Farewell to God’s Own Country
It’s now a fortnight since I and my family moved back to London after nearly 23 years living in God’s Own Country. I’d like to dedicate this blog to a celebration of a very special part of the country and, just as importantly, a very special set of folk.
Size is a defining feature of Yorkshire within which there is an amazing breadth and contrast of landscapes. Where we lived in Leeds drew us naturally to the Yorkshire Dales, a particularly distinctive limestone scenery, so much more impressive in real life than it ever was in the pages of geography textbooks. The nearest reaches of the Dales were very much on our doorstep in North Leeds but the furthest reaches in Swaledale a couple of hours drive away. If you ever could grow tired of the Dales then there was the different but equally distinctive character of the North Yorkshire Moors to explore. Beyond that the Yorkshire Wolds, which I only really managed to get to in our last year in Yorkshire, or the bleak but impressive Yorkshire coast. If you could ever have enough of upland scenery then there are many hours of lovely cycling to be had journeying through the villages of the Plain of York or the flatlands leading out to East Yorkshire.
In part because of its size, in part because it contains many places, like the Dales, which aren’t on the route from A to B, Yorkshire can hold 5 million people yet also have in relatively close proximity to its urban centres many places of genuine solitude and grandeur where, as Shelley said “We taste the pleasure of believing all we see is boundless, as we wish our souls to be.”
Yorkshire’s probably not a place, in my opinion, to go for the weather. It’s not particularly wet like the west but it does appear to get less sun and is definitely colder. Spring can be slow coming and in the depth of winter the days are dark and gloomy. Yet when the sun shines it does not take much to make Yorkshire places look special. I am especially fond of May in Yorkshire and the look of the Dales bathed in a verdant green, crisscrossed with the silver lines of the dry stone walls.
And then there’s Yorkshire folk. When we first moved to Leeds, my wife’s great uncle, himself from Yorkshire, advised us “Tha can always tell a Yorkshireman but tha canna tell him much”. There is a hint of truth to this statement. It is certainly the case, as anyone who listens regularly to Test Match Special will know, that Yorkshire people are not slow to offer an opinion. When we first moved north we noted the contrast between London where if you asked for directions in the street you could easily be ignored (or more likely find someone who was just as much a stranger as you were) whereas in Yorkshire if you even so much as looked lost someone would volunteer directions. When I was training for a marathon a couple of years ago I would do a run during the week in London and one at the weekend in Leeds. In Leeds every runner you passed would say hello and, as far as available breath permitted, make some encouraging comment. In London you were lucky if you could make eye contact.
So what of Yorkshire’s relationship with the rest of England and Britain? In many ways it is big enough to argue the case for a significant amount of devolution. After all, as was proudly pointed out at the time, Yorkshire won more gold medals at the last Olympics than Germany. It has a very clear regional identity and sees itself as very different from London and the South. It has a strong Viking heritage, reflected in many place names and in that doughty sense of independence of character which I have already alluded to. It has a distinctive cultural tradition: brass bands, choral societies, cricket, rugby league but also more contemporary traditions in music. So it’s surprised me in a way that there has been less momentum towards devolution in Yorkshire. Perhaps that reflects the absence, in contrast to the other side of the Pennines, of a dominant metropolitan area such as Manchester. It will be interesting to see whether as the momentum towards regional devolution increases whether Leeds, Bradford and Sheffield can work together to create a viable focus for regional government in Yorkshire.
As has been the case with my family for generations, economic forces have again led us to upsticks and leave the place where, very happily, we brought up our children. There will be always be a place in my heart for the White Rose and it won’t be too long before, once again, I am found in my favourite haunts in God’s Own Country.