Whitby, which lies in Yorkshire’s far east and is the last stop on The Moor Road before people start speaking German, has been along quite a few historical avenues that turned out not to be going anywhere in the long term. First they embraced monasticism in a big way but folks turned out to be not so interested in a life of contemplation and solitude when they found out they couldn’t tweet everyone every five minutes about how awesomely contemplatenous and solituditive they were being right now, and the haircuts didn’t really sell it much either. Then they threw everything in to whaling but the bottom fell out of that when people got too fat to wear corsets any more, and also they ran out of whales. For a time the big thing in Whitby was discovering Australia but ultimately there’s only so many times you can do that and anyway the risk of bringing back another Rolf Harris was just too great so the whole discovering new continents gig kind of faded out after a while too.
This history of picking ultimately unfashionable causes is a bit of a concern as the inaugural Tour de Yorkshire bike race will come through here in a few months’ time on the first of its three stages. Some of us are very excited about this race. The visit to Yorkshire of the Tour de France last summer was a very special couple of days indeed but the race this May promises to be really something because it’ll last three days, it’s brand new, it’s all ours’ and if it works out it’ll happen again next year. There is one trend in popular culture however which really got started properly in Whitby at the back end of the century before last, about the same time as cycling was starting to catch on in fact, which has since gone from strength to strength and, although they wouldn’t drink anything so gross as a cyclist’s energy gel, the combination of fear and misunderstanding yet strange fascination and even attraction the modern vampire seems to engender in the public at large is not a million miles away from the ambivalent reaction people riding bikes sometimes have to deal with. Hopefully therefore this can be taken as a good omen for this spring’s event, for Yorkshire’s mooted Road Worlds bid, and for bike fans in general and although the Tour de Yorkshire is being brought here by a French company I’m sure there the health and safety issues around bringing garlic to Whitby are all well in hand.
Sheep are quite important in these parts really. Without them the fells would be forested below six hundred metres, there would be none of the field barns for which the area is noted to convert to holiday cottages with gravel drives and satellite dishes and there would be no local pubs named for the patron saint of wool workers whose feast day is just around the corner on the third of February. What’s more, before the snowdrops come up, before the migratory birds return, before easter eggs appear on supermarket shelves, before satnav following caravanners start getting stuck down dead ends, lambing, whilst the snow is still on the ground and the day is still over before teatime, is the reminder that winter has properly turned the corner, things are heading in the right direction, and we won’t all have to go vegetarian for at least another year. As well as jumpers, cheese and a National Park logo then sheep give us the most tail wagging and gambolling of all the little reassurances of the dark months that the world is still turning and the sun is coming.
As the sight, sound and aroma of sheep is something we take so much for granted in the land of the Pennines many people are surprised to learn that although the woolly creatures played such an important part in our past; shaping our landscape through the enclosures (the common folk were turfed off the land south of the border too) and our towns through the grand merchants’ houses of the same Georgian era sheep had all but vanished from the Dales by the nineteen sixties as synthetic fabrics and the contraceptive pill caused the products and services they provided, for so long indispensible to country folk, to be needed no more. The thriving sheep population of today is in fact entirely descended from those which escaped during Martin Scorsese’s filming of All Creatures Great and Small in the late seventies, the method acting of the time causing many of the starring sheep, spending so many hours in a muddy field under the pouring rain with Christopher Timothy’s arm up their jacksie, to fail to find a satisfactory answer the question of what’s my motivation, Marty?
Although sheep might be seen as a wee bit of a hazard to humans on bikes by some a little knowledge of their ways goes a long way. If there are a ewe and a lamb on opposite sides of the road, for example, you know that one of them is going to cross the road at the sight of your approach, if it’s getting late in the day you know that sheep have a tendency to gravitate towards the tarmac from their preferred mileu of grass because of the heat radiated by the surface as the evening air cools, you know not to look too smug when you glide over the cattle grid because that really pisses them off and if you don’t know you soon find out that just because they have horns that look like drop handlebars that doesn’t mean they like it if you try and ride them. The best way of getting along with sheep however is to borrow from the old farmers’ trick of pairing up a ewe that’s lost her lamb to a lamb that’s lost his mother by wrapping the orphan in the fleece of it’s departed cousin and wear lots of merino when out on the bike. This way the sheep just think you’re a relative from down under, will briefly look up and baa the sheep equivalent of g’day by way of trying to make you feel at home and carry on as before, allowing you to pass unhindered, as long as you don’t mention the cricket. So happy Australia day today, and happy Saint Blaise’s day week after next and if you know someone who works in wool then don’t forget to send them a carder.