Witnesses to change in the Yorkshire Dales

Anna Greenwood has spent the last five years recording the life stories of some of a Yorkshire dale's oldest residents. She talks to Sarah Freeman about the new oral history archive.

Pictured shepherd John Rayner. PIC: Jonathan Gawthorpe

Anyone who has had the pleasure of spending a few minutes in the company of Radio 4’s The Listening Project knows that sometimes it’s the ordinary minutiae of life which is often the most fascinating. Run in partnership with the British Library, the idea was to capture the soul of the nation in a series of conversations between friends, family and work colleagues.

It’s absorbing stuff. The other week two women in their 60s talked openly about their friendship which had sustained them through marriage breakdowns, ill health and emotional trauma. Then there was the mother and son who tore down any final taboos surrounding adoption when they shared their experiences, good and bad.

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Up in Nidderdale, Anna Greenwood has been doing her own version of The Listening Project. In Tales from the Upper Dale though all the contributors share a few things in common. They are among the area’s oldest inhabitants and they have spent most or all of their lives in this small corner of North Yorkshire.

“I have travelled a lot over the years and wherever I have ended up I have always been interested to find out more about the people who call that particular place home,” says Anna, who admits to being something of a nomad. “I have stayed with beekeepers in Kenya, spent time with reindeer herders in Mongolia and for a while lived in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in both India and Nepal.

“When I came back to Yorkshire I began to think about the people who lived on my own doorstep and how I really didn’t know much about their lives. I am a member of the Oral History Society, and I’ve always been fascinated by the stories that ordinary people have to tell. So often their experiences ended up being lost because no one bothers to record them. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that I wanted to record the spoken stories of a particular area and Nidderdale is a place where the modern day exists alongside a much more traditional way of life and I knew that if I didn’t do it soon the generation who have one foot in the past and the other in the present would no longer be around.”

Anna has spent the last five years recording conversations about how life used to be and how it is now and along the way has spoken with gypsy caravan makers, miners, hill farmers, teachers, blacksmiths and caravan site owners. “I am not a journalist, so the first people I talked to I remember being incredibly nervous,” she says. “But the people of Nidderdale have been really kind to me and every single person I spoke to has introduced me to someone else. What I really wanted to do was show a landscape rich in stories and through them hopefully inspire a new generation to be interested in traditional methods, crafts and values.”

Anna was left with hours of audio, which has now been edited into a CD compilation. Running to just over an hour, it’s fascinating ramble through a very different time.

There’s a story of how watching the local coffin maker ply his trade once passed for a leisure activity; a tale of a farmer’s wife and mother-of eight-whose house was only ever tidy on a Saturday; and memories of the man who was so frugal that whenever he left a room he would unscrew the light bulb and take it with him into the next.

It’s a world of water being carried from troughs, of paraffin lamps and tin baths and of suet pudding, unpasteurised milk straight from the cow and rissoles made from Sunday dinner leftovers.

“Often when I turned up with my recording equipment they would tell me that they were sure they had nothing interesting to say, at least nothing worth keeping for posterity, but everyone has a story to tell, no matter how small.”

These are not the kind of lives or the kind of stories which would make it into a weighty history book, but split into sections called things like “The price of things…” and “Getting educated…” together they do paint a picture of the dale through the decades which stands as a snapshot of a way of life that is fast disappearing. Inevitably perhaps, some of the most vivid memories are of the Second World War, a time when scrap metal became a sought after commodity as the country’s main industries were suspended to make way for ammunition manufacture.

“It decimated Nidderdale,” says one elderly man. “Only one or at the most two men were allowed to stay on each farm. The rest were sent to war.”

He doesn’t say that most didn’t come back. He doesn’t need to because in Tales From the Upper Dale the pregnant pauses often reveal more than the words themselves.

“Some of the tales are specific to the area like the building of Scar House Reservoir,” says Anna, who chatted to one of the project’s last surviving engineers. “When the population of Bradford grew due to the booming textile industry, it needed water and an entire small town was built to house the workforce needed to construct the reservoir.

“Apart from the reservoir itself, very little remains of that chapter of Nidderdale’s history, which is why those first-hand accounts are so important.”

It’s impossible not to detect a sense of sadness and loss running through Tales from the Upper Dale. Some of it is physical about the shops and pubs of their youth which have been consigned to history, but much of the rest is a frustration with the modern obsession with material possessions.

“There used to be 18 chapels in Nidderdale,” says one of the contributors. “People didn’t sew on a Sunday, instead they brought out a special tablecloth. But now it’s just like every other day.”

“What do you do with a million pounds?” adds another. “You can’t eat three meals at the same time or wear than one set of clothes. To be honest, there is not much to spend money on up here.”

And you suspect that’s just the way they like it.

The CD is available from Imagined Things bookshop in Harrogate and the Little Ripon Bookshop. It can also be downloaded from Amazon, iTunes or ordered via annagreenwoodwrites.com