We have an auspicious first visitor into the garden on the morning the lockdown rules are relaxed; Steve has come to ring the blue tit chicks in the nest box that he made for us last month. He stuffs a duster into the entrance hole so that the parents do not come in while the chicks are absent and abandon the nest, then reaches in and delicately deposits the chicks in a collection of soft bags, two to a bag. Next, he comes down the ladder and applies a ring with specialist bird ringing pliers, using the smallest of the five holes in its jaws. He writes the ring codes in a notebook while one of the parents, its bill stuffed with caterpillars going cold, clucks its bafflement from the dead branch above the box. He works as efficiently as he can so that their stress can soon be relieved, pausing only to let my son, from a distance, take a zoomed-in photograph of one of the chicks.
Steve reports that we have seven chicks, which awes my son, but this is not a large brood for an average year. It has been too dry, and add to this the brutal frost in mid-May which decimated the emerging oak leaves, and this makes for an impoverished larder for raising large families. Steve tells us that broods are small and empty boxes common this spring. His dedication to minimising the gap in the long-term data he contributes to the British Trust for Ornithology is remarkable; he would normally have volunteer eyes on his 600 boxes, scattered around the valley’s woodlands, feeding him information on which ones to visit for ringing, but this spring, without these tip offs, he has had to visit every site and spends half his time up ladders only to find the box empty. It is the commitment, year after year, of volunteers like Steve that means the BTO can raise an early alarm when there are problems brewing with bird populations. He sometimes gets asked as to why he bothers with common birds like blue tits. His reply is convincing; it is so that we do not wake up one spring to find that they have crashed. Look at house sparrows, look at starlings, he says. They were common once. Common does not mean invulnerable, and without hard data we are too susceptible to shifting baseline syndrome-induced blindness to what we are losing. So we are happy that ‘our’ chicks are to be part of that early warning system.
According to the forecast, today will mark the end of a period of weather in which May 2020 has become the record-holding driest ever May and the sunniest calendar month since records began. Coming so soon after the wettest February on record, it is another sign that the British climate is becoming as unpredictable as the British weather, swinging between one extreme and the other. Nonetheless, it remains exceptionally difficult to feel the unease that this news justifies as we bask in the sun at out favourite spot and survey the newly-changed scene at Horsehold Farm. Its fields are now a chequered pattern of darker, uncut grass and the lighter greens where the silage cut took place over the previous three days. The cattle are in one of the fields, grazing on the aftermath, the regrowth of grass after the cut. The trailer and the haybob are parked beside one another, resting before the next round once the crop has grown back, an advantage of silage over hay being that two or even three cuts can be made in the year.
Across the other side of Beaumont Clough, a tractor moves down the track at Edge End Farm and across to the ruin of Cruttonstall, the farm dog galloping along beside it. It has no implement so it is not clear what task is at hand as it disappears from view. I value witnessing this purposefulness played out in the landscape, the meaning found in a seasonal rhythm of tasks, the farming year written in the fields’ changing textures and colours. I also value the meaning found in the patterns, tracks and signs of the landscape’s non-human inhabitants: budburst, seed storm and leaf fall; migration, nest-building and fledging; hare forms, badger trails and deer beds. The question that British nature conservation is seized with at the moment is the extent to which these two forms of meaning can co-exist in our uplands. Valuing both, I admire, and am hopeful for, those who are working to secure their co-existence, and the one thing I know for certain is that I could not abide a landscape that lacked any meaning, one that was devoid of all human and non-human life lived in meaningful and positive association with it.
In the evening, on my last step outside, the air is still, the clouds, having built and bruised through the afternoon, are almost stationary. A song thrush in a neighbour’s garden pierces the hush, before becoming self-conscious and letting the silence return after just four phrases from its indefinite repertoire. My wife rescues rose flower heads from the anticipated battering they will receive in the early hours.
We are building towers of blocks on the bedroom floor when a ball of yellow-green fluff appears at the windowsill, peers in, then vanishes again. We leap up and open the window wide to find a commotion of chicks in the garden. Could they be ‘our’ blue tits? We race downstairs and out the back door. As soon as we near the nest box it becomes clear that the fledging of the chicks that only the day before yesterday we had seen cradled in Steve’s hands is indeed underway, but not yet complete. For the next hour we watch as the parents frantically collect caterpillars to feed to their seven chicks, four of which are out and scattered among the oak branches, and three of which still need coaxing from the safety of the nest.
The bolder ones on the branches shiver their wings to call for food, while those we can see peeping with trepidation through the box entrance hole keep up an insistent refrain of six rasping notes, three high and three low. The parents bring food to the hole, but sometimes instead of letting the chicks have it they immediately dart off again, presumably hoping that they will be followed. Every few minutes the parents descend to Greg and Sally’s feeder to refuel themselves. The stress of keeping track of where all the chicks are while trying to persuade the rest to follow is unimaginable, but they will have to keep this up for a few weeks yet.
The weather has abandoned its extended period of complaisance. I keep an eye on the pile-up of cumulus behind me as the wind propels me east along Dark Lane. Down the valley, the last regiment of rainclouds to barrel through are grazing over the ridge at Mount Tabor, where my son and I attended the Lumb’s farm sale one bright May evening two years ago.
As I turn about through the hamlet of Lower Rawtonstall to face west, I can see I had not kept the clouds at my back under sufficiently careful watch. They are closer than I thought, and now they are cascading a veil of rain along the sinuous curves of the valley. I judge its speed of approach and make a decision to run towards it. I am inspired by a similar manoeuvre I watched a badger execute years ago. My wife and I were clumping through a thin strip of pinewood near our cottage in the fields of Midlothian, when the badger entered the wood from the other side. It stopped and sized up its options, and to our consternation it broke into a roiling gallop straight towards us. It is difficult now to say why, but instead of backing away we stood rooted to the spot. I recall having two thoughts in the seconds the badger took to close the distance between us; being genuinely impressed by the length of its front claws, and, given it seemed likely that they would be raking down our legs in short order, wondering if badgers carried rabies. But at the last second as we braced for impact, it disappeared down the sett entrance we had, unknowingly, being standing on top of. This unforgettable encounter was in my mind as I charged towards my own sett entrance; a hawthorn and holly tunnel that encloses the lane down to Ferny Bank. The rain, of course, is not rooted to the spot but is also charging towards me, and, when it slaps down on the leaves above me just as I enter their shelter, I experience something of the same relief and exhilaration of having pulled off a bold move as I imagine the badger did. Disappointingly, this feeling of satisfaction is somewhat undone when almost immediately the rain ceases and the sun dapples the track. I console myself with the thought that if billion-pound supercomputers cannot reliably calculate the trajectory and duration of individual rain showers then I have no reason to expect to be able to.
The still air sinks into the narrow canyon of the steep lane, its humidity a slick on the cobbles. Our feet brush past vetch and our shoulders against foxgloves. It is a relief to enter the shade of woodland. The oaks are contorted, as if wizened and shrunken with great age, but a century-old postcard shows this as a bare, shadeless hillside.
We cross Horsehold Road and contour on up the hillside, emerging into the sun again on New Road, a rough track above a silage meadow. After a parched April and May, June has provided the rain and the warmth the grass needs, and it is almost visibly growing.
We have deliberately not told our son of our destination, and we are approaching it from an unfamiliar direction, so he is making some fairly wild, hopeful guesses. Are we getting penny sweets at May’s Shop, or crisps and fizz at Top Brink, or might there be some of Julie’s cake at the Great Rock Co-op? He’s thinking along the right lines, if the wrong hillsides; this certainly is a walk oriented around a treat. And as the barn at Old Chamber Farm rises above the horizon his joyful leap leaves us in no doubt that he has twigged: we’re heading for Just Jenny’s ice cream at the Honesty Box.
It is sad to see the empty campsite where we spent two nights this time last year, but it is good that Ann, the farmer, has kept the Honesty Box going, trusting people to not crowd into the little hut which traditionally contains a kettle and mugs for coffee, tea and hot chocolate; eggs; and a tin of homemade Victoria sponge. Its offering is naturally a little slimmed down for the time being, but the freezer is reassuringly stocked with the gleaming white tubs made at Hazel Slack Farm two valleys south-east. Having deposited our coins in the honesty box within the Honesty Box, we take our plunder up the lane – the bench having been understandably removed – to sit on a tumbledown dry stone wall to eat.
The vantage from this hillside affords the first view I have had since March of a favourite place in my local patch: Crimsworth Dean, a tributary valley that carves deeply into the moors and contains some of the area’s highest farms. Without being able to board the 595 bus it has been out of my range, being the kind of walking distance from home – and therefore day length away from my family – that I have not been indulging in. It is good to be able to see into it, that it is still there. On its western hillside I can see Outwood, recently renovated as a dwelling only; Laithe, still a working farm; and Coppy, crouching under the moor, empty since Mary and David Dalgliesh left in 1956. Outwood and Laithe are illuminated while, fittingly, deserted Coppy stays shrouded in shadow. But for one moment a rent in the swelling cloud allows Coppy to briefly blaze to life again.
We cross the shoulder of the hillside and turn our backs on the blue haze of the eastern horizon and confront the smoking, shredding clouds that are building beyond the valley’s western headwaters. It becomes clear that the character of the day is changing.
On Pinnacle Lane we find we are passing through a swallow’s feeding circuit. We stop as time after time it rises over the wall from Erringden Grange’s fields, dips into the lane, then rises over the opposite wall into Horsehold Farm’s fields. It then makes a wide turn to re-enter the lane and repeat the circuit. Without alarm-call complaint, it silently accepts us as just another obstacle to avoid with nonchalant grace, sometimes coming almost walking stick-length away from our faces. Eventually, mindful of the skies, we reluctantly start walking on, but our son, perched on a throughstone so he can watch the swallow’s low drift over the greening aftermath of the silage field we watched being cut a fortnight ago, cannot bring himself to leave the thrill of it passing so close.
Later, as we finish dinner in the garden, the skies complete the drift of the day, starting with a heavy slap of rain on the frost-browned oak leaves and a rainbow rising from Horsehold Wood, before an almighty thunderstorm that pins us in the summerhouse for half an hour.
Up the lane at six o’clock for a tiny, tentative garden gathering – our first after a season of isolation – for Andrew’s birthday. We greet a women descending with her dogs. After she passes, my son, who has donned his party shirt, whispers to me that he had also adapted his style of walking so that ‘she would know we were on our way to a party.’ ‘Oh, I didn’t see. How did it go?’ I ask. Casually coining a new verb, he replies, ‘I was funking along like this’, as he bounces and bops with pointing fingers, as if he was stepping on to a dancefloor with all the confidence in the world. A little further up the track, but making sure there are no dog walkers around, I try it myself. ‘Like this?’ He takes my arm and issues his verdict with kindly pity: ‘Daddy, you look a little bit silly.’ And so it begins. I consider asking what I am doing wrong, but I already appreciate that the two insurmountable problems are being at least three decades too old and being his dad.
As we approach Rebecca and Andrew’s cottage in a clearing in the woods we hear the buzz of an electric saw. Wouldn’t it be funny, we scoff in jest, if he was only now, at this moment, approaching the finish line of the marathon decking construction project we have been witnessing him engaged in for the past weeks. As we enter the garden, our joke is proven to be on the mark. The mitre saw is indeed out, and he is putting the finishing touches to a low table for the terrace. Peter, their neighbour, passes on his way home, and we agree that the new space designed to accommodate friends at regulation distance is of the highest quality, but I can’t help joking with him that this is the only dinner party at which I have arrived to find the host still building the furniture.
It is a glorious evening, sitting in the warm sun; swallows and swifts wheel overhead and siskins swing between the oaks on twanging song-vines. Wood pigeons wheeze in the branches and then clatter their wings in response to our laughter, both sounds echoing against the cottage’s gable end. As Andrew opens his presents a song thrush strikes up across the lane and gulls drift high and slow against the whitening sky. Later, in a cool breeze and failing light a fire is lit and a sienna Balvenie shared. It is a long time since we have enjoyed the simple pleasure of an evening in the company of friends. At the same moment that I close the door at the last of the light, the Northern hemisphere tilts at its closest to the sun.
A hot day, for moving slowly and staying near. In short, a garden day. It is going great guns now it has been furnished not only with June’s warmth but April and May’s deferred rains. I drag the bench across to the front door and read in the still-cool shade of the rambling rose. Its cascade of white flowers is a gift from Steve next door; two stems span the ginnel between us and are secured to our door frame with a cup hook. From when I return from the morning school run – now literally a run as I dash along behind my son on his bike – until gone one o’clock, it affords scented shadow, the stop-start drone of Greg’s honeybees and a light snow shower of petals onto the pages of Ronald Blythe.
Before setting off for school my son declares that he is set on stripping the blackcurrant bush and stocking the freezer for his favourite jam when he returns, and judging by the way it is splayed and sagging under the weight of its harvest, school cannot finish a moment too soon. It is a promise he makes good on.
Lockdown has afforded us the time to complete, progress or at least start many garden projects this spring. For each of these projects and tasks I won’t specify who has led which, but my wife and I are unimaginatively traditional in our division of the growing and the grunt work. Except when it comes to the power tools. Those are hers, and it is she who wields them.
The vegetable beds are full of the promise of produce: potatoes, beans, carrots, garlic, lettuces and raspberries are all coming along nicely. The purple-sprouting broccoli, after its lonely winter in an empty bed and having already finished for the season, has been allowed to flower and go to seed, and is now being stripped by the caterpillars of large white butterflies. While my son and I stand there one lays yet more pert little domes of eggs on the remaining leaves before our eyes.
A quarter of the vegetable beds’ area is taken up by produce of a different kind: dahlias of fantastically-named varieties – Penhill Watermelon, Café au Lait, Tartan, Ambition, Bantling, Bishop of Llandaff – planted out after over-wintering in the summerhouse and all now thick with ready-to-burst buds.
The tadpoles in the pond are ripening, too. The container pond – an attractive oval of galvanised metal lugged home on the bus from Riggs – had sat around, empty, for several months, while we had inconclusive conversations about where it might go. But once we found the tadpoles in the bathtub in Peter’s old pig field were choking in its sludge, it became clear that the pond question needed settling if we were to mount a rescue mission.
Once we decided that its place should be on the flags at the bottom of a set of steps, another obstacle was presented; the near-megalith rock sat on them, itself having been waiting for a decade for us to decide where it should go, and whether we had the inclination to try and manoeuvre it there. But in flash of inspirational laziness, we moved it not one inch, wedged a few small stones under it to make its top level, and plonked – and I use that word entirely advisedly – the container on top. A pond perched on a boulder may constitute an attractive ‘feature’ for a garden, but frogs-to-be must have a means of exit. So, a tower of rocks inside the water now breaches the surface at the lip of the container, and a stone skybridge vaults the chasm between the plinth and the terrace behind it.
The far end of the garden has seen a new leaf mould bin, woodshed and compost bin constructed, the latter two made of nine and four pallets respectively, each hefted by hand from the nearby wood and coal supplier and up the steep – so very steep – lane home. I now have a woodpile to chainsaw and split to fill the woodshed up.
The hornbeam and rhododendron hedges have been shaved into shape with the electric hedge trimmer; the sycamore pollarded; the shed emptied, swept and organised; the interior of the summerhouse painted; and I just have begun the largest task of all: sorting the quarry’s worth of stone that has been piled up behind the summerhouse since we cleared it from the garden a decade ago. I am categorising it into wallers, edging stones for paths and a new bed, yet more megaliths for features and the lion’s share of the rest for wildlife rock piles.
Spring’s Great Tidy is merely a precursor to the Great Letting Go Again. The locations for new log piles, rock piles, small ponds, damp ditches, sunny banks, bug and bee hotels, hot-rot homes, bird and bat boxes, reptile sunbeds and untidy corners where bramble and willowherb can live in peace are being decided upon. We simply have the wish within our garden to have a little say in where the wildness flourishes. But even on this we are willing to compromise. Towering teasels that came from goodness-knows-where are giving the roses a run for their money when it comes to being the centrepiece of the front garden. And in the back, we are treated every year to a month-long display of white and purple pyrotechnics as foxgloves flare in ascending chain reactions up seventy spires sometimes five feet tall. They are now readying to shower their seeds wherever they may fall. Be it in the middle of a carefully designed bed, on the paths or in the middle of the steps, almost without exception we let them decide where they will ignite each year.