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Monday, 24 November 2014

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Helga Frankland: The ultimate Cumbrian land girl

South of the village of Ravenstonedale roads soon turn into dirt tracks. Horses and sheep wander across them and an expanse of green scored with drystone walls forms the view as far as the eye can see.

Helga Frankland photo
Helga Frankland

It’s very Cumbrian and very remote.

But for Dr Helga Frankland it is home. At 91 she is still living a contented life in the place she was born and bred.

While making coffee in the wood-panelled drawing room she shows off the view from the window.

Red squirrels and pheasants scamper among the rhododendron bushes at the far end of a manicured lawn. The sun peeks out from behind the clouds before heavy rain batters against the glass. Unpredictable weather that suits the wild, untamed landscape.

It’s a jewel in England’s crown, no doubt about it, and a place Helga has always appreciated.

A slight, stoical woman with a keen mind, she was one of the founding members of Cumbria Wildlife Trust and worked in conservation for most of her life.

Had world events taken a different turn she would have followed in the footsteps of her father, grandfather and great grandfather, into the field of chemistry.

As it was her time as a student at St Andrews University coincided with the outbreak of World War Two. She had to return to the family farm and worked as a land girl.

“But for Adolf Hitler I would have been a chemist,” Helga says drily. “But it was when I worked as a land girl I learned we needed to farm with nature, not against her, and I became more and more interested in that.”

Helga was one of a group of like-minded local people who first decided to form a Naturalists’ Trust in 1959, which would develop into the charity we know today. She proudly points out a framed certificate on her wall, in recognition of ‘50 years of dedication to the formation and development of Cumbria Wildlife Trust’.

Her first job was deputy regional officer and over the years she has witnessed the organisation grow from a handful of enthusiastic, amateur naturalists to a charity with 15,000 members, caring for more than 40 nature reserves and promoting high-profile campaigns for the protection of endangered habitats and species.

“At the beginning people thought the Lake District looked pretty but it never occurred to them it needed conserving. Some farmers were anti-conservation but they are far fewer than they were,” she explains.

“The trust has become a very efficient machine and there’s now a strong educational branch. One wants active members and as grants are cut down and charities can’t raise money, volunteers are vital.”

She adds sternly: “But they must be well informed. If they are telling people about flora in a certain area, they’d jolly well better get to know the plants. I used to do workshops outdoors helping volunteers identify plants.

“I asked them to think about why a wood should be here...it was important to get them to think rather than simply absorb what we were telling them.”

Helga put her local knowledge and experience of farming to full advantage.

“I would speak to landowners and farmers about improving conservation in the area. It helped that I knew about farming and was not a Londoner in a pinstripe suit,” she smiles. “Once they realised we had common ground and I had local knowledge, they would suddenly be very friendly.”

Helga’s knowledge of farming is thanks to her upbringing, though being born into the industry was not a given.

Her father, Edward Percy, was a lecturer in chemistry (and later a novelist) who came from a family of eminent scientists. His father, Percy Faraday (named in honour of the famous scientist), was a professor of Chemistry at Birmingham University.

Edward’s grandfather, also called Edward (and Helga’s great grandfather) discovered the notion of valency and was friends with Charles Darwin.

The pair swapped ideas and wrote letters to each other, which are now housed in the John Rylands library at Manchester University.

Soon after Edward married Maude (Helga’s mother), ill health forced him to give up his academic career and he was advised to live in the country.

He took on the family farm (which had been owned but not run by his father) and moved to this land in 1910.

With help from stocksmen he reared Swaledale sheep, selling them for cross breeding.

“He was not fit to serve in World War One, but that probably saved his life and we were lucky our father was here. I had a marvellous time growing up,” Helga recalls.

“We would be out in the fields from dusk until dawn, paddling in the beck, making dams, having picnics and lighting fires.”

The children would work too, sheep dipping, helping out at lambing time and haymaking. They would ride the horses and us sledges to harvest crops (the land was too steep for carts).

When World War Two broke out, hundreds of young women took to the fields to replace the men who were fighting for their country.

Helga remembers clearly the uniform of knee britches, green v-neck jersey and a double-breasted overcoat.

“Ships were being sunk and anything brought in was done so at risk. Anything you could grow at home you did. We were required to grow a quarter acre of potatoes – but that was hardly worth it so we ploughed an acre, and we also grew kale and oats.

“We were never in immediate danger but we listened to the wireless to know what was going on.”

Her brother Noble was in the RAF however. Now in his late 80s, he lives in Abingdon near Oxford and was director of the Imperial War Museum. “One-sixth of bomber command crew members never returned so he was lucky,” Helga adds.

She returned to university after the war and did her PhD at St Andrews, then worked at Keele University and Glasgow Agricultural College lecturing in zoology.

She had to return home to nurse her dying father (her mother was also ill and resting), but as the latter consisted of “a stuck in the mud boss and microscopes that belonged in a museum”, she didn’t mind leaving.

And the formation of Cumbria Wildlife Trust happened not long after. So over 50 years what are the major changes she has seen?

“I would say the worst thing has been the loss of heather on the fells, due to overstocking sheep. Now there are stocking levels but that has been gradual.

“There are more people and there is far more traffic of course, but there have been improvements on cutting down pollution. There has been a change in how other organisations work.

“The Forestry Commission are more conservation minded and are going back to native species. The National Trust used to be about an appreciation of buildings, now they are conservation minded also.

“Another highlight has been the appointment of Peter Bullard, a capable director and an all-embracing one.”

Helga never married – “I had one or two proposals,” she smiles, but her independent streak meant she would never settle for just anyone.

She has recently been going through “the Frankland papers”; archives left by her father, and enjoys friends and family visiting – often for ‘fireside picnics’, Helga’s favourite entertainment.

Today she has a typically busy day: there’s lunch to cook, squirrels to feed, gardening to do; she has to meet a deadline for an article she is writing and a cousin is visiting.

In 2007 she had two spells in a care home; after falling on ice and then following a car crash but while her health lasts she has no plans to leave.

“It was nice enough at the care home but there is not enough stimulus,” she says matter-of-factly . “So I shall go on here until I become too feeble and can’t manage.”

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