There must be some Freudian reason why boys of all ages are so excited by railways of all sizes, as girls (of all ages) seem untouched by such irrational attachment. For me it’s as much the architecture as the machinery, so what Beeching’s Axe left behind still has a powerful appeal.
Hewenden Viaduct lies between Keighley and Bradford, and my work commute takes me past it, so it was only a matter of time before I had a squint at a couple of maps and persuaded my family out for a Sunday constitutional. A network of walks is easily accessed from the villages of Cullingworth, Denholme and for us Harecroft, via the quarter-mile Station Road. Passenger traffic ceased on this line – part of a G.N.R. link to Keighley from Bradford and Halifax – in 1955, and the station has long since gone, but this was our point of entry to the Great Northern Trail.
Under-informed, I had expected an overgrown track awkwardly accessible through trespass, and that I would risk the censure of my responsible progeny for scratched calves and a quick peek over the Victorian parapet. What we found as we left the road through a signposted gate, was legitimate passage onto tarmac, and happy family groups, and the occasional jogger enjoying a blustery Spring day – I had to hold my hat on at one point – on a popular amenity complete with impressive information boards giving a glimpse into steam’s heroic past.
Disappointingly too, the parapet must be six foot high, and my mediaeval five-foot-eight wouldn’t allow for spectacular vistas of rural Yorkshire. There are at intervals, little recesses – presumably for the safety of rail workers as trains passed – from which tangential views of the South face of the gently-curved viaduct itself are to be had, but that apart, one has to be clear of the masonry to see beyond, and to view nearby Hewenden Reservoir from afar. It was from here, on the Western edge of the viaduct, that our first Swallow of the year was seen hawking insects among catkin-laden willows – my earliest ever by a fortnight.
The footpath is soon flanked by the expanding village of Cullingworth, from whose gardens have strayed flora both benign and less so – including a tenacious Cotoneaster-like beast of the type that has invaded my own garden from a neighbour’s. We are soon on another, smaller viaduct, which straddles the Haworth – Bradford road through the village, and has a decently low parapet for rubbernecking. We turn back at the far end of this and retrace our steps.
Back at the start, my family plumps for a return to the car, while under time pressure I strike out south to check out the reservoir. I don’t actually get there – wrong path – but I do get close enough to spot a trio of resting Cormorants. I get a photo, but I want a better one. Using my best fieldcraft I manage to get a few feet closer before their inevitable nervous departure. I find them later, swimming low on the water and also a fine Goosander drake and his redhead companion. On my way back to the car a Sand Martin passes me low-level – dead on schedule for this riparian swallow.
I’ve had better walks, for sure, but this was a flying visit with limited time and less planning, and reservoir aside, with its wooded eastern shore, downstream of it runs Hewenden Beck, meandering through extensive woodland on its way to join the River Aire at Bingley. Footpaths abound and it would be criminal not to explore further.
I never, but never, set out on a walk without binoculars. They might stay in their case the whole time for want of a reason to take them out, but you can bet your bottom dollar that the one time I leave them at home, would be the time a lost Andean Condor got lucky with a fresh sheep carcass in our local valley. Today’s wildlife haul, sad to say, barely justified the extra weight, comprising a pair of travelling Ravens, and the manic yelping of an unseen Green Woodpecker. Conversely, two days ago, and without binocular aid, I was privileged to encounter a hunting Barn Owl on the snow-clad moorland above Haworth. Just saying …
One always travels expectantly though, or one would jack it in and go home. The recent tightening of the Covid restrictions means I’ve shelved any plans to venture beyond my local patch. It’s a grey and damp mid-January, and my fingers are cold. Promising it ain’t.
But the gradual ascent has the blood pumping. and the warmth returning. And despite the homogenous lighting, photo opportunities abound. Most of the best pictures to be had are views I have framed time and again, but it doesn’t matter. Lighting, weather, the time of year present infinite variables.
The going is soft, the mud thick underfoot. In places there’s no option but to squelch through it, and maybe take photographs of it. Mud’s a dirty word though. This is soil – a rich organic brew of last summer’s Oak and Beech leaves, fermenting in gritstone, clay and lashings of Pennine rainwater. A universe of micro-organisms and chemical reactions, making fuel for the growing months.
Fuel alike for mercurial Foxglove and the slow-growing giants whose roots lock into the bedrock in a python-like embrace which lasts for years. Wood and rock fused in a unity blessed by a common moss epidermis. A temporay unity. A hundred years or so will see the death of the mighty Oak, and the dissolution of its root anchor by fungi, and by the same mechanics by which it is nourished for now. The rock it grips won’t die, of course. Merely diminish by the year, the century, the millenium. As will Man’s contribution to our landscape.
Blasted from the quarry face, hewn to shape, assembled into houses and barns in a time before breeze blocks, stone speaks of permanence. But like our Oak’s anchorage, what we have cut for our use, chosen for its resistance, is disappearing from the moment of its commissioning, subject to a slow mechanical grinding from Pennine rain and wind-borne grit. Defined, angular forms soften with time. A Victorian gatepost becomes a Pennine monolith. Re-purposed barns become drystone walls. Walls collapse, are sometimes repaired. Ultimately they are re-absorbed. Erosion, like rust, never sleeps.
Water too is ever restless, in a state of constant flux. That dumped, often violently, on our Pennine uplands, mostly finds its way into water-courses like the Calder, taking the path of least resistance. Occasionally it is foxed, becalmed in saturated mud. We can help it away, using our old friend stone to form drainage channels. I somehow doubt those above are in their first incarnation. Who knows what lives these slabs have led. But today they make the earth firmer, my passage easier.
Summer’s fingers lose their grip. I’m falling into Autumn.
As long as we have the summer birds, for me it’s summer, and though the passage from one season to the next is a gradual one, this one arbitrary distinction is as good as any for marking the boundary. Even the process of migration south, though, is one spread over several weeks, with the Swift Africa-bound in mid-August, six weeks before the House Martin has finished with us, and about eight before the Osprey seen from the kitchen Velux a fortnight ago. The impression of a large, broader-winged gull with a pronounced bend at the “wrist” (carpal) joint was all I had, and there was no time to grab binoculars, but one I watched years ago at Dovestones Reservoir, in the nearby Peak District – also in October – had caught my attention in a similar way. Of course I tried to rationalise my Cornholme bird away as a heron or gull, but it didn’t work. The Osprey, in any case, isn’t the “twitch” it was in my youth, having made a good recovery as a British breeder in recent years, but the Peak District Lammergeier, now with fresh tail feathers and en route back home to the French Alps, was a major one.
That was the last of our Summer birds I can expect to see. In their place, on my patch at least, will come thrushes from northern Europe – immaculate Redwing and chacking Fieldfare – and their hawthorn table is laden and waiting. The monosyllabic “seep” of travelling Redwings is best heard in the quiet of night, and I can say I’ve heard it already. But it’s a cast of our residents which accompanies me on my afternoon ramble in Cornholme’s back yard, with Jay and Kestrel notably busy.
I time my departure to take the best advantage of a lowering sun, and at about four-thirty I’m chasing the year’s last pollen-dusted Honeybee around a patch of flagging Himalayan Balsam skirting the railway bridge, in the hope of a decent picture. I get a picture. Himalayan Balsam is one of those “invasive alien” species, rampant on waste ground in upper Calderdale, but has become a staple for Honeybees during Summer’s last flourish, and it’s difficult to despise its overgrown orchid looks and cheap scent.
From here, I follow a route strewn with my DNA – continuing up Frieldhurst Road and taking the first gate to my right, which marks my temporary exit from the mundane, and my entrance into the magnificence of wild Calderdale. I follow the valley south-east, before zig-zagging upwards and northwards. Past a sheer drop to my right, and distant Stoodley Pike on the horizon. Past the radio mast on my left, a pause to photograph a late Foxglove, and onward between the exquisite stone dwellings of Hartley Royd, after which I continue eastwards to cross the surging and ale-brown Redmires Water at Hudson Bridge. This marks my half-way point, at which I turn south, onto Hudson Moor, and my northward leg is now across the clough, to my right.
As is the sun – now critically low. I stand and watch, and take photographs until it finally slides away, dragging light and colour with it, like a rich miser. As I turn away to continue my journey, a rakish half-silhouette glides above the spent heather. Yards away the Kestrel looks big as it pulls up to hover, eyes likely scanning for the ultra-violet urine trails of voles. Respectful of its quest, I move slowly if at all, to avoid risk of spooking the crepuscular hunter, only moving on when it has drifted out of view.
The sun hasn’t finished with us quite yet – projecting a slow light show in the changing clouds as I skirt Orchan Rocks and cross open heathland before beginning a zig-zag descent on Tarmac, past beady-eyed and satanic black rare-breed sheep and through mature Beech, where I share the dusk with ever-busy Grey Squirrels. Woodland gives way to Victorian masonry, and the quiet, liquid song of a Robin is joined by the assertive “kewick!” of a distant Tawny Owl as I pass the old Robinwood school in the half-light. Further down, I draw level with the railway viaduct, and a lone Pipistrelle traces its beat through space, tiny as the stone is massive. I think it’s my last, but I see at least one more as I regain the valley bottom and follow the footpath home. I’m back in 2020, but I’ve given the slip to the mundane. Sometime before Monday morning it’ll probably find me again.
On the hills above Cornholme, the Heather’s in full flower, acres of purple marking the culmination of the growing season. From here on, apart from the ripening of apples and brambles, the story will be one of a slow but hastening decline. Officially it’s summer until September 21st, but autumn will be seen and felt far sooner. We will have our Swallows and Martins for a good month yet, but not their erstwhile similar, but unrelated, hawking companion.
Hatched in a church tower and raised on flies, a fortnight saw him fall into space. Sickle wings took his weight and muscle and momentum took him up. He hasn’t touched land since. An aerial nomad, he goes where the food drifts – the sky-borne insect plankton, a whale-sized gape and arrow pace the tools of his trade. Day-long he reaps. But as evening turns to dusk, and with others of his kind, he’s drawn upward, the diminishing contact screams all that betray their ascent, until even they are beyond our hearing. Above the cloud layer our hero spends his night, cat-napping in descending circular glides, the Sun rarely out of view, as the bat works the night shift a mile below.
But his stay will be short, above our soil, and as his parents were the last to arrive of our summer birds, so they and he will be the first to leave. As August settles in, our Pennine swift is restless: as the tenth dawns grey and damp, the waking bird breaks under cloud at a lick, on course for Stoodley Pike, a grey stone ghost through the drizzle, and beyond. He may be back next year, to Cornholme to breed, but for now it’s a regretless adieu to his native tower, to rooftop, road and railway, cliff and clough, wood and field, and the desperate trials and travails of the local humanity. All this he leaves behind. This and Joe.
Joe’s having another bad night. In the small hours, his every problem is magnified as his mind races. Incapacitated by the beer, he feels helpless. Dawn sees him still awake, and he goes down to make tea. The wren’s been singing since before light – a fellow insomniac – and its explosive trill has been the soundtrack to his every troubled morning. He’s come to despise that song and its singer. “How did things come to this?” he wonders. Something has to change. Pulling aside the dining room curtain, Joe sees the sun’s light rake the hilltop. It’s now, he decides. Or never.
Back upstairs he moves quietly, dressing with one eye on his wife. Wine-gorged, she sleeps the sleep of the just. And she’s beautiful, he concedes. It makes it worse. Across a bed, but a world apart, or so it feels at times like these. He’d kiss her if he dared, before he left the room, descended the stairs, left the house. But he can’t wake her now. He’ll travel light – just the clothes he has on, maybe his phone. Boots on, and a waterproof. And one last thing. He’ll need his binoculars if he’s to catch summer’s last swift.
To my knowledge, there are no marine molluscs in Upper Calderdale, though the changing climate and periodic deluges could cause some of the scarier slugs to evolve apace, into a freshwater equivalent. There are mink, however – I’ve seen them – two long, dark shadows melting into the riverbank by the former Hebden Bridge mill home of Walkley’s Clogs, since fired and subsequently demolished. The lovely Alex was with me at the time, but I was unfortunate enough to miss her close encounter with the one which trotted brazenly along a riverside balcony in the centre of Sowerby Bridge as she waited for me with a dead car. The mink, in no particular hurry, left the balcony to make its way down to the riverbank. OK, I know the American Mink is an “invasive alien” here, but Hell, I’m a mustelophile, and this mustelid has attitude in spades!
My sole excuse for even mentioning this “poor man’s otter” is that I’d written off this summer as a “damp squib.” The Damp Squids and Semi-skilled Mink are old pub quiz team names used by myself and brother Dave, down at the Staff of Life and the Stubbing Wharf. We finally settled on The Toad Whisperers, which is a lot more sensible.
Covid-19 was a dream come true for me, as my furlough allowed me all the time in the world just to absorb the sights, sounds and smells of the unfolding Spring in the loveliest part of the country not to have been granted National Park status. But the rot soon sets in. The blog becomes a responsibility. Work want me back, and I don’t want them. It doesn’t rain for weeks on end. I’m living off my overdraft as the moorland fires start and my Oak trees start to die. And then the Lockdown eases, and the Roast Beef of Olde Englande, denied foreign travel and access to pubs, launches a Blitz on Blake’s “Green and Pleasant Land.” Patriots all, no doubt. Greater love hath no man for his country than to piss in his own trough, and despoil all he professes to hold dear. The rain couldn’t have come soon enough, and let’s thank The Lord for the re-opening of the pubs!
The Summer Solstice behind us now, the year slides inexorably towards Autumn, and the urgency of Spring has given way to something more languid, carrying a tinge of melancholy – at least for myself – the feeling that the party’s over. Of course it isn’t – nothing stands still. Blossom begets fruit, and its attendant pollinators, like bees, attend the next event. My Cotoneaster, a festival for hungry insects weeks ago, now has berries growing and ripening for winter birds. The abundant Foxglove was at its magnificent best around the end of June, but as a firework, is almost burnt out as Heather comes into bloom, and I hope for sufficient Honeybees to do the great swathes justice.
As the cloughs run a beery brown, some of the smaller birds will be raising second broods, or even third, with the Wren’s ever-present muscular trill attesting to energetic self-advertisement and territory consolidation. But my sole encounters with young birds have been the two vocal Buzzards play-stooping at each other as they drifted over Cornholme, and the four-strong group of Kestrels which drew my attention with their rapid “Kee-kee-kee!” calls as they honed their aerial skills in the shadow of Eagle Crag. Their activity seemed to centre on a large Beech though, rather than the expected rock ledge, so I’m assuming they’d been raised in the disused Crow’s nest mentioned in the textbooks. Falcons don’t build. Buzzards do though, and if my playful young birds were local-bred, my money is that the nest was in another Beech, a stone’s throw from the Kestrels’, and to which I’ve seen Buzzards return several times from hunting forays. So maybe a local first in many years for this again thriving raptor, and a re-branding of Eagle Crag?
But as this strange year matures, and each view of a Swift becomes more likely to be my last until next May, one omission stands out. In any other year, come late June, parties of Jackdaws and Woodpigeon descend on the hill at the back of us to gorge on the year’s Bilberry crop, and our kitchen Velux is decorated with the purple splodges of their digestive process. This year no feeding frenzy, no shit, and a sense of something missed.
I’m not a gardener. Whilst I can appreciate the results of another’s hard work and time spent, I have other fish to fry, and no time to fry any more. My little plot, all four metres wide, and about six deep, isn’t what my neighbours would call a garden. I’m not even sure I would. I would call it evolution.
We’ve been here eighteen years, and when we first moved into our late-Victorian terrace, what are now the terrace’s back gardens were just the bottom of the hill behind us, ending abruptly in a stone wall, with a fence atop it, across the cobbled lane from our back yards. Sheep and cattle grazed right down to this barrier. A couple of years later, the owner of the land granted us permission, for a nominal rent, to fence off a modest portion for our own use. Over the next few years, babies replaced motorcycling and going to the pub, but in either case, doing anything at all to the uneven and stony little wasteland behind us wasn’t a priority. Animals having been fenced out, the rough grass would grow apace. Every few months, more as a sop to our neighbours than anything else, I’d get a strimmer to it, and for a while we could enjoy the sight of the sad, yellow stubs laid bare. There was a shrub of some sort, planted there before we came, but I had no interest whatsoever in it.
With hindsight, I could wish that I’d chronicled the leisurely metamorphosis from open and windswept grassland, to the riot of green we have now. As it is, I can’t remember what I planted first, or when. Or when I took out Carol’s shrub, being careful not to disturb P. J. our family cat, who I’d buried in front of it. But slowly and steadily, the Hand of Man has wrought great change in that space.
I’m embarrassed to admit to having spent anything at all on my garden, but I’m still quite perversely proud to have spent very little. Twenty quid went on twelve Hawthorn whips bought online, as the basis for a hedge, and then there were the lengths of two-by-two timber and assorted brackets and screws, which I used to extend the boundary a couple of feet back onto the hill, and the chicken wire I had to staple to the fence to keep …. chickens out, so the little buggers couldn’t scrat up my Oak saplings again. All the other plants have been grown from seeds and transferred from planters, are waifs and strays, or are self-seeded. Additional stone is recycled from crumbling drystone walls on the hill, to become steps and the surround for my pond.
The whole thing has come together in a piecemeal fashion, with short bursts of activity and head-scratching interspersed with much longer periods of idleness, but if there is a rationale, it’s to create an informal haven for birds and insects, with a nod to my aesthetic sensibilities. And it’s nearer that goal by the year. It will be easiest just to give a run-down of what’s in there. I have:
Holly. Three plants. The first two had self-seeded between the cobbles, behind the dustbin, and were an inch or so high. I put them into pots until I deemed them big enough to plant. One lost its leaves, but recovered. It’s about four feet high now. The other one, which had a better start, is probably eight, and gets berries on it. The third just popped up in the garden, and is nicely placed to the left of the stone steps that lead one back into the mysterious depths, so naturally, I’ve left it.
Oak. About seven. All from acorns – some local, and some from a campsite in Borrowdale – grown in planters, then transferred. Three are eight-footers – two of these now uncomfortably close together – and the rest have been sawn short, and really need to come out now. Ultimately there will be only room for one, or maybe two, which I hope will be a legacy for future generations. If I get to have a Tawny Owl calling from one of them in my lifetime, I’ll consider it a job well done!
Apple. One and a half. From pips, and not initially intentional, but they grow like Topsy. I transferred them into a space about dead-centre of the plot, once they were big enough. The “half” seems prone to some sort of rot in late Summer, and has lagged well behind its companion, so I’ve just sawn it short, with a view to taking it out. Eventually. Happy to say the other is about ten feet and in rude health. It flowered last year, producing a very few apples. We picked the first ones too early, and assumed from their size and from trying them, that the tree had reverted to being a wild Crab Apple tree ( I’m no gardener) but happily the two I missed were able to complete their growth, and to fully ripen to be very acceptable Cox’s! I had my first ever go at pruning, last winter – good old YouTube – and there was an encouraging show of blossom this year, so I’m looking forward to a bounty!
Rowan. A few growing too close together for their own good, or to separate. Again, from berries I picked up and poked into a planter. Undergoing a yearly thinning-out programme of the weediest one being sawn off. All taller than me now, and putting out blossom in the spring.
Cotoneaster. One well-established plant , the progeny of our other one out the front, by way of planting some berries from it. A favourite with at least two bee species, including Honeybee, when it flowers, and with me for its low-maintenance qualities. And I did see a Blackbird eating a berry from it, a Winter or two back, so that’s another plus.
Hawthorn. About ten plants from the original twelve I planted in a staggered row parallel with the back fence. Not the tidiest of hedges, and still need severe cutting back where they clash with my big Holly and far corner Oak. Should a Hawthorn hedge have berries? Well, mine will this year – more bird fuel!
I have attempted to introduce Heather and Foxglove into my space, with mixed results. A few years ago, I helped myself to ten nascent Foxgloves from on the hill, and planted them. That year, I had a handsome display of flower from them, but there was nothing to show for it the next, and I put it down to experience and wrestled ten Heather plants free from their rocky foothold, damaging roots as I did so, and transplanted them into my rich soil, expecting to establish a default carpet at ground level. I’m down to three now, and prepared to admit failure. Last year, even these were swamped by the magnificent and numerous progeny of the Foxgloves I thought I’d seen the last of. I do have Foxgloves this year, but fewer, and smaller than last.
I even have herbs – a rugged, purple-flowered Thyme at the garden’s entrance, and “Sideshow Bob” – a wild Garlic, and the first of my plants to put out, in February.
God knows I’ve dug enough stones out of the initially rather poor soil, in the course of planting things, and burying pets, but few of them were any use for my excursions into garden architecture. For the nice stone steps leading up the garden, and ending arbitrarily where I lost the motivation to carry on, I lugged bits of drystone wall down from the hill. Having made half a pathway, I was inspired to build a pond, so sank a plastic storage container into a hole and built a reasonably stable patio/walkway/surround from more wall stones and the odd concrete slab. The water in there isn’t very nice though, because I haven’t got round to planting anything in there. All in good time, though …..
In summary, I’d have to admit that the whole is a bit of a mess – a confused mix of half-finished sub-plots. There are too many trees growing in a tiny space – a mass of green with no definition. There are still many square metres of unresolved space, which even to my eyes look pretty third-rate. But it is and always will be a “work in progress” and who knows what developments the next ten years will see?!
In the meantime though, it’s glorious chaos above ground, and with one cat and three hamsters below it, there must surely be “unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.”
They said it would rain today. Showers, but something, at least. My oaks responded well to a few sessions with a watering can, but it will take more than that to halt, let alone reverse the sad stillbirth of new growth apparent everywhere you look. Of course it didn’t rain – not one drop. By half-ten, when I leave the house, it is shaping up to be another flag-cracker at the end of a long line of the unremitting same.
I have decided on a trip into West Yorkshire proper. None of this Oldham postcode, Rochdale dialling code identity crisis Todmorden nonsense, where one senses that Yorkshire is an imposition, rather than a proud identity. My vaguely circular constitutional will take me north from the National Trust’s Hardcastle Crags car park, along (and up) the wooded Crimsworth Dean and emerging onto the most open of moorland. I will pass the stark ruin of the once-imposing Nook farmstead, and below me, the tranquil hidden gem of Lumb Falls. My path will eventually meet Haworth Old Road at Grain Water Bridge, and this I will follow northward, before turning off on my right to pass through White Hole Farm and ultimately join the Hebden – Keighley road near the former weather station at Cock Hill, and its wonderful elephant graffiti. Here I will take the roadside back towards Hebden Bridge, leaving it at the next footpath on my right, cutting across a strip of rough grassland to rejoin Haworth Old Road. A short amble north will take me to an historic packhorse route, to the left , which leads to, and over tranquil Lumb Falls, and will take me up the far valley side, to rejoin my original path near Nook and descend Crimsworth Dean to the car park. It almost goes like that.
It’s a grueller, that steady ascent from the car park. Arrow-straight and endless. It starts amid woodland, with Scots Pine a major player, but the effects of drought are evident from the first. Dry water-courses and the crisped leaves of shallow-rooted plants set the tenor. The Bluebells are over, and Foxgloves in the ascendant – if they don’t die before they flower. A lone Spotted Flycatcher eyes my progress and an expanding circle of blue light signals the end of this floral tunnel, fifty yards ahead.
Beyond this, there’s no respite from pitiless sun, but the views open out – the lush and gentle green of the valley below me, and the more distant hills beyond Hebden’s woods and houses. Stoodley Pike, silent omnipresent guardian of Calderdale and everything in it. The chimney of the converted mill at Pecket Well. The plaintive mew of a Buzzard is heard somewhere to my right, but a hopeful scan betrays nothing. The caller could be just about anywhere, perched or aloft, a big bird in a bigger landscape. The Hebden to Keighley road runs along the horizon, to my right, and I hear and watch a motorcycle as it overtakes a couple of lesser four-wheelers. It’s a great road on a bike. I spot my Buzzard, high over the valley and riding a thermal, watch for a while, and move on.
The ruin of Nook is ahead of me as a group of “young people” approaches, coming diagonally up the valley side, from the direction of the nearby Lumb Falls. They stop by the grey stone shell and look and sound “prepared.” Nice kids. I’m still relieved to see them carry on up the path to my left, though. I want the ruin to myself. Nook is of indeterminate age – to me at any rate – and its building could span generations. Two distinct front wall sections, divided vertically, suggest an extension of the original, and a large brick utility, seemingly still used for stock, looks later still. The whole is tantalisingly complete, a fine range and chimney largely intact. Individual rooms are clearly defined, including a couple of undamaged utilities at the back, which would be perfect overnight accommodation for an unimaginative camper. Two stone flights look very well used indeed. Windows are impressively mullioned. The remains of outhouses on the other side of the footpath, and a timelessly functional stone trough hint at a substantial three-storey home and workplace.
Back on the dusty trail, and a Cuckoo advertises his presence from a square Hazel plantation near Lumb Falls. He’s really pumping it out from down there, filling the valley. Four ounces, unplugged. His is by no means the only voice though. Curlews seen and unseen call incessantly, probably the definitive species of the threadbare and exposed pastures ahead. An Oystercatcher passes through, but I don’t see it. The midday heat and merciless sunlight create a Pennine Death Valley. I’m thirsty now, and hungry, and a defunct outbuilding becomes my seat and table as I chug berry crush and eat my banana, wishing I’d brought more, and thinking that in undertaking this walk, maybe I’ve bitten off more than I can comfortably chew. But as I resume my trudge, a confiding Kestrel provides me with textbook views, even to the extent of seeing the light glint off its eye as it passes, rising to hover. Encounters like this are the reason I’m out here at all.
From this point, Baby House, the path begins to converge with Crimsworth Dean Beck, and will meet it at Grain Water Bridge. The sound of voices draws my attention to the sunbathing family, complete with radio, who have commandeered a plum stretch of the beck for some post-lockdown therapy. Their car, presumably, and a few others are parked at the bridge, and here I join the old Haworth road, enjoying a degree of shade offered by high grass banks and drystone walls as I climb towards my turn-off for Whitehole Farm.
Highlights between here and Cock Hill, where I join the Keighley-Hebden road, are being barked at as I pass the farm outbuildings, looking at the ruin of Roms Greave farmhouse, and the Stonechats on the bracing wire of a telegraph post. At this point I must confess that I have come this way in the hopes of spotting a Short-eared Owl. These moors are a hot-spot for them, and last year I had a rash of good sightings, including one I had to brake to avoid hitting, on my commute to Keighley. The trouble is, this confiding day-flying owl’s appearance is tied in with the cyclical population dynamics of its vole prey. Maybe this isn’t a vole year, as I don’t see my owl. Cock Hill is pretty high up, and a distant view of what I guess is Pen-y-ghent can be had from a scan of the north-western horizon.
A good road this may be on a motorcycle, but walking it is less fun. I keep an eye out for approaching traffic, ever-ready to take to the verge if necessary. I don’t want to end up like the squashed Brown Hare I encounter. Road kill and litter are par for the course here, on this fast and twisty blacktop, where drivers frequently discover their limits during impromptu off-road excursions, but not the blackened and shrivelled extremities of the rain-starved Hawthorns whose recent appearance on the verges does so much to soften the landscape. Nook and other ruins are visible, but not the familiar glint from the distant Widdop Reservoir, doubtless its waters too low for now. I leave the road at the next footpath sign on my right, en route to Lumb Falls and my homeward stretch.
Exiting the rough grass field, with its developing Heather and its thistles, I descend the valley side by way of a narrow path and join Haworth Old Road. I do my best to adhere to social distancing guidelines as I pass couples and families returning to their cars from the direction of the final packhorse track to the tranquil Lumb Falls. On the track, I meet and pass friendly people – young urban people, some with children, as they huff and puff upward. About half way down I can hear the dumph! dumph! dumph! of the musical equivalent of a McDonald’s burger, and the shouting, swearing and splashing. I can’t see the littering, and I don’t want to. I curse audibly and turn round. The locals aren’t any happier than I am, with a home-made notice about parking at the head of the packhorse track, and bollards and ropes across driveway entrances. As I approach the Hebden to Keighley road, I see a long line of parked cars. More are arriving, too.
I spot the distant column of white smoke as I approach Pecket Well. I’m not really surprised at the appearance of another moorland fire after all these weeks without rain. My compass says it’s south, south-east from there, and I make a point of checking it out later (Saddleworth), before finding a likely bridleway. Pecket Well Clough turns out to be a most satisfying short cut indeed.
Even my sedentary daughters must eventually tire of the same four walls, but the over-familiar joys of our local turf would be scant enticement. A trip out in the family car, though, holds sufficient childhood association with ice-cream and cake, and carefree days before marriage to the yoke of endless homework, to make actually getting dressed an option worth the toss of a coin. Throw in the opportunity to air one’s Spotify playlist, and the deal is clinched.
Of course, in this twilight world of lockdown, the ice-cream part of the deal isn’t an option, but Hell, they’re too stir-crazy to put up a fight.
Lord Holme Mill, to give it its proper title, and our destination for today, is the focal point of the wooded Hebden Valley, dating back to 1800 and its creation by Abraham Gibson. Built as a water-powered cotton mill, it was retired in 1890, becoming an “entertainment emporium” and offering a cafe, dance hall and skating rink to day-trippers, until its closure in 1945, and sixty years of dereliction. Bequeathed to the National Trust in 1956, by the last of the Gibson line, it became “Dotheboys Hall” for a 2002 film production of “Nicholas Nickleby, and restoration work began in 2005. It’s a visitor magnet again (though Covid lockdown has locked it up for now) the Weaving Shed Cafe feeding the hordes, and the mill open to the public to offer a peek into times past, but also a tantalising glimpse into a possible future of sustainable power: the site is off-grid, with electricity generated by photovoltaic cells set into the roofs, and by water-powered turbines – one a restored 1926 example. Very Hebden Bridge!
A prodigious supply of rainwater rushing through steep valleys brought industrial-scale weaving to the South Pennines, powering these first-generation cotton mills in pre-steam days, but the weather is an unreliable mistress, and Lord Holme Mill as was, would founder in conditions such as we’ve had for the last two months. Striking out from the Clough Hole car park, on the narrow and tortuous Widdop road, the footpath runs beside a desultory trickle, which in more abundant times, joins the magnificent Hebden Water by which the mill is sited, by way of quite a neat waterfall. The predations of drought can be seen in the numerous smaller trees, their browned, withered leaves prematurely autumnal, whose root systems are too shallow to access an invisibly contracting water table. Further down the path, and further down the valley, the picture is happier – for now. We are enveloped in deciduous green, the path swings sharp left, becomes an arrow-straight slope, with a stone wall at your right, and the mill beckons, more the fairytale castle than the prison of drudgery it must have been for so many. The shouts of a rowdy, but unseen, group fade downstream as we come abreast of the stepping stones. A sign tells us the floodwaters of February have rendered them unsafe. In any case, the depleted Hebden Water has rendered them all but unnecessary.
To cross into the mill’s courtyard on a cobbled bridge reinforces the feeling that this is a special place, but even the spooky quiet of this fine afternoon fails to dispel the aura of modern consumer-led banality evident in the signage for the facilities. Being water, rather than steam powered, and nestling within the lushly-wooded Hebden Valleys, Lord Holme Mill probably didn’t get very dirty anyway, but as we couldn’t go in the cafe today, wouldn’t it have been oh so much more fun to have happened upon it unexpectedly as a grimy ruin? As things are, the best part is round the back, where the mill is reflected in the glassy calm of its own pond. Later in the summer, this is a great place for dragonflies and their delicately-formed cousins, damselflies, but the best we manage today is an Alder Fly, which squats obligingly on my finger for a photograph, and resists my efforts to blow it off afterwards. The obligatory Mallard are discreetly present, providing a serene counterpoint to the periodic and energetic leaps of insect-hungry fish. A walk round the perimeter path takes me to the point at which the river water enters the pond. There’s what looks like a gate here, presumably to drain the pond if necessary, but the winding mechanism is incomplete. I can look down onto Hebden Water and see and hear the Grey Wagtails which are as much a part of the riparian scene as the Dipper and Kingfisher.
Storm damage has closed the footpath on one bank of the river, and who knows what further upstream, so precluding the interesting walk, crossing wooden bridges, towards its origins in open moorland, which is a shame as Blake Dean is charming in its own right, and a good place to spot Common Lizards on a hot day. It’s getting late, in any case. I complete my circle, passing the point on the mill’s wall where myself and Alex once found a dead bat clinging head upward to the rough stone, and the open window through which Swallow parents flit back and forth. Another family takes our place as we cross the bridge, away from our Victorian reveries, and my vigilant children dodge my efforts to people my photographs as we wind upward and away.
Familiarity breeds contempt, or so the saying goes, and the weeks of endless opportunity to tramp my home turf, but to travel no further, have left me blase about a valley less fortunate folk would kill for. It feels like Groundhog Day, even down to the unremitting sunshine. It’s just so goddamn nice. A dawn patrol might add some excitement: some low sun and long shadows, maybe some deer or a fox. But come on! Dawn’s pretty early at this time of year, and more than ever I need my beauty sleep to sort out the wrinkles. So it’s late morning then. As usual.
Frieldhurst Road will be haunted by my ghost in years to come. It’s my default route into the valley’s acres. Andy and Penny have come to dread my hopeful wave as I pass their front window. Ageing knees make heavy weather of the Tarmac incline running between manicured Hawthorn and Beech hedges, to left and right, but I willfully test them further in eschewing the easy path through the first gate, and toiling upward, past opulent Frieldhurst Farm, with its stables, between drystone walls, on a dog-christened track, and ninety degrees right, toward the steel gate and the copse beyond, where a few summers ago we watched the downy Tawny Owl young – heard their wheezing call; saw the mother and her malevolent stare. The path swings leftward here, and a bench overlooks the valley. To its right, peeping out behind a Hawthorn, a runty Rhododendron; to its left, an equally runty, but far more benign former Christmas tree, lovingly hand-planted. The Rhodie’s on borrowed time, and I intend to be its nemesis.
A few more yards and a small wooden gate, take me onto open grassland. The owl copse is in front and to my right, and usually I’ll pass it as I carry on. But I decide, on a whim, to have a better look at the ruin a hundred yards to my left. A cuckoo, that familiar herald of summers past, but now a scarcer one, calls from within the awakening Oak woodland some way distant.
Like the other ruins hereabouts, its age and history are not mine to know. Doubtless there are people locally who hold a wealth of knowledge. I should do my best to find out. Like the others, it’s a stone building, too far gone to visualise it in its heyday. Any guess as to the number of storeys would be just that – a guess. Its proud and defining feature though, is a grand arch, standing proud and intact while neighbouring stones have fallen. I would assume this an entrance to a barn, rather than to a dwelling, but there are three rooms abreast, and at least one behind, and one or two features remain – odd nooks, white paint – to suggest a farmhouse with built-in storage or animal accommodation. A single wooden beam, and some iron fittings protruding from cut stone, are the only other materials in evidence. Oh, and I found a brick with a maker’s mark somewhere between a spoon and a figure of eight, just outside the walls.
The farmhouse is being reclaimed by the land its stone was hewn from. A top crust of grass covers who knows how many layers of fallen stone, so crossing it, I could be walking feet above the original floor. Foxglove is there in plenty, and will ensure an eruption of purple in weeks to come. Nettle and fern will be the supporting cast. A lone dandelion sprouts alien-like from ruptured masonry. Just outside the front wall is the low, dense mass of an embryonic Hawthorn. This is the vanguard of the colony which may ultimately prise asunder the standing remains of the fruit of man’s endeavour.
A Yellow Iris marks the marshy head of the nearby stream. Two distinct rows of white-flowered shrubs run in tandem along the bank on one side. One is like Hawthorn, but the leaves look larger and rounder. The next row could be Cherry. These look wild, natural. But I believe the hand of man played a major part here. This linear group must surely be what became of a planted boundary hedge, once that boundary became irrelevant. Again., man’s endeavour will be lost in antiquity. The fruit will be actual.
A post-script to my concerns about unremitting good weather. I have an eight foot tall Oak in my back garden. I grew it from an acorn a few years ago. This morning I looked out to see the new leaves shrivelled, brown and black. Am I right to blame the parched earth?
Leadbelly will never forgive me for using his image to authenticise my “blues” post. Having “Roberta” playing in my head reinforces my feeling of guilt, and the realisation that my attempt to use antique American lexicon to carry a twenty-first century English fiction, may have been misguided. Or not?
The derelict and unlovely hulk of Frostholme Mill falls behind as I pass under the railway to begin my ascent of Pudsey Road. It’s been there, on the Burnley road, since 1861, but the demolition men have been in recently, and there’s a big empty space behind the main building. Apparently there are industrial units for sale, so Cornholme probably won’t see the back of this one-time major employer for some time yet. Its brick chimney stack would be the only part I’d miss if they bulldozed the whole thing. On the other hand, more established Cornholmers than myself – and that’s probably most – will likely have happy memories of it as a hub of the community. And I’d probably whinge about whatever got built in its place. The future of the mill whose remains I pass moments later though, was assured when it was fired ten or so years ago, and subsequently demolished, so continuing a long and inglorious tradition.
Past bijou cottages on my right – including the whimsically-named Frog Cottage – and the going’s steep. The road bends right after these, becoming Shore New Road. I carry straight on. Pudsey Road is now a rough track, and considerably more level, and runs between a motley line of characterful dwellings and their gardens overlooking the wooded Redwater Clough, and an impressive high bank on the other side. People like the WMOT live here, in this Pennine Topanga Canyon, and I pass a hunk of stone newly-carved with an intricate Celtic motif. Pudsey Road becomes Coal Clough Road where it meets a turn-off. There’s a very nice cottage here, and another, grander dwelling further up, with plenty of outhouse. House envy is a constant companion for the Wild Man on his walks hereabouts, as one-time working farms are bought up by well-heeled out-of-towners. Just before I reach it, however, the I decide to check out a gate which should lead me down to the rather impressive waterfall. And so it does, but carefully does it – the bank’s a bit steep. Well worth the effort. If it doesn’t have a name, it ought to. But then again this is no tourist trap, rather a well-kept secret. The watercourse is fed, just upstream from here, by Pudsey Clough and Catridge Clough, which pass through elegant stone culverts running beneath the more recent concrete road surface, which swings a hundred and eighty degrees to run, at a gradient, along the other side, and up onto the tops. I’m aware, as I progress upwards, that there’s a malignant colony of feral Rhododendron somewhere below me, on a vertical rock-face, and maybe, some time in the future, I’ll try to organise something with local landowners, to halt this insidious cancer, before we lose acres of indigenous flora under its jackboot.
The vistas open up as I gain height, the light quality making a trifle of distance. Stoodley pike, the Eagle Crag range, Kebs – all but touchable from here. In truth, and as the crow flies, the distances are short, from one of these little worlds to another, but the journey is made indirectly, via ghylls and woodland, behind solid rock, to give a tangible feeling of discreteness. I’m in a field of sheep, which relax with their young. Over the remains of a drystone wall graze cattle of various breeds. There was a bull last time I came this way, and I sneaked past him, using the wall as cover. I’m sure he couldn’t have cared less if I’d walked right past at point blank range and given him the finger, but it seemed wise at the time.
I pass between farm buildings and gain more height. The views before me are Lancastrian, past the Thieveley Peregrine crags, to the half-visible Pendle Hill, with a thin ribbon of Tarmac snaking towards Burnley – a red rag to a boy-racer. The guttural expletives of mobbing crows herald the coming of that local stalwart, the Common Buzzard. Could be the sun, but this one looks quite pale-plumaged as it passes and the crows lose interest. I watch it disappear slowly into the distance, picking up two more unwelcome flying buddies as it goes. The ground up here is impoverished rough grazing, this poverty exacerbated by the continued lack of rain, and this is the default terrain as far as the eye can see, broken here and there by oases of comparative lushness on lower ground, and the occasional plantation. Portsmouth lies below me, becoming Cornholme further to my left, and nestling half-hidden within slab-sided fells. Good old Frostholme Mill looks like a land-locked battleship, and is the dominant feature of the village. Maybe I would miss it.
I wind my way down the hill, overlooking my children’s primary school. A hotbed of nepotism, where family ties undermined fairness and impartiality. “We have no bullies at this school!” one of my girls was told, when she reported an instance of bullying. Neither was sorry to leave. Three nice old detached dwellings overlook the modest terraces in the valley bottom, like mill-owners overseeing their human capital. I pass them wistfully and cross the railway to be back in the real world.