The Bronte sisters didn’t mention railways when they wrote Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, though a line had reached nearby Halifax in their lifetime. I was thinking of Thomas Hardy particularly when we were walking in the Yorkshire Wolds yesterday. After so much rain we chose to walk on chalk on a sunlit day. The water will have sunk in: chalk drains well and produces the best grass for sheep.
Thixendale is a roughly L-shaped village that straggles along from the pub past the Victorian church and village hall to end in what must have been the estate manager’s sizeable Georgian house at the top of the L. Beyond it the deep valley continues and breaks into two, one of which leads to where five of these deep, narrow valleys formed by glaciers in the ice age meet. The bridle path was too slippery, so we took a chalk cark tract up the side of a hill to catch the last rays of the setting sun. Hawthorn hedges went alongside, painted in all their May glory by David Hockney. We’ll be back in May.
The ruts were deep and far wider than the old cart tracks. Tractors. We looked down at Thixendale and the comfortable new houses that stretch along the main street past the church and the Victorian gothic rectory on the opposite side. This was the last village to get television. No signals until 1990 when it was at last linked up by satellite.
Walk into the church and press the button on the left of the door, and you are treated to a history of the Victorian building with lights going on in the areas described. Provided by English Heritage it was well done and just about the right length.
The notices by the Village Hall were a mine of information. We were standing in a valley formed by a glacier in the ice age but, aeons earlier, we would be standing near the equator – a bit hard to imagine such contrasts! Those tectonic plates would have moved us back and forth. There are wild flower fields in spring, many birds including the goldfinch, appropriately as I’m about the read Donna Tartt’s book for our next book club meeting, and these chalk hills, more compact and harder than the South Downs in Sussex, are the furthest north chalk hills in the British Isles.
Before tractors chewed up the tracks, there were carts and horses and farm workers – where are their cottages? Now with machines and cars, the pictures of schoolchildren with hayforks, helping with the harvest in the summer holidays, are of bygone days. The same with memories of the corn stocks leaning together in the harvested fields replaced by the round bundles scattered by harvesters that were already invented by 1928 when Thomas Hardy died.
There were quarrels over the Chapel of Ease in Thixendale. In 1541 the vicar of Wharram Percy three miles away complained that he had fewer worshippers because his parishioners in Thixendale were no longer coming to his church. So the chapel was suppressed. I imagined the carts and pony traps leaving Thixendale on a Sunday to travel to Wharram Percy, now a deserted village. Thixendale’s church was endowed by a local landowner and built in 1868-70. One vicar who stayed for many decades formed a choir and orchestra. One can imagine the village life of farm workers, blacksmith, wheelwright and their families, now all vanished together with the animals; the livestock market where one could meet people, there or at church. No wonder writers tended to set their novels in the time of their youth – D.H. Lawrence, the Bronte sisters and Thomas Hardy. I’m reading Seamus Heaney’s poems and see that he has mostly done the same.
‘Where are the snows of yesteryear?’ I’m revising a work set in the future!