Being the first Sunday of the calendar month, it was Baffled Geography time. This is where a series of randomly selected tweets are broadcast to give Flaneurs basic directions towards getting lost (please see
www.baffledgeography.org.uk). Me & the Mrs. decided to set Knaresborough as our starting point – seeing we had covered most of our side of Harrogate.
We set off on the bus and arrived there just after it had started, but we did not realise we were late as we did not receive the updates from Twitter due to NO SIGNAL.
There was freezing fog blanketing the Market village of Knaresborough and we were wrapped up snuggly. I recieved one direction from Twitter: “Follow a hat”. With this in mind I paused for a second so that The Mrs. would take the lead …… we got royally lost!
From the castle we went down a set of stairs and discovered the birthplace of John Metcalf, aka Blind Jack (1717 – 1810). Blind Jack was the first professional road-builder to emerge from the industrial revolution. In the period spanning 1765 – 1792 he build 180 miles of turnpike road.
At the age of six, he lost his sight to a smallpox infection. The child was given fiddle lessons as a way of making provision for him to earn a living later in life. He became an accomplished fiddler and made this his livelihood in his early adult years. In 1732, Metcalf succeeded The Queen’s Head fiddler: “Morrison” at the age of fifteen. Morrison had played there for the past seventy years. Metcalf had also an affinity for horses, and added to his living with some horse trading. Though blind, he took up swimming and diving, fighting cocks, playing cards, riding, and even hunting. He knew his local area so well he got paid to work as a guide to visitors. The youth of Knaresborough would dare him to dive off the more dangerous rocks on the River Nidd – he was famed at retrieving things that had dropped in the river.
His fiddle playing gave him social connections and a patron, Colonel Liddell. In one much repeated story the colonel decided to take his young protégé to London. John found the colonel’s leisurely progress too slow and went ahead on foot. He reached London first and then returned to Yorkshire before the colonel. He managed this though on foot and blind and the story demonstrates Jacks determination and resourcefulness.
During the second jacobite rebellion of 1745, Jack’s connections got him the job of assistant to the recruiting sergeant who was raising a company for the King in the Knaresborough area. Jack went with the army to Scotland. He did not experience action but was employed moving guns over boggy ground. He was later captured but released.
After the war he used his Scottish experience to begin importing Aberdeen stockings to England. Before his army service Jack had tried his hand as a carrier using a four wheeled chaise and a one-horse chair on local trips. When competition cut into this business he switched to carrying fish from the coast to Leeds and Manchester. After 1745 he bought a stone wagon and worked it between York and Knaresborough. By 1754 his business had grown to a stagecoach line. He drove a coach himself, making two trips a week during the summer and one a week in the winter months.
His attitude to the ladies was one of his time – however, the epitaph on his grave in Spofforth, at the cost of Lord Dundas, bears this epitaph:
“Here lies John Metcalf, one whose infant sight
Felt the dark pressure of an endless night;
Yet such the fervour of his dauntless mind,
His limbs full strung, his spirits unconfined,
That, long ere yet life’s bolder years began,
The sightless efforts mark’d th’ aspiring man;
Nor mark’d in vain—high deeds his manhood dared,
And commerce, travel, both his ardour shared.
’Twas his a guide’s unerring aid to lend—
O’er trackless wastes to bid new roads extend;
And, when rebellion reared her giant size,
’Twas his to burn with patriot enterprise;
For parting wife and babes, a pang to feel,
Then welcome danger for his country’s weal.
Reader, like him, exert thy utmost talent given!
Reader, like him, adore the bounteous hand of Heaven.”