What life really used to be like in Yorkshire Dales

Mr Cherry Keaton and Pat, sweeping hay with a Swaledale-type sweep.
Mr Cherry Keaton and Pat, sweeping hay with a Swaledale-type sweep.
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As Life and Tradition in the Yorkshire Dales is republished to mark its 50th anniversary, Sarah Freeman celebrates the formidable double act who captured fast-disappearing customs in all their glory.

Visitors to the 17th century stone cottage in Askrigg which Marie Hartley shared with her friend and collaborator Joan Ingilby often had to clear a space before they sat down to share a pot of tea. There were oatcake racks, irons used to mould the shape of clogs and obscure tools which had belonged to some long departed craftsman. To most they looked like junk, but to Hartley and Ingilby they were reminders of a way of life which had been made redundant by mechanisation and mass production.

Together Hartley, who was also an artist who had trained at the Slade, and Ingilby, whose family seat was Ripley Castle, became self-appointed historians of the Dales. Their ever growing collection of artefacts would lead to the foundation of the Dales Countryside Museum and their landmark book Life and Tradition in the Yorkshire Dales, first published in 1968, set an early benchmark for the recording of social history.

“I feel a little guilty as even I had dismissed it as being a little folksy,” says Gill Cookson, of the Yorkshire Archaeological and History Society, which has just published an anniversary edition of the book to mark its half centenary. “But when I went back to it, I discovered that it is a real treasure trove of social history and actually the way Hartley and Ingilby went about their research was quite groundbreaking.

“Oral testimony and the detailed study of domestic objects weren’t really on the radar of most researchers, but that’s what they specialised in.

“They were interested in ordinary people and capturing the minutiae of life in the Yorkshire Dales. That meant they talked to people about the butter they made and the quilts they stitched and they spent time with shepherds and farmhands, watching how they sheared their sheep and turned the hay bales.

“At the time many of the people they interviewed must have wondered why these two women were interested in what they had to say. What they realised was that the way of life most people had taken for granted was about to disappear.

“In the Dales, traditions had been passed down through the generations, but when change came it came quickly and if it hadn’t been for Hartley and Ingilby so much of what we know about the history of the communities would have been lost forever.”

Born into a family of wool merchants in Morley, near Leeds, in 1905, Hartley was in many ways an unlikely champion of rural life in Yorkshire. However, within four years of first visiting the Dales in the 1930s she was writing the first of her books about the area with her friend Ella Pontefract.

And even then she was something of a collector. Hearing that a private museum in Leyburn was selling off its archives, Hartley turned up at the auction and left with a packhorse collar with seven bells, three knitting heaths, a copper ale warmer, a tinder box and a cattle horn as a jug which had been used at the market town’s Wesleyan chapel.”

When Ella died prematurely, Hartley and Ingilby formed a creative partnership. They were a pretty formidable double act and didn’t often take no for an answer, but when they approached their publisher JM Dent and Sons with the proposal for what was then called Traditional Dales Life the firm took a little convincing.

There was a feeling that both the tone and the subject matter were already a little bit fusty. However, Hartley and Ingilby were nothing if not persuasive and having agreed to tweak the title a little, the presses began turning.

Their hunch proved right. On the day of publication, Dent had already taken more than 1,000 pre-orders and such was the appetite for reading about the hard yet simple lives of Dales communities it has been reprinted numerous times.

Hartley and Ingilby were a bridge between the Dales and the rest of the world. Travelling light, often with little more than a pair of slippers in their rucksacks, they conducted hundreds of interviews with cheesemakers, blacksmiths, saddlemakers and cobblers. They talked about an economy which was still largely self-sufficient and relied on making use of what was to hand and they put rural crafts and skills centre stage.

“Many of the farming practices have altered altogether,” Hartley wrote in an introduction to the 1981 edition. “Old fashioned farm kitchens with black-leaded ranges are but a memory. The old people, especially the craftsmen, have retired or are no longer here to hand on their valuable recollections. In short, it would be impossible to write this book or to take most of the photographs now.”

Together Hartley and Ingilby produced more than 40 books documenting an age that was disappearing before their eyes and their words continue to resonate with those who today call the Dales their home and workplace.

“My own personal well-worn copy of this classic work has been read repeatedly and has proved an invaluable source of information and inspiration for many years now,” says the Yorkshire Shepherdess Amanda Owen, who has contributed a foreword to the anniversary edition. “Marie Harley and Joan Ingilby were ahead of their time in realising that the old ways, skills and traditions of this region were in danger of being forgotten.”

When Ingilby died in 2000, Hartley continued their work alone. Her last publications were a series of short monographs on how to make cartwheels, boots, cheese, butter and oatcakes. After Hartley’s death aged 100 in 2006, the tributes were many and varied, but all acknowledged that without her and Ingilby the Dales would have been a much poorer place.

Life and Tradition in the Yorkshire Dales – 50th anniversary edition is published by the Yorkshire Archaeological and History Society priced £12. There will also be a series of events tied to the publication from dry stone walling workshops to traditional rug rag making. For the full programme go to yahs.org.uk