Share on Facebook Share on Twitter

About Mari & John Friend

Read below for the fascinating story of the history of Bracken Hall and find out why it's important to keep this piece of heritage going strong - both in peoples minds and in practical use.

Bracken Hall Countryside Centre, Glen Road, Baildon, West Yorkshire, BD17 5EA, ENGLAND


By Mari and John Friend

How we first came to Bracken Hall.

It was in July 1980 that we first came to live in the chunky stone house known as Bracken Hall on the edge of Baildon Moor near Bradford. We had then been married for 24 years, but were now quite unsure of what the future might hold for us. For the last three years, we had been living with our two sons in an apartment up two flights of stairs in inner London, close to the offices at Swiss Cottage where John was then employed.

At that time, our finances had been becoming increasingly tight. John's continued employment with the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations now depended on success in bidding for government research contracts which, in the late 1970's, were becoming subject to a severe financial squeeze. Now that he was approaching his fiftieth birthday, his career options were becoming more limited; so we began spending many anxious hours discussing what our next steps might be.

Meanwhile Mari, Yorkshire born and bred, had been starting to build a fulfilling new career in London by lecturing twice a week in botany and ecology to classes of enthusiastic adults at Morley College near Waterloo; but she had also begun to yearn for an escape from the stresses of life in the city.

One of the few possibilities that we could see for a change of scene lay in John arranging an attachment of some kind to a university in the north of England where his experience might be valued. Here the cost of a home should be considerable reduced, providing us with a breathing space in our search for other ways of making a living.

In the spring of 1980 John accepted an offer of an unpaid attachment as Senior Honorary Visiting Fellow in the School of Management at Bradford University, while continuing to work part-time for his employer in London, at least for the time being. So we started looking for a home near Bradford in the West Yorkshire countryside.

One advertisement in an agent's window in Shipley showed a solid-looking late Victorian house on the edge of Baildon near Bradford, with the imposing name of Bracken Hall. The photo showed that the house was not as grand as its name might suggest, and offers were invited in the region of £52,500. That was around £20,000 less than the latest valuation of our London flat, which had been rising rapidly. So we accepted an offer for our London home and made a successful bid for Bracken Hall.

The décor of Bracken Hall was old-fashioned and tired; but its attractions included five bedrooms; a large kitchen with an oil-fired Aga stove; and uninterrupted views from the front windows across a rocky strip of common land overlooking the woodlands of Shipley Glen. As we started settling in, we commissioned some modest improvements, including double glazing in place of the fragile ornamental window panes.

The idea of opening a visitor centre.

Our house occupied a modest plot of a quarter of an acre, with the yard of neighbouring Bracken Hall Farm immediately behind. There were mature apple trees in our garden, in a far corner of which stood a derelict concrete outbuilding facing the road. From here, we were told, teas and ices had until recently been served to the visitors who had come to the rocky plateau of Brackenhall Green to admire the scenery of Shipley Glen below.

At weekends, we saw how many local visitors came to park their cars on the rough strip of common land outside, where they could stroll with their dogs or let their children loose to explore the rocky plateau and the wooded glen below.

In August, the Green became purple with heather; then in autumn the bracken on the moors behind would turn to gold. We gradually came to realise that we had come to live in a rather special place. Slowly, the idea formed in our minds that we might be able to put the derelict café building in the far corner of our garden to another and more creative use.

Perhaps, we thought, we could convert it into some kind of visitor centre to help families to appreciate the varied wildlife and scenery of the glen, the crags and the moors behind.

Making enquiries.

So we made contact first with Bradford City Council's ebullient Countryside Officer, Les Morgan. He in turn introduced us to Ray Taylor, a regional representative of the Countryside Commission, the agency of government which was in those days responsible for encouraging countryside recreation and conservation.

Soon their enthusiasm, and ours, began to build up for the idea of launching a new local venture, which we might perhaps call the Bracken Hall Countryside Centre.

We were advised that we could apply for 50% capital grants to convert the old café building to its new use and to provide interpretive displays.

We were warned however that we would then be expected to manage the centre as a commercial venture.

We could begin by resurrecting the ice cream trade of the former café; but we could also stock a range of books, crafts and other such goods to help in providing cover for our running costs. From the autumn of 1980, our Countryside Centre project started to take clearer shape, providing a sense of new purpose to our lives.

Here at last was a chance for John to work alongside Mari towards a shared aim, rather than continue to be driven purely by the fluctuations of his uncertain employment as a management consultant.

Within sight of the building to be converted, we were fascinated to discover what were thought to be the remains of a prehistoric stone circle, nestling among the rocks on the plateau that was walked over by visitors every day. Gradually, we began to learn about the various local speculations over its origins, and about the mysterious cup-and-ring stones that archaeologists had discovered on Baildon Moor.

In February 1981, a letter arrived from Bradford Council permitting us to convert our derelict café building to a new use as a "countryside centre with retail sails". We smiled at that unthinking spelling slip, and started to imagine erecting a small wind turbine that could perhaps in time begin exporting surplus electricity to our neighbours!

Preparing for a launch.

There were now many preparations to be made if we were to launch our new centre in time for the summer of 1981. An architect colleague of John's helped us to draw up plans for an extension to the existing building to accommodate a new entrance and a small "wildlife room" facing the garden.

In this we could install an observation beehive and various native water creatures and insects in glass tanks, allowing visitors to observe their life cycles at close quarters.

So we contacted a biological supply centre in Surrey to order stocks of indigenous amphibians, fish and invertebrates for our planned wildlife room. We visited craft fairs to buy in stocks of goods for sale; we bought a cash register; we made contact with a local accountant; and we approached commercial photographers who could help us in enlarging Mari's artwork for a first exhibition on the theme "Plants into Fuel", with a storyline linking the life cycle of bracken to the origins of the coal once mined on Baildon Moor.

Together we enjoyed designing publicity leaflets and writing brief illustrated guides to the wildlife of Bracken Hall Green on our doorstep; of Shipley Glen just below; of the Aire Valley beyond; and of Baildon Moor above. We acquired an intruder alarm system, a freezer for ice cream, and a refrigerator in which to store cans of soft drinks. We also hired two part-time assistants - a friendly neighbour to help us keep the Centre clean, and a 16-year old lass on a youth training scheme to help us in the shop.

During this time, John still found himself on some days setting off for Leeds station to catch a fast train either northwards to Edinburgh, where he was now working on a government health project, or southwards for meetings with his London colleagues. Shortly before we were due to open the Centre in May, we somehow found time for a week's holiday in Tunisia with our two teenage sons. Then, with the centre almost ready to open, John fulfilled a commitment to fly to Indiana to deliver a talk at an international gathering of policy researchers.

Meanwhile, Mari did her best to cope with a flooding emergency in the final stages of the fitting out of our new centre. Amidst all the predictable anxieties about our ability to open on schedule on the last Saturday in May, a long professionally-written sign went up across the full frontage of our newly-painted building, proclaiming that this was soon to open as the "BRACKEN HALL COUNTRYSIDE CENTRE". We gazed at this sign from afar and asked each other, horror-struck, "What have we done?" Would our lives ever be the same again?

The Countryside Centre opens.

A week before we were due to open, we hesitantly started selling ice cream from a side window. Then, on Saturday May 30 1981, we opened the Centre's front door at 11 am to welcome our first proper visitors, led by our friendly local newsagent Edna Hoare. Our exhibits were appreciated; our till registered our first sales; and we began receiving some welcoming notices in the local press. We were finally in business!

From now on, a new weekly rhythm began to take over our lives. We had advertised our summer opening times as from 11am to 8pm every day except Mondays when - apart from Bank Holidays - the Centre was to remain closed.

We soon found that Sundays tended to be our busiest day, with visitors parking wherever they could amongst the stony outcrops of Brackenhall Green. Saturdays were usually less busy, while on weekdays our number of visitors - and our level of sales - could dwindle to a trickle, depending on the weather.

What we learned from our visitors.

As the summer progressed, we met all kinds of interesting people, most of whom told us that they appreciated what we were aiming to do. Among them were many young families with children and also many older residents, some of whom were able to tell us fascinating stories about the area in earlier years. We learned that, since Victorian times, Shipley Glen had been a favourite spot for Bradford families to come on weekend outings.

First they would travel by tramcar to Saltaire in the Aire valley; then they would either walk up by a woodland path to the open plateau of Brackenhall Green, or take a short ride up the steep incline by means of a little Victorian cable-hauled railway known as the Shipley Glen Tramway.

We learned that, towards the end of the Victorian era, the plateau above the Glen had become highly commercialised, with all kinds of fairground attractions springing up. Local entrepreneurs had erected various mechanical contraptions on which families had been able to take rides, enjoying commanding views of the woods and crags fringing the Glen.

All these entertainments - the toboggan run, the aerial flight, the switchback - had however been swept away by an early 20th century movement to restore the natural delights of the landscape, leaving tell-tale metal anchorages here and there.

Our trainee helper did not stay long, but several members of our own family took turns in helping behind the counter whenever they were with us. Our ices, crafts and books sold at a steady pace, while our range of little plastic dinosaurs attracted particularly close attention from small children, some of whom would spend ages choosing between them. So we discovered that our stocks had to be frequently replaced.

Telling stories about the natural world.

Meanwhile, in our long but narrow little wildlife room facing the garden, Mari was beginning to hold visiting families spellbound by telling graphic tales of nature's life cycles and the subtle interactions between the various animals and plants to be found in the local countryside.

She would do this while referring to what people could see happening in her observation beehive and in her carefully-tended water tanks with their populations of dragonfly nymphs, water spiders, newts, sticklebacks and other small creatures.

Teachers began to ask to arrange school visits, and we advertised guided walks in Shipley Glen and along the Green. One day that first summer, John happened to be working away from home when a BBC television crew arrived at short notice to make a five-minute film clip of Mari and her work in the Centre for a regional evening news programme. Other welcome pieces of publicity appeared in the local press and in regional and national magazines.

We produced two local view postcards of our own, and a Christmas card which showed a dramatic Christmas morning sunrise over the snow covered stone circle on Bracken Hall Green, with the Countryside Centre in the background.

Adapting to experience.  

When autumn came, we realised that we would have to curtail our winter opening hours. We felt exhilarated by our new experience of acting as a focus of local attention; yet we were none too sure whether, in the longer term, we could make the venture pay.

 So John constructed a simple home-made "pay gate" to control access to the wildlife room, asking visitors to drop twenty pence each into a slot as a contribution to the costs of the regular supplies of bloodworms and daphnia needed to keep our various water creatures fed.

Each evening, John would open a trap below the gate and collect the handful of coins that would usually fall out. One development that we had not expected was that we should take on a role as a local animal rescue centre. One visitor brought in a wounded bat, and another a damaged owl - both of which we later succeeded in returning to the wild.

We were less successful with a newly-born stoat, which Mari fed fondly from a pipette before, after thirteen days, it expired. She did however write a diary of the short, sad life of Bod the Stoat, and we made a few copies to sell to interested visitors. Occasionally, more exotic creatures would be brought in  - such as colourful Central American tree frogs or exotic spiders found in bunches of bananas at the local supermarkets.

Another unexpected new role which we found ourselves unexpectedly taking on was that of vigilantes - alerting the police whenever teenage scramblers on motor bikes would suddenly appear and start bumping across the rocky terrain of Brackenhall Green. For we saw them as threatening to damage the fragile plant life among the rocks outside our Centre, as well as disrupting the tranquil natural environment which our visiting families had come to enjoy.

Growing concerns about the Centre's future.

So, during the summer seasons of 1982 and 1983, we found ourselves becoming recognised as a focal point for visitors to the local beauty spot of Shipley Glen. Most of them were local, but some came from much further afield. By the time our fourth season of 1984 arrived - invested with sinister overtones by George Orwell in his fable written in 1948 - several factors had been combining to create added uncertainty about how long we could continue running our Countryside Centre on our own. Exciting and rewarding as the experience had been for us both, it often left Mari exhausted after standing telling tales on a busy day.

Furthermore, it was starting to seem more and more unlikely that the Centre would eventually generate enough income of itself to provide us with a long-term livelihood. Other developments in 1984 were now starting to influence our thoughts about the future of Bracken Hall. There were at that time two levels of local government in the metropolitan areas of England - in our case, West Yorkshire Metropolitan County Council and Bradford City Council - and both of them were empowered to provide services in the field of countryside management.

While our relations with Bradford's Countryside Service had gradually been becoming more distant, we found that our venture was starting to attract increasing interest from the countryside officers of the County Council, who dropped in and expressed interest from time to time. At that time, West Yorkshire's County Council was fighting against an imminent threat of abolition, emanating from a national government which was determined to sweep away the seeming extravagance of a two-tier local government system in the metropolitan areas.

Most of the services managed by the upper tier authority were rather remote from the lives of citizens; yet that could not be said of its countryside management service. So we approached the officers of the County Council with a suggestion that they might consider strengthening their community image by taking over our Countryside Centre. Perhaps indeed they might be interested in acquiring not only the modest outbuilding in which the Centre was then housed but also the rest of our property including the house and garden, offering them scope for future expansion.

We were much encouraged when this suggestion met with a positive response first from the officers of the County Council and then from the elected members, at a time when they were still campaigning vigorously against an imminent threat of abolition. After a succession of delays, and many anxieties on our part, we breathed a sigh of relief when the sale of our countryside centre was finally agreed, together with the house and garden and the Centre's stocks.

It seemed that we had completed our negotiations to transfer our property and stock just in time, as it was not many months after this that the abolition of the County Council was confirmed.

Taking our leave of Bracken Hall.  

Because John was still working some of his time for an employer in London, it made sense for us now to move south again. Yet we had not lost our taste for rural life; so, in August 1984, we found ourselves moving to live in a cottage in a quiet part of the Sussex Weald, which happened to be blessed with an acre of adjoining woodland. From here, John would be able to commute by train to his office in London two or three days a week for so long as his employment there might continue; while Mari could hope to develop further her talents as a wildlife writer and artist at a more leisurely pace.

So, one warm day in August 1984, we piled what belongings we could into an overloaded red Panda car and drove south to arrive in the late evening at our woodland cottage, which turned out to need a thorough cleaning. A Shipley Transport furniture van arrived with the bulk of our furniture the following day.

We reflected that we seemed somehow to have succeeded in swimming against the tide, at a time when the privatisation of public services in England was in full swing. For we had rashly set up our Countryside Centre as a private enterprise, with only a modest amount of help from government in the way of capital grants.

We realised that such an unconventional initiative had called for a spirit of idealism rather than hard-headed commercial realism.

Yet we could now claim to have succeeded in a rare process of de-privatisation - opening up a prospect of a longer term future for the Centre under local government management, through operation as a public service with environmental and educational objectives to the fore.

The County Council now kept the Centre closed while the necessary alterations were made to move the public functions of the Centre into the main house and convert the upstairs rooms to a warden's flat, while demolishing the outbuilding in which our venture had begun some four years earlier.

Continuing to draw on our experiences at Bracken Hall.

For us, this was not the end of the road so far as our growing environmental interests were concerned. After our move to Sussex, Mari was able to build on our fascinating experiences at Bracken Hall by writing weekly nature articles for a country magazine. Meanwhile she gradually assembled material for a book intended for a family readership, full of stories based on her own observations of the rich tapestry of our native wildlife both in Yorkshire and in Sussex.

Soon we made contact with a nearby educational publisher who saw the opportunity to distribute this book to schools in a loose-leaf binder, and the title of "Small Wonder" was agreed. Then, in 1986, John's employment in London came to an end and he began working as a freelance consultant. This led to involved in some challenging new assignments in Britain and overseas; but, two years later, we were again coming under financial pressure and, for a combination of financial and family reasons, we started to think about moving back north in semi-retirement.

This time, we were delighted, and somewhat surprised, to succeed in bidding at an auction for a country cottage called Barleyland near Bamford in the heart of the Derbyshire Peak District. Again we were lucky in being able to take advantage of a period when property values in the south had risen more rapidly than in the north, so we were able to breathe a little more easily for a while, recognising that this kind of luck cannot be expected to last for ever.

Along with Barleyland, we had acquired a long narrow strip of uncultivated land running downhill from the cottage. This soon inspired Mari to begin designing a wildlife garden with a range of linked meadow, water and woodland habitats. Through friends of friends, she also made contact with an entrepreneur in the book trade by the name of Mrinalini Srivastrava, hailing originally from India.

The talent of Munni, as we knew her, was that of a book "packager", who would first integrate the text and graphics into an illustrated volume then promote this to publishers at events such as the world-famous Frankfurt Book Fair. The outcome was that, in 1991, Mari's "Small Wonder" appeared as a professionally-bound book in full colour published through Cassells in London. Furthermore, translations appeared through other publishers in French, Swedish and Dutch; so here was a major breakthrough in Mari's career as a wildlife author and artist.

We were delighted the following year when Small Wonder was jointly awarded a national conservation book award - the Sir Peter Kent Prize - at a ceremony at the Royal Society in London. Before long, two further books were in the pipeline, one concerned with winter survival and the other suggesting wildlife projects that could be carried out by families and schools. There followed a programme for Yorkshire Television which traced Mari's story from her childhood dreams of growing up to be a naturalist through to the creation of Bracken Hall Countryside Centre and the wildlife garden at Barleyland.

It reminded us of the caution many years ago from her father, who spent his working life weighing wagons of coal at a Barnsley colliery, that "only vicar's daughters become naturalists".

Later developments at Bracken Hall.

Now, a quarter of a century later, we consider ourselves both to be fully retired, Yet we continue to follow the story of Bracken Hall Countryside Centre at a distance, encouraged by the evidence of local determination to continue its role of Bracken Hall as a resource for future generations. For various reasons, we have continued moving house every few years, remaining in the northern counties of England where our two daughters and two sons have now settled down. We have now finally settled in a bungalow in the Penistone foothills near Penistone in South Yorkshire, not far from Barnsley where Mari spent her childhood.

As seemed likely when we left Bracken Hall in 1984, it was not long before West Yorkshire County Council was abolished and the Countryside Centre, now relocated inside the house, was transferred to the management of the City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council. Here, responsibility became vested not in the Countryside Service but in what became known as the Art Galleries and Museums Service.

Our younger son Dave has continued to live in the Bradford area, and we have enjoyed paying return visits to Bracken Hall from time to time - not least to introduce our grandchildren to the delights of the surrounding countryside. We have appreciated in particular our increasing contacts with John Dallas, who has now spent many years running the Centre and has done so much to continue development of its outreach role as a hub for countryside activities with schools and other local organisations.

The Centre may have once been classified by Bradford as a museum, but its role has always been so much wider in helping visitors to appreciate the glorious scenery and rich wildlife of the surrounding countryside.

So what of the future?

In February 2013, we were pleased when we were invited by the Bradford Urban Wildlife Group to give a talk in Shipley about our early years at Bracken Hall. By that time, the Centre was once more under threat of closure, under a programme of severe economies imposed by central government on local government expenditure.

Yet we were delighted to meet many of the local people who were campaigning for ways of keeping the Centre going, and who were to go on to play leading roles in a new voluntary group of "Friends of Bracken Hall Countryside Centre", with John Dallas as Chair and Joy Smith as Secretary. We are both keen to offer what continued support we can to these new Friends - feeling proud to be able to claim to have acted as the original Friends of Bracken Hall more than thirty years earlier.

Now, in the late summer of 2015, we are thrilled that a new future for the Countryside Centre seems finally to be falling into shape, thanks to some generous transitional funding from the Town Council of Baildon and to the involvement of the present generation of the Illingworth family who own the neighbouring Bracken Hall farm. For they have now acquired the freehold of the house and garden, with a view to letting the upstairs rooms as visitor accommodation while leasing the majority of the downstairs space for Countryside Centre use.

The re-opening as a Countryside Centre which is currently planned for September 2015 is expected to be only a modest first step towards realising the full potential of this strategically placed local resource. Yet we are delighted that the Friends of Bracken Hall are considering bold plans for attracting wider investment and expanding the future role of the Countryside Centre both as a resource for the communities of this historic and beautiful part of Yorkshire, and as a means of nurturing the enthusiasm of future generations for the unique natural environment which is their heritage to cherish and conserve.

Mari and John Friend,  August 2015

Sadly, Mari passed away in 2016 but she did visit the 'new' Bracken Hall that Baildon Town Council and The Friends of Bracken Hall have been working to reopen.

Here is a link to an article about her life and work: Mari Friend