Beside the railway line on the way to school this morning I was alarmed to see segmenting fruits taking shape on the bramble. It made me want to put a halt to the year’s progress. April and May were a stasis in which everything could be savoured, but now not only the economy but time is being unlocked. The year seems to be running away. There are two very temporary solutions, which many species are resorting to in response to climate change; to head north, or to head uphill. In a symbolic act of defiance, I do both. An ascent of five hundred feet succeeds in a brief reversal of the year; on the lane above the gate I am relieved to find the brambles flowering but not yet fruiting. But I cannot ignore the haws looking like fat, downy apples, or that most of the elder blossoms have finished creamily frothing and have nascent berries.
A drifting smirr subdues the valley’s overwhelming green and settles on the grass seedheads; under the weight of clinging droplets common bent sags and the feathery spires of Yorkshire fog matt and wilt.
Across the valley within Beamont Clough a hundred waterfalls resound, hidden under the unbroken canopy of oak and birch. Its humid amphitheatre exhales vapour, which rises and curls across the silage meadows above, cut and green at Horsehold, uncut and tinged fawn with grass seedheads at Edge End.
The hawthorn hedge which lines the lane is ageing badly, losing the definition of its graceful curve as more of its members topple backwards in their decrepitude. But there is life in it yet; as I move along it, in quick succession it releases a great spotted woodpecker, a gaggle of great tit fledglings and a magpie. The magpie lopes across a field to a solitary hawthorn, and snickers from its perch.
A swift banks around the end of the terrace and flies up the main road, low and menacing, like a strafing Spitfire facing down the oncoming traffic. But I fear for it; it flicks and dips its wings as it manoeuvres to catch insects, so can it really be attending to the tractor growling towards it? But of course it navigates the sliver of space between the telephone wires and the tractor’s roof with panache and pulls up into the white, wet sky with a flourish. I shake my head in amazement at this seeming anomaly and move on, but as I come to the end of the terrace I see it is actually part of a swirling, scything celebration that is feeding in the 14-feet-deep walled canyon of the River Calder. It turns out that the main road is simply their route around the terrace to line themselves up for another run downstream. I position myself on the upstream side of the Stubbing bridge to watch. Some pass under the bridge as the water is low, but every few seconds one rises to skim the stone parapet and its sickle wings all but brush my wondering face. It is one of the most thrilling bird encounters of my life.
I whip my head as they pass either side to try and take in every detail. I note that they are not silhouette-black as we usually perceive them, but very much brown; that their primary feathers seem almost translucent; and that unlike the only swift I have come this close to before whose wings left a tearing, renting sound behind, they are silent.
I hurry on to school to scoop my son from the playground in the hope they have not moved on by the time we return. We bring along one of his friends and her mother in our slipstream of excitement. ‘Swift!’, my son claxons as one bears down on us along the pavement. They are still there. I bawl out swift facts to the children above the noise of the traffic in a probably unhelpful and unnecessary attempt to impress upon them how astonishing these birds are. That they fly a million miles in their lifetimes; that they sleep on the wing; that in level flight they are the fastest birds on the planet; that among these birds are fledglings who will not now land again for three years. I leave out the fact that they can mate on the wing, and the gloom about how in trouble they are because of our zeal for eliminating both their insect food and the crevices in our buildings that provide them with nesting sites. But the drizzle turns to heavy rain, our friends press home, and a few minutes later, with a mysterious suddenness, they vanish.
After dinner, I sit at the table in the garden looking out over our rhododendron hedge and the roof line of our terrace. In the river of blue between the branches of the overhanging canopy above my head and the far spires of the Callis Wood birches, swifts swim upwind. Callis Wood blankets the hillside on the opposite, southern side of the valley, and is in full sun. A keen evening breeze is thrashing its thousand birches, and I play with relaxing and blurring my vision, which has the effect of turning the writhing woodland canopy into a mass of wriggling maggots, or seething television interference, with the accompanying white noise hiss of the leaves.
We live in one of the narrowest, deepest stretches of the notoriously narrow, steep-sided, shadowed Calder Valley. It is, in fact, just the glacial meltwater-cut valley-within-a-valley that has this gorge-like character. Above it, a wide shelf of pastureland reclines against the moorland edge, and from up high the incised defile that channels river, road, canal and railway all but disappears from view in the bottom of this expansive upper valley.
From down here, then, my horizon is bounded by the lip of this shelf, and is almost entirely composed of canopy, mostly a fringe of beech which were left when the hillside was clear-felled in the Second World War; I have an RAF aerial photograph from 1948 which shows the hillside bare. But there now remain just a few gaps where the 70-year march of birch back up the slope has not quite been completed. At these points we can just see an old post and rail wooden fence and a little of the pasture that lies beyond.
We are just far enough up on the northern side of the valley that even in midwinter the sun rolls along the horizon all day long, climbing over Horsehold Scout at one end and tumbling off Callis Nab at the other. But in summer, it tracks round to the north and we lose it by five o’clock behind the trees that crowd down the slope that our house is terraced into. But this loss means that Callis Wood, facing us, is gloriously lit, until the shadow of our hillside climbs towards Foster’s Stone, leaving it at the last, for a brief moment, as an illuminated beacon over the extinguished wood.
After a Saturday of getting things done in the garden, I wake up feeling that this is the first day of my son’s school summer holidays, which have started a week earlier than planned for his year group so that other classes who have not had the opportunity to return since lockdown can have a few days each with their teachers. What better way to start the summer holidays, I ask my son at 7.30 in the morning, than with a bowl of chocolatey cereal? And he unexpectedly replies with a suggestion of his own: what better place to have our cereal than up on Foster’s Stone, three hundred feet above us on the opposite hillside. I open the curtains and peer up at the overhanging outcrop. It is a beautiful morning, and given his question echoed the rhetorical nature of my own, I answer it simply by packing bowls, spoons and milk into a rucksack. After wolfing a pre-climb banana each, we set off.
A steady climb in the cool air, as quietly as we can past the dogs at Callis Wood Farm, then leaving the Pennine Way and efficiently zig-zagging up through the birches on the unfrequented, beautifully engineered track which Chris Goddard, the Yorkshire map-maker, has identified as being named Foster’s Rake, brings us to the skyline. This is the first time we have been here since the beginning of lockdown, when we met the Miller family, farmers at Edge End, replacing a short stretch of the remarkable wooden fence that runs a half-mile length of the horizon we look at from home.
We leave the public footpath and make our way along an unofficial path to the local landmark, taking the utmost care never to touch the fence and risk giving them more repairs to do, erring instead towards the precipitous drop on our left. After pushing through stretches of bracken and ducking under hollies, we come to the stone, and lay out our breakfast with a most satisfying view.
After basking in the morning sun and reading from one of the Puffin collections of short stories we always carry with us on our walks, we return to the top of Foster’s Rake and cross the stile between the brand new stretches of post and wire fence. We still cross stiles and gates in the manner which we developed during the height of lockdown, which is to touch nothing except with the soles of our boots in case we are asymptomatic virus carriers. I either hoist my son directly over stiles, or steady him with a hand so he doesn’t have to touch the posts. Otherwise, we open gates with sticks or I put on clean gloves to open them if I have to. I see it as a courtesy not only to other walkers but to the farmers who themselves may have to touch gates and stiles which have been recently touched by possibly many walkers to take a little extra care when we pass through their workplace. Besides, in places it provides an interesting challenge, as if one were involved in a bank heist and were trying not to leave any prints.
We pass through Cruttonstall, and have a good look at the old horse-drawn hay rake which, thanks to the Galloway farmer Patrick Laurie having written about finding on one his own land and linking to a video of one at work, I’m now able to explain to my son its purpose – dragging the cut hay into rows ready for baling or stooking – after years of viewing it as a picturesque enigma.
I am intrigued by the way that Edge End Farm leave their silage cut later than other farms. Horsehold carried out their first one at the end of May, and I suspect will get at least one more in before the summer is over. The fields below Old Town, one of the few places left in the valley where the pattern of the long, thin strips of the ancient common ‘town’ fields have not been obliterated by the post-17th century enclosures, shows the vivid green of the cut fields side by side with the peach blush of the common bent seedheads in the uncut fields.
But Edge End’s fields, I am coming to realise, are far richer than this. They are not the supercharged green of the less diverse silage fields, but a more complex, subtle shading of colours: the delicate blue of harebells; the pink of the flowering feathers of Yorkshire fog, red clover, knapweed and the red of common sorrel; the whites of yarrow, white clover, tiny stars of heath bedstraw and common chickweed; the yellows of field buttercups, tormentil, bird’s foot trefoil and, on the disturbed soil of the tracks, pineappleweed. Studded and spiked through it all, knitting it all together, is yellow rattle, the marker of a fine, diverse meadow in virtue of being parasitic on the grasses which would otherwise outcompete the wildflowers. My son, ever on the lookout for sweet treats, even spots the tiniest sprigs of bilberry growing beside the walls.
And all this is not just a feast for the eyes. Swallows coast over the wind-rippled waves that roll across the meadow. Sprays of seed-eating linnets rise from the waves and dive back in, submerging themselves in the thick growth, then emerge to congregate on the breakwaters of the walls with meadow pipts.
My son and I set out to trace a small stream from the place where it enters the River Calder to its source in the high pastures of Pry and Scammerton farms. The climb starts in dank, dense woodland. We are spiked by holly and bramble and push through thickets of rhododendron. The spring luxuriance of the woodland floor before the oaks came out in leaf, with its spreads of bluebells and ransoms, has withered and rotted in the deep shade, and there are large patches of bare soil. We weave back and forth across the stream many times, depending on which side offers easiest passage through tumbled boulders and buckler ferns which submerge my son so I can only see the top of his head.
We emerge onto the path which we followed to forage wild garlic at the end of April, and he declares that he is happy to realise where we are, having found the unknown patch of woodland a little scary up to now. I dash his hopes of staying on the familiar path, though, and plunge us straight back into bramble amongst the even murkier shade of a press of ivy-choked sycamores.
We emerge from this gloom into a bright glade created by the Knott Wood Coppicers some years previously. Moving up alongside its fence, the stark line between the low, bare vegetation outside and the high, riotous growth of rush, foxglove, bramble, woodrush, nettle, hogweed and wild rose within leaves one in no doubt as to the twin problems for British woodlands – shade, and deer. As Ben Macdonald explains in Rebirding, a book that is shaking up our expectations of what UK conservation should set as its guiding vision, our woodlands, and all their species of ground flora, insects and birds, evolved alongside ‘a vanished array of large herbivores’ which prevented the dense, unbroken canopies of unmanaged woodlands we see today. These ‘chaos animals’ – wild cattle, called aurochs; wild horses, called tarpan; bison; beavers – would have browsed, broken, debarked and felled trees, creating a mosaic of open wood pasture and glades interspersed with denser groves of trees that got away under the protection of bramble. Wild boar, elk, red and roe deer would have completed the set of ‘grazers, diggers, chopper and browsers which in their different ways compete against tree formation’ and would have been kept in check by the apex predators of lynx, wolves and brown bear. Since Neolithic times, humans carried out the role of these ‘forgotten architects’ by coppicing, creating a shifting patchwork of open glades and rides. But in the last century this ancient woodland craft has been abandoned, and the massive increase in the population of deer – here, roe deer, but muntjac and red deer elsewhere – has resulted in dense, light-starved woodlands with an overgrazed nectar layer which cannot support the richness of insect and bird life which belongs here.
We climb on up a yet steeper stretch of hillside where we cling on to ferns – one of the few plants, alongside bluebells, ramsons and holly seedlings, which the deer spurn – to pull ourselves up the slope. We find our stream is swallowed by the hillside under a boulder, so we have to guess its line up the last heave to the next track.
On the other side of the track is a deep, long-disused quarry known as Castle Hill. The pit of the quarry where the water pools is far below the terrace where we stand on the track, which explains why the water emerges half way down the hillside below us. But today no water is running overground into the quarry, leaving only a gouged, empty stream bed and and a line of moss-free cliffs for us to deduce its line. After some lunch we circle behind and above these cliffs and rejoin its route in a culvert beside the track, finding where it sinks underground, and that it is a combination of two tributaries where the water plummets through the last line of outcrops below the pastures above. We note our position on the map so we can locate it on the lane that it will cross it higher up.
We finally emerge from the woodland to wide open views up the valley, and double back along Winter’s Lane and find the first of our two tributaries tunnelled under the track and picked out in a line of rushes into the pastures, through which a herd of cattle are grazing. Further along, the second tributary has been landscaped into a large, attractive pond at The Dean, next to Den Farm. We circle behind the former farmhouse on a footpath that takes us into the rough pastures.
We pick our way through cow pats and marsh thistles, field buttercups and toppled, ancient stone gate stoops and find another line of rushes marking the watercourse straight down behind Den Farm’s garden. There is no discernible line of the watercourse above us, though it is undoubtedly there, channelled by centuries-old field drains dug when these fields were first enclosed. So we take this as the culmination of our mission to find a source, and mark it with a high-five.
Looking down the arrow-straight, reasonably wide stretch of rushes, my inexpert eye sees this as a reasonable place to investigate the feasibility of a natural flood management intervention to slow the flow of water that enters the watercourse we have just traced the length of. For we have established – to my satisfaction at least – that we are at the source of the watercourse that, every few years, overwhelms the newly-installed storm drains under the railway arch and floods the A646, contributing to the devastation of Wood Villas, surely among the worst-affected homes in the valley in the last eight years of floods. Perhaps a terrace of leaky dams or a well-sited attenuation pond in these fields could lessen the damage the floods cause, and alleviate some of the anxiety that residents surely feel every time it rains. And perhaps there are ways that the farmer could be generously compensated – hopefully by the new Environmental Land Management Schemes, if they are well-designed – for the loss of grazing land.
We move on to find the upper reaches of the other tributary and carry on to where we saw the snipe back in May, but our way is blocked by a herd of contentedly sat bullocks, so we return the same way.
It is four months today since we have been further than two miles from our front door. We have been nowhere since except on foot. Today has been typical: while we have gained five hundred and fifty feet in elevation we have covered less than half a mile as the crow flies. We do not have a car – though we use one half a dozen times a year through our local car club – and we have not ventured back onto public transport, which we would use regularly for day trips or a quick bus ride up to the moors for a walk in a different part of the valley. So as lockdown eases our summer continues in the same vein as most people’s spring did: centred on our ‘local acre’. (This is a phrase from Jay Griffith, which I came across in Amy Liptrot’s wonderful new essay for the Centre for Place Writing, ‘A Hyper-local Spring’.)
But I do not feel that our horizons have been limited at all. In the two hours it has taken us to weave our way up the hillside, we have explored parts of the woodland that we have never been in before. Like Roger Deakin, we have become explorers of the ‘undiscovered country of the nearby’. It is not easy to find, in a society which prizes mobility and novelty so highly, much celebration of stillness, recurrence and familiarity, but I have been collecting a few in recent months.
Melissa Harrison, in the Stillness episode of her marvellous podcast The Stubborn Light of Things, is quite right that as we emerge from lockdown we will have a choice about how much of the stillness it has imposed on us to keep hold of. She recounts a story from the Suffolk farmer and writer Adrian Bell, whose 1930s rural trilogy – Corduroy, Silver Ley and The Cherry Tree – inspired her own superb Suffolk-set novel, All Among the Barley. During the time that Bell’s car had to spend an extended period in the garage for repairs, he noticed that without motorised transport ‘one’s radius both contracts and expands. That is to say, while the circumference of miles at one’s disposal is halved, their content is more than doubled. The quiet pace is like a magnifying glass. Regions that one has passed over as familiar suddenly enlarge with innumerable new details and become a feast of contemplation.’
The poet Helen Mort finds the same accommodation with stillness in her late-May episode of BBC Radio 3’s The Essay, entitled More Than Enough. Reflecting, through Dorothy Wordsworth’s diaries, on her lockdown experience in Sheffield with her young family, she says, ‘I always feel that Dorothy is never bored of looking at the same scene. Walking with a toddler is an exercise in the joy of circling the same ground, a challenge to the myth of progress. Perhaps this is all I have; this tended park, these drooping leaves, this sprawl of almost-Northern England. Perhaps this is my ground. And it’s beautiful, it’s more than enough.’
Another poet, Patrick Kavanagh, on the same theme: ‘To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience. In the world of poetic experience it is depth that counts, not width. A gap in a hedge, a smooth rock surfacing a narrow lane, a view of a woody meadow, the stream at the junction of four small fields – these are as much as a man can fully experience.’
We have only to look to a tradition of writing that stretches from Gilbert White’s Selborne parish to Ronald Blythe’s near-century on the Suffolk-Essex border to recognise the value of what, in their own early lockdown essay ‘The detail of here’, Harriet and Rob Fraser characterised as ‘repeated, slow observation’.
One of the many imperatives revealed by this crisis has been that of making the places where people live habitable in a rich sense, not just during the extraordinary circumstances of a pandemic, but always. For in radically reducing the circumference of miles at our disposal, we not only succeeded in slowing the virus infection rates, but as a byproduct also briefly met another pressing societal challenge: significantly reducing transport carbon emissions. But if we are to spend much more time in our local acres then radical change will be needed to ensure they can more adequately meet all our needs. The 15-minute city movement, led by the mayor of Paris and increasingly embraced elsewhere, such as Ottawa and Portland, is an inspiring example of such thinking that has found, in the midst of the pandemic, its moment: every resident should, within a 15-minute walk or cycle ride, be able to access a ‘complete neighbourhood’ and meet all their shopping, work, recreational and cultural needs.
The sudden cessation of the frequent day trips by car and mini-breaks by air has been a major change for many, and the signs are that, but for the remaining travel restrictions and the lingering fear of the virus, it would otherwise resume its growth in short order. The challenge for a new localism is three-fold: to change systems and infrastructure that necessitate and encourage frequent travel for work and leisure; to enrich the places where people live such that frequent travel away from them becomes less necessary and desirable; and changing the cultural mindset that in tempering our travel habits and instead ‘circling the same ground’ of our immediate surroundings need not result in the fatigue of over-familiarity. It is a project fraught with the possibility of misunderstanding and misuse; it requires the most careful deployment of language to avoid at best, a narrow parochialism or, worse, being hijacked by anti-immigrant and nativist groups.
The latter two challenges of place-making and cultural mindset-changing are linked and cannot be pursued in isolation, for in enriching our local places, we make the development of our desire and capacity for ‘repeated, slow observation’ more worthwhile, for only in rich and distinctive places is sustained, absorbed appreciation possible. Judging by the surging interest in contact with the natural world during lockdown, thriving wildlife is an essential component of such a place, and this applies to green urban spaces as much as to our wilder rural landscapes. I – along with the hundreds of people I have exchanged greetings with along the newly-busy footpaths – am thankful for and acutely aware of the privilege of living in a place which affords us frequent encounters with our non-human neighbours.
My son and I come to the gate, our most frequented spot and at which we have regularly heard the taunting yaffle of the infamously secretive green woodpecker, but never seen it. We have, after goodness knows how many visits this year, arrived from the right wind direction at the right time, and found the right guide – a crow, sitting in the snickering magpie’s hawthorn, directing its own, more sinister guttural cackle down across the rank grasses of the unmanaged field. I follow the dark beam of its intense gaze and find the woodpecker at the end of it, exposed on top of a decaying hawthorn. Repeated, slow observation continues to yield a rich harvest in our local acre.
Working at the garden table, I slowly become aware of a deep roar, like a muffled jet engine. I have heard this sound once before, twenty years ago in the orchard of an Irish smallholding, and I know what it means. I run down the steps, through the ginnel and along the terrace to tell Greg that his bees are swarming. I find him getting his suit on, having already been alerted by his neighbour. But as we climb back up the steps and look across to his hives, he is relieved to see that they are sending forth volleys of bees at the rate to be expected on any summer’s day. We crane our necks and peer up into the oaks. Running my eyes through the canopy twenty-five feet above us, I find the swarm wrapped around a limb, like a swollen canker in the crook of a branch (below left).
Greg goes back down and checks his hives, and finds all is in order, so this swarm must be from elsewhere. He hears from his neighbour that it initially investigated his hive, but obviously having found it occupied, they have now settled on the oak to protect their queen and await the return of their scouts with news of a new home.
The bees may now have quietened, but the road is a-buzz with excitement, and over the next five hours we welcome a steady stream of twenty neighbours into our garden to marvel at the sight of 20,000 bees clinging to an oak branch. The excitement of all the children is only matched by that of eighty-year-old John, who once built himself a hive only for work to get in the way of his beekeeping aspirations, and had always wanted to see a swarm.
I visit at last light, and wonder what the tiny bat that is flitting around the dark, silent mass swaying on its branch in the evening breeze makes of it, and whether they can really sit out the heavy rain that is forecast for the morning.
But the forecast, as so often, was wrong, and the rain remains light through the morning. By the evening, the swarm has arranged itself into a plump pear (below right). Through the rest of the day and the following three, we visit our guests often, each time as we climb the garden steps half-hoping that they are still there, half that they have found a place to call home and moved on.
On the fourth day after their arrival, my son and I are reading at the garden table when the swarm’s engine roars back to life. His instinct, interestingly, is to run towards the bass hum, but from what I saw when they arrived and knowing how high up they are starting from, I decide it is safe to let him. Looking up, he shouts his report from the far end of the garden that they are on the move, and now I can see them emerging into the open from high in the oak canopy: a swirling tornado moving with slow purpose. I call him back and it turns and follows after him over the lawn at walking pace. We descend the steps and look back up to see them moving along our neighbours’ back gardens, so we race through the ginnel and up the street, catching them up as they emerge at the other end of the terrace.
Another family join the excitement of tracking a bee swarm as it crosses George and Clare’s garden, where we know there is an empty beehive. I knock on Steve’s door as it hovers over his roof and he comes out to watch it move on, spurning his own empty hive in the garden. It skims the ridge tiles of another house and we have to double back to accompany it up the track, until we come to a terrace tucked in the trees at the end, where they halt their progress and start to land on the flat, felt-covered roof of an extension. Over the next half an hour they enter a little cavity created by a bulge in the felt. I ring the residents, who are away, and let them know of their new housemates. When they are mostly inside and with a sense of disappointment that they may not have chosen wisely, we wish them well.
We return to the garden and feel a sense of emptiness now our guests have vacated, but this lasts for all of 24 hours; the following day another swarm arrives. I determine it is not the same one by racing along to see the site that was chosen yesterday and check that they have not changed their minds and returned, but it remains occupied and the two-way traffic is busy. Back in the garden, just like the previous swarm, after investigating Greg’s hives it elevates itself into the canopy, settles into an oak and quietens down (below left).
This one stays for five days until, as I am putting the finishing touches to a new pond I have spent the day digging, once again the multi-layered drone slowly seeps into my awareness. We walk along to the oak and find the swarm has gone. We follow the sound up the slope deeper into the woods. Looking up we can see them against the sky through a gap in the canopy, down through which they funnel and then enter a hole in a veteran oak (below right), just the other side of the trunk from a cavity in which a family of jackdaws fledged but a few weeks ago. I am relieved that this looks a more promising site to choose, and thrilled that, for the rest of this summer at least, we now have a feral honeybee colony just above our garden. My son suggests that we might climb the fifteen feet up the trunk to collect honey from time to time, but I ask him to imagine thrusting his arm inside the hole that is currently the eye of a bee hurricane, and he appreciates the likely outcome.
We traverse east from the top of our garden, among the oaks of Knott Wood. This woodland is honoured with a place on Natural England’s ancient woodland inventory, meaning that there is evidence that it has been continuously wooded since at least 1600. This status is divided into two categories: Ancient & Semi-Natural Woodland, and Replanted Ancient Woodland. Knott Wood falls into the latter category, meaning that it was likely cleared and replanted at some point, but retains the complex ecology that only time can weave. Indeed, a 2009 ecological survey identified 380 species here.
We push through tunnels of holly that crowd around the oaks and cross the wall out of the ancient part of the wood into a patch of newer woodland. On my 1948 aerial photo, this part of the hillside is clear and cut into terraces used for growing vegetables and keeping chickens. John, one of our neighbours, kept chickens here years ago and had a little greenhouse. There is no light left now as the birch and willow have grown and filled this gap between Knott Wood and the even more highly-prized ‘ancient & semi-natural’ Rawtonstall Wood which wraps around the maw of Colden Clough.
It is in this patch of newer woodland that the invasive, non-native Himalayan balsam is spreading, and to which we have come today to take the last opportunity to answer the call put out by the local council, the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and Slow the Flow to put in some work to control it. We had planned to be volunteering with Slow the Flow on their scheduled balsam-pulling days this year, but with them all cancelled, they are asking people to go it alone in their local area.
I am alarmed at how this area of balsam, which we have worked at in previous years, has enlarged, and given that it is now coming into flower, I limit our ambition to rounding up some outriders that have entered a shallow watercourse, the route of which is picked out in pink purslane. My son quickly gets into the swing of it, pulling them up by the roots and snapping the stem below the first node, where it can regrow if given half a chance.
Some neighbours pass on the path above and look askance at our thrashing about, until they realise what we are doing. Having achieved my modest goal of neatening the edge, we make a note of where we can start earlier in the season next year.
A pair of curlew startle us with their piping alarm call, appearing sudden and low from behind. Two-and-a-half miles and 800 feet of ascent into our walk we cross the ridge of Erringden Moor at Johnny’s Gap and come to the destination for today’s walk: an area of around 40 high-walled, neatly regular enclosures that were carved from the moor in the 1830s under the direction of the formidable local figure, Christopher Rawson. His vision of uniformity, productivity and, presumably for a founding partner in his own bank, profit, was imposed upon 200 wild acres between the heather of Bell House Moor to the east and the waterlogged Sunderland Pasture to the west. Fine stone farmhouses – classic 19th century laithe-houses particular to the South Pennines – were built, named Bank Top, Blaith Royd, Law Hill, Knowl Hill, Stony Royd, and in 1836 a cattle and horse fair to rival North Yorkshire’s Tan Hill Show for its exposed location was held.
But I think it is fair to say that the ‘Father of the Borough’ overreached. At 1250 feet, the summers are short and the soil sour. Within 35 years Law Hill was uninhabited, followed in successive decades by Bank Top and Knowl Hill. By the Second World War Blaith Royd had also succumbed. Stony Royd continued to farm just 13 fields, but the inspector for the wartime National Farm Survey found the condition of the farmhouse, drainage and pasture wanting. The remainder of the enclosures were designated as gathering grounds for the Morley Corporation Water Works reservoir at Withens Clough, and Bank Top faced an ignominious end as target practice for the army. Knowl Hill somehow returned from at least 30 years of apparent abandonment, and along with Stony Royd is inhabited today, but we find nothing but grassed-over remains at the site of the three failed farms, with most of the stone having been carted away long ago.
Two grand gate stoops frame the low heaps of stones at Law Hill; spear thistles decorate the empty entrance at Blaith Royd; nettles thread through the jumble of lintels at Bank Top. While the once-perfect angles and ruler-straightness of the walls might still be represented as such on the map, in reality the land has revolted against such alien order and conspired to make them lurch and weave drunkenly among the rushes. The wind rots gaps into them, leaving a grin of decayed stumps against the horizon.
The brevity of the life of his farms was not, I suspect, what Christopher Rawson had in mind when he stood proudly amongst his creation at his fair in 1836. But while the farms may be gone and the walls may be following, cattle from a lower farm still summer here nearly two centuries later. And the land appears in good heart in another respect: we herd flocks of meadow pipts along the capstones on either side of Cragg Road; charms of fledgling goldfinch whirl from spear thistle to marsh thistle; and linnets play hide-and-seek with us in the rushes.
We plunge through the twenty-five year old spruce plantation ploughed into Sunderland Pasture beside the enclosures and when we emerge my son is so surprised to find Stoodley Pike looming close on the skyline that he pleads to visit it. As a default I do not deny him any request to extend a walk, so up we go. As ever, it is markedly windier on the Pike’s plateau, so we retreat into the lee of a boulder for our umpteenth snack and a read from our current book, Coyote the Trickster. Afterwards, while bouncing from boulder to boulder to avoid stepping on the grass, which he declares to be lava, he happens upon a faint path which I guess to be a shortcut down to London Road, so I encourage him to lead the way down.
On Kilnshaw Lane we meet Alan, who has lived amongst these fields for 44 years, and farmed some of them for the first 24. We talk of the history of each of the local farms: Erringden Grange, built as a model farm; Rake Head, once a workhouse. He tells us of the Sowerby Bridge bus driver who used to ride by on his horse dressed as a Roundhead and talking in 17th-century English. His little dog Choc watches my son amusing himself by making a collection of the most colourful ‘precious stones’ he can find amongst the rubble on the track. Just as Alan and I are talking of the notorious Cragg Vale Coiners, whose hideout crouches under Bell House Moor just below the vanished farms we have been visiting, my son leaps up with a strange old coin from amongst his stones.
At Lower Rough Head we stand under the ash tree and let the swallows hawk around our ears as the farmers, who we waved to seven hours earlier on our way up, return in their Land Rover. Further down the Pennine Way, I become aware of the drone of a tractor. Could it be, I wonder? A waft of newly-mown meadow confirms it, and I hurry us off the track to find Edge End’s fields are falling into rows. We wave and give the thumbs up as he reaches our headland and lifts the mower’s two spinning blades as he turns. We watch for several more rows, but conscious that an audience is probably not what he wants, we move on between uncut fields, anticipating being able to hear the sound of the mower and, soon, the baler, over the coming days of fine weather.