Niddfest

niddfest aPateley Bridge, population just over 2,000, is slap in the middle of Nidderdale, an AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) appreciated for its landscapes, its rich flora and fauna, and its now hard-to-spot industrial past.  But if you were there this last weekend, it might not have been to use the town as a base to explore the Yorkshire Dales.  You might instead have been coming to Niddfest, a new family-friendly festival offering a weekend of talks and outside events for nature lovers, and especially book-loving nature lovers, of all ages.  That’s why we went, on Saturday, and again on Sunday.  We had a pretty busy weekend there, but it turns out we weren’t busy enough.

Pateley Bridge High Street (Wikimedia Commons)
Pateley Bridge High Street (Wikimedia Commons)

We weren’t there when Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and National Poet of Wales Gillian Clarke introduced the festival, reading from their work.  We were absent from the sessions when the likes of Piers Torday, Katharine Norbury and Michelle Harrison were reading from and discussing their books.  We didn’t go on the Moor Safari, or on the river walk along the Nidd, or foraging for wild edible plants.   We didn’t commandeer our grandsons so they could explore for bugs at Studfold Adventure Trail, or go den-building in the woods.

Scar House Reservoir, scene of our bird-watching walk.
Scar House Reservoir, scene of our bird-watching walk.

What we did do was go on what was billed as a bird-watching walk with Mark Cocker and the Nidderdale Bird watchers’ group.  And what a way to start.  A young cuckoo landed on a fence post, and was immediately followed by his unwitting foster-mother, a meadow pipit, who spent frantic moments stuffing food down his always-open throat.  Bear in mind that a meadow pipit is some 15 cm. long, and weighs in at 15 g .  The cuckoo wasn’t far from its adult size of 33cm, and 110 g.

With a start like that, the rest of the morning might have been a let-down.  But it wasn’t.  We saw an old shed where a colony of swallows had begun their days, and learnt that they, like most swallows, would end up wintering in a reed bed somewhere near Durban, South Africa…. some  twelve and a half thousand kilometres away.  We saw house martins, goldfinch, and  quantities of ‘red’ birds – red kites, redpolls, redstarts.  We learnt to distinguish thistle varieties, and learnt which ones bees favour.  We began to understand just how many varieties of bees, beetles, flies and other insects populated this limited corner of Nidderdale.  All this thanks to the bird watchers and especially to Mark.

Then we hurried up to Middlesmoor – to hear Mark again, in conversation about his books.  Do look at his website – here – to learn more.  His nature writing is something special.  He celebrates wildlife in its day-to-day environment, but believes the natural world is far more than an interesting and quite engaging backdrop to our lives. It’s fundamentally important, and environmental issues need to assume an equal, if not a greater importance in political decision-making than, for instance economic affairs.  Instead, they are sidelined if not totally disregarded.

Middlesmoor churchyard.
Middlesmoor churchyard.

This politics-with-a-small-p approach continued the next day, when we heard Oxford graduate and Cumbrian shepherd James Rebanks speak about his bestseller ‘The Shepherd’s Life’.  He has many strings to his bow (adviser to UNESCO for instance) – farming in the Lake District simply doesn’t pay.  He points out that our desire for cheap food, our disconnection from where our day-to-day nourishment comes from is putting traditional farming, where animals are treated well and with respect at risk.

And then it was Rob Cowen.  How could we not be fascinated by his book ‘Common Ground’?  He has become forensically interested – almost obsessed – by a small patch of green space just at the edge of Harrogate. This small area was our own ‘green lung’, only yards away from our front door when we too lived in Harrogate.  He weaves the story of his growing infatuation together with more personal notes about the baby he and his wife were expecting.  It’s clear his well-being depends upon his developing close relationship with this edge-land, this little piece of woodland, river and grass still clinging on to the top corner of a busily expanding town.  Nature writing with a difference.

What a rich feast we had.  In some ways we’re sorry we didn’t cram in more of what was on offer.  But as you see, we had more than enough to digest.  A brilliant festival.  It had better come back next year.

A wander in the Washburn valley – and a diversion to a New York branch library

Starting round Swinsty reservoir.  It's not raining yet......
Starting round Swinsty reservoir. It’s not raining yet……

Reservoirs.  If you live in the city, you’ll be dependent on one, almost certainly.  Every time you turn on the tap, the water that come gushing out will have started out in some far-flung and distinctly rural part of the area.

These days, reservoirs aren’t just – er –  reservoirs.  They’re playgrounds for all of us – walkers, dog-walkers, fisherfolk, bird-watchers and naturalists of all kinds.  They’re protected and protective habitats for all kinds of wild creatures.  And in their watery depths, they conceal their history.  Those reservoirs built between the 1860s and 1960s conceal drowned ancient villages, mills, factories, farms and country estates, leaving almost no trace behind. It’s hard to believe that the 4 reservoirs of rural Nidderdale hide a once-industrial area, where iron smelting, woollen fulling (a process something like felting) and flax-making took place, and where, in the early 19th century,  the demand for labour was so acute that pauper children as young as nine were recruited from London to keep the factories working.

We Ripon Ramblers went off yesterday to walk a figure of 8.  Park at Swinsty Reservoir, walk all the way round adjacent Fewston Reservoir, back to Swinsty again and walk round there. You can see from the pictures that the early promise of the day was not maintained.  It rained and showered a lot.  But rain and showers make for picturesque views.

An umbrella or two: the ideal accessory for an English walk.
An umbrella or two: the ideal accessory for an English walk.

Oh, and at the end, we took a small diversion to visit the old and picturesque village of Timble.  It may seem like many a charming Yorkshire village, but it has a bit of extra history on the side, in the form of the Robinson Library.  This building was the gift of Robinson Gill of New York, in 1892.  He’d left Yorkshire in 1851 for America to seek his fortune.  He found it: he had two successful stone yards on the Hudson River and was president of two New York banks.

His ancestors were prosperous yeoman who had lived in nearby Swinsty Hall, and he himself had been born and raised in Timble.  From his adopted home in the States he arranged an endowment of £2000 to  pay for a teacher for the school and for the upkeep of the building, and laid out £100 for books.  The library provided the villagers with not only a library, but a free school, a Sunday school, a social centre and a reading room.  The endowment failed with Robinson’s death: his descendents weren’t as astute about money as he had been, so the library fell on hard times for a while. The children now travel elsewhere for their schooling – after all, the village only has 100 inhabitants – but a recent programme to restore and re-invigorate the building means it is once more an active social centre for the community and beyond.

The Robinson Library, Timble. (Wikimedia Commons)
The Robinson Library, Timble. (Wikimedia Commons)

So, dear American readers, come and discover the area for yourselves, with its unexpected link to your part of the world.  You could stay at the Timble Inn, an 18th century coaching inn, and then discover not only those reservoirs and their hidden history, but the towns, villages, dales and moorland of Nidderdale.  You’ll be glad you did.

The Marmion Tower

P1190613Not much more than a mile up the road is West Tanfield.  It’s an ancient village that already existed when the Domesday Book was written in 1086.  Its inhabitants might say though that the most recent chapter in its history was written only last year, when the Tour de France passed through the village.  The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge dropped by in a helicopter to watch the riders hurtle down the hill from Masham, over the old bridge and on to Ripon.  They took the time to walk through the village talking to as many people as they could. It’s a memory many locals treasure (I’m thinking of you, Penny!)

As you walk through the village yourself, you’ll notice a tower next to the 13th century parish church.  That’s the Marmion Tower.  It’s a 15th century gatehouse, and is all that is left of a vanished manor house that belonged to the Marmion family.  As the direct line of this family ended, the succession passed first to the FitzHugh family, then the Parr family.  You’ll have heard of them.  William Parr was brother to Catherine, the sixth and last wife of King Henry VIII.

The Marmion Tower with its oriel window.
The Marmion Tower with its oriel window.
That staircase.
That staircase.

It took me till yesterday to go and explore the remains of this tower.  It might look like a castle, but there’s no evidence that it was ever designed to offer real protection.  There’s no portcullis to the gatehouse, no narrow windows through which to loose offensive arrows.  It’s a three-storey tower, which provided accommodation of reasonable comfort for the time, though the extremely narrow twisting staircase is a bit of a challenge.  Although large, the rooms are domestic in scale.  They offer splendid views over the River Ure and the fields and woods beyond, and on  one side, over the village itself.  One of the windows is a beauty in its own right.  It’s an oriel window – a kind of bay window – projecting from the first floor of the tower.

It’s ‘worth a detour’.  And afterwards, you can go and sit in the gardens of the pub next door, the Bull, and relax over a drink in the picturesque surroundings of the river with the church and tower beyond.

Misadventures in Nidderdale

The landscape glimpsed through the skeletons of summer's cow parsley.
The landscape glimpsed through the skeletons of summer’s cow parsley.

Yesterday’s outing was a gem.  We walked in bright late summer sunshine as the trees began changing colour for Autumn.  Great views over Nidderdale and a few interesting animal encounters added pleasure to the day.  And best of all was the chance to tease Our Leader For The Day – let’s call her Ms. X, to spare her blushes.  Within 10 minutes of starting, she’d taken us off-route.  A landowner called us off the steep hillside that she was already scaling.  ‘It’s private land – but in any case it doesn’t lead anywhere.’  That wasn’t surprising.  There was no path.

Never mind.  We were enjoying fine panoramas, and a path that led onwards and upwards into ancient woodlands where large rocky outcrops showed us we weren’t at all far from Brimham Rocks.  The paths round here were the stamping ground of lay brothers from Fountains Abbey who lived and worked in this area.  They would have appreciated the fresh water springs, one of which has a carved stone alongside: ‘Adam’s Ale’, it says.

Here's fresh water, aka Adam's ale
Here’s fresh water, aka Adam’s ale

The monks of Fountains Abbey had complete control of the Hartwith area from 1180 until the dissolution of the monasteries.  It was home for their sheep; a source of wood; and animal fodder; and stone from the glacially deposited millstone grit , which was used to make mill-stones (‘quern-stones’).  It was here too that the Abbot of Fountains Abbey had his own private hunting park.

After that we were on National Trust land, and the outer-reaches of the Brimham Rocks estate.  Here, the landscape changes for a while to austere and fairly barren moorland.  But it was easy walking, and we were entertained by a fine herd of long-snouted ginger Tamworth pigs corralled on the edge of the moor.  They were vocal, curious, and keen to eat my gaiters.

Two nosey pigs.
Two nosey pigs.

Then we got lost again.  Ms. X led us through impenetrable bracken, at the edge of which she promised us a stile.  There wasn’t one.  We returned through the impenetrable bracken, and found the correct – and easy – path.  We passed the handsome Jacobean Brimham Lodge, built on the site of the Abbot’s Hunting Lodge.  Those Abbots knew how to choose a good view.

This was a day of many stiles.
This was a day of many stiles.

Now we were onto areas of pasture-land.  These fields have been progressively cleared in the years since the Dissolution of the Monasteries by the landowners who took over monastic lands.  We picnicked in a field by a little-used track.  Two of us spread ourselves out on the little-used track.  We opened our sandwiches.  And a large tractor advanced on us – down the little-used track.

Throughout the afternoon, we passed several ponds, probably originally fish ponds for – yes, you’ll have guessed – Fountains Abbey.  Ducks escorted us along the roads, geese protested at our presence: it was all very bucolic.

At last, we reached ancient woodland – Old Spring Woods is known to have existed in prehistoric times.  Remains of stone enclosure suggest that at one time, the area was used for grazing stock, but later, hunting became more important.  And it was here that Ms. X led us astray for the last time.  At the bottom of a long descent she insisted she’d gone wrong.  Up the hill we trailed, and all of us had a go at re-interpreting the map in our own way.  By popular vote, we all traipsed down the hill again, and found the path we’d needed all along, just there, beyond the woodland gate.  And we were nearly home and dry.

But our day wasn’t over yet.  Ms. X suggested finishing off the afternoon at an ice cream parlour a couple of miles along the road.  It wasn’t her fault that the signs to it on the main road all read ‘Open’.  It wasn’t her fault that there was a long and bumpy farm drive down to the café .  And it wasn’t her fault that when we got there, the café turned out to be shut.  But we blamed her of course, just as we blamed her for every mishap along the way, even though we all had a hand in reading the map.

She knows we don’t mean it.  We’d had a Grand Day Out.  We’d had a good work-out, a scenic walk full of interest, a fine day out with friends, and a chance to tease Ms. X unmercifully.  Thank you, Ms X.

A view across Nidderdale near the end of our journey
A view across Nidderdale near the end of our journey