Every footstep is a splash and squelch in the sodden fields. Hares kick up showers of spay as they sprint away from their forms in the rushes, and even the newly-arrived lapwings, who like their fields wet, seemed nonplussed as they bank away into the icy showers.
As March ages and lockdown begins, the land hardens; the fields are finally drying after the wettest February since records began in 1862. Now that the tractors can venture out without damaging the grass crop they come to fertilise, the greening pastures turn temporarily brown as the farms of Edge End, Horsehold and Scammerton spread their cattle’s winter muck. Even as the rest of the country and half the world slows into stasis, in the high pastures of the Pennines at least, the old sustaining cycle continues.
My son and I venture out into the twilight under the waxing Moon and write a little contribution, as we did last year, to the Land Lines, National Trust, and Arts and Humanities Research Council’s crowd-sourced Spring Nature Diary. You can read the short piece here, and read the full published diary, called The Writes of Spring, here. The entries, like the spring they bear witness to, contain so much hope and solace, just as we need it most.
We enter a narrow tunnel of hawthorn and holly only to see a family approaching. Since we cannot hope to maintain a two-metre distance within this ancient avenue, we give way by striking out of the tunnel on the downhill slope, on a parallel path across the hillside. But this path is not one of ours; it is a badger path. I tell him this, and his imagination is fired; he not only wants to follow every twist and turn of this path, but to pursue the rest of the branching nocturnal network of which it is a part. We spend the next hour criss-crossing the hillside, mapping the tracery that is lain, largely unnoticed, upon our own. The following day he takes my wife back up the hill and leads her on a tour of its badger highways, junctions and service station earth-scrapings.
Our ritual daily walk to school has become a Government-sanctioned constitutional, weaving up through the oaks and hollies of the steep hillside behind our house to the fields above. In one of these fields, long ago, a platform, perhaps for charcoal burning, was carved out of the valley side. We sit here most days to have a snack, read a story, play I-Spy with a panoramic landscape to choose from. My six-year-old son imposes the rule that if he picks something for which there is more than one instance in the view then a correct general guess is insufficient; I have to spot the particular example that he has selected. So when he sets an ‘f’ for me to find, it is not good enough for me to simply guess ‘forest’; I have to point to a particular forest. I reliably get these wrong – it was not the obvious Callis Wood that drapes itself over the whole hillside in the foreground, but rather the distant spruce spires of the plantation at Sunderland Pasture on the far horizon, and the ‘b’ was not the black-wrapped silage bales at Edge End Farm but those at Erringden Grange. I get my own back with a ‘p’ for polytunnel; he guesses the one at Swillington Farm, but I was after the one at Pinnacle Farm. Touché.
The Moon swells to not only full but supermoon proportions. A supermoon is where a full (or new) moon coincides with its perigee, when its orbit brings it closest to Earth. The clear skies hold and it rises magnificently above the beeches of Horsehold Wood.
As budburst becomes imminent, I appreciate the muted palette of Callis Wood for the last time until next winter: stone-grey sycamore, bleached bone-white ash and rowan; claret birch besoms sweeping umber oak into mounds; deep green shadow-ghosts of holly within; a ragged fringe of sepia beech; and by the farm a single goat willow in luminous lemon flower. Amongst this jigsaw of species, April’s warmth sets off an accelerated geological process of jade crystal formation as a seam of green birch threads its way between the sandstone strata of beech above and oak below.
My son and I decide to stretch our legs for the first time for a bit of a longer walk to Stoodley Pike, a hilltop monument which we gaze at across the valley every day from our more limited excursions, and are rewarded with moorland skies thronging with skylarks and meadow pipits. We put our deep familiarity with the various routes we might take into the service of avoiding as much contact with the local working farms as is possible. We pick our way through so as to circumvent having to pass through or even nearby any farmyards, and so as to use only the absolute minimum of gates. Of the two we must unavoidably use, we deftly use sticks to undo latches and to push them open and closed. I am satisfied that only the soles of our boots come into contact with the working landscape of these overlooked key workers, yet another strange challenge for these strange times.
Just before the lockdown came into force, I mentioned to a neighbour that I had never read any James Herriot, but had a mind to one day. Within the hour, her husband dropped round Herriot’s entire oeuvre, inadvertently providing me with some perfect pandemic comfort reading. Besides these warm stories of simpler times, and the uncompromisingly unanthropomorphised tale of Tarka the Otter that I am reading to my son, I immerse myself in Ben Macdonald’s remarkable book, Rebirding. For perspective on my reaction to this book, I like to think that I have reflected long and deeply about British nature conservation; I attended agricultural college for a rural studies diploma and later spent 11 years researching, writing and teaching in university philosophy departments on central questions in the human relationship to the natural environment. My experience of the British landscape has also given me, I think, a balanced perspective on what is at stake in its future for different communities and its wildlife; I have worked on farms – from agri-business arable to fruit farms to organic smallholdings – and in nature conservation, from traditional local council nature reserve management to landscape-scale rewilding projects. One way or another, I have been thinking about British landscapes and the human and non-human lives lived within them all my adult life. But this book has impacted me deeply, perhaps more than any other I have read on the subject. It draws together so much on the past, the current state and the possible futures of our countryside so deftly that I am looking at familiar places – the woodland above my garden, the scrubbing-up abandoned pastures of our daily walks, the moorland plateaus above the intake walls – with wholly new eyes. I feel more keenly the sadness of decline and absence, but also the hopefulness and excitement of possibility. It is a great work, one that, as James Rebanks, the Lake District Herdwick sheep farmer and author said, ‘is not an easy read for a farmer – but even so it needs reading’. Given the impression it has made on me I will inevitably have much more to say about this book and its lessons in the future.
My reading often reflects the ever-present tension I feel between respect for upland livestock farmers, their way of life and the traditionally beautiful landscapes they have created on the one hand, and the kind of radical conservation that I believe is needed to reverse the tragic decline in the abundance of wildlife that certain kinds of modern farming has brought about on the other. I tend to swing between books that embody one set of values or another. But for my next read I am looking forward to one which promises to embody both: Native by Patrick Laurie. I ‘attend’ its online book launch, improvised by its superb publisher Birlinn and the Wigtown Book Festival in light of the impossibility of holding it in person. Patrick, an extremely genial, young Galloway farmer of riggit Galloway cattle, answers questions (transcript here) on cows, conservation and curlews. Now that my copy has arrived straight from the publisher (a great way to support independent presses in these times) I am looking forward to reading about Patrick’s apparently equal determination to preserve both traditional ways of farming and the imperilled curlews and black grouse on his land.
On April 21st, a full nine days after I hear on the Twitter grapevine from both Richard Carter and Horatio Clare that swallows are in our neighbourhood, I determine that we have waited long enough for them to come to us. We have an idea for where we might be able to join them; the Eastwood sewage works, where in previous years I have heard they congregate upon arrival for a replenishing repast of its associated fly-protein. We set off on a very circuitous route to the works via the (usually) wet pastures of Pry Farm in the hope of being able to record curlew song for the start of a planned homeschooling project to make an audio birdsong guide. But these hopes are quickly swept away by the surprisingly ferocious wind which ensures that, even had there been any curlews battling it on their display flights, recording them would have been impossible. As it is, only the lapwings take it on, and I express increasing caution to my son that we will probably have to wait a little longer to see swallows. But just as we begin a forlorn descent to the sewage works, there they are, in the skies above the gulf of Jumble Hole Clough. Just four, and just for long enough that I can direct my son’s ears to their static twittering, but it is enough for me. I agree with Gilbert White in his April 13th 1768 journal entry that three exclamation marks are called for in this moment: Hirundo rustica!!!
I am relishing spending more time in my immediately local patch, engaging in ‘repeated, slow observation’ as Rob and Harriet Fraser (somewhere-nowhere) put it in a wonderful blog post called ‘The detail of here‘, about reducing our horizons to the familiar and nearby. But it is still fascinating to visit other landscapes, and to see those landscapes through others’ eyes, so radio and podcast listening has come into its own. Highlights of my lockdown landscape listening include the following (with links to all those that will be available indefinitely): A Local Patch, an episode of BBC Radio 4’s Nature, in which wildlife cameraman John Aitchison, sound recordist Chris Watson and naturalist Jessica Holm talk about the value of getting to know a local patch, and the connection that comes through ‘observing, watching, getting to know a landscape’. Four Seasons: Poems for the Spring Equinox, a compilation of the poems broadcast on 20th March on BBC Radio 4. Ronald Blythe in Conversation, an episode of BBC Radio 3’s Twenty Minutes programme, in which the author of Akenfield, the classic oral history of East Anglian rural life, talks to nature writer Mark Cocker. Melissa Harrison talks about her encounters with tawny owls, starlings, kingfishers, stonechats and house sparrows on her episode of Tweet of the Week, and in response to the lockdown she has now embarked on her own podcast production, called The Stubborn Light of Things. In the first episode, Endurance, there are readings from her own Nature Notes column in The Times and from Gilbert White’s journals, and poetry from Alison Brackenbury. In The Landscapes of Don McCullin, the war photographer talks to Mariella Frostrup about the landscape of Somerset fields surrounding his house, which he has been photographing for three decades. In Wordsworth’s Footsteps is truly superb radio, in which Professor Jonathan Bate reveals the story of the making of the creative and political radical. In the first episode, Spots of Time, we also hear from James Rebanks and Alice Oswald.
We set off on a treasure hunt in the woods with hand drawn maps dropped off by one of my son’s friends and her family. We follow familiar paths but the maps make us see our surroundings differently through their particular selection of landmarks to keep us on track, and we discover a hitherto un-visited cave.
We come to the low ruin of a house called Dale, where the cross on the map unmistakably marks the spot. With the generosity of Calderdale Libraries in making Ancestry free for the duration of the lockdown, I can find through a search of the census records between 1841–1911 that it has been deserted for at least the last 130 years, with the 1881 census the last time that it is recorded. However, with the local paths more frequented than they have been in the decade we have lived here, we find that its cold hearth is once again sat around by a family – Peter and Leah and their two young children – having a picnic. Since we cannot crowd into the footprint of the parlour to join them, nor even enter the ruin to search for the treasure, we stand on the track above and talk to them, just as 19th-century passers by must have done. We talk about the ruin and who must have lived here, speculating that it must have contained a handloom as so many of the valley’s houses did to supplement the meagre income from farming. Leah tells us of how her parents revived handloom weaving at Ponden Hall just over the moors near Haworth in the 1970s, and that she still comes across garments that her parents made at markets to this day. Sure enough, I find in the 1851 census that Thomas Butterworth, who lived here with his wife Alice and their three children, is indeed recorded as being a handloom weaver.
We move on to find a place to read a little more Tarka the Otter while we wait to resume our search. I have in mind resting our backs against a magnificent ash that overlooks the tumbling stream in Dale Clough, in which we hunted for and found dragonfly nymphs a few weeks back, but my son spots that, with the water so low, there is an exposed, dry boulder in the middle of the torrent that we can sit on, so that becomes our reading place. It is too much to expect to find a jasmine tea-scented spraint on our boulder, for it is the wrong kind of stream for an otter, but the sound of the waterfalls below us is a fine accompaniment to the watery tale. A chapter later we return to Dale, now deserted again, and after a little search find the treasure (two books and some chocolate) hidden in a cranny. We return home triumphant.
We pass Steve in his front garden, making bird boxes. He has built and put up around 600 boxes in the valley, tailored for different species. Under licence, he visits them during the breeding season to count, weigh and and ring nestlings. He once let us peer in at a huddle of blue tit chicks. Knowing that no shop-bought box will be as good as his, I ask if we might have one. Back in the garden, we mount it on an oak, facing south-east as per his instructions. Descending the ladder, I manage my son’s expectations, cautioning that it may not be used until next year. Nonetheless, when I return from putting the ladder away, he is still staring up at it hopefully, but his hope is well-placed; a pair of blue tits immediately claim it by spending the next hour plucking moss from the oak and ferrying it inside.
In damper patches among the bluebells, wild garlic is flowering, its heady spring scent overpowering that of the more delicate bluebell bouquet. We venture out under a threatening sky to gather enough for a pesto sauce with our pasta that evening. On the way, we meet Peter and his sons, on an adventure of their own, following the mostly dry streambed up through the woods. He warns us that there is another plant with leaves similar to wild garlic, which he suspects he and his wife accidentally ingested years before (which may, I think, have been lords-and-ladies.) It makes us look more closely at the leaves as we pluck them, but the carpet of white flowers is so dense it is difficult to imagine anything, apart from the bluebells, diluting its dominance.
Even though my son has no intention of defiling his plain pasta with the fruits of his foraging, he fully invests in its harvest, even when the sky delivers on its threat to give us one of the few showers of the spring. It becomes heavy enough for a time that he looks for shelter and moves under a spindly hazel to continue picking the now glossy, rain-freshened leaves.