THE FAWCETTS OF BALDERSDALE
(From a source discovered since the publication of There was None of this Lazy Dancing!)
Yorkshire Evening Post, Thursday 27 November 1952
“He had music – and death – in his fingers
SAM OF BALDERSDALE LOOKS BACK
By ALFRED TAYLOR
BALDERSDALE lies in that little-known top corner of the North Riding which points like a finger at Westmorland. …It is Sam Fawcett’s country, Sam of Baldersdale, as he is called, retired gamekeeper. The fine resounding title fits him like a glove, for Sam is tall and powerful, though 74 years old and he has never lived outside the valley, where for more than 60 years his home has been at West Birk Hat. His father and his grandfather before him kept the game safe for the gentry on the lonely moors. Now Sam has passed the job on to his son.
Enemies of the Grouse
He rarely shoots at all these days, but once upon a time he had the fastest trigger finger on the mountain. He bagged vermin of all kinds from hawks to foxes. He knew every hole and hideout in the cliffs and gullies. There was no escape from Sam. ‘Now all the vermin I destroy are moles’, he told me sadly. ‘There’s no sport in laying traps.’
A case of vermin occupies the place of honour in the farmhouse kitchen, which Sam calls his exhibition of the ‘Enemies of the Grouse’. The case contains a fine red fox among a group of stoats and weasels, polecats, carrion crows and hooded crows, peregrine falcons, sparrow hawks and kestrels, merlins, jays and magpies. ‘All collected by my father’, Sam explained. ‘You’ll notice that the magpie has a shortened tail. When father sent the bird to stuff, the postman found the parcel rather overweight. To lighten it he cut the tail end off.’ He chuckled, gesturing towards the magpie with his strong, brown hands. Mark well the power of those hands, terror of poachers in the wild old days when law and order in this isolated corner of the county strode through the hills in hobnailed boots, a double-barrelled gun beneath one arm, and answered to the name of Sam.
On winter nights in days gone by those hands were centre of attraction in a hundred farmsteads, cottages and barns throughout the hills when Sam, his gun reposing in its leather straps at West Birk Hat, made music on his English concertina while Baldersdalians danced. He is the last in a long line of Dales musicians, a link with an age that has passed. ‘I could play the tin whistle and accordion when I was five’, he told me in his soft Dales dialect. ‘Nobody taught me. It’s a gift I have.’
His father and brothers were musicians and step-dancers, too. ‘At 84 my dad could dance a hornpipe with the best’, said Sam. ‘We’d men in Baldersdale could step dance with a glass of beer perched on their head. But it’s died out. I reckon I’m about the only one today who knows the steps.’
Hailstones rattled on the kitchen window panes. A big, old fashioned kettle spinning on a chimney hook was breaking into song. ‘When I was young the weather never stopped us dancing’, Sam went on. ‘ ‘Twas every Saturday we gathered in a little hut at Hury, up the Dale. Folks tramped for miles, or came by horse and trap. It was a sight to see, what you could see of it. The only light we had was an old lamp.’
This modern stuff …
‘ ‘Twas nine-eight time they wanted for the old-time sets’, he said. ‘Such tunes as Sir Roger de Coverley. You should have seen them dance the Lancers, Quadrilles, Ninepins, Albions and Caledonians.’
Across the valley clouds were trailing tattered banners through the heather and the wind was driving rain in smoking sheets along the crests.
‘This modern stuff’, said Sam. ‘This standing clasped together, never moving for above an inch or two. That sort of dancing I can’t understand. It has no vim in it. You should have seen a whole room in the old days whirling through a Strathspey. They fairly made the building rock.’
Clouds were creeping lower and the hills were turning black. Baldersdale is far from anywhere and on a stormy night a stranger can get lost. ‘There’s dirty weather brewing’, Sam said quietly. ‘If you have far to go you’d best be getting back.’ There is no proper road out of the valley to the highway above West Birk Hat. I climbed through mud and running water to the point where I had left the car. The wind was screaming down the mountain, hurrying me rudely from the land of old Sam Fawcett, Sam of Baldersdale, the king of West Birk Hat.”