Bingley: Spy Hill

J.B Priestley, Joe Lampton and Happy Melancholy

Dick Hudson’s is a public house above Bingley that is thought of locally as a gateway to the moors. In John Braine’s 1957 novel ‘Room at the Top’, Joe Lampton rents a room just below this pub and these moors. In 1958 J.P. Priestley returned from ‘southern exile’, to re-trace his ‘grand escape’ from the West Riding towns where ‘industrial mankind has done its worst’. Priestley made this escape to the moors many times in his youth. In his account, ‘On the Moors,’ he begins by having two pints at ‘Dick’s’.

It’s 10.30 on a winter’s morning and John and I aren’t the only ones to rattle the locked door at Dick Hudson’s in hope rather than expectation. There’s a lone figure huddled over the door when we pull up in the car park. He disappears before we rattle the same handle. And then we too disappear, for the gaps in the wall. We squeeze through the first from the car park, cross the silent moorland road and squeeze through the second, and up the rising path. This second gap is the same gap Priestley squeezed through on his nostalgic visit, and we walk up the same stone flagged path he took past Spy Hill.

We are still in the Aire Valley, surefooted between green verges, but not for long. After 100 meters of gentle climbing we are out on the moors, on the tops, among the browns and blacks of winter heather. The flagged path disappears beneath peat, mud and standing water, leaving sinews of desire paths squelched across the mud. 

A startled, frantic grouse flaps into the air in front of us, hovering fifty metres away, continuing to attract our attention, drawing the perceived threat from their home. We are trudging now; round, over, and through the sodden moor towards a dry stone wall that cuts from left to right. We push through the gate and lean against the wall surrounded by the plateau of brown scrub, where meadow pipits are trilling on the air. The only hint of greenery is back down below in the Aire Valley through the sheen of mist caught by sunlight. The wind is gusting, the wind that blew down onto the aspiring Joe Lampton in his ‘Room at the Top’ on its way to fictional Warley in the valley bottom.

What did Priestley and the fictional Lampton see from up here? Priestley saw his past, his youth. He looked back with fondness, wistfulness. He missed these moors, this escape. But he knew he could never come back to live. He saw the glistening scene below in the valley as if through glass, missing the vibrancy he saw as a youth. He was a different man now, with a different life. He saw things differently. 

Joe Lampton in Room at the Top saw his future. He, like Priestley, would also leave his past behind, and the poverty of Dufton. He would marry well, become part of the Warley ‘club’; become successful. He would build a future here. But his past came with him for the world to see, for Warley to see. 

We lean against the wall, and John and I talk. John, born in Shrewsbury, brought up in Kidderminster. Me, born in Scunthorpe, brought up in Rotherham. Both of us more than thirty years in Bradford. 

I talk of Priestley, and John talks of his Shropshire origins, even though he did not live there very long. He thinks we have ‘yearnings’ for where we are born. I talk about how I feel the same yearning for Scunthorpe, although I left there when I was five, spent my school years in Rotherham. John says he rarely goes back to south Shropshire, but when he does he loves it. He tries to find the small rural hamlet of two or three farm buildings where he likes to think he was born. ‘But they might have been demolished. I was probably born in a hospital.’ He laughs and smiles. ‘I lived in Kidderminster for much longer, but don’t have the same feelings.’ We look around at the moors, that are quite bleak now, with the wind, the chill it brings, the plateau, the blacks and greys, the struggle of distant bird song to be heard under the jet engines rapidly gaining height from Leeds/Bradford airport. 

‘Priestley writes as if he feels a happy melancholy,’ I say, ‘quite contented, not a gleeful, oh we’re up on the moors, isn’t it great. It’s a deeper feeling.’

‘I have a warmth for Yorkshire,’ says John, ‘but I have a romantic, nostalgic notion about Shropshire. Having said that, haven’t been down there very often in recent years…South Shropshire is a lot softer and greener than Yorkshire….rounded, agricultural, hill formations – not far from Bishop’s Castle are the Stiperstones, a limestone area, stone is hard, jagged in the form of arches, used as a basis for stories of big giants, ghostly apparitions…’

‘When you look out at these moors…’

‘I don’t feel like a Yorkshireman, ‘ John interjects. ‘You don’t become properly adopted in the first generation – to me it always seems an adopted place, even though I have been here for the major part of my life now.’

I know how he feels. ‘I’m quite happy in a cheeky way, when people assume I’m a Yorkshireman, and I say, “Oh no, I’m a Lincolnshire yellow belly”, even though I left 60 years ago, and only go back to watch the football team, and then the ground’s on the edge of town. So I rarely go into the town itself. Priestley wrote about being quite happy not living back in Bradford…’ 

The wind gusts once more. We exchange hellos with a trio of women walkers, the only other people on the moors. We look around as they negotiate the gate, and then push on across the plateau of dry heather. For some reason I feel the urge to say good things about the place. ‘Quite attractive in its way.’ My voice trails off into the wind, ‘but a bit “samey”…’

‘I find it uninteresting, the moorland,’ says John. ‘I love the fact we’ve been disturbing grouse, so I like that, when you find some wildlife…but otherwise you have to think it looks a fairly dead environment. I’m sure a naturalist would contradict that severely and say no, there are lots of little ecosystems operating…I think what you are alluding too is, this has been managed to produce grouse for shooting and basically they have burned the moor periodically so there are great swathes that are even now blackened and the heather is interspersed with areas of marshy grass, so it is not that interesting I have to say…’

Again, I think of Priestley. ‘When we turn round and look over the wall across the Aire Valley there’s a bit more green over that way, and there are a couple of wind turbines, its a bit hazy. Priestley writes about glistening buildings – there’s one bit of glisten under the sun over in the distance, but there is not much glistening…’

‘A good contrast,’ says John, ‘the barrenness of the moorland and in the distance more undulating landscape, with trees and green fields. The bareness of the moorland, because of its plainness does allow you to reflect. You can wander. You don’t have to think about it. In a different environment you might be prompted to think about the environment you are in because you will see clumps of trees, animals, more stone walls criss-crossing, and bump into more people, appear to be more going on. On the moor is fairly plain, there does not seem to be much going on apart from us disturbing some grouse…I can see what Priestley could be saying, you could come, wander, just let his mind wander…’

We turn away from the wind that is numbing my fingers, raise the latch on the gate, struggle back through the mud of the desire path in search of the stone flags. We find them and are soon heading down to Dick Hudsons, the Aire Valley and the Warley of Lampton, the West Riding of Priestley. Lampton thought he could become part of Warley, but he was from Dufton and could never be one of them. It was his downfall. Better to share Priestley’s happy melancholy for places he could never belong.