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The Millennium, a Yorkshire Dales success story

Friday 04 December 2009

Most people have forgotten the near hysteria that gripped the nation a decade ago as the Millennium approached, says our countryside commentator John Sheard. Many of the grandiose projects to mark the year 2,000 failed. But here in the Yorkshire Dales, the Millennium spirit still marches on.

IT IS exactly ten years ago since my wife and I faced what was potentially the biggest social disappointment of our lives: we suddenly discovered we had nowhere to go on the New Year’s Eve of a hundred lifetimes: December 31, 1999.

It is almost forgotten now, the Great Millennium Fever of a decade ago, but then the country was in the grip of near hysteria. On the doomsday front, scientists were predicting that aeroplanes would fall out of the air because their computers could not cope with the change of date – the so-called Millennium Bug – and on the social scene waiters and bar staff were demanding £500 and more to work a single shift on the big night.

hay meadow
Saving the hay meadow

My wife and I had booked, well in advance, a room in an ancient Cumbrian inn owned by a close friend. But he telephoned apologetically in early December saying that he had sold up to a nationwide pub and hotel chain which had made him an offer he just could not refuse.

Not wanting to spend the evening with strangers, we cancelled our booking. But where else could we go? According to the newspapers every room in the UK – nay, in the whole of Christianity - was booked up. But the newspapers, the pundits and the politicians had got it wrong...

Such stories about overbooking and blackmailing staff had put the great British public off: there were empty rooms all over the place and the owner of Herriot’s Hotel Skipton had got so fed up with the whole business that she closed down for the night and gave her staff a huge party, including free bedrooms to anyone who wanted to stay. Thankfully, my wife and I were invited at the last minute and had the proverbial ball.

That evening became almost a symbol of the pretty horrendous decade which was to bring in the 21st Century. Elsewhere, although the planes continued to fly, much of Britain suffered from bitter disappointment and not a little anger.

The firework display along the Thames in London was a fizzling failure and the party at infamous Dome – promoted so hard by the then Peter, now Lord, Mandelson – was so badly organised that even the Queen was kept waiting.

The Dome, which was to cost the taxpayer tens of millions of pounds in maintenance and was only sold to the private sector a couple of years ago, was just one of many Millennium Misconceptions. Dozens of grandiose, multi-million-pound projects like the Earth Centre near Doncaster were never finished in time for the actual deadline and later went bust.

Even the Cumbrian pub where we didn’t spend the night was totally ruined by the pub chain that had bought it at a ridiculously high price. But here in the Yorkshire Dales, something had been born which is still going strong and which has done an enormous amount of good for dozens of the villages and tiny hamlets that dot our hills and valleys: the Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust. And from the very beginning, its policy was: small is beautiful.

it spends every penny on small but beautiful projects...

Unlike the towering but doomed ambitions of national politicians like Mandelson, the YDMT policy from the very beginning was to act as a “seed corn” provider for projects like village institute improvements or support for self-help groups working on local environmental projects.

This policy was set by one of its most important backers, local farmer Robert Heseltine, former chairman of the Yorkshire Dales National Park and Craven District Council. A tough-minded countryman who knew how to get things done, he realised that to pump millions into one mind-blowing Millennium project was exactly what the Dales did not want.

Yet this was no small beer operation. The trust has a budget of some £1.5 million a year from various grants-giving bodies and personal donations and it spends every penny on small but beautiful projects. One of them is promoting of traditional Dales hay meadows, lush pastures brimming with wild flowers, rare birds like the yellow wagtail and other wildlife, which were in danger of disappearing under cares of mono-culture silage production.

Another is tree planting in clumps around the Dales, which have one of the lowest areas of woodland in the UK, thanks to the spread of sheep pastures in the 18th and 19th Centuries. In the last financial year, it doled out £223,000 in grants to no fewer than 76 small voluntary groups, some of which help the disabled or people with learning difficulties. It has attracted £5.5 million just in National Lottery funds.

My grandchildren, who live in South East Asia where my son works in the oil business, have a small put important stake in the Yorkshire Dales, which they love to visit: each has planted a tree under a YDMT sponsorship scheme. This was one of my Christmas presents some years ago and from their home in Jakarta they can watch a virtual tree grow just like theirs ... on their computers!

Sadly, the first decade of the 21st Century has been a pretty grim affair, what with bloody wars abroad and financial breakdown at home. Rural areas and agriculture have fared badly under New Labour, which seems unable to grasp the realities of country life. Thankfully, country folk have the nous to look after themselves, which is why the YDMT is still marching on whilst other over-inflated Millennium projects are dead, buried and forgotten. Congratulations!

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