Beep, Beep, Beep. ‘Don’t worry, it’s just the car letting us know how cold it is outside,’ says assistant AONB officer Sarah Kettlewell. We don’t really need the warning: we’re driving along an ice-covered road and can clearly see patches of last week’s snow still clinging to the hillside.
We’re in the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), 600-plus square kilometres of bracing moors and farmland attached to the eastern side of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, on our way up to the chilly-sounding Scar House Reservoir – ten billion litres of water contained by what must be one of the grandest dams in Britain.
Building the dam ‘was a dangerous job,’ says Kettlewell. ‘Many people died in industrial accidents or from pneumonia.’ It’s no surprise: there’s little natural shelter up here and the wind quickly saps your strength. We waddle over the ice like inept penguins to look at the dam’s dressed-stone exterior and proud, castle-like turrets, which tower over the river valley.
‘Eleven reservoirs were built here in the AONB between 1875 and 1966,’ says Kettlewell, who is in charge of the Source to City project, which was started in 2007 to document the reservoirs’ heritage. ‘They were built to supply the huge demand for water from local cities such as Bradford and Leeds during the Industrial Revolution.’
As thousands of rural workers flooded into these cities looking for work at the new mills and factories, they created slum-like areas, and with no sewers, human waste piled up in the streets. The arrival of Nidderdale water ‘prevented a huge health crisis’, says Kettlewell. ‘People were dying from cholera because they were drinking water out of puddles.’ To house the reservoir construction workers, a temporary village for more than 1,000 people was built, with homes, shops, a library, a school, a golf course, tennis courts, a dance hall and a cinema. ‘They loved living up here,’ says Kettlewell. ‘Compared to what they were used to, it was the lap of luxury – they even had indoor toilets.’
Because the buildings were wooden, only their foundations are now visible, but the reservoirs are still supplying water to nearby cities. ‘It’s what links us,’ says Kettlewell, who plans to show city children where their water comes from and country children where it goes.
However, this fluid connection between the uplands and the cities has its drawbacks, with heavy rains in the former sometimes leading to floods in the latter, particularly in places such as York and Ripon. To prevent this, the AONB staff are looking at stemming the water flow by blocking some of the drainage channels that were cut into the moorlands during the post-war era in an attempt to increase agricultural productivity. This will also help to keep the peat moist and ensure that it continues to act as a carbon sink. ‘There’s more carbon locked up in UK peat than in all the woodlands of UK and France,’ says AONB officer Paul Burgess.
But they have to make sure they don’t go too far because ‘heather doesn’t like to get its feet wet’, says local landowner Tom Wheelwright. And heather is food for the red grouse, which injects substantial sums into the local economy by providing what many see as the best game shooting in the UK. ‘It’s wild birds in a wild country,’ explains Wheelwright.
Notorious for its wealthy fans (‘You can tell when the shooting season is open because all the helicopters start flying around,’ says Kettlewell), grouse shooting contributes more than £600,000 in wages for people such as gamekeepers and beaters, £250,000 to local businesses such as pubs and guest houses, and around £1.75million for land management, Wheelwright says.
This land management includes burning the heather to ensure that there are three types of moorland for the grouse: open ground for drying off in, young heather to eat and older, woody heather to hide in. Predators (mainly foxes and rats) are also controlled, which helps to boost numbers of other ground-nesting species, including lapwings and curlews.
This isn’t the first time that the Nidderdale area has acted as a playground for the wealthy. During the 1750s, landscape designer William Aislabie created a sort of natural theme park with follies and sculpted natural features in Hackfall Wood to amuse visiting friends.
According to AONB ranger Barry Slaymaker, Aislabie and his friends would have arrived by coach to a constructed ruin at the top of the valley called the Banqueting House, rushed through the back doors and ‘been flung out onto this terrace and the amazing views’ of the buildings and lakes in the woods below, and the Yorkshire countryside in the distance.
The buildings commissioned by Aislabie include ruined castles and Grecian temples, built to complement extensive remodelling of river banks and views. ‘The idea came about from the Grand Tour that the sons of landed gentry went on at the time,’ says Slaymaker.
During the Victorian era, the park was opened to the public, before being bought by a timber merchant during the Great Depression. ‘He did what timber merchants do,’ says Slaymaker. ‘He cropped the lot.’ Amazingly, the buildings were left almost untouched, and over the past few years, they’ve been restored by the Hackfall and Woodland trusts with support from a £1million Heritage Lottery Fund grant.
‘As it’s a site of special scientific interest and a semi-natural ancient woodland, the natural history competes with the historical restoration,’ says Slaymaker. ‘We don’t want to compromise the natural features too much to restore the vistas.’
The trusts have created a car park, reopened some of the pathways and cut down some of the trees so that the original views of the temples and ruins, which inspired artists such as Turner and poets such as Wordsworth, can be seen again by the public.
Hackfall is an incongruously frivolous use of the Nidderdale landscape. ‘Most of the AONB is shaped in some way by farming,’ says Burgess, who explains that around 95 per cent of the building-free land is farmer-managed. ‘Even though it doesn’t contribute huge amounts to the economy, it’s very important, as the decisions that farmers make have a profound effect on the landscape.’
He believes that for the AONB to be judged successful, he needs to make sure that the community, including farmers, also wants to conserve the landscape. To make sure this happens, Marian Wilby, the AONB’s farm conservation adviser, has secured nearly £1million of grants for farmers since 2006 through agri-environment schemes, enabling them to manage their land more sensitively.
Burgess is also keen for the AONB to be valued for the identity it brings to the region. ‘When people think of Yorkshire, they often think of its countryside rather than its cities, because cities tend to look alike,’ he says. ‘The Dales, including Nidderdale, helps give the area a distinctive regional identity, which is beneficial in terms of tourism and economic development.’
And identity isn’t the only way that he thinks the AONB can benefit the region. He believes the area is far more than a pretty place for people to come and visit and needs to be seen as such. ‘AONB farmers produce high-quality food, the moors help prevent downstream flooding, our reservoirs supply high-quality drinking water, our peat sequesters carbon, and we are a place to get fit and healthy,’ says Burgess. ‘We need to be valued as a provider of ecosystem services.’
Where to see what the landscape would look like without grouse shooting
At Brimham Rocks, a 20-hectare area of moorland scattered with sandstone tors. ‘Grouse moorland is an artificial landscape. Brimham Rocks is much more what this area would have looked like: plenty of heather and shrubs coming up.’
Tom Wheelwright, owner of a nearby grouse moorland
Where to walk around a reservoir
At Scar House. ‘The Scar House Reservoir is remote and isolated, in high, dramatic moorlands. There’s a circular route on the Yorkshire Water website that takes you around it in a couple of hours. It’s quite steep in places and not for everyone, but very characteristic of the AONB landscape.’
Sarah Kettlewell, assistant AONB officer and coordinator of the Source to City project
What to eat
Local meat. ‘Although the area doesn’t have many regionally distinct products because most of the farming in the region is grazing-oriented, it’s well known for its high-quality beef and lamb. The Nidderdale AONB Visitor Centre website – www.visitnidderdaleaonb.com – lists a number of local producers.’
Paul Burgess, AONB officer
Where to spot woodland wildlife
In Hackfall Wood. ‘There are three types of woodpecker there – lesser-spotted, great-spotted and green – as well as other birds, including warblers, flycatchers, nuthatches, treecreepers and goosanders. And if you’re very lucky, you might see an otter from Fisher’s Hall.’
Barry Slaymaker, AONB ranger
This article was published in the March 2009 edition of Geographical magazine.