On the busy A669 road through a suburb of Oldham known as Lees, anyone heading east is confronted by a new metal sign next to one of Greater Manchester Transport’s bus shelters. Beneath a prominent white rose the sign informs people they are about to enter the Historic West Riding of Yorkshire.
Bus passengers who see the sign for the first time could be forgiven for thinking they had fallen asleep and woken up well past their stop, but a few yards away is a clue to its odd location – the name “County End” on a row of houses. For this is where Yorkshire once ended and Lancashire began, a division said to date as far back as 1134, although some argue its origins were three centuries earlier and may even have been established in Roman times. However, everyone can be precise about the exact moment the border was finally erased: the stroke of midnight on April 1, 1974.
“How would the people of Harrogate like it if one morning they woke up in Lancashire?” asks Geoff Bayley, whose home village of Delph ceased to have a Yorkshire address four decades ago when annexed by Oldham. “Someone I posed that question to when I was across in Harrogate said he would be gutted. Well, that’s exactly how we felt.”
To be given away to Lancashire – of all places – added insult to injury, and one can imagine the body of that old white rose warrior Richard III spinning in his then-undiscovered grave beneath a Leicester car park. But since 1974 there has been a constant battle to uphold the Yorkshireness of Delph and the six other villages that comprise the parish of Saddleworth.
It’s a campaign shared by many other communities, from the Pennines to the Dales and the Yorkshire coast. Of course, their plight isn’t remotely on the scale of that suffered by displaced peoples like the Kurds and Tibetans. The redrawing of Yorkshire’s borders saw the spilling of ink rather than blood. With a few pen strokes by Whitehall mandarins, centuries-old communities were assigned to Lancashire or Cumbria, Cleveland or County Durham.
These displaced Tykes have waged an offensive largely through letters to newspapers and lobbying politicians to uphold the traditional borders of the Yorkshire Ridings, as well as raising funds to erect signs like the one in Oldham.
And with perhaps more zeal than most, they hold Yorkshire Day celebrations each August. These typically involve a ton of white roses, not to mention trays of Yorkshire parkin, plates of pies and peas and Yorkshire puddings. The Saddleworth White Rose Society, which Geoff chairs, marks the day by laying a wreath of white roses at a statue of local West Riding dialect poet Ammon Wrigley.
Before the boundary changes Saddleworth held a referendum, Geoff says, and 98 per cent of voters rejected any association with Lancashire. “Sadly, that figure would be greatly reduced today. People who consider themselves Yorkshire folk are now in the minority. It’s partly the passage of time, partly a lot of outsiders coming to the area, but also to do with Oldham trying to thrust a common identity on us.”
Fellow committee member Brenda Cockayne adds: “I think most folks think we’re weirdos. In fact, the people at Oldham Council call us ‘the sads’. They’ve spent 40 years trying to convince us we’re in Oldham now but they won’t win. We’re Yorkshire through and through. We were born here and so were our ancestors. That can’t be taken out of us.”
Even using the white rose as a symbol of the area’s Yorkshireness has become, well, a thorny issue. While Saddleworth Parish Council continues to display it on vans and leaflets, some local brass bands now controversially include the red rose of Lancashire in their emblems.
Cricket, too, has become a touchy subject. Youngsters living in places like Saddleworth which once had Yorkshire addresses are being brought into the coaching scheme operated at Headingley. However, Lancashire are not at all happy with this, Geoff says, accusing Yorkshire of trying to poach their young talent.
Sixty miles to the north as the crow flies, Dentdale – one of the loveliest parts of the Yorkshire Dales National Park – found itself moved from the West Riding into Cumbria. One resident says: “I always tell people in Cumbria that we’re on temporary loan.” Few locals there or further down the dale at the town of Sedbergh feel any loyalty to Cumbria, and to complicate matters further they have a Lancaster postcode.
Across in the once-thoroughly Yorkshire seaside resort of Redcar, Chris Abbott has good news for the people of Saddleworth and Dentdale. The Local Government Act which handed those and other areas to neighbouring counties emphatically did not scrap the three Ridings, he says. “As far as my own town of Redcar is concerned, while the North Riding County Council may have been abolished in 1974, the North Riding in which Redcar is located was never abolished. The changes were for local government only, and for all other purposes Yorkshire is Yorkshire. The three Ridings still exist!” Chris is chairman of the Yorkshire Ridings Society, which created Yorkshire Day in 1975 as a thumbed nose at the bureaucrats who redrew the boundaries but also as a celebration of everything Yorkshire.
Thousands of pounds have been raised in Redcar by selling white roses every August 1. Stalls are set up beside the town clock in the High Street and last year the Declaration of Integrity – proclaiming allegiance to the Ridings – was read by a Captain Cook-costumed actor, Chris Foote Wood, a Lancastrian as it happens, and brother of the comedian Victoria Wood.
As in Saddleworth, new signs have started appearing to reaffirm the area’s historic links. Visitors to Redcar now can’t avoid colourful signs reminding them that they are on the Yorkshire coast. This is partly because Yorkshire has a more attractive brand image than Cleveland for tourists, and Chris Abbott believes it could be the start of a trend. Recently, a new cafe at Saltburn, formerly one of the jewels of the Yorkshire coast but now part of Redcar and Cleveland, has opened up under the name of the Yorkshire Pie & Mash Shop.
A major objective for places like Redcar, Sedbergh and Saddleworth – Chris refers to them as “the areas of uncertainty” – is to attract the Tour de Yorkshire cycle race in order to emphasise their historic connections with the Ridings. Another initiative is encouraging local schools to teach children about their Yorkshire roots.
Back in Saddleworth, Geoff Bayley worries there are too few young people prepared to continue the fight. The White Rose Society has mostly elderly members, he says. “If we’re not careful it’ll just be something kids read about in history books. That’s why Yorkshire Day’s so important to us.”