Small parish churches are the shining jewels of the Yorkshire countryside but fewer than ever now keep their doors open to provide wayfarers with shelter and a place for quiet reflection. Many people have their special favourites, and if put to a readers’ vote the most popular rural church might well be that perennial of Yorkshire Dales calendars St Michael and All Angels Church at the remote hamlet of Hubberholme.
Thankfully, I have never found its door locked in four decades of doing the Buckden-Cray-Hubberholme triangle, arguably the best walk in the Dales, or following the grey scribble of tarmac out of Wharfedale to Langstrothdale and onwards over Fleet Moss, the highest road in Yorkshire.
The only change I can detect in all that time is the addition of a memorial plaque to the great Bradford-born novelist JB Priestley, whose ashes were buried here after his death 30 years ago at the age of 89. Priestley loved Hubberholme and was a frequent visitor in the course of his long life. He once described it as “the smallest, pleasantest place in the world” and would have enjoyed having the Norman church all to himself every bit as much as I and thousands of others still do, perhaps searching for carved mice on the oak pews – trademark of Robert “Mousey” Thompson of Kilburn – or just sitting and contemplating the world as birdsong drifted in from the churchyard.
If old Jack Priestley came back today he would find the place looking pretty much as he remembered it, although the passage of time would be more obvious in the local hostelries. In his fine book English Journey he recalled a visit to Upper Wharfedale in 1933. The village of Buckden, he wrote, was a notable goal for Bradfordians “who have emptied the barrels at the inn there many a time”, but they’d now be hard pushed to deplete the beer supplies given the vast range on sale today. And up at Hubberholme’s George Inn, which was once the hamlet’s vicarage, Priestley could not sit down – as he did in the 1930s – and enjoy a Sunday lunch of soup, Yorkshire pudding, roast chicken with sausages and two veg, fruit pudding, cheese and biscuits followed by coffee and receive a bill of 2/6d, or just over 12p in today’s money.
In later years Priestley and his wife Jacquetta were sometimes spotted in summer a mile or so upstream of Yockenthwaite, where he liked to sit and paint watercolours of the burbling infant River Wharfe against its drop-dead beautiful setting of limestone-walled hay meadows, a scene which artists continue to find inspiring.
The hay meadows are still managed in the traditional way, flowering and seeding before being mown in July. On a fine May afternoon it is perhaps the most delightful corner of the Dales, with common sandpipers and oystercatchers announcing their noisy presence along the riverbanks and the liquid squeals of lapwings, known as “tu-ets” by older Dalesfolk.