|Junior walking stick from Hawes
I grew up in the North East of England at a time when family holidays seldom amounted to more than one week a year. We spent ours at towns and resorts which today would seem little further away than a day trip destination. One year we travelled to Whitby, another to Edinburgh, and once to Berwick on Tweed. There was a trip to Keswick too, which my father, in one of his bouts of depression, refused at the last minute to go on— my Mum took me and my brothers regardless, travelling by bus and train, then walking up hills every day to tire us out.
In some ways it's not surprising that my father didn't come, because mostly he hated holidays—only later in the Seventies when he could lie on a beach in the Spanish sun that he was ever happy to leave home. Whether that was because of his depression or his inherent demeanour I don't know, but I do remember the rows just to get him to go for a picnic. When my mother learned to drive, she at last found the freedom that would convince her to leave for good.
But the exception to this rather gloomy beginning for a blog post were our visits to Hawes in the Yorkshire Dales. My father had been an evacuee there—arriving as a family unit with his brother and my grandmother; presumably, my grandfather was enlisted at the time. They lodged in a manor on the edge of the town and at some point moved to a farm across the fields from what later became the Wensleydale Creamery.
On our first visit my father took us to the 'large house', and I remember we were all peering over the wall into a bramble filled garden when a voice shrieked. 'Are you looking at my wilderness!' Leaning out of the upstairs window was what I took to be a witch with long ragged hair, tattered clothes and boney arms—very much the 'lady in the attic' look. Which turned out to be not so far off the mark...
After explanations and introductions, we were invited in for tea. The present owner was, to use a phrase of the time, completely barking! The house was a ramshackle ruin of peeling paper, broken china, and musty chairs. She claimed to keep her husband upstairs in a cupboard, which I was later told not to take too literally, but never quite shook the suspicion of its truth. Whenever we passed by my father would tell stories of the times he'd spent there and in the area.
Looking back, there were few places that my father enthused over as much as the Yorkshire Dales. I sometimes wonder if the reason for this was that his own father was away for the time he was there? My grandfather was a uniquely wonderful man, but I'm under no illusion that he wasn't always the best or most present of dads. There was a bond between my father and his mother that I sense came from those years and was associated in his mind to the places they'd stayed.
He took us often to the nearby village of Gayle and a brook he called Belia Banks which I can't find on the map and may be spelling incorrectly, but it's where we went looking for—and caught—crayfish. We also went to Aysgarth Falls and the Buttertubs Pass and the cheese factory; in the town we visited a ropemaker and nearby a chap who made clogs, from whom my mother bought a miniature pair which sat for years on our hearth at home...
And somewhere in all of this, I acquired a walking stick, of the size suitable for an eight-year-old boy.
That stick is the second oldest object I have from my childhood. Beating it by a few years is a French faience bowl, but as that has sat in the china cupboard and storage boxes for much of the last fifty years it doesn't carry the same store of memories. In truth, because it's so small I've not been able to use the stick for most of those years either— but always I treasured it, and my sons have played with it and somehow it's never not been 'around'. Currently it lives in an umbrella stand by the coat rack.
Before writing this post I took the time to look at it again, examining the knots and burrs, the careful bending of the wood to shape the handle. It's probably made from hazel or ash and has a brass ferrule that rattles because the shaft has shrunk—there's a tiny split near the base of the cane which I hope can be repaired. At one time it was varnished, but only remnants remain, the years of wear and rough play removing all but a few flecks here and there.
But you know, there's only much you can say about a stick—or indeed, that needs to be said. Because it's not so much the thing in and of itself that's important. It's the connection it holds to those holidays: to the times we stayed at the farm B&B and drank goat's milk, and chased the geese over the field each morning, me waving my stick to drive them.. and to the names and places that are with me still, and to the memory of my father for once not hating it quite so much.
It has just occurred to me now that when our first son was born, Jane and I took him with us to Hawes for a holiday that summer. We carried him in a backpack on our walks: to Gayle and the Buttertubs Pass, to Aysgarth Falls and the ropemaker in town... I'm sure we must have been to a stick maker too... and certainly, we bought some cheese from the creamery, and looked for the large house and saw the fields of geese...
Oh, how life—and our lives—turn in circles...