Gervase Phinn: Challenge to land owner

Rotherham, the town where I was born, is viewed as a dark, brooding industrial place. The image of this town in the Don Valley as a place of dust and dirt, of noisy steelworks and ugly pitheads, is not wholly true. There were, of course, the smoky mornings, impenetrable smog and an occasional unpleasant odour from the canal and river, but a bus ride took you in minutes into open country.

Such beauty so close to heavy industry still comes as a great surprise to visitors. Over the past two or three decades the landscape has undergone huge changes for the better. Heavy industry has declined, fish have returned to the rivers Don and Rother, and along the banks willows grow. The steelworks where my father worked has been turned into a magnificent museum.

In the school holidays I would explore the area around the town. I would set off in the morning on my bike with a bottle of pop and a sandwich and one of my favourite destinations was the crumbling remains of Roche Abbey. The monks had picked a perfect location and in 1150 they built this beautiful structure in a verdant, peaceful, rock-bound valley with clear streams. It stood for 400 years until the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII, when it was pillaged for the stone.

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I returned on a cold winter's morning, when there was a light dusting of snow. There was no sound and I was again aware of the spirituality and tranquillity of this awesome place.

My father once told me a story about Roche Abbey. The ruin and grounds became part of the Earl of Scarbrough's Sandbeck Estate. In the 18th century, the then earl commissioned "Capability" Brown to create a beauty spot in the ruined area which involved the planting of woodland and the setting of lawns. The story goes that sometime early last century the then Lord Scarbrough, walking his dogs through the woods, came upon a large hairy individual at the entrance to a shabby tent.

"Who are you?" he asked abruptly.

"Jack," the man replied. "And who are you?"

"I am Lord Scarbrough and you are on my land."

"Am I?"

"Yes, you are. Would you be so good as to de-camp, pack up your things and depart."


"Because, as I have said, this is

my land."

"I'm not doing any harm," the man said amiably.

"That is beside the point. This is

my land."

"Where did you get it from?"

"I got it from my father," the earl explained calmly.

"Well, where did your father get it from?"

"From his father."

"Well, where did he get it from?"

"He got it from his father, who got it from his father, who got it from his father, right the way back many centuries ago when my ancestor acquired it."

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"Well, how did he get it?" the man asked, making no effort to move.

"He fought for it," Lord Scarbrough replied.

"Well, I'll fight you for it!" came the reply.

Gervase Phinn's Yorkshire Journey, a photographic tour of his favourite and most memorable places in his home county, is published by the Dalesman.

YP MAG 25/9/10

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