Yorkshire by the book
The county is already one of the UK’s top destinations for literature buffs. Our ‘Bard of Barnsley’ Ian McMillan takes us on his very own cultural tour.
It’s Sunday morning and I’m at home preparing Yorkshire puddings ready for dinner, performing the weekly alchemy of turning flour, eggs, milk and water into rising golden-brown delights. As I twirl and twirl the batter with the fork I start to think about how you might make a kind of 3D Yorkshire literary map that rises from the paper like the puddings in the oven. It must have the same sense of developing narrative that the puddings do, presenting the same beautiful imagery of finished Yorkshire puddings, waiting on the plate like golden moons in a white sky.
I’ve decided I’m going to call this project my Ian McMillan’s Literary Pudding Tour of Yorkshire and I’ll serve a pud in each location. We could travel in a double-decker and eat our way around the prose and poetry of the county. There are many literary tours here, but the thing about this one is that we’ll go to places that are less celebrated but still vital to Literary Yorkshire.
First, we’ll begin in Haworth, where the Brontë sisters (and their wayward brother Bramwell) carved out worlds from imagination and Yorkshire stone; any stormy Yorkshire sky makes you think of Heathcliff’s savage temper and a trip to Top Withens, the ruined farm that was inspiration for Wuthering Heights makes you hear Emily Brontë’s words as you wrap your scarf tighter against the cold. Here’s a Yorkshire Pudding to keep you warm.
But venture a few miles south to Mytholmroyd and you’re in Ted Hughes country. Well, at least partially, but more of that later.
Hughes, a poet who showed Yorkshire to itself in a lifetime of poems set in the bleak moors around the Calder and Colden Valley, was born here. His birthplace has been bought by the Elmet Trust (a charity set up to celebrate the life and works of the great man) and turned into a holiday home and a place of pilgrimage (cook yourself a Yorkshire in the oven). When Hughes was just a boy, though, his family moved to Mexborough in the heart of the South Yorkshire coalfield. His dad ran a newsagent’s shop which is now a furniture showroom. Hughes senior reasoned that the miners who were on their way to work at the nearby Denaby main pit would want to pop in for their papers and chewing tobacco. The young Ted went to Mexborough Grammar School where he met John Fisher, a teacher who would prove to be hugely inspirational. Fisher introduced Ted to literature by letting him borrow a copy of Tarka the Otter from the school library. The building is still there, though it’s not a library any more. It’s preserved along with the rest of the school which is now a business centre.
Much of Hughes’s love of nature and poetry was fostered in this area. It was, in a DH Lawrence kind of way, part rural and part urban.
Keep your eyes open for the next Ted Hughes Poetry Festival, where you can walk with the indefatigably enthusiastic Steve Ely around the places Hughes wrote about in poems such as View of a Pig and stories like The Rain Horse. It’ll probably rain, so keep your Yorkshire pudding in a plastic bag. Stand outside erstwhile newsagents and imagine Hughes walking up to the Grammar school, Tarka the Otter in his blazer pocket. It can be argued, quite rightly, that it was this unglamorous part of the county that made Hughes into the writer he became.
Hughes’s life took him to Cambridge and London and the US. He returned briefly to the valleys of West Yorkshire, at Lumb Bank in the village of Heptonstall. It’s a magnificent house which is now a writing centre run by the Arvon Foundation. Book yourself in for a week there and the spirit of Hughes and all the other writers who’ve visited and worked there will settle on your page as you write. Don’t spill the gravy. Or rather, spill and then write a sonnet about it.
Wander down into Heptonstall village and visit the melancholy grave of Hughes’s tragic wife the American poet Sylvia Plath, who took her own life in 1963. The grave is easily missed, not showy at all and simply contains the enigmatic inscription ‘even amidst fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted.’ Stand for a while and feel the wind hurtle down from up near Top Withens.
If you go back to Mexborough then it’s not far to Barnsley, the town immortalised by the late great Barry Hines in his novel A Kestrel for A Knave. I’m from Barnsley and I still live there. I’ve written before that A Kestrel for a Knave is our founding myth, our Paradise Lost, our Moby Dick, our Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It’s about a world that seems at once far away and very close; Billy Casper is a lad who isn’t doing very well at school and his one interest is his kestrel that he patiently learns to tame. Billy has no prospects. Go out of Barnsley to Hoyland Common, the village where Hines was born and try to imagine the pithead gear and the mine workings. You can still glimpse the ruin of the old manor that was the site, in the 1969 film Kes, of the nest of the kestrel that flew across the sky and into Billy Casper’s heart. Here’s an experiment to try as you savour a Yorkshire pudding in a pub anywhere within a five-mile radius of Barnsley Town Centre: sit down, pour gravy on your plate and say ‘I saw that film Kes last night’ and I can give you a castiron guarantee that everybody in the pub, even the ones who weren’t born in 1969, will tell you that they were in the film. At the back. In a crowd scene. Travel east to Whitby and immerse yourself in Bram Stoker’s famous book. Dracula makes landfall in the harbour there. Take your time, eat a Yorkshire pudding sitting near Whitby Abbey, gaze out to sea and imagine Dracula arriving on a night when the water’s the colour and texture of boiling gravy.
Once you’ve had your fill, slip up the coast to Robin Hood’s Bay which was the home of the little-known writer Leo Walmsley, another Yorkshire scribe who deserves to have his name up in lights. Walmsley is known for his Bramblewick series of novels of the 1930s, one of which was turned into a film - The Turn of the Tide. Stroll around Bay (as locals call it, don’t call it Robin Hood, that’s a small village near Wakefield) with the novels, which you can still get hold of from online bookshops and from The Walmsley Society and you’ll soon get a sense of how achingly authentic Walmsley’s prose is – ‘…closely huddled cottages climbing behind breakwater walls on black shale cliffs’ and boats are ‘…strange amphibious beasts that have crawled from glittering seas to rest for the night’. Stand under the blue plaque on King Street reading a Walmsley book and you’ll get a real and grounded sense of the man and the place.
Oh all right, do go to the Dales for some James Herriot therapy if you must, but then venture off the well-beaten track and explore literary paths less well-trodden: visit Stan Barstow’s Ossett near Wakefield, where he wrote the gritty, moving drama A Kind of Loving (remember the film with Alan Bates?).
Linger on the far side of Doncaster where The Hermit of Hampole wrote ‘The Fire of Love’ in the 13th century. Feminist, socialist and pacifist Winifred Holtby wrote South Riding, inspired not by South Yorkshire, but by East, where she was born (but by all means visit both, to get a flavour). Malachi Whitaker was known as the ‘Bradford Chekhov’ for observant, insightful prose, but was actually a woman called Marjorie. Go see Wrose Hill where she lived and wrote. Visiting Leeds to pay homage to Keith Waterhouse might be a bit obvious, but glimpse the Yorkshire Evening Post where he started as a journalist and learn how to use apostrophes properly (his bugbear), as a tribute. So many
I’ve missed out that people are now planning to email me about. Imagine it: a Yorkshire Pudding passport to the words of Yorkshire, an endless tour of the ridings ending up on a bright, blustery, sunny day, at the home of Anon, or whoever it was that wrote the unofficial Yorkshire anthem, On Ilkley Moor Baht ‘At, all about birth and death and rebirth and regeneration. Let’s get off the bus and sing it together. Watch your pudding doesn’t fly away.
This article was taken from This is Y 2018