So what about this place I was housesitting? What was it like? What did I see? Did I meet any residents? Was it dramatic? Boring? Romantic? Unremarkable? Let me tell you about Myton-on-Swale.
First, you get to Myton-on-Swale by leaving the highway and turning onto ever smaller roads until finally you’re on a single track road no wider than 8 feet with lovely, tall hedges on either side. Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit. I think the single track roads are 10 feet wide. And the last section of your drive to Myton is actually not hemmed in by tall hedges. But a LOT of the surrounding roads are exactly that – narrow, windy roads that thread their way around agricultural properties and on which you are supposed to drive at a crazy speed until you happen to see another car coming straight at you. At which point you both slow dramatically while you judge whether they or you are closer to a pullout that allows enough width for passing. ACK! I also learned that unlike our generally directional main roads, the roads here in Yorkshire are like a network of veins, spreading out equally to all locations, connecting tiny towns and hamlets by traversing around great swaths of agricultural properties. So you can get anywhere by taking one of several routes, all of which are equally indirect. All about you are signs to all these tiny places, too. So you don’t see a sign for a city, like York. You see a sign for Dalesby or Cottageborough or Thistleby or Hampton. None of which are where you are trying to go. It’s the kind of place that residents know like the back of their hand and visitors cannot begin to comprehend. (Ha! Much like Santa Fe… ) Can’t tell you the number of times I thanked my lucky stars for that GPS Heather loaned me. However, relying on the GPS meant that I never really understood where I was at any given time. I didn’t have a sense of the larger environment or where things were in relation to each other.
But Myton itself was easy to be in and delightful to look at. Called “on-Swale” because it is a village along the River Swale, Myton is just a small collection of homes along a single street. It is surrounded by the lands belonging to Myton Hall, a great manor home just a mile or so down the road. (Yes, feel free to think of and compare it to Downton Abbey. Not as large perhaps, but certainly similar.) The homes at Myton-on-Swale were originally built by the owner of the great estate to house the people working for him. Residents were carpenters, housekeepers, farm workers, smithy, cooper, and of course, local pub owner. The homes were owned by the estate and “let” to families as a perk of employment. I can’t recall the exact title of the landowner at Myton – whether lord, baron, etc. I do know that eventually the family left the property and it fell into private ownership. Much of the property also sold into private hands to become the surrounding farms (not owned by aristocrats but still substantial landholdings in themselves). Only a couple of the village homes are still owned by Myton Hall. The rest are owned now by the individual residents. However, villagers still relate to the owners at Myton Hall in a way that reflects the old aristocracy. They know about the family there and what’s going on with them. It’s the big house, still seen as important and representative of the area. Villagers are the regular folks that get to live nearby. One does not trespass on the property of the landowners. There are specific walking paths that allow people to explore the area. They are marked as public rights-of-way. All else is basically off limits. I once wandered onto a portion of the Myton stables, looking at the beautiful old brick buildings and curious to see if they were still in use. I was stopped firmly by a gentleman coming ‘round the corner and told in no uncertain terms that the public was not welcome on this working farm. (Whoops! Ignorant American here. Just wanted to see the cool buildings. Sorry!) I also received a stern look from someone when venturing down to the other end of the village to find myself on Myton Family Farms, another huge property owner and working farm. Again, sorry. Just looking around!
In contrast to the propertied landowners, the local residents were quite friendly and welcoming. Their church, a beautiful little thing, is always open and used by the community for a variety of gatherings. People walking dogs or jogging or working outside waved hello. Some even knew about me through the local grapevine, asking whether I was comfortable and needing anything. When my internet went out mid-week, I consulted with the neighbors. They called another neighbor who came over right away to see what he could do to help. And the next day, yet another neighbor came by because she heard I’d not had internet or phones for two days. None of us could figure out the problem, but it was loov-lee to have all these people coming by to check on me. I spent a couple chunks of time working at Terry and Julie’s house next door. They were wonderful, sharing history, books and stories with me. They made me feel very comfortable, telling me to “pop ‘round” anytime at all. I got to explore their backyard and learn that most of the village homes had long, narrow back yards that reached all the way to the River Swale. In earlier days, everyone had a dock back there. Merchant barges worked their way up and down the rivers offering and/or delivering goods to residents down at the river’s edge. Lots going on around the area too. The yearly village festival in nearby Helperby was coming up and flyers were everywhere. A fishing competition took place in Myton-on-Swale the morning I left.
I also took several walks in the area. Having just had my ass kicked by the ladies on our Hebrides trip, I didn’t want to become completely lethargic while housesitting. Sometimes I walked in the morning, sometimes in the evening. I loved wandering past fields of sheep and crops growing in the warm summer air. I explored behind the village, following the river as it twisted and turned. I took binoculars with me so I could see the birds coasting over the fields, hunting for mice and rabbits. (Think I saw both kestrels and buzzards. I always thought buzzard meant vulture, but actually they are a hawk and look much like our own resident Red Hawks.) I spent time trying to differentiate between all the black birds I was seeing. Which is a crow? Which is a rook? Is that a raven? Are ther ravens here? Which is a blackbird? Which is a hooded crow? I identified the source of that strange sound I always hear in the background of British television shows. (Answer: a magpie.) I wandered under huge trees, imagining myself a Druid. I passed acres of poppies and campion, nettle and brambleberries along the walkways. The houses and fences of the village were abloom with roses and every imaginable flower. Green, green, green. I got to look in at the old water pump installed during the previous century by the lord (?) at Myton Hall for the village occupants. Myton-on-Swale even boasted an extant red phone booth! It’s now a free library where people leave books and anyone can add, take or borrow from the collection.
The nearest village was perhaps 5 miles away: Helperby. Population? Hmmmm…maybe a few hundred? You’d be driving along on your single track road, high hedges on either side of you, then suddenly turn a corner and be among a handful of stone or brick houses and see a village name on a sign. Two seconds later you’d be through the place and back on your single-track-with-surrounding-high-hedges road, only to come across another tiny hamlet 4 or 5 miles down the road. Or you’d see a side road leading to another two or three tiny hamlets. Tiny hamlets everywhere! And in between, big, broad fields of wheat and potatoes and grazing sheep and cows and old stone farmhouses and stables. The Vale of York in all its glory. Really, really beautiful.
It could have been a lonely time for me there in Myton-on-Swale, if not for the friendliness of neighbors. It’s not like a housesit in the city, where you’re out the door and at a coffeehouse or public park in five minutes, lots of people here and there and all around you. A housesit in a rural area is quite different. Lots of quiet and lots of beauty. But also isolated. You could not have been here without a car. Luckily, I had a car. Not just because I was way out in a rural area, but also because I had a lot of places to go. I was there to scout, visit, find out and investigate. And so I did.