HARRY MEAD looks at the life of Alfred John Brown - walker, passionate 'moorsman' and one of Yorkshire's leading outdoor writers

RARELY can a window have played such a starring role. In 1945 Alfred John Brown, a top figure in Bradford’s wool industry, travelled to the North York Moors with his wife as a prospective buyer of a hotel.

“The front seemed all windows,” he noted later. “Tiny mullioned windows, bulging out in four or five bays.” One window in particular delighted him. In dazzling sunshine it had a window seat. He recalled: “It was the most inviting window seat I had ever seen and I could not resist the impulse to sit on it.”

After touring the house with the agent the couple returned to the same spot. “I had the window seat again,” Brown recollected. “The sun was still shining and I felt curiously happy and excited.” The hotel, which had been closed during the war, was as good as theirs. Brown confessed: “Experience warned me to be cautious, to barter about the price, to get the option of a week or so and have the place vetted by an expert, but somehow or other I felt sure I would still want to buy it. I think it was the window seat, and the sun, which decided the issue for me.”

And so Brown and his Bradford-born, half-French wife, Marie Eugenie - who he met at a tennis party - became the hoteliers of Whitfield House Hotel, in Darnholm, just down the bank from Goathland. Not yet in its Heartbeat incarnation, Goathland then had the character of an exclusive moorland spa. It was much favoured by folk who, like Brown himself, were drawn by its combination of glorious heather moor, breezy sheep-grazed commons and charming waterfalls in small, hidden valleys.

Brown aimed his hotel brochure unerringly at these perceived connoisseurs of moorland scenery, wealthy enough to stay in a hotel. Whitfield House, it proclaimed, could accommodate “Just 20 people… the right sort of people. The kind who seek solitude and quiet after the turmoil of cities; people who love to explore the old moorland tracks and neighbouring villages - and return with an edge on their appetite to appreciate a good dinner. And to sit around the fireside on chilly evenings and talk or read or play bridge. And for those who disdain the comforts of the fireside and a good selection of books, the quiet road outside leads straight to the moors, where the air is like wine.”

Helped not a little by Marie Eugenie’s skilled French-tweaked cooking - early haute cuisine in the Moors, defying post war austerity - the pitch hit the spot. Over the next six years the Whitfield’s guests included the Archbishop of York (twice), top radio comedian Tommy Handley and - regarded by Brown as “reclusive” - a Mr and Mrs Frederick Attenborough - parents of destined-to-be-famous Richard and David. International guests came from 14 countries, not least the USA, whose tourists were a rarity in provincial Britain in those days.

But building up trade after the hotel’s wartime closure proved an overwhelming strain for the Browns. Their health and family life - they had three daughters and two sons - suffered, and Brown, who had travelled extensively as European sales director of wool traders D Hamilton & Co, also found that hotel keeping left him insufficient time to pursue his overriding interest - walking the Yorkshire moors and writing about them.

For between the wars, Brown, who was born in Bradford’s Paisley Road, now demolished, and whose father was an electrical engineer employed by Bradford Gas Company, was one of Yorkshire’s leading ‘outdoor’ writers.

Devoted respectively to the Dales and the Moors, his books Tramping Through Yorkshire and Moorland Tramping were top sellers. Collected in Striding Through Yorkshire, they were, and are, supreme in conveying the special joys of moorland walking: the wide horizons and sense of freedom, the intimate pleasures of the intervening valleys, and the satisfaction of ending the day in a hospitable moorland town or village.

Countless walkers who know little or nothing of Brown owe a debt to him. Though Bill Cowley created the Lyke Wake Walk, it is very probable the seed of his idea was sown by Brown, one of his heroes. Describing a rough crossing of Bilsdale East Moor, Brown wrote: “Was it, I wonder, these very moors which inspired the greatest dialect poem in the language, the immortal Lyke Wake Dirge? I was muttering some of those wonderful stanzas as I stumbled through the dense ling.”

The first official guide to the North York Moors was the appropriate sections of Brown’s 1952 book Fair North Riding, the most readable guide to that historic county. Brown had struggled to write it during his Whitfield House years, which ended when the Browns sold up in 1951. Despite failing to make the hotel pay, they are credited with laying the foundation for its success in the more affluent 1950s, just dawning when they left.

Within three years Brown rejoined the wool trade. He and Marie Eugenie - whose father was a wool merchant with a Calais-born wife - lived at Mornington Villas in Manningham. But though Brown established his own company, AJ Brown & Son Textile Export Agency, this homecoming was a sad retreat. Finally, the couple retired to Sleights, near Goathland, where Brown died, aged 74, in 1969.

His company survived him, trading until 1972. But meanwhile Brown himself had fallen into neglect as a writer. Happily, a revival is now well underway. Last year a splendid biography was published and Brown was also accorded an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Two walking trails around ‘AJ Brown Country’, one based at Sleights, the other focussed on Burley-in-Wharfedale, where Brown and Marie-Eugenie lived at the height of his business career, have been created.

Now another tribute has come his way. On Saturday April 28 a plaque in his honour was unveiled on Whitfield House, now a private residence. It is a joint venture of Brown’s biographer, John A White, and the North Yorkshire Moors Association, whose chairman, Tom Chadwick, unveiled the plaque.

Brown recounted his experiences at the hotel in two entertaining books, I Bought A Hotel and Farewell High Fell - pseudonym of Whitfield House. Tapping into the middle-class escapist dream of running a country hotel, these contain all the ingredients for a smash-hit ‘All Creatures Great and Small’-type TV series - but Heartbeat got there first.

No longer thronged by Heartbeat tourists, the Goathland district has miraculously re-emerged little changed from Brown’s day. It remains a Mecca for moorland walkers. Brown’s plaque honours a man who captured not only the spirit of the moors but the essence of Yorkshire. He once wrote: “If you took all the best parts of every county and put them together, you would have something resembling Yorkshire.”

*John A White’s biography of AJ Brown: Walker, Writer and Passionate Yorkshireman, is available from Amazon.