Lookwild: Daffodils of Farndale

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There is no doubt that the daffodils of Farndale are one of the jewels of the North York Moors National Park. From mid-March until late April, weather dependent, the valley is clothed with 7 miles of flowers and makes a spectacular sight for visitors to enjoy.

Up until the 1950s bus companies ran weekend excursions into the valley and visitors could return home carrying handfuls of them. So great was the devastation that the area was designated a SSSI in 1956 and to this day the original notices still remain warning of the £5 fine if anyone is caught picking one! A volunteer daffodil patrol was subsequently formed to protect them and this evolved into the current National Park voluntary ranger service.

The daffodils are the pure wild variety (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) and are much smaller than the garden ones. Whilst their numbers are monitored and the paths are kept clear (to avoid people walking amongst them), they are otherwise purely natural and not actively managed. The local farmers however, take great pride in them and their livestock is managed to reduce any disturbance to an absolute minimum

It is estimated that over 50,000 visitors arrive in the valley during the flowering period, a fact which necessitates much preparation by the Ranger service both before and during the season. A small mobile display unit (MDU) is manned by volunteers in the main car providing route guides, the National Park’s ”Out and About” visitor magazine and selling a small range of local guidebooks. There are usually voluntary rangers on duty every day during the season and one will often be found along the main daffodil walk. They are always ready to offer advice and suggest places of interest to visit outside the valley.

There is a 3.5 mile waymarked walk taking visitors through one of the best sections, with both a café and a pub en-route. Luckier visitors will arrive on a day when the local ladies serve teas and homemade cakes from the hut alongside the car park. These days attract the highest number of voluntary rangers! The walk is available to download on the North York Moors website and as a leaflet from the information unit or village shop.

The origin of the daffodils remains the subject of much debate. One story tells that they were planted by Father Postgate, a Catholic priest who tended his local flock in the mid-1600s. As he had to work undercover, he walked the area disguised as a gardener. The locals knew that when the daffodils were in flower, a service was scheduled using the Duffin Stone (a large roadside rock) as an altar. The finer details were passed on by word of mouth along the valley. Farmers would hang sheets over their walls to indicate the relevant day of the week… 1 sheet for a Monday, 2 for a Tuesday etc.

A second story tells that they were planted by the monks of Rievaulx to aid travellers on their pilgrimages between the local places of worship. One cottage in Low Mill (a local village) has the shell emblem of St James carved above the door suggesting that it once offered pilgrims’ refreshments. This is a few metres from the end of a still extant medieval trackway known as the Monks Trod. In reality, it is probably due to the damp, cool climate being perfect for their growth, with the eroding river bank ideal for water-borne bulb dispersal.

Farndale itself is well worth a visit any time of the year. Immediately the daffodils finish flowering, the valley comes alive with swathes of bluebells and wild garlic. There are even two National Trust owned woods maintained purely for their abundance of bluebells.

Denise and myself are now in our 52nd year as Voluntary rangers and we both still enjoy our duties in the valley. A patrol includes a stint in the MDU as well as a patrol along the daffodil paths. This always takes far longer than we anticipate as visitors always have numerous questions about the origins and maintenance of the daffodils. We also keep the paths clear of litter, undertake minor maintenance along the way and ensure that the water inlet into the valley duck-pond is kept clear of debris. We also report any problems that need attention by the National Park’s full-time staff. A daily report on the state of the flowers is also sent to the main visitor centres so that they are aware when asked by holidaymakers.

On our very first duty day in Farndale we turned up to be greeted by the then Head Ranger, Dick Bell. He told us that our first job was to count the daffodils! “Yes” we thought, “first duty day, you’re having us on!” But no, he wasn’t. The National Park has a series of enormous ledgers containing 25 inch OS maps of the valley, each with the main daffodil locations marked on. We had to take a map each, go to the locations and throw a metre square frame out into the middle of them. We had to count the flowers within the transect and use the totals to estimate how many daffodils there were in the site.

These totals were listed in the ledger (no computers then) and the full-time staff used our findings to estimate the change in daffodil numbers. These ledgers were eventually lost, finally resurfacing behind a cabinet some 30 years later when the department moved offices. Farndale itself, being so isolated with no through road, has retained many legends. We have a resident White Lady (a St Mark’s Maiden) who appears alongside the road on St Mark’s Day (25 April) and watch out for the hobs… resident little men who are dressed in very worn sarks (gowns). If you see one, be sure to respect this as offering them clothes is seen as an insult. They will follow you, playing tricks on you for the rest of the day. Many a time we have been on patrol and found our shoelaces have come undone. Looking round we have seen a hob sitting on a fence laughing at us. So beware!

Daffodils in Farndale © Dependable Productions
Daffodils in Farndale © Dependable Productions

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This Blog was written by Paul and Denise Grantham, Volunteer Rangers at North York Moors National Park.


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