It started at Usha Gap


In the early 1980s, I took my 13 year old nephew, Nicholas, camping to Usha Gap, near Muker in Swaledale. A field across the road from a farm. Grandma was in charge and gladly sold milk and eggs. In the barn, next to the house, there was a toilet and a sink with one cold water tap.

Nicholas was a slim blonde-haired good-natured scouser who could be hard work. The planning of the daily itinerary was brief, unhelpful and placed the responsibility firmly on my shoulders.

‘What would you like to do today?’

‘I don’t know, what do you want to do?’

‘I’m not sure, what would you like to do?’

It could have gone on, like pi, recurring for ever.

We walked a bit and went to the pub a bit but mostly we played with a ball; millions of sets, overs and halves. Well lots of them anyway. We hadn’t many coats so the pitches were marked out with spare tent pegs and bits of string. A battered portable chair did for wickets. He was a natural attacking bat who tended to miss my consistently pitched-up bowling. I tried to convince him that there was virtue in the forward defensive, but it was an innings victory to me. One-nil. Soccer went the other way. One-all. At tennis we had a contest. We both made mistakes and cheated.

‘I thought we said that clump of grass was out?’

‘In your dreams.’

‘That was in.’

‘No it wasn’t, thirty-forty.’

I thought of Brian Glover and said, loudly, ‘And it’s the young black curly haired MacEnroe serving for the match. It’s been a titanic struggle, four hours and five sets, and its down to this.’ Have you noticed how unnerving this can be, especially to a vulnerable teenager who thinks you’re a bit weird? Another flashing cross court drive goes long, and its two-one to me. I run and weave with arms outstretched like an aeroplane. I punch the air, ‘Yes.’ Nicholas looks for somewhere to hide, just in case someone might be watching.

In fairness to Nicholas, he’s always appeared a bit preoccupied, someone lost in a land where the signs are in chinese. There is a moment at our wedding captured on film of a small boy peering around the folds of a bridesmaid’s dress and seeing a land of giants as if for the first time.

Do all teenagers eat enormous amounts? We took in a bar meal at the local pub, The Farmers Arms. Sausage, egg and chips with extra peas. Standard fare, a plateful, and not a lettuce leaf or a slice of tomato in sight. I’m still wading through mine when Nicholas brings me up to date with how he’s feeling,

‘Er, Dave, I’m still hungry.’

Is this a statement of fact, a request for a second helping or the opening move in pudding negotiations? I suggest he could have some of mine. This clearly offends some sense of good form,

‘No, you eat it.’ He shuffles around on his hands.

‘Do you want another dinner?’

The barman never turned a hair. The murmuring banter of the domino school in the corner stopped as the second plate of sausage, egg and chips arrived. I browse the notice board, and try to look nonchalant: Muker Silver Band’s coffee evening fund-raiser, cottage vacancies, a production of Frankenstein in the civic hall.

We get back to the tent, “Are you putting the kettle on, Dave?”

‘There’s plenty of juice.’

‘I fancy a pot noodle.’ I take a moment to think about a pithy comment, decide against it and put the kettle on. He introduced me to the pot noodle that week. A delicacy I’ve since managed to resist.

We did lots of other stuff – walking we came across a sheep fold, full of sheep as it happens. These things are usually empty. A sweaty bloke in a grubby shirt was cutting off the fleeces. We ran up to Angram, a mile steeply uphill. Nicholas clearly had the edge, until the last fifty yards. He seemed to give up; did he lack the confidence to finish me off. He certainly had the fitness.

Walking over Calver Hill and down to The CB. Cloudless and waterless. Grateful rehydration. Shivering and unwell. Sleepless night. Next morning, ‘Let’s go to Richmond.’ Something for the lad to do while I rest, read a book and try to recuperate. In the lee of the castle, rock pools, Nicholas in wellies, T-shirt and shorts, catching tiddlers in a glass bottle. We needed bread and other stuff to eat. An effort getting up to the square, sweating profusely and suddenly I was back to normal.

We went to see Frankenstein in the small village hall. We thought we were on time, but, on our arrival, the hall was in total darkness. The woman at the door reassured us we still had five minutes. We felt our way to last two seats at the back, vaguely aware that fifty or so people were already crammed in. The stage was a dimly lit curtain at the other end of the hall and once the performance had got going and my eyes had adjusted, I realised they’d cornered the market in army surplus black-out material. The sort granny and mum made into dresses after the war.

The sixth form of a posh school from the West Riding were on tour. The storm was good. Bashing a tin tray with a half brick is great for thunder. The good doctor had a broken leg and delivered his lines from wheelchair. What a trouper. These toffs can cut it.

Next day, we visited the The Tan Hill pub, of Ted Moult and Everest double glazing fame.

“I’ve got this thirteen year old with me, can he come in?’

‘Aye, as long as you take him away with you, when you go.’ Nicholas laughed.

We didn’t do Muker Silver Band’s fund-raising coffee-morning.

Must have been odd to be away with your uncle, not your dad but not a mate either. You have to behave, but you don’t. He’s never said but did he have a week of confusion? The blonde locks have gone now. They pay goodness knows how much at the barber’s to have stubble on their heads. He looks like a cross between a French Legionnaire with attitude and a football hooligan banged up after a round dozen lagers.

But looks aren’t everything.

We’ve stayed at the farm a few times since. Even took the caravan once. We were disturbed one morning by the intermittent whoosh of a flame-thrower. He landed right next to us. Clear blue sky, sunshine, an outsize picnic basket and a large droopy balloon.

Nicholas is his own man now, still a little bemused in the land of giants. Maybe it’s his twin boys. A major cause for preoccupation I would have thought. It may be a while yet before he has that twinkle in his eye his uncle had all those years ago, ‘You’re not quite ready for me yet, kid.’