Category Archives: Society

Yorkshire turf wars and rock cakes

I remember my Dad making a turf fire in the garden …

He’d start by just constructing a small mound of dry paper, twigs and other combustibles; then set it alight and gradually add turves around it, grass side downwards, until it was transformed into what looked like a pyramid of earth. It was a very useful means of disposing of a large quantity of grass which had grown where it was, for instance, covering soil needed for cultivation. The turves kept the heat in and (presumably) just enough oxygen seeped in to maintain combustion. The most memorable thing about it for me was that it just kept burning for days on end, usually with a thin wisp of sweet-scented smoke curling around the top of the ever-growing pile, with occasional flare-ups. At the end there was a large pile of useful, weed-free ash, which could be spread around the garden and acted as a cleanser (or so I was told), whilst adding valuable nutrients such as potash.

Now that was back in Wales, but I was reminded of those fires when I came across this postcard in our family archives. It shows an indoor turf fire – with a remarkable caption: “Turf fire at Huckaback, Castleton, Yorks, which has not been out for 70 years (1910)”.

If ever proof were needed that turf fires can burn for a very long time, this is surely it; except that there used to be one in The Saltergate Inn in Teesside which is reputed to have burned continuously, until fairly recently, since the 1730s!

By chance another postcard caught my eye with a related subject. This one is captioned “THE TURF BAKE KITCHEN SLEIGHTS”, Sleights being a village in North Yorkshire, located in the Esk Valley in the postal region of Whitby.

Despite my best efforts, I haven’t managed to find out how common turf cake kitchens were – whether they were “a thing”, in current parlance – but I’d be surprised if there wasn’t a large number of them back in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Yorkshire. The Foods of England Project website, whilst helpfully describing how turf cakes were made, also points us in the direction of a wonderful quote from the utterly charming Yorkshire Painted And Described by Gordon Home: “I stepped into the little parlour, with its sanded floor, and demanded fat rascals’ and tea. The girl was not surprised at my request, for the hot turf cakes supplied at the inn are known to all the neighbourhood by this unusual name.” So it seems that turf cakes are directly related to what are nowadays known as “fat rascals”, similar to both rock cakes and scones.

(By the way, for anyone interested in the history, cities, towns, villages, ports and beautiful countryside of Yorkshire, I thoroughly recommend a visit to the Project Gutenburg Yorkshire Painted And Described ebook, which is freely available online and contains some twenty-five chapters and thirty-one paintings).

There’s a little more information about Sleights Turf Cake Bakehouse on the Facebook page of Rustic Baking Co Ltd, a small artisan bakery based on the edge of the North Yorkshire moors near Whitby. who also point to the link to fat rascals. But here the plot thickens …

In 2017, in what you might call a turf war, a small cafe in Whitby, Sandgate Coffee & Delights, was taken to court by Bettys Tea Rooms, who claimed to own the trademark in Fat Rascals. Bettys Tea Rooms won the case, despite Miss Matos, of the Whitby cafe, being able to show that fat rascals were baked on peat fires in Whitby as long ago as 1855.

Fat Rascals at Betty’s of York, UK

Rustic Baking continues to make turf cakes, but they call them Bossy Bettys.

I wonder why?



Fat Rascals at Betty’s of York, UK – Attribution 2.0 GenericĀ (CC BY 2.0) – author Wendy Slattery

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Pomp versus pyres: ways of saying goodbye

This past couple of weeks have brought stark reminders of the huge disparity between the lives – and deaths – of the privileged and the poor in different parts of the world.

It’s said that Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, wanted a simple royal ceremonial funeral rather than a state funeral, with a minimum of fuss. But, as we know, when he died at the age of 99 on 9th April, the event triggered a period of wall-to-wall broadcast, print and online coverage and the implementation of Operation Forth Bridge. This was a pre-planned programme of activities leading up to and following his funeral, which took place on 17th April at St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. Despite Philip’s wishes that his funeral be a quiet, family affair, the combined forces of traditional royal pomp and circumstance together with massive media coverage prompted many of the viewing and reading public to query whether a single individual’s death could really merit such an all-consuming tsunami of global attention.

Philip certainly led a privileged though distinguished life, amongst innumerable other roles serving as a Royal Navy officer in the Indian Ocean during World War II, while India was still under British rule. Lord Ivar Mountbatten, the last governor of India, was Philip’s maternal uncle. In this photo, a boy from India watches the funeral of Prince Philip.

Boy from India

And it was India that became the next main focus of attention for the world’s media shortly after the Duke’s funeral, as the Covid-19 pandemic raced like wildfire through the country. Major political rallies had been allowed; mass religious festival were celebrated with little or no concern for social distancing or other protective measures. Religion and politics took priority over people’s lives. All too soon, hospitals were overwhelmed. The situation became so bad in Delhi that workers were forced to use public amenities such as public parks and car parks outside hospitals to build makeshift funeral pyres as a way of disposing of thousands of bodies.

For over a year, the British public had been presented with nightly pandemic updates with charts showing the latest data, always qualified with the aside that “no death is just a statistic; every one represents a beloved family member”.

And maybe it was this tragic background of suffering both in the UK and around the world that threw the Prince Philip media blitz into sharp relief? If all deaths are tragic in a world soaked in grief and anguish, does it feel right that one man’s death should be projected so powerfully into our homes?

Well, it turned out that many thought not. Thousands voiced their annoyance as nearly all British broadcasters switched to wall-to-wall coverage of the man, his life and times and his funeral, with the BBC receiving a record 110,000+ complaints about its scheduling. All BBC TV and radio channels were completely turned over to various slants on the subject, whether news-based or historical, for two or three days.

TV audiences plummeted. People compared the BBC’s approach with the kind of brainwashing output that might be expected in North Korea and Russia. Although some rushed to the defence of the Corporation, most people seemed to feel that most media had got it wrong. On BBC Radio Four‘s Feedback programme, a gentleman called John Bains called to make a related point: “I’m sure the Duke would have been embarrassed by the [ … ] sycophantic gushing that he would have abhorred”.

What are we left with? Maybe the Duke’s life will be to an extent remembered in terms of the over-the-top media focus it was subjected to? Or maybe not. For in reality how will he be remembered as the decades and centuries roll by? Times have changed so much in this age of mass media and digital archiving. History may not be a good guide to how prominent people will be assessed in the future, whether by historians or by curious members of the public.

By coincidence I was reading a piece by the eighteenth century essayist, poet, playwright and politician Joseph Addison (1672-1719) recently. Unlike me, Addison was quite religious. But I can identify with his attitude to nature, when he says ” … though I am always serious, I do not know what it is to be melancholy, and can therefore take a view of nature in her deep and solemn scenes, with the same pleasure as in her most gay and delightful ones”. He goes on …

addison“When I look upon the tombs of the great, every emotion of envy dies in me; when I read the epitaphs of the beautiful, every inordinate desire goes out; when I meet with the grief of parents on a tombstone, my heart melts with compassion; when I see the tomb of the parents themselves, I consider the vanity of grieving for those whom we must quickly follow; when I see kings lying by those who deposed them, when I consider rival wits placed side by side, or the holy men that divided the world with their contests and disputes, I reflect with sorrow and astonishment on the little competitions, factions, and debates of mankind. When I read the several dates of the tombs – of some that died yesterday, and some six hundred years ago – I consider that great day when we shall all of us be contemporaries, and make our appearance together”.



Image credits

A boy from India watching the funeral of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh on 17 April, 2021: author UkShah2004 –

Joseph Addison: public domain



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