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Temple Garth - A Barn owl’s retreat!

This is a story of a building which dates back to at least the 12th century. The building at one time belonged to the Knights Templar but after the order was dissolved in 1312, their estates were handed over to the Knights Hospitaller, resulting in the loss of many records. It was second largest farm in the area of Hallbankgate only to beaten by Tarnhouse which was 4,500 acres. No records of the actually acreage of this farm were ever found.

When the farm land was divided up is not clear but during the mining years around the 16th century the house was used by miners not farmers. At this time there were only 4 stone buildings in the area. Origanilly these would have been thatched with heather with the last house in the area to use heather as roofing thatch being Starling castle at Forest Head. The name of this house must have come from the number of Starlings nesting in this roof space!

Heather thatch was followed by sandstone slate mined at Black Syke quarry and it would have been a long time before Lakeland slate came to the area. The pan tile slates which are presently on its roof are unusual in this area. As the mining collapsed the house was turned into a cow shed by the Greenside farm with the only sign of a house being the old windows now blocked up and the rhubarb growing outside (now sadly gone).

I have known the building of Temple Garth from 1981 when I lived very close to it at a terraced house called ‘Coalfell’ which was once a miner’s cottage. It often had Barn owls roosting and nesting on the very wide walls which were up to 3 foot wide. The width of these walls reflexes the age of the building. During a snowy period while visiting the building to look for the Barn Owls, I noticed in the marshy ground below the building several fish ponds. These would have been used by the monks from either Hexham or nearby Lanercost Abbey.

The building was never maintained sitting well away from the present farm of Greenside. In the 1980s horses were present in the field around the building and these caused a tremendous lot of damage to the building using the door ways to rub themselves causing the brick work to fall away making the building unsafe. The wind took its toll of the slates with many a hole in the roof. The building seemed doomed!

These marshy fields around the building offered the Barn Owls excellent feeding with rough grass, sedge and rushes protecting the voles especially from the harsh weather of the Pennines where the field is found. Both Short eared Owl and even Hen Harrier have been seen hunting this area along with Buzzards and Kestrels nesting locally. The field was drained by Steven Murray in the 1960s but managed to stay wet regardless. Barn owl nest boxes were added around 10 years ago and again around 5 years ago to help the birds breed as the slates were coming off near the old nest site on the thick wall.

I approached the present family Sandy and Robin Murray regarding the state of the building several years ago and the family always hoped to do something with the building. Amazingly in 2015 the building was repaired without grants or pressure from councils as it is definitely the oldest building in the area and needed to be saved. The pan tile slates have been replaced on the front with the remaining ones but roofing sheets have been added behind out of view of the main road. Breeze blocks have helped to reinforce the door ways and pointing took place outside at the front where new stone was placed.

Even as the work was going on the Barn Owls managed to rear 2 young in what turned out to be a very bad year for breeding in the North of England. The 2 nests boxes added to help the birds breed stayed in place and the birds often roost in them even though Jackdaws are always trying to take them over for themselves. A nearby hollow ash tree adds to a roosting site and where the birds fly if disturbed in the building.

The pictures now show the most historic and expensive Barn Owl building in Britain! Congratulations to the Murray family for taking on such a monumental and expensive task.

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