Dales pub where they still race ferrets - with bonus video

David Aynesworth holds his polecat ferret, whilst judge Simon Smith holds an Albino ferret, before the start of the evening's ferret racing at the Craven Arms pub, Appletreewick.

David Aynesworth holds his polecat ferret, whilst judge Simon Smith holds an Albino ferret, before the start of the evening's ferret racing at the Craven Arms pub, Appletreewick.

  • Conkers championships, pork pie competitions and ferrets racing overhead – Victoria Benn visits the pub bringing historic pastimes back to life. Pictures by Matthew Lloyd.

There is a pub in the charismatic Yorkshire Dales village of Appletreewick called the Craven Arms. It has flagged floors, real fires, gas lighting and all the snug nooks and crannies one could hopes for from a 16th century inn. Sited at the rear is its undisputable crowning glory, a traditionally built cruck barn – hand-crafted from bent oak trees, with walls insulated with sheep’s wool and rendered with traditional lime and horse hair, and roofed with a hand-pulled heather ling thatch.

The pub’s schedule of events and activities is as quirky and quintessentially Yorkshire as its exterior. An eclectic calendar which includes a pork pie competition, beer festival, terrier racing, conkers championship and, on February 15, the most eccentric and popular of all – an annual ferret racing competition.

Remarkably, however, the Craven Arms’s time-honoured atmosphere and appearance, and crucially its “historic” cruck barn were created by current owners David Aynesworth and his family just over 10 years ago. And the unconventional programme of events? Also dreamt up by David.

“I’ve always enjoyed old things and getting them going and bringing them back to life again – I have a real passion for the past,” he says with a smile.

Throughout his early careers as a farm manager then chartered surveyor, David’s love of restoration started to manifest itself, first with vintage cars and engines, then with shepherds’ huts and classic sailing boats. The accidental purchase of a set of Victorian Punch and Judy puppet heads led to him creating his own traditional show booth, self-training to become a bona-fide “Punch and Judy professor”. “If you run a Punch and Judy show you are a professor of Punch and Judy! I don’t do it as much now, but it still comes out in the pub beer garden in the summer,” he says.

In a twist of fate shortly after selling their share of a start-up Dales-based craft brewery, David and his family discovered that their local pub, the Craven Arms, was on the market.

“One day in 2005 my daughter came in and said: ‘Dad, Dad, the Craven Arms is for sale – why don’t you buy it?’ She meant it as a joke, of course, but it sowed a seed, and within months we’d bought it. It had unfortunately had the full treatment though, with everything ripped out including all the internal walls and fireplaces, along with its character and soul.

“We worked night and day for three weeks to restore the pub and improve the atmosphere, re-creating what you see today.”

Very quickly David and his family realised that they needed more space, which presented him with a unique opportunity to build something he’d become fascinated with during in his days visiting the buildings of the Dales as a chartered surveyor – a cruck barn.

“I suggested the idea of a cruck barn to my son Robert who at the time worked in buildings conservation, and he absolutely grasped it. In fact, he did most of the building work himself, in particular the roof structure and thatching, and made an absolutely brilliant job of it,” says David.

The Craven cruck barn was the first one to be built in Wharfedale using traditional materials and methods since the time of Henry VIII. Robert even used horses to pull the huge oak timbers into position. Meticulous research meant that the finished barn – an undertaking which took two years to build headed up by Robert and a coterie of local trades people and volunteers – is a faithful replica of the barns that were commonplace across the Dales 500 years ago.

With the barn finally open for business in 2007, David was able to start conjuring up entertainment ideas befitting the traditional yet innovative environment he and his family had created.

The concept of ferret racing had actually been invented by David back in 1978 for the first ever Broughton Game Show. As chairman of the show committee – from its inception to the last ever show in 2012 – David and a colleague conceived the idea of a ferret race as a way of generating some media interest for the show, which was a main fundraising event for the Upper Wharfedale Fell Rescue, an organisation that is very close to David’s heart.

“The ferret racing was an immediate sensation, and similar events started to take off around the country – even the Queen copied the initiative, holding a ferret racing event on the lawns of Windsor Castle shortly after,” says David. “Ferrets are a working animal and like nothing more than rushing down pipes, which follows their natural instincts of flushing rabbits out of their burrows. Slim and agile, a derivation of the European polecat, they are bred by gamekeepers especially for this purpose, as rabbits are a major pest in the Dales.”

Swift to reassure detractors, David points out that Otley Ferret Welfare is not only present at the competition, but brings several animals of its own to race. “Jackie and David Turner who run Otley Ferret Welfare and whom are members of the National Ferret Welfare Society, are on hand to talk to people on race night about the work they do and answer any concerns and questions,” he says.

Inspiration for the resurrection of the ferret race was twofold; “Firstly me and the team had been mulling over what we could do inside the cruck barn on a dark winter’s night which would be fun for adults, as well as exciting and educational for youngsters. One of the things I love about the race is seeing the youngsters coming in with their ferrets and taking interest in something real. And then secondly, we found Paul.”

The discovery of Paul who is a male or “hob” ferret in the chicken coop, crystallised the idea of an indoor ferret racing event for the Aynesworths.

“One morning a member of staff went out to feed the hens and came rushing back in saying ‘an otter’s eaten all the hens!’ So we went up and there was this ferret on its back resting its huge stomach. It had actually killed three hens. You could tell he was a well-kept ferret so we let it be known round about that we’d got one, but no one came forward, and so we kept him.”

The ferret racing competition has been running in the Craven cruck barn for five years and is an incredible success, attracting up to 80 ferrets and owners, plus well over a hundred spectators, whilst again raising funds for the Upper Wharfedale Fell Rescue. With enthusiasts far outstripping the available standing room, David and his team had to once again put their creativity to the test, to ensure that ferrets and onlookers could enjoy their own side of the event without getting in each other’s way. The result was the installation of the world’s first and only overhead ferret racecourse two years ago.

“The event was getting so popular that people were struggling to see the ferrets. So now with the overhead course four ferrets can race along an identical route consisting of four and half inch drain pipes which have identical wire sections within them, so everyone can stand underneath and watch their progress,” says David.

And what of Paul?

“Three years ago he came third, two years ago he came second, and last year he won,” adds David, laughing. “People started to say it’s a fix as he can practise on the course, which is in fact the last thing we would want him to do. If we kept feeding him into the pipe he’d know there wasn’t a rabbit down there. The key to a great race is that the ferrets need to be fresh down the pipe – there’s no advantage with ferrets practising on the course, otherwise they’ll know there’s nothing in it...”

The Ferret Racing Competition takes place on February 15. For more information visit craven-cruckbarn.co.uk or phone 01756 720270.