On Yorkshire Day, God's Own Country still stands apart from the rest of England, says Colin Brazier
In a time when many Brits feel huge pressure to conform, it's not how they do things in God’s Own County, where a spade, more often than not, is still called a spade
Think of Yorkshire, and you think of what? Let’s start with its people. For one thing, there are a lot of them. Yorkshire has the same population as Scotland. But what about the character of those people? What adjectives come to mind?
Stoical? Curmudgeonly? Chippy? Commonsensical? Sardonic? The word which most often crops up is ‘blunt’. Yorkshire folk have a habit of speaking their mind, often succinctly, for good or ill.
Today is Yorkshire Day. It’s not an ancient institution. It is quite a modern invention and one which has taken root. It’s not very scientific, but I think that Brits are increasingly keen on flying flags, and the Yorkshire flag – white rose on blue background – can often be seen run-up the flagpole of a suburban garden – often gardens very far from Yorkshire itself.
When I worked at the Yorkshire Post, and afterwards at Yorkshire TV, the idea of a day to celebrate England’s biggest county was just catching on. Though Yorkshire Day is relatively new, the idea that to be born a Yorkshireman or woman was to have won the great lottery of life, is not.
For centuries, Yorkshire has stood ever so slightly apart from the rest of England.
Not just, thanks to the Pennines, from Lancashire – the auld enemy – but from everywhere else for that matter. Where does it spring from? This mild form of tykeish exceptionalism?
The Vikings bear a lot of responsibility. As a child growing up in Bradford, you would be told to go out and lake. Lake is the old Norse word for play. The county’s ancient subdivisions – West, North and East Ridings – come from the Scandinavian word for a third.
For anybody who thinks history doesn’t matter, think on this. In medieval times, Yorkshire – thanks to wool and abbeys – was one of Britain’s most prosperous regions. Then, in 1069, William the Conqueror decided to obliterate Yorkshire for its rebelliousness, killing a hundred thousand at least, in the process. It was called the Harrying of the North and, according to one recent study, the county never really recovered economically.
Of course, it did become a crucible of the industrial revolution and many of the technological advances that made it possible. Today, for instance, is the anniversary of the chemical discovery of oxygen by Joseph Priestley, a scientist from West Yorkshire.
Many of those dark satanic mills and foundries have now gone. In my native Bradford, you’re more likely to see a minaret than a chimney. The county is forever changing.
But in a world where regional kinks are constantly being ironed out by globalisation, Yorkshire still has something distinctive about it. You see it in the people it produces, from Bronte to Boycott, from Clarkson to Hockney, from Wilberforce to Fawkes; a certain cussedness; an unwillingness to go with the flow.
We live in a time when many Brits feel huge pressure to conform, to stay tight-lipped even if the Emperor has no clothes. That’s not how they do things in God’s Own County, where a spade, more often than not, is still called a spade. Happy Yorkshire Day.