Last Saturday we visited Horton in Ribbesdale, the tiny settlement at the base up the trail to Pen-y-ghent, Yorkshire’s third tallest peak, or as Sammy, the Golden Lion’s bar attendant joked, “You mean that hill over there?”
‘There’ was behind the stone shoulder of the St Oswalds Church across the road from the pub door, not sight-able that day.
The weather forecast was foggy and windy, and boy, does the English weather live up to its predictions. It is only after leaving the tropics to come and live in the temperate zone that I have learnt to appreciate the need to be aware of the weather. For conditions alter daily here and affects ones activities and plans significantly. Having lived all my life in the same geographical region made me less perceptive to the elemental changes, perhaps I was unconsciously indoctrinated, little by little, and comfortable in familiarity.
Like me, I’m sure someone who’s not been brought up in India but lives there now would go scampering for the morning report, too.
But meteorology in the tropics is seasonal, broad chunks of time with predictable variance, not as widely and vexingly prevaricating as in England. There is reason, now I know, why weather is the wonted English fall back of all social small talk. Even I have got into the habit. Two weekends ago, when my companion refused to stay indoors and ‘waste’ the sparkling, sunny Sunday, we went for a long walk to the suburban periphery. On our way back, this stranger carrying a bundle of garden refuse passing us, grinned and called out, “Wonderful weather, ain’ it?”
I’m certain the views from 694 metres high are majestic, from whatever little I could see of the dale before the fog obliterated visibility, the train hooting its way up the Settle-Carlisle line, rolling lavish jade pastures dotted with white woolly sheep, the bark and scamper of a dog herding a lot on a further slope, black winter trees in rows, shingle-roofed stone-walled cottages.
As I grunted and grimaced my way down – I always find descents more challenging, if it were possible, than lugging my adipose against gravity – wondering, ‘why was it that I do these, again?’, but specially as I exited the pub later in the evening, I could not help remember Silas.
I have been thinking of him ever since.
With the monotone grey layers of the chalk quarry in the distance on the other side of the Northrail tracks, with the low stone walls interspersed by stiles and plank posterns (“Please close the gate” presumably after you pass), the two rooms of the Golden Lion, bar roundly in the middle, the front one filled with a rambunctious male crowd cheering a rugby telecast and the quieter inner room, more the parlour, with its ‘real’ wood fireplace, mounted fox and badgers, red upholstery and China wall plates, it was both, and was not, my Raveloe.
I am not in favour of fox and badger hunting and the fang-baring faces did not look too happily dead. I could almost hear the commotion of horse hooves, barks, shouting voices and the plain agony of a cornered animal, outnumbered, outrun. But there, in that red, satiny room with high backed sofas, dark wood roof beams, above the mantle of a cast iron fire chest, in a long standing environment not of my making, that I have little force to change, they lent undeniable character.
The menu surprised me exceedingly, advertising Beef Madras, Lamb Roganjosh, Chicken Jhalfrezi and Tikka Masala as house specialties alongside a full vegetarian platter. Astonishment and ignorance notwithstanding, there were obviously takers for such exoticism in this back of beyond.
One hears imperialism spoken of more often as a unidirectional onslaught, not taking into account how much the ‘empire’ has infiltrated and laid claim to the core of the dominator’s landscape, geographical and cultural.
We chose Yorkshire pudding for dinner. I was the only woman customer, save a couple of climbers in between who had downed their beer with soda and was long gone. As the outer room became fuller, patrons spilled onto the bar on our side. Two emerald jersey-ed men with ‘Horton FC’ and ‘Golden Lion’ inscribed behind sat at the high stools with their hop. The pub was obviously the wealthy local business expected to act generous sponsor of native events.
One of the men poked the fire, added more log and made the room cheerier. A threesome occupied the corner table and was served large bowls of the house soups of the day, chunky breads on the side. Men came in to check the Wi fi password posted on the wall.
Agriculture evidently paid well in these fertile parts. We had passed Land Rovers and bulky 4x4-s on our way. Seen farming families in long wellies hands-on engaged in earthly preoccupations, feeding the sheep, digging the earth. The unabashed rolly rump of cows peeped from dairy barns. Roosters sat gravely in their wood box henhouse, passing up the cold constitutionals, thank you so much for asking. The scent of mud, damp wood shavings, fresh grass, cattle feed and dung mingled in our misty breath, as in any rural setting on earth.
Apparently unoccupied shepherd huts mottled mile long stone and wire fenced paddocks; some of the latter we climbed, hopelessly lost at one point and blindly following the compass and Sat Nav. The planet’s magnetic fields pay scant regard to such man made obstacles and would have us buttress through carefully piled rock walls, if we dared. As I landed on my feet on the other side each time, I couldn’t help marvelling at the futility of human egos and ownership, and the much a forty year old uncared for physicality can still achieve, when it made a mind to.
“When leaving this establishment, please have consideration for the residents of our village. Many thanks.”
The notice was pinned on the inside of the entrance which I only saw leaving. The cadence in the outer room had risen to a lusty boisterousness, men packed with beer mugs cheering the TV. Outside the door it was black as soot. If the tarmac road, fancy cars, technology had fooled me before, the humble word on the sign and the next hour’s drive through Yorkshire National Park without streetlights sobered me. I could almost picture The Rainbow Inn in place of the just departed institution, where the hardworking men of the dale gathered for their weekly, or nightly, supplement and gossip.
I could imagine, standing on that dark pavement, Silas Marner, the weaver of Raveloe, bursting in after the theft of his coins, startling the dousy hollow with unaccustomted buzz. Was that the stone quarry where Dunstan Cass had walked to his death in the fog? Was there a Cass or a Lammeter residing somewhere hereabouts in one of the ivy and poplar overgrown manors? Could the Oswolds not be the church square a mile from the turnpike?
In reality, I know George Eliot lived and wrote about Warwickshire, one twenty four crow’s flight miles south of Yorkshire. But in this island nation smaller than a hoof puddle, and with unbridled imagination, nothing stops Horton from being my beloved Silas’ Raveloe. No matter how the earth turns, or how speedily humans clutter it with pernicious claims and clever technics, as another dear English penwoman, Agatha Christie had soothingly concluded, there is always sameness to things.
I, who loved visiting my father’s village on childhood weekends, find immense consolation that in some cranny of the earth, there will continue to remain a rural community with a butcher, baker and candlestick maker.
Also, a weaver, perhaps.