IT’S a brave man who takes on the job of telling Yorkshire folk things they don’t know about their own county. Braver still if he’s not a Yorkshireman.
Christopher Winn admits he was “very frightened indeed” when he set out to write his latest book, I Never Knew That About Yorkshire.
“I was very aware that I had to get this one right,” says the 50-something Surrey-born freelance writer and collector of trivia. “Yorkshire people are quite rightly very proud of their county. I needed to do my research.”
He was probably right to be apprehensive. Yorkshire folk can be famously prickly. Charles Hutchinson, The Press’s true-blue and rather choleric Yorkshire-born arts correspondent, certainly is when the very first sentence of Christopher’s book is read out to him.
“Yorkshire, ‘God’s Own County’, is big in every way,” Christopher writes in his preface.
“God’s Own County?”, splutters Charles. “It should be God’s Own Country. County is far too small.”
It can be both, insists Christopher when challenged, before adding, rather charmingly: “I’ll have to leave the country for a while.”
No need to do that, Christopher. Because this really is a fascinating and informative book – and one shot through with a genuine love for the broad acres.
It leaps from every page – even from that contested preface. Yorkshire is “the biggest county in Britain, with more acres than there are letters in the bible,” Christopher writes. “The West Riding alone is bigger than any county in England.”
It is enough to make Yorkshire chests puff with pride. But there is more, much more.
“Yorkshire has England’s biggest vale, biggest medieval cathedral, biggest abbey ruins, biggest parish church, the world’s biggest fish and chip shop and Britain’s tallest man,” Christopher writes.
And it isn’t only big but beautiful, too, “an unmatched array of breathtaking scenery, with wide skies, undulating wilds and shifting shores in the east; high moors, quaint fishing villages and spectacular cliffs in the north; deep, narrow, populous valleys and empty, spectacular limestone dales in the west”.
All this, plus Europe’s best-kept medieval streets, England’s longest city walls (guess where?), two of the country’s greatest cathedrals, fine stately homes, beautiful churches and a history (and industrial history) second to none.
So there really was no contest when it came to choosing the subject for his new book. Christopher’s earlier publications – books with titles such as I Never Knew That About England, I Never Knew That About Scotland and I Never Knew That About London – have been hugely popular and critically acclaimed.
“A beautiful guide to the lore of the villages, towns and cities of England,” wrote Guy Browning in The Times about I Never Knew That About England. “After reading about each county, I want to pack the car and go there immediately.”
There should be plenty of people packing their cars to head for Yorkshire now this book is out. This is the first time Christopher has devoted a whole book to an individual English county. But it was the obvious one to start with, he says. “It is the most distinctive English county. It is like a kingdom unto itself.”
There is a wealth of research and history and lore distilled into these 160-odd pages. But will there be anything in it for Yorkshiremen themselves? He hopes so. He has visited the county many times over the years, and spent six weeks here researching the book, chatting to people, visiting churches and museums, and following up lead after lead in search of stories and odd facts.
The book is for everyone, Yorkshire and non-Yorkshire alike, he says. But he hopes everyone will discover in it something they didn’t know before.
“And if there is even one story in there that makes a true Yorkshireman say, ‘I never knew that’, it will have succeeded,” he says.
Judge for yourselves….
* I Never Knew That About Yorkshire by Christopher Winn, with illustrations by Mai Osawa, is published by Ebury Press, priced £9.99.
Facts, figures, historical diversions and snippets of interest
1 York’s ancient walls are three miles long – making them the longest city walls in England – and enclose an area of about 263 acres.
2 The emperor Septimus Severus ruled the entire Roman Empire from York for two years. He died in 211 AD, and is buried somewhere beneath the old city.
3 In the seventh century York, then known as Eferwic, became the capital of Saxon Northumbria. A small wooden church was built on the site of the Roman fortress and there, in 627AD, King Edwin of Northumbria was baptised by the first Bishop of York, Paulinus. The well from which the water for the baptism came can still be seen in the Minster crypt today.
4 Paulinus founded St Peter’s School that same year – making it the third oldest school in the western world.
5 York Minster is the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe. Its Great East Window covers more than 2,000 square feet, making it the largest expanse of medieval glass in the world.
6 Special as the Great East Window is, it is a stained glass window in All Saints Church, North Street, that is truly unique. The Pricke Of Conscience window, above, which dates from 1425 and is the work of John Thornton, portrays the final 15 days to the end of the world. Individual panels show floods, earthquakes and fires – not unlike the scenarios imagined by doom-mongers today.
6 Shambles is regarded as the best-preserved medieval street in Europe. But Lady Row in Goodramgate is older. The white cottages date from 1320, making them the oldest example of overhanging architecture in England.
7 York’s Mansion House, built in 1729, is the only one outside the City of London that is lived in by the (Lord) Mayor during his or her term of office.
8 On August 25, 1804, York racecourse hosted the first know horserace to feature a female jockey competing against a male jockey when Alicia Meynell, riding Colonel Thornton’s Vingarella side-saddle, took on Captain William Flint, riding Thornville, over four miles.
9 Ripon is Britain’s oldest city. It was granted a charter by King Alfred The Great in 886.
10 At 9pm every night a ‘wakeman’, the Ripon Hornblower, above, blows a horn at the obelisk in the middle of the Market Square to ‘set the watch’, continuing a tradition that dates back 1,100 years. This is one of the oldest ceremonies still performed in England.
11 In 1723, Ripon racecourse hosted the first race for women riders. The race was won by the local MP’s wife, Mrs Aislabie.
12 Scarborough became England’s first seaside resort in 1626, when Elizabeth Farrow discovered a spring at the base of a cliff on the south beach and decided it had health-giving properties. Her claim was confirmed in 1660 by one Dr Wittie. The first bathing machines in England were introduced in Scarborough in 1735.
13 In 1829, Scarborough opened the world’s first museum dedicated to geology, The Rotunda. It was only the second purpose-built museum in Britain, and was dedicated to the work of William Smith, the ‘father of geology’.
14 When it opened in 1867, Scarborough’s Grand Hotel was the largest purpose-built hotel in Europe, and one of the largest brick buildings in the world. It was designed around the theme of ‘time’, with 365 bedrooms, 52 chimneys and 12 floors. The top two floors had to be demolished in 1914 because of damage caused by the German High Fleet when Scarborough became the first town in England to be fired upon by the Germans.
15 Brompton, between Scarborough and Pickering, is where mankind’s greatest dream came true. Here is where man learned to fly. A modest brown brick building beside the main road was once the workshop of Sir George Cayley, the aviation pioneer and founder of aerodynamics. Here, in 1853, he designed the glider in which his coachman, John Appleby, became the first man to fly in a heavier-than-air craft. He took off from one side of Brompton Vale, crash-landed on the other side, and promptly told his master: “Sir George, I wish to give notice. I was hired to drive, not to fly!”
16 In 664, the first church synod was held at Whitby Abbey. It established the supremacy of the Roman Catholic Church in England, and fixed the date of Easter.
17 Caedmon, an uneducated Anglo-Saxon cowherd who tended cattle on the cliff-top pastures above Whitby Abbey during the abbacy of Hilda (AD 657-680), became the first English poet when he wrote his Song Of Creation, inspired by a dream.
18 On a visit in 1665 King James II, then Duke of York, is said to have described the East Yorkshire village of Londesborough as a ‘paradise on earth’. Some would argue it still is.
19 The tallest-ever Englishman is, naturally, a Yorkshireman. William Bradley (1787-1820) was born in Market Weighton, one of 13 children. By the age of 20, he was seven feet nine inches tall. He made appearances at fairs all over England, calling himself the Yorkshire Giant and charging people a shilling a time to shake his hand.
20 The white rabbit in Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland is said to be inspired by a stone rabbit carved above the door to the sacristy in St Mary’s Church, Beverley, by an unknown medieval craftsman.