STARTING supremely at Stalling Busk, a Wind in the Willows-themed flower festival, we have been making the most of the ebbing summer.

The Wind in the Willows may well be familiar, Kenneth Grahame’s story of wild wood and open road, of ducks-a-dabbling – up tails all – of Wet Eared Mole and Bumptious Toad. Stalling Busk isn’t so well known.

It’s a wholly hidden hamlet off Wensleydale, at the end of a road to nowhere, said to have a population of 17 and with a delightful church which resembles a Swiss chalet, built for £815 in 1909 and dedicated to St Matthew.

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The At Your Service column had been up there for the centenary, coinciding with the ordination of the Rev Ian Robinson, a man who also owned an olive farm in Spain.

“Doesn’t everyone?” he asked.

They recognised us, welcomed us back. Displays noted that willow was used not just for making cricket bats, but for aspirin, a discovery made by the Rev Edward Stone while pottering around Chipping Norton in 1763 and by Hippocrates getting on 2,000 years earlier.

The little church was fragrant, the teas splendid, the setting divine. As the Bumptious Toad observed after discovering the motor car: Poop poop, oh bliss.

SEMERWATER, Yorkshire’s second largest lake after Malham Tarn, is a few hundred yards away. The information boards identify it as a rare habitat of the white-clawed crayfish, though none seemed to be taking the Sunday sunshine.

Annually – that very afternoon – Upper Wensleydale’s churches hold a shoreline service, Hawes Silver Band in attendance. The Rev Malcolm Stonestreet, affectionately remembered by older dales folk, once splashed down by helicopter though whether Malcolm actually walked on water is, sadly, unrecorded.

Others sailed over it. When last we visited, in 2002, the Rev Ann Chapman was dressed as if having just returned from a shout with the Semerwater inshore lifeboat.

This time the sun sparkled on the lake. “I’m told this is highly unusual,” announced the Rev Dave Clark, the present vicar.

It wouldn’t really have mattered. As immortally was also observed in The Wind in the Willows, what’s a little wet to a water rat?

SINCE the vintage vehicle rally at Bainbridge was dispersing – “My husband has a little trailer behind a quad bike, looks like a Friesian cow,” a lady at Stalling Busk had said – we wandered down dale to the former Aysgarth railway station, recently in the news.

It’s a splendid site. “Beware of trains” warns a sign, though none has endangered since 1959.

There’s a little museum, with station signs for places like Fyling Hall and Cargo Fleet Inner – there was a Cargo Fleet Outer? – a little signal box (“Three pulls of the lever for £1”) and a working model railway of the way things at Aysgarth once were.

A poster recalls a football special from the dale to Middlesbrough, March 28, 1931, 3/6d return from Aysgarth, two bob by the time events reached Ainderby and back in time for In Town Tonight.

The station’s owned by the Wensleydale Railway plc, which hopes one day to extend to Aysgarth and yet westward, but which faces having to sell it to meet demands elsewhere. Not all are happy.

Forwarded by a kindly, but anonymous reader, a Wensleydale Railway leaflet talks of a “wealthy, railway-focused individual” who has offered £400,000 and wants to restore the site, including lines and locos.

The company’s keen, calls the plan a “hobby railway”, but has had assurances that there’ll still be public open days and the prospect of going west. It was discussed at a special meeting last Saturday. “Shareholders should however be in no doubt,” adds the leaflet, “of the critical nature of this sale to the very survival of the railway.”

MARCH 28, 1931? Those heading from Aysgarth to Ayresome Park may have been disappointed: Arsenal – the mighty Arsenal – won 5-2.

“No first class side can have done so little attacking and scored so many goals,” said the Echo the following Monday morning. Times change: these days it’s the other way round.

Two late goals had given Newcastle United victory over Sunderland, there’d been a big warehouse fire on the Wear – “the brigade had an exciting time getting it under control” – the Gaumont Palace, described as Middlesbrough’s new wonder theatre had opened and hundreds at West Auckland Memorial Hall were entertained by the Northern Echo’s Nig Nog Troupe.

Nig Nigs got in for threepence, grown-ups a tanner. “A joy night was had by all.”

THE plan was to head homeward from the dales via the beer, cheese and cider festival at the George and Dragon at Hudswell, near Richmond, Camra’s national pub of the year. The presence outside of about 100 cars and a ship-sized coach from Stokesley proved a deterrent.

We went a few days later, promised the grandbairns that they could see the chickens which long have pecked around out the back, but were again disappointed. The fox had had them, said the barman.

It may well be that, like Reynard, nature is red in tooth and claw – but might the time be near when, in both urban and rural settings, something pretty drastic is going to have to be done about the fox?

MORE tales of the riverbank – riparian yarns, as doubtless has been observed before – we took ourselves on the five meandering miles of the Teesdale Way between Broken Scar, edge of Darlington, and the former Roman settlement of Piercebridge.

The 92-mile walk stretches from Dufton, in Cumbria, eastwards to the sea. These are among the more gentle, more bramblers than ramblers and occasional mid-river anglers up to the oxters in brown trout.

Soon the path from Darlington comes up for air at Low Coniscliffe, an attractive, tranquil, but presently greatly anxious village.

Beneath the permanent notice warning of the horrors of hogweed is a more recent arrival claiming a danger yet more pervasive: the threat of housing developers seeking to turn over any sod that might make a profit.

Low Coniscliffe, says the notice – inarguably – is a small rural village with character which forms a gateway to the River Tees.

The proposal before Darlington council would increase the size of the village by 41 per cent and “irrevocably damage its very essence”.

The proposal has recently been amended to include a few “affordable” homes. It’s a curious term, much employed by developers, but suggesting that the rest really aren’t affordable at all.

It’s a story familiar elsewhere. Meetings have been held, petitions launched, green belts buckled and back yards burnished. The council must make a decision soon. Low Coniscliffe – lovely, leafy Low Conny – will lose.

THE column is now taking a week off. By the time we return, it’ll be autumn.