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The sounds and smells of the season fill the steep streets of Grassington as the Dales village prepares to celebrate. Penny Wainwright reports
You can bet someone in the family will be given an electronic gizmo or battery-operated childrens toy this Christmas, yet most of us still hanker after traditional festivities. Of course, Charles Dickens is largely responsible: his descriptions of plum pudding and good cheer have become the image of the perfect Christmas.
All the Dickensian atmosphere you could want this month is in Grassington, where, on the three Saturdays before Christmas, the streets are thronged with people. Thronged? Jam-packed is more like it.
We get about 10,000 visitors on each of the Saturdays, says Angela Jackson, who helps co-ordinate the event. The figure isnt just wishful thinking because, as Angela explains, 100 coaches pre-book and they know that 1,000 cars park at Cracoe quarry over the course of the day.
People come from all over. Theyve set off at 5 a.m. from Exeter, Scotland and all corners of the country. Some combine it with an overnight stop and go to another market on the Sunday, such as Skipton or Lincoln or maybe Meadowhall at Sheffield.
Such dedication on the part of visitors must mean that Grassington has got the mix right. First priority for most is to buy presents and that means an opportunity for local organisations to raise funds. Youll find homemade cakes, jewellery and gift boxes (including some for the dog), Christmas-cracker toys and nativity sets, while the local rugby club runs a popular barbecue. Up at the Devonshire Institute theres an indoor craft fair: Forty stalls with copious quantities of Christmas gifts, is how Mel Wynn, chairman of the trustees, describes it.
Its the sounds and smells that help create the Christmas atmosphere at the festival. Your nose will lead you towards a hog roast, chestnuts and mulled wine, all to the sound of brass bands and singers, theatre groups and Morris dancers, who perform throughout the day.
By four oclock, its dark enough for the torchlight nativity procession in which Joseph leads Mary, on a donkey, round the village where they are told theres no room at three of the pubs en route. The different denominations of churches together then lead community carols to the accompaniment of a brass band, a cockle-warming sound in the middle of winter, said Angela. Everybody knows the carols and its a really good ending to the day.
But while the streets become convincingly Victorian for the Dickensian Festival, behind the towns traditional stone frontages lays some startlingly cutting-edge technology. Grassington is to be first in the area to use Telemedicine (and were not talking Casualty here.) The new facility is currently being installed in the villages brand new resource centre-cum-community library, The Hub.
Andrew Colley, volunteer manager, explains: People whove been to Airedale Hospital and are already patients will be able to have their follow-up appointments with the doctor by TV link. It will mean that people in Grassington, and further up the Dale in Kettlewell and Buckden, instead of going all the way to the hospital in Keighley, where they have to pay for parking or organise a lift, can come here.
A nurse will be on duty to operate the cameras, take blood and so on. The system will be trialled in various areas of medicine. Airedale NHS Trust already supplies a Telemedicine service to prisons, thereby saving money and avoiding the disruption of escorting prisoners to hospital appointments.
Most of The Hubs ground floor is given over to a new library thats replaced a mobile one. A dedicated childrens section looks welcoming with a carpeted floor, elephant rug Theres always an elephant in the room, quips Andrew and a large stuffed dog. I saw a child the other day with their arm round the dog, reading it a story, said Andrew. Its difficult to see that happening in a mobile library.
We also promote and issue tickets for local events Gervase Phinn is giving a talk at the Institute on December 9th and soon well be advertising local jobs and have art displays. The Hub has had support from Yorkshire Forward, Rotary and the Craven Trust but now it aims to be self-sufficient. Income is already coming in from letting office space upstairs.
Given its beautiful setting in the Yorkshire Dales, where life has the potential to be an idyllic contrast to urban stress, it is little wonder that Grassington was chosen by Channel 4 to be the location for a new series called The Village, based on a competition to win a house and start a new life. Executive producer of the series, Jamie Isaacs, describes Grassington as a unique and special place. It has a warmth and character unlike any other village I know.
Its the local residents who decide which of the 12 competing families should win. A weekly vote for which of two families is likely to contribute more to village life is encouraged by the chance to win 500, divided equally between the winner and a charity of their choice (The Hub a favourite). We should find out who the newcomers are at the end of the eight-week series early next year.
Inevitably there were mixed reactions to filming in Grassington. Mel Wynn says hes in favour: Anything that can bring footfall to the village must help. Or, in the words of another villager who came round to the idea after initial scepticism said, We need to let everyone else know this is the best bloody village in England!
Diane Lowe moved to Grassington from the Midlands six years ago. It was a desire to have a lifestyle change. Rather than be dictated to by an employer we wanted to buy our own business.
Diane and her husband bought Grassington Lodge. Id never run a B & B before, but I took to it like a duck to water! Being reasonably well travelled, I knew what people would want and Im a people person. I enjoy advising guests on local restaurants and activities.
Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe didnt need to ask her advice when he was staying, however; he was busy filming Woman in Black this autumn. Diane did get to be photographed with him though and made the front page of The Craven Herald.
What I specially like about living in Grassington is its very, very strong sense of community, says Diane. I was an off-cumdun six years ago, but then I went through a period of personal pain when my husband and I divorced. Wed bought another business, Grassington House [now under different ownership], so I was left with two businesses. I knew I would be under scrutiny but there was never anything malicious. I had a good support network.
My first Christmas here I was absolutely agog! I couldnt believe so many people would want to come to our little village. Nothing could be as quaint as Grassington Square at Christmas. The beauty of the cobbles and the old buildings, its just like a picture postcard.
Diane has guests booking from one Christmas to the next and she actively encourages them to enter into the Victorian spirit and dress up. They love it, the locals welcome them that much more.
Getting there: By car, the B6265 from Skipton or the B6160 from Bolton Abbey, (both about 10 miles). Its a 25-minute journey by bus from Skipton (six a day) or 50 minutes from Ilkley (five a day).
Where to park: Normally, pay-and-display in the Yorkshire Dales National Park car park. NB There is no parking at Grassington (even for disabled) for the Dickensian Festival. Instead use park and ride at Swinden Quarry between Cracoe and Threshfield on the B6265 (6 per person bus return).
What to do: Theres a wide choice of shops and cafes in the village and its popular walking country. More information from the Yorkshire Dales National Park Centre, next to the car park and at www.yorkshiredales.org.uk.