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Anthony Longden on the works of Ella Pontefract and Marie Hartley

Black Dogs and Stone Pianos

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Despite the solidity of its dry stone walls and its rugged beauty, the landscape of the Yorkshire Dales is fragile. By the 1920s, more vulnerable still was the way of life that had continued there for hundreds of years but which was rapidly dying out. Two young women – the writer Ella Pontefract and the artist Marie Hartley – realized that if no record were kept, more than a thousand years of rural tradition would vanish without trace. They decided to do something about it, and embarked on a remarkable literary enterprise that continues to illuminate the life and lore of the Dales. The collaboration was also to bring the companions domestic fulfilment and, to their surprise, a whiff of celebrity.

They produced many books, but I am especially fond of two in particular – Yorkshire Cottage (1942) and Yorkshire Heritage (1950). The first, produced on that wartime paper that now feels so soft to the touch, rather like velvet, paints a vivid picture of the women’s work restoring an ancient cottage. The second is a poignant memoir.

Though Ella and Marie were Yorkshirewomen, they were not native to the Dales. They met in the West Riding in the mid-1920s when Ella, born of wealthy textile manufacturing and yeoman farmer stock, was 27 and Marie, whose family were prosperous wool merchants, was 18. In Yorkshire Heritage, Marie recalls:

It was pure coincidence when in 1925 the Pontefracts built a house at Wetherby, a field’s length away from the one that my family had moved into two years previously. The beginning of our acquaintance was not propitious; for the new house spoilt our view of the lower foothills of Wharfedale, on the edge of the Plain of York. But, instead of the bitterness that could so easily have developed, the families had too many similarities and interests in common to disagree, and they eventually established a firm friendship that never waned throughout the years

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Despite the solidity of its dry stone walls and its rugged beauty, the landscape of the Yorkshire Dales is fragile. By the 1920s, more vulnerable still was the way of life that had continued there for hundreds of years but which was rapidly dying out. Two young women – the writer Ella Pontefract and the artist Marie Hartley – realized that if no record were kept, more than a thousand years of rural tradition would vanish without trace. They decided to do something about it, and embarked on a remarkable literary enterprise that continues to illuminate the life and lore of the Dales. The collaboration was also to bring the companions domestic fulfilment and, to their surprise, a whiff of celebrity.

They produced many books, but I am especially fond of two in particular – Yorkshire Cottage (1942) and Yorkshire Heritage (1950). The first, produced on that wartime paper that now feels so soft to the touch, rather like velvet, paints a vivid picture of the women’s work restoring an ancient cottage. The second is a poignant memoir. Though Ella and Marie were Yorkshirewomen, they were not native to the Dales. They met in the West Riding in the mid-1920s when Ella, born of wealthy textile manufacturing and yeoman farmer stock, was 27 and Marie, whose family were prosperous wool merchants, was 18. In Yorkshire Heritage, Marie recalls:

It was pure coincidence when in 1925 the Pontefracts built a house at Wetherby, a field’s length away from the one that my family had moved into two years previously. The beginning of our acquaintance was not propitious; for the new house spoilt our view of the lower foothills of Wharfedale, on the edge of the Plain of York. But, instead of the bitterness that could so easily have developed, the families had too many similarities and interests in common to disagree, and they eventually established a firm friendship that never waned throughout the years that followed.

The women made frequent trips to the Dales, at a time when such excursions were not considered a becoming activity for young ladies.

When we went on our walking tours the word hiker had not been coined, nor were bizarre clothes at all a familiar sight in public places. I remember returning from Wharfedale and changing trains at Shipley where a crowd of mill girls following us along the platform jeered at our oddly-garbed figures in shabby tweed skirts, cloche hats shrunk by rain and resembling the headgear of a village idiot in a Phillpotts play, bulging rucksacks, and nailed shoes.

When Marie won a place to study art at the Slade School in London in 1931, Ella followed her, attending classes at University College and taking private tuition in journalism. On their return to Yorkshire, the pair started to work together and in 1932 the Yorkshire Weekly Post began to publish their series of illustrated articles ‘The Charm of Yorkshire Churches’, which ran for over three years. The Hartley-Pontefract partnership soon attracted the attention of a publisher and five Dales books followed, based on their research. They had realized the importance of preserving humble, everyday domestic items of the kind which so easily slip away unnoticed. To that end they attended a punishing round of markets, auctions and house sales, recording everything they bought in meticulous detail – an oatcake rack, perhaps, or clogging irons used for shaping the wooden soles of clogs, or a flake on which hams and bacon were dried. On one occasion, they walked away from a sale weighed down by a packhorse collar with seven bells, three knitting sheaths, a copper ale-warmer, a tinderbox, a cattle horn and a jug from a Wesleyan chapel in Leyburn used at ‘love feasts’ in the nineteenth century. Accompanied by Marie’s distinctive illustrations, these Dales volumes also give a voice to vivid characters. Neddy Dick was a resourceful musician of great local acclaim. ‘No visitor to the dale in his day failed to call on Neddy Dick, famous for his stone piano made from boulders picked out of the bed of the Swale, and his harmonium with its set of bells collected from clocks up and down the dale. These latter he played with a stick held in his left hand, and while striking the bass note with the butt, he tapped a bell with the other part of the stick, and played a mouth-organ at the same time.’ Then there was old Jane Ryder, a fount of folklore, with tales of black dogs ‘with eyes like saucers’ and other apparitions dating back to the first Viking settlers. It was Mrs Ryder who sent them a verse called ‘Time is Money’, which might otherwise have been lost:

We need a year to grow a pig And two before a steer is big. The hens lay every day.

A field of grain but once we reap A yearly fleece take off the sheep. The hens lay every day.

A few short months the honey store The blossom fruit and all is o’er. The hens lay every day.

For other things too long we wait And life is short and pay day late. The hens lay every day.

In the early days of the project, money was tight, and their frequent fact-finding tours proved a drain on their meagre resources. To ease the financial pain Ella and Marie bought a Winchester caravan, ‘Green Plover’, which they towed with an Alvis or Austin. Friendly farmers allowed them to park the caravan in their fields, and the vehicle became their base until the day when an elderly friend in Askrigg, John Lodge, told them that Coleshouse, a cottage dating back to 1699, was for sale in the village. The pull of a cottage in Wensleydale was irresistible, but they wanted to do things properly. As Ella wrote, ‘A great responsibility rests on anyone who alters an old building. If you erect an unlovely house your neighbours and the passers-by have to bear its ugliness; but the onus is on you; and future generations may, with a clear conscience, raze it to the ground. But if you destroy or mar an old building you deprive future generations of part of their heritage.’ There followed the trials and tribulations of knocking an ancient place into habitable shape. The women’s account of this period was to be Yorkshire Cottage which, despite being published in wartime and therefore in limited numbers, was still a success. Here, Ella’s prose transports you to the cosy hearth that was the women’s haven against the elements outside:

We have hung our dripping mackintoshes to dry, and shaken off our gum boots. It was splendid out there in the rain hearing the thunder of the becks and the groaning of the trees; but now it is good to shut the storm out with the night. Draw the curtains, pull the chairs up to the fire, pile on another log. Let the wind roar as it will, the strong stone walls of the cottage will protect us. What were those words of the mason as he finished the job? ‘There, it’s done. And it’ll be standing firm a thousand years from now.’ A vain boast? You would not think so if you had seen the walls being built. There is nothing sham about them. Where they look two feet thick they are two feet thick, where they appear to be stone they are stone, not thin facings of it over brick as in much suburban building.

Yorkshire Cottage brought unexpected fame. Marie later recalled ruefully: ‘In the book we avoided giving away the name of the village. . . and in our innocence we never thought that, apart perhaps from local people, anyone would take the trouble to ascertain its whereabouts. We were sadly mistaken, and that summer we learnt what fame meant.’ Fans of the book dropped in on them morning, noon and night, and letters arrived from soldiers in the Middle East and India, and from prisoners-of-war in Germany who had managed to get hold of Yorkshire Cottage from camp libraries. Ella’s health had always been fragile, but by 1943 it had deteriorated to the stage where there was little chance of recovery. She died on 23 February 1945, at the age of 49, leaving Marie devastated. It was another five years before she was able to write Yorkshire Heritage, ‘a tribute to Ella Pontefract’. She concludes it by reflecting on the redemptive power of writing.
For myself it is enough to say that from the world that had crashed about me, the only salvage seemed to be the diaries that I had kept during the years of Ella’s and my joyous work together in the dales. In time I began to see a purpose in life, and eventually took up the writing of this book.
Marie Hartley’s own story ended quite differently. The work she began with Ella was continued with the women’s mutual friend, the writer Joan Ingilby, and the final tally of Dales titles stood at forty. The books co-authored by Ingilby are detailed, quite scholarly works, and can still be found in second-hand bookshops across the land, particularly in the north, of course. But for me, they somehow lack the warmth and charm of Yorkshire Cottage and those first Dales books. By the early 1970s, the Askrigg cottage was so full of artefacts that Marie and Joan felt compelled to donate them to the local council, and they eventually formed the basis of the collection at the Dales Countryside Museum at Hawes. Marie and Joan were made MBEs for their contribution to recording the Dales’ history and received honorary degrees from the Open University. Joan died in 2000, aged 89, but Marie worked on in Askrigg for another six years, dying there at the age of 100 just after passing the proofs of a short biography, The Harvest of a Quiet Eye, written to mark her centenary.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 38 © Anthony Longden 2013


About the contributor

Anthony Longden loves nothing better than haunting the stacks of the London Library and discovering things he never went looking for in the first place. The rest of the time he is a journalist, press complaints commissioner and media consultant.

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