First Steps: Infantile Ambles on The Chevin

Dad used to walk me and my young sister Mary up the Chevin. It was the highest hill we knew. He held our hands as we crossed the busy main road at the edge of our market-turned-manufacturing town, and then he set us free to meander up a steep old lane, past cattle-grazed pastures and into the scrubby woods of oak and birch that clothed the rugged slopes. We scrambled over the tumbled stones of ancient enclosure walls and pushed aside the pale-green stems of bracken, its dew-moist summer fronds brushing the grime of three thousand chimneys from our faces. Forging ever higher, we reached the heather-covered summit and its wind-shaped boulders of Millstone Grit, seven hundred breathless feet above our home. Such were the wild playgrounds of our childhood.

Walking hadn’t always been Dad’s favourite recreation. In his youth he was a keen cyclist and also captain of the football team at Dawson Payne and Elliott, makers of printing machines. His sporting career ended in 1939 when he joined the army and was posted to France with the British Expeditionary Force. By good fortune he was recalled to install anti-aircraft guns on Teesside, thus narrowly avoiding the retreat to Dunkirk. He and Mum married in July 1940, but in 1942 he found himself on a Troop ship bound for Egypt as a member of the Eighth Army, the Desert Rats. He served the rest of the war in North Africa and Palestine, while Mum made munitions in his former workshop. In 1945 they started civilian life with Mum’s parents, a stone’s throw from Dad’s family home. I arrived within a year, Mary two and a half years later. Dad took a new job in Leeds as maintenance engineer for Chorley and Pickersgill, high quality colour printers, but at weekends he shed his boiler suit and became our personal entertainer.

‘Let’s go and get some fresh air,’ he’d say, and we needed no urging, because Dad possessed the gift of transforming a ramble in the country into participative theatre. When autumn mists filled the hollows and water droplets hung from bare twigs, he could conjure a rainbow of excitement out of the fallen leaves.

‘What’s that behind the big rock?’ Dad cried. ‘Look out! Get your weapons ready!’
We quivered like hunting dogs waiting on the next command, gripping our make-believe guns and wooden swords.
’He’s coming out now! It’s Doctor Fu Manchu!’
Dad slipped into a Chinese accent, and we heard Fu Manchu declare his intent to rule the world.
‘You miserable fools,’ he hissed. ‘You puny imbeciles. Get out of my way before I blow you to Kingdom Come.’
Dad replied, ‘You’ll never get away with it, Fu Manchu.’ Then he turned to us and said, ‘Fire your arrows!’
We picked up imaginary bows and fired repeatedly until all our invisible arrows had gone.
‘Curses!’ Dad cried. ‘He’s dodged the arrows.’
The evil Chinaman glared at us and roared, ‘Impudent microbes! Now you will die!’
‘Look out!’ Dad yelled. ‘The hillside’s moving! Great boulders are heaving up out of the earth and rolling down the hill! Run this way!’
We followed him, squealing as we tripped and slid on the rough ground until we reached safety.
‘That was close,’ Dad panted,’ but look what’s coming after us! A great metal monster as big as a dinosaur is crawling out of the hillside.’
We knew we didn’t have the weapons to face this enemy, but Dad told us what to do.
‘Get some more arrows, quickly,’ he said, making us run to the nearest trees. ‘Now, when you’ve got twenty each, climb up onto that hillock and fire them at those rocks that are balanced at the top of the cliff up there.’

With all our energy we rushed to do our duty, but it took every bit of our fire power to win the day, and only when we’d launched our last arrows did the rocks start moving. Each one dislodged another, until the greatest landslide the Chevin had ever known thundered down and crushed the monster machine flat, seconds before it rolled over Dad who had suffered a wound in the leg from a misdirected arrow.

By triumphing in such escapades every Saturday and Sunday, we saved ourselves, Dad, Mum, the town, the Queen, the nation and indeed the world. Later we searched the woods for Dr Fu Manchu, but he had always made his escape. We knew, however, that the day would come when he would re-emerge from the ranks of villains that inhabited Dad’s fertile imagination, to threaten life as we knew it.

We loved the scenes Dad created for us, and today I appreciate how the breadth of his reading, his imagination, and an intuitive understanding of what entertains kids made him such a star. We spent many a happy morning kicking through decades of leaf-mould, climbing rocks and skinning our knees, dodging between goat willow and silver birch, unknowingly building up our muscles and stamina.

One day as we lingered on our wonderful hilltop, Dad broadened our horizons.

‘Do you know,’ he said, ‘we’re only nine miles from the middle of Leeds and Bradford?’
He pointed to the south, where hundreds of mill chimneys puffed black smoke.
‘Look at all that muck. It must be awful to live over there.’
He fed us with Polo mints dredged from the tobacco-tainted depths of his jacket pocket.
‘Now turn round,’ he said.
We obeyed, looking down onto the modest fug of our own little town of Otley, beyond which green pastures bounded by hedgerows and stone walls rose to heathery moors.
Dad said, ‘Can you see the top of that hill, the one that looks purple?’
We said we could see it.
‘That’s called Snowden Moor, and that’s a hill just like the Chevin. Now,’ he went on, ‘if you look, there’s a grey smudge like a cloud just above the purple bit.’
I looked, and I could see what he meant.
‘That’s another hill just like the Chevin, but it’s further away,’ he told us, ‘and it’s bigger.’

That wasn’t easy to take in. The Chevin was big, and special, and it mattered to me. I didn’t need to know about any other hills. At a pinch, I might grudgingly acknowledge the right of Snowden Moor to be a neighbour, but I didn’t want to even consider the idea of anything detracting from the primacy of my Chevin.

Dad wasn’t to be stopped. ‘What you can’t see,’ he said, ‘is the valley that’s hidden between Snowden Moor and that other hill. There’s farms and villages and fields in that valley. And there’s big dams that store water for people in Leeds.’

Suddenly I lost my resentment of the other big hills. The fascinating prospect of a larger world with hidden valleys immediately grabbed my attention.

‘Our valley’s called Wharfedale,’ Dad said, ‘because our river is called the River Wharfe. The next valley’s called the Washburn valley, after the River Washburn. It’s only a little river, but it’s been dammed up and made into big reservoirs. When you’re older I’ll take you walking over there.’

And that’s how I was hooked. I’m not sure how kids today might rate the prospect of walking into the next valley to see big reservoirs - somewhere between horrific and terminally uncool, perhaps – but to me it sounded like an adventure, and I couldn’t wait.

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