‘This might be a strange question, but tell me, what’s the one political change you would like to see in your lifetime?’
‘Get rid of all the Conservatives, all the corrupt politicians. Have a new lot. Ordinary people.’
‘Shoot the lot of em’.
– talking to two young people, Halifax.
I awake in Malham after a fine night’s sleep. All around me is peace. This is a quiet, teeny little village nestled in the south-west of the Yorkshire Dales. A stream trickles under an old stony bridge, pursuing the desire of its flow out into the tranquillity of wispy fields and cattle drunk on grass and rainwater. The St. George’s flag flutters on the outside of a pub, an unnecessary marker of a scene that could only be England: this village, this lawn, these dozy river verges, a newsagent who gazes out from his store at the morning rush, a postal van that struggles to navigate the gnarled and twisty roads. This is England, and nowhere is England like this. Here is the England of the chocolate boxes and packets of fudge, of the I heart London stores and the Jeremy Paxmans with their delusional national biographies. I rub my eyes to check the view, then prepare to depart the youth hostel.
Lodgings here cost only a tenner, the cheapest I’ve found, and well worth it for the chance to dry out my wet clothes, eat a meal under shelter, shower the mud and sweat from my skin and sleep in a dry place. Most come here for the nearby Malham Tarn, a glacial lake that feeds into the River Aire, gushing many miles later through dirty old Leeds. There’s also a remarkable cove here made of limestone, a natural fortification towering in the distance straight out of the imagination of wonder itself. There’s a limestone pavement at the top that features in one of the Harry Potter films, I’m told. Treasures abound off the beaten track.
I am heading east, around forty or so miles to the near eponymous town of Masham (pronounced Mass-ham). My route threads through the Yorkshire Dales and Nidderdale and promises to be lovely. I head back through Airton, a small farming village I passed the previous evening, where cattle and sheep are farmed. This area is Craven, a large region of north Yorkshire where much of the nation’s cheeses and milk are produced. The ride is quite lovely, threading out through the villages of Hetton and then Cracoe. There’s a small cycle route well worth detouring for, a dizzying and zippy up-down-up-down to Thornton in Craven, Burnsall and Appletreeswick. The hill after the last village up the New Road is not for the faint of heart, a lung-bursting chug up through fields that rise like a staircase into the skies. I’m harassed with rain as I pedal, but the rural scenes and views all make up for it.
The scenery starts to become more bare as one leaves the Yorkshire Dales national park and enters Nidderdale, which is confusingly still the Dales, just not under park-protection. One could confuse the rooftops of these mountains with their bare, sparse scenery with the Scottish highlands. Look around, and one recognises heather, and those large, coarse bracken ferns I see all about me on the Scottish trails. Those fields of fearful sheep and cattle, eating themselves out of freedom and into docility and the abattoir, are all over now. Here is nothing, that nothing which is such a relief after the clanging noises, cluttered passageways and general claustrophobia of urban life.
There’s a rapid descent down into Pateley Bridge along a road that twists then lunges like an adder hunting a mouse. Here is a quaint village with a smattering of tourists milling up and down its gift shops, pubs and fish and chip shops. It’s quite lovely, and what one would expect of the Dales. There’s a 1940s weekend about to start, and the village can get away with it, almost: suspend time after 1969 and this settlement will not collapse, so fusty and genteel it is. I have some chips and curry sauce in one chippy and mill around a little, poking about along the lanes, before making tracks.
If Appletreewick’s New Road felt like an ascent into the clouds, the eastbound hill after Pateley Bridge is a veritable Kilimanjaro. At times I am pushing the bike up this near-vertical wall of road, and even then it is a struggle. Torrential rain starts to lash me as I reach the top. Exhausted but not defeated, I hear myself shouting and swearing at the skies to bring their worst. The valleys of the dales are lovely, but their peaks – for their rare individual who happens to climb up them without the aid of the combustion engine – are harsh, bare and intriguing landscapes. I pedal on alone, at times unable to see more than a few metres ahead of me, until the deluge starts to clear. I am back in postcard territory, the sleepy villages of Kirby Malzeard and, a few miles beyond, Grewelthorpe. They charm but there’s little to say of them: remainders of rural existence, once a rugged and near-subsistence business, now a land of holiday lets and craft cottages. Masham completes it all, my destination.
Masham’s a village of reasonable size, dominated by the very large square in its centre where once farmers came to trade their sheep. Catering for their desires, this square is ringed with pubs, a few of which still ply a trade, and a church from where they might confess their nocturnal sins on Sunday morn. We are in Wensleydale, once Woden’s ley, the meadow of Woden, the Viking carrier of the dead. This is another land where the Romans struggled to establish any dominance over rebellious tribes. The Vikings settled here later, bringing bloodshed, peace and the sheep-farming for which this land still thrives on. The sheep aren’t sold here now. Instead the square’s a large car-park, as visitors to the Dales visit here, buy their giftbox fudges and visit the two breweries of Masham, Theakston’s and Black Sheep.
Beer brewing and cheese-making both involve waiting for long periods of time. They are exacting, requiring careful experimentation and monitoring to create and maintain the right conditions for one object to transform into another. Life ferments and brews, becomes more complicated through exposure to radical and heterogeneous elements. The results are fine strong cheeses and ales. The English do not produce any spirit to any particularly high standard, I think. There is Pimm’s and Ginger Wine, or bitter gin, but nothing approaching the variety, complexity and delight of whisky malts. But each pub here sells a different beer, and the number of ale breweries is high and growing. Beer’s our thing, not mass-produced lagers, but this warm, flat, brown and bitter brew that once alone boasted the title beer. Today they call it real ale, as if there were some other alternative. It can be fine, it can be awful: such are the pleasures and travails of supping a new ale in the pubs of this province. Both beers and cheese subdue the mind, fill one’s belly and smudge out the edges of one’s restlessness and boredom. The nights are long in the country. Things brew and ferment in the scattered golden lights of these settlements between dusky fields out of a strange necessity.
I am in Masham with good reason, not merely a desire to head inland, off my route, and explore these Dales. My cousin’s getting married in nearby Swinton Park and most of my family have gathered in this small sandstone village, coughed up by 19th century entrepreneurialism like the nearby Swinton Park, the place of her marriage. I arrive at the Kings Head hotel at the same time as my family, another neat trick of serendipity. We catch up over the local Black Sheep ales, with plenty to share. My wife is here, her company is like a lemonade fountain in the heart of a desert. As we relax in our hotel room, I attempt to rescue a stag beetle from the loo and manage to drop my digital camera into the toilet. It has died, its all-too-brief life snuffed out in another occasion of misfortune and idiocy.
Shall I share all of a family wedding? Comment on the cultural, social and anthropological features of modern English marriage rites, the changing roles of the Best Man, or the application of ‘tradition’ in an era that confuses its world wars and at times struggles to dissociate Downton Abbey from lived histories? It would neither be interesting nor appropriate to do so, but some tales are worth the trouble. Swinton Park is a large country mansion a mile out from Masham, surrounded by acres of country land. There are deer in abundance here, stoats that skitter over the lawns. On the first evening, a barbecue of sorts, we disappear from the hubbub and explore the mansion, poking through the corridors and chambers of this stately home. There are portraits of William Whitelaw and photos of the UK Cabinet of 1988, accompanied with signatures. Some of these individuals have been suspected of participating in child sex abuse, though evidence was destroyed by Thatcher’s Home Secretary of 1983-85, Leon Brittan. The home was a vanity project of an extraordinarily wealthy aristocratic family, the Danbys. William Danby had much of the house rebuilt during the late 18th century with absurd battlements, as well as recreating Stonehenge in one of the gardens. He struggled to appoint a resident druid hermit for his temple.
Over the course of the wedding we discover a walled garden, a sprawling wilderness where tomatoes, raspberries and blackberries grow in the shattered and crumpled remains of greenhouses, a large aviary, as well as rooms opulently adorned with family portraits, elegant furniture and local assistants handing out glasses of champagne. My cousin and her partner have arranged a very well-thought out and tasteful wedding, and in a room of loving friends and family offer to love each other for the rest of their lives. Such love requires courage, strength, and hope, but as life’s stories and conversations attest, is always a possibility, the fruit furthest from the hand up the tree, hardest to reach but most rewarding.
The wedding celebrations take place over a Friday and Saturday, and so it is on Sunday morning, my eighty-second day, that I part from my loved ones and rejoin the solitude of the road and its rain-wracked soliloquys.
Misfortunes do fall against me on these roads. I don’t write about them or the tantrums of my bicycle often. I am a perennial optimist, and it does no good to dwell on the reasons for these things. Chance is indiscriminate. Its one condition is equilibrium. But I may as well comment that I lose my waterproof trousers leaving Masham, heading out a few miles before having to return, where luckily a man has picked them up. His Dales’ account is fuzzy and inscrutable. Later too, I am cycling around a busy roundabout when my chain partially falls off and gets locked. A mad Riverdance-routine of fluttering feet kicks me into safety. And then, the rain…
The loneliness of long-distance cycling usually pangs hardest after a goodbye of these kinds. I am heading south through the remainder of the Dales, by Grewelthorpe and Kirby Malzeard again, then along a very quiet and narrow rural ride through Winksley Woods, then Grantley, and Hebden Woods, where forest carpets the roads on all sides, the scenery swirling in a paintbox spectrum of verdant hues. I pass old Fountain Abbey where my lunching companion is a tethered horse. The weather is bickering with itself, moments of sunny rays and cheerful breezes interrupted with stormy skies and fierce gales. Cycling, one is never aware of the wind unless it is colliding against one, attempting to push one back. Today I am all too aware of it, the bicycle eddying into hedgerows to my left, the navigation at times tricky.
I cross the river Nidd and enter Harrogate, a small spa town with a compacted retail centre. It is ringed with affluent housing, and shows no sign of either rapacious commerce or the embarrassment of derelict industry and mills. It has known wealth for some time. I venture into an Argos and trade my freshly-printed warranty for another camera, plus another forty notes. This journey has been more expensive than I had budgeted for, this is true, but the one culprit stares back at me, tired eyes and signs of acne, as I test the lens with a selfie.
I talk to a local from this town. People I meet across this part of West Yorkshire aren’t as game for free conversation as their cousins further west and south, and he checks his watch as we talk, as others do. He likes this town, his home, but tells me that it is very expensive. Because of Leeds, and its commuters? ‘No, it’s expensive there too’, but it’s a good place, he says, gesturing to the nearby buildings, lovely Georgian and Victorian structures, like the old spa building, now a museum, and the town’s theatre. There was once a large and popular covered market here, but council planner’s have traded it for a bland mall, a late 20th century draughtsman’s attempt at a retail utopia in all its generic and mediocre banality.
There’s not much to Harrogate that draws me further in, not much to chew on. I’m not one for these old spa places. I take a little salt and pepper with my towns and cities. I leave its affluent suburban corsetry and follow a road south-east, passing the Leeds-Bradford airport. A mother and her young son watch the planes descend to earth as their passengers suck on Werther’s originals and fold up their copies of the Sunday Telegraph. The roads are a little hilly and tricky, especially with these winds against me, but I’m cheered up by some of the curious names of nearby places, like Idle, or Friendly, or Slapbottom further afield. I begin to approach Bradford, but take a detour through ex-industrial Shipley, a small town in its own right just north of Bradford.
Here is the vision of Titus Salt, a model workers’ community by the River Aire. Salt moved his business out of Bradford and over here, creating the village of Saltaire from 1851. He built smart stone terraced homes for his workers, adorned with signs of careful crafts. Consider the stained glass of the windows, the arches above the doors, and attempt to imagine the squalors of the mid-19th century slums and their acrid airs they sought to replace. There were wash-houses, a hospital, school, gymnasium, boathouse, a concert hall with a library and billiard room, and even a scientific laboratory. Of course, there is no pub, and like Bourneville in Birmingham, Salt’s philanthropic vision was underpinned with a somewhat-authoritarian paternalism. But consider what it replaced, and what it would’ve been like for workers’ families to move here. It’s still dominated by the Salt Mill, a huge textiles production plant that was once the largest factory in the world. Today it all looks very quaint. There’s a collection of shops and David Hockney artworks in the Mill, and the nearby shops sell vintage bric-a-brac and fancy bars.
I ask one man walking the dog what life’s actually like here. He’s surprisingly damning. ‘The rooms, it’s dark and poky. And impossible to park. The traffic out here’s a nightmare, especially in the mornings. And one time of year there’s the festival, it’s like Piccadilly circus, people peering through your windows’. He gives me a look of contempt, blaming outsiders like me for the misery of living in a pleasant world heritage preserved site. I feel sorry for him, but not for the reasons he gives.
I venture south into Bradford, a small ex-industrial town with some absolutely marvellous and impressive Victorian buildings. Its reputation of hardcore poverty is, superficially, undeserved. The outer rings of run-down suburbia, fast food outlets with no custom and car-wash forecourts, are no worse than Peterborough or Preston. Just look up! The structures here are extraordinary.
I talk to a shop assistant from a nearby discount store walking home. ‘What would you change about the place?’, I ask. ‘I’d have the buses run on time! … It’s an alright place, well-connected, plenty to do, yeah you can get yourself in trouble, but you’ve got to go out looking for it, you’d be alright.’ We gaze up together for a few seconds, he with cheery familiarity and a certain pride in pointing out familiar buildings to an inquisitive visitor, and I with the rapture of a well-rewarded stranger. Clocktowers top grand civic structures, and a new square has been built into the city centre with a large fountain. Young men chase each other about, evidence if one’s looking for local gang pettiness, but the scene’s one of peace, people sitting about on benches by the waters, talking, gazing, observing. It looks like it’s been here decades, and seems modelled on the kind of civic structures that one enjoys in Scandinavia or Germany and then imprints finger nails into palms, frustrated with the abortive urbanism of the English and their centuries of misrule by aristocratic fools.
This town was once an industrial marvel, the wool capital of the world during its 19th century boom. The sheep of the Dales, of the Scottish Lowlands and the Highlands, the beings that replaced people in the Clearances, fed this boomtown. Irish migrants fed the boom too, as did the heavy industry that developed all about the place, turning a village at the foot of the Dales into a smoky and sooty nightmare vision of William Blake. Its huge industrial working class population organised themselves too into trade unions, and though its origins were in Glasgow originally, the Independent Labour Party formed itself here in 1893. It would later lead, via an increasingly unlikely and unlucky line of succession into the modern Labour party. Later, workers from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh arrived here to work in the textile mills after the Second World War. Those mills closed, but their populations have stayed, and the city retains a deep multiculturalism, though one not often so well-integrated, a problem affecting other ex-industrial local towns like Blackburn, Keighley and Oldham.
Today it’s still an impoverished city, and actually much smaller than it would seem. For the first time on my journey, I talk to a local policeman. He’s surprisingly candid and friendly about the place.
‘There’s a lot of drug-dealing going on where I live, but it’s low-level. You get the odd speeding car, dodgy behaviour, but it doesn’t harm anyone…’
‘So better the lesser evil?’
‘Yeah… Bradford used to be in major decline, real bad, but now it’s on the way up. They knocked down the city centre ten years ago to build a shopping centre, but the developers ran out of money. The council just left it derelict. Now Westfield are building a shopping centre.’
He picks up on my accent, and we find ourselves comparing Shepherd’s Bush to Bradford. ‘For the price of a week’s rented room in Shepherd Bush you could get a semi-detached house here, for a month! I actually found London a bit intimidating, I don’t like it’, he tells me, describing his visit to Brixton, near to where I grew up.
By the city’s Media Museum I get talking to a local Polish lad, his accent a marvellous fusion of Warszawa and West Yorkshire. He’s about to start university in Manchester, but came here nine years ago with his family. He’s lived in different towns but likes Bradford best, though warns me against cycling through postcodes six and ten, wherever they are. There’s a lot of gangs, and racism’s a problem. But he smiles and is positive. ‘Keep on!’ he shouts at me as I cycle away.
I leave Bradford through its south-eastern suburbs, past near-derelict factories converted half-heartedly to one commercial purpose or another. I snack on sesame snaps and detour through Butterworth, a large housing estate that looks to have been built around the 1920s, with a feel similar to the deprived suburbs of Nottingham. There are empty expanses of green, a local pub where a group of bored kids mess about unsupervised. I take a road to Brafferton Arbor, a circular expanse of green where this same council suburb style sits alongside some 90s-00s Barratt houses. This was the home of Andrea Dunbar, a playwright who chronicled the boredom, poverty, and odd sexual trysts of the area in a series of plays she wrote as a teenager and a young woman. Her life was troubled by alcoholism and she died too young, her initial successes distant memories. There’s a moving film about her life, and this area, The Arbor (2010), worth seeing. Her’s is a life caught in a wider scene of decline: the loss of the textile industry and its employment, the disappearance of a coherent and collective working class identity through the disappearance of its skilled industries during the eighties, Thatcher’s curse again, and the slow collapse of individual and collective relationships. The arbor feels quiet, isolated. A blue plaque stands on a wall where she once lived. A former neighbour smokes outside and eyeballs me. The green is deserted, as it was always. I realise that I too should go.
The road out of Butterworth is a sweeping descent into Halifax, a town that unfolds from a deep valley like a house in a children’s pop-up book. A flyover bridges one sloping hill to another, straddling the odd high rise and dense, compact Victorian town centre which comprises Halifax. This is another remainder of a Victorian boomtown, where carpets were produced in abundance, and cats’ eyes invented, war helmets produced, and other near-forgotten necessities of a modernity now passed. I pass an impressive town hall, a covered market, and some plush Victorian shopping arcades. There’s a theatre here and some delightful buildings, some – but not all – now repurposed to some unfortunate modern requirement: a shite shebeen nightclub, D&B and trance DJs, free entry for the ladiez, fast food outlets serving every conceivable greasy global cuisine from a microwave packet, or yet another pub serving mediocre beer and wine.
I find two young people eating a McDonalds dinner on a bench in one of the town’s deserted yet well-appointed Victorian shopping streets. They look like people who enjoy hard rock and metal, if you get my drift, though that’s not the topic of conversation. So, Halifax…
‘Don’t come here!’ [I think that they think I’m planning to move here]
‘So why do you stay?’
‘I can’t leave, I’ve got a shitty job, it pays just enough to live, but not enough to live here. I wanted to go to uni, but they said cos my mum and dad both work I can’t get a loan, so I’m stuck…’
I tell her about a young woman of similar age I met whilst in Preston, denied a student loan because of her slightly older age. ‘Yeah, I wanted to be a vet too. Ah well.’
She feels trapped, fed up. Her and her male companion warn me against various pubs and clubs to avoid like the plague. I ask them about political change. They want change with a frustration and anger that’s brewed too long in a barrel of cynicism and lies. The young I meet are especially critical and sceptical of the political establishment. In Scotland this finds an outlet, to a degree, in support for independence, but I feel it’s of a similar species to youth discontent in England. Yet unlike middle-aged or older people I’ve talked to, there’s less belief in any kind of alternative. Children born in the Eighties or after haven’t grown up around trade union victories, or positive affirmations of being working class. Socialism can be another –ism, something that people talk about, largely without any effect. Frustrations simmer.
E.P. Thompson wrote The Making of the English Working Class whilst staying in the nearby village of Siddal in the early sixties, at a time when the carpet and wool mills were beginning to close, their enfranchised and organised workers becoming dispersed. ‘The working class did not rise like the sun at an appointed time. It was present at its own making’, he wrote. One can talk of the working class now, but in these times of zero-hours employment, where fixed hours, or sick pay, or the possibility of a successful strike feel as likely as a Euromillions win, their constituency has forgotten its own name, present but now unmade.
I leave this town and its charming architecture, and head down another sweeping hill, arriving eventually to Luddenden Foot. It is a fragmented series of settlements interspersed with vacant land where once huge mills stood. I am staying with Kirsty, who I have met through the Couchsurfing website and has kindly offered me a place to rest. She lives near the top of a hill overlooking this great valley of once mills, once dales, that I’ve been descending. We stand in her kitchen, a garden rich with flowers fluttering on the other side of its window-panes, talking about travelling. She too has explored and come to know by hand and mind the wondrously-contradictory panoramas of the British islands. She teaches history through hands-on workshops in local schools, as well as being a librarian and working in a local museum at Shibden Hall. It was the home of Anne Lister, an early 19th century landowner, mountaineer and open lesbian. Local residents called her ‘gentleman Jack’, and the details of her romantic and sexual relationships were recorded in code in a massive collection of diaries that have only recently been decoded. She unofficially married one of her female lovers, and her life is an intriguing series of adventures and defiance.
Over dinner and a British map, Kirsty asks me to describe this journey in all its eighty-two days. I trace my finger over the map and realise just what a strange and marvellous trip it’s been. The route makes no sense, but has taken me nearly everywhere, to places I never knew existed, and into lives and stories that have been like libraries of unread treasures. This blog, and the book I still hope to produce, is only a superficial mining of these tales – much I’ve forgotten, or thought best not to reproduce, for the sake of confidentiality or concision. What a ride.
Sleep, perchance to dream… These mills and dales have been a pleasant surprise, so much more interesting and rewarding than the Lake District. I’d started to doubt whether England could still produce such wonders. Venture here, take a look. There’s trouble here, and splendour too.