Life working on the land and in the mines of the Yorkshire Dales was not always ‘nose to the grindstone’. Even the poorest members of society had their own forms of entertainment. Most were communal. We have little or no evidence for these sports and pastimes until the 18th century when writers began to record aspects of ordinary daily life. Adam Sedgwick wrote about life in 18th century Dentdale where women met in each other’s houses to knit, but at the same time sang and told each other stories. A poem from Grassington about a notorious 18th century murderer called Tom Lee describes how the whole sorry tale began with an argument over a cockfight between rival villages. The site of a possible 18th century cockpit has been found in Stirton and the Upper Wharfedale Museum in Grassington has an original cockfighting trophy along with a pair of the iron spurs that were attached to the birds’ legs. Bull baiting was another communal sport that has left reminders in villages in the Dales, both Askrigg and Grassington have large iron rings set into stones in the ground in their market places where bulls were said to have been tethered while dogs were set on them.
Such cruel sports were outlawed in the 19th century and villagers turned to less bloodthirsty leisure activities. The outdoor game of knurr and spell was common in the 19th century and the Dales Countryside Museum preserves a set of the apparatus used. That game is no longer played but quoits is still a keenly contested village sport. Langthwaite village in Arkengarthdale had new pitches built as part of Millennium improvements to their sports field. Quoits competitions can be seen at many of the summer agricultural shows in the Dales. Shows and village feasts have always provided great entertainment for locals and visitors alike. Some have special show fields such as in Malham and below Kilnsey Crag. Fell races are an important part of these events, such as the ones associated with Hebden Sports and the Burnsall Feast.
More formal sporting activities are represented by the many rugby, cricket and football pitches to be found in the area. Golf was also popular enough in the middle of the 20th century for at least three golf courses to be laid out in Threshfield, Sedbergh and Hawes. The club house for the Threshfield course still stands, although now converted into a bungalow. Tennis was another popular sport among the middle classes and several club tennis courts were built in villages during the first half of the 20th century.
Many adult games were based in the pub and games of darts and dominoes are still played between rival pub teams all over the National Park. Music was also an important pastime. The village fiddler who played at dances was a celebrated member of the community. Working people also sang to entertain themselves much more often than they do today. A gravestone in Linton churchyard carries the following inscription: “In memory of John and Henry Davis, lead miners, late of Grassington, formerly of Foolow, Derbyshire. John died July 8th 1835 aged 54 years. Henry died March 17th 1845 aged 61 years. They are both interred in this churchyard. This stone is erected by a friend, to commemorate their great musical talent. John had one of the deepest, and most extensive, bass voices in this kingdom and Henry was alike celebrated, for his clear melodious tenor voice. Had they lived at this day, when musical talent is so much appreciated, they would have ranked as first, among the musical celebrities of the present time.”
Most villages also used to have a band of some sort. Grassington had a miners’ band in the early 19th century, now long gone. At the pleasure grounds created at Hardraw Force in the 19th century, a bandstand was erected and later became the site of a brass band competition that continues to run annually. Reeth’s Brass Band is still going strong and to celebrate the Millennium a new stone band stand was built on the green in 1997-98.
Done, A & Muir, R (2001) ‘The Landscape History of Grouse Shooting in the Yorkshire Dales’ Rural History Vol 12: 2 pp195-200
Goldthorpe, Ian (1998) Grassington Towards the Millennium Grassington: The Dales Book Centre
Sedgwick, Adam (1984) Adam Sedgwick’s Dent Sedbergh/Dent: R F G Hollett and Son/David Boulton
Walker, Peter, N (1991) Murders and Mysteries from the Yorkshire Dales London: Robert Hale