My Yorkshire: John Oxley

As York Council's City Archaeologist, John Oxley has been uncovering York's past for 21 years. He lives in Scarborough.

What's your first Yorkshire memory?

It's a vivid one and may help to explain the career I chose. I was aged about five and, on a trip to York, we went to the Yorkshire Museum. I remember, in great detail, walking between tall display cabinets, standing on a box, and seeing, under a glass dome, a velvet cushion. On it was a bun of hair. It intrigued me, always. It was found among the remains of a Roman woman at a burial site that's now part of the railway station. The hairpiece is still on display.

What's your favourite part of the county and why?

It's got to be Swaledale. I grew up in Darlington and, as a family, we visited the dale more than anywhere else. We turned off just before Low Row. There's a ford we called the watersplash and beyond that a place where we had our picnics. Everything about those Sunday afternoons is fixed in my mind. On the way home there was Sing Something Simple on the car radio. Radio 2 I think, or was it still the Light Programme?

What's your idea of a perfect weekend/day out in Yorkshire?

In recent years I've fallen in love with Saltaire and so a perfect day out for me would be a walk through Roberts Park, up into Shipley Glen – and I can't wait for the reopening of the tramway – then following the Leeds & Liverpool Canal to Salts Mill and lunch at Salts Diner.

Do you have a favourite walk, or view?

In 2005, I moved home from York to Scarborough because I'd always hankered after living by the sea, and discovered it was a reasonable commute to work. On the coast, I've discovered the delights of Filey Brigg. The views are incredible; Scarborough and the castle one way, and look the other way and you have the vast sweep of Filey Bay and that incredible expanse of sand. An experience that's made perfect when you stop for a cuppa on the Coble Landing.

Which Yorkshire sportsman/woman would you like to take for lunch?

I'm a Tour de France fanatic and my great hero on a bike was Barry Hoban. He's from Wakefield and is, without doubt, one of Britain's sporting legends, but an unsung one compared to the glamour and wider recognition Chris Hoy and Mark Cavendish have brought to cycling. Hoban once held the record for the most stage wins in the Tour de France by a British rider, winning eight between 1967 and 1975, and he holds the record for the most Tours completed by a Briton. These men are superhuman.

Which Yorkshire stage or screen star (past or present) would you like to take for lunch?

Charles Laughton. A Scarborough lad who became a great character actor, and the one film he directed, The Night of the Hunter, starring Robert Mitchum, is a classic. Laughton didn't forget his home town either. I've read that he brought some of his Hollywood chums to Scarborough and took them tunny fishing.

If you had to name your Yorkshire hidden gem, what would it be?

I have two. The Francis Tea Room in South Street, Scarborough. Its set in a 1930s' hair salon with individual panelled booths. My pick of the menu is the lemon meringue pie – the tangiest lemon you'll ever taste. In York, my hidden gem is Holy Trinity church, tucked behind Goodramgate. It dates from the 11th century, has box pews, and, in the 15th century East window, the vicar who commissioned it placed himself kneeling at Christ's feet.

What do you think gives Yorkshire its unique identity?

A difficult question because the county has so many identities, from the flatlands of Holderness to the likes of Ingleborough and the Upper Dales at the other extreme. Geography and social life have shaped the county. Each area has its own sense of what it is. Overall, maybe those born and bred in Yorkshire inherited an independence and cussedness which, over the years, incomers have helped to temper.

Do you follow sport in the county, and if so, what?

As well as cycling, I like football. Over the years I've followed Darlington and York City but, in 1999, my son and I wanted to sample the Premier League. We chose Sheffield Wednesday and bought season tickets on a balmy June evening at Hillsborough. The romance was soon in trouble. We must have a put a curse on them because that season they were relegated and haven't been back since. Still, the recent takeover offers hope. Wednesday are a sleeping giant and if it wakes up, things could be fantastic.

What about Yorkshire's cultural life?

Saltaire, the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Opera North, the Impressions Gallery in Bradford, Alan Ayckbourn in Scarborough – and they're among just the headline makers. There's much more going on, and don't forget Berwick Kaler's contribution here in York at the Theatre Royal. He never misses a trick. In his latest panto, he's giving a plug to York's bid for World Heritage status.

Do you have a favourite restaurant or pub?

Among my favourite pubs are the Leeds Arms in Scarborough, Fanny's in Saltaire, and the Blue Bell in York. But pin me down and I have to go for the Wellington Inn, set between terrace houses on a lovely street not far from York's city centre.

Do you have a favourite food shop?

Sometimes I meet my dad in Northallerton and we can't resist sampling the atmosphere in Lewis & Cooper. A fantastic delicatessen.

How do you think Yorkshire has changed in the time you've known it? Are those changes for the better?

I'd say it's become more outward-looking, and York is a good example. Tourism in particular has opened it up to different cultural influences. Not many years ago there was tendency among local people to see tourists as an inconvenience, intruders who clogged up the streets and created problems with parking. But visit York on a wet Wednesday in January and you soon discover how things could be without visitors – a rather empty, lifeless place. It's now largely accepted that tourism is crucial to York's economy, but also its atmosphere. The word heritage has gained an unfortunate reputation in some quarters – that somehow it stops things from happening. On the contrary, it enriches lives and we should be proud of our heritage, celebrate it and share it.

Who is the Yorkshire man or woman you most admire?

David Hockney, not just for his wonderful creativity but the personal journey he's made. From Bradford to California, through fame and fortune and now back to Bridlington and painting wonderful scenes in East Yorkshire. In his 70s and still open to ideas. What an inspiration.

How has Yorkshire influenced your work?

There's no place better than York in which to be an archaeologist. It's layer after layer of history representing 2,000 years of continuous occupation. There is an incredible depth of archaeology. Dig down more than 30ft and there are the Romans, and then the Vikings and so on. But every era is leaving its mark. Archaeology is about the recent past too. Look how the railways changed the city...

YP MAG 15/1/11