I lock my bike to an oak tree just off the Pennine Way and leave the track, walking beside the wooden post and rail fence that will take me to Foster’s Stone. On the climb up here the sun has been dazzlingly bright in a sharp blue sky, but I know it will not last. A series of ferocious squalls – the whipping tail of Storm Gertrude, which had registered a 132mph gust in the Cairngorms the day before – have been barrelling through from the north-west all day. Sure enough, as my faint path carries me out of the shelter of Beaumont Clough, I can see what I’m in for. A vast cloud – brilliant sunlit-white above, its underside a bruised iron-grey – is bearing down on the vivid fields of the Calder Valley. Staups Moor, only a mile distant on the other side of the valley, is already shadowed and cowering beneath it. The wind picks up and brings with it the first outrider flakes of snow. As I reach Foster’s Stone, the sun is extinguished and the shining landscape is muted in preparation for the storm.
Foster’s Stone is a wedge-shaped, flat-topped rock, perched on a layered outcrop plinth. It teeters on the crest of, and dramatically overhangs, a steep and wooded hillside, which falls 100 metres to the canal. I look up at the stone, silhouetted against the southern sky, every day from my house. I walk out onto it, across the small pools of water cradled in perfectly circular depressions, almost certainly natural but reminiscent of the prehistoric art of cup and ring marks. No sooner have I looked down at my house than the stinging hail and snow forces me to put my hood up and turn my back on it. I snatch quick but painful glances below me across Callis Wood. Against the backdrop of its writhing birches the hail, driven by the savage wind, appears as waves of television interference.
The wind whips over the crest of the slope and alarmingly rocks the fence which rides along the crest of the hillside just behind Foster’s Stone. Its wooden rails are so wind-sculpted by countless storms like this one that at first glance it seems to be made of driftwood. But this is no whimsical environmental art installation. Its utilitarian nature is revealed by the flaked and faded yellow paint on a rail that was once part of a sideboard or wardrobe, and the hinges that are attached to another rail that was once part of a door. No two rails are alike, and it is all held together with innumerable rusted nails and orange or blue baler twine, each one representing a hurried repair in fading light with what the farmer had to hand. I recently came across a photograph taken in 1986 by the renowned local photographer Roger Birch – a portrait of a local farmer standing just a few yards from where I am now – which shows the fence to be in exactly the same condition then, so this patching must have been going on for at least twice that length of time, probably longer. If the fence was in any other position it would have been abandoned long ago, as so many, perhaps most, South Pennine dry stone walls have. But this fence keeps the sheep and cattle that graze the pastures behind away from the genuinely dangerous drop that Foster’s Stone overhangs. It is worth the application of the farmer’s stubborn resourcefulness.
The field behind the fence is whitening by the minute, as is the Yorkshire stone slate roof of the early 17th century Edge End Farm, three pastures away. A spindrift of jackdaws, funnelled up out of Beaumont Clough, disappears over the six towering sycamores that stand among its barns. I steel myself and squint my eyes for a look to the north, and can just make out through the dense hail the parish church of Heptsontsall, St Thomas the Apostle. Beneath its 19th century tower is the roofless ruin of the 13th century St Thomas a Becket church, in the graveyard of which Sylvia Plath is buried. I turn my back for a respite from the pain, and notice that there is a huddle of sheep pressed into the drystone wall on the other side of the fence, very sensibly waiting this squall out in shelter. I, on the other hand, could not have picked a more exposed place.
But even more suddenly than it arrived, the squall passes. The landscape has been transformed, dusted in white. Under the domed beeches of Horsehold Wood the paths of walkers and deer and sheep have been picked out in its newly illuminated interior. The tops of the Callis Wood birches beneath me, as if in response to the flagellation they have just received, have turned an angry red. I am familiar with their startling transformation after a heavy shower to a stunning rich purple, but this inflamed red is entirely new to me. I ponder if it is perhaps the different angle at which I am looking at them, used as I am to looking at them directly across the valley rather than from above.
The air has been scoured and swept clean, and the clarity it has afforded is almost overwhelming; I feel as though I can see too much detail too clearly on too great a scale. The bases of the clouds over the shoulder of Edge End Moor are briefly rent, revealing their swelling tops lit by the rapidly setting sun. The brightness is, however, short-lived; bands of hail and snow are already surging towards me again. I decide to take the lead of the sheep, who have used the opportunity of the break in the storm to move away from the exposure of the edge. I retreat back into the refuge of Beaumont Clough, and the roaring of the birches quietens to the soft hiss of the snow gently falling on last year’s beech leaves trapped in the grasses.