It was a bitter winter’s day in March 1979 and Jennie Harker was anxiously awaiting her husband’s return.
Clifford had gone to feed their sheep that morning, but it was dark and he was late.
“Clifford never thought twice about setting off in a blizzard, but that day, he took a flask of whisky out with him. He knew he’d find trouble.”
Little did Jennie Harker know that her husband had rescued two strangers from the brink of death.
A few days earlier, two friends from Utrecht began the long drive to England in search of a vintage 1950s Jaguar. Aged just 19 and 20, Rolph and Rien were classic car enthusiasts and planned to visit as many dealerships as it took to find the particular model.
The pair had no luck in the first few garages they visited, so headed west over the Pennines to Cumbria. They had earlier been sunbathing on the car bonnet so did not think to check the forecast.
“That day, it started snowing a little bit,” said Rolph.
“It made us a bit nervous with our summer tyres. But, it was March!”
Driving over Swaledale, the snow became heavier, and the wind got stronger. The car swerved off the road and struggled on the steep slopes. Then, on the way from Keld to Nateby, they drove into a snow drift.
The car was stuck. It was too cold to dig the wheels out, so the pair decided to wait in the car until the storm passed.
“We were really relaxed. We had some cigarettes to pass the time. It was an adventure,” said Rolph.
Night came, however, and it was still snowing. To their horror, by morning the snow had built up to shoulder height, and everything was dark.
“That’s when we realised we had to do something,” said Rolph.
“We really were panicking. The doors wouldn’t open so we had to climb out of the window. It was horrible.”
Dressed in jeans, boots, and thin jackets, the men waded through snow that reached up to their knees.
“My hair was frozen, my eyebrows were frozen, my jacket was frozen — I’ll never forget that feeling,” said Rien.
“We couldn’t see anything. Just grey and white. We had no clue which direction to go.”
After struggling for some time, the pair reached an old train carriage, repurposed as a livestock shed. They tried doing exercises inside to keep warm, but it was hopeless.
Rien was at the point of giving up.
“I just wanted to sit down and sleep,” he said. But Rolph wouldn’t let him, knowing that if Rolph closed his eyes he may never open them again.
After hours more of stumbling through the snow, Rolph heard a dog bark. “Unless I was imagining it, I knew there had to be a person too.”
Suddenly, a figure appeared in the distance, moving towards them. It was farmer Clifford Harker, out looking for his sheep.
“It’s one of my best memories when we met him and he said ‘are you crazy to be out in this weather?’” Rolph laughed
“He must’ve thought we were just two idiots lost on a walk.”
Clifford gave the men whiskey from his flask. “It almost knocked us out, but it gave us a tremendous moral boost,” Rolph said.
Then they began the long journey back to Pry House Farm, where Clifford lived with his family. “My wife’s waiting with tea,” Rolph remembers him saying.
Clifford told the men he lived ten minutes away, but in reality, it was much further. “Every ten minutes I asked Clifford if we were close,” said Rolph. “‘Just ten more minutes,’ he’d say every time. I think if he’d have been honest, we’d have given up, for sure.”
Jennie remembers that the relief she felt for her husband’s return quickly turned to shock at the sight of the bewildered young men.
“Clifford told me they were driving the car we’d seen pass the farm the previous day,” Jennie said.
“Then, he turned to go straight back outside again to do more work. ‘Oh, and they’re Dutch!’ he said,” she laughed.
Jennie took them upstairs, ran them a bath, and fetched them some of Clifford’s pyjamas.
“Rien was in a bad way, he really was,” she added. “I called the doctor to ask what to do. He said to give them something sweet and easy to eat, but not too hot. So I made lukewarm custard. It was the first thing that came into my head.”
“I still love custard,” Rolph said. “People always ask why – it’s the memory!”
Jennie remembers Rien “head to foot shaking” even as he sat in front of a blazing fire.
“It took me about two days to feel warm again,” Rien said.
The blizzard left Pry House isolated from the rest of the world. Rolph and Rien had to stay there as snow piled up the side of the house.
After two or three days, Clifford told the pair they were all going out to find the car. “The snow was frozen, so you could walk on top of it,” Rien said.
“The only thing you could see was just this white landscape and blue sky. No houses, nothing.
“We walked for about five miles, and then suddenly Clifford stopped, pointed to the ground, and said ‘here’s your car.’ Rolph and I looked at each other, and thought, Huh? We started digging and after about a metre deep we struck the car roof.
“It still puzzles me to this day. I never asked him, how did he know it was there?”
According to Jennie, she and her husband knew the land like the back of their hand. “I was born only a couple of miles away. I had to walk over that moor every day to go to school.”
Clifford and Jennie met at a local dance. After marrying, they moved to the farm and had two children, Trevor and Lynn. The couple had never been abroad, but that week in March they found themselves looking after two young Dutch men.
Rolph and Rien returned to Pry House a few months later to pick up their car which had been dug out by the local garage. By sheer coincidence, the owner had a vintage Jaguar to sell.
“Mission accomplished,” Rien said.
They kept in touch with the Harkers for years, exchanging letters and Christmas cards. In 2004, they heard the sad news that Clifford had passed away.
Rien returned to the Dales a year later, and visited Clifford’s grave.
According to Jennie, he looked at the headstone for a long time, then said ‘well, Clifford. But for you, I wouldn’t be here’.
Rolph said the event had a deep impact on his outlook on life.
“Because of that adventure, I never give up. I know that there will always be, in one way or another, a solution or an escape.”
Rolph and Rien’s last trips to see Jennie were in 2015 and 2017. They look forward to a time after the pandemic when they can return to Pry House Farm again.
In memory of Clifford and Trevor Harker.