The Day of the Corvids

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Memory Lane: Part Two

… 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.