Balsam bashing

What were they thinking, those Victorians?

During the 19th century, travelling botanists brought seeds of all kinds back from their exotic travels and often gave them to curious gardeners, who would try out these novelties as fashion-statements.  In 1839, Himalayan Balsam was introduced and became Quite The Thing.  It was so invasive (yes, we know) that it was great for making a huge and spectacular pink display at the back of the garden.

Then there was a certain Miss Welch, who in 1948 was so enamoured of the plant that she took seeds from her home in Sheffield and scattered them all over the place on the Isle of Wight.  Or Mrs Norris of Camberley in Surrey who broadcast seeds far and wide, not only in Surrey, but in Ireland, France and Spain, and offered seeds to anyone who would accept them.

Himalayan Balsam (Wikimedia Commons)
Himalayan Balsam (Wikimedia Commons)

Now, apart from a few bee-keepers who recognise that their bees adore its nectar, nobody has a good word for this wretched plant.  It marches along river banks and masses into surrounding woodland.  It smothers any other species it meets on its relentless progress.  It projects its seeds (800 per plant) by entertainingly popping open its seed pods and projecting them several metres away.  It’s a bully.

And bullies have to be stopped in their tracks.  All over England and beyond at this time of year you’ll find bands of Army Cadets, boy scouts, environmental groups, country lovers and villagers gathering in their local Himalayan Balsam Problem Spot to do battle with this tyrannical species.

We were part of one such band this morning.  Our local nature reserve, High Batts, is practically our backyard.  It’s a fantastically diverse small habitat for a whole range of birds, plants and other wildlife, and the River Ure courses through it.  To the delight of Himalayan Balsam, which chokes the river banks before trying to spread itself all over the reserve.  Today, a gang of us got on our dirtiest clothes, found protective gloves, and marched off to show the stuff we meant business.  One of our number strimmed the worst affected areas, and the rest of us pulled out plant after plant after plant by its roots, until our hands were sore and our backs ached.  I used to think breaking the flower heads off was enough.  But no.  These plants are many-headed hydras.  Wound them and they’ll simply sprout forth ever stronger.

Army cadets and  other volunteers had worked hard before us.  Others will need to continue another day.  But we did a pretty good job.  And we were rewarded with elevenses of pork pie and three kinds of home-made cake, and the sight of those exclusively pink-flowered zones restored to satisfying diversity  .  Definitely worthwhile then.

The best Himalayan Balsam is dead Himalayan Balsam.
The best Himalayan Balsam is dead Himalayan Balsam.



Jarrow Ramblings, part 1

Clare, Lucy, Helen and Robert pose for a group photo. None of us asked for selfies-with-Clare
Clare, Lucy, Helen and Robert pose for a group photo. None of us asked for selfies-with-Clare

I came in the other day to find a message on the answer phone.  The BBC.  Clare Balding wanted to talk to me.  Well, not Clare actually.  She’s one of Britain’s favourite broadcasters and a bit busy I dare say.  Her research assistant Lucy finally got hold of me, and asked me if I’d be able to lead Clare and team on a walk from Ripon to Ripley for ‘Ramblings’, a popular programme on BBC R4 about walking.

Why me?  Because I’m Hon. Sec. of Ripon Ramblers, our local walking group, and our details are out there, if you care to look.  Yes, but why ME?  Lucy thought, after our chat, that I’d be OK on the radio.

OK then, why Ripon?  Because, it turns out that in October 1936 the Jarrow Marchers walked from Jarrow, through Ripon to Ripley and beyond, all 280 miles to London.  In October, ‘Ramblings’ plans to broadcast a programme to celebrate its 60th anniversary.

Perhaps you don’t know much about the Jarrow March.  Neither did I.  Not till I met Clare and Lucy, cultural historian Robert Colls, and Helen Antrobus, who’s a real Ellen Wilkinson enthusiast from the People’s Museum in Manchester.  The five us walked and talked our way along our eight mile route from Ripon to Ripley, and we barely noticed the rain which threatened constantly, but only delivered occasional short sharp showers.

This is a blog in two parts.  The first is our country walk, the second about the Jarrow March. But Friday wasn’t in two parts.  Every step we took, we remembered those marchers.  Robert and Helen told us the story.  Together, we drew comparisons between their march and our own hike.

I’d already dutifully planned and  walked a route.  The marchers went entirely on main roads, but if you’ve ever driven on the A61, you’ll know this is no longer a good idea.  Country paths were the way to go.

'Do we go this way?' Lucy records Clare getting directions.
‘Do we go this way?’ Lucy records Clare getting directions.

As  we set out together from Ripon, we got our instructions.  Lucy had her furry-muff-on-a-stick.  You’ll have seen those, as reporters rove round town centres talking to likely passers-by about some event that’s happened locally.    When recording, Clare’s always on the right of the person she’s talking to, and Lucy’s  there on the left with her recording gear.  It was slightly odd to walk alongside Clare as she formally introduced to the programme, telling listeners where she was, why she was there, and who we all were.  But soon we forgot about that muff.  We all chatted together easily, about that March, about walking, about each other.  Sometimes we had to repeat what we’d said, in a spontaneous ‘I’ve just thought of this’ kind of way, because some passing noise – RAF jets overhead for instance – had ruined the recording.

This was the scenery of the early part of the walk.
This was the scenery of the early part of the walk.

In many ways our walk was a scam.  The A61 passes through rolling hillsides, productive farmland, cows in the pasture, and pretty villages.  It’s all bucolic England at its best.  Our route presented a more hidden countryside.  Isolated farmhouses with dilapidated barn roofs,  ancient pastures, secret dark, damp woodlands, and tiny rather remote hamlets.

If it survives the cut, you'll hear Clare painting a word-portarit of this farmhouse during the programmme.
If it survives the cut, you’ll hear Clare painting a word-portrait of this farmhouse during the programmme.

At first though, we were on a road.  Badly maintained, rather narrow and with tall hedges it’s a bridle path these days, but it is still tarmacced, and perhaps the kind of highway those marchers would have recognised.  Later, on grass-trodden pathways, we passed Markenfield Hall, a 14th century moated country house.

We saw Markenfield Hall nearby as we walked. The Jarrow marchers didn't.
We saw Markenfield Hall nearby as we walked. The Jarrow marchers didn’t.

Those marchers didn’t.  We went through the village of Markington. Apparently the marchers were welcomed here too, though we couldn’t imagine why.  It’s more than a mile or so from the main road and history doesn’t record why exactly they made a detour.  We strode along the edges of barley fields, on woodland paths and across gorsey heath, all without meeting a soul.  Not what the marchers experienced.

This is farming country.
This is farming country.

And we talked.  That’s what I’ll remember most.  The sheer pleasure of walking and talking with a group of people thrust together for the day who quickly found themselves to be friends – just for a day.  Thanks you Clare, Lucy, Robert and Helen for a very special occasion.  It was a real privilege.

Clare strides away into the woods.
Clare strides away into the woods.

And the Jarrow March?  More about that in my next post.


The 36 bus

The 36 bus leaving Leeds for Ripon (Wikimedia Commons)
The 36 bus leaving Leeds for Ripon (Wikimedia Commons)

Everyone loves the 36 bus.  It’s the one that takes us from out in the sticks of Ripon, via Harrogate to Leeds.  It’s the one with plush leather seats, 4G wi-fi, USB points at every seat.  It’s the one with a book-swap shelf where I always hope to find a new title to enjoy, while bringing in one of my own to swap.  And best of all, we old fogeys travel for free on the 66 mile round trip.

The book-swap shelf wasn't very exciting today. But I found a Fred Vargas to read.
The book-swap shelf wasn’t very exciting today. But I found a Fred Vargas to read.

Best get to the terminus early though.  Everyone’s jockeying for the best seats, the ones at the front of the top deck, where you can watch as the bus drives through the gentle countryside separating Ripon from Harrogate, via Ripley, a village which the 19th century Ingleby family remodelled in the style of an Alsatian village, complete with hôtel de ville.  After the elegance of Harrogate and its Stray, there’s Harewood House – shall we spot any deer today? Then shortly after, the suburbs of The Big City, which gradually give way to the mixture of Victorian and super-modern which characterises 21st century Leeds.

We had lots to do in Leeds today (more of that later, much later) and had a very good time being busy there.  But much of our fun for the day came from sitting high up in that 36 bus, watching the world go by.  For free.

The back end of a bus.
The back end of a bus.

‘One misty-moisty morning, when cloudy was the weather…..’

Today was indeed a misty morning.  Ripon has no fewer than three rivers in town, and a canal too, and one of those three rivers, the Ure, passes our back door.  So it’s no surprise that we do ‘misty-moisty’ mornings, evenings and nights on a regular basis.

But mistiness is no excuse not to walk the mile and a half along the Ure to visit the village shop at West Tanfield to buy a Sunday paper.  Here’s my journey:

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This is how the old nursery rhyme goes:

One misty, moisty morning,

When cloudy was the weather,

I chanced to meet an old man clothed all in leather.

He began to compliment, and I began to grin,

How do you do, and how do you do?

And how do you do again?

Though I didn’t meet any old men clothed all in leather, I did meet quite a few dog-walkers.  And quite pleasant chats were had with nearly all of them

The bells of Saint Wilfrid

Ripon Cathedral: image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Ripon Cathedral: image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Last week, I got the chance to climb the bell tower at Ripon Cathedral.  How could I refuse?  Hearing the full peal of bells joyously announcing Sunday worship, and at other times too,  is one of the privileges of being near Ripon.

Bell ropes ready for action.
Bell ropes ready for action.

It was Wednesday evening.  That’s when the team of ringers always meet to practise and learn new changes.  I knew bells were rather heavy things, and imagined that tugging on the bell-ropes to make them chime must be a young person’s hobby – preferably a burly, muscular young person.  But no.  Bell-ringers are young, old, male, female, slim and rangy, tall and chunky, small and wiry.  All that’s needed is an enthusiasm for this particularly British pursuit.

Getting started.
Getting started.

It was a fine thing to watch every member of the team as they got each bell going.  That did look hard work.  Holding the rope high above their heads, each ringer tugged to bring it low down, again and again, till the bell had acquired its own satisfying momentum: till indeed, it was turning so far that the bell reached the top of its 360 degree swing, paused momentarily, and could be controlled.  Each bell sounds a different note in the scale, with each ringer sounding his or her bell in harmony with the rest.

Keeping the rhythm going.
Keeping the rhythm going.

There may have been bells in Ripon cathedral since the 13th century.  Over the centuries, bells have been replaced or recast.  The bell tower itself has been refurbished several times to replace ancient, beetle-infested timbers.  By the early 20th century, the cathedral at Ripon acknowledged that its bells were no longer really doing a great job, so in 1932, ten of them were recast by John Taylor and Co. of Loughborough – one of only two bell foundries left in the country.  Three more bells were added in 2007/8.  At the same time as the main recasting, the bell tower was strengthened with steel and concrete.  Since the heaviest bell (and it’s one of a team of 13) weighs in at  one and a quarter tons, a good strong and safe bell tower  seems essential.

Bell in the belfry, almost fully turned.
Bell in the belfry, almost fully turned.

It was a wonderful thing to watch the ringers working in rhythmic harmony (pull, pause, pause, pull), but what made the evening even more special was the opportunity to climb the bell tower itself.  We had to put on thick ear protectors.  Then we climbed the twisting narrow stone stairs, with almost impossibly far-apart treads, to find ourselves on what amounted to a walkway around the majestically swinging, harmoniously clanging quite enormous bells.  We felt the tower shudder and sway and assumed it was our own fantasy.  No, apparently it really does move with the momentum of all those bells.  Despite the ear protectors, our ears felt sore from the auditory assault. Eyes and ears feasted on those bells swinging, sounding and reverberating.

A  harmony of bells.
A harmony of bells.

Reluctantly, we ventured down the stairway once more.  The ringers were well into their rhythm now, guided by the somewhat arcane instructions of their leader, which meant absolutely nothing to us.  But I can see the attraction of being part of such a well structured and purposeful team, using skills that have changed little over the centuries.  I can understand why they like occasionally to give themselves challenges such as ringing a full three-hour peal, why they welcome visiting bell-ringers, why they enjoy the chance themselves to ring different bells in different churches.  And why, apparently, at the end of a hard-working practice, they like nothing more than to get down to the local pub and sink a well-earned pint.

Thanks, North Stainley Women’s Institute, for organising this visit, and to the bellringers of the cathedral for allowing us a glimpse of their Wednesday evening practice.

Le Tour de Yorkshire

A stained glass window in Harrogate by Caryl Hallett celebrates the TdF
A stained glass window in Harrogate by Caryl Hallett celebrates the TdF

After seven years of living in France, we reckoned we were old hands at le Tour de France.  It had gone past our house twice – once west-east, once east-west, and jolly exciting too, for roughly 30 seconds, which is all it takes for the competitors to go whizzing past… though there’s the no-small-matter of the caravan, and all its extraordinary vehicles full of excitable young women (only gorgeous young females and the occasional hunk need apply) flinging forth key rings, baseball caps, sweets and so on to the crowds scrabbling around for these souvenirs of the day.

And this year, for the third time in our lives, the Tour is going past our house again: because in 2014, for one year only, the Tour de France begins in Yorkshire, aka God’s Own Country.  It’s quite a coup for Yorkshire tourism, as it’s an opportunity to showcase this wonderfully scenic area as a tourist destination to a world glued to its TV sets for the duration of the Tour.

Even letting agents are getting Tour de France fever.
Even letting agents are getting Tour de France fever.

Yorkshire has been going Tour mad for weeks – no, months.  One of the earliest signs was last November, when the Harrogate Advertiser asked readers to knit little TdF  jerseys to be strung as bunting in local streets.  3,000 jerseys should cover it, they reckoned.  We now known that there are well over 10, 000 of them – yellow, green, white-with-red-spots, in Harrogate District alone, and who knows how many in the county as a whole, or down south when the riders complete the Cambridge to London stage?  You can see them strung in shop windows, along house railings, swagged along churches, between public buildings or threaded through the branches of trees.

Then there are the yellow bikes.  There are town trails to discover the dozens of yellow-painted bikes deposited round towns, in gardens, along country roads, in shop windows….  I’m sure many will be around months after the event, but many more will have been cleaned up and shipped off to various projects in Africa.

Our own community, North Stainley, has had Rural Arts working with the children at the Primary School to produce their own interpretations of impressionist paintings, and these are now on display round the village.  The pond has got its own Monet style bridge with LED waterlilies for the duration.  There are two new sculptures inspired by the Tour, and there’s a whole programme of social events.  Every village and town along the route is involved in providing fun for residents and visitors alike on the weekend of the Tour.  The description of choice seems to be ‘Le Grand Départy’.  Please groan if you want to….

Roads along the route have been repaired and revamped, presumably to the detriment of the road maintenance programme of all highways not on the TdF course.  Traffic islands in towns have been replaced by moveable versions, so they can be shifted from the road for The Big Day.  Anyone with open land and the means to provide sanitary and other arrangements, from farmers to schools with big playgrounds, is offering camping or parking facilities for the duration.  The French may well look askance at this degree of organisation, because over there it’s fine to turn up and park your camper van on any spare bit of mountainside that you can find.  Here however thousands and thousands of would-be spectators all have to cram themselves along some 400 km. of route, as opposed to the 3,500 km available in France.  Our village alone has been told to expect up to 7,000 spectators, the next village along, 10,000.  The logistics  are a nightmare, and forward planning essential.

These signs suddenly appeared at the end of last week.
These signs suddenly appeared at the end of last week.

And there are three weeks to go…..

Bradley Wigg-fins visits a Ripon chippie
Bradley Wigg-fins visits a Ripon chippie

Ripon, Yorkshire, 2014

One of the things I noticed about Ripon as soon as we started to get to know it is how many fine examples there are of what you might call civic signage. Then I came across a blog, by Simon Hawkesworth, a Lancastrian whose interest is in letterforms. In fact his blog is called City of Letters. Here’s what he discovered when he visited Ripon.
He wrote this post on his blog. Now I don’t have to: enjoy

The Ramblers Return

About time too.  Five weeks in England, and still we hadn’t got out and done a Proper Walk.  With a Proper Group.  Blame the general business of unpacking, organising furniture, pots and pans, clothes, books, pictures and day-to-day Stuff in our new home.  Blame constant strings of communication with officials who Need-To-Know our new details.  Add in those who fail to respond, perhaps because they no longer have local offices and, understaffed,  are too overwhelmed with work (DVLA ?), and you have all, well, some of the excuses you need for our having failed to get a decent walk in.

There was a certain reluctance too.  So many of our happiest times in France were spent discovering the region with our Sunday and Thursday walking friends. Apart from the scenery, we remember with so much nostalgia the conviviality and the leisurely picnics, as we all produced cheeses, charcuterie, bottles of wine and home-made cakes to share at the lengthy midday pause.

All the same, we shouldn’t have worried.  Yesterday we met members from a local group, unsurprisingly the one from Ripon.  We got ourselves to Wensleydale, to a picturesque village called West Burton, and had a hearty, but not too hearty, walk across to Aysgarth, before winding our way back.  We loved it.  The group was welcoming and friendly.  The walk had just the right amount of challenge – we have become just a bit unfit – and the views were all we hoped for.  The weather was good too.  Breezy, but not cold, and plenty of sunshine.

There was only one small disappointment.  At lunch time, British walkers sit with their own personal sandwich, get it eaten, then move on again.  But even that disappointment was relieved when at the end, Our Leader spotted a tea shop.  Sitting round over a large pot of tea, cakes for some, as we reviewed the day was a pretty good end to a pretty good walk.


A new address

You’ve probably given up on me.  I have been silent.  But life has not been silent or tranquil.  We’ve been in England a month now, and since then, we’ve found somewhere to live, moved in and started, but not finished, unpacking.  We’ve started to explore our new neighbourhood, and begun, tentatively, to put down roots.

All of which has been complicated by our being somewhat incommunicado.  We had, until today, no land-line or internet connection.  Our (shortly to be ex-) mobile provider offers no connectivity whatsoever for several miles in every direction, so the whole business of communicating with the outside world has been put somewhat on hold, at a time when whole swathes of people and organisations require to hear from us, or to contact us.

From today, however, we’ve rejoined the 21st century, as BT came to install a phone line, bringing with it access to the internet and TV.  So here’s an update.

We arrived in England with a ‘must-have’ list when it came to house-hunting.

We wanted:

  • to be in Ripon itself, within walking distance of its shops, library, cinema and so on.
  • to have a house with a small garden or courtyard: apart from anything else, how else do you hang the washing out?
  • to have a garage.  Not necessarily for the car, but to accommodate the mountains of  ‘stuff’ we still seem to have despite our efforts to downsize.

On the first Monday back we found:

  • a flat at the edge of a village without a shop, about four miles from Ripon
  • with no personal outside space
  • and no garage.

It was perfect.  We signed immediately.

You see, this was no ordinary flat.  It’s the oldest part, tucked at the back, of a largely Georgian country house, set in gardens and grounds which include  formal lawns and borders, a secluded walled garden, woodland and grassland.

In fact, it’s not even a flat.  Downstairs, beyond the entrance hall, is an enormous room which we plan to make into our library and study, and which currently is our warehouse.  Upstairs is generously proportioned living space.  Every window offers views of those gardens, and the fields and countryside beyond.

Looking out of the kitchen window towards the walled garden
Looking out of the kitchen window towards the walled garden

Our landlords are the charming and generous owners of the Georgian house, and other members of the family live in nearby buildings converted for their use.  They insist that they want us to enjoy the gardens which give them so much pleasure – and hard work.  They even provide us with extra storage in part of a stable.  We’ve spent the little ‘down-time’ we’ve had exploring the gardens, the adjoining country walks, and getting to know a little about the village: more later about all of this.

We’ve decided that being four miles from Ripon, and just a little further from Masham is a very small price to pay for living in such utterly idyllic surroundings, with delightful landlords and neighbours.  Here’s just a taste of our new surroundings:  we shan’t invite you inside just yet – we’re still unpacking.

‘…. a host of golden daffodils’*

When I realised that we were likely to move from France to England in the Spring, I immediately became anxious – no – panic-stricken, at the thought that this year we might be too late to enjoy one of the glories of English life: daffodils.  Of course, there are daffodils in France, and spectacularly so in hidden woodlands such as the one we visited last April.

But whilst the French have daffodils, they don’t do daffodils as we do here.  All over England, they’re in pots in urban courtyards, crowded into suburban gardens, rambling over country gardens.  They form part of the roadside verges on tiny D roads, march along urban by-passes and ring roads, line dual carriageways, and romp across traffic roundabouts.  Householders buy them two and three bunches at a time and place jugs and vases full of them all over their homes.

I shouldn’t have worried.  Since the moment we arrived, they’ve been at their spectacular best.  It’s impossible to feel anything but joyful when passing by whole armies of those bright yellow flowers nodding cheerfully in the breeze.

And goodness knows, we’ve needed distracting from the tasks in hand.  Since we arrived ten days ago, we’ve found a home to rent,  started the daunting process of re-registering our car in the UK (you can’t buy a tax-disc without having an English MOT, you can’t get an English MOT without an English number plate, you can’t get an English number plate until….. you get the picture), organised moving our goods, registered ourselves hither and yon, started the process of catching up with British friends, tried to maintain contact with French friends…..

…and finally, of course, I’ve changed the title of the blog.  The header, showing our transition from the Pyrenees to the Pennines, was master-minded by our friend, the talented amateur photographer Richard Bown.  He already has a family history blog, but I really hope he’ll begin a photography blog soon and share some of his fantastic images with you.  If he does, I’ll let you know.  Because you will want to subscribe.

*William Wordsworth: ‘The Daffodils’