Ysella Sims

Letting story speak


Watershed n. boundary between two river basins; the point at which rainwater running down the same hill diverts to separate courses.

I’m standing on the platform at Crediton station. It’s early April and spring is practicing its leaps and starts, limbering us, awkwardly, towards summer. I’m waiting for the train which will bring my dad from his hometown of Barnstaple and deliver us to Exeter for our onward journey to North Yorkshire. 

I say that Barnstaple is his hometown, but it isn’t really. He’s migrated southwest like me, from Surrey. In truth he’s still a Claygate boy, a Guildford Grammar boy, shaped on frozen rugby pitches and by 30 years of London commuting. I suppose he might even claim to come from Harrogate because this was where he was born. This was where his father, a design engineer, and his mother, a no-nonsense civil service secretary on a bicycle, with a shared penchant for ballroom dancing, were relocated during the war.

His train will take him through the valley alongside the river Creedy which, after the wet spring, is snaking the adjoining fields with new streams and rivulets. He will see morose sheep lingering the marshy ground, the field of wild daffodils and perhaps the pair of white egrets looking up imperiously from the riverbank. He might look out from the window and be struck by the sheer volume of water, land and sky which holds us; spy pockets of pinned-in woodland, chased down to the river, up to its knees in escape and twisted black stems. He might notice the caravans huddled on isolated farmland, hiding on conifered hills, rust-flaked and dejected, and wonder who lives here on the fringes, away from the streaming roads and shining towns.

Where do you come from?

I’ve been thinking about ‘Home’ recently, about the question, ‘Where do you come from?’. It’s an emotive subject and an elusive answer to pin down. I’m reminded how many of us consider ourselves not quite enough, whether it’s Devonian, British, Jamaican or Malaysian, to really belong. It’s a theme which permeates my writing, and six years after moving to Devon from Surrey, I’m still wondering whether Devon is my home. So my mind is full of what home means, whether it’s a place, a person, or a feeling, when the train pulls into the station and I climb aboard, looking for Dad. We’ve exchanged WhatsApps so I know to find him in the first carriage. And there he is, cap on, rucksack by his side, at a table, beaming. I grew up in a separate household to Dad so our relationship hasn’t been formed by the usual rubbing along of family life and I think we probably both feel a bit anticipatory about this, our first trip away together. A few years ago Dad had a major health scare, and although he tells people in his most robust voice that he is fitter than ever (and nobody would disbelieve him), a life event like this remains a leveller. We have been moving closer together, feeling more at home with each other, ever since. 

At family gatherings he tends to nod sagely along to the conversation, quietly inhabiting the kitchen in his butcher’s stripe apron, pretending not to doze off in the post lunch lull. Now he is alert and wide-eyed as he feeds me details about the architecture and landscape, introducing me to a new language which I squirrel away greedily. As we travel up the country he explains the relationship between rivers and railway lines, tells me about watersheds, the way that waters meet and divide. In Skipton Church when we arrive, he will tell me about rood screens, hammer beams, painted bosses and Anchorite cells where martyrs holed themselves, dispensing wisdoms to visiting parishioners, without apparent irony. When the font cover is pointed out to me, (gothic style, Jacobean) dangling implausibly on strings from the vaulted ceiling, my mind will quickly conjure a Midsummer Murder plot. 

Already adventuring

But back on the train, as we travel towards Yorkshire, we are still chatting and looking, Dad laughing at my childish itch to eat our pasties before lunchtime. We are already adventuring. Beyond Bristol we pass yawning hectares of depressing monoculture leading into the flats, paddocks and foals of Cheltenham. As we wend through the cities; Birmingham, Sheffield, Derby, towards Leeds, we dip in and out of industrialised and rural landscapes. We see crumbling mills and factories, their red brick facades blackened by age and pollution, rows of battered shipping containers lifted from trains in railway yards, coloured pink, yellow, red and blue like a child’s lego set, containing cargo from China, Norway, Europe, USA. 

It is the school Easter holiday and people have been drawn from their homes by the sun. We pass parks brimming with children and parents, young people hanging out, everyone dazed by the sun’s unfamiliar glow. On the outskirts of Birmingham a uniformed man emerges blinking from a vast Amazon warehouse. He is pushing a cargo trolley loaded with parcels towards a fleet of waiting vans. Outside Derby, wooded and sloped, its farmhouses and villages of warm yellow sandstone, a young woman strides across a field with a rucksack. The sight makes me smile. 

We follow the meandering rivers and canals, watch brightly coloured barges floating in the shadow of glinting high rises, see stretches of river with bridges charting architecture’s transition from Victorian to contemporary, from stone arches to steel girders. We see sprawling forests of industrial units and out-of-town retail parks, and in the cities, the magnificent shimmering domes of mosques rising from terraced streets; the busyness of building work and development.

At Sheffield an older woman gets on with three younger women in tow. One of them, her hair hanging around her face, sits next to the older woman and begins to show her photos on her phone. 

“Oh no,” the woman says, in flat Sheffield vowels, looking at an image before handing back the phone, “you’ve let yourself go! Why do you wear your hair like that?” 

The young woman looks abashed.

“I say what I think”, the woman says, unapologetically.

The next time I look up I notice that the young woman has tied back her hair.

Character and landscape

When we reach Skipton we find that it, too, says what it thinks. We’re staying a stone’s throw from the train station in a pub called The Railway Inn. It’s an awkwardly shaped building on the confluence of two roads, the Carleton and the Cavendish. Coming down to breakfast on our first morning we’re greeted by the chef. 

“You’re the last ones down,” he says. “I get up at 3am.” 

It is a nudge past 8:30 am.

He’s in his late 50s, stocky, thick armed, a tattoo of a topless woman on his forearm. He runs a tight ship; the dining room is spare and clean. There are vases of pinks on the tables. He shows us photos of his dog, of him together with his wife at a wedding. He tells us that he doesn’t hold much truck with mobile phones, ignorant people, or London, although he’s never been. 

“My missus says I’ll get arrested if I go to London. For battering someone.” 

“I don’t bother with Skipton, either,” he confides, although he works here and lives a short drive away. He tells us about a recent trip to Manchester’s Trafford Shopping Centre when, after pinning a man to a wall for bumping into his wife “Twice!”, because he was looking at his phone, he is escorted out by security. 

“I told missus, from now on, if she wants to go shopping, she can tek bus.”

Skipton’s streets and pubs are named after its industrial and agricultural heritage; Sheep Street, Back o’the Beck, Rope Walk, The Cock & Bottle, The Castle. It’s a swatch of ginnels and canals, chimneys and mills, sandstone and limestone-coloured houses, a castle and cobbles. It’s full of charm, especially so in the late evening sun when we arrive. 

While I’m here I begin to wonder about the relationship between character and landscape, whether the much cited ‘softness’ of southerners could be due in part to the comparative softness of our landscape. When I think of the south, my south, it is a romantic imagining of flutterings and swayings, grass meadows and sighing treetops, strings of tiny movements and sounds knotted together. But our journeying here has made me conscious of how protected I’ve been in the places I’ve lived, from the real toll (mining and agriculture aside) of industry, not only on landscape but on individual temperament and identity. In Skipton’s high street there is a stone to mark the site of recreational bull baiting and others to mark the site of the pillory stone (removed 1770) and the stocks (hanging on until 1860). I think of the swift justice delivered by social media and wonder how far we have come. 

Spring isn’t all about the bluebells!

Aside from the falling rain and quiet passage of the canals through the town, the most obvious source of softness in Skipton comes from the green dales. They rise up above the jagged rows of slate roofs, towering over the church steeple as if to remind us that there is something bigger even than God, Industry or Faith. Until, on our last day, we stepped out of the castle into the grey drizzled April evening, we hadn’t heard birdsong. But there it was rising above the manicured lawns, issuing from the yew trees and the still bare-branched beech trees on the castle approach.

It was there too in the woods behind the castle, once we’d passed the roar of the water tipping down the weir, down the leat towards the old saw mill, directed by the sluice one way into the black stinking moat, the other towards the canal. Beyond the dramatic sandstone ridge where the castle perched, we found Skipton woods and its ancient and sloped acres of dark green wild-garlic, pungent even before its starry white flowers opened. We learn that the word ‘Craven’, the district containing Skipton, comes from the celtic for garlic, ‘crec’, in Welsh. On a Woodland Trust poster on a noticeboard we read, 

‘Spring isn’t all about the bluebells – come and see the wild garlic!’

“I wish we could,” I say to Dad, “it’ll be incredible!”

“We can imagine it,” he says, “because we have imaginations.”

Ales and architecture

But we have come to Yorkshire for the ale as well as the architecture. We find our favourite pub in the Castle Inn, at the top of the town sitting alongside the church and (actual) castle. It draws a regular crowd of locals; families celebrating birthdays, office workers and workers in high-vis and utilitywear who stand at the bar, and of course, tourists, like us. We try the local ales; Timothy Taylor’s Landlord, Theakston’s Old Peculier. We drink more than we should and talk and laugh, enjoying our easy companionship and the camaraderie of a pub full of people. A funeral party sits at an adjoining table and we shuffle up to make room. A young, skinny man in a suit edges next to me as his friends and family draw round. Auntie Julie arrives, taking her place at the top of the table. Auntie Julie is small and wears her greying hair short and her glasses big. Her voice, when she speaks, is powerful, honed by decades of fag smoke. 

“It were a fitting bookend,” she proclaims of the funeral, “now we can all move on.” The group makes agreeing noises.

“Yer granny hasn’t been well,” she says to the man next to me. “Course, she give up after your Grandad died. I was with her. And your mam. She weren’t good for a while you know.” 

“I know”, he replies, “I saw her. She looked like shit.”

I think that Sally Wainwright is a brilliant writer, but I also think that the people of Yorkshire can pretty much write their own lines. In fact, I’m sure I’ve read her saying just that.

The Craven museum is full of wonderfully curated stories about its people. We read the story of the Hebden hoard, about the Roman legionary who buried his month’s salary but never returned to claim it, wondering what became of him while imagining The Detectorists, Lance and Andy, doing their discovery dance in the field. We read about Arthur Reginald Smith the famous watercolour artist, undone by his fascination with the beauty of rivers, drowning as he tried to capture the wildness of the Strid. We read rare diary entries from the 1860s of a cotton-weaver, Richard Ryley. In it he tells us how the American Civil War stopped the supply of cotton for 3 years, leading to a lack of work in the town, poverty and hardship. Richard died from poverty and lung disease, probably caused by inhaling cotton dust, at the age of 43. I think of the exploitation of the people harvesting the cotton fields, the exploitation of the mill workers weaving it into textiles, of all the layers of exploitation necessary for industry, war and wealth, and wonder again how far we have come.

Returning to the watershed

We make our way back down country towards Exeter in the midst of the Easter weekend rush. There are harried exchanges between strangers about seat reservations, bored children kicking at backs of seats. To everyone’s frustration the tea trolley remains stuck, tea-less at the front of the train. Separated from Dad, we watch the country unfold in reverse alone as we head home. I’m relieved to get off the cramped and overstuffed train at Exeter to make our final connection. Looking between the people on the platform I feel a strange rush of familiarity amongst the strangers’ faces. Maybe I did belong here after all?

“I’m glad to be back’, I say to Dad. “Perhaps, after all my fuss, Devon really is my home.” He smiles and nods as he drinks his tea and I pass him a chocolate digestive from my bag.

I am glad too, to see the rolling green softness of the Creedy valley again, knowing that at home in my garden I will be surrounded by birdsong. As we pull into Crediton and the watershed comes for us again, I tell Dad that I’m going to miss him. 

“Yes”, he says, with a lack of sentiment of which the people of Yorkshire, (which is, let us remember, the place of his birth), would feel proud, “it’s funny isn’t it?” and I know that he will miss me too. 

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6 thoughts on “Watershed

  1. This is fabulous, Ysella. I loved reading it and could picture every bit. Was that chef real? What a character!

  2. Loved this, Ysella. I like the way this travelogue is so much more than simple aesthetics and the way you find connections between people, between places, between the passage of time.

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