By W. R. Mitchell
From a mid-1980s issue of Dalesman magazine. Reproduced with permission.
NOVEMBER is the month in which to burn an effigy of Guy Fawkes, the Yorkshireman found loitering with intent in the cellars of Parliament. I know a Dales village where the effigy of a likeable rogue is incinerated each August. I refer to Owd Bartle, the sheep-stealer of West Witton in Wensleydale. No one truly hates Guy Fawkes and when I quizzed a dozen or so people at West Witton about Bartle, they responded with something akin to affection for the old chap.
Late August is the time for Bartle-burning. The date selected is the Saturday nearest to St. Bartholomew's Day, which occurs on the 24th. Bartle is eventually sprayed with paraffin and incinerated on a patch of open ground. The date may be close to the patronal festival of the church, but this is no Christian occasion. "We have a procession. The atmosphere is so charged, it's like a pagan rite," I was told by one of the West Wittoners. An old lady remarked unemotionally: "What do they want to go making a fuss of a sheep-stealer for?"
The story of Bartle is pure folk-lore, with not a scrap of information to satisfy a historian. The story most often heard is that a sheep-stealer was caught in the act and, being pursued from the heights of Penhill to the edge of the village, met his end. Could the annual re-enactment of the chase, and the sad end of Bartle, have started out some 400 years ago as a warning to other light-fingered folk?
I climbed the hights of Penhill and saw the village in its dale setting. Many a field had been cleared for silage or hay. In pre-Christian times, might there have been a fertility custom from which the Bartle tradition could spring? We cannot be sure. The old chap has even been linked with the Giant said to live on Penhill.
It has been suggested that because local wrong-doers came to trial at about the feast of St. Bartholomew, a special example might have been made of one Bartle. I asked a local man for his opinion. He declined to give it, simply remarking: "An owd chap who kept t' records used to say that t'custom goes back over 400 years. There was a nasty fire and all those records were lost. We've nowt much to go on now..."
Long and Narrow. West Witton was laid out on a terrace on the flanks of Penhill. Being long and narrow might once have been an advantage, but now it can make life difficult for those whose houses overlook the main street. The road is busy; the street is long and narrow. Vehicles enter the narrows at speed. There is much over-revving and gear-shuffling as obstacles like parked cars are encountered, for the impulsive modern driver does not like to use his or her brakes.
I stopped briefly to inquire from a pedestrian about Bartle. An impeded motorist - not a local man, I hoped - indicated his displeasure by blowing the horn. I later avoided confrontation by using the lay-by at the Wensley end of the village, then by obtaining permission to park in a private drive and on a third occasion by reversing off the road to block somebody's garage for 10 minutes.
A man sang the doggerel associated with Owd Bartle - the verse recited annually when an effigy is taken round the village:
In Penhill Crags he tore his rags;
Pen Hill, rising to over 1,800 feet, is a fitting backcloth for a 400 year old who-done-it such as the Bartle story. "Pen Hill looks grand on a summer day, but it blocks out the sun early and we have premature dusks. It's dark and chilly here when other parts of the dale have the sun on them," I was told. The summit of the Hill falls within West Witton parish - the most easterly parish in the Dales National Park. "West Witton also has the high gallop used by racehorses from the stables at Middleham. I bet you didn't know that..."
Pen Hill is an old beacon hill. For the Queen's jubilee, combustibles were lifted to the top by helicopter. I mentioned the fast-approaching anniversary of the Armada. Would the beacon flare again? "A tractor couldn't get up the face of Pen Hill and it's unlikely that we'll charter another helicopter. There is talk of using a gas-burning beacon!"
Walls and Hedges. West Witton stands in a contented countryside. Behind the village, at 600 feet, is a tract of ancient woodland. The characteristic stone walls begin to give way to hedges on the Wensley side of the parish, indicating a change towards the more temperate conditions of the lower dale.
I followed a path through loamy fields. Curlews dipped and called. On one side were mature deciduous trees rather than upstart conifers. The path led me to what remains of the 12th century "Templars' Chapel". Not much remains. Yorkshire landowners and farmers were always quick to use such buildings as a handy quarry. One or two buildings at Swinithwaite have the incongruity of small monastic windows.
The parish population is about 350, including children. Young voices are heard on every hand, which is good for the future composition of the village. With every passing year, more and more retired couples settle here and some properties are used only at holiday-time.
There remain a church, two inns and a post office. Farmers quietly raise cattle and sheep in accordance with local custom, based on the state of the land. Some villagers leave home daily to work in the quarries. Others are employed at a factory in Leyburn or at Catterick Camp.
A fragment of an Anglican cross is among the historical treasures at St. Bartholomew's Church, but the building - though attractive - does not look ancient. I found myself speculating about a stone head set high on the outside of the porch, above an iron-rimmed lamp. As with much else at West Witton, the church is tucked out of sight of the main road traffic.
Mr. H. T. Thornton-Berry, who presides over the West Witton parish council, lives at the 200-year-old hall at Swinithwaite estate - a house designed by the Richmond architect, John Foss, who also built Clifton Castle and parts of Swinton.
It was in a cottage in Home Farm, Swinithwaite, that I met Alan Harker, the Bartle-maker. His father, Jack, had been one of the lead-singers during the Burning ritual. Alan's and Bartle's paths first crossed in the year Alan was married. "I had no spare money, so my wife and I had to stay at home. Jim Ward, nicknamed Fudge, then had the job of making Bartle. He asked me if I would help him. I did help him - and I've been doing it on my own for 35 years."
"Bartle was supposed to be a sheep-stealer. He was chased and caught. They chased him on Penhill Crags. A step lower down is Hunter's Thorn - a thorn bush on the horizon. Capplebank is a farm lower down still. Then you come down Grisgill (pronounced Kirsgill) Beck. That's where he met his end and that's where we burn him." There is a convenient open space here. I noticed, while touring the village, that across the road the name "Grisgill" adorns some council houses.
Bag of Straw. Reduced to its basic elements, the effigy of Bartle consists of a bag of straw, a pair of trousers, shirt and jacket, a pair of wellies, "and a bit of straw round for a head." Bartle is provided with a face mask and a sheep's wool beard. There is also a bit of wool round the back of his neck. "We had the same plastic mask for three or four years, I've got a new one this time."
Bartle is created from unwanted garments in the back shed at Alan's home over a spell of three or four days before the day on which he has his brief life and fiery death. In this technological age, Bartle is now fitted with eyes that light up. I was shown the equipment - bulbs, flex, battery and switch.
On the Great Day, "we take him along to West Witton in the morning and put him into hiding in somebody's garage. He's locked up or someone might take him, just for devilment. It would be sad if we went for him and he wasn't there. Then we set off with him at nine o'clock and march him right down t'village."
Bartle is carried shoulder high by Alan and his brother Robert. They are offered drinks on their way down the village. It's all a matter of tradition. "We're pretty legless by the time we get to the bottom."
John Spencer, who once did the shouting, has left the village now and Alan's son John took over last year. It was being presumed that he would do it again! "Every so oft we stop and shout a line or two of doggerel. Then on we go a bit further. We get a crowd both back and front. When we get to t'finish, we burn him and have a bit of a sing-song - if anybody can still sing!" The songs have a strong Yorkshire connection and include Beautiful Swaledale - also Ilkla Moor, of course.
Alan mentioned the enthusiasm of visitors for the Bartle-burning custom. Several hundred people gather for the walk. Sometimes they are accompanied by a television crew with camera and arc lamps. "We feel like silly blighters, walking along wi' a bag stuffed wi' straw."
Last century, when the population was much larger than it was today; when the villagers lived much to themselves and there were no cars to provide high mobility, Bartle-burning was attended by scenes of great enthusiasm. The local band led the way down the street.
Copper Kettles. Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby recorded that in Victorian times Witton Feast lasted three days and the stalls that lined the streets were lit by naptha flares. Ribbon and copper kettles, which were the prizes for the races, hung from upper windows. Ribbon dances took place at the inn.
Alan told me that Owd Bartle was once transported to his doom in an old hand cart. He does not personally remember it for it took place many, many years ago. He mentioned the Smirthwaite Trust, which bears the name of a rich bachelor who wished to benefit the old folk of his native village. The monies from the trust are distributed each Bartle time. "Payments are made to anyone born here who has attained the age of 70; others must be 75 years old."
This year, the Bartle celebrations took place on Bank Holiday Week-end, ensuring maximum interest, not least from the denizens of the caravan park which lies among the trees at one end of the village. Mrs. Carol Cannell, chairperson of the West Witton Feast Committee, presides over meetings that are formal to the extent that an agenda is devised and minutes are kept, but the meetings are open to anyone who wishes to attend. Muriel Robson is the secretary and Alan Harker the treasurer.
On the Saturday of Bartletide, a cottage show takes place, the classes including almost everything from cakes to tomatoes, from sewing to pot plants, and from novelties like a garden made on a dinner plate to an animal represented by vegetables. The day ends with disco dancing for the youngsters, followed by a disco for the no quite so young. Mrs. Cannell said: "West Witton is blossoming again; we have quite a lot of young ones in the village and have to make some effort to cater for them."
Traditional Pastimes. Those interested in quoits meet behind the Fox and Hounds, but interest is dwindling; quoits are not as well supported as they used to be. Monday opens with children's fancy dress competitions that take place in the village hall (if wet) and if dry at Mill Dam, near the Wensleydale Heifer. Mill Dam used to be a duckpond that flooded the road.
In the afternoon, the children play wallops - a variation on the skittles theme, with sticks rather than wooden balls being thrown at the skittles. Redmire Feast is the only other occassion in the Dales where wallops are now being played regularly. At West Witton, the equipment is cared for by Barry Martin at the Old Star.
West Witton bubbles over with life. I heard from Carol Cannell about the Women's Institute and Mothers' Union; she mentioned classes for "keep fit" and dog training. A playgroup meets twice a week - "there's a waiting list at the moment". The village school was closed despite a well-run campaign by villagers to persuade authorities to keep it open.
Bartle gives the village of West Witton some distinction in a dale of attractive little villages, many of which are scarcely known to outsiders. I asked Alan what he thought of Bartle. He did not hurry to reply, then said: "I sometimes wish I'd never bothered with him... I do think it's a tradition that wants carrying on. It's one of the oldest in t'country, so they say. When you're carrying a Bartle in a crowd, you feel a little strange at times. Then you get a drink or two - and you don't bother the same!"
Said Carol Cannell: "Bartle is traditional. He has to go on... I think he will never be forgotten."
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