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.

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.

Swithun, Benedictional of St. Æthelwold, Winchester, 10th century, British Library (Wikimedia Commons)

Swithin, Benedictional of St. Æthelwold, Winchester, 10th century, British Library (Wikimedia Commons)

It was Saint Swithin’s Day last Wednesday (15th July).  I thought everyone knew that.  But when I mentioned it to a group of younger people I was chatting with that morning, they looked at me with blank incomprehension.

St Swithin’s day if thou dost rain

For forty days it will remain

St Swithin’s day if thou be fair

For forty days ’twill rain nae mare

Yes, apparently the weather we get on Saint Swithin’s day is the weather we can expect for the next forty days.  Nobody really knows why this blameless 9th century Bishop of Winchester is responsible for his apparent hold over the climate in high summer. He seems to have been a nice chap.  He held banquets to which he invited the poor, not the rich.  He miraculously restored a basket of eggs that workmen has maliciously broken.  He asked that on his death, he should be buried outside the cathedral, rather than inside, so that passers-by would tread on his grave, and so that it should be regularly watered from the skies. But in 971, he was moved to a new indoor shrine.  And lo!  The heavens opened.  Perhaps this is where the legend originated.

But it has a measure of truth. Round about mid July, the jet stream settles into a pattern that holds good until round about the end of August.

Not this year.  Saint Swithin’s day was pretty good: warm, fresh and sunny.  Since then though, we’ve had cold days, hot days, or like this morning, woken up to driving rain. As this picture sort of shows.

Looking out of the window at breakfast time today.

Looking out of the window at breakfast time today.

Here are some pictures of a walk I took yesterday, a day on which Saint Swithin kept his promise made on Wednesday.  It was a day of high summer, with the crops ripening fatly in the fields, the verges crammed with tall plants that often obscured the view, and a warm refreshing breeze in the air.  That’s what Saint Swithin is supposed to deliver. He’s got some 36 days left to remember to keep his promise – every day.

The local landscape.

The local landscape.

We’ve just come back from Herefordshire, where we’ve been helping our friend Hatti celebrate a Big Birthday.  She and her family have a cottage there – it’s been in their family for decades now – in the back-end of nowhere, alongside the River Lugg.  If you don’t like fishing, or walking the hills and vales, or mooching along woodland paths, best not go there.  If you’re in a hurry, don’t go.  You’ll only meet a tractor on a narrow single-track road and be forced to reverse all the way back to the last junction.  There’s no nightlife, no shopping malls, no nearby towns, not much of any evidence of 21st century life – the family cottage doesn’t even have electricity, for goodness sake:  gaslight in the evening is a reposing and rather nostalgic experience.

History, though.  The area has history.  It’s part of the Welsh Marches, that border territory between Wales and England that was fought and skirmished over pretty constantly  from the time of the Romans, by Angles, Saxons, Normans and countless ancient tribes, right up to the time of the Tudors.  Offa’s Dyke, that 8th century earthwork which largely defined the Welsh border for centuries can still be seen not too far from here.  This was frontier territory, crammed with motte-and-bailey castles, and garrison towns such as Hereford and Shrewsbury.  An area of gently undulating hills, deep and wooded secret valleys, it’s a territory that must have lent itself to scraps, battles and long-drawn-out tit-for-tat fighting between the area’s war lords.

It’s hard to imagine now.  Those hills and valleys are patchworked with fields where cattle and sheep browse the meadow grass, and where crops are maturing, ready for the summer harvest.  The woods are still there though, and there are trees so old that they may have seen some of those ancient conflicts.  There’s an interesting story surrounding the gnarled and twisted sweet chestnuts and oaks in the parkland of Croft Castle, just down the road from where we were staying.  It’s said the sweet chestnuts trees were planted in 1588, in the formation of the Spanish Armada.

Oaks represented the English navy.  Though some trees are even older.  This oak tree is thought to be 1000 years old.

The 1000 year old Quarry Oak at Croft Castle.

The 1000 year old Quarry Oak at Croft Castle.

Carry on walking though, and you’ll climb upwards and find yourself on the site of an Iron Age hill fort.  Recent excavations there have found evidence too of Romano-British fire ceremonies, animal sacrifice and feasting.  Nowadays, it’s enough to marvel at the views across to England one way, Wales the other.  It’s said you can see 14 counties on a clear day.  We couldn’t, but that may say as much about our command of the local geography as anything else.

Commanding views of several counties, in England..... and Wales.

Commanding views of several counties, in England….. and Wales.

We had a wonderfully satisfying break: peaceful, lovely countryside to explore, with the added bonus of parkland, gardens, ancient churches.  And while Herefordshire remains rather difficult to get at from just about anywhere else in England, it’ll probably go on being one of the country’s best kept secrets.

Croft Castle seen from its walled garden.

Croft Castle seen from its walled garden.

We went to London yesterday.  We didn’t visit Tate Modern or take a trip on the London Eye.  We didn’t look at the Tower of London or visit the Wren Churches, or wander round Spitalfields, or Petticoat Lane market. We had no interest in galleries, palaces, parks, museums, shops or going for a meal

We went straight to the home of my son and daughter-in-law, Tom and Sarah, and we arrived shortly after Sarah’s parents, Brian and Sue.  They hadn’t been sight-seeing either.

All any of us wanted to do was to play ‘Pass the Parcel’.  All day.  Because we had a very special parcel indeed.  This one.



Meet William Francis, born a whole fortnight early, last Tuesday.  We grandparents all raced to London the first moment we could, and spent the whole day quite simply passing him round….. and round.  You may disagree if you’ve had babies of your own, but to us, he’s the very best baby in the world.

There have been other ‘best babies’ of course.  Those twins, Alex and Ben, born 10 years ago fitted the bill then.  Sarah and Tom’s nephew Lucas claimed the title five years ago.  But this is William’s moment.  Here he is, all 7 lb. 2 oz. of him, being passed from granny to grandma, back to Sarah to be fed, to grandad,and step-grandad then back to Sarah to be fed again.  Through all of this, he slept contentedly, only waking occasionally to stare fixedly at whoever was cuddling him at the time…. or to demand yet another feed.  We thought it was a pretty fine way to pass a summer Sunday.

A midsummer garden

I’ve got some good news to share.  But I plan to do so in another couple of days…. you’ll see why.

So today I’ve decided to follow American blogging friend Clay’s suggestion, and share a few pictures of an English garden in midsummer.

We are lucky.  We rent a property attached to a large house. Surrounding this house is a large garden, which we’re encouraged to enjoy.

Here you are.  Enjoy it with us.

Here’s a town we Brits should know.  It’s where 1066 And All That really began.  William of Normandy and his troops set sail from here, landed on the English south coast and won the Battle of Hastings.  William became King of England, introduced a whole new French vocabulary into the English language (‘Pork or beef, madam?’), and his brother Odo commissioned the first strip cartoon, the Bayeux tapestry, to record and commemorate the event.  Later though, in 1431, the English held Joan of Arc captive here, before conveying her to Rouen to be burnt at the stake.

En route from France to England: a detail from the Bayeux Tapestry (Wikimedia Commons)

En route from France to England: a detail from the Bayeux Tapestry (Wikimedia Commons)

Even without those compelling reasons to make a pilgrimage, Saint Valery is worth a detour.  It was and is a harbour and a fishing town with a picturesque mediaeval centre.  Like many pretty towns on the coast, it’s popular with writers and artists: Victor Hugo, Jules Verne, Alfred Sisley and Edgar Degas  all had homes here, and we spent a pleasant day exploring, poking round the (rather touristy) Sunday market, choosing a restaurant-stop, and generally enjoying the pleasures of a seaside town.

While we were there, something special happened.  After lunch (moules, what else?) we wandered down to the beach.  There, on the other side of the estuary, were sheep, paddling.  Dozens of sheep, scores of sheep, hundreds of sheep.  They’re unique.  They’re bred from English Suffolk and Hampshire sheep, and they spend their lives grazing the salt marshes., which gives them a highly regarded flavour, rich in mineral salts, and the name ‘Estran salt meadow lamb’.  The life of those sheep, and their shepherds, and sheep dogs, is an energetic one.  They have to keep moving each and every day to avoid getting stuck in the damp and boggy sand.  Their shepherds keep an eye on them, oiling their feet to prevent foot rot, and every night the flock returns to pens with fresh straw via a special tunnel under the road.

Sheep grazing at the estuary.

Sheep grazing at the estuary.

Before we left, we wandered through the harbour, and up to the Chapelle des Marins, a neo-Gothic building, built on the site where the hermit-saint Gualaric, who gave his name to the town, once lived.  It’s a good place from which to say ‘Goodbye’ to the town and get some final views of the bay.

Farmland outside Saint-Valery-sur-Somme.

Farmland outside Saint-Valery-sur-Somme.


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