WENSLEYDALE is widely acclaimed as the most beautiful dale in Yorkshire – something I shall not argue about! In many old references, however, it is also known as Yoredale and, on rare occasions, Uredale.

This is because the River Yore or Ure, which rises on the fells above Garsdale in the Pennines, flows through Wensleydale. It joins the River Swale near Boroughbridge to jointly become the River Ouse. Its waters flow towards York, then beyond to Selby and Goole, and eventually into the Humber and North Sea.

Along its journey are some noted Dales communities such as Hawes, Leyburn, Middleham and Boroughbridge, plus the famous abbey of Jervaulx and the cities of Ripon and York, and yet this historic and magnificent valley carries none of their names. Instead, it is named after the small village of Wensley which is roughly half-way along the river’s route. This makes it the only major dale in Yorkshire not to bear the name of the river that flows through it.

I was interested to learn the reason for this. It seems almost traditional and indeed expected that our Yorkshire Dales should bear the names of the rivers that flow through them.

I can include Eskdale, Ryedale, Swaledale, Wharfedale, Dentdale, Nidderdale, Airedale, Calderdale and others to which I might, tongue in cheek, add Teesdale. Readers may know of others.

Much smaller than neighbouring Leyburn and only around a mile and a half away from this noted dales town, Wensley had long been regarded a small market town of considerable importance in bygone times. It is now a small but highly attractive village.

Here I quote from J.S. Fletcher’s Picturesque History of Yorkshire (J.M. Dent, 1900) and his reference to Wensley.

“It is justly famous for its cleanliness, and for the neat appearance of the cottages about its village green, but its great glory is in its church which is the most important ecclesiastical edifice in the dale, as far as its architecture and associations are concerned.”

The name of Wensley dates to the 11th century and is derived from the Old English personal name of Waendel which appeared in Domesday Book. This was known as Wendeslaga in Anglo-Saxon times. The modern name of Wensley is believed to come from a translation of “Waendel’s Forest Clearing” (leah – from ley, an area of grassland) to give us Wendesley in the 13th century and Wenslaugh by the 16th. So far as the church is concerned, it seems to date mainly from the 13th century and fulfils the image quoted from Fletcher.

The overall appearance of the church is one of grace and style with the interior woodwork dating from several periods of history. Much of that interior work was completed by craftsmen who worked on Ripon Cathedral. Further links with Ripon Cathedral and possibly St Wilfred of Ripon who spent time studying in Rome, then supported its Catholic teaching at the Synod of Whitby, may be recognised in that Wensley church became an early centre of religious art.

It was here that artists from Italy came to teach the English congregations the finer points of religious art. Clearly, this was then a Roman Catholic church or more likely a chapel of Jervaulx Abbey. In her excellent book “Countrygoer in the Dales” (Hale 1964), Jessica Lofthouse wrote of the pupils working at Wensley church, “They carved tall crosses with intricate designs in plait work and scrolls, interlacing patterns with trailing vines, chevrons, and with panels of birds of beasts, and sometimes with the figure of Christ.”

At the time of course, such images took the place of our photographs or TV pictures as they served to provide congregations with an appreciation of the gospels. Many students had no idea what lay beyond their own very local boundaries – this form of art opened and expanded their worlds. Other forms of religious art appeared as wall paintings in parish churches. Local examples which have survived are at Easby Abbey near Richmond, Pickering parish church and Wensley.

Following Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy in England (1534) and his 1536 Act for the Dissolution of the Monasteries in England, along with his persecution of Catholics, his son Edward continued his father’s work following Henrys death in 1547. However, the new King, Edward VI, was only nine years old when he ascended the throne but his advisers suggested he undertook a Visitation of the Realm to make sure Catholics were obeying the new laws. Details of his Visitation were announced in advance.

The result was that some churches concealed their wall paintings with whitewash to fool Edward’s inspectors – and some have survived to this day. Another practice was to bury statues, crucifixes and even altar stones until the inspectors had gone. And many have survived.

It seems that Wensley’s church survived much of that enforced and unwelcome change and this may have been due to its links with the Vatican, but also the influence of the Scrope family of nearby Danby Hall. They were powerful landowners with magnificent pews described as “sumptuous” in Wensley but the Catholic church aided by the Scropes may have prevented further damage to their parish church.

Such resistance to change might have resulted in people of the time feeling that Wensley was living up to its reputation as a small but powerful leader in the splendid dale that continues to bear its name.

Pigeon's close call

A PIGEON swimming in a pond must be unusual. Ours looked like a rock dove – greyish plumage, long wings and distinctive white rump – and it was quite calm near humans. I suspect it was a domestic bird or a town dweller that was temporarily lost.

Pigeons in city centres and parklands are descended from rock doves that live in the wild. They prefer rocky stretches of coastline especially in Scotland and Ireland where, as their name suggests, they live and find nesting sites in rocky places.

So how did one come to be swimming in our fish pond? Last autumn I covered the pond with fine-mesh netting to catch discarded leaves. I left the nets in situ over winter as a heron deterrent. When it snowed heavily my net was quickly covered and stretched to cause the central bits to sink into the water.

The snow became too deep for me to rescue the net so it remained with its load pressing down the central area, later covered with thick ice. At the thaw, the centre remained below water level to form a saucer-shaped secondary pond and it was quite astonishing to find birds of all kinds walking down the sloping mesh to drink or bathe.

With the arrival of spring I removed the net. The blackbirds realised it was no longer there and adopted other methods of drinking, ie perching on an inlet pipe to sip water.

The pigeon didn’t seem to understand the net had gone. He jumped off the wall as if to land on the netting but instead of dropping onto the water I was treated to him paddling and flapping like fury as he struggled either to take flight or reach the shore. Eventually he arrived at some water-plants, gained a foothold and took flight to land on our beech hedge.

None of the fish witnessed this drama – they seemed to think it was a visiting heron and fled for shelter.