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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Autumning

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.