My Yorkshire: Professor John Oldfield on his favourite people and places

Professor John Oldfield.
Professor John Oldfield.
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Professor John Oldfield is director of the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation at the University of Hull. The 62-year-old is married to Veronica, and they have two grown-up sons, Thomas and Matthew.

What’s your first Yorkshire memory? A family wedding in Pickering when I was five or six years old. We lived in South Wales and it seemed to take an age to drive up. My dad used to tell me that I stood up for most of the journey, between the driver and passenger’s seats. I still have a photograph of me on the day, wearing short trousers, and a slightly glazed expression on my face.

Professor John Oldfield would like to be lord of the manor at Benningborough Hall for a day.

Professor John Oldfield would like to be lord of the manor at Benningborough Hall for a day.

What’s your favourite part of the county – and why? We’ve only been up here since the start of 2013, so we are still very much exploring the county – and loving it. There is so much to see, but we already have a big bond with, and affection for, the coastline, from the broad sands at Filey to the cliffs at Robin Hood’s Bay, and the winding alleyways and little streets of Whitby.

What’s your idea of a perfect day, or a perfect weekend, out in Yorkshire? First stop, a breakfast in Bettys, in Harrogate, a drive to Burnby Hall Gardens in Pocklington and then off to Whitby to have another stroll and, inevitably I suppose, some fish and chips.

Do you have a favourite walk – or view? Spurn Point takes a lot of beating for a bracing ramble over the shingle, and for spotting all manner of wonderful creatures. If nothing else, it always blows the cobwebs away.

Which Yorkshire sportsman, past or present, would you like to take for lunch? Darren Gough. He has that wonderful never say die attitude, and personifies English (and Yorkshire) cricket at its best. He has an easy natural exuberance, and seems to be the sort of guy with whom one would like to go into battle.

Professor John Oldfield would liek to take Hull-born Maureen Lipman to dinner.

Professor John Oldfield would liek to take Hull-born Maureen Lipman to dinner.

Which Yorkshire stage or screen star, past or present, would you like to take for dinner? The lovely Hull-born Maureen Lipman. I’ve never met her, but perhaps our upcoming UK City of Culture festivities might be a sufficient lure? Consider that an invite.

If you had to name your Yorkshire ‘hidden gem’, what would it be? The University of Hull’s Art Collection. For many years this languished in a few rooms, unseen by most people. You’ll find Beardsley, Sickert, Pissarro, Stanley Spencer, Henry Moore, all manner of delights, and it is now open to the public, seven days a week, in new galleries at the Brynmor Jones Library.

If you could choose somewhere, or some object, from or in Yorkshire to own for a day, what would it be? The National Trust’s Beningbrough Hall property, just outside York, and please can I have an overnight stay? To wake up and find myself the lord of the manor would be wonderful. And if I only had just part of the hall, it would be the gallery, with all those magnificent pictures.

What do you think gives Yorkshire its unique identity? It has only been a relatively short acquaintance, but I have already noted that the Yorkshire folk have a resilience of spirit, a “can do” attitude. There’s a friendliness here, an openness, and I like, admire and appreciate that.

Do you follow sport in the county, and if so, what? I get down to see Hull City when I can (which is not often enough) and of course I follow the fortunes of Yorkshire County Cricket Club – Joe Root is arguably the best player of his generation. But, to my shame, I have never yet made it over to Headingley, something which is top of my list of priorities for next season.

Do you have a favourite restaurant, or pub? The 1884 Dock Street Kitchen in Hull marina has truly raised the bar as far as good food in the city goes. And the Lion and Key in the old quarter is a beautiful pub, with a great atmosphere. There’s a lot of business discussed in there, over quite a few pints.

Do you have a favourite food shop? Vanessa’s Deli and Café in Beverley serves very nice food and all manner of fresh and locally-sourced produce. A very agreeable (and very popular) stopping-off point for both of us.

How do you think that Yorkshire has changed, for better or for worse, in the time that you’ve known it? Even in the few years that we’ve been here, Hull has improved beyond measure and with the UK City of Culture year nearly upon us, Hull has risen (and is still rising) to the occasion.

If you had to change one thing in, or about Yorkshire, what would that be? I would redouble efforts to get the Northern Powerhouse fully charged and up and running. And I’d like to remind everyone that Hull exists. We are proud to be out here, and we love our independence, but we also want to be included in things. Please.

Who is the Yorkshire person that you most admire? It has to be William Wilberforce. A towering figure of national and international importance who is – shamefully – not half as well-known in his own land for his achievements, and his commitment to, and persistence in, getting slavery abolished. He was only 5ft 3in tall, had ill health all his life, and yet he battled and battled against the evils of the slave trade, and eventually won his cause.

Has Yorkshire influenced your work? Very much so. From my office I can see the Wilberforce statue in the gardens next door, and that is a constant reminder of what we do, and how much we have yet to achieve.

Name your favourite Yorkshire book/author/artist/CD/performer? I am going for David Hockney as one of the finest artists of the last, and of this century, and Alan Bennett as his parallel companion in the literary stakes. Those recent landscapes by Hockney are incredible, and Mr Bennett’s dry observations have given me many a chuckle.

If a stranger to Yorkshire only had time to visit one place, it would be? Hull Freedom Festival, which is a unique blend of music, 
speech, poetry, live performance and exhibitions. It isn’t yet a decade old, but it has a feisty air of celebration that is all its own.