Air-dancing over Howber Hill

A local chieftain lies up here, somewhere, in some state. It is a good vantage point from which to spend an eternity: the big sky limitless above you, your lands laid out below, now chequered by modern-day field boundaries. Not much is known about the hill before the Bronze Age chieftain’s bones claimed it, but since then it has been the site of a beacon, ready to light the alarum in times of war, a remnant of a now invisible chain linking people across the country like an umbilical cord with the threats of conflict beyond their domestic and agricultural lives. Now the beacon and the chieftain slumber and no one watches on the hill.

Howber Hill sits next door to Beamsley on the extreme edge of the Yorkshire Dales National Park and has a parish boundary lying across it, visible only on maps. I like to think that parishioners of old would have met here once yearly with sticks, halfway up the fell side, to beat the bounds and make their claim to their bit of the hill, brandishing them in mock anger at their neighbours. As a hunk of earth settled like a benign megalith into its landscape, it gives the impression of great antiquity, compounded by the history bound up in its name. Howber Hill is named for the burial mound that lies at its top, now signified by a stone cairn two metres tall: ‘how’ meaning burial place, and ‘ber’ being a corruption of ‘burg’, stone. Rumour has it that the cairn itself has been something of a moveable feast over the years, and, sometimes spoken of as the site of the burial mound, it has as a result been confusingly elided with it. Where the chieftain now lies, who knows. The spot will have been selected for the 360-degree views it commands over the landscape: towards Rombalds Moor past Chelker Reservoir in the south, and over Beamsley and Wharfedale to the north. From sunrise over the ridge of The Old Pike to sunset over Skipton and the distant Pendle Hill, the chieftain presides over the valley, dreaming of old territories.

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Looking up at the summit of the hill today I know myself to be a soft-core hill-walker, braced for a climb, my legs keen and stretch-slackened for the uphill, but buzzing slightly with anticipation of the effort. The cairn can be seen very easily from the road below, with its distinctive pinnacle, a wobble-shy stack of assorted stones that are defying gravity and pointing skywards like a magician’s hat or an admonitory finger. Confession: I have never climbed a mountain, these generally being considered to comprise peaks of over 2000 ft. The summit of Howber Hill stands a mere 1070 ft (326 m) above sea level (and many of those we’ve already done in the car). It is by no one’s measure a mountain, but it’s stiff walking over heather and bog, riddled with old quarry pits and spring troughs.

We start with the gentle ascent, plotting a sickle path about the foot of the hill. A summit gives to the walker the something-to-get-to, an uphill aimfulness that focuses the feet and mind. But seeing the summit at the start and then following a circuit that initially leads away from it along Badgers Gate feels a counter-intuitive sort of walking. I am a badger with its fur rubbed wrong, looking back at the summit cairn we’re aiming for, but away from which we’re moving inexorably across the reaches of Langbar Moor. Keeping hard by the wall on our right, we part where it bends clockwise and we, going widdershins, meet the first stiff bluff of climb.

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Once I let go of the summit, trusting that we’ll get to it, I begin to enjoy the purpley-brown moor ground with its heather armour that is laid before us – the heath’s miniature forest, shin-high, and frothing below our knees. We pass managed copses of larches, burning yellow like torches, the needles bleaching and preparing to line the ground. We furrow our way through undulations of heather, its stems twiggy, and its bells paper-dry and crackling underfoot like pot pourri. Nan Shepherd said there was no bliss like walking barefoot over heather, but the ground here is bogged with water from countless local springs and sucks at our feet in wet slurps until we claim higher ground. In places we chance it between spongey outcrops of sphagnum moss, its starry tentacles drip-laden and greener than any green you see in town. I see sheep dung and think of its brown ooze between my toes – not today the barefoot confidence of the all-seasons walker. I’m sure-shod in boots that squelch and shift on the boggy mud-trails.

The water bubbles up from nowhere. There are several wells hereabouts: Pemberton and Riding Stone – but I do not see their hiding places. Wells and springs used to be marked with stones at their mouths and ‘clooties’ representing wishes would hang from a nearby tree, dipped in the waters of the well for luck or fancy. I’d decided on a pin to cast in if I saw a well-spring, but there are no markers of the old water holes now. Just the sphagnum bogs that pillow in generous tumuli under the soles of our going, and the unerringly upward shocks of marram grass which, folded underfoot, make a safe over-bog path.

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My eyes down, seeking the next bit of dry ground, I see patches of an unfamiliar scat – not sheep, nor rabbit, but little white-tipped brown caterpillars, and I think to myself that these are the droppings of the red grouse. We saw a pheasant in a field on our drive up from Ilkley, but grouse is the main game bird up here, though this is our first clue as yet to its presence. The moor heather is pregnant with them, invisibly, like silent children whom only absolute necessity will conjure forth. On towards The Old Pike, our steps soon cajole them out of hiding. There, quick with its indignation and corkscrewing out of the heather, is the first; almost black against the grasses and soon hidden away again, left in peace to peck off the heather seeds. The cry of the red grouse has a wind-up quality to it: the call starts very fast and garbled but graduates to a few short chokes spaced at longer intervals. We hear them cry in their heather hides at 200 yards’ distance, from the safe confines of which they chortle at us as if defying us to discover where they lie. Red eye crests and plump bodies set low to the earth and blending with their cover. A lot of comical blether at our passing. It raises a smile and an irreverent chuckle in answer.

The path is not to be trusted, crossed with streams and rocks, and peters out amid the heather upland, leading us to bury our feet and lower legs more deeply into it. There’s red grass intermingled with the brown blaze of heather – flares of colour. We are knee-deep struggling up the hill, balance becoming sketchy as the wiry heather trips and tricks us at will. It’s a small relief when we come to one of the moor’s bald patches where the heather has been scorched off in a controlled burn. This allows fresh tender shoots to break the earth – a delicacy for the grouse. From a distance the moor’s patches are flayed skin or seasonal maltings. A rest and a breather looking back down over the patchwork pasture below – off toward Ilkley from where we’ve driven and a town that we know. Dad’s eye is caught by a large bird of prey westwards cutting soundlessly through the air – a buzzard perhaps. It hovers for a moment before flying over the ridge. That large span of wings bearing it effortlessly – no call, no sound at all from this silent stalker on the breeze. A king of the air, once very rare but now on the increase.

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Pausing a moment to look up at the ridge-top, I’m startled by a sudden flocking of birds, magicked into being, on the wing, on the air, as if just for us who stop to look at their antic-soaring. Moving as one, swooping and diving, they are a bellows at work on the wind. This, I think, is air-dancing. Not starlings, but paler and larger, moving together down and over the heather. I wish I knew the names for everything I see out in the wild but I’m tongue-tied with no proper nouns for the birds hanging and flitting before my eyes. If I had their name it would make them more real somehow; but as it is they are like a dream dancing before my eyes, swift on the up-rise and weaving in amongst one another. I hear the lift of their wing-feathers as a ruffle of silk kissing the air. They draw back and forth, once, twice, thrice, and then are gone – tipped over the side of the moorland and into the valley, pouring themselves on as we look homewards and wonder if they were real.

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With the help of the occasional snow pole, the path is retrieved from wherever it had got to and the cairn’s back in view. I pick up a small flat stone from beside a patch of waxcaps to add to the stack. I was here. The summit in sight, my enthusiasm redoubles and I plough on up the rocky path. Just as we’re cresting the rise of the ridge and our goal’s in sight, the flock returns, swooping low above our heads down the side of the fell and we are a part of their great sink and swell of rhythm over the moorland. Their pale underbellies sail above us. The grouse are untroubled by their low rushing flight, as distant as wind through pine-tops and close as breath puffing past the cheek. I wish them back, but they vanish out of sight.

At the top, the world’s lidless and open to the elements; the ground scabbed with rocks; and the cairn a grey eminence. I place my rock with an odd sort of anti-ceremony and look down the steep north-west side of the hill. We remark in surprise when we see more cairns on the way back down the ridge path: another and another marching in lesser beacons down the hill. Dad offers wryly, They’re the cairns of the people who didn’t make it to the top, and we share a laugh at our own expense.

For it is not so very far to climb after all, certainly not as crows, and other birds, fly.

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