It is the early afternoon, and I have not stepped outside since returning from a decidedly chilly early morning cycle along the Rochdale Canal’s towpath to take my son to nursery. The view from my study window while working had done nothing to reassure me that the day had marshalled any warmth, with the trees being thrashed about by a stiff wind and wetted by fine driven drizzle. But when I do step out, I find that a new weather system has arrived to suddenly still and warm the air.
I cross the road onto the Pen, a two-acre sliver of land between the railway and the road which Charlestown residents have used as common land for over one hundred years, now protected for the community as a registered village green under the Commons Act 2006. On the path through the young woods at the top end of the Pen I encounter young Archie, himself out for a walk and brandishing a stick in the same way I did when I was ten years old.
I leave the Pen at the far end and descend Stony Lane, where, in this most worryingly butterfly- and dragonfly-sparse year I have a very welcome near-collision with a common hawker. It menacingly and methodically quarters the road and railway embankment with its angular flight, but I suspect that its prey is similarly thin in the air this summer. At the bottom of the street of quiet houses I pass the original site of Charlestown, a cramped and crowded collection of fourteen back-to-back dwellings, demolished in the 1950s, which housed such domestic industries as a cobblers, a sweet shop, a bakers and a brewery.
I turn left at the bottom of the lane, and within seventy-five metres bisect the valley’s arteries, passing under the railway line, darting across the Halifax Road, crossing the River Calder on a stone bridge and arriving on the canal towpath to cross it a little way upstream. In doing so I weave around the ruin of Callis Mill, abandoned in the 1970s after two centuries of spinning cotton, and cross the canal lock where the body of the murdered thirteen-year-old Lyndsay Rimer was found in 1995, five months after she disappeared from nearby Hebden Bridge, a town still haunted by this unsolved crime.
I climb away from the canal on a steep path up to a field. In the centre of the field one of the valley’s most magnificent ash trees is hurling a boy out over the slope on its rope swing. After another climb I briefly join the main track up to the high pastures of the parish of Erringden, but just beyond Callis Wood Farm I leave it for an unfrequented green track that ascends into the birch and oak wood pasture. It is waterlogged, deeply hoof-pitted by grazing cattle, and so delicately worked into the hillside that it needs attention to stay on it.
As I climb I am struck by the absence of birdsong; now that mates no longer need to be sought nor territories defended, the high summer silence of the woods is only occasionally broken. Ripples are sent through this silence by the distant ‘drip drip’ call of a nuthatch, and it is torn by the rasping screech of a nearby jay. On the last stretch of the track under a row of 150-year-old beeches that stride to the skyline, two dozen woodpigeons storm from their boughs, clattering their wings indignantly at my disturbance.
I cross the weathered fence at a stile and the track continues through open pastures – patrolled by flickering swallows – between two dry stone walls that have all but completely tumbled down into the lane they were built to border. I navigate this path of ankle-twisting-angled, grass-concealed stones with care while admiring its fringe of flowering harebells, yarrow and thistles. The drizzle has started again, dense enough this time to obscure the moors and their wind turbines four miles away above Todmorden, but not sufficiently troubling to the flies which persevere against my flailing hands to attempt landing in my eyes and ears.
At the end of the lane I pass between the two still-standing gate stoops that now have no walls to provide a gate between, and arrive at Cruttonstall, a derelict early 17th century farmhouse. It is the site of one of the earliest recorded settlements in the Upper Calder Valley, being mentioned in the Domesday Book. A retired farmer once told me that it had never been inhabited in his lifetime, so it was probably abandoned around one hundred years ago. I walk around it, looking up at its collapsing Yorkshire stone slate roof and its bricked up windows, but when I reach the towering gable end I find it bulging so alarmingly that I instinctively back away. Nonetheless, it is impressive that after a century of Pennine weather it is as substantially intact as it is, and it will surely be centuries more before, like the lane that led me here, it has sunk back into the earth.
A home has stood here for one thousand years, with this very building one for three hundred of them. I try to make it one again; amongst the silence of the stones I strain to hear children playing, and to light the dark ruin of the interior with the glow from hearths long cold. But the sense of loss and decay is overpowering, and my mind keeps turning to the moment when the last family to leave closed the front door behind them, and the final curl of smoke from the chimney drifted away in the breeze. Only foxes, rabbits, jackdaws and owls have made a home within its crumbling walls since.
A lamenting call from a curlew, descending into the meadow beyond the house, only deepens the melancholy of the scene, and I decide it is time to go back to work before the cycle back along the canal to pick up my son.