V is for The Vale of Pickering
Part One : Kicking the Habit
(Again there is nothing new here. I’d like to put my little A-Z jaunt of last summer back onto the blog. There may be a few different photographs in a different order but the text is the same as when I first posted it some time ago; albeit I’ve crammed 4 posts into 1. I enjoyed re-visiting it and I hope you will too.)
This is a journey into the past. My past and the ancient past. I first came here on our, one and only, family holiday in the summer of 1970 as an eleven year old. I came back eleven years later to provide relief support in the youth hostels of the region and have been a regular visitor ever since. My father’s family come from this part of Yorkshire. He spent his youth walking the fells and visiting the abbeys and castles that continue to fascinate and delight me. Those abbeys and castles give a sense of the historic importance of the Vale. The castles as symbols of political and military power, the abbeys decadent centres of misappropriated wealth or sanctuaries of spiritual and intellectual endeavour, depending on your viewpoint or the point you are viewing. History lives on in piles of more recent vintage. A castle still dominates the area and draws tourists and film crews to gaze at great wealth and status in a twenty first century context. An abbey church, fully roofed and functioning, is the centre of a modern educational establishment that gave the world sculptor Anthony Gormley, writer Julian Fellowes, Journalist Edward Stourton and Actor Rupert Everett as well as rugby player Lawrence Dallaglio and mountaineer Joe Simpson. Oh, and the late Arch Bishop of Westminster Cardinal Basil Hume. The influence of the Vale of Pickering on contemporary England is as strong as it has ever been. It is a glorious place to be, and, though it has adapted to the changing seasons of human development, it has remained largely unspoilt.
Geographically the vale is the lowland area bounded to the north by the North York Moors and to the south by the Howardian Hills and the Yorkshire Wolds. it comprises the flood plains of the rivers Rye and Derwent and the market towns of Helmsley, Kirkbymoorside, Pickering and Malton. My vale stretches out slightly into the Vale of Mowbray and the moorlands of my memories. I tried to capture it all in one day. I failed. But captured enough to stand it side by side with any part of England that claims beauty, history and tradition. I only took photographs of things that caught my imagination and made me say “wow.” There were plenty of times I uttered that expression of astonishment.
Byland Abbey has particular remembrance for me. I was struck, as a boy, by the elegance of the ruins and by the almost complete peacefulness of the place. Returning after 44 years it was as if I had stepped into the past. The very air felt unchanged.
It is locked. English Heritage have decreed that you can only walk among the ruins at certain times and a small padlock forbids entry. I presume this is as much to ensure an income as to preserve the remains. Ironic that I have a card in my wallet that allows me free access, and I could easily scale the fence. Of course I don’t, though I’m not sure why not. I can see the ruins well enough from the road. See the distinctive rose window (was it more complete in 1970?). It is indeed a window on the past. I am 11 once more just as surely as if I had dipped a madeleine biscuit into my tea.
It wasn’t part of my plan to visit but the main road up Sutton Bank was closed and Byland was on the most diverting of diversions. North Yorkshire has an abundance of these great religious houses. It was a place of wealth and power, but also the centre of medieval learning and the cradle of the English Renaissance. Religion and philosophy were studied here but also art and music, literature and the whole field of human study that would eventually be given the name (by a poet) of science.
Such studies continue down the valley where the huge square tower of Ampleforth Abbey stands at the centre of a church that is alive and functioning not only as a place of devotions but also as the beating heart of a remarkable school: Ampleforth College. Remarkable for a number of reasons. Most particularly that such schools still exist and that there are ample parents to fill the dormitories and classrooms at £31,323 a year. Remarkable too for the sheer majestic beauty of the place. Enclosed in its own valley, and miles from the nearest town, there is a fine feeling generated by location alone. Fitting with this sense, of being lost to time and the outside world, are the black cloaked Benedictine monks who run the school. I’ve hinted at the impressive list of alumni. To the previously mentioned I could add a clutch of noted academics, a handful of significant journalists and as many Law Lords and Major Generals as it takes to fill a room. The college is considered to be the original of Hogwarts. If you don’t care for seeing your children grow up in the heart of a loving home and family then there are worse places to send them.
The students conform and rebel as occasion prompts. After weekly mass there is a movement into the trees where cigarette smoke rises like incense. They let the television cameras in in 2003 (why do schools do this? It never does them any good.) and the resulting documentary is illuminating. A cassocked monk stands outside his rooms puffing away on a cigarette looking an awful lot like Father Ted Crilly. He ponders on an old story of a Jesuit “It had to be a Jesuit.” asking if it alright to smoke while he prays. He is told that it is most definitely not alright. “How about if I pray while I smoke then?” he asks. And no-one can see any problem with that.
Over the next hill (and it is a steep one) is the beginning of the Vale of Pickering proper, and the town of Helmsley. It is a town that has undergone constant change since I first came. Hundreds of houses have found themselves changing hands from those who worked on the land or the estates to those who have come in from West Yorkshire and Teesside. Money has come with them but the funny thing is that the town has retained its character and vibrancy. The more the town of Helmsley changes, the more it remains the same.
You can tell it has changed by comparing the houses to the citizens. The doors are the shortest and widest entries I have seen into any dwellings, yet the good folk are tall and affable and look well in corduroy. Holiday homes are a double edged sword. They allow us to live in a town like Helmsley for one week of our lives and that cannot be altogether a bad thing. They bring money into the pockets of the owners. On the other hand, holiday cottagers tend to arrive with a car full of groceries and everything they need and are often rarely seen in the town. Plenty of English villages have become moribund through the holiday let. Helmsley is made of sterner stuff.
It has made a mockery of anyone who chooses to arrive with bags freshly filled from the shelves of some Surrey Tesco. The shops in the town are better than most and provide everything you need. I’m not much of a one for pubs these days but I’ve enjoyed a lunchtime feed and a glass of orange juice in Helmsley hostelries before now. The beer, they tell me, is good and the beer drinkers look knowledgeable. My parents used to drive here from Huddersfield and the local food was what brought them.
Once I’ve renewed my acquaintance with the castle I take a wander around the square and along the streets. Hunters have managed the trick of advertising their wares on chalkboards without making everything seem a bit naff. The exterior of the shop is almost as attractive as the inside. There is no coloured chalk or word art techniques on the black boards; simply extensive bill off fare in neat white lettering and surrounded by an abundance of hanging baskets and over-flowing planters of the most vibrant flowers. It looks most attractive.
Inside they are friendly, knowledgeable and courteous. One lady makes me the most generous of sandwiches with Wensleydale cheese and a homemade pickle. She has no objection to me taking a photograph so long as I don’t include her. I add a game pie to my shopping bag and stroll the delightful 2 mile riverside walk up to Rievaulx Abbey.
All the places I have visited so far have been beautiful. The spot I have chosen to enjoy my lunch is a serious contender for the most beautiful place in England.
Part Two : Rievaulx, Kirkbymoorside and Hutton-le-Hole
Sheep May Safely Graze
Some say Rievaulx is the best preserved and some say it is Fountains near Ripon. It’s a question I suggest you have a go at answering yourself. Both are the remains of magnificent buildings. Both, for better or for worse, are places that played their part in our history; and both (as is the way with English monasteries) are in locations of stunning natural beauty. Settings that are so easy to miss if you don’t know they are there. How on earth can you hide an abbey complex in a little country like England? It is a trick the Cistercians pulled off again and again and again.
I know some are put off by the religious side and some feel a grievance against the mis-use of wealth and power that was undoubtedly a part of the life of the monasteries, and a major reason why Henry VIII dissolved them (it wasn’t all about a quickie divorce settlement from Rome), but these are places which inspire awe. I was born a hundred yards from Furness Abbey and I feel a personal bond with that site. Rievaulx beats it though. Rievaulx is quite simply my choice for the most magnificent place in Britain.
The walk up from Helmsley town centre on a sunny day is a treat in itself. The path doubles as the opening miles of the Cleveland Way. You can continue for another 110 miles of moorland, ancient crosses, Roman roads and spectacular coastline. If you fancy making your trip into a picnic, there are shops in town that will provide the hamper. (May I recommend Hunter’s of Helmsley?) And a very fine hamper too. A visit to the Rievaulx Terrace and Temple Gardens can be added for those willing to climb a steep Yorkshire bank. Or you can simply drive. It’s only a couple of miles up the B1257.
I wander among familiar stones and remember times I have been before. I remember a perfect picnic here with my wife a year or two ago. A 1981 amble up with two Australians who wanted to see “the most British thing they could” while staying at the hostel I was looking after. Most of all I remember coming here with my father and brothers and sister in 1970. He is no longer with us and, among the stones, I miss him a little bit more than usual. He loved this place and had an engineer’s admiration for the monks and masons who raised the stones centuries earlier.
A couple say what a pity it is to see it in ruins. I disagree. I’d been at Ampleforth Abbey (granted it is only 200 years old) earlier in the day and, though a place of wonder in its own right and setting, there is no comparison in terms of awe inspiring magnificence. There are many beautiful places in Yorkshire and a few, very special places, where beauty enters the realm of the sublime. Rievaulx is such a place.
I intend an hour and spend much longer. Technically it isn’t in the Vale of Pickering but it is close by and it would be criminal to miss.
Kirkbymoorside is a contender, along with Wells Next the Sea, for the place name that needs the least explanation. It is a settlement with a church (kirk) on the edge of the moors. It’s nicely set back from the main road and can easily be missed. I think this a good thing. It is bustling with its own citizenry. They are a particularly handsome bunch. Male or female, old or young they are without exception well turned out. Coffee shops and sourdough loaves suggests an urban influx but the town has retained its feeling of being a proper market town; a place where local farmers bring their produce to sell. Much of the feeling of permanence is created by the buildings. These are invariably delightful, traditional, non-pretentious three storey Yorkshire shops and homes on the main street; two stories further out. Designed for families to grow up in or to sell bread, meat, ale or local grown vegetables, they have remained true to their heritage. I’m tempted by a Yorkshire curd tart or a lemon meringue pie but am full from my Rievaulx picnic. Not for the first time I almost wish I still drank beer. The pubs look superb but I’m not going in to sip at a glass of American soda. These are places to drink bitter beer and talk of horses and the price of cattle. At least that is how I imagine them from the outside.
They have proper names for pubs. The White Swan on the eastern side of the main street and the Black Swan opposite with its first storey room suspended on columns and jutting out above the thoroughfare, allowing travellers to await the approach of the stagecoach to Scarborough or York. Beyond these the George and Dragon and the King’s Head. England’s oldest fox hunt (The Bilsdale) was founded here in 1668 by the 2nd Duke of Buckingham. He died in the town of a chill caught hunting, which may be seen as something of a victory to the fox. The plaque reads that “Fortune filled him too full and he run over.” Is it a eulogy for the man who had everything? Or is there a subtle stab in the words? A certain glee in the downfall of the mighty?
The Adela Shaw hospital brought children from the industrial towns of West Yorkshire to Kirkbymoorside. The crippling diseases of the early twentieth century were prescribed time and as much fresh air as possible. The hospital had open wards and verandahs where patients were treated for polio, TB and rickets. By the time I was born these ailments had only just been consigned to history. The hospital closed in 1970. I’m pleased that its work is still remembered.
Men are busy on ladders. Down West End I smell the burning of paint. A decorator is hard at work with a blow torch on proper window frames. It is an increasingly rare sight in England where uPVC has defaced many a fine frontage. There are cottages for sale and, as is my way, I contemplate moving here. I can think of worse places to be.
After a circuit of the town (it is bigger than I remember) I settle in the church for a few moments of reflective peace. It has the simple beauty of well-looked-after village churches. There is no sense of dust and cobwebs taking over or twice monthly services. This is a working church. As if to prove the point ushers and early guests begin to arrive to prepare the church for a funeral service. I feel like an intruder and quietly leave. Half the town are heading in the other direction. The deceased was obviously a well respected man. The town knows how to show respect.
Hutton le Hole got my father’s vote for the prettiest village in the county. Once again I have strayed a mile or two outside the geographical boundaries of the Vale. Once again I would have been a fool to spurn the opportunity to visit a place that is as unique as it is lovely. It can get very busy at the height of the season but on this day it has only a thin trickle of visitors. The village is largely free of the eyesore of beautiful seventeenth century cottages being obscured by twenty first century cars and vans. A big car park has been provided at the top of the town where the moors are beginning to turn purple.
Sheep graze freely on the greens. A stream flows carelessly through the length of the street. A tiny church, a tea room, a pub that does good food. It isn’t so much a place to come and do things, it is more a place to come and be. Hutton-le-Hole is what it is; an delightful and unique village. There is a very good museum of country life here (The Ryedale Folk Museum) where you can pay money to look at delightful Yorkshire houses from different ages. It is money well spent even though you can do exactly the same for free by simply walking up and down the main street.
I don’t think living in a place that attracts dozens of coach parties each day throughout the summer months appeals to me too strongly. Those who do live here seem happy enough. The houses are all beautifully maintained and the gardens ripe with ample harvest. The village is ruled by the sheep and these are very happy sheep indeed.
Part 3 : Steam Trains and Forest Rides
From Hutton le Hole I want to go right up onto the moors. They stretch from here for miles in every direction except the one I came from. The heather is turning purple. The United kingdom has most of the world’s heather moorlands. They are a true national treasure.
But I’m here for the Vale of Pickering. I’m not making much of a fist of it. I’ve spent at least half of my available time making changes to the game plan just because there is a monastery up one country lane and a picturesque village up another. I must learn to resist temptation.
I could turn back to the main road through the flatlands but head into the hills instead. It is an astonishing stretch of roadway and almost immediately there is a 4 wheel drive vehicle trying to get into my back seat. It is a typical way of driving in rural Yorkshire. They don’t seem to be happy unless they are shunting the back end of the car in front. Not wishing to impede his progress I pull into the next lay-by. He goes past and then mysteriously slows. Now that the game of ‘push the tourist’ is over, even the local farmer is happy to take in the beauty of the countryside.
The road bucks and shies its way over hills and hollows; plunging over bridges and through spinneys, tilting away in a rush to get to the next change in vegetation. First heather and bracken, then fields of sheep, then cows, then through a stand of birch trees and up once more onto open moor. I follow a post van through Oxholes Wood and into Spaunton. At Lastingham diners gather outside the Blacksmith’s Arms while a man lounges in an easy chair in the afternoon sun. As I take photographs of the church the post office van pulls in behind me. A girl, not yet twenty, with a sunny smile gets out and takes a parcel to the lounging man. There’s time for a cheery word. When I worked in these parts the postman would often make himself at home in the hostel kitchen; would happily put the kettle on and make tea; would even help serve breakfasts when things were really busy. She is working to a tighter schedule but knows the value of the human touch. It takes no more than twenty seconds. The words spoken, inconsequential, but the chuckling encounter brings something to both their days.
The village is as old as any in the county. It boasts among its former residents no less than two saints (which outranks towns that can claim a television weather girl and a man who once played left back for Coventry City); Saint Cedd and Saint Chad. Along with their brothers, Caelin and Cynibil they established a monastery here. They were all significant figures in the Anglo Saxon church and were written about by the Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. I’m ashamed to say that my copy sits unread on a shelf surrounded by good intentions.
Cedd played a key role at the Synod of Whitby of 664 which set the date of Easter for the western Christian church (the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox, if you are interested). He died shortly afterwards of the plague here in Lastingham. Many monks came to pay homage and most also caught the plague and died.
I take my pictures and move on while still in good health.
At Cropton there are forest rides and a place where you can rent Nordic cabins with hot tubs. Can ride bicycles along forest paths and, if I’m reading the brochure correctly, spend happy hours on a settee, with a family of physical perfection, reading books to children who hang on your every word while staring lovingly. Once you’ve had enough of that you can take them all into the woods and point out butterflies and instil in them a lifelong love of learning about nature. The reality is that you fill the fridge with bottled beer and red wine and take the kids to Flamingo Land and ride the roller coasters and spend the evenings watching Britain’s Got Talent on wide screen television.
I’m actually something of a fan. The cabins are hidden away in the forest, bring jobs and income to the area without any blot on the landscape and allow tourists to experience some of the loveliness of North Yorkshire without contributing to the way holiday cottages are killing off English villages. There is also something very appealing in the idea of sitting in a hot tub in a northern forest as dusk begins to sound the knell of passing day.
Pickering is always busy these days. It never used to be and there are a dozens of couples who moved there to live in a quiet market town only to find it has turned into a significant tourist centre. They don’t seem to begrudge this. It may bustle during the daytime but it has kept its character. In fact, after a period of growing into a backwater it has re-discovered a vigour it has possessed for centuries.
The town has given its name to the whole vale. It’s at an important crossroads and owes its growth to this. Roads lead out of town towards Thirsk to the west and Scarborough to the east. Malton to the south and Whitby to the north. If you were only going to visit five towns in Yorkshire, these would be five that would give you a pretty good idea of why it is regarded, by the locals, as “God’s County”.
It sits right on the northern boundary of the vale. Every road in one direction is steeply uphill. Steam trains run from the station here up into the moors. At one time, if you saw a steam train in a British film, there was a good chance it was shot on this line. In the sixties and seventies advertisers showed us glamorous people drinking Martini in carriages that had left from a platform in Pickering. Today it trades on a heritage that owes as much to television as to any other source. The other end of the line is Grosmont and Goathland which for years was where the TV series Heartbeat was filmed.
Yorkshire’s stunning landscapes have been at the centre of several long running television shows, from James Herriot to Last of the Summer Wine. They all take care to portray it with a thick veil of nostalgia. Yorkshire sells its yesterdays to the world in a way that allows the honesty and goodness of the county to come out on top. It’s a world of fruitcake and teapots and cricket on the village green. There is nowhere else in England that is so happy to make you believe that you will be heading back in time once you cross the county line. Coach companies advertise trips to Heartbeat Country and the world of All Creatures Great and Small as if they were real places. To the thousands who join these excursions they are.
I’ve just missed a train. I could wait an hour but the next excursion is being pulled by a diesel locomotive and that doesn’t seem quite right. I take a walk up the hill to the castle ruins which are peaceful and lovely. Hardly what they were built to be. I’m one of five people exploring the ramparts. We are all silent and content. A songbird sits on a thorn tree and sings out the strains of a glorious late summer afternoon.
The Quaker Meeting House is open and invites visitors to sit quietly in the gardens. They have even left out a box of plums to help yourself. I’ve never been in a Quaker Meeting House. In most towns they are carefully locked away behind a wrought iron gate. I cannot resist, and sit for a while and reflect, which is what I believe I am supposed to be doing. It brings a gentle calm to my day. In the next room two carers are teaching an elderly woman to dance. It feels rather special.
The café proclaims that it sells ices. The man is obviously disappointed that that is all I want to buy. I’m disappointed that the ices are all well known brands, factory made and wrapped in bright colours. I’d fancied a true Yorkshire dairy ice cream and have to make do with a Magnum.
This is a fully working town. It may have learnt to cater for travellers but it can look after itself. There are farmers and builders, lawyers and accountants among the citizenry. I learned to fall out of a canoe in the swimming pool here. Learned that I didn’t like motorbikes while being driven at high speed around corners and bends. Sat in pubs and drank pints of good beer while members of the mountain rescue regaled us with tales of hardship and survival on the tops. I’ve cycled the main roads and the back roads. Looked after small hostels and helped in larger ones. Been mistaken for a gunman on the run and held up by armed police. Went to see Caligula in the Castle Cinema where all fourteen of the audience sat on the back row. I’ve many memories of this part of the vale and am happiest on my travels today to sit in the centre of the town and watch shoppers shop and meet and greet. Watch tourists disembark at the station or enter and leave the Beck Isle Museum. It’s busy and thriving and I don’t see a single person who fails to smile.
Pickering has changed since I lived around here. But like many of the towns of the vale, the more it changes the more it maintains its character. I’m sorry when I realise that I’m running late and it’s time to leave. The Memorial Hall proclaims in carved letters that it was built “with the object of improving the conditions of life”. I’d say the whole town is doing that job pretty well.
Part 4 : The Finest Medieval Walled Town in England
The Romans liked Malton so much that they stayed for four hundred years. During that time they established a fort in the modern Old Malton (which is something of a paradox), set up workshops and became goldsmiths, and carvers of jet. It was considered a favourable posting. A largely farming area far from marauding hordes. Not much has changed. Farming is still the main activity and marauding hordes remain conspicuously absent. Earlier this year it was included in the 101 best places to live in Britain, which is impressive until you discover that the list proclaimed Skipton the most desirable place to be. Thirty years ago I would have almost agreed, but urban influx has increased prosperity and cappuccino options but has killed the seed that made Skipton special. I wouldn’t want to live there now but I’d move back to Malton at the drop of a hat.
Many think of Malton as the very essence of a market town. An abundance of independent shops gather around the large market square. St Michael’s Church is actually in the centre of the square, along with a cluster of other buildings, giving a sense of two squares; three if you include the cattle market which occupies an ancient and central spot a mere fling of a dried cow pat away. Cattle and sheep are sold by auction on Tuesdays for ‘prime’ stock and Fridays for ‘store’. (animals that are not yet ready for the abattoir). It is an important economic event in the area and a time for farmers to be able to catch up with news of friends and colleagues on other farms. When I lived in the town the Spotted Cow pub had a licence to stay open all day (unheard of in those restricted drinking times). It was (and I believe still is) an excellent pub that sold well kept Tetley beer. It wasn’t only farmers who took advantage of the all day drinking.
The lay out of the town owes a great deal to its medieval heritage. When Harry Robinson, the Dean of Humanities at Huddersfield Polytechnic, heard that I was no longer working for the future university but had moved to Malton, he got very excited. Over mugs of tea and ham sandwiches in the refectory he explained why Malton is still the best preserved medieval walled town in Britain, even though there are barely any walls left. Some geographers favour complex rock formations or pyroclastic flows. Harry (later professor Robinson) had a thing for old street maps and urban settlements. He got very excited indeed at the prospect of me living in Malton. “An awful lot of work still to be done there. An awful lot still to discover.” I told him I’d do my best.
One of the things that hadn’t been discovered back in 1980 was the prisoner of war camp just outside the town. This is surprising given that it was not much over 30 years since it had housed hundreds of (first) Italian and (later) German prisoners, and that the tower stuck out like, well, like a watch tower from a prisoner of war camp. The last prisoners were repatriated to Germany in 1949, after that the buildings were used for the storage of grain and the raising of pheasants to be shot on the Fitzwilliam Estates. In 1985 it was bought by a man called Stan Johnson who intended to set up a potato crisp factory on the site. One day he was approached by three Italians who had been held prisoner during the hostilities. From this meeting events moved rapidly and the camp opened as a museum of the second world war less than two years later. It quickly became a major tourist attraction and is high on the list of places visited by school children on history field trips. Many of my own students have told me how much they have enjoyed a visit there.
Last admission is at 4 o’clock. I arrived at the gates at five minutes to four. This caused a momentary dilemma between catching Malton with its shops open or a museum. I’d already ‘done’ two castles, two ancient monasteries and a working abbey. I fancied shopping. From the outside it looked impressive with a display of tanks, aircraft and flying bombs surrounding the huts and central tower. Happy, well fed, families are emerging. From prison camp to holiday attraction is a fine line to tread. In the “Prisoners’ Canteen and Officers’ Mess you can get hot meals and pints of tunnel-buster strong ale.
Malton always had good pubs. Lots of old establishments with side rooms and nooks and crannies. Many pubs in England reacted to the downturn in trade by modernising. It is a term that is almost always pejorative in the licenced trade. It usually means opening up the space, knocking down dividing walls and thus destroying the natural ambience of the place. Then thought they could recreate this feeling of tradition by erecting mock bookshelves and placing old kitchen and laundry equipment on pointless shelves next to the laser lighting rig and the Bose speakers. England has lost about a third of its pubs in the last twenty years. Happily many of the ones that have closed are the ones that were modernised. The Spotted Cow is still there, still without a straight wall in the building and still, as far as I can see through the window (it is market day but it is closed) with its jumble of rooms.
Walking around the square is like walking into the past. Some of the shops have changed but the buildings are still the same. Stone is kept for prestige buildings around here. Many of the fine Georgian shops and houses are built with an attractive brick. The majority may be eighteenth and nineteenth century but the design of the town is hundreds of years older and still follows the pattern of the medieval walls.
The most distinctive feature of Malton is the fact that it is two towns. Two very distinct towns divided by a river. On the north bank of the Derwent is well-heeled Malton, on the south is the more industrious Norton on Derwent. I’m very fond of Norton but the lateness in the day keeps me on the top side of the bridge. Both towns are susceptible to flooding and in bad winters they become detached.
I’m delighted to see that Derek Fox’s butchers and game merchant is still in its place at the top of the square. Malton has begun to develop a reputation as a food town and it is upon shops like this that the foundations of that reputation are being built. In the old days pheasants, rabbits and hares hung outside complete with fur and feather. Today such displays are likely to put off as many as they attract. The good folk of middle England are keen to indulge in traditional fine dining but would rather their children don’t have to see where the meat comes from. We were brought up to accept plucking, skinning and drawing as part of the preparation of the meal. Having said that, I’m more than happy to buy 3 brace of pheasant and 3 brace of partridge for £25 and to have them oven ready and in the bag to take away; the pheasant which is not quite in season is frozen, the partridge plump and fresh.
Malton is a horse racing town. There isn’t a course here (though point to point meetings take place) but some of the most successful stables in the country are to be found on the banks of the Derwent. Peter and Mick Easterby have both trained on the gallops around Malton and Sherriff Hutton. Horses from here have won classics as well as taking the top prizes in jump racing. Blunt and to the point, neither is averse to causing the occasional offence. Listening to them talk horses over a pint or two in a Malton hostelry was to hear the poetry in the Anglo Saxon elements of the language. In 2006 Mick caused great offence in celebrating a winner at the Ebor meeting at York by relating an anecdote about how he came to buy the winning horse to Channel 4 interviewer Alastair Down. The story concluded, “You’ve made me look a c*** once, I’m not be made a c*** twice.”
Four viewers rang in to complain and one to congratulate the plain speaking Yorkshireman. The programme makers issued apology after apology. The authorities however took a more relaxed view. I love the wording of their statement. “We have written to Mr Easterby and reminded him that he might want to be mindful of what he says when he is next interviewed on national television.”
I drive out of town past the gallops where these horses run out. Watching them remains one of my abiding memories of my time in the town.
Further out I enter the surrounds of Castle Howard. This whole area has retained a deferential cap doffing attitude to the privileged and the powerful. Few parts of England flaunt their wealth more dramatically than this. The castle is a thing of great beauty but is also a statement of social standing and the power of money. The gateways suggest you are entering in at the gates of Vienna yet you are driving from one set of fields to another. In case you’ve missed the buildings, the temples, the lakes and parklands there are two towering pillars that would dominate any London square.
It has been a long day and the evening sun invites me to rest. On a bench in the village of Coneysthorpe I sit in the sun and look over the lake to the great house. It became famous as the location of Brideshead Revisited in an 80s television series. The last time I was here they had just finished filming. I was a young man then. The landscape has barely changed which is something that I cannot say of myself.