The Fact of the Matter | Living North

The Fact of the Matter

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Ribble Viaduct
At the same time that Living North was preparing its first ever Yorkshire issue, the author behind the I Never Knew That About... series of books was putting the finishing touches to another instalment of his fact-packed guides
‘As long as there’s a Yorkshire, there’ll always be an England’
Image of St Patrick's church in Patrington

The scene is Brompton Hall, near Scarborough, the year 1853 – a notable one for John Appleby, the world’s first aviator. ‘Sir George Cayley invented the first heavier than air machine that could actually fly – he didn’t go up in it himself, he sent his coachman, John Appleby, up instead, and he flew it across the garden at Brompton Hall,’ says author Christopher Winn. ‘It flew for 500 yards and crashed with an almighty thud at the end. John Appleby then stood up, dusted himself down and said “I’m handing in my notice – I was hired to drive, not to fly.” The reaction of stalking out in disgust after becoming the first man ever to fly is wonderfully Yorkshire.’

Christopher is talking us through one of the stories he discovered when researching Yorkshire’s history. A freelance writer and collector of trivia, he’s probably a great person to have on a pub quiz team – we wouldn’t like to try and one-up any of his anecdotes at a dinner party. Towards the end of 2009, Christopher and his wife Mai Osawa – an artist who contributes illustrations to her husband’s books – travelled to God’s own country for around six weeks to research their latest edition. In April the following year, I Never Knew That About Yorkshire was published.

‘I love travelling around the countryside,’ Christopher explains. ‘My first car was a Morris Minor that used to overheat all the time, so I could never go on the motorway – I had to go along the country routes and stop every hour or so to let the car cool down. While I was waiting for it, I used to just wander about and see what was around the corner and over the hedge. I began to wonder “What happened here?” and “Who lived there?” I used to tell stories to people whenever I drove them anywhere and they suggested I put them all down in a book. I’ve a real unquenchable thirst for facts – it makes somewhere so much more interesting if you know what happened there and why it is what it is.’
The nuggets in Christopher’s books aren’t your commonplace factoids; they take a staggering amount of research. ‘I do have a lot of little pieces of paper,’ he chortles. ‘The first couple of books were stories I’d collected over the years, then I started to do more research first. I now have a structure – where I’m going to go and why – but there’s nothing to beat actually going to the place and getting a real feel for it: you get all the information, the context and all the little stories which you can’t find on the internet or in the newspapers.

‘Yorkshire was around the sixth or seventh one we did,’ Christopher continues. ‘It was a really obvious one to do because it’s a sort of kingdom of its own. I’ve always loved that county – it’s a fabulous place and so distinctive. I was quite nervous at the thought of someone not from Yorkshire doing a Yorkshire book, but the people there were so hospitable and generous. They’re so interested in their own county, and so proud of it, that they helped me to learn a lot of the stories and to meet a lot of Yorkshire people. They’ve got a great dry sense of humour too, which I love.’

Some facts, like ‘the Settle-Carlisle Railway opened in 1876... and Ribblehead Viaduct is the biggest and longest viaduct on the railway,’ can be proven with figures but, with word-of-mouth playing such a big role in Christopher’s research, we wonder how he can verify his stories to the point that he feels comfortable publishing them. ‘Having done this series for a number of years, firstly, you start to get an instinct for a big fish story,’ he explains. ‘People have incredible knowledge but I verify things five times because things get exaggerated and taken out of context or one can still get things wrong.’

It’s obvious Christopher has a real passion for his work. The facts and stories are given in an organised, systematic fashion, but this is much more than a county-specific encyclopedia – the informal tone in which the information is laid out makes the information easily accessible. One fact in particular (‘Hedon possesses the oldest civic mace in England. It was presented to the town in 1415 during the reign of Henry V’) caught our eye. ‘Every town, borough or county has its own particular mace,’ Christopher explains. ‘It passed from the king and is a symbol of authority, come down from the monarch. There are records of it, but you have to go deep into the archive so that story is word-of-mouth.’

Spending as much time travelling as he does, we suggest Christopher must have come across some excellent watering holes. ‘One thing I did find out was that Yorkshire Ale is one of the best ales in the country,’ he enthuses. ‘I tried it at The Star at Harome and I’ve been to the Tan Hill Inn which is the highest inn in England. I also love Bettys in Harrogate.’

It seems that Yorkshire has had a lasting impression on Christopher, who speaks enthusiastically of returning, pen-in-hand, in the future. ‘Yorkshire will certainly appear again,’ he says. ‘I’m hoping to do a second I Never Knew That About England, as enough time has passed since the first one came out that there are so many more stories. I’m learning that there’s plenty more about Yorkshire I could do, so it would be lovely to do another Yorkshire book.’

Like Christopher, we’ve managed to gain new insight into Yorkshire, its people and its history by travelling up and down the county these past few years. We also firmly agree with a particularly beautiful saying of Christopher’s: ‘As long as there’s a Yorkshire, there’ll always be an England.’

All excerpts by Christopher Winn and published with kind permission of Ebury Press. More information on Christopher’s work can be found at 
www.i-never-knew-that.com

 

 

TAKE ME TO CHURCH

Christopher’s newest book, I Never Knew That About England’s Country Churches, explores some of the country’s most historic buildings, devoting an entire chapter to the country churches of Yorkshire

‘It’s extraordinary how there’ll always be somebody at a church, either tending the yard or putting up flowers,’ Christopher muses. ‘They just love to talk about it. When you find somebody like that is when you get the really good stories. Churches are the most wonderful way to learn about a place because they’re usually the oldest building, and they have great records. They also have wonderful treasures in there that should really be in a museum.’

Some of our favourite facts from his latest book are:

‘St Patrick’s in Patrington is regarded by many as the most perfect village church in England... Her graceful spire, 189 feet high, ascends in luminous beauty above the bare fields of Yorkshire’s far east, serving as a landmark since it was raised in the 14th century.’

‘“Orm, the son of Gamal, bought St Gregory’s Church when it was all utterly broke and fallen and caused it to be made anew from the ground, to Christ and St Gregory, in the days of King Edward and in the days of Earl Tosti. Hawarth wrought me and Brand the Prior.” So reads the longest inscription of Saxon English in Britain.’ 

‘In the north aisle of St Peter’s, Croft, on the River Tees, is the extraordinary Milbanke Pew, a huge wooden edifice with red curtains that sits on Tuscan columns and is reached via a grand staircase with swirling balusters. It is thought to date from around 1680. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s father became rector here in 1843, when the young Dodgson (later known as Lewis Carroll) was 11, and there is a crude carving of a smiling cat on the east wall of the chancel that may have inspired the Cheshire Cat from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.’

Published in: September 2017

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