Treading the sea glass

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Air-dancing over Howber Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Dinner of Herbs

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Memory Lane: Part One

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Continued in Memory Lane: Part Two.