Few have written more words about Yorkshire than WR Mitchell. Known to most as Bill, aside from his 40-year career on The Dalesman, which he joined in 1949, he published more than 200 books, wrote innumerable articles and gave countless lectures.
He died last year, but his life’s work is now being celebrated in a new collection of some of his best pieces, which has been compiled by his son David. “Dad left me with a passion for writing as well as copies of Dalesman magazines dating back to 1939, many shelves of books and 70 volumes of diaries. Surrounded by all this material, I embarked on a labour of love. My aim was to produce a book which gathered a selection of his huge opus of writing on Yorkshire and I had the task of reducing many millions of words to under 50,000. The result is Bill Mitchell’s Yorkshire and I hope that it captures the spirit of one of Yorkshire’s great writers and, more importantly to me, my dad.” Here are some selected extracts.
My first chat with Kit Calvert, half a century ago, was on the bridge spanning Duerley Beck, which was milk-white in its progress down a rock staircase from the fells. Kit, the best-known man in Hawes, removed his battered trilby to reveal grizzle-grey hair that had not been disciplined by a comb.
He rekindled his clay pipe with a black twist and told me he had tracked down some good “clays” in Northern Ireland. His ragged dog, knowing Kit’s propensity for talk, settled down for a nap. In those days, traffic was at 10-minute intervals and in any case, there would be plenty of time to get out of the way.
Kit pointed to the beckside building where Edward Chapman set up a creamery in 1896, using milk produced on the local farms. When trade slumped in the post-Great War depression and the closure of the creamery seemed imminent, local farmers found a new champion in Kit.
He became managing director of a new company which had a capital of £1,085. In the early days, Kit could not afford to be ill. He had to turn up on site each morning to tell the workmen what to do. Kit loved to talk about the old-style famous Wensleydale cheese.
“It more or less melted in the mouth and had a nutty flavour that came from the high moisture content. There was nothing like a good summer-made white Wensleydale. It was one of the casualties of the Second World War. High moisture cheese didn’t fit in with the Ministry of Food’s rationing scheme”.
Only six farmhouse cheesemakers were left in the dale in 1945.
To Kit’s regret, it was commercially expedient to change from the cheese’s traditional linen bandage and use a polythene wrapping. He introduced the Baby Wensleydale, a one-pound cheese that the average housewife might buy weekly
He retired in 1967 when he was 65 years old, reputedly with at least half a million pounds in the bank.
When Kit died in 1984 the coffin was borne to its last resting place in Hawes cemetery on a cart drawn by Dolly, his favourite pony. Dolly belonged to his daughter. When she next went riding, Dolly insisted on taking the road to the cemetery. The gate being open, the pony entered and stood near the grave of Thomas Christopher Calvert, who to one and all throughout the northern Dales was simply known as Kit.
Hannah Hauxwell achieved national fame through television. There was an astonishing response from viewers when Yorkshire Television presented a Dales documentary, Too Long a Winter.
Hannah is now enduring her fiftieth winter at Low Birk Hatt in Baldersdale. Hannah has never liked winter and often dreams about what she imagines the Mediterranean to be like – blue sky, blue sea – as the gales pound her house, loosening yet more slates and snowdrifts arch themselves against buildings.
No one called last Christmas Day, although there was a visitor of Boxing Day. Hannah has a supply of electricity, but last winter the power failed for several days. The cold seeped through every stone of her house. Her trusty army greatcoat, of 1939 vintage, insulated her from the sub-zero temperatures outside. Within the house she swaddled herself in clothes, as well as blankets when she went to bed.
On each day without power she had but one meal. It was a cold drink and some corned beef with a cold drink before bed at night. It was not that she was without food but the effort of coping with the cattle in grim weather left her little energy to care for herself. She could not light coal fires because the chimneys were in need of attention. Her only form of lighting was a stable lamp.
“I’m not really a Christmassy person now,” says Hannah, whose clear, rosy complexion speaks of days spent in the open air. Even on Christmas Day she is absorbed by her “beast work”. As she reflects on the colder end of the year, she observes wistfully, “I wish it was always summer.”
Tommy Moore has been hand-milking cows all his working life. Nowadays there is a greater emphasis on hygiene. I smiled at the recollection of a friend who worked at an old-time creamery at Dent where his boss, cheerfully ignoring the extraneous material which managed to get through, would say, “Milk tastes o’nowt until t’cow has its foot in t’bucket.”
Two hazards at milking time are the proneness of the cow to kick over the bucket used for the milk and the cow pat process that begins when the animal lifts its tail. The hand milker turns his cap so that the neb is at the back and presses his head into the flank of the cow as his fingers rhythmically massage the teats and bring forth the spurts of milk that make a distinctive sound on the sides of the pail.
Tommy’s hand-milking career began with gentle Shorthorns which were allowed to retain their horns. This was the type of animal they had to find when they began to film the adventures of James Herriot in a Dales setting. Tommy says: “There were no Friesians and no tractors then.”
Today Tommy has a stock of Friesians and the buildings are connected to the national electricity grid and the milk is conveyed to a tank for collection by a vehicle from Hawes creamery, so the milk from Tommy’s cattle makes a small but important contribution to the production of Wensleydale cheese.
The memories of a half -forgotten Dales life spilled out of Tommy’s mind. We grimaced at the thought of muck-spreading by hand, loading a horse-drawn cart with muck at the midden and distributing it in neat little heaps from which it was spread with the help of a fork. “It was a back-breaking job.”
He lived at Angram, in Upper Swaledale, and was generally known as Big Bill. He stood over 6ft in height. A nickname was bestowed on many dalesfolk so they might distinguish between the many members of comparatively few families. He was also referred to as “Bill up t’ Steps”. He told me, with a chuckle, that he had received one or two letters addressed to “Bill up t’ Steps”, Yorkshire, England.
At the age of five, Bill was enrolled at Keld School, which was one and a half miles from home. When he was quite young he took field paths, stopping at various barns to fodder the cattle. His father went on the rounds later to “muck oout” and water the stock.
At the age of nine, Bill was taught how to milk a cow. He never, in a long farming life, milked using a machine. In haytime, he was mowing with a scythe at the age of 10. A long-bladed scythe was used.
When his school days were over, Bill helped his father on the farm and raised money doing jobs for other folk. He walled, drained and spread muck. “You could get plenty of work. Trouble was you couldn’t get enough brass for it.”
Bill recalled a continuous tending of sheep, especially at lambing time and in summer, on the days when sheep were washed in a dammed-up beck before being clipped. Men stationed themselves in the pools, ruffling the wool of sheep that were thrown to them by their neighbours.
I had some happy times at Bill’s home as we discussed t’auld days, beside a roaring fire in a fine old dales farmhouse.
• Bill Mitchell’s Yorkshire is published by the Dalesman, priced £9.99.