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A Cycle on the Celtic Fringe … Part 15


The senior wardens were away on holiday when I arrived in Kettlewell in the late summer of 1982. That’s why the Yorkshire region employed a peripatetic warden and how I came to spend two years exploring the county in a way that gave me greater access and greater insights than all but the very privileged. I’d met Graham at meetings and functions and would have enjoyed his company and local knowledge. He was, and still is I believe, a funny, cheerful and immensely competent man with a big Chris Bonnington beard. Hostel legend had it that the money earned from wardening was surplus to requirements and went into a retirement fund. His wife lived on site but worked as a nurse. Most of these legends are started by the jealous and the mean spirited. I hope this one was true. This couple deserved to be a few zeros ahead on their bank statements and the griping, green eyed sloths who made spiteful comments about others’ financial ease deserve stomach cramps and isolation.


I was greeted by their assistant who, again I’m relying on a thirty year memory, I believe was called John. He was perfectly capable of looking after the place himself without importing me from Malton, but he didn’t live on site and hostel rules require somebody to be there at all times that there are guests on the premises. John had a wife and baby daughter, was training for the church and lived in a cottage in the delightfully named Starbotton. He was determined to save what money he could by cycling to work each day and going without beer. He was spectacularly unsuccessful in both aims during my time there, and I’m taking neither credit nor blame. For a future minister of the church he was well versed in the concept of will power and the lack of it.

I arrived half way through preparations for an evening meal for thirty. Once the main bulk of the meal was done and things that required prepping were prepped and things that needed to be in the ovens were in the ovens, he told me to “Take the first shift.” and recommended the Blue Bell.

“Do we make food for the pubs as well?” I asked.

“No, you take the first shift down the pub. Get some neck oil and I’ll have a couple once we’ve served the main course.”

It was the first time I’d heard the euphemism – neck oil – but it wasn’t the last time that week.

Neither of us had a great deal to drink but there was a relaxed regime that spurned set duties, set times, rules for rules sake. A couple of beers didn’t upset the smooth running of what was one of the friendliest of all the Dales hostels.


At the Blue Bell the landlord’s son is home from university, is helping out and is giving the best demonstration of the art of the barman that I have seen outside specialist cocktail bars. It’s busy but no-one is neglected for more than seconds and everyone is served perfectly poured drinks. In a world where you’re never far away from someone moaning about why they can’t do their job properly, it was a treat and a lesson to see someone so pleasantly and competently in command of his work. The beer in the cellar barrels was well kept but was given something extra by the way it was pulled. Wine bottles were opened with a waiter’s friend (wine was still a rare request in English pubs at that time and was often served from boxes rather than bottles. When it was served from bottles the barman usually struggled with one of those awkward corkscrews with levers. To see dextrous use of a waiter’s friend impressed me greatly) and given time to breathe a little before glugging into sparkling glasses. Even spirits were made attractive under his expert touch.

I have always enjoyed watching jobs done by people who really know what they are doing; Garry Schofield playing rugby, Jon Seal teaching an English lesson, Michael Grandage directing actors, Andy Kempe showing drama teachers how to do it, the music director of the RSC getting 50 tone deaf teachers on a course to sing Renaissance madrigals in less than an hour. This young man was in that class and I think I was the only one in the pub who was aware of it.


I dozed on the bed for an hour listening to the stream flowing under my window. It didn’t add up to £65 but it helped. I made tea and ate my second successive supper of oatcake biscuits, cheese and apples. I walked around the village and took strolls both up stream and down before returning to my room. The bar was filling up but bar rooms no longer hold much appeal for me. I spent thirty years looking for the perfect bar, failed to find it and now have greater success in the search inside the pages of Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens. Tonight I continue reading The Old Wives Tale and drift off to sleep to the gentle babblings of the rill before nine o’clock. I sleep exactly eight hours and awake refreshed and hungry.

It’s a traditional country inn in the middle of the dales so the breakfast is served in the bar with Sky News dominating on a giant plasma screen. A gunman has been shooting teenagers in Norway and Amy Winehouse has been found dead. I’d regretted the television but it’s quite a news day and it has my attention.


I have a big bowl of cereal which look a bit like cornflakes but aren’t, a glass of juice and a decent full English. The landlord looks a bit like Eamon Holmes and wants to have his chance to comment on current affairs. I find it possible to not disagree with him in the fifteen minutes it takes to get through the meal. I’d have lingered over the bacon had it not come with a side order of casual bigotry. By 9.15 I’m pedalling the stiffness out of my legs and passing through Starbotton. It isn’t anything like I’d preserved it in memory. I wonder where John is now and pedal on.


I find the room key in my back pocket and determine to post it back or send it by anyone who is Kettlewell bound when Eamon himself pulls up and relieves me of the burden.


At Buckden I have a choice; the long way round taking in Aysgarth Falls on the River Ure in Wensleydale or over one of the great climbing roads in Britain. If I’d got my cycling legs with me there would be no competition. I haven’t but I take the mountain road anyway. As I pass a farm, two teenage farm boys ask if I’m heading to Hawes. I puff and pant in the affirmative. They smile at each other conspiratorially and merely call out, “Good Luck!”