A love of the "staycation" – simply called a holiday until a few years ago – is not a new phenomenon, as Harry Mead discovered in the pages of a 19th Century book about a little known corner of the North York Moors

We are glad to learn there is a growing disposition among the English people to see something more of the fair spots of dear old England than has hitherto characterised them. May those who have spent much time and money on foreign travel have to reproach themselves no longer of being ignorant of their native land!

Whatever caused English citizens, back in the 1870s, to want to discover more of their own country we can be certain it wasn’t coronavirus – or anything like it. But it is remarkable that the authors of this observation, foreshadowing the so-called "staycation" a century and a half later, based it on their exploration of a corner of their native land – indeed their native county, Yorkshire – that remains relatively obscure even today.

The pioneering "staycationers" were an intriguing pair – two female Sunday School teachers, from York. Never giving us their names, they were probably sisters, though they don’t make their relationship entirely clear in an account they wrote of a holiday in what is now the North York Moors. They published it in 1875 under the title Holiday Rambles on the Yorkshire Moors – but it is more specific than that.

Bransdale, still one of the least-visited moorland dales, penetrating deep into the moors north of Helmsley, with no village, pub or through road, was their little-known destination. They had learned of it from a domestic servant who hailed from there. They observe: “Like a true daleswoman she seemed to view her native dale with particular pride, and she never wearied of dilating on its beauties.”

Overlooking Bransdale

Overlooking Bransdale

A rare guidebook reference told them Bransdale was “abandoned to grouse, the sportsman and the peat cutter". This sharpened their appetite. And so, in July 1873, accompanied by the servant and “an old wheezy dog”, they boarded a train to Helmsley, the then limit of a line under construction to Scarborough. After walking to Kirkbymoorside, halting en route at the historic Saxon church of St Gregory’s Minster, they travelled in a dog cart to the servant’s family farm, their holiday accommodation.

Despite its beckoning clump of sycamores the visitors felt cheated. They explain: “She (the servant) had given us to understand her home was in the dale, whereas we found it was almost on a level with the moor, environed by boundless ling, heath and furze.” Some cause for complaint, eh? But with all else satisfactory, they suppressed their disappointment: “We did not feel the least inclined to murmur.”

Then, over the next week and a half, what wanderings they undertook. Faced with only what they described as “meagre” paths, their method was to take a beeline to a desired point. “Many a time we had to clamber over stone walls,” they recalled. “We are not inclined to allow such to stand in our way.”

The title page of the book on Bransdale

The title page of the book on Bransdale

At other times they found themselves “splashing about in a swamp,” or “deep in bracken.” Their long dresses seemed no impediment, even when they were caught, more than once, in a summer storm. The dale’s sheep – “these black-faced gentry” – were a novelty: “Some gave us a bold stare, as much as to say,‘how dare you intrude on our domain.’”

But what most struck them was the dale’s “incredible air of repose". As though strangers in a foreign land they themselves were objects of curiosity, with farm folk coming to their doors to see them. They sagely judged: “The little world in which these people live is very circumscribed. They go little from home… their heavy, deep-rutted roads are a barrier to much intercourse with the outer world.” The daunting ruts had proved their deterrent effect during the teachers’ dog-cart journey, compelling them to wrestle with the tin trunk containing their luggage “as if it had been a drunken man".

But the locals were hospitable. Their hostess demonstrated the baking of turf cakes, suspended in a pan above a peat fire. They reported: “They were served smoking hot and well buttered. You must indeed be hard to please if you cannot find some expression of praise for this standing dish of the district.”

Like neighbouring Farndale, Bransdale was a stronghold of Methodism. Firmly C of E, the York Sunday school teachers visited an ardent Wesleyan, who informed them “he and few neighbours met together on Sunday evenings in winter for prayer and reading God’s Word". They recorded: “We found our friend had a few prejudices against the Established Church, but was ready to listen to the other side with frankness and candour.” They left with the hope “we had disabused our worthy friend of some of his views".

Meanwhile, the women found “beauty with perfect seclusion” in Sleightholmedale, Bransdale’s most wooded section. A stream there “so abounded with trout that we could have caught them easily by hand". One evening the women climbed to gain views of Farndale. They recorded: “Many of the cottages were pictures, nestling among orchards and groves, with moss-encrusted thatch.” And so still was the air “that we catch the children’s voices as they join in some merry game". No mention of daffodils, though.

The teachers wrote up their holiday for their own pleasure but were persuaded to publish it – all profit to the Church Missionary Society. Evidently it was so successful that, two years later, they published a companion volume, Rambles in Teesdale. Perhaps this article will bring a copy to light. I purchased my copy of the Bransdale book around ten years ago – £40 for its 72 pages. Almost £1 per page – but every one worth it.

As they journeyed home the teachers compared Bransdale to York: “What a contrast. No sound of quarrelling, which so often jars the ear in the busy thoroughfares of a town; no oaths profaning the air; no parrying to avoid a rabble; no pinched faces on which care and anxiety are indelibly branded.” Yet they recognised a truth: “Fancy allures us into pleasant dreams and empty delusions that only exist in the poet’s imagination.” A wise final word from these intrepid staycation trailblazers from York.