Thursday, 17 January 2013
The Yorkshire Dales: doorway to the sacred
As I worked up a sweat on an exercise bike in the Leeds Trinity gym this evening, I heard on the television Monsieur Christian Prudhomme, chief of the Tour de France, praise my home county. "I knew Yorkshire before but I did not realise that it was so gorgeous. Really!" He was speaking as it was announced that this famous race is to have three legs in Britain, the first of which is to navigate my Monday, day-off playground: Wharfedale and contiguous dales. I have always intuited that this region probably contains the most perfect landscape of anywhere in the world. I remember when I was a young boy sitting in the back of the family Wolsey as we drove from Burnsall to Grassington and Harry Myers, an elderly friend of my father's, sitting in the front, revealed that as a Bradford wool merchant he had travelled a lot, going even as far as Russia, but that he had never seen anywhere to compare with the countryside through which we were then passing. I made a mental note to remember that I was incredibly fortunate that God had not only conferred life on me, given me a loving family, and granted me membership of his Catholic Church, but that he had also caused me to grow up on the edge of the Dales. Burnsall, the head of Wharfedale, was to me like Galway was for centuries to others, the furthest point of the known world, and all beyond lay in mystery. I recall the moment we penetrated beyond Burnsall, over the high pass into Bishopsdale, and I was filled with a sense of unfolding possibilities, geography stirring my spirit, opening me up to the transcendent, to the Creator, to the Creator of me. Now when I stride those fells - usually alone, and happy to be so - I recall moments I enjoyed there when I was younger with members of my family and then everything that has happened since becomes properly contextualised: I am a son; I am a brother; and only afterwards am I a priest. Sometimes whole Mondays elapse on the hills without me seeing another person. Now in my mind's eye, like a moving image taken from a helicopter, I see Simon's Seat above Appletreewick, the attaining of which literally takes once's breath away, so sharp is the buffetting wind which assails the ridge; I see the steep winding path on the west fell above Kettlewell where I have taken parties of students from here, their protests muted by their exhaustion; and the path winding up the east fell to Great Whernside, just beneath the summit of which is the highest chapel in Britain, next to a scout hut, outside of which, as a young priest, I heard first confessions of some of the children of our parish while the scout leaders looked on, delighted by the juxtaposition of natural beauty with sacramental symbolism and child-like innocence, as near a reclaiming of Eden as is possible in history (one took photographs, I remember). I had to laugh last week when I was on holiday in Pembrokeshire with two priest friends. On one of our walks, one of my friends, himself a Yorkshireman, expressed his pleasure at the surrounding scenery and then, after a pause, concluded, "It's like Yorkshire, actually," while our other friend, from Hampshire, spluttered his protests at the reduction of everything to a single template.