It sits in the middle of the M62 and is the motorway’s most famous landmark, but Sarah Freeman discovers how Stott Hall Farm is becoming a haven for Yorkshire wildlife.
Paul Thorp has two favourite times of the week - 7am on Mondays and 5pm on Fridays. Like clockwork, that’s when the M62 momentarily grounds to a standstill and for Paul it means an hour of so of relative peace.
Along with his wife Jill and young son John, home for Paul is the 2,500 acre Stott Hall Farm. Better known as ‘that farm in the middle of the M62’, it’s 1,100ft above sea level, buying a pint of milk requires a six mile round trip and even the triple glazing can’t completely muffle the 140,000 or so lorries, cars and buses which whizz past each day.
“You never get completely used to the noise,” says Paul who as well as being a farmer also doubles as an unofficial service station to motorists running out of petrol or needing to borrow a car jack on Britain’s highest motorway. “But you’re not going to change it, so you learn to accept it.”
The Thorps both come from farming stock and left their families in Holmfirth to start a new life on Yorkshire’s most famous farm. It takes a particular strength of character to be able to deal with raising a family in the middle of a six lane motorway and Jill admits there have been moments when she has yearned for a quieter life.
“Paul had worked for the previous farmer Ken Wild,” she says. “After Ken died and he eventually took over, he was already used to the place. When I moved in, I did struggle. I kept having to go back Holmfirth just to get away from the noise.
“The farmhouse itself is a lovely old building, but when you step outside, well, there is no getting away from it is there? However, what people see from the motorway is just a tiny fraction of the land we look after.”
Whatever misgivings Jill originally had, the Thorps are here to stay and have just signed a new 25 year tenancy on the farm, owned by Yorkshire Water. As a result, Stott Hall has now become part of the organisation’s Beyond Nature project, which was set up to better connect farmland with nearby water and wildlife.
For the Thorps it’s a continuation of work they have already been doing, but the new chapter is also a chance to expunge a few of those old myths. Built as a shooting lodge back in the 18th century, ask most people how Stott Hall avoided the M62 bulldozers and they’ll tell you about a truculent farmer whose attempts to hold out for more compensation were thwarted when planners built the motorway around rather than through his land.
“It’s amazing how often you hear that story,” says Paul. “Amazing, because not a word of it is true, but it has become accepted fact. The farm was actually saved because of a quirk of geology. It’s impossibly steep and they quickly discovered that they couldn’t make the six lanes meet here, so they left it alone.”
Jill suspects that M62 civil engineer Geoffrey Hunter may also have like the idea of leaving a lasting quirky testament to his transport vision. It worked. Even now the couple receive countless letters from the curious wanting to know what goes on there.
“A lot are from children and most are simply addressed to ‘The Farm on the M62’,” says Jill. “I reply to them all, but I am still surprised how interested everyone is in this place. To us, it’s just a farm, but if you go on Facebook there is often people chatting about it.
“You wouldn’t believe what people think this place is. Some are convinced it’s a brothel, others believe it was built on on top of secret underground bunkers. I once posted a message to say neither was true and I was stood in the kitchen having a cup of tea. They didn’t believe me.”
While the couple can laugh off the myths which have long surround the M62 farm, others, like the assumption it must suffer from high pollution levels, are potentially more damaging.
“I can see why people might think that, but it’s not the case,” says Paul. “We’ve had people up here to measure the pollution levels and it’s a lot less than your average town are city. There might be a lot of traffic, but there is also a lot of wind.”
Conscious about the surrounding environment for Paul and Jill being part of the Beyond Nature project is a chance to do their bit to improve the area’s important peatland bog landscape and right a few wrongs of the past along the way.
“I don’t think I will ever understand how anyone could have come up here, looked at this beautiful landscape and thought, ‘This would be a good place to build a motorway’,” says Jill. “To me it was an act of vandalism, simple as that. We can’t undo the motorway, but as custodians of Stott Hall we are really keen to do what we can to make the land here the best that it can be.”
Across the Pennines and the North York Moors, industrialisation had a major impact on the peat landscape. Air pollution killed off the distinctive mosses, leaving large areas of bare peat which rapidly eroded. Now there are moves to restore the peat, which is known to play a key role in reducing global warming by locking in carbon dioxide.
“If you came up here even in the 1960s and 70s you’d have seen sheep with black fleeces because of the soot from nearby industry,” says Matt Buckler, conservation manager at Moors For The Future, who has already been working closely with the Thorps through an EU funded project which runs until 2021. “Standing here now, that age of heavy industry seems a world away, but in fact it’s very recent history. Like much of the Southern Pennines this landscape still bears the scars of 200 years of industrialisation, but there is much we can do. We can plant heather and we can block the ditches which encouraged the water to drain away.”
At Stott Hall Farm that work has already begun and the Beyond Nature scheme should help accelerate the healing process.
“It might sit in the middle of a motorway, but it is a classic upland farm,” says Lisa Harrowsmith, a lead surveyor at Yorkshire Water. “Paul and Jill have 900 breeding ewes and it is a traditional livestock operation, but we want to help it become a more sustainable farm for the future.
“We want to create a new vision of how the farm can evolve. Of course it has to remain a successful commercial enterprise, but the Beyond Nature project will also help the wildlife, peatland and meadows to thrive.
“People might be surprised to hear that despite being surrounded by the M62, the farm is a haven for certain species of bird and one of the things we really want to do is improve the existing habitats to enhance populations of key species like merlin, swipe and twite birds.”
As for the Thorps, it is just another chapter in the colourful history of Stott Hall Farm. “When I was younger, I went away travelling but farming was in my blood and eventually I was drawn back,” says Jill. “I never thought I would end up here, but if I ever forget that I am somewhere a little bit different, a lorry driver will toot his horn and remind me that Stott Hall is a place that means so much to so many people.”