Land with no frontiers

Ingleborough by Kate Wentworth and below, Hilary Fenten

Ingleborough by Kate Wentworth and below, Hilary Fenten

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Two women with a passion for photography tell Frederic Manby why they are taking the Yorkshire Dales to Germany

A splashy splashy day in Ribblesdale, the nicest bit, the Yorkshire stretch, north of Settle, where the Ribble is just about wide enough to spring across. Except not today. It is a charging torrent of brown with creamy crests. Rivulets drain more earthy peaty water into the spume.

Roads are flooded. I give a lady a lift back to her car, waterlogged on her way to Hawes – rather as out of the cauldron into the spout.

Further on a green fisherman’s umbrella sheltered a serious snapper, his tripod and camera pointing across to the fell, its tops covered with lifting rain clouds, its flanks a rain-fresh shade of green which if he was good he’d capture perfectly.

Just round the bend, though he’d be unaware, lives one of the country’s many “unknown” but talented photographers. Hilary Fenten spends most of her time working to preserve our landscape, often through the auspices of the Council for the Protection of Rural England – and she’s concerned about Wales and Scotland too.

She spends much less time promoting her photography, but exhibitions have been held abroad and at home. She takes pictures wherever she goes – and is always ready for the quick shot – lads jumping into the harbour at Whitehaven, a curlew on a post, one leg tucked out of sight. Currently her photographs and those of her friend of 40 summers, Kate Wentworth, are on show in Germany’s Harz Mountains – the country’s first national park.

Some six dozen photographs will show the Germans the beauty of northern England and Yorkshire’s Dales – and their vulnerability. Hilary’s husband Wilf, who moved here 50 years ago from his native Cologne, is well known for his conservation work throughout Europe as chairman of Europarc Consulting, part of the Europarc Federation. What sounds unfortunately like a consortium of holiday park operators is an organisation which embraces Europe’s protected areas, such as national parks in 39 countries.

Wife and husband are committed to making more of us aware of what is at risk from careless or intentional development. Hilary lists a series of building projects and even a theme park just outside the Yorkshire Dales National Park as horrors on the way. Wilf Fenten was a member of the Park’s committee until 2010, citing the difficulties of making the progress he wanted as a reason for quitting.

“It was like running your head against a brick wall... I felt I was not doing enough. They were mitigating the harm done rather than conserving and enhancing,” he says calmly in the kitchen of their lovely old house. A traditional farmhouse range keeps the room warm with glowing logs on this cold midsummer’s day. A tin of Hilary’s “friendship” cake is open. She and Wilf are active Quakers and helped with the revival and repair of the Meeting House at Airton, where they worship rather than at their nearest meeting house in Settle.

It is developing into one of those discussions which can go in several directions, each with merit and interest: the Quaker ethic, the need to look after the flora and fauna, plants and insects, trees and birds, old walls and farm life; or the exhibition in Germany.

Hilary Fenten is a bit of an ace snapper in country garb. She professes to not knowing much about the brand of camera she uses but the proof of what she knows is in the results – printed up to exhibition quality by Knight Graphics, of Sowerby Bridge. She says she does not enhance the photographs after they are taken. What you see is what she has clicked the shutter on – these days a digital, but one of her nicest pictures of trees at Appersett (Wensleydale) on a summer evening was taken with film. I bought the postcard and I’ve a mind to buy the print – one of her exhibits in Germany.

Kate, also a Quaker, was born in the Lake District. She attended school in Sawrey, where Beatrix Potter, the author of the Peter Rabbit children’s stories lived. While she has spent many years living near London, she always felt most at home in the North West of England. So, now that she is retired from her civil service job, she and her husband spend a lot of time living in their house in Ingleton, not far from the Fentens’ house over the hill.

She became seriously interested in photography 12 years ago. In 2008, the Royal Photographic Society assessed a portfolio of her photographs, mainly of Dales people, and made her a Licentiate of the Society. Her photographs have been shown in exhibitions in London and elsewhere.

She has photographed people and places in Britain and around the world – most recently in Berlin and Calcutta and Sikkim in North-East India. Like Hilary, she says she is alway taking photographs – particularly in Yorkshire’s dales.

Quite what “they” will make of Kate’s and Hilary’s work will become clear by the time the exhibition closes. It includes farm and field, dense white-out in winter, silky summer, a beautifully-lit shot of Wilf’s back as he brings their flock of sheep home, the gaudy face of a Morris dancer. A stunning limestone landscape by Kate with clouds over Ingleborough matches Hilary’s Appersett in its majesty. There is a close-up of Cumberland and Westmorland wrestlers – Hilary confesses to having become a groupie at the sport.

It’s the “distinctive character and strong identity” of the area and people that attracts Hilary – who moved to Ribblesdale many years ago from Fulham. In her address at the exhibition’s opening she said: “The most beautiful part of England is the north. We have four national parks almost touching each other, and several areas of outstanding natural beauty. Yet the southerners say ‘it’s grim up north’. Actually, it is the best part of England.

“Yes, the weather is a bit grim at times. The people do not have as much money, but they are more friendly and are much more willing to be individuals and even can be uninhibited and eccentric. And the landscape is wild and challenging.”

Among their worries are the timing of cutting the roadside verges which provide habitat corridors between protected areas.

Change is relentless. Money can be made by building on country fields. Land is being bought by speculators. More money is available to persist with appeals if plans are turfed out. Local authorities sometimes appear blind-sided by it all. Let Hilary’s curlew on its post be a warning.

Landscape and people in Northern England – a ramble through the Yorkshire Dales is at the Harz national park centre in Ilsenburg until October 16.

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