Bird Life in the Dales

I’ve just been to the Dales Countryside Museum for the ‘big handover’ of all of the prints that I’ve taken from Marie Hartley’s wood engraving blocks. There are two sets of 129 prints made from 127 blocks (2 were double-sided!). I had to leave the linocuts unprinted because they’d degraded over time and become hard, cracked and warped. I didn’t want to damage them further and, although I tentatively tried to print one block, I wouldn’t have been able to get a decent print from them. I’m really happy to have played a part in this important archive and to help realise one of Fiona Rosher’s dreams for the museum. I then spent a couple hours reading some of Marie’s diaries that she wrote when she was working and living with Ella Pontefract and then Joan Ingilby.

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The diaries often contain illustrations, poetry, natural objects, christmas cards & other ephemera.

I have just read the heart-breaking entries from the time of Ella’s death and the year anniversary of it. I will write a little more about the women’s lives and the important part that Joan’s friendship played in helping Marie to recover in another post. The diaries that I have just been reading were written before, during and after the second world war and provide a fascinating insight into how it affected the people living in the Dales.

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An entry from 1950 which included petrol rationing tokens.

I’m currently visiting different areas of the Dales (written about in Marie’s books) with a view to collecting ideas for new work and I’m taking photos and making notes of what I see. I’ve got various lists of all the wildlife that I’ve been seeing and I was delighted to find numerous entries in Marie’s diaries that record the birds that she saw each year.

IMG_6152IMG_6153IMG_6158IMG_6154I think that one of the most poignant things is the fact that she refers to seeing corncrakes near Askrigg and these have now vanished from the Yorkshire Dales. I’ve been out and about and seen some really amazing wildlife. Here are some collages of photos taken on my visits to Muker, Keld, Penyghent, Plover Hill and Semerwater.

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Top L-R: lamb on Kisdon, eggshell at Snaizeholme, Lapwing above Stalling Busk. Middle L-R: Red squirrel at Snaizeholme, Curlew, fox cub. Bottom L-R: pied wagtail at Malham, me on Kisdon!, sheep on Kisdon.

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Top L-R: primroses on Kisdon, cloudberry on Plover Hill, Birds Eye Primrose near Yockenthwaite. Middle L-R: Saxifrage on Plover Hill, Bluebells on Kisdon, Mountain primrose on Penyghent. Bottom L-R: cotton grass on Plover Hill, Purple Saxifrage on Penyghent, meadows at Muker

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Top L-R: Oyster catcher at Keld, Wheatear at Muker, Ring Ouzel near Plover Hill. Middle L-R: Sandpiper at Kisdon Force, Lapwing above Stalling Busk, sported flycatcher at Muker. Bottom L-R: Meadow Pipit on Penyghent, canada geese with goslings on Semerwater, grey wagtail at Kisdon Force.

I often run my routes because it means that I can go further and to places that I wouldn’t get to when walking. I don’t mind getting wet in bogs or scrambling through heather when I’m in my running shoes and I also find that I see far more wildlife and the animals and birds seem less bothered by me. I often spot things and hide out of sight so I can watch without disturbing. For me, these times are some of the most joyful in life. I gain a clarity of thought and I often solve solutions to my printmaking conundrums as I’m running up a hill or across an open moor. Running can be meditative and it is the perfect counterpoint to my sedentary days in the studio.

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A golden plover seen near the cairn at the summit of Kisdon yesterday.

I carry a small Canon Powershot camera that fits in my hand or a bumbag and I chose one with a powerful zoom lens. I’m really enjoying sketching from life for this project and am looking forward to doing more landscape studies ‘in the field’ but it is virtually impossible for me to draw fleeting encounters with birds and animals and so I have always spent time watching to get to know them and then used my huge reference library of photos to help me get accurate details in my prints. The rest is then left to my imagination, my memory of landscape and artistic licence! I have enormous respect for the likes of Robert Gillmor who has spent a lifetime studying and drawing birds from life in order to make his exquisite prints.

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Top: Studies from life of grasses and meadow plants which were made to understand the structure for when I am cutting my collagraph prints. Below: lapwing studies made from my photographs to help me understand how they fly so that I can make prints that capture the essence of their behaviour.

Marie, Ella and Joan spent their lifetimes getting to know the Yorkshire Dales and their books are as much about the people living there as of the land itself. Marie’s diaries have many entries about time spent with fascinating people learning about life and traditions in the Yorkshire Dales. Whilst I’m not aiming to write a book about the people of the Dales, I do hope that the artwork I make will show how the landscape has been shaped and moulded by the farming, mining and other human interactions with the land and how, in many cases, that has made incredible habitats for wildlife to thrive. As a result of this project, I’ve already met some really interesting farmers and landowners who have made conservation a priority in their work and I hope that will be reflected in some of my prints.

Meadows at Muker

For anyone that is new to my blog, I’m currently working on a project with the Dales Countryside Museum. I’ve been printing up their archive of Marie Hartley MBE’s wood engraving blocks that were used to illustrate her books about Swaledale, Wensleydale and Wharfedale written with Ella Pontefract. I’m now in the next phase of the project which is to carry out research in the form of looking at the archive of her notebooks, diaries and sketchbooks and going out ‘into the field’ to get inspiration for a new body of my own work to be exhibited at the museum gallery in 2020.

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Today I’ve been sketching meadow grasses and flowers for reference for new prints inspired by the glorious upland meadows (of which the Yorkshire Dales National Park has a few). In the 1930s, Marie and Ella wrote about ‘haytime’ in the dales, of a time when whole communities were involved in the cutting and collecting of the hay, machinery was pulled by horses and the hay was then stored in the famous stone barns (often known as cow’us or laithe) ready for feeding the overwintering cattle and sheep.

(A selection of Marie Hartley’s wood engravings depicting aspects of hay making)

“When hay-time comes, generally towards the middle of July, everything else is put aside. All the women help, extra daughters appear miraculously from service. Irishmen are sometimes employed by farmers with small families. In a very wet summer much of the hay has to be left to rot in the fields, and some of the grass is never cut. When hay-time is well and safely over, a wave of relief goes through the upper dale”. (from Swaledale, 1934)

The meadows were not only fragrant, extremely beautiful and a rich source of food they were also very important ecosystems supporting a wide variety of invertebrates which were then fed on by numerous birds and animals. Unfortunately, as agricultural practises have changed and intensified, over the last fifty years 98% of meadows in the UK have been destroyed.

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The Yorkshire Dales have also lost a proportion of their traditional meadows but, fortunately, due to the work of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority (YDNPA), Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust (YDMT) and Natural England alongside committed farmers and landowners, the last twenty or so years has seen the conservation and restoration of species-rich meadows. This is a subject that I’ve been interested in since moving to the Yorkshire Dales and further information can be found at the websites of the YDMT & YDNPA. Times are very different now and ecology and economics mean that we’re unlikely to go back to the days of meadow-strewn Dales but what is being created is a network of species-rich meadows that everyone can benefit from and that are being managed with the help of modern machinery alleviating some of the hardships that the farming community of Marie’s time would have suffered. They are not only useful as a fodder crop of animals but attractive to wildlife, the local community and a visitor attraction which helps the local economy.

Due to Ella and Marie’s obvious love of the area, I’ve been visiting and revisiting locations around Kisdon fell (I am a fellrunner after all)  which include Muker, Thwaite, Angram and Keld. The meadows at Muker, which have been given Coronation status, are currently at their most stunning.

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This is the perfect time to visit. They are colourful and smell amazing, swallows and swifts swoop over them to feed on the many insects that they attract and there are so many different plant species. You can see yellow rattle, pignut, red clover, wood crane’s bill, eyebright, rough hawkbit, cat’s ear, meadow buttercups, lady’s mantle, crosswort, speedwell and melancholy thistle to name but a few!

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“In this grave sweet valley of the Swale meadows like the flowery meads of medieval paintings burgeon in early summer. Perhaps nowhere else in the dale does the yellow of buttercups splash the fields more boldly, or the pink of crane’s-bill tinge them more deeply, or wayside bushes shower sprays of pink and white roses more freely than here round Gunnerside and Muker” so says Joan Ingilby and Marie Hartley in their book, The Yorkshire Dales, 1956.

Sketchbooks and Wood Blocks

At the time that I’m writing this, I’ve just printed the last of the Dales Countryside Museum’s collection of wood engraving blocks created by Marie Hartley MBE. I’ve completed ten public sessions at the museum and met some very interesting people connected by a shared love of the legacy created by Marie, Ella and Joan. Artists, farmers, writers, photographers, people that knew her and people that didn’t (but wish they had). Many had stories to share, brought their own prints by Marie to show me and were pleased to have the opportunity to see her exquisite wood engravings close up. I’m now entering the next phase of the project and I will be continuing my research on her life and work by reading her notebooks and looking at her sketchbooks. I’ve read the three ‘Dales books’: Swaledale, Wensleydale and Wharfedale and have also read her beautiful memoire to Ella Pontefract, ‘Yorkshire Heritage’. Other works that I’m finding particularly useful are ‘Forms and Colours’ (about her artwork); ‘A Favoured Land’ (an appreciation of all of the books with essays); Yorkshire Cottage & The Yorkshire Dales. I’ve also started exploring certain areas which I intend to make my own work about.

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I love this image from Marie’s Swaledale sketchbook. It features a sketch of Crackpot Hall before it became a deserted ruin and the resulting wood engraving. Those combined with the notes, boot and ghostly birds are the distilled essence of the project for me.

I have a full calendar year in which to create my new prints and I intend to make use of that by visiting specific places regularly throughout the year, observing the changes in the landscape and the different flora and fauna. Narrowing down my subject has been extremely difficult and I’m hoping that my research will help with that. I have started by deciding to concentrate on places written about in the three Dales books as these are illustrated by the wood engravings. I’ve then used my research so far to work out places that Marie and Ella repeatedly visited or had a particular love for and I would like to include some locations from each book. As a fellrunner, I am particularly keen for each place to centre around at least one prominent fell. I’m currently visiting:

In Swaledale: Kisdon with the surrounding areas of Muker, Keld, Angram, Thwaite and most probably heading up into Birkdale which was a firm favourite for Marie and Ella. There are some fascinating manmade structures within this area that tell the story of its past mining and farming practises and combined with the rich ecological habitats, it really is a gem of a place that I’ve totally fallen in love with.

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Overlooking Crackpot Hall towards Muker with Kisdon on the right (Oct’18)

In Wensleydale:  Addlebrough from Semerwater with Raydale, Cragdale and Bardale and the moors above Stalling Busk. As the second largest natural lake in North Yorkshire (the first being Malham Tarn) being concealed from the main road it is almost a hidden wonder. It is also the source of the river Bain which, at only 2 miles long, is the UK’s shortest river.

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Overlooking the old ruined 18th Century church at Stalling Busk towards Semerwater.

In Wharfedale: Penyghent from Littondale including Foxup. I am delighted that it is included in ‘Wharfedale’ because I have always loved Littondale and Penyghent is my favourite hill which I have explored extensively in all weathers and at all times of day (and night). I can see it from my studio!

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Penyghent viewed on the ascent of Fountains Fell (Nov’18)

I’m also exploring Wether Fell, Dodd Fell & Snaizeholme and I will be settling on more locations as I do more research.

I’m looking for places that have their own special character making them distinctly different from other areas. The fells within each area often rise as singular hills which are easily recognisable from all directions. I also want to look at areas that are noted for their special scientific interest in terms of their flora and fauna. It seems apparent to me that the Yorkshire Dales has changed dramatically since the time that Ella and Marie wrote the books. They captured and recorded a way of life that was on the cusp of changing forever being affected by the technological advances in agriculture, the increased use of cars and tourism. However, what hasn’t changed is the geography of the area and combined with natural processes and human influences, the Yorkshire Dales National Park is home to some of the most diverse wildlife habitats in the UK. I want to explore those and to see how their history is written on the landscape.

In future posts I will be writing about these places and my experiences when working in them, more about Marie and her life and the things that I discover as I continue my research.