Snow. White redaction of the land.
Trees ink up into dun sky,
Their shadows tombs in thinning light.
World new-made in white
Unmaking everything below.
Winter a shiver on the bone.
Snow. White redaction of the land.
Trees ink up into dun sky,
Their shadows tombs in thinning light.
World new-made in white
Unmaking everything below.
Winter a shiver on the bone.
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.
… 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.
Six kilometers from Rombalds Moor and adjacent to Hawksworth lie the brute passes of Baildon Moor. This is coal country and we send our steps into the still-black paths of it with presentiments of steep slopes choked with slakes of coal dust. The crag which makes the Moor’s topmost point up-rears before us with taunts of unclimbability; the paths clawed into the sides of it leave raw, differently-coloured, untidy edges in its fascias, like candle wax dripped down its sides which has melted the land away in its wake. These deep, hollowed-out half-moons of paths cup our feet awkwardly as we place our steps; their rocky bottoms pocked with eruptions along the way. Our boots grapple and scrabble, our ankles wobble and struggle on the shifting shale of coal glass, graphite dust and slate shard that clog such paths. There’s grist in this walking: eyes down, heavy frowns alert to where the way might betray us, shoulders round and bound forward into the uphill strikes of the paths. Lung-puffed and quad-tight we three labour to the top, occasionally calling a thin strain of encouragement to one another: keep going father; keep going sister; keep going daughter. The going is slow and the paths know our every stumble, every founder and falter, like haltered horses wearied by the uphill on these deep-dug ways. Coal wagons laid them as early as the fourteenth century, but it was the Victorian corves that entrenched them, greedy for mill brimstone; grinding into the ground expedient traffics from the shallow surface pits, with some days more, but increasingly less, coal to show for their back-and-forth trips.
The element up here is an alchemy of gloss-faceted carbon mixed with sand- and limestone sedimentaries and shale. In some places the coal could be mined just under the surface skin of the Moor – its black dermis – easy pickings for colliers but low-grade at the top; the quality stuff harder got at and lower down in the dense, adamantine clutches of the ground. A messy craft of shaft and shovel to draw the deep, eighteen-inch-thick black treasure out. Now, if you scud a boot across the thin-grassed hillocks up on the crag, near the old pits left like belly-craters to fill up with rain, you uncover still a jet, dusty shale. Shards lie in smudges of smashed and broken pieces that hardly resist the boot, littering the path in compressions of primordial trees squeezed with economy into dark mysterious seams through stretches of time. A gobbet of coal from up the moor-path is a surprise of lightness in my palm: fetched through three millennia to my small hand, attesting to lost topographies, an inky remainder of strange oversized ferns and giant forests that once covered this land in close, pre-coal darknesses. Here now – after oozes of swamp, harsh glaciation and vice-like pressures – only grasses dare to shuttle up from earth to sky. Now the terrain is bald, the once-buried swamp forests in their secret pressings are forced to light again through its peeling, friable skin. And I think: everything falls apart at the seams at last. Coal remainders – uncanny when thought of as archaeology – show the Moor has not forgotten its ages-old biography. Its history has been matter-of-facted into place names and topography with Lode Pit Lane and Colepit Close.
A map of the Baildon Moor ‘Inclosures’ made by Robert Saxton in 1610, shows the craters of four surface coal pits like navels in the landscape. The workings were open; but later day-holes were dug into the sides of the hill for miners to disappear into like moles; bell-pits sunk down to seams and opened out at the top to collect up their black. These are now grassed over and boggy at bottom; the putters and huryers who worked and umbilicalled them more than a century since, dead, perhaps forgotten. In the 1852 Ordnance Survey map, several of the pits were already marked as old and out of use. Extensions to local railways and problems with floods would eventually close the remaining three mines worked by William Midgley after the 1870s. A census in 1881 shows only 3 men left working the pits, like fossils themselves, stuck in a monotony of work, scratching a living out of a land where the quality coal had already gone. Nothing left but the bits and pieces that I see today – carbon drawing on to dust – fit for home fires only. Now not even the tenements and settlements of the peripatetic coal workers remain at Low Hill or Moorside: in the end as transitory and finite as the black stuffs they excavated, no sooner uncovered than gone and moved on to the next seam of inky black sheen.
© Bradford Antiquarian Society: 1610 map by Robert Saxton of the Baildon Enclosures.
We make for the trig point on the topmost plateau of the hill to claim the lie of the land with satisfaction in our eyes, lungs, and feet braced wide apart against the wind. Cross-hatchings of putters paths, flecked with coal, go down from here near the old pits. Shards of the erst-landscapes lie at my feet like jumbled words that perhaps made sense all in a line down there in the stratified dark: a reflective gloss in the light of a lantern. A wilderness is available to us in 360 degree vistas and we see the enormous pock-marked leavings of nineteenth-century smeltings along the Dobrudden access road as though a volcano had extruded them in sulphurous loads. They lie quietly now in large cankers of surface slag, partly cladded over with grass and moss. The birds have marked this territory as theirs now: the meadow pipits, skylarks and plovers in numbers as the strong, vital sound attests. All heard but hardly seen. On the way back down I collect a banded curlew quill discarded in a tussock and put it carefully away to take home in my pack.
The coal ways of Baildon Moor have become something other than they were originally carved out for. As early as the 1890s, day-trippers from Bradford – weekenders getting away from the cloying monotony of Victorian inner city smog with advice from zealous doctors; golfers anticipating the tee; butterfly collectors crazed with their nets; tweeded twitchers – all swarmed the Moor and overran the villages in pillages of the middle class at play. In 1910 the Shipley Times declared, “The country is tempting just now.” But industry itself was once powered from here: the traction engines, steam machines, the factory wheels, the tall valley chimneys issuing their smuts; these all got their spark from deep in the heart of the Moor.
With thanks to Joyce W. Percy whose article, ‘The Lost Villages of Baildon Moor’ was very informative, published online on the Bradford Historical & Antiquarian Society’s website.
Summer burst with its glory into my corner of Airedale in the week leading up to the solstice; the sun having discovered that it could be brilliant again and sending down its heat; the magpies almost dazzle-shy from the reflections off the water; and the sky a porcelain blue overhead. I spent the precious mornings once got out of bed in this hot heady week like a bluebottle at the window, my heart dashing itself between chores against the panes of glass to be outside and about my walk. Heat with the smother of a blanket enrobed me when first out of doors, and then it sat like a baked stone in the mouth. The infinite palette of green and the flowers with their newness still upon them were chromatically burned onto my retinas, so that there was the ghost-blindness of them when I closed my eyes to summer’s wild happenings in the tucked-up shade of those nights. Outside, down the hill, past the canal and the boat club, the desiccated riverbanks dusted me as I clambered over squeezes in the dry stone walls, my dress trapping warmth and insects under it like a collector’s net or a bell jar; specimens for later. The river was lazy and slow, haloed with murmurations of flies, caught in the spangled reflections off the ripples of the water. I trained my strides to their pace, my gaze resting in dream-visions of sun-caught fire on water. It’s all going on in there, I thought. The gill-filtering fish; the spawn in its molecular gluts; the tadpoliest prefaces to frogs; the reeds and weeds quiescent to the river’s course; the silted clouds starting up round newts. But on the surface, there was just the gentle hum of fly-swarms and my thick thirst.
Every summer in some sense recalls the first summers I experienced when a girl and in it I recognise again the features of my child – my tadpole – self. The grass tickles now as it used to tickle bare legs under blue and white school summer gingham as I looked forward to an impossibly long holiday, like a thief waiting to steal into the hot outdoors. Every seasoned tree I now see in its already-antique, spring-lost green is descendent of those in Richmond Park, holder of the trees I used to climb, the bark sharp to the skin and the nooks within its shape ready to be dens. The baked sizzle of asphalt now summons memories of the baking of the roof tiles under my childhood windowsill when they radiated heat into summer evenings for dangling little feet to warm themselves on. In that impossibly furnace-like week, before the solstice and Midsummer’s Day would come to jinx everything, my eyes – like the eyes of the child inside me – were on stilts to cram in everything they could see.
Then came the rain, lording it over the last week or so, making the world soggy, the paths bogged, and the river almost solid with flood. I experienced walking only wetly and uncomfortably. Now it is the last day of June: plenty into summer, post-solstice, and more than midway through the year. All harum-scarum today, the year seems busy fashioning a gilded shell for itself to climb back into in autumn; its thought turned inward and busy and private. It is a day that casts its gaze forward to a cold winter to retire into. Or so it feels now with bulging rain clouds ominous above, cousins only once removed from the deluges that have been falling ceaselessly this week in days-long tyrannies of showers. The Aire is in spate, the weir at home overflown with it – nigh to bursting its banks with it; and the red clay chokes it, muddles the fish in it, so the fishermen by the way have an easier catch of it. The churning red makes some of the mallards fastidious of dipping a web-toe in its fast flow. This watery world is strong-currented, swollen, with whirlpools eddying near the banks ready to catch at the shanks of the unwary walker. The minnows’ spring shoaling to glean the warmth from the shallow water’s surface seems many weathers ago now. I would not have been a fish these last few days in the spated river, blind to the world and the fisherman’s hook, of a sudden tossed and tumbled in amongst the rocks, fast-driven and knocked about pell-mell. Only the week before under the blaze-balled sun the river was a sluggish, lucid drawl, its pace philanthropic to the fish in its run.
I have misgivings, caused by these sudden summer rain deposits, about the solidity of the path under me today as I begin my walk: my purpose to discover what lies beyond the patch of woodland at the base of the Chevin. The ground up top on this ancient ridge is millstone grit, so called because it was formerly a preferred substance for quarrying millstones; but today the foot of it is mud-locked. Avoiding the worst of it with walking on the grass either side of the track, still my feet suck into clay leaving deep foot wells behind me; something of myself on the way. In spite of this I make steady uphill progress under a thicket of branches, between tall stems of sorrel, grasses crowned with their heavy heads of seed, and nettles grown up tall as weeds. There is white clover at my feet along stretches of the path, but not further into the verges – the grasses won’t make room for it there – and, smiling, I am made like Olwen of the Mabinogion who sows flowers into legend with her steps. The way opens up from close quarters between trees into a meadow on the cusp of gold from green. Sending my eyes out across it, I see there is no evidence here now of winter dearth; any scars there were have been completely covered over with straight grassy glyphs searching upward for the sun behind its shroud.
The air over the meadow is close. At first all I see in the shifting sea before me is the grass and the aged green, but gradually the eye trains itself to look more closely at spots of colour shifting among the screen of stems that are wattled and webbed together. Are those flutters? A distinctive clap of papery wings dragging a body up in the air with it, clumsy, colourful, its course unplotted and full of darting diversions. More of them, riding the undergrowth, give purpose to my steps as I pick one to follow. I send my feet after it, like untidy ploughs imperfectly bending the stalks of rough meadow-grass, and they start up clouds of ringlet and small skipper butterflies as I pass, their dusky soot and sunset wings flapping the air jubilantly. It’s a tussocky wilderness in here: a micro world of seed, spider and chrysalis husks on knapweed stalks; everything busy from first peep of dawn until the late long-day dusk. The narrow-bordered five-spot burnet moths have hatched here perhaps in the last week or so and are now busy drinking nectar, mating, and stretching their black and red wings, it seems, with relief after a week of rain-soaking. A couple, holding themselves delicately and tenuously among grasses, are wedded together in the quiet cool underworld of the meadow, perhaps to be meddled with by cobwebs and spiders as others have been. These meadow spiders have their nurseries under dew-crystalled canopies of cobwebs slung between the grasses. They loom them over their eggs with morsels in wait for their hatching. I tread carefully round them, spider-fearful and not wishing to crush their gauzy confections that are dew-lapped in the grass.
Butterflies and moths do not like to be abroad when it rains: they hide themselves in the low-leaved nooks of their host plants or cling to the undersides of trees and hang there in stillness, letting a sort of catatonic calm settle over them. They do not sleep, but they enter a state approximating it. There are so many here today that I cannot see how they could all hide themselves from the wet. But, wonderful though it may seem, they have; and as soon as a dry dawn arrives they emerge again with a fevered industry, ready to mate and gather energy and begin the cycle again. They fly like thimble-sized hummingbirds for two months only, furiously working and laying their eggs under leaves. And then, weary at last and having ensured their progeny, they die.
Today, here among them, following them in circles, my joy sits on the wings of this day-loving moth.
“As he gazed, something bright and small seemed to twinkle down in the heart of it, vanished, then twinkled once more like a tiny star. But it could hardly be a star in such an unlikely situation; and it was too glittering and small for a glow-worm. Then, as he looked, it winked at him, and so declared itself to be an eye; and a small face began gradually to grow up round it, like a frame round a picture.
A brown little face, with whiskers.
A grave round face, with the same twinkle in its eye that had first attracted his notice.
Small neat ears and thick silky hair.”
(Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows, first meeting of Mole and Ratty the water vole)
Anyone who has read The Wind in the Willows will be sympathetic to the spirit of whimsy that is calling me down to the High Royds lake this weekend like Mole, out for an adventure, enticed by the season’s “imperious call…moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him.” They will be equally appreciative of the practical joke that lies in wait for me by the banks of the lake.
Rain is waiting in glowering clouds up above the Chevin this Saturday morning, and I walk sky-glancing and pelt-wary to see whether I’ll have time for a proper bit of walk or not before the clouds move over to unburden themselves of their grey. Visiting my parents, I have been tempted by mum’s bright-eyed account of her recent sighting of a water vole in the grounds of High Royds to try my luck. I have never seen a water vole – few people other than dedicated naturalists, wildlife hobbyists and the luck-smiled have – the vole’s natural timidity and small litheness of movement making it a tricky subject for observation. I hold an idea in my mind of a fur-balled, preciously round and wet-slicked little mammal. It borrows the features of Kenneth Grahame’s Ratty from Wind in the Willows, whom Mole first meets on an impulsive foray down to the river. Rounder and fairer than a rat, with a beaverish mouth and teeth; eyes a beady, wise black; ears tucked back. So rare are they now, having seriously declined in numbers since the 1960s, that a breeding programme has been undertaken this year so that nearly 700 water voles, fresh to the wild and the countryside, are on the cusp of being released in Northumberland’s Kielder Forest. Perhaps they are releasing them right now I think as, friskily, I make my way down to the lake with a tickle of relish: little lissom, furred bodies moving from one element to the other even now as they slip into water. It is a happy Saturday-morning daydream.
Now, down here deep in grass by the lake, I rock my footsteps in quiet half-moons of movement: soft, grass-friending, like a careful old blotter rolling across the margins of a page. I think all these quiet thoughts into my steps, for water voles are easy to startle, chary of people and quick as fish into water. I see the circular forming ripples on the slate green of the water and hold my breath for rain, but these rims are made by clouds of ducking flies, not raindrops. Safe for a while then. There is the steady wah-wah of a mallard call – I’ve seen their young already about this morning. Swallows or swifts (bird twins to my amateur eyes, sharing a silhouette) lace the sky ahead in trembling flights and I am torn between them and the tracks that have been laid down in the grassy bank. These might have been made by the quiet-pawed water vole, and a little grip of excitement takes hold. Sorrels, clovers, buttercups, thistles, and grasses bracket me as my feet tie a ribbon of steps around the lake. The abundance of different flowers is a good sign. Water voles create a diversity of water habitat that is typified in such displays, and the flowers before me blow as encouraging flags to my search. It would be such a present to see a water vole I think in supplication. I gather limbs together by the side of the water and sink down into depths of grass to wait.
Water voles are unconcerned by mere human wants or timeframes, however, and I am here a good half hour of hopefulness before anything stirs. A damsel fly, bluer than description, shimmers glitteringly before me, showing off its finery, its segmented abdomen curling curiously. I see you, and yes you are quite lovely – but I am about other things here today, and I settle back again from my dazzled inspection. The furry bees play at clover beside me – yellow thoraxes and white fluffed bodies, their baskets of pollen on their knees. The buzzing is almost sleep-sending. It was a late night welcoming my sister home last evening and my eyelids are heavy reminders. I feel like Mole emerging into light from a dark nether world.
You have to be patiently fly-and-spider-crawled if you’d wait a water vole out. Nothing; and later still more nothing. I will come back tomorrow morning, I decide, and this time earlier to catch Ratty at his morning constitutional.
It is Sunday morning and – barely a peep of cloud in the sky, an early dry heat, and rabbits running in seesaws – I make my way down to the lake along prescribed (and un-) paths, a certain determination in my step. Doubtful after yesterday’s walk, I have made sure of the spot by the lake through close questioning of mum – the keeper of this rarefied knowledge – as though I would get at the very patch of grass the vole had been sitting on. I make for the place now, wary of dogs and runners who might scupper the stillness; my own footsteps as hushed as a yawn in a Sunday service. And there, just as I move in, silver-backed in the sun, I see it for a split-second before it senses me and moves on. A pulse of gratitude beats through me. A rare mammal, practically at the bottom of its food chain, and I have seen it here basking in the heat of the early morning sun. It runs off down the bank and, behind and as quietly as I can manage, I find where it’s gone to ground and I sit down in a dewy tussock nearby thinking, the game’s on. It is a long truce ensues. I begin to fear dogs bounding my way, hearing the sniffs and barks coming towards me, thinking of their wet noses exactly at the level of my face. This will not do. I get up, potter to the lake-edge and vainly hunt for any clues. I double back on myself as two runners pant past and – flash! – there again is a glimpse of vole, a beady eye, whiskering off down the bank. I am put out at having only glimpse-sighted it again: ought to have reconnaissanced the spot, I think. Methodical this time, I see the drain cover in the bank with the perfect view of the patch it seems to like – a lucky find in a pinch – and I settle down, grateful for not having to be dew-bottomed again, and wait. The lake slumbers under the climbing sun, mallard- and coot-swum. There are little bug-itches to my arms and legs, but I do not move; these are not enough to trouble me to make a vole scarce.
Something creeps up behind me as I hear the unmistakable sounds of bending grass and furtive rustles. My ears are almost twitching, and I sit in sepulchral stillness hardly daring to breathe. One black shining eye amongst the tall grasses, out of which, the vole seems to be watching me and trying to decide if I will harm it or not. Barely a foot away and sitting sniffing in the grass, and I can’t believe my luck, heart galloping at the glint of this black eye. Clever thing to come up unexpectedly behind me, stealthy as a snake through the purple grasses, the tallness of which lends cover and safety. My eyes scan around it; yes, I see it now, a run through the grass, I have indeed been lucky to pick this spot I think to myself with a proud little glow. And yet. My head still as a statue turned towards it, I do not detect the roundness of feature I expected to see in a vole. A runner passes and I watch it gather its front paws back into itself in a protective ball, poised, and I can almost see the tension in its muscles. It has heard danger and is ready to spring away if needed. The runner speeds off and we both settle down to examine one another again in the descending quiet. Its ears are pronounced and my misgivings lengthen into doubts. By halting steps, half forward and half back, it sleeks towards me, now no more than an inch from my foot, revealing itself smooth-pelted, nose-twitched, letting its whiskers tell for it. At last I see its tail, carried behind it like an afterthought – the clincher in the game: it is ribbed, pinkly bald and long. Ah. That’s that then. Patience has been rewarded in a fashion; not a water vole but a brown rat instead. The irony does not escape me, having come down to the lake to find Ratty.
I sit believing myself not too disappointed for a while. I am proud at least that I can tell the difference between them and laugh a little at the bathos of the moment. But, my thought pipes up, after only the most compelling of evidence. The tail – which for so long it seemed to have hidden from me – the tail is indisputably a rat’s tail. Rattus norvegicus is a rodent only a little less famous than its history-shamed and plague-carrying brother rattus rattus, the black rat: the documented killer-by-pathogen whose doubled name suggests it represents the archetype of ratishness. I rebel a little at the idea of rats because they are omnivores, and so by extension I know it would eat me given half the chance. If it was hungry enough. However – and here I cling a little to my romantic illusions – this rat is a gent not so unlike Grahame’s Ratty. He simply sniffs me and then, with a complete indifference and nonchalance, heads off in the other direction. I tell myself that I am pleased to have seen him – even though he’s not a water vole – as he makes down the bank. Of course with all the dog-walkers, runners, push-chair walkers and litter, it was pretty well bound to have been a rat rather than a water vole. Wrong to blame him for being only what he is. And, my train of thought builds, I had seen no evidence of tunnels in the banks, and not once had he actually gone into the water with the quick ‘plop’ of a paw-footed, sure-footed waterman. To do so would have been a water vole’s surest means of escape if disturbed: a bolt-hole into the wet at need. I shrink my lobe of disappointment and send-up my hopes with inward teasing. A rat for a water vole is perhaps not so pitiful an exchange.
Apparently well-groomed, he is simply another example of urban wildness leaching into housing estate hinterlands; a scavenger picking over human and canine leavings. I chide myself that, after all, I can’t be too choosy about which of nature’s offerings I will accept and which I vilify.
On the way home, butterfly-led, feet folding the grass along this lake-circling desire-path, I worry how I will break the news to mum. Tell her the truth and I’ll demystify something magical: unspin a dream of a supposed sighting. And yet. I look heavenwards as if to find an answer to my quandary and white-bellied swallows catch my eye and drag the sky in their fly-hunts. At least I’ve learned to tell a swallow from a swift today. That is something. Beside the fuss-making chittocking of magpies, my heart walks a little heavier than when I set out. Perhaps though – and here I catch a little at hope again – perhaps. It is arrogant to suppose that merely because I did not see a water vole, so too she did not. It could be that she did, and I tread a little more lightly over bulrush cotton, inviting possibility.
Illustrations © E.H. Shepard
The sounds of puttering families background the first part of my walk today, like a stereo left on – white noise in the street mingling with the birdsong – because it’s the weekend and we are all thumbing our noses at the unpromising sky. It is that species of spring in-between weather when some people throw caution away, donning shorts and short-sleeved tops, and others pass like admonitory puritans in full rain-gear as if to say, these clouds won’t clear. I am somewhere in between, a half-optimist, a hedge-my-bets-ist, with a cardigan and jeans rolled half-way up and pumps on my feet. I disdained an umbrella and a watch on setting out, a decision I’ll probably regret, even if it was made in the spirit of freedom from constraint. Largely oblivious to the surrounding sounds of humanity beside, behind and in front of me, I have my nose folded into a book on wild flowers, resolving to find them all out in their haunts, until a fretful child complains loudly at a sudden shower and a beleaguered father, weariness in his step, consoles with the magic words we will go home. Not I. The rain invokes the latent metallic tang of the soil from the ground and I am overtaken by a pall of warm, wet, mineral mist. This may be as good as it gets today and I am eager to collapse into it.
The search for wild flowers, taken at face value, sounds romantic and a little frivolous; a remnant of a very Victorian manufactured chivalry, or that dreamed up in the musical Camelot when Arthur earnestly explains the legitimacy of flower-gathering to Lancelot, as though checking through some form of ‘Chivalry Calendar’ where it is written next to May/June, in large gothic typeface, disport thyself with finding wild flowers and garland thy lady therewith. I am for looking, not picking today. The right to gather flowers was one of many time-out-of-mind rights hotly contested in the late Victorian period between the rural working classes and landowners. Enclosure of much formerly common land made the picking of flowers, from which a whole folklore including country songs, herb lore and courtship rituals stemmed, a tradition soon to be lost. Since then I wonder how many of us really see wildflowers: the bit of wild on our doorsteps. Too many are prosaically classed as mere weeds, their former uses forgotten. I am come today to see how my native patch is enlivened by wildflowers; as I say, not to pick, for I prefer my wildness left where it is, though my intentions are indeed acquisitive. I mean to put names to them, to assemble each different one into an imaginary bouquet, collect them up, and write them onto the page; to better learn them so as to know them when I see them again. I am determined to become a noticer of all nature’s ‘nothings’, and to build a deeper connection through noticing. After all, a flower’s honest intention and design is to be noticed, simply in order for pollination to take place. And if, as Marvell claimed, the ‘industrious bee computes his time as well as we’, then perhaps I might just as well spend a little of my time over flowers.
Casting myself adrift, then, into the flower banks of Shipley glen, between the canal and the river, I am in no great hurry, and I look – really look – at every flower, like a pollen-stockinged bee myself, deciding where to land a glance, stick my nose, or linger. I am delighted and thrill-drunk when I match them to their names. To confer names is a serious business, an act of creation, as Brian Friel understood when he wrote, “We name a thing and – bang! – it leaps into existence.” There are the flowers I already have names for – yellow water iris, poppy, forget-me-not, cow-parsley – but then there are the new discoveries along the way: tiny, bright yellow purses of the kidney vetch by the side of the water, the true blue of the crane’s bill, clovers in two colours. So engrossed in my examinations am I that I startle three mallards sheltering under the bank who skitter and flank together with a splash as I return guiltily to the safety of the path. Even the outrage of mallards cannot stop me from continuing my searches however. Flourishing on an overgrown soil heap, there’s the wild pink geranium, herb-robert, that some call storksbill because its forming bud is beaky. Its flowers are unshowy and unfussed by my regard: tiny-veined, five-petaled faces lift up lively to the sky; its stems flushed red under the sun. It was believed once to be a good luck charm and a fertility herb. Hopeful country wives had it tucked under their pillows, their heads laying down wishes on top of it. Now that we’ve been formally introduced, I begin to see it cropping up everywhere, a sort of guide to my walk today, as though vouchsafing my passage.
Well into the thick of the meadow are the brute stems of the hogweed, supporting flower heads as big as dinner plates, swaying heavily, and looking like they’ll bend or break in the breeze. I clamber ungainly into their midst in tick-fearing perhapses of footsteps as if at every step a nettle might hold me to ransom over a sting. I will NOT be stung, the soles of my feet insist quietly, caution in their presses. Nettles too have their flowers though: little woolly skeins of green. And though irksome to us, 40 different varieties of insect, winged and carapaced, depend on this prickly pest plant, including the red admiral butterfly, and a host of moths. A scattering of heart-shaped leaves is prevalent under the hogweed: black bindweed that some call buckwheat is leading a merry dance and you have to look hard to see where it has snaked the stems of other plants. Some call it devil’s tether, swaddling itself and other plants tight together. A closer look confirms it has made a pact with the nettle; it is growing up its stems, neatly corkscrewing them in black, and proffers its counterfeiting leaves so I maybe won’t see the stinging set beneath. How clever of them to fall in together at such a trick. Just in case of mishap, I find a patch of dock leaves close by for a swift remedy. Nature is astute like this.
The next flower-bearer I almost miss, as it so eagerly blends into the general green – this suits its purpose, you see. Sticky goosegrass – or cleavers, catchweed, stickeljack or grip grass (apt-sounding names) – barbs my hands and arms as I take hold of it to find its white pin-prick flowers. I was careful of the nettle, for I knew the risks, but no one ever told me of the rash goosegrass can give. Red itch blooms over my arms and (somehow) my neck and I am defeated in spite of myself, splotchy and needled by heat. A lesson learned. The goosegrass has swallowed the low-lying branches of an ash and is making quick work of the willowherb underfoot, sticking to it tenaciously by virtue of its tiny hooks under leaf and along stem. Its flowers are, according to my book, ‘rather insignificant’ and no bigger than a dot; but it’s as well not to dismiss this busy worker. So rapacious is it, I can almost see it move, trying to muffle and stifle everything in its path like a super-animated cobweb that needs no spider to direct it. It is the swiftest and most adamant at reclaiming land for nature; butting in and talking over its neighbours, running as fast as its prattle will take it. No wonder its flowers are so small; all that energy goes into throwing out streamers, which feel along other plants like scouts going ahead into battle, the forerunners on a quest to colonise more and more green. The thing that all these plants have in common is that they are most often to be found in waste places or places whose cultivation has been suspended. Humanity moves out and these plants move in as speedily as they can, bringing a bit of wildness to suburban fringes.
I sit down by a gurgling swell of the stream – an Aire river tributary – to eat my lunch of bread and cheese and cherries and to let my bare toes burrow into grass and sandy soil, needing the contact with the earth. My bottom is quickly wet from the earlier shower but I don’t mind as, with illicit pleasure, I cast my cherry stones into the stream to be taken where the water wills. A pitter patter of rain starts up again, steadily getting heavier, so I remove myself to the cover of a sycamore, generous-leaved and obliging, still listening to the water running over stones in hollow-sounding plunks. Coming from farther away, I can hear the disturbance of the weir like a knife upsetting the river, giving it drama and something to complain over. Then a child splashing about happily with his father, singing, ‘rain, rain, go away, come again another day.’ My lips curve in a sickle moon of delight.
When the rain slackens off and the sun shows itself, I take the little road by the boat club with no clear idea of where I am headed, only knowing that I have exhausted the flower-spotting down by the river and wondering what the side of the valley might reveal. The road leads to a gate and then a wide avenue, which is sun-speckled, warming, fly-moted and rich with the smell of cows from the adjacent field. Manure and hairy hides baking in the emergent sun all mingle together and I breathe deep. This is a Thomas Hardy smell and my mind hooks onto images of hot, milky summers in lowland pastures. Brow pressed against a warm cow side as milk fizzes into a bucket. A blackbird capers madly across the road at my coming looking a little chastened and indignant (and, it must be said, a little silly) at being disturbed. Couples of them begin to sing to one another from the horse chestnut trees, ending in high-noted questions that never seem to get answered, going round and round in endless enquiry. I am jealous of them: jealous that I did not find this avenue in the early spring when the trees had their spires of scented blossoms, all running in a perfumed line. I hug the field boundary here and, warily now, spot the goosegrass again, this time enacting one of its other names, robin-run-the-hedge, as it makes quick work of enveloping the holly margin, covering it up in its sticky stems like a lover that won’t let go.
The sun is tucking and untucking itself in the clouds and can’t seem to make up its mind whether to partner me the rest of the way. Its aloofness pricks my determination to enjoy myself as I pick my path over stone, pressed through long use into the clods, and pause by a hawthorn tree. I hear a start in the ivied roots here and wonder. A vole? Mouse? Stoat? Rabbit? But none of these appear. A pair of tiny wrens suddenly emerge, each no bigger than a thumb, nut-brown and spotted, very dear. Miniature delights. In birders’ terms they weigh no more than a pound coin, but I would not put so low a price on them. Tremblingly they sing as though they are putting their whole souls into the thing and I stop to listen, and watch them bob their tails. The field where the cows are grazing seems hazed and full of possibility as I look out over it and I take in a glad breath as the path starts to build ground. Further on, a squirrel and I surprise each other equally and hold each other’s gazes, mine looking into its eye glittering darkly from where it sits frozen on top of the wall. It is a strange feeling, knowing that for this instant its whole little being is fixed entirely on me and mine on it. There is a little stand-off, but the squirrel is the first to break contact and back-track disappearing who knows where. It is uphill work and tiring, come on legs, and I keep looking ahead to gauge the distance still to go until I reach my summit and the limit of the path.
I do not expect what I find next – a full-stop at the top of this little lane. A gate – but so curious a gate – leading on into Fairbank Wood, a patch of woodland awkwardly situated between boundary walls of various kinds, each jutting out at degrees to clasp and hold the wood between them. This gate looks more fitted to being in one of the royal parks in London than bracketing the way to a scrap of woodland off a farm lane. As strange as Lucy coming upon the lamppost in Narnia, I think to myself. And, with six golden orbs at the heads of the iron posts, it is grandiose and out of place: a relic from something else, and here my mind catches at a truth as it turns out. I later learn this all used to be part of the Milner Field Estate at the heart of which, at the heart of the wood, was a gothic-steepled great-house owned by the son of Titus Salt, mill owner and founder of Saltaire. It seems it was an unhappy house which, rumour has it, blighted those who lived there with strange and unusual deaths or persistent bad luck. Fortunes lost, sudden heart attacks, drowning, scandal, blood poisoning from a thorn scratch. Queer happenings, made the more uncanny by being focused in one place. Now I know a little of its history, I wonder if there is such a thing as genius loci: if a place really does have a spirit or a memory.
I pass through the gate onto what looks like an old carriage way with a central three-cobbled line snaking it like a back bone. And occasionally a row of stones cuts across the way to carry off flood water through little culverts spaced at intervals along the base of the dry stone wall. The astronomer Fred Hoyle, who coined the term ‘Big Bang’ to describe that primary cosmological shock, grew up near here in Gilstead during the First World War, in the lea of that sad house, and wrote of how he and the other village children used to squeeze themselves through these culverts to sneak onto the estate, only to be caught and have their hides tanned by gamekeepers. The woodland floor shows no signs of upkeep now, having given way to ground elder in advancing militias. Hollow-stemmed, deep-rooted, intractable – the devil in a garden. It’s another sort of wilderness here, but this time the kind that follows tacit abandonment. The house, apparently, could not be sold at auction – no one would buy it – and so was dynamite-blasted in the 1950s. Then demolition gangs were sent in to finish dismantling it, leaving the stone as a resource for mill repairs. This ‘undoing’ of the house speaks for itself, for it was very splendid in its hay day and entertained royalty twice. Now only rubble remains. The woodland has completely taken it back: the goosegrass, bindweed and elder all smothering the persisting stones into silence. It has returned to nature and, my superstitious thought supplies, perhaps does not look kindly on interlopers. The mosaic floor of the conservatory is still discoverable in the middle of the wood, and lying under the fast-growing trees are the old cellars, ivied over and moss-grown. Little snatches of herb-robert grow in the cracks of the old garden steps; or to give it its common name, death-come-quickly.
Sparable or Sparrow’s Bill Lane, wall-sided and tree-shaded, leads off on the left here – a public right of way, still tramped by walkers’ feet, the sign pointing the direction proving that it’s not forgotten. An old labourer’s path perhaps; a shortcut for the estate workers from whence they could hear the ringing of the mill’s shift bell; a trysting place for lovers after the Sunday service. To walk it is to walk into history, treading where so many other feet have trod before. Two Neolithic-looking stones guard its entrance, though in truth they can be no more than 200 years old: they keep the way. Walking it now, I am helping to keep it too, and in a split-second of kinship with other walkers, and other writers of walking, feeling the pound to ground as a great leveller of humanity, I smile and am eager to dive off into the lane to see where it might take me. Half an hour later, wearied, still rash-prickled and now a little fretful, I have been sucked down into twists and turns until I am disorientated and no longer know my bearings or the direction for home. The path draws me in a noose more tightly around the former estate and there is a closeness on it and a feeling of needing to get on that I don’t investigate too carefully. The tree cover breaks at last and it’s like coming up for air, a brief caesura in the chug of mud and close-cropped ivy and stumbling stones. This is where Fred Hoyle used to take himself off for his gambols to spot birds’ nests; where, at the age of seven, he overcame his fear of the dark by making himself walk this track at dead of night as others had done before him. One of the most renowned astronomers in the history of the discipline, he perhaps first sighted the stars from a clearing such as this, quaking a little at night terrors and sinister shadows, as I quake a little with having been turned about in the wood in the broadness of day. And I glance up through the veined tracery of tree branches and leaves at a liquid sky, above which the stars wait invisibly.