Three years ago some friends of ours went to live in Melbourne, Australia. When we visited them last year Richard said that what he misses most about England are the BBC, particularly Radio 4, and English pubs. I think I would also miss hugely the English spring. Spring was lovely this year. March and April were warm, dry and sunny. The progress of the snowdrops and crocuses, then the daffodils and primroses followed by the tulips and bluebells prior to that explosion of nature in the first two weeks of May as England becomes green again and the dawn chorus begins each day is unbeatable.

There are some gems on Radio 4. A programme recently called A Fork in the Road was about the island in the middle of the M62 motorway where Ken and Beth Wild live. Close to the highest point of the motorway, 90,000 vehicles a day speed pass their house; you can see their washing pegged out next to the fast lane. The house was built in 1737 in what was until the 1970s a remote part of the Pennines above Ripponden. The Wilds have lived there since before the road was opened in 1971. The motorway builders had to separate the east and west carriageways because of the nature of the land and the Wilds stayed. Their windows are covered with oil after heavy rain and with salt in the winter. In 1978-79 the road was closed for a week as a result of snow despite an assurance a few years earlier that it would never close.

House and Daffodils near Otley

Pateley Bridge

They have seen some horrific accidents, one in the fog involving 200 vehicles and five deaths. On another occasion a lorry carrying 22 tons of books missed the house by feet. By the time the police arrived the driver was enjoying eggs and bacon in the Wilds’ kitchen. Beth would like a quiet bungalow somewhere but, she said, Ken will never move. Ken’s a Yorkshireman.

The area between Morley, Rothwell and Wakefield, south of Leeds, is known as The Rhubarb Triangle. Devotees claim that the heavy clay soil is particularly suited to the growth of rhubarb and in candle-lit forcing sheds the best in the world is grown. Unfashionable for some time because it was long associated with the deprivation of the War years, it seems to be in demand again. There are ten major producers now, like E Oldroyd & Sons, and masses more are grown in allotments and back gardens. Warmth and the right moisture are the key to prized strains like Early Victoria, Coutt’s Red Stick, Collis’s Ruby, Stockbridge Bingo and Goliath. Until the 1960s The Rhubarb Express train took crates to Covent Garden and Spitalfields. Now tourists are visiting the rhubarb fields and sheds and there is an extensive collection at Harlow Carr, The Royal Horticultural Society’s garden near Harrogate. And the most frequently asked question? Is it a vegetable or a fruit? A vegetable apparently.
We went to a concert given by the Rothwell Temperance Brass Band at the Blackburn Hall, Rothwell. Our elder son is in the Swing Band at his school and on this, his 17th birthday, they were guesting at the concert, their biggest public performance. It was all very informal with the audience sitting around tables, visiting the bar and even some brave souls dancing - everything from elegant ballroom dancing to…well, you know. Rothwell was, of course, a mining area (I always find the word ‘community’ a bit patronising in this context). Anyway, it is ceasing to be the closed place it then was. New housing estates are being built as Rothwell becomes part of the Leeds commuter area. But it continues to retain its own identity as it certainly should.

It is good to know that the tradition of the English eccentric isn’t dead. According to the Oldie, a three bedroomed cottage in York was auctioned in March. It was what estate agents would call ‘in need of some modernisation’. Its last owner, 70 year old Richard Checksfield, had lived there for 28 years without any services. He preferred to wash in rainwater, light the cottage by candlelight and use a coal fire. For 55 years Mr Checksfield had worked as an electrician.

On Easter Tuesday, as we usually do, we went with a group of friends into the Limestone Dales, this year to Middlesmoor, a village on a hilltop in Nidderdale. To get there you go to Pateley Bridge, then through Ramsgill and Lofthouse. We walked over the hills and had a splendid lunch at The Crown in Lofthouse; ‘folk come from Wigan for our pies’. With Easter being late the daffodils were nearly over and the cherry blossom stood white and glorious pink against the blue sky. The views were magnificent and I said to the boys that wherever they go in the world they must always keep coming back to this part of Yorkshire. Nothing can equal it. We were pleased to find that the pork pies from the butcher at the bottom of the high street in Pateley Bridge are still as good as ever and we were reminded how difficult it is to get a hot drink in the Dales after four o’clock. Days begin later and end so much earlier than in the towns and cities.

Victorian Arcade, Ilkley.

In April we went to a lovely wedding in Harrogate. The wedding itself took place in the Sun Pavilion in the Valley Gardens and on a beautiful spring day the reception was at The Old Swan. If you recognise the name it is perhaps because it is where Agatha Christie was found in 1926 after being missing for ten days which prompted the biggest manhunt ever. It was never fully explained. A domestic, it is thought.

There is a lot more Blue Wensleydale cheese about than there used to be. I have always got it from the deli behind the Grove in Ilkley but it’s even in Sainsbury’s now. It is believed to have been first made in Lower Wensleydale by Norman French Cistercian monks applying the method used to make Roquefort. I like it best when it’s gone a bit rubbery; Stilton is good like that too. According to Sainsbury’s marketing men, it is best enjoyed with a noisy red wine. Like BEAUJOLAIS! presumably.

Giles Coren, for the Times, made another visit to the land of the Brigantes in the course of duty (see previous diary). This time he visited Betty’s in both Ilkley and Harrogate and was clearly enchanted with them. At Ilkley he entered Betty’s ‘large foyer surrounded by counters crammed with cakes and confections and staffed by girls in white blouses with long black skirts. And it’s all real, it isn’t bogus’. He had pikelets ‘which soak up butter with an efficiency that must have the research department at Vileda scratching its head. Yorkshire fat rascals are finely spiced currant buns the size of a cowpat and the Yorkshire curd tart enjoys the company of the roof of your mouth so much you may never swallow it’. He notes that there is nothing comparable in London. It’s almost civilised Up North, Giles.

I make no apology for banging on about Betty’s. He’s right. The thing is that it is indeed real. It’s not done for the tourists. It isn’t some false re-creation of times past. The waitresses and smart young men. The white china and silver coffeepots. The consistent quality. The pianist playing Cole Porter songs. The potted palms. This is how it has always been. My teenage boys love it as do we. And you don’t mind paying a premium for polite attentive service in the company of civilised people. You can read what Prince Charles had to say about his recent visit to Betty's by clicking on the image below.

Newby Hall is near Skelton on Ure, itself near Ripon. Unlike many similar properties, it is not owned by the National Trust or English Heritage (once the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works). It belongs to the Compton family who still live there. It was built in the 1690s in the style of Sir Christopher Wren. The property has been restored and the 25 acres of garden and parkland are a pleasure. Among the must-sees are a collection of rare chamberpots, the guns of Robert de Grey (the finest shot of his day having bagged over half a million game from tigers to rabbits), a magnificent billiards room, a gallery of Roman statues and a library designed by Robert Adam.

Allerton Park, now known as Allerton Castle, lies where the A1 crosses the A59 between Harrogate and York. It is a Victorian Gothic mansion. In 1965 the contents of the house were sold after which the house stood virtually derelict, its roof open to the weather following a fire, and the surrounding estate began deteriorating quickly. In 1983 an American, Dr Gerald Arthur Rolph, bought it since when he has lavished money, time, good taste and passion into its restoration. The intention, the Guidebook says, is that ‘if a person from 1870 could be resurrected and brought to visit the house, the décor and ambience would be correct and he would not see anything not sympathetic to that date (except for electricity etc)’. It is a great achievement. After 20 years of this endeavour, which continues – they are working on the first floor now, visitors can tour the house on Sunday afternoons (and bank holidays). Dr Rolph himself showed us round.

The new edition of Lonely Planet Britain contains less than two pages on Surrey and fifty nine on Yorkshire.

The Penguin Dictionary of British Place Names was recently published. Among the Yorkshire place names featured and explained are Blubberhouses, Wetwang, Ugglebarnby, Swine and Thwing. Hipperholme (near Halifax) is a place among pliable willows and Netherthong is a narrow strip of land.

According to the Daily Mirror, ‘a sleeping couple escaped after being alerted by police that their house was on fire in Halifax, Yorkshire. A passenger on a flight to Manchester had spotted the blaze’ and reported it.

A letter from the Chairman of the Friends of Real Lancashire, a body like the Ridings Society for which I have a lot of time, in the Sunday Telegraph reminds us that (in spite of all administrative changes for local government purposes) Todmorden is half in Yorkshire and half in Lancashire. The boundary between the two counties apparently runs through the town and actually through the town hall. Those attending functions in the town hall can sit in either Yorkshire or Lancashire.