From off cum'd 'un to Dalesman in only 21 years

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The farmer next door has billeted some handsome and very well- endowed rams in the field behind our house. He says they're there to forestall sneak, early tupping with the ewes, which last year produced lambs in January. Not good news, given the height above sea level we are at Gill Top. The Dales winter is only just getting into its stride then, and the shivering lambs have to be kept indoors.

I am not so sure of the farmer's explanation. I fancy he has quartered these manly beasts close by to make me feel inadequate. If so, he is only too successful.

In the fag end of what the BBC weatherman called "a mini-Indian summer" last week, the rams, a mixture of black-faced Suffolks, Texels and blue- faced Leicesters, lounged in the shade of my back window, bellies out, legs akimbo, ramhood open to the cooling moorland breeze. I half expected one to shout "Sithee, woman, get another can of Tetley's from t'fridge!"

There is no escaping the beasts. In the front field, a mighty black-faced Suffolk languishes alone. He is in solitary confinement for fighting with the others. He got a drubbing, and lies on his side nursing his wounds, looking forlorn and self-pitying, like men do when they are sick. Or think they are. Naturally, my wife feels sorry for the brute. Silly ewe.

Enough of this dismaying anthropomorphism. The good news from Cowling, north Yorkshire, is that an opportunity arises to become an "off cum'd 'un" in our village, pop 2,000, four precious miles inside the border from Lancashire. We are situated a few miles up a tributary valley off Airedale, the dale the tourist people don't talk about much because it is industrial - below Keighley, at any rate.

Cowling was branded "a forlorn place" by a Victorian cleric posted here, and its millstone grit terraces sometimes appear so in the rainy season, which normally runs from January to December. The stone darkens on exposure to rain, giving it a sooty look, though it is quite clean. The mill chimneys are long disused, and few households burn coal. Is this seductive enough? If your nerve is faltering, I should say straight away that the Chancellor of the Exchequer's house is for sale. No, not Kenneth Clarke's Dorneywood, and most certainly not Norman Lamont's basement, with or without resident sex therapist. I speak rather of 54 Middleton, the end of a pleasing row of cottages backing on to open fields and the Pennine Way. It is the birthplace of Labour's first Chancellor, Viscount Snowden of Ickornshaw, the man whose public sector pay cuts triggered the Invergordon mutiny in 1931. He is still reviled by those with long memories in the Labour Party, which means he must soon be canonised by Tony Blair.

Philip Snowden was born here in 1864, as a plaque on the wall commemorates. The house has been tastelessly modernised since then, with fake leaded windows and "gold effect" bathroom taps. It would have gone for about pounds 150 in the Iron Chancellor's days. Now, the one-down, two-up will set you back pounds 45,000, but it's just the spot to apply for membership as a Cowinheea'der (an inhabitant of Cowling). To confuse things further, the first syllable rhymes with snow, rather than cow, because it derives from the Anglo-Saxon, Coll's Ling, or meadow.

According to Ronald Noon, a retired driving examiner who lives across Gill Lane and writes poetry in the 17th century manner, it requires 21 years residence to graduate from "off cum'd 'un" to Cowinheea'der, which means I have 13 years to go. "When I came here in 1968, it was as though the last century had passed Middleton by," confesses Mr Noon. "They talked their own language. Nobody else could understand them." By that he means the foreigners down the hill in Glusburn and Cross Hills. And it is true. Linguistic experts decided that many of their words were of Anglo-Saxon and Icelandic origin. Within living memory, there was a barter-pub there, where you could drink all night for a chicken.

Not any more. Middleton is being dragged into the 20th century, just before it expires. Fiat Puntos and Citroens line the narrow lane, which offers no place to turn, except the occasional private yard blocked off by chains. Off cum'd 'uns may have arrived, but who said they were welcome?

The deeply-traditional Craven Herald, a Skipton-based weekly ("the voice of the Dales"), carries a satirical column by Curmudgeon. Honest. It recently chronicled the efforts of an outsider, a gin-and-tonic sipping softie, of course, who was something in trade, to become a Dalesman. He is subjected to unspeakable trials involving fly-fishing, ferrets and drinking large amounts of strong ale - Ram's Blood, 5.7 per cent alcohol by volume (there go those rams again), before being allowed to buy his round in fictional Beggarsdale.

Evidently, he had it easy. Even the archetypal tyke Freddie Trueman has to fight to get into this team. Freddie may not have come too far - from what used to be the West Riding - but he is "an offcumden who has clearly made the grade," Curmudgeon rules. He qualifies by quipping on Radio 4: "Anyone who can understand the thinking behind modern English cricket could plait sawdust."

Bill Bryson, the writer who lived until recently in a cottage near Malham Cove, thinks he has made the grade as a Dalesman because he was given "the Malhamdale Wave" by a farmer - a barely perceptible nod of the head, accompanied by one finger raised from the steering wheel in acknowledgment.

Perhaps this is no way to sell Snowden's birthplace, but I thought it only right to give some some of the, er, cultural context to becoming a rural Yorkshireman. When I foolishly mentioned my intention of writing about this subject to a guest of Sir Donald Thompson MP on the Commons Terrace, he retorted: "You can't buy into being a Yorkshireman." Sir Donald should know. He is a serious tyke, a former butcher who once bought 200 pigs' heads for sixpence each.

Snowden was a famous teetotaller, who abhorred the drunkenness in Cowling in the last century, even though his grandfather kept a beer shop named The Grinning Rat. The men, he said, "were in the habit of going on the spree". Things must have improved, for in his autobiography published in 1934, Snowden wrote: "There has been a wonderful change in this respect, and the village is now a model of sobriety." Oh yes? Tell that to Laraine at the Black Bull and she rolls her eyes to heaven. Only a week ago the parish council heard complaints of "noisy disturbances" on the road between the Bull and the village. The matter is in the hands of the police. I can hazard a guess what the noise was about. They were probably laughing at the comments of a regular in the pub who cast doubt on the wisdom of casting the crooner Cliff Richard as Heathcliff in a forthcoming filming of Wuthering Heights just over the moor in Haworth, home of the Brontes. "Heathcliff is a big, brawny sort of fellow. I can't see him in that role," he said. "He might make a Jane."

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