Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Tour Fever – is there any cure for Yorkshire?

What did you do when the Tour de France came to Yorkshire, Daddy? Well, son, it's a day I shan’t forget – it's up there with the Moon landing, Kennedy, John Lennon...

Yes, who could ever have anticipated that some blokes on bikes could so capture the public imagination?

I ask this question from my vantage ten or so days after those blokes flashed across the sight lines of an estimated 2.5 million people in the self-styled God's Own County – just as I find myself wondering if the event would have made such a lasting impression had it been held in, say, Surrey, or Berkshire.

My own answer to the question is No, for from the moment it was announced that Yorkshire had won the event, it was as though a virulent superbug had taken hold: everyone in Yorkshire was catching Tour Fever, for which there was no known cure, other than to permit the fever to break on July 5 and 6. Even then there would be a risk of symptoms lingering for weeks afterwards.

I break my own fever on the morning of July 5 by heading for Yorkshire to stay with friends in Huddersfield. The peloton is due to flash past the end of their road on July 6 but they have already been to Leeds and back to join the throngs at the Grand Départ. They had never struck me as creatures inclined to follow the masses, but such is the nature of the contagion...

Our friends have devised a strategy to extend the sensation associated with the fever breaking – rather than amble to the end of the street, we are to trudge six miles across the moors to a carefully researched vantage above the road over Holme Moss. This will afford us a view of a good mile or so of the route as the peloton powered up the long drag.

Replete with champagne, olives, profiteroles and other tasty nibbles for our piquenique, we enjoy through binoculars several seconds of lean muscled man-machines as the peloton moved as one toward the distant summit.

View of the Tour de France from above Holme Moss

Meanwhile, five Army helicopters have delivered VIPs – surely royalty or government, I'm unsure which – to an unprepossessing field down below us: siren-sounding convoys had passed through and the camera helicopter had circled overhead. Yet, even from our lofty vantage it was over all to soon. Down in the valley, however, they are partying on: some have splashed £270 a head on an all-day exclusive at the local pub, featuring roadside vantage and copious food and drink, while the hoi polloi – many in Lycra – watch the race finish in Sheffield on a giant screen beside the beer marquee in the car park.

Fast forward one week and we meet with the same friends at Laurence and Lizzie Sowden’s delightful Pennycroft bed and breakfast at the heart of the Yorkshire Dales village of Kettlewell.
The Tour may have been and gone, but the symptoms of Tour Fever remain rife: yellow knitted pom-poms adorn trees and bushes; a giant spotted jersey looks down from the fellside, complemented by a giant yellow bicycle on the opposite side of the valley; any piece of wrecked machinery that may once have been a bicycle has been splashed with yellow paint and parked in front of pub or café. Tour Fever has not been cured – far from it.

“We’ve had people getting in touch from all corners of the world,” says Laurence, who expects the Tour Effect to endure through the rest of summer and beyond, as trade remains buoyant. The numbers of bicycles now seems to rival those of the ubiquitous motorcycles that have become synonymous with the Dales in recent years.

This is precisely the impact that Gary Verity, boss of Welcome to Yorkshire, was banking on when he cut his head office staff and instead placed all his cash on an audacious bid to win the Tour for Yorkshire. All this at a time when Government hadn’t got beyond thinking about supporting a bid for the event, let alone which location or locations should have the privilege of hosting it.
Once Verity’s gamble had paid off, the Government was left with little choice to but to throw its own cash behind supporting the event.

So why has such a fleeting visit attracted such deep support in Yorkshire, with whole communities coming together to create Tour artworks and so on?

Well, I think there was tremendous pride in being able to showcase God’s Own County to the whole world. Yorkshire has not existed as an administrative county since 1974, when faceless civil servants far from Yorkshire carved great lumps off all three Ridings. As bits of the old West Riding were moved to the new counties of West and South Yorkshire and Cumbria, others even found themselves reassigned to the deadly rival of Lancashire. Parts of the North Riding were annexed by Durham and the new county of Cleveland; parts of the East Riding by the new county of Humberside. Sentiment and sensibilities were swept aside by modernising expedience.

Some, such as the Yorkshire Ridings Society, have attempted to keep the White Rose in bloom across the 40 years since that fateful day but the “civil war” that some predicted would follow local government reform never happened as grudging acquiescence instead took hold. More recently, however, change has begun: East Yorkshire has re-emerged from the ashes of Humberside, Cleveland is gone and the market town of Yarm has voted to return to Yorkshire from Stockton-on-Tees in a largely symbolic referendum.

The Tour de France has tapped into that Zeitgeist that says that – despite the passage of 40 years – Yorkshire lives on in more than just the name of cricket team and the Yorkshire Dales National Park (which covers much of the area annexed by Cumbria).

From Kettlewell, we take the wild road over the tops into Wensleydale and to West Witton, where we take the opportunity to sample the Wensleydale Heifer, once a rather down at heel local but now small(ish) but perfectly formed boutique hotel and restaurant.

West Witton – whose claim to fame is the annual Burning of Bartle, the mysterious effigy of long-forgotten miscreant – is about as far from the sea as anywhere in the North of England. It is also a long way from Scotland. Yet boss David Moss has built his reputation on seafood and fine collection of eclectic whiskies.

Most notable, however, is the attention to service that is paid by his 35 staff. Rarely have we felt more cared for and the numbers in the restaurant in a small village on a Monday night clearly tell their own story.

You might think that David and Co would also be basking in warm glow of Tour Fever, but no… West Witton was effectively cut off from the outside world by road closures, even though the peloton passed just a few hundred yards away.

“We were very excited till we heard about the road closures,” says David. “In the event we probably lost about £5,000 on the day and £20,000 overall but I guess we’ll some benefits longer term…”
Well, I guess illness hits different people different ways.