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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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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