Queuing for fish in North Yorkshire’s Easingwold market earlier this year, I latched on to the conversation of two men, possibly farmers, standing behind me. The early morning mist had begun to lift, revealing bright sunshine for the first time in what felt like months, after endless rainy, cold days. Crop-sowing had been put back by about three weeks, but here, at last, was the warm late-spring sun bathing the cobbled square and market stalls. One of the men said to his friend, in his full-bodied North Yorkshire accent: “Aye, we’ll put up with this.”
I can imagine a similar reaction this week at the news that Yorkshire has been named by Lonely Planet as the third best region in the world, after The Kimberley in Western Australia and the Himalayan region of Sikkim in India. The people of Yorkshire may be famous for their understatement and a default setting often regarded, unkindly, as grindingly miserable. But Lonely Planet is effusive about the three ridings in its Best in Travel 2014.
It is not only the breathtaking open beauty of countryside like the grouse moors of North Yorkshire, or the wild Dales. Lonely Planet also praises the rich arts and culture of its cities – Bradford has become the world’s first Unesco City of Film, Leeds is “fashion-thirsty”, Wakefield has a new art gallery and there are more Michelin-starred restaurants in Yorkshire than anywhere else outside London. To this I would add Salts Mill, a honey-coloured stone former mill turned into a Hockney gallery in Saltaire, just outside Bradford, and the recently refurbished Talbot Hotel in Malton, whose restaurant must be next in line for a Michelin star – if only for its scones.
I’m not from Yorkshire, but I hope the Red Rose side of the North will forgive me for being in love with its White Rose rival. I spent five years studying in Leeds, and now go to North Yorkshire, where my partner’s mother lives, several times a year. I have a longing to start my own hillside asparagus farm in North Yorkshire one day – if only I could be released from London’s grip.
And this dilemma goes to the heart of the issue about our unbalanced country and economy. It is understandable that Yorkshire has been rated third best region in the world. But London and the South-east continue to race ahead in economic growth, jobs, house prices and population – all interconnected pistons in an engine barely touched by recession. Tourism bosses in Yorkshire will be delighted by their new world ranking, but for local people, house prices are flat and joblessness is high in the less affluent areas. Even the well-to-do farmers who queue for fish in Easingwold market are struggling, as they will tell you within minutes of meeting them.
Janet, the farmer’s wife who runs our favourite B&B in the Howardian Hills, had difficulty attracting visitors last year because the Olympics sucked all the tourism to London, and the rain did not seem to stop in 2012. She has seen trade pick up this year, and the Lonely Planet rating will be a further boost, but in nearby villages a pub that closed down two years ago still cannot find a buyer, a grocery shop is on the brink of closure; its post office went a few years ago, replaced by a mobile one, which comes every Thursday. Places need more than just tourists to keep them flourishing: they need a local population to keep growing, creating jobs, and spending, to keep it alive.
Those of us who live in London take for granted the capital’s soaring economy. It is difficult to break free from the capital – for me, I can’t really report from Parliament if I’m living in North Yorkshire, even though you can get from York to King’s Cross in less than two hours. I am fortunate enough to have a foothold on London’s housing ladder, and watching your property’s value streak ahead is a drug habit that is difficult to give up. But at a children’s Halloween party in south London at the weekend, the talk, as ever, was of there being not enough school places to go round, of not having enough outside space for our kids to run free, of traffic fumes building up in the roads around the local park – all downsides of a vibrant capital city.
Critics of HS2 are, rightly, concerned that the rail line will merely boost London and the South-east further, rather than bring prosperity to Birmingham and Manchester. If the government was really committed to balancing transport infrastructure in the UK, it would create a super-fast rail line linking northern cities to each other, rather than seeing the country through the prism of a station platform at Euston, King’s Cross or Paddington.
But it is not only ministers who need to look beyond London: major capital-based firms need to see Yorkshire, and other regions, with new eyes: the BBC was bold to move most of its operations to Salford; Leeds is starting to pick up some business in financial services, but there needs to be more of this. Because Yorkshire will always be beautiful, but it needs more than tourism to help it remain one of the greatest places in the world. Like many regional centres, it needs better public transport, private investment, and maybe a hillside asparagus farm. As they say in Easingwold, “we’ll put up with that”.