At the time of hay-making

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The air hangs in heavy skeins about us, thick as threads to walk through and swollen with pollen almost tasting on the tongue. Unlike in the cities, the sky is split wide open here in the Dales and stripped by the hungry cries of the swallows winging it above, skirting the stone barns and scooping their dinners out of thin air. They swing loose on invisible paths, their characteristic forked tails making perfect stabilisers as they sail gracefully through each arc. It is pleasing simply to watch them belly out across the view and join up the two halves of the valley like a pendulum. Is it my fancy that they seem to fly southerly, as if rehearsing the end of year exodus to warmer climes? The snap and glide of their wings is nearly all one hears on this sultry day in the stillness of the meadow, and I think to myself: their dynamism is mine too. My thoughts follow them freely, hitched to their flights.

We’ve come to the hay meadows at Muker like pilgrims, humbly and seeking something rare: Yorkshire’s wildflowers grown undisturbed on Yorkshire soil. We are pilgrims in spirit at least, because in terms of transport we’ve cheated and driven in the VW to get here, parking up under a tree where the bank falls away into the river. The busyness of Muker envelops us from first footfall on its soil: sounds of water and laughter, ice creams being bought and slurped outside the general store which has faded postcards on sale at the door for 30p, proof that some things stand still. As we made our way over country-cambered roads, the farmers of Swaledale were out in force making hay while the sun shone, big machinery methodically cleaving, releasing into the air the acrid tang of newly cut grass so that it smelled ozone green, sappy and harsh to the nose. But at Muker the grass and flowers are left long until late in the season, an agreement between the conservationists and farmers to let the native wildflowers and the biodiversity they encourage thrive for as long as possible. It’s June. The meadows are not for harvesting yet, but are still in their growing season. Borrowed time.

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The heat is not yet the smothering heat that will settle in this summer and cram like cotton wool in the ears and the mouth. It lilts on the tops of the buttercups, the yellow rattle and the delicately lobed flowers of the stitchworts. The shepherd’s purse is not leggy, stressed or dessicated with it yet, nor have the speedwells faded to palest blue, the edges of their petals crisped by the scorch of the sun. The tiny white tubular trumpets of the eyebright are still stout and unwavering in the embrace of the rattles and grasses; the cranesbills livid bruises of colour. Time for wilt and running to seed all too soon. There’s the promise of it even now in the building noonday heat.

Meadows like those between Muker and Keld are many decades in the making. Yet you can make a meadow in just a year too, proving that endurance is harder than beginning. They are part of the DNA of Muker and Swaledale now – a “unique selling point” the guidebooks depressingly averr, as if here were to be found a commerce of flowers; nature’s supply and demand.  People travel to Muker specifically to see the meadows, as did we when first we visited in May, walking slowly but purposefully up the hill from the main street, anticipating our first view of them laid out under the sun, our imaginations having conjured great tempting images of meadows flower-full and an orchid in every patch. To see a wild orchid was the apotheosis of my desire and I coveted it like a child that wants the most prized sweet in the shop. I knew such images were traps for disappointment, but no one can control their wishes. Such was my wistfulness when, stopping to admire some flowers accidentally-on-purpose growing in a trough, we were accosted by one of the residents who took this as her cue and nipped in to provide botanical assistance. Cuckoo flowers, she informed us: pale, lavender-pink and lovely, clustering on slim-throated stems. The visual counterpart to the bird which (if you’re lucky) you hear calling at this time of year. The encounter savoured of the professional Mukerist, I thought at the time, fully aware of the town’s draw and perhaps assuming that the average Joe doesn’t know the names of Britain’s wildflowers. And I don’t really blame her – there are few enough of the native species about these days to make their names familiar.

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To say their names out loud all together is my kind of liturgy – lady’s bedstraw, yellow rattle, eyebright, meadow cranesbill, self-heal, stitchwort, shepherds purse, speedwell. Sacred almost, and to be spoken of in hushed, reverential tones – or a jubilant incantation: a spell. And in one sense, these flowers were thought of as spells: self-heal for minor aches, cuts and pains; buttercups to tell if you like butter; stitchwort to relax spasms. All your cures at your feet, as it were: nature’s walk-in pharmacy for those who lived on and worked the land.

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Now that it is June and our second visit, we approach the start of the way through the meadows knowing a little of what to expect. It’s the buttercups we notice first, as though the tips of the meadows unfolding before us have been burnished with yolky liquid light. May was good for this – but June! June is godly. To see them now, numbering in the thousands and clothing the earth with gold is mirage-like. You or I would dream a place like this. It is this vague elusiveness that enriches the sense of the meadow’s impermanence. You walk through it aware of the cycle of the seasons and each flower seen is as flash-by-soon-die as if it were already cut and dried.

My gaze snags on the roughened walls of the stone barns on the approach, already looking ahead greedily, but as with so many national trails and popular beauty spots, there is a bombardment of signage at the start which arrests you just as you’re ready to begin. At Muker, these signs are mostly wooden with some plastic and metal ones for variety. Variations on ‘keep your dog on a lead’, ‘stick to the paths’ and others trumpeting the rarefied nature of the meadows jostle on a crowded wooden post. Admonitory salutations to get us on our way with the appropriate air of solemnity for the task at hand. Meadows are not to be tripped through lightly, you know.

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When we embark into the first, we do so paying the required fee – the cost is to our dignity by having to push ourselves through the stone squeeze, like camels through the eye of the needle. The passing from each meadow into the next is conducted in this fashion: through the sutures of stone squeezes in various sizes. The effect of so many uncomfortably close encounters with the local stone is to transform the simple act of passing through a gate into an event, and entry into each meadow is bargained for in this way. That’s fair enough, I think to myself, secretly enjoying the ceremony of passing through each different stone ‘cwtch’.

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I find the meadows themselves slightly self-conscious of their draw for the tourist: divided by a flagstone path up the middle with a to-ing and fro-ing of dog-walkers, families and hikers processing up the line. One man calls out in our general direction as he passes, “I’ve not seen a single insect in any of these meadows!” It’s a baffling salute to strangers on the way, as if the meadows are not performing satisfactorily in his eyes. We ourselves have witnessed many insects, and bees in particular, and I share a look with my companion, again thinking of the profesional Mukerist, preoccupied with demonstrating their conservation-mindedness, here to affirm their allegiance to the local flora and fauna.

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The valley is so far removed from its glacial founding that it feels a little like a large open nave, with worshippers treading the old stone aisle cutting up the centre. Curious. The flagged path serves the twin purposes of keeping the wilful worshipper along the straight and narrow (and in case you don’t get the message there are signs telling you to keep to the path), and forcing your momentum as you proceed ever onward. There is of course an onward inclination to every path, and I am driven by the hunt for the elusive orchid too, my heart a little sore at not having found any. But I must confess what is most attractive in the idea of a meadow is the dilatoriness it invites. The way in which it calls one to meander in amongst, not simply through. Dogs illicitly off the lead have made canine desire paths through the long grass, and Oh how I wish I could join them. With regret, I discover that the Muker hay meadows do not encourage dilly-dallying, and you are certainly actively discouraged from all thoughts of wandering in amongst them. Bent backed, our heads at flower-height, we must appear oddities to those toeing the line. At this level, the bouffant heads of the clover are rendered in beautiful and particular detail. Our survey of the flowers on offer is of necessity limited to those which can be glimpsed from the path, and our naming of them is something between tentative skill or guess work and clumsy misattribution.

It is not that I do not understand that the walker is corralled in this way to protect the flowers, but that I regret that such prohibition should be necessary at all. The path through a meadow feels as unnatural as a corset and the experience of walking it – for one who has come to see the wildflowers – thrums with latent frustration. I am heartened to see one woman, having abandoned the path, sitting against the dry stone wall of the last meadow before the river and simply relaxing into the moment as swallows jettison their bodies with abandon above.

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You can stare at a clutch of flowers against grass for a long time until the mind slowly unstitches them into their different forms. Sense is made slowly of them. More enchanting perhaps than any orchid are the heart-shaped seeds of the shepherds purse. And plantain – which I’d been used to think of as a playground weed, so sad and lank in tarmac crevices – when in flower has brown heads dusted with white pinpricks like sugar. My favourite flower glimpsed this day? The eyebright, once thought to be a remedy for soreness of the eyes; its little hairy stems support spires of brilliant and tiny white lipped flowers, not unlike those of the penstemon family. Beautiful, all clustered together, like nuns’ wimples or arms stretched wide.

The Day of the Corvids

As seen in the February 2018 issue of Dalesman magazine.

Last night was snow-cold, the wind coming in from the west, whistling down the chimney, and I went to bed with an extra blanket and a childish hope for snow (the proper job stuff) come morning. I woke to a bright white light streaming in through the uncurtained sliver of window and rushed to see – not the immense powdery drifts of my childhood when mum would dress me in the pink “Michelin” body suit – but a clear sky with a wafer moon hung past its time and a thin crisping of snow, gift of the night. Enough to put a smile on my face and call me outdoors.

A snow day and its promise of adventure prove that snow transforms the spirit just as much as the landscape it blankets. I have a spring in my step as I begin my walk to Trench Meadows to watch the birds, ignoring the sullen portent of the one-for-sorrow magpie on its straight arrow-flight – the first corvid of the day, part of the genus which includes rooks, ravens, crows, jackdaws and jays. Snow crystals encrust the roof tiles and duvet the cars. The pavements are rinked with ice and puddles are crackle-glazed with it. The feet retain a memory of how to walk on snow – of how it crunches and makes an awkward impression of the foot and, compacted, slides me as I go. Firing off the top of Baildon Moor, a cold hard sun etches everything sharply, chiselling at it like a knife. Reaching a grassy verge, I put my hand down to touch a snow wavelet (only word for it) and find it a surprise to the skin: hard and smooth as glass and tingling with cold.

On the way I stop by a hornbeam hedge I know to listen in on the sparrows that have set up residence inside, chirruping busily, invisibly and it must be said very loudly so that you cannot help but stop to wonder at the commotion as you pass. Hidden within their hedge stronghold, their cries are a playful “nothing to see here.” Just flashes of colour arcing between the close-grown branches. Pausing with my ear cocked towards it, I feel like Gulliver in Lilliput, wondering what all the different twitterings mean. Great tits swoop exuberantly from small front garden trees in flashes of yellow and warn each other of my approach. While among the birds, my presence is foretold along the hedgerows as that of an intruder.

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Trench Meadows is designated an area of special scientific interest because it includes patches of rarefied and much prized acid grassland. In early summer a litany of wildflowers drive up between the grasses: orchids, self-heal, meadowsweet, cow parsley, dock, nettle, greater plantain, creeping buttercup, harebells, knapweed, loosestrife, bird’s-foot trefoil and thistles, later to be joined by the marching blue of the devil’s bit scabious and the sulphur yellow of ragwort. Birds are attracted by this superabundance of wildflowers (the meadows in summer teem with them) and their seeds, a staple of their winter diets. The tramping of the bullocks let loose in autumn helps to re-sow the flower meadows, and the birds join in the effort of renewing it. Moles plough the ground (their mounds today dusted white), turning manure and seed under, ready for next summer. It is a habitat in perfect and rare balance with itself, supporting a vast array of invertebrates including moths, butterflies, grasshoppers and red soldier beetles — and these in their turn feed the birds.

I find the gateposts at the bottom of the lower meadow rimed with velvet ice that slicks the fingers with remembered cold. The moisture in the wood has been cooled and then frozen overnight, expanding out of the posts to create ice-prisms that glint-warp the light. Snow is scribbled untidily into the meadow dips and edges and the glare of reflected sunlight makes it hard at first to see the birds; it is easier like a spy to pick up their chatter. I collect birdcalls at random and try to detect which species I’m hearing. With diligent watching, I glimpse them on the wing: blackbirds, red-bibbed robins, sparrows and tits flit deftly in between the steel stems of the brambles with busyness and purpose. The bones of the trees and shrubs are exposed with the fall and decay of leaves, freeing up uninterrupted sightlines with which to observe bird flights.

In the middle-storey branches, wood pigeons are making clumsy landings and unceremoniously inserting themselves on an already crowded perch, no matter whether their fellows are shoved off or not. Rose-breasted nuthatches drilling their beaks into low-slung branches add a different layer of sound, and in the foreground tiny clutches of goldcrests hop from grass to scabious stalks in dainty whorls of flight. There is such a rising chorus of bird calls that it’s as though a great drama is taking place at the avian level, from which I am excluded. Perhaps this has always been going on just fifteen minutes from my doorstep and I am only now tuning in to it. Still higher above, the sun catches at the white wings of common gulls, wheeling in a loose pack, keeping a weather eye on the lie of the land below for any choice scraps. Tens of thousands of feathers shutter and bar the light over me.

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The black shadows which I hardly notice at first, so ubiquitous hereabouts, are the crows, corvus corone — the birds everyone thinks they know and which Chaucer dubbed the ‘jangling’ bird of woe. These are the ones I’ve particularly come to study, learn and glean the habits of. Crows on the top-loftiest perches of the meadows’ birches and oaks, sitting singly, lonely, on improbably slender branches. Crows on the ground carrying out forensic searches with their plague-doctor beaks, turning over the snow for any signs of life: a dusting of white on the black lacquer of their bills and the sheen of their feathers. Crows stooping in the sky crying their guttural, malcontent rawks. Close to, the power in that 45cm wingspan is raptor-like and I am captive to its flight.

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I became intrigued by crows a couple of months ago when one appeared from its perch at sunset and commenced an exhibitionist rawk! rawk! rawk! interspersed with loud mechanical clicks of its beak, producing a sound like two halves of a coconut shell being snapped together. It was utterly mesmerising and confounding to watch, the crow often seeming to pick the elevated platform of a rock or bench from which to declaim. Though I had not witnessed this call before, it seemed to be an end-of-day ritual, carried out with the nonchalance of routine, like brushing teeth.

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Today the crows are so assiduous in their uniform searches among the snow-stiffened grasses you’d think a murder had been discovered – and in a way it has for that is the collective noun for crows: a murder of them. Yet, bent in scimitar curves, beaks to the earth, displaying their elegant feather pantaloons, they amuse rather than threaten. One – a jester – puffs up its feathers and hops crab-wise, looking in my direction with an oblique, obsidian eye. It dances over the snow and when I look away at one of its companions starts up a petulant karr! keearr! to draw me in again to its antics.

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Two hours of counting crows and the light is beginning to fade. Oak branches with gluts of them in their weave stretch into a snow sky, pink and buttery at the horizon line leaching into cool blue. The air is desolate with cold. The crows swoop against it like bits of cloth caught on the up-rise, to eventually land and re-commence their calling. I spy a second magpie and my thought follows the nursery rhyme: two for joy. All the promise of spring lies under the snow, under the crows, in the cold hard ground.

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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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Meadow walking with Moths

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.

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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.

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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.

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In amongst the clover

Their white flowers offer
their lips to bee lovers
as they hover and linger
over a drop of nectar,
that is possibly sweeter
than anything – far better –
than I might taste, ever.
Whitely they bob like a
lay of snow over the
green in thick blessings or
a dying surrender at
close of an afternoon’s
long, tender while.
Trembling smiles
on the green near that
tree, but not under.
I watched the mower
cut down the clover
as though it were nothing,
just tidying the green.
For every clover that’s been
I mourn a little. Dreams,
spun from days of growing,
return fresher, quicker;
irrepressibly sweeter,
and here for the summer;
with rain to get plumper,
and lusher and bee-stung;
blushing beneath a sun
that beams adorations
on white-globe plantations.
I was never so happy as
when walking through clover,
a disciple of summer,
catching eye-fulls of bee-fur
on a blisteringly hot day.

Walking with my Father

My father’s strides are twice the strides of mine;
bee-blinded and spore-gathered I drag the path behind,
lingering by the dry stone wall a time
to see lapwings, fluff-fringed, give chase with their cries.
He makes space for my whimsies, as though delay
at vetchlings and foxgloves and other outdoor loves
were not a pain and he’d not rather be going
to lay the path ahead, to seek a stile,
and leave the tussocks, bogs and ditch behind.
The way is long, he’s things to do, but this too is true:
he lets me amble slow to know a place,
while striding on and covering twice the space.

Patiently, he waits my searches out,
calling advice on where to step and not.
In spite of warnings I am mud-slicked, got
with grasses, seed-muddled, moth-tickled, hot.
He keeps a gracious silence on my dirt;
he’s seen me bramble bruised and hurt
in childhood trees at childhood games when young,
knee-high to a sapling, unformed, unbegun
to life and death and future happenings.
His hands have swung me high up into trees;
and round in circles. Now, older, his hand’s squeeze,
in the fields’ up-and-overs, is an ‘if you need.’

Together but separate, like moon and planet,
each walking our own particular gait. Always though,
when got ahead, he waits with half a knowing smile,
drawing a bead on the horizon mile until,
fresh with meadow daisies, speedwell, sorrel,
and weathered with smiles of green dreams –
of black moths and bullocks one week new,
and full of my discoveries and spring-caught cheer,
I at last appear; never so slow that he’d leave me behind,
even if he’s fly-swarmed and over-sun-warmed waiting.
My father strides with steps twice-large as mine,
along the path I’ll in my own way find.

Of Flowers, Wildernesses and Hauntings

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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