Tomorrow marks the 30th anniversary of the death of Bing Crosby. Paul Kirkwood uncovers an unlikely association between the Hollywood legend and Nidderdale and listens to the ode he wrote to Yorkshire
The spectators at the Highside playing fields in Kirkby Malzeard shield their eyes from the low evening sun when they should be rubbing them in disbelief.
For there in front of them, padding up before heading to the crease, is Bing Crosby, as incongruous as he is unmistakable in his trademark trilby.
The start of a junior cricket match between Highside and Kirkby Fleetham is delayed as Bing strides into the centre of the pitch.
"How do you hold the bat?" he jokes. "And what do you do with it? Don't send those balls down fast," he adds, hitting the first ball for four. But, to the delight of the spectators he is out, clean-bowled with the second ball and then stays around for an hour or so to sign autographs and chat.
The date was Thursday, August 12, 1976 and Bing was on a grouse shooting holiday. He was staying as a guest of Lord of the Manor, Godfrey Bostock, at his home, the Moor House, just a couple of miles south-east of Kirkby Malzeard. The Glorious Twelfth had been just that. Having flown in the day before, Bing had bagged six-and-a-half brace.
A year earlier – when Bing, his wife Kathryn and son Harry had first stayed with Mr Bostock – Bing had donated 1,250 to the Highside Playing Fields Association, of which Mr Bostock was president. The sum included his 250 fee for three appearances on Yorkshire Television's Stars on Sunday, filmed in Leeds.
Keen to see the playing fields for himself, Bing was driven to them by Mr Bostock. Joan Kirk, who still lives in Kirkby Malzeard, was secretary of the Highside Playing Fields Association from 1972 to 1997 and remembers the visit well. "We didn't get much notice," she said. "Mr Bostock rang me in the morning. Word soon got round, though, so there were lots of people on the playing fields when he arrived with Bing in his vintage yellow car at about 6.30.
"My son, Peter, then 21, was umpire for the match which was just about to start and my daughter, Anne, then 18, was beside me. Bing said: 'Is this your daughter? Isn't she like you?' He was a lovely man. We always joke that the pictures we took that day must be the only ones with him in cricket gear. Quite a few celebrities came to shoot up here in those days, including some princes of Denmark, I think. "
Bing usually preferred to stay anonymous during his visits and was grateful to the locals for keeping them secret. Joan maintained contact with him after their meeting. In December 1976, she sent him some photos from the cricket match and Bing replied saying: "That playing field of yours has quite a sentimental place in my heart because of the good times I had in that area up there and the marvellous shoots I've had with Mr Bostock." The following April, Joan sent him a letter wishing him well when he was hospitalised after falling 20ft into an orchestra pit during a performance in California. Again Bing sent a prompt reply postmarked "Beverly Hills".
The most cherished memento in Joan's collection, though, is a 33rpm 12-inch record titled Ode to Yorkshire, a limited edition of just three. Bing sent the others to Mr Bostock and Lord and Lady Swinton who were also among his shooting friends. The plain white, typewritten label simply bears the title of the song, a credit to Joey Bushkin (Bing's regular piano accompanist) and the main singing credit to "An unidentified strolling player". "People from his fan club have asked if they could tape the record, but I've preferred them not to as the record is very personal and to tape it would take away some of its uniqueness," said Joan. I was privileged, then, to hear it on her Dansette record player.
Consisting of four passages and lasting more than five minutes, the song is full of whimsy and charm and clearly not something that Bing just bashed off. In the lyrics, he pays tribute to Mr Bostock, Lord and Lady Swinton and numerous other people he met while shooting in Dallowgill – even the beaters.
One of the party, he says, "talks like David Niven", another shoots like Annie Oakley and, to all, he urges "let's get crackin' through the bracken". The final lines are sung to the tune of Rule Britannia: "Hail to Yorkshire and to Dallowgill. If I may come back, I surely will."
Sadly, Bing never had the opportunity. Aged 74 and just 14 months after his famous innings, he died of a heart attack having just completed a round of golf in Madrid. "He was unassuming, charming and a great gentleman in every sense of the word," said Mr Bostock at the time. "He loved the country around here and made friends among the local people. He really enjoyed his visits and used his return visit to revive friendships."
Joan sent a letter of condolence to Bing's widow, Kathryn, who replied with two verses from That's What Life is All About, a reflective song that Bing had recorded in his 70s as his equivalent to Sinatra's My Way.
The Bing story does not end there, though. In 1994, to mark Kirkby Malzeard's inclusion in the new Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Area of Natural Beauty, Joan and 15 other ladies from the village created a 9ft x 6ft textile banner which today hangs in the Mechanics Institute.
If you look carefully, below the gala marquee
and beside a set of cricket stumps, a bat and ball is Bing's head, wearing a white cloth cap and smoking
In the corner of a banner, in a corner of Yorkshire, Bing will forever have a presence, and one as discreet as his visits to Nidderdale – with the exception of that unforgettable evening in the summer of '76.
A star turn at The Drovers...
The traditional and unassuming Drovers Inn near the hamlet of Dallow is an unlikely mecca for Bing Crosby fans.
They visit the pub since it was Bing's local on his grouse shooting holidays. In fact, it was very local since his host, Godfrey Bostock, lived next door at the adjoining Moor House. He still owns both properties and Dallowgill Moor.
Bing gave an impromptu concert in The Drovers one evening and also sang for Lord and Lady Swinton around the piano at Swinton Castle.
Mr Bostock, now 92, lives mainly in Staffordshire but still spends time at the Moor House and, indeed, came up for the start of the grouse shooting season this August. His son, Simon, lives in Pateley Bridge and is the current president of the Highside Playing Fields Association.
A great way to explore Dallowgill on foot – and an excuse to call in at The Drovers – is the Mosaic Trail which celebrates its 10th anniversary next month. For more information and the route, see http://tinyurl.com/ypt3tv or buy a leaflet for 25p from the village stores in Kirkby Malzeard.