From Hell, Hull and Halifax may the good Lord deliver us!
Returning to Yorkshire recently, the names began to reverberate from distant memory; Hebden Bridge, Wensleydale, Ilkley Moor, Whitby, Bridlington. I could hear my father’s long Northern vowels again, and recall his ringing sermons. From Hell, Hull and Halifax…” was a great joke between Walter and his non-conformist buddies. But only now have I discovered that it was a 17th century thieves’ litany – Hull because there was a notorious gaol there, and Halifax because of its famous gibbet, a precursor of the guillotine though with the curious distinction of being operated with a rope which all could grasp, a fair administration of rough justice. Very Yorkshire, perhaps.
I went there on a trip with the British Guild of Travel Writers and anticipated the visit with curiosity, never having visited the county of my birth as a tourist. They used to call it “God’s own county,” and remain as proud of it as ever. But for me it was like visiting a different country, more foreign now than France. Industrial has become post-industrial with some noted successes, the 1853 gallery at Saltaire, a huge mill now home to David Hockney’s paintings, the Deep aquarium in Hull, the textile mills turned into luxurious eco-spas. But it was in the enduring landscape that I felt once again at home; the elemental beauty of the moors, rushing waters, undulating valleys stitched with rugged stone walls and scattered with hardy black-faced Wensleydale sheep. Most of all the wild skies moving with clouds above. I grew up with plenty of sky.
In the end it was the artists and writers we encountered that made sense of it all. Of course, that’s what they are for. One of our first visits after the splendours of York, the great Minster, the medieval streets and walls, was to the Yorkshire Sculpture park. There among the massive Henry Moores which looked so solidly embedded in the landscape and Andy Goldsworthy’s sculptural sheep fold, we saw the Deer Shelter skyspace, a permanent installation by James Turrell. Inside the 19th century brick shelter he has created an interior space with a square cut out for the sky. That is it. You watch the sky. It may change. You may change. It was only afterwards I discovered that he was a Quaker. His grandmother had explained their philosophy thus; “go inside to greet the light.” Turrell is also a keen air pilot – apparently he and his celestial chums call the rest of us, “ground-pounders.” Driving through the Yorkshire Wolds towards Hull, through scenes recently painted by Hockney as he travelled between Bridlington, where his mother was ill and Wetherby where his old friend, Jonathan Silver, was dying, he found solace in the trees, silhouetted along the horizon of the hills, or flanking the roadsides in a narrowing perspective that foxed our photographers. Hockney said that returning to Yorkshire had been a revelation, “It led me back to the land. I realized you could [only] paint the landscape, because you can’t photograph the landscape – you can’t get space in it.” The trees, he said were a metaphor for him of the tension between the life force and gravity. We saw the birthplace of Ted Hughes at Mytholmroyd, a humble house of soot blackened York stone, and I returned again to Birthday Letters, the book of poems published after his death which explores his relationship with Sylvia Plath with such sensitivity and pain that he must have carried somewhere within him always. And we saw Plath’s grave too in the graveyard of Heptonstall. Why was she buried there, this tormented American, on top of the Yorkshire moors? The name Hughes on the gravestone is fixed in bronze to prevent the Plath pilgrims chiselling it off. But of course it was the Brontes that did it for me. I felt most in harmony with place and past at Haworth, bleak and grim as it is. Best visited in wind and rain and quite out of season. Jane Eyre was the first grown-up novel I read, aged maybe 10, and it so captured my imagination. The Brontes were all about imagination, they had nothing else, stuck in that cold, remote parsonage between village and wilderness. In front of them the church and always the graveyard, the inevitably of death which came all too soon to all of them, then behind the house the wide scape of empty moorland and sky. Liberty was always Emily’s watchword. And then another memory of my father rises up, of him suddenly stopping on a moorland walk, and pointing to the heavens. “Wait, listen to the skylark!” And we would strain to hear what he heard soaring high in the sky above us.