My house sits a few hundred yards above the River Calder on the northern side of the Callder Valley, at the base of where the valley side starts its steep ascent to the hamlet of Lower Rawtenstall. From my back door the garden immediately ascends in rising stone terraces to a lawn. Above the lawn, the oaks of Knott Wood turn their backs on the deep shade of the slope, reaching their limbs and spreading their palms out to the south. It is ancient woodland, ‘ancient’ meaning that there is evidence that it has continuously been woodland since at least 1600. I am sitting in this lowermost part of this ancient wood, looking down through oaks, hollies and birches to my garden lawn and, further down still, to the ridge tiles of my house. Through a gap in the trees I can see across the valley to the much younger Callis Wood and Horsehold Wood.
After a morning of torrential rain the front has moved through and the dark-based and billowing cumuli that follow in its wake scud west across the Callis Wood skyline on a stiff breeze through a blue sky brushed with high cirrus. Five days ago the woods of this most wooded part of the valley were at the height of their autumnal colours. Now, the dun browns and greys of bare and rain-sodden branches are changing the scene. But striking colours remain; the still–lush green of a sycamore, the yellow-green of the goat willows, brown-yellow of the oaks and the deep ochre and ember red of the beech.
It is still surprisingly warm, though it is not the meagre warmth from the sun, lighting up spiders’ webs slung among the brambles. Rather, it is the air which has swept in behind the front, although the breeze that makes its way through the trees to my face has the coolness of autumn within it. The unexpected warmth is bringing out the smell of freshly rotting leaves and decaying bracken.
A mixed flock of great tits and blue tits call to each other as they move along the string of garden feeders behind the terrace. A crow calls from a perch in a tree on the village green the other side of the houses.
I am sitting between two oaks that represent two of the possible fates in woodland such as this. The oak to my right is magnificent, forming a significant part of the interlocking canopy that submerges this hillside in deep summer shade. The oak to my left had the misfortune to germinate under the canopy of others that were already well on their way, so while its trunk is thick and sturdy, its topmost branches are stunted and twisted as it squirms under the canopy trying to find a way out. Just behind me there is a beleaguered ash seedling, its pale yellow leaves borne on branches frayed and torn by the browsing roe deer that regularly pass through our garden.
Below the terraced houses of my street, hidden among the goat willows, railway line, road, river and canal jostle each other for space in this narrowest part of the valley, snaking past and over and under one another. The sound of cars on the wet road is constant. Lorries clatter with their loads and buses’ air brakes wheeze as they pull in at the bus stop. On still nights I can hear the evidence of the river from the one note calls of dippers, but there is no chance of that now. A siren fills the valley as it approaches from Hebden Bridge and passes by. A stone saw starts up; it is George cutting lintels for the new windows in his outhouse.
Callis Wood faces me on the opposite side of the valley. It is a mature wood pasture, predominantly of birch, but with a scattering oaks, a fringe of sycamores in its lower reaches above the canal, a small stand of pale lime ash in the centre and a rowan, which distinguishes itself with its froth of cream flowers in the spring and ripe red berries in the autumn, which have already been harvested by blackbirds, leaving nothing for the arriving fieldfares and redwings. The birch have mostly lost their leaves, although a few remain as blazing yellow fireworks. On the skyline stand some spreading beeches, the remnants of a plantation which used to cover the hillside and was felled during the Second World War. Threading its way among these beeches is an old wooden fence, keeping Edge End Farm’s sheep and cattle from a precipitous drop. I scan the fence for the common sight of fallen or hanging rails, which are usually spotted by the farmer within a few days as he beats his bounds on his quad bike, but it looks to be in good repair. Interrupting the silhouette of the fence is the black mass of the overhanging crag labelled on the map as Foster’s Stone but known locally as the Cuckoo Rock. Cuckoos have, however, failed to herald spring from that perch for seven years now.
The resident jackdaws, quiet for some time on the terrace rooftops below me, develop a sudden interest in something in the woods behind me, chattering as they skim above then dive into the canopy. Two trains pass by at once, one heading towards Hebden Bridge and Leeds, the other towards Todmorden and on to either Manchester or Blackpool. Goldfinches jangle by. A robin suddenly sings from deep in the wood behind me.
On the woodland floor around me the carpet of oak and birch leaves thickens as I sit here, as more gently bounce and tumble through those that hold fast for now. The holly thickets behind me have caught innumerable oak leaves, which hang among their dense green like a neglected harvest of rotting fruits. Spent buckler ferns and wilting bracken fronds bend and sag into the gathering humus of the dying year.
Originally published in 2016 as part of 24,000 Words alongside twelve pieces by my friend Michael Rush.