Book review: A Boy’s Own Dale by Terry Wilson

For a working-class boy growing up in the Yorkshire Dales in the 1950s, necessity often proved to be the mother of invention.

And there was no child more resourceful or adaptable than Terry Wilson, the free-spirited, quick-thinking and nature-loving lad who just couldn’t stop dreaming up new schemes.

Whether he was ‘outfishing’ the adults with his home-made rod, grouse-beating for the lady of the manor, helping to bring in the hay in exchange for the right to shoot rabbits or growing prize vegetables, Wilson’s inventive mind created a life of outdoor adventure.

He tells the magical story of his idyllic and enterprising childhood in the beautiful countryside near Settle in this affectionate, funny and entertaining memoir illustrated with superb line-drawn sketches by Don Grant.

Wilson’s father died when he was very young, so he was raised by his mother, grandmother and grandfather.

Grandad earned the cash and Grandma’s job was ‘to get the best out of it’ and reward the breadwinner with his favourite supper – tatie hash – every pay day.

After 50 years as a stoker at the local gasworks, retirement didn’t suit Grandad so two weeks after leaving he was back at work making coffins for a local joinery firm.

Wilson’s family was cricket mad...while Grandad toiled at the yard, Grandma listened to matches on the radio and recorded every ball on the back of an old envelope so that he wouldn’t miss a thing.

In fact cricket was Grandad’s language; when his Great War pal and neighbour died before him, the old man remarked sadly: ‘He’s put me in as last bat.’

The young Terry, meanwhile, was roaming the hills and dales, ‘often alone, but never lonely’. He knew the names of every flower, every bird and every fish, and spent every moment he could in the great outdoors.

So adept did Terry become at catching the best trout that the ‘posh’ fishing club offered him free membership until he left school provided he only fish in their stretch of the river, and his home-grown two-foot long runner beans won first prize at the prestigious Southport Show.

Not all his ventures were successful - mushroom-growing, guppy-breeding and turning terrapins into souvenir ashtrays were all doomed to failure.

But at the age of 11, Terry’s life took an upward turn when he became a day boy at the prestigious Giggleswick public school thanks to passing the entrance exam and a bursary left by a local man to give a few local lads a flying start.

‘Not the gasworks for him,’ muttered Grandad as the boy set off for prep school with his new bike and saddlebag.

Now Terry’s long school days – 8am until evening prayers ended at 9pm – revolved around bells, learning Latin, school traditions, struggling with armfuls of books, playing football and cricket and enjoying winter rambles.

It was just the start of a new adventure for Terry.

Written with a dry brand of Yorkshire humour and a deep respect for the landscape and its people, A Boy’s Own Dale is a moving evocation of another time, another place and a gentler, more forgiving way of life.

(Ebury, paperback, £6.99)