The secret histories of doomed Yorkshire First World War soldiers revealed by moving art project

Imagine a soldier alighting a train at Levisham station, a heavy bag on his back, and beginning the long walk home over North Yorkshire’s hills to see the family who had so desperately tried to keep him away from frontline action during the First World War.

For artist Carolyn Thompson, that evocative thought was the inspiration behind a project which lays bare for the first time the secret stories of six men who were forced to fight – and sent to their deaths on the Western Front.

The archives of North Yorkshire County Council contain thousands of secrets, disputes, agonising decisions and family tragedies that have affected those living in the county over the decades and centuries.

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And now Ms Thompson, along with other artists, has used records and artefacts from this remarkable collection to create an exhibition unfolding Yorkshire’s past at the County Records centre in Northallerton.

North Yorkshire County Council's Rachel Greenwood is pictured with First World War Appeal Papers

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She said: “I had an idea about working with the landscape of the present combined with stories of the communities of the past. There were tragic stories. For example, there would be a farmer who had two sons and they were saying he can run the farm with one, so we’ll take one of the sons. Those people had been initially exempt and they were appealing. That tie to the land was interesting to me.”

She chose six soldiers whose appeals failed – none of whom made it home after the Armistice in 1918 – and on the anniversaries of their deaths, traced their walks home across the region.

Making a note of every flower she saw on the way, Ms Thompson then created art based on memorial wreaths along with soundscapes which can be listened to at the exhibition.

“I thought the idea of walking them home across the landscape that they would walk every day was like a memorial to them,” she said.

“There were points where it was very still and quiet. It did then feel like a memorial. It was such a physical and emotional thing.”

Fellow artist Lynn Setterington used the campaign to make Selby’s toll bridge free 30 years ago as her inspiration.

Working in stitched textiles, she used fabric bought in Selby along with old maps from the 1790s to illustrate the town’s connection with the crossing over the river Ouse.

Filmmakers Jacob Cartwright and Nick Jordan also feature in the exhibition with a piece centred on the River Swale in Richmondshire.

They took inspiration from the story of Neddy Dick who created his own musical instruments made from components he found in the natural world.