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In the frame: the Dales through an outsider's eyes

Friday 28 April 2006

Our countryside commentator John Sheard pays tribute to the artistry of an offcumden whose photography has earned her a rare photographic exhibition at the Dales Countryside Museum

A MONTH ago in this column, I wrote a piece about the difficulties and the rewards in the sometimes tense relationship between Yorkshire Dales locals, those born and bred here, and the offcumdens, the people who have moved in attracted by the wonderful scenery and, perhaps, a desire to escape the rat race (see March 31).

Waiting to be fed: Dales sheep face the harsh winter
Waiting to be fed: Dales sheep face the harsh winter
Photo: Hilary Fenten

Offcumdens, I pointed out, are not always welcome and, indeed, some of them make little or no attempt to blend in with Dales life. There are others, though, who make outstanding contributions to their local communities and I was reminded of this when I received an invite to attend a one-woman photography exhibition at the Dales Countryside Museum in Hawes.

The photographer is (or rather was) an offcumden like me. In fact, we arrived in the Dales at the same time twenty years ago, freed from work in the big city by the invention of the fax machine. I'll say nowt about my own contribution to local life (that's for others to judge) but Hilary Fenton's record speaks for itself.

Hilary, who lives in a small, 18th Century farmhouse in Selside with husband Wilf, is by birth a Midlander who spent much of her working life in London. But she was seduced by the magic of the Dales on childhood holidays and spent much of her adult life working out how to get back here on a permanent basis.

Since then, she has become a tireless campaigner for the conservation of our countryside, its wildlife and its village communities. She is chairman of the Craven branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England and a founder of the Craven Conservation Group.

Now there are locals who resent outsiders taking up such roles and, sadly, some do so to feed a sense of their own importance. Not so Hilary and husband Wilf. One of their campaigns stopped a bridge being built through the salmon spawning redds on the River Ribble and they are presently trying to get speed limits imposed on Ribblesdale roads, used regularly as racetracks every summer weekend by ton-up motor cyclists.

Swaledale rainbow: Capturing the magnificence of the Dales
Swaledale rainbow: Capturing the magnificence of the Dales
Photo: Hilary Fenten

But that is not all. Hilary keeps pedigree sheep, which takes her out and about in all weathers in some pretty wild countryside, and she is also an accomplished photographer. So good is her work that she has been granted her one-woman show at the Hawes museum between April 29 and June 11 (doors open 10 am- 5 pm, admission free).

Now I have not seen a lot of her work but what little I have - like our Home Page picture of a rainbow over Swaledale - is quite stunning. And it set me to thinking about the way locals and long-standing offcumdens like me view our outstanding landscape.

When you first arrive in the Dales you can barely wait to see what is hiding behind the next corner. But if, like me, you spend your working life driving round the Dales the novelty wears off over the years and you become more interested in passing that quarry wagon or caravan ahead than taking in the majesty all round.

This, of course, is a major mistake. What is the point of living inside one of the world's scenic masterworks if, like the Scottish doggerel writer Master MacGonigal, you never take the time to stop and stare?

Hilary, it seems to me, has managed to keep that freshness of view that so entranced me 20 years ago. I shall make a point of seeing her photographs. Perhaps they will act as a reminder. We are all blessed to live here. So take the time to enjoy it.


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