IN his new book, the archaeologist Professor Richard Morris digs deeply into the history of Yorkshire, exploring its caves and subterranean passageways as well as its cities, churches, hills, coasts and waterways that turned inland towns into virtual seaports. Memorable characters in the 1500-year plus saga range from Robin Hood and the aviator Amy Johnson to rebellious nobles who almost toppled the Tudors.
There are 19th century textile workers, Whitby whalers, WWI conscientious objectors and striking miners of the 1980s. Landscapes range from Roseberry Topping on the North York Moors to Bawtry – gateway to Yorkshire on the Great North Road.
But while he provides a big picture of England’s biggest county, Professor Morris also places himself and his forbears in the story by weaving in episodes from his own life and his family’s history. This is a distinctive literary approach that he pioneered in an acclaimed 2012 book Time’s Anvil – a candidate for the prestigious Samuel Johnson Prize – and it has helped ensure that Yorkshire is already earning critical and media interest.
Now Emeritus Professor of Archeology at the University of Huddersfield, Richard Morris was born and brought up in Birmingham, but his family had Yorkshire roots and relations and he has lived in the county for nearly 50 years.
In the early 1970s, he began his archeological career by taking part in excavations in York – the new book describes his 1972 exploration of a Roman culvert – and his wife Jane, who is dedicatee of the book, said she would not wed unless they lived in Yorkshire, her native county.
So he remained and has now produced one of the most unusual and thought-provoking guides to the county’s distant and recent past. Yorkshire is subtitled A Lyrical History of England’s Greatest County, but Professor Morris states that “I didn’t set out to write a history of Yorkshire at all”.
Instead, he describes the book as “a series of historical studies at different stages in Yorkshire’s history” and he did not want to tell his readers things they probably already knew.
“I wasn’t going to write about Betty’s or Ilkla Moor Baht ‘At or any of that ‘eeh by gum’ stuff! I was going to write about things that were important, but somehow hadn’t attracted the full focus of public attention. For example, most people know about Towton, because it is alleged to be the greatest battle every fought in Britain. But how many know about the Northern Rising in 1569?”
An examination of the legend of Robin Hood – why the early stories are located in Barnsdale and how they were transmitted – is one of the topics that will earn widespread interest. An exploration of the Humber and other river systems that made Yorkshire a county of inland seaports will surprise many readers. Porpoises swam through Selby, and Thorne was a centre for shipbuilding.
A thread running through the broader historical themes of the book consists of episodes and photographs from the family and life of Professor Morris, whose mother was born in the east coast Yorkshire mining village of Carlin How in 1908. This technique means that Yorkshire serves as a follow up to Time’s Anvil, an archaeology book that was transformed when Professor Morris decided to introduce an autobiographical element, initially as a way of getting the book under way.
“Having started Anvil like that, I was quite pleased, so I developed this method of combining personal recollection and experience and family involvement with the larger narrative. I discovered that you can play one in counterpoint with the other,” said Professor Morris.
This genre that he has developed is one he might return to, but his next projects are the completion of a major new biography of engineer Barnes Wallis – best known as the inventor of the “bouncing bomb” – and a social history of inter-war England based on aerial photographs.