May: The Brief Banishing of Shadows

1st May

It seems like a different era, but it was only a few weeks ago that we stood in a cold February dusk, watching hundreds of jackdaws return to their winter roost in the beech plantation of Common Bank Wood. It is now mottled with splashes of green, blooming and bleeding into its dark canopy canvas, pulled taught across the improbably steep slope.

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Birch, willow and half the beech are out in the fold of Beaumont Clough, but the slower beech, all the oak and the few ash are still monochrome. The effect is one of camouflage, as if the woods are trying to blend in to themselves.

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6th May

From the gate, I look across to the parishes of Erringden and Langfield on the opposite side of the valley. I can see dozens of stone farmhouses and barns. Almost all have been converted to dwellings only, with only a handful of working farms remaining – Horsehold, Erringden Grange, Edge End, Lower Rough Head, Callis Wood, Old Farm, Lower Horsewood. I can also see the ruins of those that were abandoned too early to be saved – Cruttonstall, Thorps and Burnt Acres. On this evening of exceptional light, the setting sun briefly banishes the shadows that lurk within their crumbling shells.

7th May

On our way to the moorland edge in search of ring ouzels heading to their nesting sites further north in the Pennines, we stop to explore Beverley End’s extraordinary terraces, with bee boles for housing wicker beehives known as skeps. The Bentley family lived here from the 1840s to the 1880s. After the Sidall family took up residence for a while, appearing on the 1891 census, it was inhabited by Sarah Newell in 1901. In 1911, a second ‘old age pensioner’, John Horsfall, had moved in with Sarah. Once the 1921 census is released next year, we will be able to see if they were its last residents.

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The Charlestown History Group found this photo of the vanished house at Beverley End. Is the girl a Bentley, or perhaps Mary or Jane Sidall, who lived here in the 1890s? It is fascinating to walk through history as thick as the bluebells.

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We emerge above Beverley End into a field that, after last month’s reading of Ben Macdonald’s superb book Rebirding, I can immediately see is a fine and too-rare habitat. Tangled thickets of brambles; hawthorn and blackthorn browsed by cattle into spiny fortresses; the soil pock-marked with insect-harbouring cattle hoof prints among the rushes. Scrubby, scruffy fields along woodland edges like these are increasingly tidied, but their mosaic of low, dense cover and open grassland bordered by mature groves of trees is just what so many of our birds need, because it is what so many of them evolved in.

We sit on an enormous, flat-topped rock, and just as I am explaining how wonderful this unassuming, neglected corner is, a redstart, the first I have ever seen, dances along a tumble-down stone wall and into the hawthorn beside us. It feels as though nature has offered a token of confirmation of my new understanding of what it needs.

We continue on to Cowside Road, an occupation road constructed in the early nineteenth century to give access to the newly-created enclosures carved from Staups Moor. No ring ouzel makes an appearance, which, thanks to my earlier investment in expectation management, is a surprise nor a disappointment to either of us. But, in more than adequate compensation, we are treated to some wonderful posing on rocks and fence posts from linnets and meadow pipits, their profiles shimmering in the heat haze.

We skirt the moor on Horsfall Road, another green lane giving access to regular-shaped fields known as ‘intakes’, where land was taken in from the ‘wastes’ by acts of parliamentary enclosure. Hard up against the heather, these fields are still fertile and green 205 years after the enclosure commissioners first laid them out on a map, and we are left in no doubt as to why; Jonathan is out with his muck spreader, its mobile fountain of fertility travelling efficiently up and down the fields behind his John Deere tractor.

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We carry on down the lane, Stoodley Pike hoving into view across the valley.

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We arrive at, and scale, the formidable gritstone outcrop of Great Rock, from the base of which the plush pastures of the Eastwood hillside undulate away. We hail down Lee, out for one of his long bike rides, as he passes along the lane at the foot of the crag. Behind him as we have our shouted conversation, the Great House Farm cattle are slumped in the sun.

Having picked our way down the outcrop, we find a little canyon which my son seems happy to jump over more or less indefinitely, so I amuse myself by trying to capture his exuberance and, apparently, even at this stage of a long and hot walk, inexhaustible energy.

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Having made the steep descent into Jumble Hole Clough beside Common Bank Wood, he grabs my arm and announces with urgency and portent that he has left his walking stick back up at the top. This is a special stick, a seasoned hazel with a deer antler handle, bought at Malham Agricultural Show two years previously and which always accompanies us on our longer walks. Nonetheless, it is late in the afternoon and we are nearly out of water, so I am not sure it is prudent to go back up. But I give him the choice, and he is in no doubt that it must be retrieved. So 400 feet back up we go, and for variety’s sake, come down a different way. This takes us past Matt’s house, and happily he spots us from the door and, while my son feeds his goats, Bill and Ted, I can check with him that the redstart was no sun-induced apparition. He greets the news with excitement, confirming that it is ideal redstart habitat, that he had always hoped for one of the nest boxes that had been put up in that area to be claimed by one but that he had not as yet seen one there. While talking, he points our binoculars to a whitethroat, warbling from a dead elder. After the redstart and the linnet, this is the third of our brand new bird sightings for the day.

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8th May

A rising tide of dusk swells from the valley, submerging, in their turn, Edge End Farm, Cruttonstall, Rake Head and Stoodley Pike. A snipe drums as the light lifts from the monument.

9th May

Our book bundle arrives from Lyall’s, a treasure of a second-hand bookshop along the valley in Todmorden. Their lockdown offer is that if you provide them with a brief of your passions and preferences, they will hunt among their floor-to-ceiling shelves to meet it. Be it crime fiction or feminist sci-fi, their customers, to whom they deliver free of charge, have, it seems, been overwhelmingly pleased with their inspired choices. We are no different. I requested a bundle for my son, with the brief of wildlife/country tales or factual wildlife books. We received stories of animal rescues from St Tiggywinkles Wildlife Hospital; a collection of Native American tales, Coyote the Trickster; a superb Eyewitness visual dictionary of animals; and, in a perfect complement to our recent reading of Tarka the Otter, Bambi, A Life in the Woods, the 1923 Austrian novel on which the 1942 Disney film is based.

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That evening, after a barbecue in the garden and at the time he would normally be getting ready for bed, we climb through the woods and into the top fields. The hope is to hear the snipe that drummed for me at dusk the previous evening. I have deliberately not played him a recording or even described the sound, hoping to see his face at the moment that he first hears its strangeness. But though the curlews and lapwings pipe and wheeze in the gloaming, the snipe is silent. I fear that it has moved on, and that we will have to wait until next year for him to hear it.

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Our disappointment is, however, assuaged by witnessing an extraordinary encounter on the way down. We crouch behind a stone wall to watch the gambolling of a young roe doe in the middle of a field, dancing, as motivational mugs are wont to exhort, like no one is watching. But it is not only us watching; a male pheasant, perched on the wall’s coping stones twenty yards along from us, is also watching. The deer stills and stands, and then, whether for fun or in territorial defence is unclear, the pheasant launches itself from the wall and, arrow-straight and true, glides at speed towards the deer. We hold our breath and track its low and stealthy flight. At the last moment, the hind turns its head in the direction of its improbable assailant, but too late. The pheasant makes contact and the doe bucks and thrashes into motion, springing away down the field in perhaps only slightly greater shock and disbelief than we are in. We are buzzing with the encounter as we plunge into the darkening woods, bats circling in the last of the light pooling in the glades.

20th May

On what is set to be the hottest day of the year so far, I get my walk in early to avoid the heat. By half past nine I am crossing a field on the nose of the ridge. Jackdaws rise from the rushes as I approach, but so too do other, smaller, sleeker birds. They fly low over my head and are silhouetted against the dazzlingly bright sky. I can see that they are carrying food, possibly worms, in their bills. They fly out across the cleft of the Colden Valley, and as they drop into it others arrive. It becomes clear that they have found a good feeding place this morning for nestlings and are gathering food communally. What is adding pleasure to this sight is that I cannot place what species the birds are. I follow them in the binoculars on their flights to and from the rushes, but each time they drop into the long grasses they disappear. It is 10 minutes before one of them obliges me by flying at the correct angle to the sun to flash me its dazzling iridescence which instantly reveals the blatantly obvious to me; they are starlings. But the pleasure of recognition soon gives way to sadness that they have become rare enough that I was puzzled in the first place.

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21st May

The slow-motion snowstorm of goat willow seed in the past week of still, cooler weather has, during the warmth of the last two days, intensified to its climactic blizzard. With so many goat willows in the Calder Valley, this is an annual natural event to look forward to. It floats through open windows and banks up in corners. The canal becomes iced over in a thick film, drifts gather in the ginnels and spider webs are furzed like wool-snagged wire.

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Being dioecious, each goat willow, also known as pussy willow or great sallow, produces either male or female catkins. The luminous lemon male flowers are great for early pollinators in March. In May, the female catkins become hoar frosted as they ripen.

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The catkins now drop from the trees and lie on our steps and vegetable beds like spent caterpillars.

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27th May

We set off early to get the climb in while the air is still cool. Our destination, three miles distant, is Strines Clough, a shallow valley that drains an area of moorland known as Lord Piece. I resolved to walk there when, last week, I heard from Matt, a forester and conservationist who lives towards the bottom of this little tributary of the Colden Valley, of a little scrap of willow woodland that nestles in the upper reaches of the clough. He sent me a screenshot of a satellite image to help me locate the woodland, on which I noticed a second reason to visit; a ruined farmhouse that I have, up until now, overlooked in my project to map the farmhouses of the Upper Calder Valley.

As we descend into the clough we flush a deer from the huddle of willows astride the stream; there is a crack like a starting gun as it bursts through the branches and bounds around a headland. We break into a run ourselves, charging up the slope to the farmhouse to get a look at it. When we crest the shoulder it has, incredibly, disappeared. There is no cover for it, and it is almost inconceivable that it has covered the distance to the skyline in the time it was out of our sight. But that it must have done. When my son regales the story to friends and neighbours later in the day, it has acquired a title: The Vanishing Deer.

Breathless, we find ourselves standing by the farmhouse. Labelled as Strines Clough Hollow Bottom on the 1851 OS map, it is listed as Old Strines Clough on the census to distinguish it from a newer farmhouse nearby. The gable end is still substantially standing, and a couple of doorways could, if one one was trusting of the lintels, still be walked through, but we cross its threshold by way of one of the walls that have succumbed to time and can be stepped over. Its most impressive feature is a cellar, its arched ceiling now exposed, which, standing in the roofless house in the blazing sun, looks invitingly cool.

A search of the 1841–1911 censuses later tells us that its stones have been mouldering into the moor for 140 years. Henry Cockroft succeeded his father, John, in farming its eight sour acres. He did so for at least 30 years as a widow, and his daughter, Sarah, was away and married before she was 19. But in his later years his younger brother Joseph, himself unmarried, returned and they lived there for 20 more years before closing the door for the last time and letting the hearth go cold. When Henry was 46, when standing at his window overlooking the clough, he will have just been able to see the top half of the strange new obelisk of Stoodley Pike emerging on the skyline.

We descend to the willow, which may conceivably have been growing as Henry Cockroft was leaving. Small and stunted specimens they may be, but they are clearly very old. The purple spikes of bugle rise out of the rushes beside them. Just as we step across the deep cleft that the stream cuts in the bog, a hare darts into the trees. We crouch under low branches, step across twisted, recumbent trunks, and follow it in. The relief of the shade is immediate. Several birds visit while we are in there; a blackbird, something smaller which we cannot make out, and a magpie, affronted when it tries to return to the tangle of sticks we presume is its nest in the low canopy. It is a strange and special place.

We step back in to the now even more glaring sun and have our lunch watching a young man replacing broken stakes and tree tubes in a new woodland that has been planted lower down the clough. It is heartening that more shade is coming.

After we pass back through Blackshaw Head we turn off at Scammerton Farm, where we wave and have a chat to Mrs Butterworth, who – in more normal times – butters my son’s morning toast at school. Her family farms the fields we will now pass through. Across her hen enclosure we talk of school, yes, but mostly of curlews and lapwings and swallows and silage. I ask if she has heard the snipe, which I had heard over her fields a couple of times but which had been a no-show for my son the other night. She didn’t think so. More evidence that he will have to wait.

So down we go, with a stop for a snack and to do some plant identification in her silage meadow. Red clover, ribwort plantain, cuckoo flower, buttercups both meadow and creeping. It is shaping up nicely. And then, there it is: the electronic vibrato of the snipe, drumming. Having never heard it or even had it described in any way other than ‘very strange’, my son’s face lights up and he punches the air with a triumphant exclamation of, ‘SNIPE!’. He just knew, and I am glad that my build-up for it had evidently not been overdone, and it had not disappointed.

For once I am glad that the sky is not thronged with swallows or swifts, because I can immediately pick it out in the blue. To think how many twilights I have stood outside the bothy in Glen Affric, tracking the dopplering seventies’ synth effect across the sky, back and forth, without ever being able to see its source, and now here it was, not even trying to enigmatic, in the broadest of daylights. I point and he latches his eyes on to it mercifully quickly, for it then stoops into its second and last drumming dive, whipping the warm currents through its quivering tail feathers to produce what, for my money, has to be the strangest sound made by any British bird.

We see it land, just beyond the wall. We cross the field on the public footpath and stand on the stone step up to the stile. We stand and scan the rushes. It must be, it is, there, but we quickly realise that what we had just witnessed was far and away good enough. We do not need it to pose on a perch like the linnets and meadow pipits. We withdraw, and give each other a belated high five as we start our final descent home.

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31st May

The silage harvest at Horsehold Farm has begun. We hear the whine of the forage harvester, and see its dust rising from beyond the beech-canopy horizon. We climb our side of the valley and, while we have our picnic lunch reclined on cushions of heath bedstraw, watch the four tractors with four different implements at work: a mower opening up a new field; a haybob spinning the cut grass in another field into rows; in a third, the forage harvester sucks up and spews out a stream of winter feed into a trailer which, when full, is swapped with an empty one and carted by a fourth tractor back to the farm. The hum continues for the rest of the afternoon, all through while we are eating dinner in the garden, and deep into the dusk.

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