Little dipper skims as a
skipped stone down the river
flashing white like a camera,
bib giving it away;
feathers glib over water –
all glide and no falter –
elides with the river:
Little dipper skims as a
skipped stone down the river
flashing white like a camera,
bib giving it away;
feathers glib over water –
all glide and no falter –
elides with the river:
When we arrived at Dunstan and walked down to the castle, I heard them. Unmistakably alien-sounding and causing a quick lance of joy in my chest: the seagulls were hawking their cries. Though gulls are ubiquitous almost everywhere these days, encroaching onto the thin, begrudging borders of our towns – wheeling over dumps and nuisancing the outsides of eateries – there is a difference my ear cannot miss in the rationed and contained cries of the gulls inland and the vast ache of cry the seagull emits on the wing above the sea. The sea wind does something in carrying this cry that enlarges it. Its voice fills an emptiness I did not know I was carrying around inside me, like a faint echo. The sea, the sea.
I have hoarded a desire to see the sea for a while now, having been absent from it for 23 months. Waves have been frozen in my mind; a restless sea halted without me to dip my toes into it. This week on the Northumberland coast, the sound of the sea haunts me at night, delivering restless visions. I listen to sterile digital waves in the wee hours of the morning to conjure sleep when it doesn’t come, buzzed from seeing so much of my family on this holiday to celebrate my dad’s 70th. My mind’s eye sees the sea spume, and the white membranes stretched like a sheep’s caul across the bob and lift of the waves. I lie awake feeling wired – all too aware of the sea no more than a mile distant – the knowledge of it like a whelk shell pressed to my ear. Now, today, I will walk the sea floor and I’m dumb with awe before it. Made a child again. The cries of the gulls interpret for me how wide and fathomless are the sea and sky. My soul has missed them.
I had decided weeks ago that I wanted to walk out to Lindisfarne, knowing that I could at the very least walk the causeway but hungry for a walkers’ counterpart to the road. A little research yielded fruit – the Pilgrim Way has been the footway in use since before Aidan first came here in the 7th century (that was when the original set of 15ft way-finding poles was erected). The “path” is navigable when the tide is out and has 2 refuge stations en route which resemble treehouses on stilts (in case of need). I possess a map, advice and tide times (and a healthy dose of well-meant familial concern about the wisdom of walking out to sea, which of course serves only to strengthen my determination).
Like one arm of a tuning fork, the Pilgrim Path veers away from the causeway and out into the silty and part-submerged sandlands of Beal Bay. The mainland curves in the distance down towards Bamburgh on the right, and the causeway leading to Lindisfarne’s Snook Point curves to the left, giving the illusion that you are in a land-locked lagoon, but for a small gap on the horizon straight ahead, between the southern tip of the Island and the twin Leading Lights. Fishermen use these “lights” to get their bearings when out in their fishing smacks, bringing back their sea hauls. They are beacons that represent home but also the dangers of rocks lurking on the sea bed.
It surprises me how tame it feels here, as I prepare to leave the road and cross the ancient slick of path to the Island. But it is low tide and the sea, for the time being at least, has relinquished its claim on the bay. Sucked back out to the main, gathering itself, waiting.
I’m feeling a little sharp and out of sorts at the outset, tired from the turmoil of sea-dreams, and impatient for the sand to take the edges off the corners of my mood. It is strange to farewell my family carrying on in the car, and to trudge the causeway road behind them; strange to walk beside the cars, but be marginalised into the silty-sedgey grasses by the wayside. There is a sense in walking the route to the Island of cutting myself off – of intentional marooning – that is irresistible and at the same time very vulnerable. I am fugitive, harbouring the fierce intent of walking out to sea, daring it to come back in ahead of time and catch me out with its on-rush of water. I imagine the tide leeching irrevocably and unstoppably across the flat sands of the bay, inching higher and higher by the minute, gaining momentum with nothing in its path to halt it. I am quite alone, left to my own devices for three miles until I make land like flotsam on the opposite shore, fending for myself in terrain in which I’m not native and where quicksands and bogs have been known. I am like any other pilgrim stranger here then, with nought but a vision and the way beneath my feet.
Somewhat prosaically, the Pilgrim Way begins on the road, and I am jealous of the farne monks and pilgrims of old who walked the whole of the original path – umbilicalling the motherland to the Island – unencumbered by tarmac, traffic and exhaust fumes. It has become the tradition that once a year the islanders walk the Way from Lindisfarne to the mainland, and partway along the St Cuthbert Way, in honour of the Saint’s memory. Soon enough comes the point of deliberate departure: at the bridge, crossing the Lindis river (the wand of water leading out to sea), and following the long marching line of way-marking poles which curve away from the safety of the road into sand, silt and water. From hereon, the shifting seascape is all silver. I cast my eyes adrift on it to land on any feature in the view that is not the monochrome movement of the water or the reflected sky, but there’s nothing between me and the mercury of the sea.
Keen to be off the road and away from the cars, I leave just before the bridge and have to spend some time finding a shallow enough place to cross the river. Wading out into it, I feel the strong suck of its resistance. It laps over my knees with freezing cold, washing off some of my mood, and salting me for the path ahead. My goose-pimpled flesh pays the toll as if this were a lesser Styx at the outset of my journey, stealing the warmth from my bones as the required fee of passage.
The Way yawns before me. I had not known what to expect from a path that the sea submerges for 10 hours of every day. My eye tricks along the horizon line and I am surprised at the horseshoe of land that, albeit distantly, surrounds me here and at how much water still remains on the sands, rippling out from my feet, an hour after the spring tide is out. My footsteps fall wetly, often making no impression at all, ghosting my progress through this watery world. The sky reflected in it gives me the impression of walking out onto glass, but for the kythins left by the lug worms which squirt spirals of black silt up through the sand. Two days before, I’d waded out from the golden sands of Embleton Bay and been chastened by its chilly North Sea grip. With some relief, I discover that here the sea lies sun-warmed: tepid and luxurious. Not a pilgrim’s penance at all. The saltwater is soft, lapping at my feet in warm transparencies that catch and in-prism the light. Letting it wash over me is keen pleasure. With a renewed sense of comfort, I relish the wind at my back and the sun strong and spangling on the water.
I make for the poles that articulate the way. Their barnacled skins and ropes of seaweed are blunt reminders that this path is washed out twice a day by the sea, but they stand against permanent erasure and, marching in succession, set me right. I cleave to them. 123 of them lead to the far shore, dwindling to the size of matchsticks as my eye tries to count them. Ten of my strides make the space between each one: 1230 strides (or thereabouts) to the Island. A modest pilgrimage.
The poles were last replaced in the 1970s as part of an initiative from the Manpower Services Commission to provide work for the unemployed. I wonder what those men, down on their luck, felt about digging deep into the darkening silt below the sand to give the poles a good grounding, one eye cocked to the east to watch for the sea’s return; about the forest that the poles were grown in; and whose task it was to choose trees so ramrod straight for the task. Out here in the middle of the bay, the poles and I are the only verticals in an otherwise flat world; the only signs to give some permanence and presence to a semi-permanent path.
The view is mono-lateral and there is a faint anxiety in it for me – dweller of valleys and more familiar with the geography of Yorkshire. It is flattening, and initially I am flattened by it, finding that there is nothing to do but to succumb, let the way bear me upon it, and wash out my thoughts tinged with disquiet and distraction. Without my usual markers of flowers and wildlife to look out for, I notice more about the shifting quality of the light and clouds; the change from sand which shifts in gentle depressions beneath my feet to silty mud which squelches, squidges and slip-slides me along until I almost lose my balance, causing my heart to spike at every almost-fall. A bog mires the midpoint of the Way in a slake of mud. You think you know mud from woodland floors, garden beds, rammed-earth tracks – but that’s just dirt. In the choiceless bog, I disturb primordial ooze which covers me to the shins in the total ancient black of crude oil. I sink slowly and surely down into it, forcing foul gassy air to the surface in wet mud-burps. With some manoeuvring, and like a fish caught on a line, I contort and wriggle my legs free from the mud’s resisting kiss. A narrow miss.
Through the bog and past the second refuge tower (its wood desiccated and salt-dried as bone), the sands stretch before me streaked with livid green swad – a miniature kelpie forest with its streamers of seaweed pulled in the direction of the retreating tide. Caught in the fronds is a collection of cockle shells: the pilgrim’s badge. They lie treasured amongst the shifting weeds of the tidal pool, motionless for a brief borrowed while before the sea sweeps in again to toss and claim them in its foaming hands. I have not earned my cockle shell yet, I tell myself, moving on, my footprints fluid underwater.
I leave few marks of my going. Occasionally I spy the footprints of others, some similar in size to mine and similarly barefoot and I wonder about these strangers – about their reasons for treading the sea glass – whether they are pilgrims or tourists or both. There are others ahead of me on the Way, yet I feel a privacy in this levelling world which is at ironic odds with the cars on the causeway no more than 200 yards to my left. Sometimes these other prints are muddled and crossed with those of wading birds: green shanks, bar-tailed godwits and curlews (not forgetting the gulls). So absorbed have I become by what’s beneath my feet that it’s a while before I realise I’m being accompanied along the last mile by green shanks, scuttling the sand a few paces to the side of me looking for choice morsels in the sand-beds. I am tickled that they seem unfazed by my presence, this acceptance of me in their flatlands more precious than any cockle shell.
For a long time it seems I walk the Way without the farther shore getting any closer, and it’s at just this point that the bay feels at its widest too, stretched taut as if caught on the tenter-hooks of Island, beacons and headland. I am completely exposed on all sides: a small moving dot in the bowl of the bay. Any sounds I catch above the wind whistling in my ears are warped beyond safe recognition here. I think I hear a woman cry out, the sound seeming to come from the expanse to my right and advance towards me. It’s a thready moment while I scan the sands for signs of anyone in distress, but there’s no one and I tell myself, still with a glimmer of worry, that it must have been a dog’s bark that the sea wind distorted and bounced about the bay, only for a moment indulging my fancy.
I arrive on the Island at last, slightly regretful, with my wits a little pickled by my sea walk. I would not wish to spend too long out here on the tidal sands, caught and pent in a refuge tower, waiting for the sea to release me and subside again. But I’m already wistful for the freedom I found on the silvered sands, the clouds reflected at my feet. Already the sea is working to remove the impressions of my passage, undoing the traces I’ve left behind me. As if I never trod the Way, and none of this ever was. In the end, the Pilgrim Path’s as resistant to impression as glass that’s renewed with every change of the tide.
The air hangs in heavy skeins about us, thick as threads to walk through and swollen with pollen almost tasting on the tongue. Unlike in the cities, the sky is split wide open here in the Dales and stripped by the hungry cries of the swallows winging it above, skirting the stone barns and scooping their dinners out of thin air. They swing loose on invisible paths, their characteristic forked tails making perfect stabilisers as they sail gracefully through each arc. It is pleasing simply to watch them belly out across the view and join up the two halves of the valley like a pendulum. Is it my fancy that they seem to fly southerly, as if rehearsing the end of year exodus to warmer climes? The snap and glide of their wings is nearly all one hears on this sultry day in the stillness of the meadow, and I think to myself: their dynamism is mine too. My thoughts follow them freely, hitched to their flights.
We’ve come to the hay meadows at Muker like pilgrims, humbly and seeking something rare: Yorkshire’s wildflowers grown undisturbed on Yorkshire soil. We are pilgrims in spirit at least, because in terms of transport we’ve cheated and driven in the VW to get here, parking up under a tree where the bank falls away into the river. The busyness of Muker envelops us from first footfall on its soil: sounds of water and laughter, ice creams being bought and slurped outside the general store which has faded postcards on sale at the door for 30p, proof that some things stand still. As we made our way over country-cambered roads, the farmers of Swaledale were out in force making hay while the sun shone, big machinery methodically cleaving, releasing into the air the acrid tang of newly cut grass so that it smelled ozone green, sappy and harsh to the nose. But at Muker the grass and flowers are left long until late in the season, an agreement between the conservationists and farmers to let the native wildflowers and the biodiversity they encourage thrive for as long as possible. It’s June. The meadows are not for harvesting yet, but are still in their growing season. Borrowed time.
The heat is not yet the smothering heat that will settle in this summer and cram like cotton wool in the ears and the mouth. It lilts on the tops of the buttercups, the yellow rattle and the delicately lobed flowers of the stitchworts. The shepherd’s purse is not leggy, stressed or dessicated with it yet, nor have the speedwells faded to palest blue, the edges of their petals crisped by the scorch of the sun. The tiny white tubular trumpets of the eyebright are still stout and unwavering in the embrace of the rattles and grasses; the cranesbills livid bruises of colour. Time for wilt and running to seed all too soon. There’s the promise of it even now in the building noonday heat.
Meadows like those between Muker and Keld are many decades in the making. Yet you can make a meadow in just a year too, proving that endurance is harder than beginning. They are part of the DNA of Muker and Swaledale now – a “unique selling point” the guidebooks depressingly averr, as if here were to be found a commerce of flowers; nature’s supply and demand. People travel to Muker specifically to see the meadows, as did we when first we visited in May, walking slowly but purposefully up the hill from the main street, anticipating our first view of them laid out under the sun, our imaginations having conjured great tempting images of meadows flower-full and an orchid in every patch. To see a wild orchid was the apotheosis of my desire and I coveted it like a child that wants the most prized sweet in the shop. I knew such images were traps for disappointment, but no one can control their wishes. Such was my wistfulness when, stopping to admire some flowers accidentally-on-purpose growing in a trough, we were accosted by one of the residents who took this as her cue and nipped in to provide botanical assistance. Cuckoo flowers, she informed us: pale, lavender-pink and lovely, clustering on slim-throated stems. The visual counterpart to the bird which (if you’re lucky) you hear calling at this time of year. The encounter savoured of the professional Mukerist, I thought at the time, fully aware of the town’s draw and perhaps assuming that the average Joe doesn’t know the names of Britain’s wildflowers. And I don’t really blame her – there are few enough of the native species about these days to make their names familiar.
To say their names out loud all together is my kind of liturgy – lady’s bedstraw, yellow rattle, eyebright, meadow cranesbill, self-heal, stitchwort, shepherds purse, speedwell. Sacred almost, and to be spoken of in hushed, reverential tones – or a jubilant incantation: a spell. And in one sense, these flowers were thought of as spells: self-heal for minor aches, cuts and pains; buttercups to tell if you like butter; stitchwort to relax spasms. All your cures at your feet, as it were: nature’s walk-in pharmacy for those who lived on and worked the land.
Now that it is June and our second visit, we approach the start of the way through the meadows knowing a little of what to expect. It’s the buttercups we notice first, as though the tips of the meadows unfolding before us have been burnished with yolky liquid light. May was good for this – but June! June is godly. To see them now, numbering in the thousands and clothing the earth with gold is mirage-like. You or I would dream a place like this. It is this vague elusiveness that enriches the sense of the meadow’s impermanence. You walk through it aware of the cycle of the seasons and each flower seen is as flash-by-soon-die as if it were already cut and dried.
My gaze snags on the roughened walls of the stone barns on the approach, already looking ahead greedily, but as with so many national trails and popular beauty spots, there is a bombardment of signage at the start which arrests you just as you’re ready to begin. At Muker, these signs are mostly wooden with some plastic and metal ones for variety. Variations on ‘keep your dog on a lead’, ‘stick to the paths’ and others trumpeting the rarefied nature of the meadows jostle on a crowded wooden post. Admonitory salutations to get us on our way with the appropriate air of solemnity for the task at hand. Meadows are not to be tripped through lightly, you know.
When we embark into the first, we do so paying the required fee – the cost is to our dignity by having to push ourselves through the stone squeeze, like camels through the eye of the needle. The passing from each meadow into the next is conducted in this fashion: through the sutures of stone squeezes in various sizes. The effect of so many uncomfortably close encounters with the local stone is to transform the simple act of passing through a gate into an event, and entry into each meadow is bargained for in this way. That’s fair enough, I think to myself, secretly enjoying the ceremony of passing through each different stone ‘cwtch’.
I find the meadows themselves slightly self-conscious of their draw for the tourist: divided by a flagstone path up the middle with a to-ing and fro-ing of dog-walkers, families and hikers processing up the line. One man calls out in our general direction as he passes, “I’ve not seen a single insect in any of these meadows!” It’s a baffling salute to strangers on the way, as if the meadows are not performing satisfactorily in his eyes. We ourselves have witnessed many insects, and bees in particular, and I share a look with my companion, again thinking of the profesional Mukerist, preoccupied with demonstrating their conservation-mindedness, here to affirm their allegiance to the local flora and fauna.
The valley is so far removed from its glacial founding that it feels a little like a large open nave, with worshippers treading the old stone aisle cutting up the centre. Curious. The flagged path serves the twin purposes of keeping the wilful worshipper along the straight and narrow (and in case you don’t get the message there are signs telling you to keep to the path), and forcing your momentum as you proceed ever onward. There is of course an onward inclination to every path, and I am driven by the hunt for the elusive orchid too, my heart a little sore at not having found any. But I must confess what is most attractive in the idea of a meadow is the dilatoriness it invites. The way in which it calls one to meander in amongst, not simply through. Dogs illicitly off the lead have made canine desire paths through the long grass, and Oh how I wish I could join them. With regret, I discover that the Muker hay meadows do not encourage dilly-dallying, and you are certainly actively discouraged from all thoughts of wandering in amongst them. Bent backed, our heads at flower-height, we must appear oddities to those toeing the line. At this level, the bouffant heads of the clover are rendered in beautiful and particular detail. Our survey of the flowers on offer is of necessity limited to those which can be glimpsed from the path, and our naming of them is something between tentative skill or guess work and clumsy misattribution.
It is not that I do not understand that the walker is corralled in this way to protect the flowers, but that I regret that such prohibition should be necessary at all. The path through a meadow feels as unnatural as a corset and the experience of walking it – for one who has come to see the wildflowers – thrums with latent frustration. I am heartened to see one woman, having abandoned the path, sitting against the dry stone wall of the last meadow before the river and simply relaxing into the moment as swallows jettison their bodies with abandon above.
You can stare at a clutch of flowers against grass for a long time until the mind slowly unstitches them into their different forms. Sense is made slowly of them. More enchanting perhaps than any orchid are the heart-shaped seeds of the shepherds purse. And plantain – which I’d been used to think of as a playground weed, so sad and lank in tarmac crevices – when in flower has brown heads dusted with white pinpricks like sugar. My favourite flower glimpsed this day? The eyebright, once thought to be a remedy for soreness of the eyes; its little hairy stems support spires of brilliant and tiny white lipped flowers, not unlike those of the penstemon family. Beautiful, all clustered together, like nuns’ wimples or arms stretched wide.
Starlings murmur out of cover
breath made visible on the air;
a stutter, recover, fetch, inflect
the sky with your feint-jive.
Dive as one without a leader,
above me conjuring song to prayer,
rippling swarm fleeing stillness,
fluid in the sky to bide.
Image (c) Pixaby.
A throwback to my holiday last autumn…
Near the improbably named Botany Bay in the North York Moors threads Ouse Gill beck, plunging swift and strong through ironstone and shale deep down into the cut of Bransdale. Travel into the heart of the dale and you will find the National Trust’s High Lidmoor farmhouse, rented to holiday-makers like us: people on the hunt for adventure in the wildlands of the National Park; for escape from the humdrum everyday; for what Richard Mabey calls the ‘nature cure’. ‘Botany Bay’ conjures Antipodean daydreams, making its appellation here bizarre in the extreme, the village sitting in the middle of the North York Moors, where the briskly cold moorland tops brim with heather, offering a kind of wilderness irrevocably removed from the hot sand of south-of-the-equator beaches.
With music humming from the car speakers, we make our winding way through Gillamoor and begin to climb the moor. Twice we make a wrong turn just beyond Ouse Gill Beck and, my navigation skills cast into disrepute, I am relegated (perhaps fairly) to passenger only. But another thought occurs to me, legacy of countless children’s books where entrance portals to other worlds are found only after a test has been passed: the holiday destination that is hard-won is at once more worth the trouble, more private, and more likely to lead to adventures. This is a good sign, I think to myself, in this way neatly excusing my poor navigational skills. In direct proportion to the increasingly wild beauty of the landscape, dwellings of the human variety become fewer; instead gluts of beehives colonise the purpling moor-tops with their sweet promise. The bees are in heaven — in heather — up here under a sky I am not used to thinking of as so silvery-big. It hangs with infinite possibility. Scuds of cloud are caught on it, their pace leisurely and unhurried — a pace it is only natural that I will borrow for the week.
We climb the moor road which ridges the valley like a spine and startle unwary cock pheasants into berserk runs. Others pay us no mind at all and dawdle regally as if to make a point of access rights. Good for you, I think, as we go up and over the moor. It feels wonderfully remote up here, as though we are putting the rest of the world away for the week, and I can already feel myself ready to slough off my working day self: all the minutiae of life that keep us small and wearied in a busy world. A left turn with caution down the valley (the car managing the traps in the road woozily, jostling us back and forth), and then the breath held as we arrive up the gated farm track to take stock of our new fiefdom. Clouds spool out over the sky, farms pocket the fells on either side and between them fall enclosed plots laid out untidily like a quilter’s fat quarters, drystone walls threading between them. A great sycamore tree alongside the track pins the focus of the view to itself. Everything, for a week at least, is ours to the horizon line, and I am temporary custodian of this house and land.
High Lidmoor is a stone-built eighteenth-century farmhouse full of all the homely character we could wish for in a week away, and we fall into the swift game of choosing bedrooms and putting our possessions away the better to claim it as ours. I don’t think it would judge us if we spent the whole week indoors reading (my bag is bulging with books), baking and just being. Yet it’s a practical house too with its porch for walkers’ gear. Settling down in the easy chair in the living room with my book, I am facing two windows onto the little banking rise at the back of the house which leads up to the moor. Surprisingly close, the woolly white fleece of a grazing sheep passes outside, and in another minute a few more of them potter past nonchalantly mowing the grass. Then my eye focuses on the brown patches in between and I realise that there are countless rabbits among the sheep, fellow grazers enjoying an afternoon feast; little balls of brown fur almost invisible to a merely human gaze, were it not for the typewriter motion of their heads along the grass. The windows frame them like an alternative and better TV and, my book forgotten, I’m hooked.
It is the beginning of a steadfast fascination over the course of the week’s stay and – though I felt it when we first entered the comparatively small Bransdale – I begin to appreciate that this is indeed a special place, with the suggestion of being the last fully-wilded bastion in Britain. A townie by birth, I have never before seen so much wildlife so plentifully and trustingly out in the open. With the present day list of endangered species growing and the drive to conserve and ‘reserve’ natural habitats, it is refreshing to experience wildlife so blithely careless of my own human intrusion into its domain. I stand at the window for some time and watch a rabbit clean itself, totally absorbed by its fidgety and particular movements: the ears relaxed and mobile in the absence of any perceived danger; the hind leg up to scratch; the twitching of its mouth. It has not escaped me that glass divides us and I know very well that were I to venture outside into the rabbit’s world it would freeze, turn its impossibly snowy white tail (how do rabbits’ tails stay so clean?), and run. Meadow pipits arrive like leaves blown in haphazardly on the wind to their over-wintering homes, picking over the ground between their larger neighbours of grouse, partridge and pheasant.
I go out the first clear night to see the stars shining brightly, pricked into the deep blue velvet of the sky, for once uneclipsed by the cityscape smudges I am used to. Bats sound overhead with their leathery flights and I stay out a while to spot constellations, occasionally obscured by black shadows passing between me and the stars, quick as an eye blink. Leaving my curtain ajar at night, I wake with the sunrise to a new morning ritual of looking out to see what is stirring in the spell of mist that rests in the valley with the fragile impermanence of spider silk. Only the lonely sycamore punctuates it. Seeming to hover over the lane, the tree is a ghost of its yesterday self. I feel as though I could blow a puff of wind down the dale and send all the mist scattering into nothing. High Lidmoor is a place which seems to invite such fancies.
On an impulse, I want to awaken the valley out of its shroud; to stir it up; and put the dozy pheasants picking prettily like dainty pedants along the lane to flight. They’ve got the world to themselves at this hour, safe from intrusions upon their morning perambulations. With mayoral swagger, wearing their feathers with vanity as badges of office, they are curve-bellied, sleek and ponderous. Mischief takes over and before I know it I am impatiently booted and out the door onto the hard core of limestone and shingle. The pheasants have heard me coming and scramble in their undignified runs down the lane, bobbing under the fence with outraged croaks. It seems they will only fly at great need, preferring to wheel their legs like pull-along toys, but always with the perfect posture of their office. I have a fast-growing affection for them: the glib walk, the tail feather dashing and signing the air in their wake, the green neck and white collar – some of the best plumage that fowl finery has to offer.
Walking out on the tops of the moors I am at the ‘betweening’ of the seasons: summer is issuing bursts of sunshine and warmth, and autumn is beginning to claim the heather, scorching the tops of the fells with its slow, amorous burn. The arrival of the meadow pipits signals cooler autumn weather on the way, but it is still warm enough to leave my coat behind. I hug the dry stone walls (stone is the Yorkshire building element) as I ascend the hill behind the house, passing a fir plantation to my left and a view unravels before me in broad strokes of greens, purples and golds under the vast open sky. The weather changes quickly here but I have some warning: I see the rain coming up the valley and try to judge the time it will take to reach me as the grey stretches out its fingers up the hillside. I search out cover in the wide open space and hunker down into a rabbit run between deep marram grasses. It is boggy, cold and wet, and I instantly question the wisdom of this hiding place. Better to be on, to spring the fence and climb into the other fir plantation down by the pond. The dense needles of a spruce enwomb me and I am an escaped Magwitch under a desultory tree, under the clouds, under the rain. It is a humorous position in which I find myself, mingling with spiders, scarlet cap fungi, and last year’s pine needles underfoot. I am almost supine in my idiocy without my coat. But it is a close vantage point which allows me to observe the particularities of things.
Silflay for the rabbits lasts all day and there is one abiding pattern: feed, flight, hide. They are particular creatures, industrious little mowers grazing the thin grass of the fields, round little balls focussed downward. Their sidewise eyes are alert to danger in case of encroachers – least patient of strangers of all the wildlife I have encountered here. I can be 200 yards distant and my steps will render them absent. I am the flight-provoker; the scurry-hurrier; the threat-deliverer. Yet even in flight rabbits are interesting to study: their run a stretch-gather movement powered by the hind legs. First the ears twitch, noting my presence and alert for the danger I might pose and a stillness settles over them. It’s a stalemate and if I break it, that’s it, they’re off, flowing through the cracks of a dry stone wall with fluidity and economy of energy. Through improbable gaps barely a spit wide – how do they do that? During another holiday in Low Embleton, Northumberland in 1993, a rabbit became my first encounter with death. I was eight years old, and a bother in the wake of an older sister gone for a walk over the sandy hillocks on the extreme edge of the village. I had followed her and she’d probably rather not have had me slowing her down over the duney marshes. I can’t exactly remember now how we came upon the rabbit, only that across the sandy ground we sensed its distress and knew with the clarity that children sometimes have, something was badly wrong about the eyes and the limp-driven limbs. A man and his wife came along, assessed the situation with pinched frowns, and all of a sudden I was clutched tightly to a stranger’s chest and then – whack! – the rabbit was no more. A swift compassion. Soft shock, the thump of rock through bone. Something alive was no more. This was the first I knew of death in the wild and the first I knew of death as a kindness. I was shaken and a little numb as I recounted what had happened to mum back at our week’s home. Myxomatosis she said, a big word for an eight year old to swallow. It came to the UK in the 1950s shortly after it was trialled as a ‘pest’ control in Australia. 99% of our native population of rabbits died in a few years, but numbers have since recovered. Looking about me now, I believe it. Rabbits have the moors almost to themselves up here, more numerous than the game birds. I will always be grateful for the kindness of the stranger who held me tight to her so I wouldn’t see her husband lift and lower the rock in his hand.
It is the curious loneliness that afflicts the nature-lover the most: that which we wish to cherish and be near, we cause to disappear. It is a shame and I regret it: to approach the natural world with wonder and joy and yet feel myself to be excluded – by virtue of humanness – from it. But it is the curse of our over-industrialized, intensively-farmed age. We love the wild, yet at best our presence constantly transforms it and, at worse, destroys it. These are the melancholy thoughts that plague me in this kind of lonely, nature-retreating funk. I can watch the wildlife and wonder at it, but I will never be wilded into it. I am in a world of vital bodies, could I but see them, yet I feel myself to be utterly alone up here, on the crown of the fell, on the cusp of the world.
Perhaps it’s the slower pace of things, or the delicious-tasting water piped in from a nearby spring, or the sheer availability of so much wildlife to watch at close quarters, but gradually over the course of the week the tensions of elsewhere ease and I am delightfully weathered into the rhythms of the cottage, birds, sheep and rabbits outside its windows. Waking with, watching and following the wildlife outdoors becomes my routine and my obsession. Swallows stoop and swerve outside my window one morning, swooping through the air in swinging motions to catch insects ready for their migratory journeys to Africa. Strange to think of such a staple of the countryside soon to be flying over sub-Saharan dust. Their destination on each scoop-dive is the eaves outside my window, a muster line on the edge of the roof. No telegraph wires here for them to settle on as they prepare for their great journey. The risks are high, some will not return. With the changing seasons, all creatures are having to adapt – the swallows now arrive a week earlier each year than they did in the 1970s, and I wonder if in fact they tarry later as well, putting off the inevitable, as I do before the commute to work?
Like the swallows, I will return here, and slip once again into the rhythms of Bransdale.
As seen in the February 2018 issue of Dalesman magazine.
Last night was snow-cold, the wind coming in from the west, whistling down the chimney, and I went to bed with an extra blanket and a childish hope for snow (the proper job stuff) come morning. I woke to a bright white light streaming in through the uncurtained sliver of window and rushed to see – not the immense powdery drifts of my childhood when mum would dress me in the pink “Michelin” body suit – but a clear sky with a wafer moon hung past its time and a thin crisping of snow, gift of the night. Enough to put a smile on my face and call me outdoors.
A snow day and its promise of adventure prove that snow transforms the spirit just as much as the landscape it blankets. I have a spring in my step as I begin my walk to Trench Meadows to watch the birds, ignoring the sullen portent of the one-for-sorrow magpie on its straight arrow-flight – the first corvid of the day, part of the genus which includes rooks, ravens, crows, jackdaws and jays. Snow crystals encrust the roof tiles and duvet the cars. The pavements are rinked with ice and puddles are crackle-glazed with it. The feet retain a memory of how to walk on snow – of how it crunches and makes an awkward impression of the foot and, compacted, slides me as I go. Firing off the top of Baildon Moor, a cold hard sun etches everything sharply, chiselling at it like a knife. Reaching a grassy verge, I put my hand down to touch a snow wavelet (only word for it) and find it a surprise to the skin: hard and smooth as glass and tingling with cold.
On the way I stop by a hornbeam hedge I know to listen in on the sparrows that have set up residence inside, chirruping busily, invisibly and it must be said very loudly so that you cannot help but stop to wonder at the commotion as you pass. Hidden within their hedge stronghold, their cries are a playful “nothing to see here.” Just flashes of colour arcing between the close-grown branches. Pausing with my ear cocked towards it, I feel like Gulliver in Lilliput, wondering what all the different twitterings mean. Great tits swoop exuberantly from small front garden trees in flashes of yellow and warn each other of my approach. While among the birds, my presence is foretold along the hedgerows as that of an intruder.
Trench Meadows is designated an area of special scientific interest because it includes patches of rarefied and much prized acid grassland. In early summer a litany of wildflowers drive up between the grasses: orchids, self-heal, meadowsweet, cow parsley, dock, nettle, greater plantain, creeping buttercup, harebells, knapweed, loosestrife, bird’s-foot trefoil and thistles, later to be joined by the marching blue of the devil’s bit scabious and the sulphur yellow of ragwort. Birds are attracted by this superabundance of wildflowers (the meadows in summer teem with them) and their seeds, a staple of their winter diets. The tramping of the bullocks let loose in autumn helps to re-sow the flower meadows, and the birds join in the effort of renewing it. Moles plough the ground (their mounds today dusted white), turning manure and seed under, ready for next summer. It is a habitat in perfect and rare balance with itself, supporting a vast array of invertebrates including moths, butterflies, grasshoppers and red soldier beetles — and these in their turn feed the birds.
I find the gateposts at the bottom of the lower meadow rimed with velvet ice that slicks the fingers with remembered cold. The moisture in the wood has been cooled and then frozen overnight, expanding out of the posts to create ice-prisms that glint-warp the light. Snow is scribbled untidily into the meadow dips and edges and the glare of reflected sunlight makes it hard at first to see the birds; it is easier like a spy to pick up their chatter. I collect birdcalls at random and try to detect which species I’m hearing. With diligent watching, I glimpse them on the wing: blackbirds, red-bibbed robins, sparrows and tits flit deftly in between the steel stems of the brambles with busyness and purpose. The bones of the trees and shrubs are exposed with the fall and decay of leaves, freeing up uninterrupted sightlines with which to observe bird flights.
In the middle-storey branches, wood pigeons are making clumsy landings and unceremoniously inserting themselves on an already crowded perch, no matter whether their fellows are shoved off or not. Rose-breasted nuthatches drilling their beaks into low-slung branches add a different layer of sound, and in the foreground tiny clutches of goldcrests hop from grass to scabious stalks in dainty whorls of flight. There is such a rising chorus of bird calls that it’s as though a great drama is taking place at the avian level, from which I am excluded. Perhaps this has always been going on just fifteen minutes from my doorstep and I am only now tuning in to it. Still higher above, the sun catches at the white wings of common gulls, wheeling in a loose pack, keeping a weather eye on the lie of the land below for any choice scraps. Tens of thousands of feathers shutter and bar the light over me.
The black shadows which I hardly notice at first, so ubiquitous hereabouts, are the crows, corvus corone — the birds everyone thinks they know and which Chaucer dubbed the ‘jangling’ bird of woe. These are the ones I’ve particularly come to study, learn and glean the habits of. Crows on the top-loftiest perches of the meadows’ birches and oaks, sitting singly, lonely, on improbably slender branches. Crows on the ground carrying out forensic searches with their plague-doctor beaks, turning over the snow for any signs of life: a dusting of white on the black lacquer of their bills and the sheen of their feathers. Crows stooping in the sky crying their guttural, malcontent rawks. Close to, the power in that 45cm wingspan is raptor-like and I am captive to its flight.
I became intrigued by crows a couple of months ago when one appeared from its perch at sunset and commenced an exhibitionist rawk! rawk! rawk! interspersed with loud mechanical clicks of its beak, producing a sound like two halves of a coconut shell being snapped together. It was utterly mesmerising and confounding to watch, the crow often seeming to pick the elevated platform of a rock or bench from which to declaim. Though I had not witnessed this call before, it seemed to be an end-of-day ritual, carried out with the nonchalance of routine, like brushing teeth.
Today the crows are so assiduous in their uniform searches among the snow-stiffened grasses you’d think a murder had been discovered – and in a way it has for that is the collective noun for crows: a murder of them. Yet, bent in scimitar curves, beaks to the earth, displaying their elegant feather pantaloons, they amuse rather than threaten. One – a jester – puffs up its feathers and hops crab-wise, looking in my direction with an oblique, obsidian eye. It dances over the snow and when I look away at one of its companions starts up a petulant karr! keearr! to draw me in again to its antics.
Two hours of counting crows and the light is beginning to fade. Oak branches with gluts of them in their weave stretch into a snow sky, pink and buttery at the horizon line leaching into cool blue. The air is desolate with cold. The crows swoop against it like bits of cloth caught on the up-rise, to eventually land and re-commence their calling. I spy a second magpie and my thought follows the nursery rhyme: two for joy. All the promise of spring lies under the snow, under the crows, in the cold hard ground.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Follow the river Wharfe up from Cawood where it joins the Ouse; up through Tadcaster, westward through Otley, Ilkley, and the Strid; past Bolton and northwards well into the Dales proper. Now go further, through the rolling patchwork of Grassington; still deeper following its sinuous flow through Kettlewell, to where the river fancies itself young again in Langstrothdale. Here the river is parented at Beckermonds, a name which means meeting of the becks, of Oughtershaw and Green Field. At their confluence the river is born. A mile or so from the river’s source and up the dale’s southern fell you come to the old farmstead, Cowside. This is where we have holed up for the week, vacating the humdrum of our workaday lives in this stone-built, homely and eminently practical farmhouse, steeped in its own agricultural biography, which survives in its name; in the ‘poultiggery’ which still stands beside the farmhouse (though empty now of poultry and pigs); and in its wholesome painted plaster epigrams: Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a stalled ox and hatred therewith. This is wisdom that still holds true even in the fast-paced and all-encompassing world of technology from which we are escaping.
The steading is embraced on its northern, southern and eastern sides by tall sycamores – now edited of their summer green – which form a natural windbreaker. We’ve watched throughout the morning as the wind has raised itself with louder and louder moans, whipping up wild wintry weather and sending it down the dale with mischief and bluster. It is with some surprise, then, that we find ourselves setting out for a walk. Harsh and inhospitable, the weather is throwing everything it has against the notion of mere walking for pleasure. But there’s a wildness in the fugitive holidaying self that answers in the future affirmative: I shall go. And so – gloved, hatted, zipped and well-wrapped – my companions and I make a party of three somewhat naively turned loose onto the fell.
Of a sudden I feel an ooof! to the chest as the wind steals my breath. They say that if you fall into icy water your lungs contract and you go into near-instant ‘cold shock response’. Never having had this misfortune, I can’t be sure, but this feels a little like that with the easterly wind barrelling into us full tilt. The wuthering gets into you, reaching icy fingers into the bones and lungs and meddling with your wits. Eyes streaming and breath steaming, I look down at the raw, hard beauty of the dale, whitened with cobwebbing frost. A few stunted and wiry hawthorns are wind-martyrs, bent-backed and crookedly veining the sky in inky friezes. A cry and a circling overhead is perhaps a kite lilting on the wind, seeming to defeat gravity and motion all at once. So cold is the hard smack of wind to the forehead that the very thought of the keen-eyed predator freezes in the mind and when I look again it is gone. The gale resists our every step down the fell towards the river and, stubbornly, we dig our heels deeper.
Slowly my mind unseizes and I can appreciate the frozen world around me. Though it is afternoon, the ground remains bound in frost, the branches of sparse trees furred into mystery with it, and the grass and leaves underfoot stiff and crackling to the boot. Puddles shatter like hardened sugar as we go. We cross the sluggish river spilling over its pitted stones where mallards have fastidiously abandoned the icy flow to stand on the limestone like fair-weather bathers. Cowlicks of moss cleaving to the stones are washed greener, their vibrant colour courtesy of the clean fell air. Strange to think of a stretch of county being united by this thin ribbon of river and for a moment I feel a kinship with others who will marvel at it as it tumbles over fosses, under bridges and through towns.
Our steps take us along the old packhorse route – the valley’s spine – that used to connect Lancaster with Newcastle. We are overlooked by the scarred fell sides, gouged by countless winter snowfalls that melt into action every spring. Still there’s the bite of the wind. Bodies battered, we begin to assume postures of apology for having dared to venture out on such a day, and are driven deep into ourselves even as we’re driven deeper into the valley for any sort of shelter. But the days of the medieval Forest of Langstroth, one of several royal hunting grounds, are over – the trees having given way to open moorland. Stone wall enclosures for grazing are the valley’s spiny architecture, marching down improbably steep hillsides. I wonder at those who assembled them at such unlikely gradients; whose hands were bloodied and callused by them.
Alone in the valley, we do not see another person as we go. The black-headed sheep grazing the lower pastures give us uncanny stares from eyes fathoms deep, following us with gazes that seem to say it is their land and we ofcumden are tolerated under sufferance. Walkers come and go with their temporary tracks, but the sheep leave lasting impressions. They are the masters of this landscape, each one shaping it by habit, cutting terrace paths into the fell-side.
The walk is, of necessity, shorter than we would like, our toes and noses urging us home to hearth, hot chocolate and warmth. We look out for the landmarks that signpost our way back: the bent tree bussing the wall with its branches; the two bridges; that farm ascending the northern fell. Now that we have relinquished our ambitions to walk further, the wind is a help-mate, tidying us homeward. Seeing the smoke from our chimney, we’re a collection of smiles. I think of the farmer returning, more respectably than we, from a hard day’s work up the fell in days gone by and how much more he must have welcomed this sight. The sky is milky, flushed with rose and lavender hues into soft opalescence, but even as it darkens to mauve in the east and a few stars peep, I think of the farmer’s family, their hardiness, and their dinner of herbs.
… It is not clear why a permit used to be required to pass through these woods, but I suspect it has something to do with the state in which the land had been left (especially the exposed and treacherous cellars of the house) after the demolition gangs had done their work in the 1960s. I make a polite farewell to my well-met stranger and approach the gate into the woods. As I step from Higher Coach Road into its sequel, I am conscious that I am walking down her memory lane and at the same time forging my own. It is an odd sensation.
As I start along the path through the wood I have a strong sense of having just crossed a threshhold and – like Lucy Pevensey looking back towards the Wardrobe – I cannot help but look back down the road, my eye telescoping to its presumed, unfocused end. The mist still idles in the hollow places and everything I see is revealed by slow degrees at the whim of the path and the weather. Beside me, South Lodge with its intricate but softened gable ends – portents of what once might be expected of Milner Field House – has clearly seen better days. New windows have taken the place of the old sashes which lie stacked, smashed, their frames rotten, a stone’s throw away. A playground for invertebrates and other woodland creatures. The shed is webbed over and its locks and hinges rusted shut. Already I am aware of decay and of the wood’s reclamation of this strip of land. I pass by quickly, wary of watchers in the Lodge who may be suspicious of my curiosity.
The start of the path through the woods is densely over-canopied, with branches forming a low rough vault over the way and holly (a favourite plant of the Salt family) hemming me in on either side, appearing oddly overdressed in its solid waxy green beside the slapdash nudity of the other trees. Over-braced by the flying buttresses of beech and horse chestnut, I am as secluded as one is ever likely to feel on a path and, funnelled through the wood, driven through to its secret hiding-places, am quickly lost to the wider world. A magpie twirls out from a tree in search of treasures, its wings a pied fan opening, and it is my turn to start, my heart pumping fear in my chest. The walking is not unpleasant, but it is tomb-stone quiet, and perhaps because of the stranger’s equivocation over access, there is a feeling of pacing through someone else’s privacy here, the leaves underfoot confirming the impression with their unmistakable shushing. I feel at once tucked away from the world and a keen sense of – not going back in time exactly – but a conspicuous awareness that the wood is keeping mum about the abandoned remains at its heart. Its secrets will perhaps not so easily be given up.
The trees that line the way show no signs of being managed, having seeded themselves at will, over stones and on top of one another, and encroaching on the path. There are multi-stemmed trees here as are more commonly found in a hazel coppice, except these are untended and their trunks sprout unchecked and unharvested. Gossamer strands spun out optimistically onto the breeze by orb weavers and other spiders which love the nooks of the cross-stitch trunkery catch unexpectedly, unwelcome, across my cheeks. Little snares, warnings perhaps. I am put strongly in mind of Kipling’s poem The Way Through the Woods and my steps begin to pace out its rhythms: “They shut the road through the woods/ Seventy years ago./ Weather and rain have undone it again,/ And now you would never know/ There was once a road through the woods/ Before they planted the trees.” When the road was in use by the Salts, it was open and there were certainly fewer trees. These are mostly incomers after the fact, like me, and that’s reassuring. Back in the day, the road was lined on either side with fashionable rhododendron bushes, many of which remain like clues, though most without tending have grown leggy and wilded themselves to the wood, making way for trees and sometimes stooping under them. The clumsy fall of my foot snapping a twig is as vital a crack in the stillness as the report of a gun and a jay leaps into flight, its chinoiserie plumage painting the sky.
The breeze is communicated up the canopy of the trees in whispers behind me, getting nearer and nearer: leaves catch the trembling flit of it from their neighbours and together they are made one seething organism, moving up the path behind and then overtaking me. Occasionally a following tread sounds on the path and I am backward-glancing and self-admonishing at the ghost of fear that spikes into me. There’s no one behind of course – probably a conker from a horse chestnut, though it’s late in the season for their fall. I stand for some time transfixed with my gaze directed backwards down the path, convinced I will see my mystery walker solidify from phantom to pedestrian reality if I look long enough. Nothing. And yet the treads had fallen with pronounced and unmistakable walking accents behind me. But I am alone on the path, in the wood, in the past.
When I reach the cross roads in the wood, I am assailed by a strong sense of deja vu; I’ve been here before. In the spring, whilst searching out the local flora I stumbled upon a public footpath called Sparable Lane (a corruption of Sparrow’s Bill) bounded on each side by dry stone walls. Looking across the clearing now, I make out the sloping of that other path and realise in a sudden moment of spooked uncanniness that I am indeed walking my own memory lane.
Though access is not legislated nor official through the wood, the fact that the path remains clear and easy to traverse (I can see that branches that would have struck across the way have been cut cleanly back) speaks of the local will to keep it open. This is a path informally maintained by common (if somewhat illicit) consent. Though presently alone in the woods, I see evidence of human activity here and there: empty beer cans and crisp packets, but also elective desire paths through the ground ivy, which I assume dog-walkers have made in their journeys through the wood.
I take the path to the left, accompanied by the ticklish sound of water running in little draining ditches at its sides, and ascend to where I know the house was situated. Even though I’m climbing up, it somehow feels like going down – like Orpheus going down into Hades. An old fir throws out a bough to mark where to turn aside for the area I believe the house to have occupied, and I feel a moment’s guilt at the discrepancy between Orpheus’s rescue mission and my own morbid quest to pick over old bones. I ignore the feeling, weaving a way between fallen trees until I see the first of the sizeable and haphazardly cast aside masonry pieces. They are wrapped lushly in blankets of moss and appear unmoved from where first they fell when discarded by the demolition gangs. As my eye deciphers the undulating mounds of greenery and stone, I begin to see pile upon pile of building materials, careless cast-offs like scattered thoughts that once made a house. Weather and rain have undone it again – or in this case the sledge hammers of demolition gangs who perhaps put more store in bricks and stone than in tales of terror and hauntings and shook their heads over such a waste. I walk gingerly between open tunnels and access hatches into the original cellars, testing the load-bearing capacity of patches of ground doubtfully with my toes.
My tip-toe exploration turns up salt-glazed bricks which were supplied by Joseph Cliff & Sons of Leeds, window glass and giant hefts of stone quarried from the top of the hill I passed on my way through the wood. Local materials and trades for a local house – a respectful approach from an incomer. Curiously I feel my own incomer status here even more keenly, looking at the wreckage of another’s dreams strewn at my feet.
Close-covering ivy and bursts of lush frilling tongue ferns clamber the ruins, redacting stone and brick so that the sense one might have been able to make of the building’s vocabulary – there a coping stone, there a window lintel – is all but lost. These plants are some of the typical ‘reclaimers’ when a once-developed area is left abandoned for any length of time. With the industry of soldiers, they move in and efficiently revert the land, steadily editing out all traces of cultivation and habitation. I find it difficult to overlay this chaotic and shambolic scene with the palimpsest of the Milner Field House which I hold in my mind’s eye, an image in which the house stands self-importantly in a desert of lawn and gardens. Few trees at all. This wood can be no more than sixty or perhaps seventy years old then: a comparatively young wood, surging into being through its own will and the simple neglect of the land. Here too there survive great bushes of the original rhododendrons, and I make a promise to myself to return the next spring to see them in bloom.
There’s one final sight I want to find – the wood’s incongruous mosaiced floor, along from the rubble heaps, and following the lines of where the winter garden used to stand. A soiled and leafed-over dance floor it seems in the middle of the wood, nothing could be stranger. It is the floor of the glass conservatory which housed all manner of exotic plants when owned by the Salts – perhaps to the delight of the visiting Prince and Princess of Wales. Now a muddy floor which leaves skip over. I push the toe of my shoe into its soil dermis and fresh, new-babe pink peeps out at me, and in other parts the original mosaic patterns can still be seen. Too difficult and too costly for the demolition gang to break up and remove, so here it lies still, creating its own little clearing, a landmark and fixture of the wood. Squirrels, foxes, shrews and hedgehogs perhaps navigate by it, their trails making room for it, crossing and re-crossing it, scenting it with scat: a posh woodland toilette. A happy thought.
A light rain starts up making me turn my steps homeward, flushing me out of the wood and out of the past. It is an odd parting: me full with the remnant history of this place; the “undone” house silent but eloquent. As I move gradually further out of the wood, leaving the remains of the house feels a little like coming up for air. With Higher Coach Road in sight, it is tempting, like Orpheus, to look behind to check that the path through the wood is still there; that I didn’t dream the house, the rubble, the mosaic floor in the guardedly slumbrous wood.
Yet, if you enter the woods
Of a summer evening late,
When the night air cools on the trout-ringed pools
Where the otter whistles his mate,
(They fear not men in the woods,
Because they see so few.)
You will hear the beat of a horse’s feet,
And the swish of a skirt in the dew,
Steadily cantering through
The misty solitudes,
As though they perfectly knew
The old lost road through the woods.
But there is no road through the woods.
Rudyard Kipling, The Way Through the Woods
No, there is no longer a road through the woods, just a path that we keep open.
A sky like bleached bone, the leaves of the horse chestnut trees blushing and burning against it, leaching their tizer colours into the dampening air. In their crinoline cages of colour they’ve caught the sun, and the edges of their leafy fingers scorch, curl and turn to butterscotch and rust like bright corroding nails. The trees are discarding their leaves as though trying to put out the fire, but the autumn sun has worked on them until the whole crown makes a pyre in spite of itself and all those flaming hands are held up in surrender, smouldering and sizzling in the mist. I am glad I waited for this: a spectacle of colour that fizzes, pops and licks the autumn air.
Some weeks ago now it had been in the back of my mind to visit Higher Coach Road – a dirt track really, one of those small signs that suggests you’re escaping the urban and heading for the country – which hyphenates two of my more habitual walks in Saltaire. The road was never intended to be an end in itself, but these days you could be forgiven for thinking of it as a road to nowhere, unremarkable but for its tall cathedralling horse chestnuts trees. Arcades of holly and hawthorn hedges underneath complete the church. In the springtime, the chestnuts had been very fine with their candles of scented blossom and leaves that particular naive shock of green, and I knew then that in autumn they would be glorious again. They have been readying for their second showing, forced to it by cooler weather and the pell-mell October gales. I’ve been judiciously monitoring other trees, waiting for the sweet spot between enough autumn colour remaining on the trees and too many leaves having already given up their ghosts. Today, I judged the time to have come.
So down the hill, over the canal where workers are pondering how to mend the lock gates, past the overgrown shells of former nurseries – and hello Mrs Wren, flick-tailed in the brambles by the way – through the spinney, over the bridge and up by the rill. Standing fox tails of sheep’s sorrel punctuate the field to the left as I bend my steps upwards. An eager school party, clipboarded, heavily marshalled, and somewhat bemused at being out of doors, prompts me to turn early up the track to where it comes out on Higher Coach Road. The lane’s a furnace of colour: I am folding friable origami in red, orange and yellow below my feet. And yes. The horse chestnut trees are indeed glorious in their autumn flutter, their leaves the stained glass hung upon the cathedral trees. I’m a little smug – shamefully so – at how well I have timed my visit. The wash of leaves on the ground reflects those still on the trees and there’s a beautiful, warm symmetry to the ochre-ginger double glow.
Someone’s dog noses at my feet, horse riders pass, and others I do not know wander down the road: we’re all witnesses to the confetti of colour, wondering together. Through the hedge break I expect to see the ebony and ivory of the cows in the field, but the farmer’s put them to pastures new today. I hear them lowing in the distance, not far away. The sharp slipstream of their scent remains, a rank tang on the air. I am wary of the thrumming clouds of flies that have been charmed here by the inducements of cow dung and damp, warm weather, unseen in their flitting pockets until I’m almost upon them and must dodge at the last minute. I’m only ten minutes from town but still I feel deep into countryside here. A flock of dozy Canada geese have set themselves up as temporary field tenants in the cows’ absence – a pitstop on their way to their wintering homes abroad – looking vulnerable with their heads tucked trustingly under wings to catch forty winks before taking off again. In the opposite field on the right of the lane, two herons sit imperiously and companionably until my eager step launches them skywards. I have read that the fat of a heron killed at the full moon was arcanely believed to be a cure for rheumatism and I wonder in a moment of whimsy whether the efficacy of the remedy came from ingesting the fat or through topical application. Thankfully, even should I suffer rheumatic agonies, I will never be tempted to either.
Higher Coach Road, as the name suggests, is an old carriageway and was the main approach road to the Milner Field Estate, commissioned by the eldest son of Victorian businessman and Alpaca wool factor, Titus Salt. Salt-Aire, you see; the village and Mill owe their existence to him. Having watched his father colonise this part of the Airedale valley for his great enterprise, Titus Salt Jr set about inaugurating a suitably grand home for himself and his family, siting it on the northern face of the valley overlooking the village: close enough to the Mill for the convenience of business but not so close that the family would be disturbed by the bustle of its comings and goings. I like to stand here and think of the ghosts of sprung carriages tooling down the lane, conveying their master and mistress home after a county dinner or soiree at one of the neighbour’s houses. The road is peculiarly rich in nostalgia and a heavy sense of its former significance lies on it as palpable as dust. It is rammed earth – though after rains, not quite so rammed, its loosened stones are the rocky bed for rivulets of rain water streaming down its length. Higher Coach Road as it is today is really only used by the farmer at Milner Fields, dog-walkers, and the residents of South Lodge. Embarassed out of its original importance, it is but a remnant of the former significance of the estate.
Rubble. Reclamation. A prick with a thorn. The past at slumber in a wood. Building the house at Milner Field in 1869 was a substantial undertaking. Its gothic, towered design was suitably grandiose, as befitted a family pre-eminent in West Yorkshire society. A prickly silhouette for a prickly place. Indeed, with its large glass conservatory, lush gardens and parkland, and over-sized marble fireplaces, it was deemed fit to entertain royalty twice, first in 1882, then again in 1887.
Though the estate’s South Lodge still stands at the end of the road, the great house of Milner Field has long since been razed to untidy rubble and masonry heaps due to its blighted history and no one wishing to live in it after the 1920s. A fey place; a cursed place; a tomb. Local superstition has, it seems, delighted in licking its lips and pronouncing the house haunted because of its attributed role in the tragic deaths first of Titus Salt Jr himself, and then of those children of the next owner of the house and Mill, Sir James Roberts. Heart attack. Illness. Drowning. The next owners after him, and then the next, suffered similarly precocious-seeming deaths, including Ernest Gates, who met with arguably the most curious death of all. His wife passed away from illness only months after they took up residence in the house in 1923, and two years later Ernest himself reputedly injured his foot on a rose bush in the garden of the house, contracted septicaemia and died. Skin broken by a thorn; a life is torn. Whether this is true or not, no such rose bush still survives in the now overgrown grounds – I know, I have looked. The last owners who moved into the house in 1925 were also both dead within three years. Being final proof of the house’s reputed malicious intent, and no one else wishing to live in such a “cursed” place, it was shut up thereafter and, having defied explosion by dynamite in the 1950s, was finally dismantled by demolition gangs in the 1960s. Local opinion generally found the whole business of Milner Field Estate to be a bad lot, and condemned the house as the villain of the piece.
If you look down the lane towards South Lodge today, you will see the pillared gates that marked the original estate entrance, now merely a gateway into a wood. Within this unremarkable-looking wood lie the remains of that once grand house, and today I have ambitions to go beyond the apparent end of the road to explore where the path takes me and see them. But I’m unsure of the access rights. The excellent Baildon Heritage Trail: Coach Road to Shipley Glen walking guide helpfully comments, in parentheses: “Please note that there is no public right of way through Milner Field Estate, but it is used extensively by the public.” A paradox of a path.
A stranger, dog in tow, exits the small gate at the end of the lane – little do I know it but she is the past walking towards me on the path. I fall into step with her to ask whether there is public access beyond the gate. There is a pause pregnant with the ambiguity of access permissions here before she answers. Assuring me that no one will challenge me if I venture through (not exactly what I was after), she goes on to say, more tantalisingly, you used to have to have a permit to pass beyond the gate. She worked at the Mill, she says, before it ceased being a working mill in the 1980s – and do I know the Mill? I can tell from the way her lips purse around the admission with a slight fond smile – as though savouring this rarefied connection to such a locally significant institution – that she is proud to have worked there. It makes her a bit of a walking legend in my eyes and I marvel at the serendipity of bumping into her on the lane. As she talks, we walk both in the past and the present, seeing everything in the present day through her memories. It is not clear why a permit used to be required to pass through the woods, but I suspect it had something to do with the state in which the land had been left (especially the exposed and treacherous cellars of the house) after the demolition gangs had done their work in the 1960s. We make our polite farewells, walk in opposite directions, and I approach the gate into the woods. As I step from Higher Coach Road into its sequel, I am conscious that I am walking down my stranger’s memory lane and at the same time forging my own. It is an odd sensation.
Continued in Memory Lane: Part Two.
Autumning; v. the transformation of things in the natural world from their summer to their autumn selves.
Nan Shepherd wrote in The Living Mountain that when others talked the mountain – which was her constant companion and to which she was almost mystically attached – was silent. I’ve expressed a similar sentiment myself: to walk in solitude is best. And yet. Today we are companionable and quiet together as we set out into Strid Wood at Bolton Abbey in Wharfedale, letting the trees and the deepening cut of the ravine speak for themselves. Only occasionally do we interject our wonder. The russeting landscape does not need us to interpret for it; but occasionally wonder with the force of an electric charge asserts itself with the need to be stated aloud, as though in sharing it between ourselves we lay claim to our unified experience of this magic.
It is the morning preceding the autumn equinox and night and day exist in fragile and temporary harmony, split perfectly even like two halves of a ripening gourd, an uneasy truce until day starts its slow decline and we, grudgingly, will get up to darkness and our evenings will arrive with inky black before their time. Today we each walk with one foot in summer and one in autumn; looking forward and also behind. The outermost leaves of the crowns of the trees are flushed in eager reds: their chlorophyll gone, revealing their true colours. Those leaves further in are masked, for now at least, by their top-lofty canopies and are able to hang on to their green: summer’s final whisper. Sharp rot, leaf-decay, wood-smoke, the darkly astringent tang of fungi pushing up through the earth. We take the woodsy taste of it deep into our lungs, accept autumn is in the air and that summer has been lost until next year.
We do not do any of this deliberately; we are none of us aware that today marks the equinox until later reading an article about it – but our talk is preoccupied with the autumning of things: with the turncoat leaves, their deaths around us (and they do die brilliantly in this late-summer, autumn-precocious sun), and the chilling air that has brought a heavy sparkle of dew to the floor of the valley: silver underfoot.
The night has been cool and cloudless before us and I think to myself that the sunrise over the top of the valley will have been luminous as mother of pearl. The sun will have broken over the treetops in arcs of pale splendour and, for an exquisite moment, the night-dews will have borrowed its brilliance. The birds which noise to us now (the musical trilling robin, the shrilly barking crows that wheel overhead, the wagtails) must have started their cacophony of song in that thin morning light. A grey wagtail dips exuberantly in its distinctive flight over the sun-meshed water on our left. Happy to be about its day-flight; happy to be buoyed up on the autumn breeze.
We are lucky that the sun has lingered to throw gold upon the changing trees before us; trees that clump together and march the sides of the valley, guiding us up through its mysteries. The sunlight is not constant but strikes here and there through the leaves as, timbered on either side, we ascend with the valley mostly hidden from view. With the thick marches of trees conspiring to keep our destination a secret from us, and the way winding round the natural depressions and inclines of the land, our business is simply the path, the bank with its hospitable roots, the tangle of which wasps and other creatures have made homes in, and keeping a weather eye on the sheer treed drop to our left. At the same time I am attentive to the minutiae of life around me. Sunlight catches at the clapping wings of a speckled wood butterfly, charmed out of hiding by the promise of late-summer warmth on its wings. Finally it settles on balsam. How majestic it seems, propped up on its forelegs, its abdomen flush to the leaf, its wings spread to their openest extent, as though presenting itself for the sun’s inspection. There is deep contentment in its manner. Speckled woods habituate stands of oak in particular.
Attuned to one another’s particularities of gait and tolerances of various gradients, we pitch and slow in silent allowances for each other as we go; as the ravine cuts a little deeper and we climb a little higher; our lungs are tired bellows at labour. The river Wharfe is a constant clamouring companion and we cannot help but let our gazes fuss at it as the path moves us inexorably up and away from its noise. Exerting its magnetism, it draws our eyes downwards between the breaks in the trees, thundering to be heard. On top of the view – on top of the world – we admire the silken silvered ribbon of the river below as it winks and glows between the trees. More and more of it will be revealed over coming weeks as the trees lose their leaves to its flashing flow. The river stretches wet fingers as it goes to creep up rocks, slip over pebbles, and catch at leaf and branch to bear them seawards.
Sessile oaks abound in Strid Wood and autumn is inaugurated in them in strange ways. With none of the haste of the ash, which discards its leaves prematurely and greenly every year, the oak blots its leaves with yellow blisters as though stricken; the edges of the blisters blacken, or in some cases red and orange touch it to lend more of autumn colour to its decay. Over weeks of weathering the blisters increase until gradually the whole leaf is taken over by motley colours, and even then it is slow to fall away. It is a haphazard kind of autumning. More often it is the twiggy bracts – this year’s growth – that fall off in winds and weathers, taking the reluctant leaves with them. I see only a few fallen oak leaves on the path; many more are the acorns whose surprisingly loud drops are an integral part of the forest’s chatter at this time of year.
The river Wharfe is parented in Langstrothdale, its source the shake holes of the Yockenthwaite and Horse Head Moors. The narrative of the river is one of increase and drama: from shake hole springs to becks, from becks joined to form hill streams, from hill streams converging into the river. The name Wharfe derives from the Old English weorf or the Old Norse hverfr meaning winding river. And it does wind in an almost leisurely manner through its deep dale valleys, turning back on itself, noosing and curving with serpentine, sinuous skill. Until the section called the Strid between Barden and Bolton Bridge. Here it kills.
Strid is a name derived from the Old English stryth, meaning strife or turmoil. It is the section of water where the river tightens its belt and cheats its volume into a squeeze that’s sized only a pace wide. Here the pace of the river grows faster, the momentum greater, as it twists and dashes itself down the ravine.
We arrive at last at the water’s side. On the bank’s sharp brink of rock I cram myself into this moment by the water, let it throb in my veins. The river is both drama and danger; people have died here. Perversely quicksilver and beautifully terrible. Its breath is in the air and on the moss-fringed rocks that suck thirstily at it. These rocks that line its passage have been scooped out and undercut by it in smooth crescents as it gushes downstream. A treacherous combination seam of fluid and organic matters colliding. The scalloped edges have their secret pools and hidden depths between. They say that it is 9m deep just here, carving out the limestone shelf beneath it, and the undertow strong enough to keep an Olympic swimmer under. The Wharfe has narrowed too quickly from its 30ft width higher up the ravine to this narrow stretch of the Strid. My gaze cannot rest for long on the water without being pulled upstream to the source and thunder of the course over its rocky bed.
I dwell for a while in a micro world: I pick a bubble to follow but it’s futile and I lose it; a single leaf falls slowly and with the grace of a bird; the greenest moss I’ve ever seen tickles the tips of my fingers. I let Autumn with all its burning majesty pass through me as the woods exhale their leafy crop on long-held breaths and the river blows out its fury.
As seen in the October 2017 issue of Dalesman magazine.
On this late October evening the Glen beckons, for after many pilgrimages to its heights I know some of the delights that await me up there. This is the time of year when I most want to walk; when wanderlust is eloquent and insistent indoors and the autumn itch to pitch into the changing world of dapple-hue is unresolvable until treading through – and smelling – rich leaf-mould.
I set out into a golden, wind-buffed dusk, which is arriving almost imperceptibly earlier than those of the preceding week: this hasty drawing on of the setting sun a signal that the year is preparing to clamber back into its gilding husk, to out-winter coming weathers. Not yet, I appeal with my footstep. I feel the merest nip of chill in the air at the end of my nose and in the tips of my fingers as I plot my course through the same-yet-not-same Saltaire village streets. The paving slabs are wet with dews – step-slicking – and, with the underbelly of the sky burnishing before my eyes, I fold myself into the nap of the wind and walk up through the wood’s unburdening of itself. Under oaks wrack-bent and twist-thrown, their leaves on the burn from yellow to auburn, the setting sun lights – there! – a strike as of a match, and sets the forest floor to fire. I scoop-gather some beech leaves as I go in bright but not yet brittled sheaves turned from green to red-gold.
Emerging from under the trees out onto the Shipley prairie of grasses, bracken and old ragged ragwort, I farewell my warbler companion who has followed my steps, always invisible in the depths of the trees, with his ooo-weet! ooo-weet! My steps plant golden into the old-grass ground and I catch my first sight of the dark monumental rocks laid down all-accidental-like in the thousands-of-years-ago glaciation. Rocks which up-rear themselves and fit the land between them, then fall off sharply, lipping the wooded ravine with their precarious-seeming precipices. Like the rocks, autumn up here is crisp and elemental: the wind flays the turf skins between and over the erratics in suck-cheeked frenzies, creating lips of grass that are trip-trickery to a walker’s boot. The bracken, bled of its summer green, is a brittle untidiness of antique rust, an ochre-brindled crust upon the earth. I have anticipated the desiccation of the bracken since walking the summer path between them, metres high, in arm-hoisted surrenders.
All recalls summer; all looks on to winter. Autumn mixes a little of both in its strange alchemy. Scuff-footed, I walk these ancient stones towards the horizon, the sinking sun striking the clouds with fire behind me. My eye is drawn up high to a banking flock of birds – too high to tell what they are – but perhaps some of the number who leave us to our winter devices each year in elective desertions for warmer, more abundant climes. As my eyes complete their circuit, a sudden start caused by my step from grass to stone draws my gaze towards the fading heather. A shadow enlarged by the low-setting sun. Can it be? It is. A hare. A creature made to stand and stare at; all its energy gathered into its sprung limbs; its unearthly gold-rimmed eye daring my step. But I am stock-still in amazement at this late-in-the-day gift. I will not shift until it does. Don’t mess this up. Its ears are alert to me, upright and sun-bright in the long light of gloaming on the Glen; its tawny fur, caught by the rays of the dying sun, is part-scruffed in places from amorous boxing skirmishes. I hold its gimlet eye for a heart-stopping few moments, and then it musters in a flash and darts into dusk.
This is why I have chosen this end of the day – when the light is sunken, shadow-casting and there is magic at play over the trees. As I stop on top of one of the giant boulders overlooking the glen, made purblind by the wind whipping about and through me, I begin to feel the day slipping to its close. The trees stretched beneath me are shucking their summer clothes: sycamore propellers skate and skirl downwardly; acorns join the beech mast carpet; everything ensures its progeny. And somewhere beyond me, a hare leaps home.
Stars do indeed twinkle, I have seen them:
pricked into the blue canvas of the sky,
a flicker of pearl pulsing on the eye
out of the deep velvet dark –
with each its own lustre of light.
The rite of dusk so many nights
unobserved under cityscape smudges
is here piercingly clear –
on the wild of the moorland,
in thick country darknesses.
I fiercely wonder at your brilliance –
and try to claim your light –
eyes full wide
focusing the night.
But I do not know you – you,
light years beyond my ken,
hanging like a symbol or a metaphor
above my head.
You’re dead above me,
your light the last dying glimmer
of your living glamour.
I only know you in your
so far removed
from the everyday.
O let me look at you this way –
where I am not known.
The owl’s cry is a tremor
of my wonder,
and voices it better.
Rain lashes through a wimple of cloud. Days of dirty skies have succeeded one after the other lately and whenever I look out of the window with a fool’s hope, the rain whitens everything with its diagonal, dashing fall, making a mystery of the view: a veil between me and the world. My slate-grey mood prowls withindoors to the tattooing droplet-driving dance. Everything is variously damp and dank-smelling inside as well as out and the house is, for a time, unhomely and I a fidgeter indoors. But, after a morning’s fall from a granite firmament, now the belt of rain-pall has slackened and I step out into mizzle — a good word — which is to say a something or nothing rain; half-masted between a mist and a drizzle; short-changed out of full onslaught; a cobweb of wet on the eyelash; rain’s last resort. The onomatopoeia of ‘mizzle’ suits the barely-embroidering dew of it on my skin and clothing. By using it, I think with a deft complacency, I am keeping this scarce-heard word alive, breathing life back into it as it wets my tongue. Mizzle. It’s one of many words we’re helping to lose through the slow erasure of non-use.
Hand in glove with the elements, my walking today is warm and muggy — almost cosy — in my spangled mizzle-sheen and I lift up a round face into the lea of where I think the sun might be, there in the opaque, blinding white halo. The valley has been washed by heavier morning showers than this and now the very last dregs in the sky-cup are filtered through a fine cheesecloth of cloud leaving only this light haze to drowse upon the grass banks and the willowherb. Its speckling on my skin is almost pleasant; a light refreshment after the stale indoors. I’ve timed my walk with the weather and, in a sudden access of exuberance at the lessened rain, the postman hulloes me and calls that I’ve brought the sun out with me. I am word-stumbling in denial, but he’s curiously adamant as though I had the power — a weather-charm weaver — and, cheerfully amused at the thought, I press on.
Looking out across the valley as my steps draw me down into the crease of it I see — whoosh! — a swift performing its sky-dance, its black wings the merest lilting on the wind. Insects must be drawing it to thread itself back and forth across the scree of cloud, and with what a swooping joy it cleaves the air! Such effort for just a mouthful on the wing, I think, hoving onward though back-glancing at its dipping display. Around me, nature is turning herself to the business of fruiting. Where once were the delicately white-anthered blossoms of the hawthorn, now berries thicken in perfect curvatures; apples are approaching shop-worthiness on the tree; and the rowan berries are already choleric with red, their orange anger earlier than ever this year. I see a whole cycle from flower to fruit on one bramble bower: the pink-white rose-like blossoms, the green fruit still tightly unripe, and the rich blood-black berries, as heavily hanging as antique ear-bobs. It is a worry what the birds will do as a result of this too-soon bounty when the year draws on to dearth, and I send my thought up with supplication: not too hasty, autumn. As if drawn by these forebodings, my eye is caught on goose-stepping lines of black rooks and crows patrolling the playing fields for worms. There is something morbid about their presence as they move forward in forensic searches, like a police line punctuating the green with their funereal sweeps.
The top of the Glen shows itself dazzled and imperfect; the stone houses rendered softly indistinct; and the tree-bank losing its sharpness. The sun, making a brief appearance, sets the haze to silver and I know that somewhere there must be a rainbow, beyond my sightline and beyond my gift today. Trundling on down the hill, my steps mechanical having walked this path so many strides now, I am headed (I know it with sudden clarity) for Hirst Wood: for just-in-case cover; my native tree-patch; nature’s ancient thatch in serried rows of leaf upon leaf. Sometimes my feet draw me down to the wood with the instinctive understanding of sole to soul.
Hirst Wood emerges as a shadow on my left, its darkling silhouette of beech, birch and oak hugging the side of the Leeds Liverpool canal; occasionally dipping a toe in it. Now that I have the shortcut by Caroline St and Dallam Ave by foot-rote, the prospect of being ensconced, enveloped and covered over with green is only ever a mere 10 minutes’ walk away. As with other ancient woodlands, admittance to this hallowed, treed sanctum has been bargained for with many walkers’ feet. If we stopped turning in at the side of Hirst Lane, it would forget us and close the gap over again with irrepressible green as though we had never been here at all; never pressed the leaves with our feet; nor watched the squirrels’ scampers; not heard the invisible birds’ calls. No respecter of people this wood, and I am heartily glad of it. I tuck myself away into the fold of its trees, my steps cushioned on a thick layer of rich black loam: good growing soil that roots you if you stand still for too long, but pleasant to push a toe into. A complicated black, textured and coarse, with bits of bark and moss returning to the earth. Centuries of leaf mould worked over by worms, beetles and mud-boring bees have connived at this good grounding.
I crane my neck up in an arc of longing at the top-lofty beeches and birches; their branches crackle-glazing the sky in stilled squiggles; their cover giving me dry underfoot. Their arms uplifted are greedy snatchers at the hemisphere: ’tis the lure of drawing upward to the highest height; to the point at which the wood tries to leap out of itself into the sky; where the mist rests on the tops of the trees; where the smallest branches quiver their littlest leaves into the air. And then in meteoric rush, like ball from bat, stone from sling: a wood-pigeon casts itself aloft from its cover — a signal to others of the presence of an intruder — and though I provoked its flight with an incautious step, it’s my heart that seizes in the relative stillness. The alarm raised, it’s many minutes of patient waiting before the woodland creatures disclose themselves again. A grey squirrel in stops and starts frets its way from one tree to another, keeping me in sight out of one obsidian eye before scarpering up skywards again. Birds begin their calling-on songs again.
Deep in the heart of the wood, the trees tell me the names to call them by: wood-waker; root-delver; bark-bone maker; timber-teller; crown-weaver; sky-tracer; storm-quaker; trunk-bracer; root-throne forger; wildling-wose; spring-bloomer; ring-worker; skin-splitter; treacle-sapper; burl-wound bearer; heartwood-wedded; wind-singer; groan-swayer; nut-hatcher; place-crowder; high-yammerer; close-creeper; leaf-twitcher; branch-creaker; breeze-shaker; autumn-surrenderer; leaf-looser; rime-wearer; dryad-dancer; rough-cladder; sky-stretcher; stone-breaker; whack-shiverer; rain-taker; squirrel-friender; south-bender; soil-anchor; ground-gripper; sun-chaser; bough-lacer; mage-whisperer; sooth-grower; seed-blower; whip-branch tickler; sometimes-sickener; blast-bowled sentinel; night-moaner; woodpecker-martyr; earth-sifter; light-blending dapple-sender; path-riddler; way-pointer; fey-shifter; branch-lifter; star-gazer.
All the names of the trees suggest themselves in the crook’d, bent and twist-turned forms I walk between; in the soughing of the wind about and through them; in their wood-barked complexions. Oaks are best for gnarliness; the birches straight but ghosting in their white papers. The beeches, taller than all the rest, have by far the highest conceit of themselves. This wood holds a queen of beeches, burled and cankered about her large waist; bent with age; over-crowding the path. She is so generous in size that many Merlins could have been enchanted into her. Surrounding herself she has sown a circle of her young: satellites to her parent tree. She reaches out arms to her progeny. Nothing much will grow under beeches because the shade they manufacture with their leaves is so complete; not so the shiver-leaved birch whose tremble of leaves is so light-permissive as to be almost translucent — and so they are when a shaft of sunlight hits them. The floor of this woodland, under birches and between, was so thick-carpeted with bluebells in spring that walking here was, for a month, entirely blue. Now the cracked pods of the spent bells have all but unburdened themselves of their black seeds; just a few still await a forager to help spill them.
Though it is a modest woodland, barely half a mile from end to end, to enter Hirst Wood as I do today, fugitive from mists and the threat of more rain, is to claim sanctuary from the world without for a quiet while: a pause between two breaths on a walk. I begin to appreciate this wood as meaning more than its parts: the accumulation of the years of its trees told in countless hidden rings; its centuries of leaves; yearly nests and egg-hatchlings; squirrelled nuts and acorn-ripenings; parent trees and be-treeings. And indeed, with barely a week passing without my accustomed pilgrimage to Hirst Wood, it has acquired for me now the savour of a walk-familiar: that is, a place one may walk and let the mind spin-drift because the peculiarities of its ways are so known to foot and memory. To go through, into and under it day after day — to know it in all its guises — is to walk, I have found, still partly in the wood when away.
In drowses of movement, in winged occlusions, bees dance;
their wings sound furies, their humming never single but
joined in buzzed harmonies; tiny fidgeting fledgling beings
trimmed in flower dust and seed: carriers of living things;
carriers on the wind, nectar-drunk and plenty-eyed,
busy about the honey-glide. Wish I had enough eye to see
and ear to hear the single paean each sends through hive:
shopping lists of which nectar’s choice and where
the yellow dust pollen waits in sufficiencies.
I wonder do they dance of my garden and of me,
of the honeysuckle and the bells of the penstemon,
these soft-furred, furious things? A heartbeat in one;
a squeeze against the breastbone drawing on in drones;
sometimes still in secret strokings of antennae –
a sociable etiquette, wiping pollen from oval eyes;
more often a ritual vibration gives tongue to the hive nation.
A colloquy on the wing – mapping terrain since first
spring – claiming each flower between. The dance begins
on the landing board in feints; a single split from the whole,
stirs itself up, sloughing subtlety – all uppity – no longer
moving in general mass, but individuated articulated
energy. Perhaps it is ordered, orderly frenzy, but to me
it seems bee anarchy: dense, tense clenches of sound;
all wound up, and I batten down my body hatches at the
approaching buzz-flights, tightly wound as a spring
myself; bearing the agglomerated sound as long as I can.
Later, I still hear still feel the ghosts of their wings;
and visions of bees dancing entrance my dreams.
© Bracken Hall Wildlife & Countryside Centre, Glen Road, Shipley