Generations drawn to Tarn House

A place which has fired the enthusiasm of young and old alike for leaning about the natural world at first hand celebrates its 60th anniversary next month. WR Mitchell reports.

The field studies centre at Malham Tarn has won a worldwide reputation for education and research and its residential courses now attract 3,500 students and adult leisure learners every year.

It all began in March 1947 when Paul Holmes, his wife and children, took up residence at a large house overlooking Malham Tarn, which laps and frets on a bed of impervious slate with a backdrop of limestone scars.

Paul was charged with opening a field centre, and the first party of schoolchildren were in residence three weeks later. It was set up along durable lines, although Paul was to die in a car crash in 1964.

The Council for the Promotion of Field Studies leased the estate from the National Trust, to whom it had been left in the will of Mrs Hutton-Croft, a niece of Walter Morrison, a Craven millionaire, who spoke of Tarn House as his "mountain home".

Walter Morrison, benevolent ruler of Malham Tarn estate for more than 60 years, had other properties, of course, including houses in London and Devonshire.

In this anniversary year, the Malhamdale Local History Group are researching all aspects of Walter's life.

I kept a notebook in which I jotted local tales of the grand old man, as related by the folk who remembered him in his later days. He died in 1921. When I published my accumulated tales, in 1990, a foreword was provided by Mary Reckitt, the widow of Paul Holmes, that first warden of the field centre. Mary had not known Walter Morrison, though stories of his charitable actions and eccentricities abounded.

His return to Malhamdale was announced by telegram, which arrived at Malham Post Office. The Misses Baines wended their weary, sometimes painful way to Tarn House to deliver the message. Their small terrier seemed to enjoy the walk more than they did. The telegram was left with the Ward family at the Kennels. Grannie served tea to the visitors and told them that "one of t'kids 'll tak yon telegram up to t'hall".

On his visits to Yorkshire by rail, Mr Morrison disembarked at Bell Busk or Settle. Favouring exercise and fresh air, which had brought him through a serious illness early in life, he invariably spurned the services of his coachman and walked to Tarn House. Sometimes, when this fabulously wealthy man arrived at Settle, he bought a leg of mutton and triumphantly bore it home.

He is recalled as "a big man, baldish on top, with a bushy beard". If he was not carrying a lump of mutton, he strode with hands behind his back and his chest stuck out. "He was indifferent to other people and seemed to be living in a world of his own."

When I was lent a dress suit (and cocked hat) that Walter had worn on a visit to Buckingham Palace, the waist measurement of the trousers startled me. I felt as if I was wearing a bell-tent.

My favourite story is of the time when Robert Battersby, the coachman at Tarn House, and William Skirrow, the butler, took Walter Morrison on a pre-Christmas excursion in the locality. Skirrow noticed an inebriated postman lying beside the road. He had received dinner and too much strong drink on his visit to the big house. Morrison, on being told the postman had been taken ill, and presuming the postal round was too exacting, wrote to the General Post Office suggesting that they shorten it.

Fred Ellis, who had a garage in Settle, recalled the day when Robert Battersby awoke as a coachman and ended the day as a chauffeur.

His employer, Walter Morrison, after much delay, had decided to invest in a car. He sent Battersby to Billy Slinger, a car dealer in Settle. Billy's course of driving lessons consisted of kicking Battersby's foot off the clutch and directing him on a circuit of the town.

Walter Morrison, a lover of solitude, spent many an evening in the company of his books and pipes. He fell asleep one warm afternoon when a religious service for the estate folk was being held in the lounge at Tarn House.

Yet he was no stay-at-home. He loved to tour his domain and was shown all the estate and household accounts, having a love of figures.

It was said that when a sheep died he insisted that the records were debited with a sheep and credited with the fleece of the dead animal.

Walter Morrison had a busy public life. He was Liberal Unionist MP for Skipton for two periods in late Victorian times. He became chairman of the Craven Bank in 1905 and was a director of the Yorkshire Dales Railway Company, whose lines extended from Skipton to Grassington.

His generosity for good causes was legendary, and included defraying the cost of restoring Kirkby Malham church, and he presented to Giggleswick School, of which he was a governor, its imposing domed chapel. Morrison chose the site. On a visit to a gritstone knoll above the school with the architect and joiner, he thrust the tip of his umbrella into the ground and said: "Put it here."

It was Morrison money that defrayed the cost of the commemorative book featuring the Craven men who died in the First World War.

He was buried in the churchyard at Kirkby Malham. The grave was covered by a large, flat stone brought down from Penyghent.

Adrian Pickles, the present head of Malham Tarn Field Studies Centre, has arranged for a special afternoon tea party to be held at Tarn House in March.

On that occasion, people will be able to share their memories of what he describes in the current issue of Yorkshire Dales Review as "a special centre in a special place".