Sunday, 8 November 2009

A Sense of Place

In Coverdale, looking west.

I’ve been away in the Yorkshire Dales for a week, motivated by a longing to reconnect with the area. I love Edinburgh, where I now live and I’ve never actually lived in the Yorkshire Dales. The nearest I got, living in Cumbria along the western edge of the Yorkshire Dales, was a very unhappy time in my life. So why this need to come back? And why does the Yorkshire Dales feel like ‘home’ when I’ve never actually lived there?

I read an article by Madeleine Bunting recently, reflecting on the importance of our personal histories in creating the ‘psychogeography’ of our lives, and how vital this feeling of rootedness in a landscape and in a community is to us in our adult lives, whether or not we still live in these significant places.

I grew up in West Yorkshire, not far from the Yorkshire Dales. I have that typical (and no doubt fairly irritating) pride in Yorkshire that seems to be bred into the inhabitants of England’s largest county (yes – we just won’t accept those boundary changes!). This adds to a sense of belonging and of ownership that enhances my feelings about the Yorkshire Dales. These are my Dales. I experience a breathless delight being back here.

Maybe it’s the memories of childhood pleasures that generate such affection for this place. Although my family never holidayed in the Yorkshire Dales – it was really too close to home – it was the destination for days out at weekends and during the summer holidays (when it was always sunny of course!): picnics by the River Wharfe at  Burnsall, where the river widens out in a lazy bend, the shallows warming quickly in the summer, the river bed sandy and perfect for paddling; ‘proper’ high tea (ham, eggs, bread & butter followed by cream cakes) at a café in Grassington; walks in amongst the ruins of Bolton Abbey;, playing an extended game of hide and seek in amongst the weird rock formations at Brimham Rocks as a teenager, far too old for such things, hoping to be ‘found’ by a particular boy. These memories are as pungent with remembered pleasure as any I can recall.

Maybe it’s the connection with lost people. The love of the Yorkshire Dales was something I learnt from my mother – now dead for 14 years. She was always frustrated by the unavailability of my Dad at the weekend, because of work and golf, and she was limited in the distances she was able to drive herself, because of painful rheumatoid arthritis. As soon as I could drive, my mother and I would go out on our own ‘jaunts’, which would always involve heading out along the A625 to Skipton, and then carrying on into the Yorkshire Dales and ‘tootling about’ as we called it. My Mum loved map-reading and she took great delight in planning our routes. We would seek out the narrowest roads, advancing across the highest fells and moorlands. If we could find a single track road with passing places, we were very satisfied. If we could find a road with passing places and gates – we were beside ourselves with glee. I suppose for my mother, who had loved hiking in her youth, the Yorkshire Dales were part of her ‘psychogeography’. She had been courted by my father on Youth Hostelling holidays there. These outings were a pilgrimage into her past. They were also a form of freedom for her. She couldn’t do these drives on her own and she could no longer walk these dales because of her illness. By heading off along ‘C’ roads, maybe we were getting as close as we could to her memories of hiking in these places.

Heading over into Swaledale - a road my Mum would have approved of!

As you lose people, maybe you need to connect with them through the places you shared. It’s not painful to go back there – rather, it allows for a pleasant intensity of remembrance that increasingly evades me as the years pass.

Maybe, as I’ve moved into middle age and found myself somewhat displaced because I’ve moved around a fair amount, it’s a way of reconnecting with my self, through the places that have made me.

Or maybe, it’s just a beautiful place!

Here are a few pictures to try and show you what I’m talking about. The weather wasn’t that great and my landscape photography skills aren’t really equal to the task of representing the views of Wensleydale and Swaledale. And I suppose, you won’t share the same ‘psychogeography’ as me, so these images won’t mean as much to you. But this place, it takes your breath away. It really does.

Coverdale again - my Mum's favourite of the dales

Swaledale again - my favourite of the dales. Crossing from Wensleydale, via Buttertubs

Walking from Reeth in Swaledale, to Grinton, along the River Swale. A good example of the dry stone walls and field barns typical of the Dales. Not raining for once!

The pretty little village of West Scrafton in Coverdale. Blue sky - briefly.


  1. we were talking once at writing group about how rocks are so important to our sense of place, how walls and houses grow out of the landscape and how this changes as you move about the country.

  2. When I lived in Cumbria, someone once told me that the village we lived in was on a radon fault - not so good! I do wonder some times whether there was something about the geology, or perhaps just the topology of the place that contributed to all the difficulties we had there. Somehow, things never seemed to go smoothly or easily.