My Yorkshire Heritage - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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My Yorkshire Heritage

"For a long life be moderate in all things – but don’t miss out." (A Yorkshire proverb translated from the vernacular - there's a translation at the bottom of this page.)
Above: The modern bridge over the River Calder at Wakefield photographed from Thornes Lane Wharf in 2010. The new Hepworth Gallery, which opened in 2011, is off to the right of  my image.

I was born in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Almost from my very first day at infants’ school I was taught about the West Riding: it came under the heading of 'Things all Yorkshire folk need to know'. In fact, I believe I knew I was a Yorkshireman before I learned that I was either English or British. By the time I was 6 years old I had learned that the county of Yorkshire was by far the largest and most important county in the whole of the United Kingdom.
As I grew older I discovered that Yorkshire was subdivided for administrative convenience into three areas known as ridings. The word 'riding' is a variation of the Norman word 'trithing', meaning a third of a thing. The three Ridings, West, North, and East, were never equal in either size or population. The West Riding alone covered 50% of the county: it stretched from Sheffield in the south, to Slaidburn in the west (now part of Lancashire's Ribble Valley), to Sedburgh in the north (on the eastern edge of the Lake District), and to Adlingfleet in the east (a few miles east of Goole). For the sake of completeness, I had better mention that the beautiful City of York, situated roughly in the centre of the county, had always been a law unto itself and was never administratively in any of the ridings.
"Why was there no South Riding?" I hear non-Yorkies cry. Well, for a start, by definition you can't have four trithings or ridings. The Yorkshire landed gentry of aeons ago split the county into West, North and East for their own benefit. There was, in those days, presumably nothing in the south of the county considered sufficiently important to merit a fourth division so that area was added to the West Riding which is why it was so much bigger than the other two. The fictitious South Riding, however, is a novel by Winifred Holtby published posthumously in 1936, made into a film in 1938, and serialised in July 2014 on BBC Radio. Winifred Holtby was born in June 1898 in the village of Rudston, then in the East Riding just a few miles inland from the seaside resort of Bridlington and she died there in 1935. Her book South Riding was set in countryside that actually resembled that of her native East Riding but in those days many authors chose not to use real locations in works of fiction. What I didn't know until I was preparing my autobiography was that Winifred Holtby died on the very day I was born.
For almost 900 years Wakefield was the official capital of the West Riding and was listed in the Domesday Book as Wachfeld, which meant the field owned by someone called Waca. Wakefield sits astride the River Calder which has its source 400 metres above sea level at Heald Moor in the Pennine Hills north-west of the historic town of Todmorden right on the present boundary between Lancashire and Yorkshire. Some folk reckon the county boundary runs through the middle of Todmorden’s Town Hall. At Castleford, a few miles downstream from Wakefield, the Calder joins the River Aire, which then wends its way via the River Ouse (known locally as the Yorkshire Ouse or the Great Ouse so it cannot be mistaken for other lesser Ouses in England) and under the Humber Bridge out into the North Sea.

The Chantry Chapel of St Mary the Virgin was built in the 14th Century when the original wooden bridge across the River Calder at Wakefield was replaced by a stone bridge. Unusually, the Chapel is actually an integral part of the bridge superstructure not a free-standing building; services are still occasionally held within. A modern road bridge (the A638 to Doncaster) stands alongside the first stone bridge which is now open only for pedestrians and cyclists.

Above: I took this image of the Chantry Chapel in May 2012

Richard Duke of York, the father of the future King Richard III whose recently discovered remains were unearthed under a car park in Leicester and re-interred in Leicester Cathedral in March 2015, was the prime candidate amongst several for the one who, according to the well-known nursery rhyme, marched his 10,000 men up and down the hill without knowing whether they were up or down. That's what the citizens of Wakefield believe, anyway.

Oh, The grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men;
He marched them up to the top of the hill,
And he marched them down again.
And when they were up, they were up,
And when they were down, they were down,
And when they were only half-way up,
They were neither up nor down.

Be that as it may, the 'Wakefield' Richard of York was killed on 30 December 1460 in the Battle of Wakefield at Sandal Castle just three miles south of the city and so never became King. The ruins of the castle are visible for miles around and a visitors' centre was opened there recently, and even more recently closed down in 2016 due to 'the cuts' and something called 'sui generis' - whatever that is. The Grand Old Duke's exploits gave rise to a mnemonic for the colours of the rainbow that I remember from my earliest schooldays: Richard of York Gave Battle In Vain (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet). Another mnemonic we were taught at school was SUNWAD, representing the six major Yorkshire rivers from north to south, most of which had the dales through which they flowed named after them: Swale, Ure, Nidd, Wharfe, Aire, Don. The trouble with both those mnemonics was how to remember, at the age of about 5 or 6, what the individual words and letters stood for.
The three Ridings lasted until 1974 when some bureaucrat decided, without consulting Yorkshire folk as far as I can discover, to get rid of them and create instead North, South, East and West Yorkshire. I have always suspected that the steely folk of Sheffield and Rotherham felt slighted down the years at merely being part of the West Riding and had demanded a sub-county of their own. In that same year, Wakefield ceased to be the capital city of the West Riding and instead became the Administrative Headquarters of Wakefield Metropolitan District Council, which does not have the same ring about it.

Thus, the original three trithings became transmogrified into the four 'quadrithings' - except there is no such word. Initially, for some daft reason, parts of northern Lincolnshire on the south bank of the River Humber were added to parts of eastern Yorkshire on the north bank and the resultant area was named The County of Humberside. The two halves of the new county were eventually joined together by the Humber road bridge. Soon after that undeniably beautiful bridge was opened in 1981, folk started to refer to it as "The bridge from nowhere to nowhere" which was a bit cruel. I won't go into the misfortunes of those Yorkshire folk north of the Humber who were officially supposed to call themselves Humbersiders - but never did. Suffice it to record that common-sense took over in 1996 when the County of Humberside was abolished, Lincolnshire reclaimed its own, and the eastern part of Yorkshire became East Yorkshire. I feel sure Winifred Holtby would have approved. The Humber Bridge survives but is still, and has always been, under-used and I believe the cost of building it has never been fully recouped.

On 17 July 2017, the 36th anniversary of the opening of the Humber Bridge, it was awarded Listed Status. (A listed building in the United Kingdom, is one that has been placed on the Statutory List of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest.)

In May 2018, Labour MP Dan Jarvis was elected as the first mayor of the independent ‘Sheffield City Region’, which includes Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield. Some folk are never satisfied!
Above: This is County Hall in 2009 - built in 1898 to provide a home for the West Riding County Council and little changed on the outside from when I worked there for the WRCC briefly in 1953.

The Yorkshire dialect version of the proverb at the top of this page (spelling and motivation dubious!):
"Ear all, see all, say nowt; eyt all, sup all, pay nowt - and if tha ivver does owt fer nowt, do it fer thissen."

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