Author and journalist WR Mitchell has spent most of his life chronicling the life of Dales folk and now a new project aims to make his interviews available to the public. Chris Bond met him.
LOOKING out the kitchen window at his home in Giggleswick you can see why WR Mitchell, known less formally as Bill to most, is so enamoured with the Dales. The ripening autumn colours and the steep limestone outcrop that looms over this remote corner of Yorkshire is a breathtaking sight. It’s also an apt one for a man who has spent more than 60 years recording and collecting the memories of people who live here.
A former Editor of the Dalesman magazine, Mitchell is the author of more than 140 books on Yorkshire local history as well as biographies of figures such as James Herriot, Alfred Wainwright and Beatrix Potter and is widely regarded as the doyen of Dales writers.
He has worked as a journalist his entire career during the course of which he has amassed hundreds of interviews recorded on tape that document life in the Dales from bygone days told by people in their own words and dialect. The stories captured on tape range from tales of the local gentry, including the Dawsons of the Folly, at Settle, and the Yorkes of Halton Place, to ordinary folk scraping a living against the odds in remote communities.
Many of these tapes have been gathering dust at Mitchell’s house until a chance conversation with Sita Brand, director of Settle Stories, organisers of the Settle Storytelling Festival, led to the creation of the WR Mitchell archive. Earlier this year Settle Stories received a £50,000 Heritage Lottery Fund grant to create a digital archive of Mitchell’s analogue tapes for people to listen to online.
There are about 600 tapes, some of which are scattered around the region, and the project aims to gather together all the tapes, log them and upload them on a website to create a social archive of Yorkshire life. Mitchell joined the Dalesman in 1948 when founder Harry Scott told him to “put people before things” and it has been his guiding principle ever since.
In the early days he wrote down his interviews before switching to tapes. “It’s laborious using shorthand, particularly when someone’s talking for an hour, so I bought a tape recorder and that made a big difference because I could just plonk it in front of them and let them talk.”
And they did just that. Over the decades he has travelled all over Yorkshire speaking to generations of farmers, landowners and blacksmiths. “The interviews are all about everyday life and the tapes give people an idea of what life was like 40 or 50 years ago,” he says.
“There’s been a tremendous change in the Dales over the years, the landscape is nothing like it used to be. The hills are still there and it’s a green and pleasant land but it wasn’t altogether green in days gone by. The meadows were all multi-coloured with all kinds of flowers, there was a range of vegetation and now it’s all green.”
The villagers have changed, too. “At one time about 98 per cent of the population was made up of local people. They were born there, went to school there and lived there, whereas nowadays the majority of people have moved in. I’m not being derogatory, these offcomers have an interest in the Dales and its heritage but on the other hand they’re not truly Dales folk.”
Among those he spent time with was Alf White, or James Herriot to use his nom de plume. “I went to open a craft trail at Thirsk and I thought, ‘Thirsk’, so I dropped a note to Alf White asking if I could pop in and see him, and one day the telephone rang and it was this quiet, slightly Scottish voice on the other end of the line and he said he was quite happy to meet me. So I went along and it was wonderful to drive a car into this little village just off the main road and find this house behind a big hedge. I knocked on the door and he opened it with his little dog Bodie. We went upstairs and for over an hour I had this tape recorder running and we just chatted about his life, he was an extremely nice man, one of the nicest chaps I’ve ever met.
“He didn’t brag, he just talked about his career and how it started in Yorkshire when he was earning £4 a week, how he had this little old car with holes in the floor and how he got his feet wet every time he went through a puddle,” he says.
“I checked every now and then just to make sure the tape recorder was working because it would have been a tragedy if it had stopped.”
His friendship with Alfred Wainwright, the celebrated fell wanderer, endured for many years, while Hannah Hauxwell was another Dales figure who he, and his late wife Freda, used to visit. “We would go up and see her pretty much every spring. She had this farm and one or two cows which she sold and the house which was quite characterful. Lots of people had given her things and there were two photographs on the wall, one was of her grandmother and I asked if the other was of her grandfather and she said, ‘no, it isn’t, but they said it looked a bit like him so we left it up.’ That’s pure Dales,” he says, chuckling merrily.
He says there is a wit about people from the Dales. “Humour is contrived, wit just occurs and there is a witticism about Dales folk,” he says. “There’s a story about this old chap who’s dying who was 94. He’s in bed and his wife comes in and says ‘are you all right, love?’ and he said ‘yes, would you light a candle to brighten my last hours?’ And she said ‘oh no, you know the price of candles’. Anyway, she left and came back a minute later and said ‘you can have a candle but if you feel yourself going, blow it out’.”
He met plenty of fascinating characters down the years like “Big” Bill Alderson from Swaledale. “He was called William Alderson JP, but he was known as ‘Gurt Bill up t’Steps’ and if you go from Muker up the valley you will see a barn on the left with steps leading up to the door and that is where I used to go and chat with Bill. He was a wonderful person, you could sit down with him and he would talk and talk and pictures of Dales life just formed in your mind. He told me how, as a small boy, when he went to school at Muker he had to walk down the valley and he used to go into the barns and fodder the cattle on his way.
“One particular night at home he left the window open as usual in his bedroom and there was a blizzard during the night and he woke up to find the whole room was covered with snow. I asked him what he did and he said, ‘well, I pulled sheets back and louped [leapt] out of bed into t’passage’. What I was picking up was the way people spoke in the Dales which gave you an idea of what they said and how they said it years ago.” As he points out dialects, even within the Dales, could vary greatly. “They would change subtly from valley to valley and certainly if you went from Airedale up to Teesdale you would get tremendous changes.”
Although the character of the Dales has inevitably changed he says it hasn’t lost its intrinsic beauty. “It’s still wonderful to drive over these little high roads between the valleys, you feel like you’re almost going into another world and that’s how the old Dales folk must have felt as well, it would have been like a little adventure.”
Mitchell’s devotion to the area has earned him a doctorate from Bradford University, an MBE for services to journalism and the community and honorary membership of the Yorkshire Dales Society.
But he isn’t one to blow his own trumpet. “Most of these books I’ve done myself and my aim has never been to make any money out of the Dales folk or the Dales itself, but in fact to record all this fine detail which otherwise would have been forgotten – and that’s the great thing about this project,” he says.
“Isn’t it wonderful when you can just press a button and hear somebody talking about their lives that go way back in time. I was talking to people who were old 40 or 50 years ago, and they were talking about what their life was like when they were young and it takes you right back to another age.”