During a career as a journalist spanning the last 70 years, Bill Mitchell has been introduced to some of Yorkshire’s most colourful characters.
Now, hundreds of taped interviews dating from the 1940s, which chart the memories of people living in the Dales, are set to go on an online archive to give access to a global audience.
Created by Settle Stories – a group that promotes storytelling – the archive will allow students and fans of the national park to listen to fascinating and humorous tales told by Dales residents.
It is being launched following a £50,000 funding boost from the Heritage Lottery Fund and will feature vivid word-of-mouth recordings from as far back as the Second World War era when Mr Mitchell first joined the Dalesman magazine.
Mr Mitchell, 84, who later went on to edit the magazine, was inspired to make the recordings, which formed the basis of his written work, after his editor told him to “put people before things”.
It is this philosophy that has enabled the veteran journalist to capture a social and cultural history which is at risk of dying out.
He said: “I originally used notebooks but then tape recorders came out. It was a real novelty in those days. So I went around recording people and keeping a record of life as it used to be in the Dales.
“It has recorded a way of life in the Dales which has vastly changed. I was working on The Dalesman at a time when social society and farming practices were changing. It was vital to record the way of the Dales in those days so people would regard it as historic interest.
“I have got to the age of 84 and I kept wondering what is going to happen to these tapes so I was delighted when Settle Stories found a way of using it. They will continue to be used and will enable children to hear about what life was like in their grandparents’ day.”
The tapes include a series of recorded interviews with a host of famous Dales characters, including James Herriot and Hannah Hauxwell, which has provided material for books he has written about the pair.
“I recorded James Herriot over a long period and we talked about his life. It was often just me, his dog and myself, but I also recorded his son,” said Mr Mitchell.
“I used to go and visit Hannah with my wife, who died four years ago after we spent 50 years together. She was a farmer’s daughter, who used to pop up and see her every spring. We took people up to visit her and they couldn’t wait to get away because they wanted to talk about what a wonderful character she was.”
But it is the “ordinary folk” that Mr Mitchell says form the main part of the collection – with stories from characters including a man who claimed he didn’t mind that he had never seen the sea as it was “nowt but watter”.
“The whole point about the Dales in those days was everyone was a character,” said Mr Mitchell.
“What I remember is the wonderful way in which people spoke. There was a farmer up in the Haworth area that said things like he started off at a little farm with “next to nowt”. But it didn’t matter as there wasn’t much to spend it on.”
Although he admits life in the Dales is now vastly different, he still believes people remain at the heart of the area.
He said: “It used to be that 99 per cent of people living in villages used to be local but they are now mostly lived in by people who have relocated. But they are wonderful people who have a passion for the Dales and a lot of them are members of various heritage groups.”
The Heritage Lottery funding will see the tapes completely digitised by a team of volunteers who will archive and catalogue the collection. It will then be made available online and will eventually form part of an education and learning programme in schools.
Settle Stories director Sita Brand said: “It will allow young people to learn about their Yorkshire heritage and will make the archive available and accessible to future generations.”
The head of the Heritage Lottery Fund in Yorkshire, Fiona Spiers, said the funding would provide vital support for the important scheme.
“This is an excellent project for the community of Settle and the Yorkshire Dales,” she said.
“It will make available a significant, but hidden archive of Yorkshire to the public, allowing them to have access to a window on the past and learn from days gone as well as provide training and skills in research and archiving for local volunteers.”