We’d had a hectic few weeks: birthdays, home improvements, friends suddenly dying, that crazy mix of events that leave you needing to breathe. Very slowly and deeply. Outside, the loveliest of Autumn Sundays beckoned. Somehow a fine Sunday always seems that much better than a weekday, as if there’s an extra celebration taking place.
A welcome plan to drive over to the Howardian Hills east of York unfolded; a gorgeous landscape of gently (and sometimes steep) hills and green pastures, picture postcard villages with Castle Howard and other great houses, not to mention abbeys, medieval castles and monasteries reflecting a sense of deep history. The Hills were declared an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in 1987, covering 79 square miles, nestled comfortably between the North York Moors National Park, the Yorkshire Wolds and the Vale of York. How lucky we are, I have often thought, to live within spitting distance of all of these. The whole place is unique, with its colourful and varied patchwork of fields, hosting crops or cattle, the various undulations affording fabulous views. Formed over Jurassic limestone, the countryside supports a range of wildlife and rare plants, fens and ancient woodland, some parts being of scientific interest, including Kirkham Gorge – a glacial overflow channel. Otherwise, amongst other signs of previous activity, there is evidence of Iron Age dyke systems.
Over the course of the pandemic and through the several lockdowns, and as recorded already, we’ve driven short distances out of York to explore a number of villages. This time we headed a little further afield to Terrington, restrictions on our movements largely having been removed, whether wisely or unwisely. Like many others, we are reconciled to being content with our own country for now, and in any case are in fact relieved not to feel pressurised into standing in queues at airports. Whilst climate change is extremely worrying, and the damage to the environment deplorable, it has in a way, done us a favour in that we have (hopefully) woken up to the beauty around us.
In the Domesday book, Terrington is recorded as ‘Teurintone’, thought to be from the Old English ‘Tiefrung’, meaning a picture, and linked to an older history of a Roman villa with mosaic floors. Another possibility, always with these things, is that its derivation is from the Anglo Saxon name for witchcraft (now we’re getting interesting), or a personal name – ‘Teofer’ and ‘tun’, meaning Teofer’s Farm. As I walk through these villages I love to imagine how they were, whilst being mindful of idealising; visualise these people in their sensible rough clothes and strong muscles going about their daily business, the smell of wood-smoke, cattle passing through, the blacksmith in his forge hammering away. Of course I fully realise how much harder life was then, albeit simpler. But it doesn’t harm to imagine. The 2011 census recorded 459 inhabitants, so it remains a small compact community, surprisingly well served with a village hall, cricket and football grounds, shop, church and even a small surgery where you can get to see a doctor actually in person, and even a chiropodist or physio. Let’s move here, I said. But then I always say that, wherever we go.
We took a path that led towards a panorama, to be kindly advised by two friendly dog-walkers, of the footpath along the Ebor Way(1), which we followed until we approached a field of cattle. We had the usual argument as to whether these were cows or bulls and I stared long and hard in my search for evidence of udders. These were just about visible, the creatures clearly well-milked. But in our way, stood staring at us, were two young bullocks. James did his usual ‘Never say bollocks to a bullock’ thing whilst I talked to one of them, a real piebald beauty, his brother being like melted chocolate. He was transfixed, as was I, and we held a sort of communion of souls for a few minutes.
‘If you’re feeling nervous we’ll not go further’.
Golly, I thought, that’s unusual for James, ever adventurous. I could tell many a story of being chased by various breeds of cattle, dogs, horses, after losing a similar argument, and now conclude that ageing has made that bit of a difference to our plans.
We could have taken a circular route, a more strenuous walk perhaps for another braver time, but instead we retraced our steps. As we headed towards the church (we always go inside these ‘poems’ as someone once called them, it’s part of our little pilgrimage), we came upon an elderly gentleman hesitatingly negotiating the cobbles. There’s something about sudden splendid weather that wakes us all up to the joys of simple and unanticipated human connection, so we exchanged pleasantries. It turned out he was on a short holiday from ‘down south’ as we now put it (being southerners ourselves until 30 years ago), living in the familiar territory of Kent where James grew up. The weather took centre stage as the initial source of subject matter, then Castle Howard, where they are filming again, passing on to the terrible traffic in York, and finally a discussion about the private boarding school nearby, what that experience can do to you, especially when very young. I have three friends who have had serious ‘issues’, even mental health problems arising from an early sense of abandonment. What it would have done to me on top of my childhood experiences, I can’t begin to imagine.
I put uneasy thoughts behind me, not wanting to think anything negative on such a day, and we entered the building. ‘All Saints’ is another fine medieval example, with Saxon features, beautiful stained glass, tombs, war memorials, great Georgian gravestones in the churchyard, the latter leading me, as always, to ponder on relationships, family structures, their place in history and possible reasons for death in the nineteenth century, the latter particularly in keeping with my present preoccupation with epidemics.(2)
Inside we became aware that the day before, there had been a Harvest Festival, with rosy apples and other vegetation and flora in abundance. On the back of one of the pews there was, believe it or not, a post-it note:
‘God really loves me’.
There’s a thing, I thought. Did someone need to remind themselves in that way? Then as if I was being directed by an unseen force (yes, really), I found myself at the lectern looking at an open page of print. The reading had been that famous one from Matthew, about the lilies in the field and not worrying about anything. I must admit I had a little chuckle at the bit about clothes, having agonised lately on the difficulties in finding some new ones to replace those I have been wearing out during the pandemic and my unsatisfactory ventures into online shopping. However, suddenly I found myself reciting the reading to an invisible audience, James being engrossed in the stonework or something. I have kept chanting it quietly to myself all week, and in fact reminded one close friend of the words, she being extremely worried about pretty well everything at the moment.
The sunshine called to us and we continued our exploration. In the front of an old cottage (one of those long ones, possibly the erstwhile home of a yeoman farmer), an elderly man was picking away at weeds and stood up stiffly to smile and wave. In another someone was mowing the lawn, and across the road someone else hosted a small group of people who also waved and passed the time of day, everyone responding to the sudden warmth, glorious colours, and our relative freedom compared to last year. We took a path into one of the so-called ‘back streets’, where there was evidence of gentrification and extensions – the latter tasteful, thankfully. This changing village landscape I mused, so different from the original where poverty was probably more the norm. At least there was no ‘new build’, no little boxes on the hillside.(3)
By this time we were ready for a drink or an ice cream and mercifully the village shop was just about open. I had a magnum, yum, yum, and James something similar. Suitably refreshed, if a little guilty at the indulgence, we walked into a side road towards the crest of one rise, passing the village hall and then a burial ground, our churchyards long since too full for any more of us, or else charging prohibitive prices for interment. I had to go in of course, the dead always pull me. But we didn’t stay long and headed back into the village, coming upon what must have been a mother, or even a grandmother and her daughter/granddaughter in a wheelchair, plus an old dog lolloping in the grass verge. More exchanges then, interesting stuff about their history, the mother/grandma having worked in the kitchens at Castle Howard, her mother a chambermaid there before that. She made me even more jealous about living in the village, singing its praises and the friendliness of the folk. Not that our street in York isn’t the same, but that’s another tale…
We dragged ourselves away and headed back to the car, parked at the top of the main road. There we came upon the last bit of magic of the day: a walled mound of grass in front of the top cottages, circled by nine ancient oaks.(4) A bench beckoned and we sat for a while, listening to the trees telling us their stories too.
Susan Elliot, October 2021
(1) The long-distance footpath, first developed in the 1970s by the Ebor Acorn Rambling Club, stretches for 76 miles from the village of Helmsley southwards, eventually connecting with the Cleveland Way and the Dales Way, across the medieval walls in York, then left along the banks of the Ouse. It is named after the Roman name for York: ‘Eboracum’.
(2) Probably typhoid or scarlet fever – see ‘Terrington Now and Then’ published by Gerry Bradshaw in 1998 by Terrington Arts as part of the ‘Tiefrung Project’ and available on the Terrington Archive website which provides a fascinating account of the history of the village.
(3) ‘Little Boxes’ – a satirical song written and composed by Malvina Reynolds in 1962 and becoming a hit for her friend Pete Seeger a year later. With the current proliferation of new estates being built in rural areas, particularly beautiful Northumberland, to my mind the song is just as apt as it was in the 60s.
(4) This is called ‘The Plump’ – the earth probably came from an excavation for a new road or Wiganthorpe Lake half a mile away, the Howard family originally concentrating on developing this top part of the village (from ‘Terrington Now and Then’. The trees are called ‘ancient’ in the account, so I am assuming they are oaks).
©Susan Elliot, Terrington Arts
This page last updated: 21st December 2021
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