Sense of Yorkshire identity that defies the boundaries on a bureaucrat’s map

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With the Yorkshire Dales National Park set to be extended to include parts of Lancashire, Sebastian Oake reports on the boundary battles.

It always was going to be a brave move. Officials at Natural England studied a map of the Yorkshire Dales National Park and thought they could do a better job of drawing the boundaries.

In a way, they had a point. In terms of landscape beauty, the lines on the map seemed quite arbitrary with some large areas of fine countryside left outside. Surely it made sense to draw these places into the protective bubble of the Yorkshire Dales National Park?

They decided that in the north-west, parts of the northern Howgill Fells, the Orton Fells, Wild Boar Fell and Mallerstang should be includes, as should Barbondale, Middleton, the Casterton and Leck Fells, and the River Lune to the west.

When the plans became public, the National Park Authority was delighted at the prospect of pushing out its boundaries but many people both in the new areas and in Yorkshire were not so pleased. During the debate that followed, outrage spread and it seemed that at any moment a new War of the Roses could break out.

The problem is that the new areas are not in Yorkshire and they never have been. If the plans get final approval, as they are expected to in January, people in parts of Lancashire and the old county of Westmorland could well end up being told to consider themselves part of the Yorkshire Dales. They should, you might think, be pleased, but what if was the other way round. What if a hypothetical Lancashire National Park were being expanded to take in Yorkshire’s Three Peaks?

To pour more oil on the fire, there is the suggestion that, if parts of Lancashire and Westmorland are indeed to be drawn into the Yorkshire Dales National Park, then it might warrant a name change, maybe even dropping the Yorkshire bit altogether. It’s enough to make anyone saddle their horse, reach for their sword and head for the border with a battle cry.

All this is nothing new. Just look what happened when the Yorkshire boundaries were redrawn in 1974 and the ancient Ridings were dismantled. They had been set up when the Vikings ruled Yorkshire in the 10th-century but administrative convenience apparently meant they had to go.

The new counties drawn up were West, South and North Yorkshire but the map work was carried out with a blunt pencil with little regard to history, long-held allegiances or people’s wishes. People who once lived in the East Riding were now in Humberside, those in North Riding towns like Middlesbrough were part of Cleveland, the isolated communities of Upper Teesdale were booted out of the North Riding into County Durham, the West Riding frontier town of Sedbergh was shoved over into Cumbria, and a huge wedge of the West Riding including Barnoldswick and Bowland was surrendered to Lancashire. Yorkshire pride was dented. People were livid.

But why all the furore about lines on a map anyway? Does it really matter in an age when we are ruled by postcodes that can place us in areas that are nothing at all to do with us? After all, Buckden, Burnsall and Bolton Abbey, tiny villages tucked away in the Dales, have Bradford postcodes with no more in common with the city than the letter ‘B’.

The men and women back in the Natural England office probably think this sort of thing is a bit of a fuss about nothing. Any amateur psychologist would be able to put them right. The point is, boundaries are not just lines on a map and they never have been. Originally they were fought over and secured with blood and sweat. Even today they can reflect important differences in history, culture, language and environment – things that contribute to our sense of identity.

When key boundaries change, people are effectively told to change the way they think of themselves, to re-label themselves. No wonder then that following the 1974 reorganisation, a pressure group was set up to try to restore the integrity of the Ridings. The Yorkshire Ridings Society has seen some success. In 1996 Humberside was abolished and the “Yorkshire part” was reinstated as East Yorkshire, albeit not along the original boundaries of the old East Riding.

But it doesn’t seem like the West and North Ridings are coming back any day soon and we have a whole mish-mash of councils administering areas along all sorts of boundaries, some of which seem to make sense and some of which don’t. If you lived in the Ainsty of York pre-1974, then you knew where you were – at the ancient hub of the three Ridings. Today the same address could be within the York unitary authority area, or in North Yorkshire or even in West Yorkshire.

And consider the plight of the people of Guisborough. How should they think of themselves today? Historians tell them they are proud Yorkshire men and women of the North Riding. The men who wielded the blunt pencils in 1974 tried to tell them they were part of the exciting new county of Cleveland. Current council officials tell them they live in the unitary area of Redcar and Cleveland, while the Lord Lieutenant of North Yorkshire (the Queen’s representative in the county) tells them that, as far as he is concerned, they come under his responsibility.

Nowhere is the matter of boundaries more keenly felt than in Saddleworth, a cluster of western Pennine villages once the springboard of the 70s prog-rock band Barclay James Harvest. Originally part of the West Riding, Saddleworth was put into Greater Manchester in 1974 and is now administered by Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council, but many people’s hearts are elsewhere – back in the old West Riding.

“It’s pretty obvious Saddleworth is in Yorkshire,” says Roy Bardsley, secretary of the Saddleworth White Rose Society. “The buildings are in the same style and made from the same sort of stone. There is no change in the landscape as you come from Yorkshire. The change takes place when you come to the traditional Lancashire boundary. It changes from moorland and a rural area to an ugly built-up area. It’s obvious that you’re then somewhere else.”

The society, which has around 300 members, is currently putting up signs on their side of the traditional Yorkshire-Lancashire border. They bear the White Rose and the words “in the historic county of York”. Roy is quick to point out that “lots of people in Saddleworth have made generous donations” to fund the work.

What would happen if a magic wand could be waved and the western boundary of what is currently West Yorkshire were to be moved forward overnight to the traditional Yorkshire-Lancashire bastion between Saddleworth and Oldham? He admits that would be nice but you sense he feels it’s not likely now.

He also seems relaxed that council services come from Oldham, but nevertheless for him and many others Saddleworth remains a part of Yorkshire, just as Oldham remains a part of Lancashire.

The Yorkshire Ridings Society agrees, saying with reference to the changes in 1974: “All those people who were told that they had ‘been moved out of the county’ were misinformed. They may be in an administrative area which is based outside the county; they may have been given a strange postcode and may find many of their services are over the boundary; but they still live in God’s Own County.”

But should they be so relaxed over where their services come from? The logos and names on dust carts, fire engines, police cars, school boards, libraries and so on all subconsciously contribute to the identity of a place. We see and read these every day and they reinforce what’s in our hearts, or alternatively chip away at it.

Unless these things, together with those lines on today’s maps, reinforce identity, then over time that identity is surely at risk of being weakened. Once the connection between what we see around us and what we feel inside starts to waver, can identity survive? How many people growing up in Saddleworth in a few decades time will consider themselves Yorkshire rather than take their identity from the things around them? If someone from a small village on the western edge of the Pennines were to be invited onto a TV game show in 2031 what would he answer to the question “And where do you come from?” Would they say “A small village in Yorkshire” or would they answer “Oldham” or “Near Manchester” or even, heaven forbid, “Lancashire”?

There is, however, an indisputable and very tangible connection that Saddleworth has with Yorkshire – the Huddersfield Narrow Canal. This waterway, which cuts under the Pennines through Britain’s longest canal tunnel, was reopened in 2001 by HRH Prince Charles. At the time he said: “The fact that Saddleworth is still part of the historic West Riding of Yorkshire is extremely important.”

White Rose supporters in this far-flung outpost of the old Ridings will be hoping that this waterway remains a symbol of unity with our side of the Pennines and that their identity will not begin to slip away like water under a bridge.