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View from a hide at Nosterfield.

View from a hide at Nosterfield.

Not far from here, only about two miles as the crow flies, is a nature reserve, Nosterfield Local Nature Reserve.  And ‘as the crow flies’ is an appropriate way to measure the journey there, because above all else, it’s a bird reserve.  Even more than that, it’s a wetland reserve.

 

Evening at Nosterfield.

Evening at Nosterfield.

 

Until the 1990s, this was a landscape quarried for its sand and gravel, exposing the underlying limestone and fluctuating water courses.  Even as the land was worked birds flocked here in search of insects.  Once the quarries closed, the land proved unsuitable for agriculture: the intermittent flooding saw to that.

Wildlife took the site over.  Wading birds adore the muddy margins and insect-rich grasses.  Natives such as lapwing and curlew breed here, whilst many other species, such as sandpipers and godwit drop in as they migrate.  Dozens of other species of bird make this their home, holiday destination, or stop-over site.  At the moment, harvest time, Canada geese are exploiting the riches of the harvest.  If they’re not noisily camping out in the wheat field just behind our house, you can be sure they’ll be at Nosterfield.

 

Since 1996, the area has been a nature reserve.  A group of local naturalists succeeded in buying the site, having formed the Lower Ure Conservation Trust. They manage the site to exploit its already abundant resources.  The fluctuating water levels – up to three metres a year  variation is not unknown – means that there is everything from muddy shallows to small shallow pools to deeper sheets of water.  There’s something for everyone, if you’re a bird who likes water.  Or even if you’re a bird such as a wagtail, linnet or twite, who doesn’t.

The site supports a huge variety of wild flowers and grasses.  That means there are insects, butterflies such as common blue, brimstone, wall brown and white-letter hairstreaks and moths too.  There are rabbits and hares: while voles and shrews are preyed on by kestrels and barn owls. Summer-grazing cattle and sheep assist in managing the landscape: one way or another, this is a success story.

 

A busy evening at Nosterfield

A busy evening at Nosterfield

 

We simply aren’t birders.  Not yet.  But this reserve is doing much to help change all that.  There is a series of well-managed hides, and best of all, a comfortable  unstaffed information centre, with piles of illustrated leaflets and books to help us identify what we’ve seen.  It’s a serene and beautiful place to spend a quiet couple of hours watching the soap opera of bird life unfold, as they feed, raise young, quarrel, swim and wheel about above.  We  love visiting at different times of day, and look forward to coming throughout the seasons to see how the local bird population changes.  By this time next year, we may be able to identify much of what we see.  Maybe.

 

Sunset at Nosterfield

Sunset at Nosterfield

The Old Grange

Here's the Old Grange, as it was in May, with the wisteria out.

Here’s the Old Grange, as it was in May, with the wisteria out.

As we’ve been four months back in England, it’s perhaps time to introduce our home, which answers to the name of ‘The Old Grange’.  I’ve already mentioned that it’s in part of an older building which forms part of a large, mainly Georgian house.  To understand how it came to be built, we’ll have to pay a quick visit to UNESCO World Heritage site, Fountains Abbey, some 5 miles from us as the crow flies.

The nave of the now ruined Fountains Abbey

The nave of the now ruined Fountains Abbey

Back in 1132, there was no Abbey.  But there were 13 monks anxious to build one.  These particular men had joined holy orders in order to live a simple, strict and holy life, and were dismayed by the lax conditions they found in the Benedictine order they had joined.  The Archbishop of York offered them his protection, and the gift of some land near Ripon on the banks of the River Skell.  This area now is a fertile place, with pastureland, woods, stone for quarrying, and the waters of the Skell.  Back then, it was a hostile, overgrown and thoroughly unpromising environment.  The monks joined the Cistercian order which they felt offered the structure and discipline they sought, and strove to emulate the lifestyle promoted by its founder Bernard of Clairvaux.  A tough life of manual labour, self-sufficiency, and prayerful spirituality was the order of the day.

A view of Fountains Abbey: Wikimedia Commons

A view of Fountains Abbey: Wikimedia Commons

To cut a very long  story short – one which I will tell in a future post, because it’s a fascinating one – the Abbey the monks built prospered, to the extent that it became one of the largest, most successful and wealthy monasteries in the whole of Europe.  When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in the 1530s, the buildings and lands belonging to Fountains Abbey sold for over £1,000,000 – unimaginable wealth at the time: the monastery had acquired land over much of Yorkshire and Lancashire.  The simple life of those early monks had changed over the years. The monks themselves devoted more of their time to their spiritual life, with prayerful ritual being an important part of their routine.  The day-to-day work, mainly with sheep and cattle and all the other work associated with farming, both at Fountains itself and at all the other sites, was done by the so-called ‘lay brothers’.  Less educated, they had far fewer spiritual obligations.   And they lived communally in ‘granges’.

All those older buildings you’ll see as you travel around this part of the world, which include ‘grange’ as part of their name owe their existence to the fact that once they housed those lay brothers, mainly from Fountains Abbey.  The room where we sleep once formed part of the dormitory where the men working at our ‘old grange’ once slept.

In truth, it’s hard to believe.  We live in a stone building of traditional design, but with all mod cons.  One of the few signs of the building’s age is the huge fireplace on the ground floor which is now simply an alcove, though we gather it wouldn’t take much to reveal the old spit mechanism.  We have only one room downstairs.  The other spaces, which we have no access to, are now, as then, workspaces and storage areas.

Upstairs, where the bulk of our living space is, was once a single room, as long as the building itself.  In Victorian times, the owners of the larger property which had been built onto the original Old Grange in Georgian times, decided to break up the space into a number of rooms, to make it convenient to use as servants’ quarters.  And this is where we now live.

We find all this thoroughly exciting.  We enjoy noticing other granges as we explore Yorkshire, and we appreciate the connection that we now know we have with Fountains Abbey, a wonderfully beautiful site, whose history has touched the area for so many many miles around.

The Old Grange seen from the walled garden which most certainly was unknown to those lay brothers.

The Old Grange – the top floor dormitory – seen from the walled garden which most certainly was unknown to those lay brothers.

 

 

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 Wednedsay evening practice.

The Crackpot Trail

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If you drive  through Kirkby Malzeard and take signs to Dallowgill, you’ll find yourself leaving rolling green Nidderdale countryside for a more open and bleaker moorland landscape.  There’s a place called Tom Corner where you can park, and that’s where you can start the Crackpot Trail.

The view at the start.

The view at the start.

The Crackpot Trail?  Well, back in 1996, Rural Arts worked with a group of villagers in Kirkby Malzeard to devise and make a series of 22 mosaic plaques to distribute over the route of this circular walk.  They chose subjects to celebrate what the walker might see en route: animals, birds and flowers such as  sheep, curlews, fungi: local features such as the Potato House, where potatoes used to be stored: and there right at the beginning of the walk, a Roman centurion, to commemorate the fact that many years ago, Roman bones were excavated at this rather wild and windy spot.

Our moorland path.

Our moorland path.

It’s a wonderful walk to see the varied landscape of this part of the Dales.  From the moorland, where at this time of year heather is just beginning to burst into bloom….

Early heather.

Early heather.

…. the path takes you back to gentler, farmed countryside, with views of  stone-built farms and hamlets across the hillsides.

The landscape opens out.

The landscape opens out.

You’ll cross peaty streams…….

A stream to cross.

A stream to cross.

….. and walk though ancient oak woods which at the right time of year are carpeted in bluebells.  There’s a bit of everything, even a lunch spot about half way round, at a former pub, the Drover’s Arms, which sadly burnt down in 2013.  But the fire didn’t get the picnic tables: they’re still there for you to sit and eat your sandwiches.

Our drama for the day.  This poor sheep was well and truly trapped.  Somehow, we extricated her.....

Our drama for the day. This poor sheep was well and truly trapped. Somehow, we extricated her…..

....while her companions looked on.

….while her companions looked on.

And this is their daily view.

And this is their daily view.

A perfect, easy and enjoyable day, because this varied, pretty and scenic walk is a mere six and a half miles.  You’ll be home in time for tea.

That's Ripon over there. We've just finished our walk, and it's about to rain.

That’s Ripon over there. We’ve just finished our walk, and it’s about to rain.

It was 4.30.  We were not pleased.  The rain – no, the downpour – had started, and was battering at the windows.  That evening we had tickets for an outdoor performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at nearby Ripley Castle.  The idea was to get there early, with all the rest of the audience,  picnic in the grounds of the castle and then stroll from scene to scene in the woodlands as the play’s plot unfolded and night descended.  By 5.00 this seemed an unlikely possibility.

On the net, we found a single forecast that suggested the rain might blow away, leaving a clear evening.  We decided to believe it.

We passed one of the 'sets' on the way in.

We passed one of the ‘sets’ on the way in.

By 6.30, we’d got to Ripley, joined our friends, and the sun was shining.  By 7.00, the sun was still shining, our picnic was spread out, and the lawns were crowded with a waiting public enjoying an early supper.  And at 7.30, costumed figures started to roam the grounds, some beating noisy rhythms on a whole variety of instruments.

What an evening.  This Midsummer Night’s Dream sets the standard by which I’ll judge all others.  We spent the evening eavesdropping on the fairies who inhabited the woods we wandered through, watching enraptured as they manipulated the lives of the four lovers – or would-be lovers – Hermia, Lysander, Helena and Demetrius, involving as they did so Bottom, one of a company of ‘rude mechanicals’ – tradesmen – who are rehearsing a play which they hope to perform at the wedding of yet another noble pair, Theseus and Hippolyta.

Following the action.

Following the action.

I can’t now imagine the play in any other setting.  The woods provide an eerie, threatening  backdrop for lovers fleeing from planned marriages they don’t want, or would-be lovers they don’t love.  The ancient and characterful trees of the forest are, on the other hand, also home to the King and Queen of the fairies, Oberon and Titania,  and their ‘knavish sprite’ Puck.  Here, disappearing into the hiding places the forest provides, hanging from branches, concealed by leaves, Oberon and Puck watch their plot unfold with all its unintended consequences,  as pools of coloured light illuminate their very own version of fairyland .

One of the sets, as night falls and we all set off home.

One of the sets, as night falls and we all set off home.

Surrounded by so much space, the characters can give true vent to their feelings.  Brawling Helena and Hermia scratch and claw, get grass in their hair and mud on their dresses, whilst the men pursue each other wielding sticks and branches, tumbling in leaves and soil.  The ‘rude mechanicals’ are in danger of stealing the show as they rehearse in the forest, particularly the arch-clown Bottom.  Puck though, is the real fairy.  She truly makes the woods her home,  cackling from high branches, drumming wildly on a succession of instruments which even include tin plant pots and a bath, energetically making gleeful mischief wherever she lands.

Lights in the starlight.

Lights in the starlight.

And we, the audience, are cheerfully cajoled from place to place, lugging our blankets and picnic chairs,  lured by the frenetically drumming, calling and singing company :  from fine lawns in a walled garden fit for nobility, to welcoming woodland glades, to threatening forest  – onwards, onwards, see the plot unfold!

Another woodland glade.

Another woodland glade.

I’m only sorry not to have seen one of these wonderful Sprite productions before.  Every year they take over Ripley Castle grounds for several weeks to offer us their production of a Shakespeare play.  Rarely has the Bard seemed so accessible, so rumbustuous, so much fun.  And after this year, the company’s taking a year out, to re-group and consider the always knotty problem of funding.  Please, Sprite,  let it only be a year.  We’ve only just found you.

The end of a perfect evening.

The end of a perfect evening.

Understandably, photography wasn’t permitted during the show.  These then, are a few ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots.

 

 

Ey up le Tour

North Lees, the hamlet after North Stainley, welcomes the Tour.

North Lees, the hamlet after North Stainley, welcomes the Tour.

The final post about le Tour de France.  I promise.  Because  it’s actually over, as far as Yorkshire’s concerned.  And as far as poor old Mark Cavendish is concerned too.

But Saturday was all about Stage One of the Tour.  Up early, I dashed over to the next village, West Tanfield, to buy a paper before the road closed for the day.  Six mini buses were disgorging security guards who immediately took up positions round the streets.  What could be going on?  Later, I found out.  ‘Wills and Kate’ ( the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to you, please), due to open the Tour at Harewood House between Leeds and Harrogate, were to be helicoptered into West Tanfield at 1.00 o’clock.  Later still, we discovered that my friend Penny was among those who had been presented to the Royal couple – and to Prince Harry too – since her husband’s Chair of the Parish Council there.

West Tanfield would have been a good place to be for other reasons.  The riders swoop down a hill into the village and make a sharp turn over a narrow stone bridge before the long straight run into North Stainley.  So there were vans from radio stations, cranes ready to hoist TV cameras aloft, and would-be spectators galore, already taking their places at prime spots and keeping the local pub and shop busy.

The busy streets of West Tanfield, 8.00 a.m. , Tour Stage One.

The busy streets of West Tanfield, 8.00 a.m. , Tour Stage One.

But we’d decided to stay put.  Daughter and family had come over from Bolton and we decided that we should profit from the fact that the Tour actually passed the end of the drive. We sauntered down to the village to the stalls on the cricket pitch, and watched a little of the early action on the big screen in the village hall.  Back home, we spent a happy quarter of an hour chalking ‘Ey up, Laroque’ on the road to greet all our friends in France when the TV cameras passed over.  It worked, as my camera shot of the TV screen proves.  But it only lasted a second and nobody but us saw it. Ah well.

If you'd watched the TV attentively, you'd have seen our greeting.

If you’d watched the TV attentively, you’d have seen our greeting.

What we saw though were billboard adverts that appeared for the duration all along the roadside for companies that don’t exist in England – PMU, Carrefour –  and which had already disappeared an hour after the racers had passed through.

Ellie, Phil, Ben and Alex welcome the publicity caravan.

Ellie, Phil, Ben and Alex welcome the publicity caravan.

Then, finally …. tour officials in their Skodas…. British police on motorbikes….. French gendarmes on motorbikes….. support vehicles… and the publicity caravan.  It wasn’t as extensive as it had been in France, but there WERE vehicles advertising French companies we don’t have in the UK, as well as British ones too.  The total haul of freebies my grandchildren had thrown towards them consisted of two Skoda sunhats and a key ring.  And then …….. the riders.  Amazingly, after five hours up hill  and down dale they were still riding in a solid phalanx, whirring towards us as a purposeful army.  And then…. they were gone.  Team vehicles loaded up with  spare bikes aloft, more police and ambulance support followed…. and it was over.  For us.  Time to switch on the television and follow the action into Harrogate.

Rabbits on Tour.

Rabbits on Tour.

My shockingly bad - and only - photo of the riders passing our gate.

My shockingly bad – and only – photo of the riders passing our gate.

Disappointingly, my crop of Tour photos is exceptionally poor.  So  I’ll focus on a final look at North Stainley, which took the Tour to its heart, and delivered a very special homage to France and the Tour de France.

 

Knaresborough Market Place.

Knaresborough Market Place.

Off to Harrogate today, via Knaresborough, which has just been voted Best Dressed Town ahead of the Tour de France.  It’s done a fine job.  The whole town is festooned with bunting: not the signature knitted-yellow-jersey bunting favoured all over the rest of the district, but hundreds upon hundreds of white T-shirts, decorated by the schoolchildren of the town.  It all looks very festive, and combined with a yellow bike trail to send you bike-spotting down every street and in every shop window, it’s made for a fine community effort.  I still have a soft spot for red-spotted Hawes however, which we visited last week.  But Knaresborough’s Mayor has tricked out his house in red spots too.

Knaresborough's spotted house on a busy corner.

Knaresborough’s spotted house on a busy corner.

Harrogate though.  What a shock.  We were diverted away from West Park Stray, and once we’d  parked up, we discovered why.  This usually car-filled thoroughfare was a pedestrian-only zone.  No, that’s not true.  There were no cars, but instead, huge articulated lorries, buses, media vehicles from all over Europe, Tour de France  vehicles so large that no ordinary parking place could accommodate them.  There was even an immense lorry whose purpose was to offer, at just the right moment, 3 rows of tiered seats for about 3 dozen spectators.  All this circus came from the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Germany…. but above all, from France.

All around us, busy teams of workmen and women, technicians, electricians, craftspeople, media types rushed busily around, talking in the main in French.  We spotted registration plates from Val-de-Marne; le Nord; Pas-de-Calais; even the Haute Garonne, the next door département to the Ariège.  And suddenly, I was assailed by homesickness.  It was just like being back in France.  There was even a marquee filled with one particular team of workers sitting down together and sharing a midday meal.  That really whisked us back.  We wandered about, listening in, and engineering conversations with any French type taking a breather.  England’s nice, we’re given to understand, but our motorways are a nightmare.  We know.

But this immense team is only one of several.  There are others in Leeds, in York, in Sheffield, Cambridge and London, the other five towns where the three English stages begin or end.  I’d never previously understood quite what an industry the Tour de France really is.

Local teams from Harrogate itself had already uprooted many of the town’s pride and joy, its colourful flower-beds, in favour of providing viewing platforms for spectators who want to see the Race finish there on Day One.  I expect it was the right decision.  No self-respecting flowers could survive the expected onslaught, and the beds that remain look particularly magnificent.

When we’d looked around for a while, we nipped into a supermarket for some odds and ends we’d forgotten.  This is what the fresh produce department looked like……….

One more shopping day before le Tour.....

One more shopping day before le Tour…..

Normal life has been suspended, for one weekend only.

Back in the shopping quarter, Duttons for Buttons celebrates le Tour ... entirely in buttons.

Back in the shopping quarter, Duttons for Buttons celebrates le Tour … entirely in buttons.

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