AS I compile these notes, the countryside and livestock farmers in particular are reeling under another ferocious onslaught.

Foot-and-mouth disease has been confirmed in numerous areas of Britain and as I write this budget (a couple of weeks before it is published), there are indications that the disease has also spread overseas, to Northern Ireland in particular.

No-one can forecast what will happen in the period between these words being written and published. In the world of rapidly spreading diseases like foot-and-mouth, a single hour is a long time; a fortnight is an eternity.

Even during the early stages of the outbreak, the impact was staggering - thousands of cattle, pigs and sheep were slaughtered, country-based livelihoods were threatened, the food chain is at risk; sporting fixtures were cancelled; farmland, footpaths and moorland areas were declared out-of-bounds to ramblers and hunts, and agricultural holdings were placed under movement restrictions which affected both animals and humans.

The cost to individuals and to the nation cannot be estimated - apart from the financial aspect, there are the personal tragedies of so many people and their businesses.

No amount of words can compensate for the anguish suffered by so many but the purpose of these notes is merely to place on record our own inadequate sorrow for the untold suffering which has to be borne throughout these dreadful times.

Historic settlement

A visit to Wensleydale took us across the beautiful and historic Ulshaw Bridge which spans the River Ure just off the Middleham to Masham road. It is rather less than a mile from East Witton, and quite near Cover Bridge which crosses the River Cover close to its confluence with the Ure. Ulshaw Bridge is just one of the spectacular and historic bridges in this area - Kilgram completes a wonderful trio.

Ulshaw, however, is something of an enigma. There was a community here in the 12th century when the settlement was known as Wolveshowe, and over the years, its name has changed to Ulveshowe, Ulschowe, Ulsogh, Howsey and Ulsa, probably becoming Ulshaw during the 17th or 18th century. I believe the name's original meaning was Ulf's Mound, Ulf being a family name, and for many years, there were indications of earthworks in the area which suggest a very early settlement.

It seems, however, that the locality has a very early historic record. It was here, in AD 651, that King Oswin, later elevated to the sainthood as St Oswin, dismissed his army shortly before suffering martyrdom at Gilling near Richmond.

St Oswin (feast day August 20) was described as a handsome and courteous man whose other qualities included moderation and humbleness.

After the death of Oswald, he reigned in the southern part of Northumbria, the part known as Deira which stretched from the Tyne down to the Humber. Following Oswin's death, he was revered as a martyr and is now a saint of the Catholic Church. Exactly where Oswin dismissed his army is open to speculation, but the vicinity of Ulshaw Bridge is one of the possible locations.

There seems to be some doubt as to exactly when the present Ulshaw Bridge was constructed. It is a most impressive stone structure with four arches and three pairs of sturdy cutwaters, but standing on the western side of the bridge is a tall stone object which looks rather like a baptismal font with a solid bowl, but which is, I, believe, a former sundial. The face is missing, although there is evidence of its presence, but around the rim is carved the date 1674.

Some authorities believe this is the date of the construction of the present bridge and I am not one to argue with their knowledge.

There is little doubt that the bridge once formed a vital crossing of the Ure on the journey between York to Kendal and even now, there is an almost direct northerly route, via minor roads, from Ulshaw to Richmond. Clearly, this route was important in former times but I imagine it is little used as a through-route today.

A few yards to the north of Ulshaw Bridge is a fascinating little church whose tower is very prominent in this part of Wensleydale.

This is a Catholic church, something of a rarity in such a remote area, but it owes its origin to the famous Scrope family of nearby Danby Hall. Dedicated to St Simon and St Jude, the church was designed by Ernest Hansom of York, the designer of the famous Hansom Cab which appeared on the streets in 1834. This church was completed in 1868, some years after the Catholic Emancipation Act of I829.

This statute allowed Catholics, whose ancient faith had been almost obliterated during the Reformation, to be elected to parliament and to hold civic and military office and it also allowed Catholics to re-enter the House of Commons.

Restoration of the Catholic Church hierarchy followed, along with the right to build new churches because their former buildings, from cathedrals down to parish churches, had been wrested from them by the State, stripped of their Catholic adornments and used by the newly formed Church of England. The little church at Ulshaw Bridge is one of those new churches.

It is not easy to find because it is semi-detached; it lies behind a Georgian house and access is via a steep path through the graveyard. One's route is never in doubt because there is a huge crucifix at the summit of that path but when I called, the door was locked.

Although I could not look inside, I understand the church is renowned for its Italian-style stations of the cross which are done in mosaic, and for the arms of the Scrope family of nearby Danby Hall.

The Scropes, some of whose tombs are in the graveyard, are one of the most historic families in this country - just read the history books of England - and they managed to remain faithful to the Catholic religion in spite of the appalling persecution and oppression which arose through the Reformation.

A former parish church used by the Scropes is the church of St Oswald, now the Anglican parish church for Thornton Stewart. With portions dating to Anglo Saxon times and delightful in its remote setting along the lane towards Danby Hall, it has echoes of a timeless past.

The grounds contain the relics of about 30 people discovered during the laying of a water main. Their deaths date from around the 8th to the 10th century - an indication of the historic nature of this locality.

I was pleased that Catholic representatives were included in their recent re-burial.

Des res for rent

As a reward for the entertainment and interest provided by blue tits visiting our feeding station, we have provided them with a brand new nestbox. We've also installed another which, I am assured, is suitable for robins.

Blue tits like nestboxes with an entrance hole no larger than an inch in diameter - small enough to keep out great tits and others who might commandeer this cosy home. The robins' box has an larger oblong entrance, but neither box has a perch on the outside. This could be used by predators trying to pick any fledglings or eggs from the nests.

Siting nest boxes is important. Ideally, they should not face south or south-west because the heat of the sun produces a stifling atmosphere inside, and from the west, there is always the risk from prevailing winds with driving rain.

One of ours, therefore, faces north (for the blue tits), and the other to the east (for robins); the former is on our garage wall about 8ft above ground level, while we positioned the robin's box on a wall about 6ft from the ground among climbers like roses and clematis. These will provide shelter and keep the box safe from predators.

I was advised that it would take time for these boxes to be accepted by our garden birds but just as I had completed fixing the blue tits' box, my telephone rang. I went indoor to answer it and even as I was speaking on the phone, a pair of blue tits approached the nest box, inspected it from all angles, and then one of them popped inside.

Minutes later, a pair of robins turned up at our feeding station - but I've not seen them exploring their nest box. Perhaps they are rather more cautious, although some house sparrows have examined it. We await the coming nesting season with renewed interest