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A few days in the life in the North Van-Ridings

Updated: Apr 25

I pootled into England’s largest county at a time when the great moors were at their beige best and the wintry heather had it smothered in a caramelised crust. Not that I would realise the gloriousness of the yonder before me, because I cruised into these blustering lands late in the pitch. The van, however, shook, rattled and rolled on its suspension long after the parking brake had been applied, and it made cooking dinner an especially exciting affair.

As is typical, the following morning saw me awoken by the cat. Nelson, who usually keeps himself comatose down by my feet, stages the great trek north upon the first rumblings of his stomach. He proceeds to gobble at my hair. For anyone who is unfamiliar with the anatomy of a cat: their tongues have velcro-like rasps on them and I have tremendously long hair. What usually follows is what sounds not dissimilar as to a hairball being regurgitated and aimed towards my ear lobe. Usually, he reserves those for the rugs. However, come several hours post-dawn, he is my morning alarm clock. I hit the snooze button, albeit not literally - I simply reclaim my hair, and roll over to face him. In reply, he turns around to give me a close up of his anus.

(yes, I really did just read it wrong!)

According to the cat experts, this is cat-speak for “Hey!” and “I love you!” I have my misgivings. Nelson will then join me to gaze out at the panorama via a small side window behind my pillows. We cuddle as the world comes to life: fuzzy birds flying high, out of focus grasses fluttering away and a horizon that is mostly just a blur. There might be sheep, but they could just as well be blobs of stone. Unless they meander it is impossible to tell. At some point, I’ll reach over for my glasses, click on the heating and then proceed to make the five foot dash to the loo.

I am overjoyed to be in England’s largest county, and were it not for the constant meddling of administrations from as far back to the tenth century, these lands of the wild boar would be half the size of Wales and referred to as the “Yorkshire Ridings”. Alas, the boar was extirpated in the 13th century and the Ridings in 1974.

Subsequently, the region was carved up into the counties of North, West and South Yorkshire, with East Riding of Yorkshire defiantly clinging on to its heritage. The “riding” has no association with horsemanship, albeit Yorkshire supplies the best of hacking country. Rather it derives from the Olde Danish thridding, meaning: “a third”. Hence there was previously no such county as South Yorkshire, or South Ridings. After years of boundary-meddling, and in typical nonsensical English governance, North Yorkshire was allocated the largest of the quartet, over three times the size of the second-placed East Riding of Yorkshire. If this was a piece of Yorkshire Parkin, a sickly-sweet coming together of cake and bread, someone was always going to feel very ripped off.

To the locals, Yorkshire, in all its component parts, remains “Gods Own Country”, home to fat rascals, curd tarts and yorkshire puddings: three of England’s beigest but loveliest yet most calorific foodstuffs. Only two of them are sweet: the pudding, unfathomably, is savoury.

Whilst the rest of the world derides my mother country for its bland, tasteless, soggy, fat-laden beigeness, I can only point out that Yorkshire appears to be responsible for the invention of much of it. Allegedly, the nation’s favourite food is the Italian pizza, at least it is according to a survey undertaken by Just Eat. I also read elsewhere the claim that it was Chicken Tikka Masala but those results came from findings undertaken by an association of British takeaways. It just proves one can’t trust everything one encounters on the interweb.

Yorkshire grub is the origin for much of Slimming World’s list of “syns”. Wensleydale Cheese, Liquorice Allsorts (why, just why?), Seabrook Crisps, Party Rings, Jelly Babies, Smarties (formerly known as chocolate beans), Kit-Kats, Polos, Terry’s Chocolate Orange (which he was good enough to share), Quality Street, After Eights, Fruit Gums, Pontefract Cakes, Aeros, Jelly Tots, Whittaker’s Chocolate and, of course, Yorkies are all on the restriction list. Basically, if it’s hanging around on racks near the service station, and it is trying to sabotage one’s teeth, weight and blood sugar levels, it comes from Yorkshire.

For those trying to maintain some kind of diet, Yorkshire is revered for its production of asparagus and rhubarb, an interesting fact I had not previously appreciated. Unfortunately, both of these have extremely high levels of asparagusic acid: the ingredient that has one’s pee smelling incredibly funky within minutes of digestion. Undeniably, this is something one has to bear in mind if one is living in a Shitron. Moreover, neither of them can be eaten

What I yearned for most during my stay in the Yorkshire Dales was the ‘bits’ that can be sprinkled over the country’s national dish: fish and chips. I forgo the fish for dietary reasons, as well as the mushy peas and curry sauce (I’d like to attest that it is my international travels which have refined my taste buds but I may just be fussy). I opt instead just for the flakes of batter to dress the chips, before rinsing the lot in vinegar with a smattering of salt. If such a phenomena as “Chips and Bits” exists outside of Yorkshire, I am oblivious to it.

According to YouGov (trust at your peril), the real first to pip the post in the race to be England’s culinary champion is the chippy supper. Followed very closely behind is “The Roast”, preferably one centering around chicken. Irrespective of the main meat event, no self-respecting roast can be considered complete without the bowl-shaped pancake. The primary purpose of the yorkshire pudding is to mop up the vegetable-infused gravy dregs of the second-best dinner. Without the pudding, it is just a chicken dinner and not a roast. I will brook no argument to the contrary.

Finally, in third place of meals that constitute the English cuisine, also known as dishes that make one fat, it is none other than the

The globally recognised icon of breakfast is a mammoth feast of pork served two ways with various unappetising accompaniments. These typically include fried eggs with snotty top; over-boiled baked beans; greasy mushrooms; black pudding (which is nothing but coagulated blood); cold toast and a single grilled half-tomato for colour. It is mandatory to push the tomato to one side to avoid accidentally imbibing a nutrient before smothering the lot in ketchup. Note well: potatoes should never feature, not even hash browns.

Usually given the constraints of time, it is a weekend indulgence. It follows from the tradition of the gentry’s preparations for going on a horse and hound hunt. They, of course, were riding the horses and accompanied by dogs whose purpose was to sniff out foxes, stags and wild boars. Woe betide the improvident who didn’t then furnish every aspect of the carcass for secondary use. Unless of course, furs are out of fashion, which they almost always are in English culture.

If one has ever tried to skin a culled animal, one knows it demands a great deal by way of exertion, thus demanding the consumption of many calories. That is why the fry up is considered so beneficial - not only does it provide sufficient sustenance to keep one going all morning, but reserves sufficient energy for the skinning. I have never skinned an animal so I have totally made this up. All the same it enables me to post this:

Nowadays, we’ve allegedly dispensed with the hunting, but the eating has yet to fall from favour.

I start my day with cornflakes. Pretty much everyday since shelf-space is a premium in a van. Also, the toaster gobbles up electricity and threatens to overload the inverter. Besides, I have confined myself to a no-bread in the van rule with just one exception: if it is gifted to me which it has been on several occasions.

I then usually either write, do some marketing, or plan a journey. Despite my hamster wheel of routine, I was greatly anticipating my time in the wilds of the Yorkshire Dales and time for me to indulge in its magical ruggedness.

Lonely roads criss-crossed up and over its valleys causing the contents of my fridge to rearrange themselves of their own accord. Thoroughly shaken, not stirred is how my ketchup is served, and all across the floor was how my risotto rice ended up having been improperly secured in an overhead cupboard. Two days running.

To top it all off, I lost a day of travelling trying to find LPG once again. The first service station advertised it but didn’t have it. The second had it, but claimed that on the grounds of health and safety, I couldn’t use it. The third also had it, but unfathomably the dispenser didn’t kick in. No one is empowered to help these days, “because they might get sued”.

A fellow caravanner volunteered himself to help but with no success. Eventually, a kindly attendant decided I was not the litigious type and was willing to assist. He was chatty, and cheerful, and quickly discovered the rig just needed resetting at the inside terminal.

Two days later, I was drowning in head cold, or covid, following some anonymous exchange with mankind.

Man not kind: for four days, I was as floored as my arborio, and as confined to the van as the contents of my fridge. Even the most basic of tasks, such as loo attendance, mine and the cats’, had become a chore of such magnificence that it overwhelmed me.

The cat patiently withstood the boredom. It is the only time I have worried for his welfare since the initial few weeks. He revels in the driving hours, cuddling up against my thigh in the middle seat that is kept especially clear for him. If it is a long day, he might drop down to his bed below the gear stick for a full snooze. I’ve a new contraption for holding on to my mobile phone, one which doesn’t abruptly ping out the handset, periodically concussing the cat. It makes it once again safe for him to catnap by my feet if he wishes.

Because of him, I have also learnt to drive for just two or three hours at a time, pausing only so he can snack. He has now decided that his wet food must come with a smattering of dried biscuits on top. Not separate, nor underneath but sprinkled so some tinker against the metal rim.

He usually nibbles at about half of the contents before loudly announcing his food bowl is empty. I’ve learnt to go for a walk in the hope he might polish off the remainder, but that short walk is often into a service station garage to treat myself to something moreish. The weight that the Shitron has begun to lug around is appreciable.

I’ve also observed how restless he gets if we don’t move for a few days. I have a bed chock-a-block of wand toys, but I find him most playful when I enhance his evening meal with a pinch of catnip. With me gaily chatting away to him, and him engrossed in battering whatever monster he thinks is slinking under the duvet, it’s fair to say that too much confinement has these occupants more than ready for the…

My recent inability to stay awake long enough to tend to his every need meant he suffered. In the midst of my delirium, high up in the moorlands, I recall a red grouse designated the roof of the van as its home. Each time it waddled the length of our ceiling, it set off the cat.

I could only be grateful that at least some entertainment was provided. Once I was back on my feet, albeit stuffed full of laryngitis and chest infection, I mustered up enough energy to drive a few hours, clear out our respective toilets, obtain a shower, and most importantly of all: replenish the van with toilet rolls. I had reached the point of severe rationings - the true indication of an acute illness. Times such as these are, without doubt, the toughest to be alone, lonely and isolated. I was glad to have never been a lone parent.

Notwithstanding all that, I still managed to fall in love with the region. It captured my heart then pissed all over it because it not half rains a lot in April. My arrival in the Yorkshire Ridings coincides with my embarking on my final term of Van Life. The typical inquisitions have shifted over time. It began with a plethora of, “aren’t you scared?” before transitioning smoothly into, “aren’t you cold?”. In this final phase, we have, “aren’t you lonely?”

The season of public holidays rushes in from now on, plunging me further into reclusivity. I now need to hunt down spaces that are best suited for working, thus far from the madding crowds. For that reason, I avoid the coastlines and the renowned beauty spots. Winter, undoubtedly, had me accustomed being submerged in many a sweet spot alone and untethered, leaving me free to appreciate every ounce of England’s wilderness from my desk, my loo and my driving cab.

The crop of Bank holidays have me competing along with all the other caravans and motor homes, tussling over narrow country lanes, mindful of roaring bikers, and patiently awaiting flickers of headlamps permitting me to right-turn onto busy A-roads. Frustrated drivers career dangerously past, near swiping off the nose of the Shitron; others follow so closely that were there not a shadow from their vehicle, I’d have no idea they were there. Come a long weekend, it is nothing short of…

The spring weather stirs up the wildlife and my secluded night spots are frequently interrupted by Volkswagen Polos thumping out a din that most parents would classify as “shit for turning off”. Having successfully, but usually not, executed of the rituals of hand-brake induced tyre-squealing doughnuts, accompanied with the mating calls of revving engines, the teenage occupants proceed to explore the boundaries of their unbridled passion. To be fair, I'm presuming them to be at their horniest in the wee hours of the morning because I have learnt to ensure the van faces away from others’ cars. That said, sometimes I wish they’d avoid accidentally discharging their horns as the lucky scorers grapple with each other and their unyielding car space.

The least they could do is turn the music down, I harrumphed to nobody but the cat.

In some ways, we are all one another’s nuisances on this tiny island even in the vastness of North Yorkshire. One evening I parked up to admire the glorious sunset that the open vales permit, simultaneously chatting nonchalantly to a friend during a rare spell of phone reception. A man in a top of the range Discovery came a-driving by to tell me to be gone. Other mornings, I am awoken by the long blaring of a car horn. On my sick bed, I happened upon an anti-vanlife Facebook group and learnt that the crack of dawn beeping is all part of the hunting. Apparently it is also fair game to throw bread crumbs on the roof of vans. Perhaps in Yorkshire, they throw cake. It’s not half left me suspicious as to the real reason that Red Grouse took such a shining to my van. But then, it was probably just too much isolation turning me into a paranoid….

Oh, and when my cold shifted, and my sense of smell returned, I discovered I had had a gas leak and discharged almost all the LPG. Sometimes, even I wonder how come I don't walk around with my death certificate stapled to my toe.

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