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Editor ready to close a chapter on Old Lady of Skipton: Jack Heald retires next March after 43 years maintaining the 'heartbeat of England' on the Craven Herald and Pioneer. Peter Dunn reports

From his little office in Skipton, 'gateway to the Yorkshire Dales', Jack Heald surveys with dismay the decline of his country's institutions: arguments at Lloyd's, widespread hanky- panky, and the doings of minor royals exposed in shrill tabloid colour spreads.

'I've remarked on this several times in leaders,' Mr Heald said. 'In my opinion, it's a lack of discipline over the country as a whole. It goes right through from the royals down.'

After 43 years with the Craven Herald and Pioneer, 12 of them as editor, Mr Heald is something of an institution himself among the mix of country folk and wealthy incomers who can afford pounds 200,000 for a cottage in a Dales village.

His weekly leaders, informed by a broad Methodism, are famous for their humour, tolerance and an occasional splutter of fire and brimstone. Like most of his paper's 19,500 readership, the editor is a life-long advocate of capital punishment, flogging and national service. On most other day-to-day matters his voice is a steadying influence; 'sensible' is one of his favourite words.

The sense of continuity, preserving the good manners that have slipped away outside the landlocked fastness of the Dales, is the Herald's greatest strength. Its presence on the news-stands each Friday, its front page still devoted after 139 years to small advertisements for Skipton's cattle markets and cinema, is a rebuke to other local papers, decked out in gaudy tabloid clothes.

Sheila Denby, who has doubled as parish clerk and Herald correspondent (at 8p a line) in Grassington village for 21 years, said: 'It's a nice, old-fashioned paper and there's nothing wrong with old-fashioned. We like what we're used to and where to look for things, for the leader and weddings, always in certain places, and with the local news at the back.'

Mr Heald, though occasionally mystified by his correspondent's reluctance to file Grassington's racier news ('I don't want people not speaking to me in the street,' says Mrs Denby, firmly) endorses her broad view of the paper's enduring role. 'The heart of England beats best here,' he said.

It missed a beat or two when the Herald was acquired four years ago by Westminster Press, but the Old Lady of Skipton has weathered the cold eye of London accountants with vigour.

For decades the local directors had shunned publicity, fearful that predators would move in on their little gold mine.

For 50 years the paper had been printed on an old press bought from the Yorkshire Post. Editions were limited to 16 broadsheet pages packed with minuscule type.

'A lot of it was set in seven or six point across ten columns,' Mr Heald said. 'We got a lot of complaints from estate agents because you couldn't tell from the photographs whether they were selling a baronial hall or a back- to-back cottage.

'We'd stuck an extra column on the end of each page so they wanted to be an orang-utan to be able to hold the paper open. Old dears complained the only way they could read it was by putting it on the floor and even then they had difficulty making out the words. I used to placate them by saying, 'There's nothing wrong with the typeface. It's you that's getting older', so the only people happy after that were the opticians.'

Westminster brought in computers, printed a fatter paper in Bradford and, much to Mr Heald's relief, left the old front page format alone. 'It seemed to me to be as simple a way forward, or backward, as you're going to get,' he said.

Since then he has steered the Herald towards broader horizons. An arts column, 'Arty Facts', reflects his wary view of cultured folk. 'I love the Dales, with the exception of amateur dramatics and drama people,' he said.

'If you say 'They're as good as Pavarotti', they say 'What does he know about it?' I say you don't have to be a hen to know when an egg's bad.'

Mrs Denby, a divorcee who runs a cottage bric-a-brac shop in Grassington, recalls a contretemps with her editor when she reviewed an exhibition of Russell Flint's paintings in Skipton. 'Flint painted these rather undressed ladies, lovely draperies of ladies, a bit lesbian-oriented,' she recalled.

'The way I wrote it was not to let anyone know exactly what I was saying, but saying it just the same to people who could read between the lines. And when he read it Jack said 'Dear me, this is a family newspaper' and cut bits out.'

Mr Heald, who remembers one of his predecessors spiking a story because it included the phrase 'bus mounts pavement', says the Herald is moving with the times. The paper ran a sympathetic piece recently about two Aids sufferers, warning school children to use condoms. It also carried a robust headline that said 'Council 'doing bugger all' about pool'.

Political correctness has still to put its feet under the editorial tables of the Herald's office above a stationery shop in Skipton High Street. A sharp letter from a feminist in Kettlewell provoked a famous Heald broadside against the use of the word Ms. 'I wrote that my wife is proud to be called Mrs Heald and my daughter is proud to be Miss Heald,' the editor said.

Trainee reporters are encouraged to write their own leaders, one of which - a defence of New Age travellers - brought him a lot of flak from readers who thought the Herald and its editor had taken leave of their senses; he later defended the young writer in the paper's column, 'A Craven Man's Diary', but there are limits to editorial freedom in the news room.

Relations with Josh Horne, a strong National Union of Journalists man and chief reporter for 10 years, can get a bit tense. 'Josh votes Labour and Jack votes Conservative,' Mrs Denby said. 'And sometimes there's all hell on down yonder.'

A few years ago Mr Horne wrote a leader attacking Margaret Thatcher when Mr Heald was off ill. 'Fortunately my son was working here at the time and brought it home to me,' Mr Heald recalled. 'I said 'Tear it up' and I wrote my own from my sick bed.'

He added: 'The young man doing the page layouts here is a socialist with whom I can agree. Josh and I don't. I think it's healthy that we have people of different political views but I write the leaders here, it's as simple as that. It's my stance as editor. After all, we've a Tory MP with a 19,000 majority in this area.'

His views on punishment are unforgiving and woe betide those who ask him to keep their bad news out of print. 'I've a very quick and easy reply to such people. When my daughter was up for shoplifting her case was in the paper. When I was up for speeding my case was in the paper.

'There were two instances, one a senior police officer whose son was up for stealing whisky, the other a Methodist minister of the church which my wife attended whose son had got into trouble. Both asked that it be left out and both went in.

'Only once in 40 years have I kept a court story out and that was when a police superintendent and a doctor called at my house, independently, and said that if a man who had indecently exposed himself had his case in the paper he would undoubtedly kill himself. So I left it out and I've regretted that decision ever since.

'I tell such people that they should bloody well have thought of the consequences of their action. I sat for a while as a magistrate and my belief is that part of the punishment is the public damnation, if that's what it is - the publicity which names them as having feet of clay.'

Mr Heald retires next March, his 65th birthday, and the paper will undoubtedly be the poorer for his going.

'Being critical, is one of the functions of a local paper,' he said. 'To lead in many respects, to correct if necessary, but above all to represent the people who read it.

'Change is something that comes slowly in the Dales and is resisted almost vehemently. I'd like to think that whoever succeeds me will not radically change the approach.'

Mr Heald pointed towards the ceiling of the Herald and through it to the heavens. 'I've said many, many times that He dealt me a very good hand, an exceptionally good hand,' he said.

'I love the Dales. I love the people. And I love the young reporters I've worked with all these years, all of them.'

(Photograph omitted)