested favourites:
What shall we do with this Rotten Brexit? (What shall we do with a drunken sailor)
We’ve had quite enough of Brexit, it’s a con. (She’ll be coming round the mountain)
Glory, glory, what a helluva mess we’re in. (Battle hymn of the Republic)
and about thirty other numbers –
we have adapted seasonal fare:
Away in Westminster, where Johnson resides….
The Twelve days of Brexit.
Hark the Leavers shout and wail…
Goodness, we were cold as we sang in Harrogate. We were freezing in Richmond, 37 miles north. And by the time we reached Ripon at sunset, 26 miles south, we’d lost all sensation. Only singing warmed us a little. That and having raucous sing-songs on the bus between venues.
We were generally well received. Obviously we weren’t always appreciated. But in Ripon, a dyed-in-the-wool Leaver approached us with a huge box of shortbread: ‘I don’t agree with you at all.’ he said. ‘But that’s no reason why we shouldn’t be friends.’
Hardly any photos of course. 1. I was busy singing. 2. Nobody in their right mind would want to take gloves off, just to take a photo. Brrr.
At this late stage, most of us have difficulty in believing we’re making a difference. But it takes our minds off the prospect of being led into an uncertain future by a serial liar with no moral compass, or interest in anything beyond his own ambition.
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.