Where There’s Muck . . .
These days. life out in the sticks, as a townie might put it. is not all it has been cracked up to be. To get out of bed in the morning and open the window only to be assailed by noxious vapours which invade one’s nostrils with the venomous intent of an angry rattlesnake is no joke. (It has been averred that, to the unwary, the experience can be nearly lethal.) Unfortunately, to stagger back again from the bed. handkerchief clutched to one’s livid face, in order to slam shut the greenly-misted window panes is of little use either: the room—the house!—is by this time uninhabitable. Even the flies lie dead along the window-ledges, and the dog, eyes streaming and lungs heaving, gazes out pitifully from his corner in the kitchen.
OK, so I exaggerate. However, it’s not so very far removed from the truth. The name of the game is “intensive farming”. Gone are the days of straw-bound manure pitch-forked from the back of a horse- or tractor-drawn farm cart. Nowadays it’s a matter of chemically treated slurry sprayed over the valley-bottom in a manically determined effort to maximise production at whatever cost in environmental pollution to the local inhabitants and to the flora and fauna of the meadowlands. Moreover, the machinery by which this disgusting operation is carried out not infrequently deposits a film of slurry on the road surfaces which, particularly in wet weather, constitutes a very real risk to road-users. (Being a so-called National Park, the Yorkshire Dales hosts large quantities of tourist traffic. Then there are the limestone juggernauts which roar along roads never built to accommodate such monsters.) Of course, farming up here in the Pennine uplands is a vastly different affair from that obtaining on, say, the level plains of Norfolk or Lincolnshire. The lushest and most valuable pastures are to be found along the valley floors, which are divided and sub-divided by dry-stone walls. These grasslands provide pasturage for cattle and sheep, both of which are to be found grazing on the higher ground also. There is no arable farming here to speak of. The Duke of Devonshire is the most considerable land-owner around these parts and consequently not a few of the farmers are his tenants. The farms are often small and the parcels of land worked by the it individual farmers are often separated from each other by considerable distances, sometimes miles. The latest problem for Dales farmers is the government’s acceptance of the EEC’s 20 per cent cut in the so- called milk quota — an obscenity indeed when one considers the unmet need for milk which exists in this country alone, to say nothing of the world at large.
After agriculture we have tourism and the holiday trade — caravan sites, camping grounds, holiday cottages, coach tours, pony trekking — even hang-gliding for those willing to risk their necks seeking out the thermals pushed up by the rocky escarpments. There are the fabulously exclusive grouse-moors of our masters, and the somewhat more accessible fishing reaches along the banks of the Wharfe and the Skirfare. the Nidd. the Ure and the Swale. High up in the air may sometimes be glimpsed the odd hot-air balloon, usually advertising something or other. Above it. higher yet. may be seen—and heard!—reminders of more sinister things — vicious manifestations of capitalism’s wars to come, as they rip the sky open in their passes over the hills.
Of course, the cash nexus is all. There are, not unnaturally, many exceptions to the general rule — civilised little organisations which cater for special interests: the occasional art-clubs, botanical groups, field societies, local folk-museums and so on. run by those who live in and respect the Dales and Dales people. But for the most part the Dales reflects a cash-consciousness as pronounced as that to be found in any other part of the country. Housing here is formidably expensive — so much so that many young indigenous Dales people cannot afford to live in their own “home” districts. Consequently, they are obliged to seek accommodation in the towns to the south of the Park. One effect of this state of affairs is to raise the average age of the local population, which must be detrimental to the elderly themselves. Who among us wishes to live in the elephants’ graveyard which the Dales villages threaten to become?
Quarrying is capitalism writ large. The major conglomerate operating in Wharfedale happens to be the building services group. Tilcon (the Tilling Construction Company). One of the largest in the UK. its quarries division alone comprises some sixty sand, gravel, limestone, whinstone and granite quarries, spread throughout the British Isles. The concrete division comprises over sixty Trumix plants sited from Scotland to the Potteries. The Group also embraces a mortar division, a putty plant, plaster and perlite units. North Riding Garages, the Slater and Acey Transport companies, and the Scottish Brick Company, of over twenty brickworks, owned jointly with the NCB. also fall within its purlieu along with much besides. The existence in the area of this major capitalist undertaking, together with other considerable quarrying interests, is more or less taken for granted, despite strongly expressed objections to their vast appetite for more hillside to open up. and notwithstanding the inconvenience caused by the heavy traffic generated. One explanation for this acquiescence is that at least some employment is afforded in a district in which jobs are as rare as that other Dales rarity, the Slipper orchid.
This acceptance goes hand in hand with an even readier tolerance of the nomenclature “National Park” as applied to the Yorkshire Dales. A true national park on the one hand, and the massive extraction of limestone on the other, must be mutually exclusive. And of course activities such as intensive farming and exclusive house-building would likewise have no place in a national park. For a national park is, or ought to be, a natural wasteland, an area of countryside which has been allowed to revert as nearly as possible to its original condition. So we can discern a kind of hypocrisy here which, while speaking of the shadow of an ideal, seems quite incapable of coming to terms with the substance of capitalist profit-making.
Visitors to the Dales often illustrate this contradiction by their own illusions as to what the Dales are about. They will wander at will over what they consider to be freely accessible land, little realising that it is privately owned. (It is only fair to add, however, that much of the most elevated ground —usually unsuitable for agriculture or grouse-shooting — is freely accessible.) There are statutory footpaths, of course, although even these must be watched with the utmost vigilance since some local landowners have no compunction whatsoever but to remove or wire up the stiles. Nowadays. as a result of recent farmer-orientated legislation they are even allowed to run bulls over fields across which footpaths are routed. The truth is that the so-called National Parks in this country are, for the most part, private property in one form or another. Moreover, it is private property of a highly lucrative nature. Despite recent EEC legislation, land ownership is still more than just a comprehensively subsidised and very profitable means of wealth-accumulation. It is also one of the most effective hedges against the inflation which has done so much damage to those of us who are obliged to sell our labour- and brain-power in order to live.
Reference has been made to the quarrying interests which are taking such huge bites out of the limestone hills here, and the capital expropriation is vast indeed. The visual impact is, however, devastating. Visitors moving up-Dale from Skipton, the nearest town of any substance, must, on reaching Swinden quarry and limestone workings, wonder what they’re in for round the next comer. This enormous apparition, thrusting sky-wards like some ghostly rocket launching site, casts its white pall over everything — trees, fields, barns alike, for many hundreds of yards around. It constitutes a monument to the capitalist system, symbolising the philistine greed of powerful entrepreneurs who, as we ought to have learnt by this time, will stop at nothing in order to protect and enhance their interests.
However, let’s not end on too pessimistic a note. Much of the Yorkshire Dales remains more or less as it has been for centuries. In many ways those of us lucky enough to live here, despite the disadvantages, have much to feel thankful for compared with our brothers and sisters of the industrial areas to the south and east. And perhaps this good fortune is all the more reason for finding ways of getting the socialist case over. After all, it is a simple enough matter to pull on a pair of boots and climb to the bleak and windy heights with only the bird-calls for company. Up here, at least, one is enabled to think of the larger issues and to find ways of expressing them. What’s more, it doesn’t cost anything—yet!