February, Limers Gate

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I hail down the 595 bus to Crimsworth and am greeted by Anne – ‘Hello, my lovely’ – the friendliest of the generally very friendly drivers of the hilltop parish bus services around Hebden Bridge. She seems to know everyone; within a few yards of pulling away from the bus stop she has already stopped to hang out the window for a quick chat, pulling away again with a ‘See you tonight, love’. She stops again to let a car hesitatingly negotiate the acute bend from Birchcliffe Road onto Commercial Street. ‘Oh come on, I could get a bus round there…In fact, I used to get a bus round there before they changed this route.’ The car driver is male. It’s refreshing.

She motors up the long Keighley Road climb, past the Robin Hood Inn at Pecket Well. We meet the much larger 500 bus coming over from Haworth, which she delicately squeezes past, bantering with its driver as she does so. Up we continue, beyond the highest in-bye land and out onto the open moor at over 1,200 feet. We come to the turning circle at the highest point on the route, where Anne pauses to let me off. I tell her my plan to walk up onto the moor and that she should expect me back here in an hour, by which time it will be last light. She says she’s jealous; she did the same walk last year up to the ‘white monument’, a lovely way to describe the technical and functional apparatus that is the Ordnance Survey trig point on High Brown Knoll, which will be the highest point on my walk. She waves as she pulls away, and I cross the road and then a stile and launch into the steep climb up onto Flaight Hill on the path known as Limers Gate.

To my back the western landscape is muting and murking under pendulous mammata clouds, but ahead the eastern sky is lightening, as if dawn is repeating itself at the day’s end. As I crest the rise I see that the source of the light is a rift that has opened up between two tectonic cloud plates, disclosing a delicate blue sky dusted with gleaming cirrus. The khaki grasses, vivid mosses and ashen gritstone that protrude from the peat brighten as the rift moves overhead.

A brace of grouse erupt from the grasses ahead of me. A short way further on I disturb a meadow pipit on the path. It is reluctant to leave the path, and I herd it along for a short way before it relents and bounces away with sharp flicks of its wings to skulk behind a tuft of muted green sedge.

The north-westerly breeze is gentle, but piercing enough to make up for its gentleness. Above me, the rift and the light it affords is moving swiftly on. Five miles distant, the smoke from two moor burns is being dragged to the south-west. One burn is around Dovestones on the Walshaw Estate, the other above Gorple Lower Reservoir. I can see the flames in the haze, like two glowing cigarettes in a gloomy corner of a pub.

Warley Moor Reservoir, better known as Fly Flatts, comes into view across the headwaters of Luddenden Dean, a mile and a half away. It is only 90 feet lower than I am, meaning that the barest sliver of its surface is visible, and easily missed. One summer’s day years ago, the first time I came up onto this moor and without knowing the reservoir was across there, the sight of the sails of dozens of dinghies apparently gliding across the moor gave me a moment of pleasurable puzzlement.

I scan the Ovenden Moor skyline above the reservoir to try and locate the distant geese I can hear, and realise with a jolt that the 23 50m wind turbines that have stood on Ovenden Moor for the last 22 years have vanished. I consciously appreciate the view, knowing that it will be short-lived; by the summer, nine new 115m turbines will have been erected and will remain there until I am in my 60s.

I move on, but within a few steps the buzz of a helicopter approaching low across the moor unexpectedly intrudes. Before it reaches me it turns away, and I feel relieved, but the relief seems not fully explained by the return of the quiet I had been enjoying. When it then turns again in my direction, as if it is quartering the moor like a hen harrier, I realise with some amusement that I feel as if I am the hunted protagonist in a John Buchan novel. Reassuring myself that the helicopter is not malevolent, I carry on. Its behaviour remains curious, though; it overtakes me to then descend and alarmingly-closely inspect one of the three Grade II listed ventilation shafts, part of the remarkable system of pipes, aqueducts and tunnels built in the 1870s to transport drinking water from Widdop Reservoir the eight miles to Halifax. Having circled the shaft several times, it finally moves off down Luddenden Dean.

As I near the ‘white monument’, a figure approaches, wrapped in a great coat with a scarf covering most of their face. Before we meet, it veers off the path a little distance and sits on a rock, facing out over the Upper Calder Valley as if studiously avoiding having to greet me. I respect their unmistakable wish not to be disturbed and silently pass by them, continuing a few hundred yards past the trig point to a standing stone.

The western sky, while still overcast, is faintly flushed with rose, but night is sinking into the Luddenden Valley, and lights in its scattered houses are winking on. For the first time I become aware of the deep quiet of the moor. I stand and let this settle into me for as long as I dare before hurrying back across the moor to meet Anne’s last bus down.

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