SHEEP, come to think about it, may be as safely gathered in as anything else and at Hawes auction mart last week, the tup sale went merrily, hammer and tongs, until quarter past one in the morning.

"Usually your Vicar is kept awake by the cacophony of it all, but we have a new bed and I slept beautifully," the Rev Bill Simms tells his harvest festival congregation at the serene little church of St Mary and St John, Hardraw.

Prices had been good, too. It is all so different from 2001.

"It was desolate, bonfires and the smell of death everywhere," Mr Simms recalls afterwards. "The first foot-and-mouth case in North Yorkshire was confirmed just a mile from where I live. You can't begin to describe what it was like, but the great thing about country folk is that everyone is resilient. They knew they would come through it and they did."

Hardraw is a mile north of Hawes at the top end of Wensleydale, a lovely little Pennine Way village of fewer than 50 people best known for the 100ft Hearne Beck waterfall which plunges without impediment into a ghyll, for its recently revived brass band contest, and for the Green Dragon pub through which access to the falls is gained.

"D Mark Thompson," says the sign, "innkeeper and waterfall provider".

There is also an agreeable little cafe (about which more in Tuesday's Eating Owt column), a felt workshop, a couple of ongoing barn conversions and an awful lot of Fawcetts. Once there was also a school, a shop and a workhouse.

Trevor Johnson's church guide describes its beckside setting as one of the most tranquil imaginable - "perfect for a May wedding or a frosty Christmas morning service" - and for a traditional harvest festival, too.

"A wonderful corner of the Garden of Eden," says Mr Simms.

Harvest thanksgiving is made happier yet by the christening of the imperturbable Harriet Elizabeth Francis, a year and two days old, whose mother Martha was a Fawcett and whose great grandmother Marie, mother of nine, is there to witness the event.

The church is bright bedecked, all good gifts around us. The rain, soft and refreshing as the harvest hymnist also reminds us, begins almost simultaneously with the service.

"I believe this is the happiest Sunday of the year. Give thanks for everything that is beautiful, good and true in our lives," says the 63-year-old vicar, also Vicar of Hawes, previously curate of several parishes in the Richmond area and until 1985, the head of personnel and management services at Darlington Council.

The splendid Mr Simms has arrived just moments before the 2.30pm start, scurrying about like the Great North runner he is. "I'm in the pantomime, you know," he says as if by way of explanation. Perhaps it is to be a rewrite of Alice in Wonderland and the vicar - Oh my ears and whiskers - is to be the White Rabbit, forever anxious upon his hour.

It's the Yorkshire Harvest Thanksgiving Service, devised by Eric Milner-White, post-war Dean of York, amended by Paul Burbridge who was Archdeacon of Richmond and further refined by Mr Simms - "so that the service was more appropriate for a Yorkshire harvest" says the order - though he himself is a Lancastrian. "They put up with me," he says.

The centrepiece (apart, of course, from the sermon) is the presentation of harvest gifts - soil, corn, bread, cheese, a plant almost as tall as the little girl carrying it and even a fleece.

The sermon, aforesaid, emphasises that not everyone - not even the arable farmers a few miles down dale - has had such a good summer. "It's not all bread and oranges," he says, a possible Simmsism - there may well be an anthology of them - for beer and skittles.

He is also anxious to broadcast the hitherto little known news that the Chancellor has decided to cancel the debt to the UK of the poorest Third World countries.

"It's so wonderful I want to cry for joy, the Third World finally has a chance to start living" says Mr Simms, perhaps the first recorded case of praising God and Gordon Brown.

He has also been conkering with his grandchildren - "I know all the best conker trees in Richmond, acres of them, absolutely gorgeous" - handing out conkers in little white envelopes to most of the 60 or 70 present. The usual congregation is between six and ten. Periodically he also stops for a little chat - "I like your new hair cut, if I may say so" - or to welcome the itinerant observer. "Better give one to Sir."

It's a vivid and a vigorous sermon, accompanied by wide spreading arms or by spectacles spinning like a child's plastic windmill. "I just ran around the conker trees like a child at Christmas," he says. "To me the conker epitomises all that is beautiful and marvellous about the harvest."

Susan Foster, one of the churchwardens, talks afterwards of the difficulty of maintaining a church in a village with so few people - car boot sales, dances in the Green Dragon - of the pleasure of seeing a well filled nave and of how livelier things have become since Bill Simms arrived 12 years ago.

The Vicar's off for his tea, perhaps to a pantomime rehearsal. "Foot-and-mouth disease is hopefully behind us for ever now," he says. "We have so much to be thankful for up here."