ONE of Middleham's major movers and shakers, Peter Hibbard, could soon be settling down to the simple life of being just a sculptor.

He and his wife, Judith, are now negotiating for a house and studio in the small French village of Laroque-Timbaut south of Villeneuve.

After 23 years of combining his artistic work with serving the community, he is moving back to his first love: sculpting abstract forms.

He leaves behind a group of racehorse trainers who credit him with the revival of the Middleham's main industry as well as many artists who truly miss his inspirational role among them.

With his wife, Mr Hibbard turned the town's old school into an art gallery, bookshop and tea shop while also running several art and sculpture courses each year. He always brought a special creative touch to the way he hung pictures for exhibitions, encouraging established artists and helping many young ones develop their talent .

A move to France would also mean he would retire as a local magistrate.

Back in the late Seventies, after training with Henry Moore, he was successfully exhibiting his sculptures in London while running a bookshop, post office and gallery in Much Hadham. Hertforshire. Mrs Hibbard was the divisional schools librarian.

Then they decided to return to their family roots in Yorkshire and set up their own arts centre. They were enchanted by Middleham and, surprisingly, by the semi-derelict old school-cum-village hall.

The mid-nineteenth century building had been empty for some years, windows were boarded up and there were holes in the roof. It took them about 18 months before, in the spring of 1981, they could move in and then they, and their young son Damian, had to sleep on what had been the stage in the first-floor school hall, for that was the only dry spot in the building.

Mr Hibbard drew up the plans for alterations and slowly they transformed it not only into their own family home but also a hub of artistic activity.

On the first floor there were three guest rooms so they could provide accommodation for those participating in the art courses held in what they called the Old School Arts Workshop.

"We used to work like lunatics for six to seven weeks in the summer," said Mr Hibbard. "Judith makes wonderful food but it became very rare for all to sit down and eat the same thing. The number of people with food allergies has increased greatly in the last 23 years."

People came from all over the world to attend the courses which increased in number over the years, but also became shorter in length to suit changing needs.

If that was not enough, Mr Hibbard soon became involved with the local community. He played a major role in the town's 500th anniversary celebrations of the coronation of Richard III in 1983. Those celebrations led to the town being twinned with Agincourt in France.

Sue Constantine, who went Mr Hibbard to Agincourt in 1994, commented: "That is now one of the most socially active associations in Middleham due in no small part to the effort put in at the beginning by Peter and Judith."

Mr Hibbard joined the town council in 1983 and became mayor in 1986. It was in 1990, when he became a district councillor, that an application was made to change what had been Neville Crump's yard in the centre of the town into holiday cottages.

Crump had trained several National Hunt winners on Middleham Moor but the town had not had a home-trained Derby winner since the great Dante in 1946.

"I remember thinking this was the beginning of the end so far as racing in Middleham was concerned," said Mr Hibbard. "If that yard was lost, it would not be replaced. At that time there were less than 150 horses in training on Middleham Moor. It was pretty desperate. I had a crisis meeting with the trainers."

Leading trainer Mark Johnston said: "It was the vision that Peter had that has made the town prosperous. He saw it as a great place to live and work. In the late Eighties the main feature here was the sale signs. We came here because of the dire situation as property was so cheap. But without the improvements in the facilities, we would not still be here."

James Bethell, now the chairman of Middleham Trainers' Association, added: "The gallops used to look like the battle of the Somme. The moor was a sea of mud."

Mr Hibbard went to Chris Thornton, then chairman of the trainers' association, and the other trainers and asked them for a list of things needed to remedy the situation. On top of that list were all-weather gallops, walkways on the moor and an equine pool.

"I had no idea where the money was coming from," said Mr Hibbard. Then district council officers not only encouraged the town council to make a master plan for Middleham but also to enter it in the Government's Rural Challenge nationwide competition in 1995.

Mr Hibbard made the town's presentation at the final, accompanied by Mr Johnston, and to their amazement they won.

"I saw it as a project to achieve things for this community," Mr Hibbard said. Thanks to the £1m from Rural Challenge, plus a further £1.7m in matched funding from Europe and other sources, including the trainers, they fulfilled most of their master plan within three years.

Mr Hibbard said: "I knew if we could achieve seven-and-a-half kilometres of walkway on the moor it would give James Bethell and the others the opportunity to improve the grassland and gallops out of all recognition and that is exactly what has happened. It has done better than we ever thought. The grass has never looked better."

Mr Johnston expanded into the yard vacated by Neville Crump having renovated that at Kingsley House and this year has had five very successful two-year-olds and Attraction winning the 1,000 Guineas at Newmarket.

There are now between 400 and 600 horses in training around Middleham.

"For every two racehorses, there is one job," Mr Hibbard pointed out.

Mr Bethell believes that no-one has done more for Middleham than Mr Hibbard and Mr Johnston commented: "He was a doer - if he had to bend the rules for the good of the community, he would bend the rules. He managed to bring people together to achieve long-term goals."

Rural Challenge money was spent in the town too, with new cobbles being laid and the Key Centre being built. Mr Hibbard's one sadness was that they did not improve the playing field.

He hopes this may now be done through the Vital Villages project which he helped get under way.

"I will look back on our time in Middleham as a marvellous period of our lives," said Mr Hibbard. "It is a very special place. I still feel it's a privilege to live and work in this community.