ONE of the regular questions that come my way is: “Where does Wensleydale end? Is it where the River Ure joins the Ouse and the Swale near Boroughbride?”

The Ure begins life high in the Pennines, above Hawes on the slopes of High Abbotside, and descends through some of England’s most impressive scenery via Hawes, Askrigg, Aysgarth, Middleham, Masham and Ripon long before reaching Boroughbridge and the Swale to become the Ouse.

Few would argue that Boroughbridge lies in Wensleydale and there is a fairly general consensus that in fact Wensleydale ends near Jervaulx. More precisely, it is said to end at Kilgram Bridge, near Thornton Steward, with its fascinating church of St Oswald with its pre-Reformation history.

This Thornton has long been considered the eastern boundary of Wensleydale, the local bridge, once known as Kilgrim Bridge, being the marker. In common with several old bridges, Kilgram is the source of an enduring piece of folklore which features in stories of bridges both here and overseas. It is a fairly common tale – the villages built many flimsy bridges that were always swept away by floodwater.

Lack of a bridge caused immense disruption and distress in this area, both for their businesses and day-to-day outings. Learning of their persistent problems, it seems the Devil appeared to some leading villagers and claimed he could build an enduring structure that would defy all floods and other risks. The villagers were so desperate for a bridge that they agreed – but the Devil explained that there was a condition.

In return for building such a strong bridge, he demanded the life of the first living thing to cross it – and he would wait for that person. Fortunately, the first person wanting to cross was a shepherd with a sheepdog, but he sent his dog first over the new bridge. Thus the dog became Satan’s victim. The dog’s name was Grim and that is said to be the reason the bridge was originally called Kill Grim Bridge, later known as Kilgram Bridge after the nearby Grange.

But the question remains – does that bridge form the lower boundary of Wensleydale?

Birdspotting in the garden

DURING this past month, the birds in our garden have been both busy and musical, their singing and food-hunting being a feature of most days. It is evident that some are already well into their courtship routine while others are claiming territories and warning off rivals. We’ve been entertained by a robin singing outside my study window, buzzards soaring and mewing overhead, scores of blue tits feeding and fighting, and dozens of goldfinches chattering in a nearby tree.

We are fortunate that our garden is to the south of the house and slopes downwards to reward us with long-distance views. Although it was little more than a building site when we had this house built, the efforts of my wife have transformed it into a quiet garden.

We have a pond with fish, a beech hedge, lawn, rose-bushes, borders with flora and shrubs and a terrace where we can sit and watch whatever is happening among our visiting birds with a conservatory for poor weather viewing. We’ve a couple of blue-tit nest boxes, another for general use (say by robins or wrens) along with a variety of bushes and hedges that provide shelter, roosts and nesting places for a range of other species. Blackbirds are regular users.

During the varied weather of the past few weeks, our resident birds have continued their activities and I have noticed the following species among them: blue tits by the dozen, great tits, coal tits, marsh tits and long-tailed tits; starlings, dunnocks, house sparrows and tree sparrows; greenfinches, bullfinches, chaffinches, goldfinches, linnets and sometimes siskins; willow warblers, chiffchaffs and wood warblers; goldcrests, wrens, robins, blackbirds, thrushes, wood pigeons, collared doves, crows and rooks in nearby trees, the crows sometimes landing near the feeders as do magpies and jackdaws. Geese often fly overhead as do parties of large gulls whose species I cannot identify by name, along with buzzards, kestrels, a sparrow hawk and on one occasion, a goshawk arrived in the garden.

One year we had pied wagtails nesting in the ivy; a raven flew overhead and this year we have seen a jay, tawny owl, treecreeper, nuthatch. redwings and a cock pheasant in the garden.

Earlier, we had a heron visiting the pond along with swallows, swifts and house martins, and sundry other varieties which I have been unable to identify simply because they do not sit still long enough for me to find my binoculars. The rarest I sighted in a field near our garden was a corncrake and another was a nutcracker, which experts thought was a young starling – it wasn’t, it was the size of a jackdaw and remained for more than 20 minutes to permit me a good view with binoculars and a guide book. Sadly, I did not have a suitable camera.

It was the sight of a lonely wren the morning before writing these notes that reminded me of all those sightings. The wren is always alone, unlike several other species that socialise with their relations and friends. The wren was paying one of his regular visits to the gutters on our conservatory where I imagine he finds titbits and perhaps a drink. Wrens have nested in our garden but even so we seldom noticed two together.

That brings me to the collective noun for wrens. Many of us know that starlings in a group are a murmuration or chattering, goldfinches are a charm, crows are a murder, geese are a gaggle on the ground and a skein on the wing, partridges are a covey, hens are a brood and ravens are an unkindness. There are many others including a band of jays, a siege of herons, a clamour of rooks, a host or tribe of sparrows and the curious deceit of lapwings.

A group of wrens, however, is known as a herd, and this term also applies to a group of curlews or swans. Herd also applies to groups of animals such as a herd of cows, herd of deer, herd of goats and although we refer to a flock of sheep, an alternative is a hurtle of sheep.

The origins of these curious terms are uncertain but some of the more common ones remain in use, e.g. litter of pigs, stable of horses, a kennel of dogs, a nest of rabbits or a menagerie of other animals who have no clear collective terms. One of my favourites is a business of ferrets while a sute of bloodhounds provides something of a puzzle.

So far as gatherings of humans are concerned, we use crowd, crush, horde, congregation, host, throng, clique, mob, swarm, rabble and my own favourite, multitude.

A goodly year

And finally, a piece of weather lore for tomorrow, February 28, the Feast of St Romanus: “Romanus bright and clear, indicates a goodly year.”