We labour up the narrow path between the nearly-spent foxgloves, each with the last of their purple flames at their very tips, like phosphoric candles that have burnt their wicks in reverse. We are meeting one of my son’s classmates and her parents, who are camping at Old Chamber, for a walk around Erringden. Ann, the farmer, has opened up more fields to enable socially-distanced camping, and when we arrive it has that pleasingly leisured bustle of a Saturday morning campsite. It is three weeks since school broke up early for summer, and there is a happy reunion as my son’s friend comes careering down the field, calling his name. We plod off up to Kilnshaw Lane, stopping often to examine flowers or greet cattle. There is a conflict of preferences at a junction, with children wanting a stream to splash in and parents after a bluster on the moor, so I contrive a route to satisfy both.
On Erringden Moor and along Dick Lane we are rewarded for the ascent with a good showering, but by the time we are descending again it has cleared and, having deposited the stream-splashers in Beamont Clough, I nip up into Edge End’s fields to check the progress of the baling. I find the lower field has had its rows wrapped, with rooks and jackdaws – whose swirling antics up here I had been watching the previous evening from down in the valley – enjoying the spoils of the newly-cleared ground.
For some time I have been saving geocaching – a ‘treasure’-hunting game, where the treasures are small waterproof boxes with a log book and the treasure maps are online with GPS X’s to mark the spot – as an enticement for when my son’s willingness to come on walks with me wanes. But despite hoping that this is still some years away, today I break and propose that we find our first one. In Rawtonstall Woods we battle through head-high balsam and bracken to arrive at the cliff face of an old quarry. We scour its cracks and crevices using the torch on my phone. After 15 minutes he spots it: a small lunchbox wedged into a gap. He’s inordinately delighted with its contents – a snail shell, some little drawn pictures and messages, and a logbook, which we proudly sign, as well as logging our success on the app. We now understand that you can swap items in the boxes, and as we head back he plans what little offerings to take to our next one.
We cross Badger Lane and lean on a gate to watch another day of baling at Edge End, this time not round and wrapped silage, but rectangular hay bales. I’m pleased to see this, having been so impressed with the wildlife and heritage value of traditionally managed hay meadows when speaking to farmers and conservationists involved in the Hay Time project in the Yorkshire Dales, which once formed a case study for an academic project I worked on as a postdoctoral researcher. It also explains why Edge End’s meadows are so species-rich, as had begin to dawn on me last month (12th), since meadows managed for hay must be cut later than those for silage, so leaving time for the wildflowers to set seed. While the baling tractor moves up and down the last rows, another carts a trailer, onto which the bales are stacked.
On New Lane Lane we stop and talk to Steve, who owns the fields either side and from which a neighbouring farmer takes a silage cut. He’s fascinated by the history of his house, and expresses regret that when a man came to his door years ago offering to sell an aerial photograph of the area taken by the RAF in 1948, he didn’t go for it. I was so pleased to tell him that the same man had come to my door, and that I had got one and was happy to lend it to him. I find it endlessly fascinating to pore over this image, marvelling at how much more wooded the hillsides are 70 years later, how many mills have disappeared, but also at how the basic layout of the fieldscape and lanes – determined by the landscape’s extraordinary topography – is precisely the same.
My mother-in-law comes to visit, the first time we have seen her since lockdown. She camps at Old Chamber and cycles down to join us. Now that new lockdown rules for Calderdale mean that garden visits are disallowed, we drag benches and chairs out to the Pen, the village green. Always important to the community as a social as well as a natural space, it has become even more so in these times.
But this is not to say that it makes entertaining outside easy. This is still Pennine Yorkshire. We have rigged a tarpaulin up to the goalposts to keep the rain off, but halfway through dinner we have to make a choice between staying put under the shelter and making ourselves easy stationary targets for the midges, or escaping their accumulation around our breath and eating on the move. In truth, it’s an easy decision, though I can only imagine what the four of us look like to the neighbours, perambulating around the Pen with our pudding.
Getting out from under the shelter has another benefit: we witness a last great gathering of swifts before their journey to equatorial and southern Africa; perhaps sixty of them, screaming, high against the grey swollen sky, heading west into the wind.
At 6.30am my son comes and wakes me up to let me know that his resolve to reach the beach which we had distantly spied from our walk to Stoodley Pike 10 days ago is unwavering, and that we should get going. The air is cool as we cross the Calder, cool enough for him to attempt (but fail) to blow what he calls dragon breath. I recount to him what one of my secondary school teachers – who was a staff member on a most extraordinary school trip (given it was a standard comprehensive) to the Himalaya – had once told me: that in Russia, where he had worked, the air can be so cold that exhaled breath freezes instantly into ice crystals which fall, tinkling, to the ground. He is enchanted by this vision, and speculates that ice cream vans in Russia may not need to play their chimes because the streets will always be filled with the jingling of falling ice. But this dwelling on the cool is soon banished by the growing heat.
In a moment of lazy listening I think I hear a curlew alarm from the pastures high above the woods, and say as much out loud, but just as I am about to revise my opinion, he does it for me: ‘gull’. I tell him he’s absolutely right, and he puffs with pride that he’s in a position to correct me. My interest in the outdoors was late to encompass birds; I was in my early twenties before I properly paid them the attention they deserve. At this rate, it won’t be very long before I’ve taught him all I know. But we’re not there yet: I quickly reciprocate his remedy of my mistake when when he points out three ‘jackdaws’ in the field below Callis Wood Farm that are in fact crows.
We come to the beautifully scruffy corner – rushes and docks, buttercups and thistles – at the top of Callis Wood. Wren fledglings and great tits creep about in the alder, and the quiet subsong of a willow warbler is a reminder of spring. The mower is resting outside Lower Rough Head, and we come to the meadows in which it has been at work. Delightfully, the rows are being combed over by a flock of adult and juvenile starlings. We quietly peer over the coping stones at them, until one spots us and they rise to the power lines. With the background sounds of a huge flock of swallows on the stone slates of the farmhouse and the lowing of cattle in the yard, we listen to the starlings’ clicks, pops and whistles, like the static and whine of long-wave radio. I even pick up a foreign station amongst the crackle and hiss: the yickering of a kestrel. Starlings are renowned impressionists.
We press on up to Kilnshaw Lane, past Swillington Farm and up the last rise beside the Doe Stones to the moor, then immediately start our descent into the bowl of Withens Clough, which cups the reservoir on the shores of which, 10 days ago, we had seen a ribbon of gold that I am now praying was not a mirage in the heat haze. Our boggy path through Molinia grass descends beside the spruce of the Sunderland Pasture plantation. Their evergreen scent wafts over us, taking me back to the years I spent working amongst such plantations in the Scottish Highlands, freeing up remnants of native Caledonian Pinewood from the fast-growing North American species where the Forestry Commission admitted they had made mistakes in underplanting native ancient woodland. Goldfinch vault from spire to spire, shaking the dew loose. Then the land falls away and we are afforded our first view of Withens Clough Reservoir. We are relieved to see that the heat haze through which we had seen it was not playing tricks on us; it is still fringed with a promisingly bright shore.
We pass the remains of Pasture Top and turn onto Long Lane, waterlogged and collapsed in on itself, the coping stones of its walls having been placed as stepping stones through the worst of its bogs. It takes us past the sites of Lane Top and Lane Bottom, and then Fir Laithe, three of the 14 farms that once made up the community of The Withens. We bully our way through the bracken and down onto the track around the reservoir, past the site of another long-vanished farm, Clough Side, all trace of which has been obliterated by the drain around the shore.
The beach on the far shore turns out to be one of eroded, powdered gritstone and just a third of a spit (of a child’s beach spade) deep, but it is more than passable for our purposes, and we spend a couple of hours digging shallow water channels and building sandcastles. The whole time we are there we share the considerable stretch of shore with just one other family.
The quiet and the gentle lap of water would both have been alien to the vanished community that the coming of the reservoir put an end to. Now, only Pasture across the reservoir is inhabited, and the considerable ruin of Red Dikes (or Dykes, as it is named on the map now) stares austerely down. The rest of the farmhouses and barns have disappeared almost entirely, though some of their fields are still grazed – a herd of cattle, complete with bull that we changed our route down to avoid, graze beside the birthmark of bracken on the hillside which has swallowed Lane Top, Lane Bottom and Trap.
After leaving the beach and finding a little geocache beside the track, we start a rugged ascent to the headwaters of the clough. We push through deep and dense rush and bracken, through which submerged sheep move like submarines, their periscope heads checking our location occasionally. We are following, as best we can, the line of the raised track of the Long Causeway. On our way we pause by the sites of Water Gate – just a flat space marking out its foundations – and Rough, of which a few low walls remain. Both sites are shaded by sycamores, characteristic companions of northern hill farms, now bereft.
We come to the remarkably well-maintained, formidable walls of the enclosures surrounding the substantial ruin of Red Dikes, signs on the only two gates into it leaving us in no doubt that we are not to enter. These must have been the last addition to the Withens farms and pushed the grazing land to the very crest of the ridge. Still grazed to this day, they are a green oasis on the tawny moor.
We follow the walls up to Withens Gate, a shallow pass between the barely perceptible rises of Bald Scout Hill and Higher Moor. Reaching the top wall on the crest of the moor and looking along its length, we find that some combination of the shape of the waller stones used, the north-west orientation of the wall face, and the particular kind of moor grass that sheds strands in the incessant wind, has created a strange, Andy Goldsworthy-like sculptural feature: threads of dead moor grass have been wind-whipped into every single crack between every single stone, wrapping each stone in bleached raffia.
Having battled through head-high rushes for some time, my son is relieved at being on the easy path to Stoodley Pike. Back on a busy route, I am conscious that he must strike an amusingly eccentric sight, inexplicably carrying his beach spade across the moors. But we soon meet an ‘old’ friend of his from his nursery days who is certainly drawing more looks than he, given that her parents are leading her along on a pony.
As we usually do, we drop down away from the crowds around the base of the monument, though this time before settling down to a story we spend an enjoyable 10 minutes indulging our latest hobby to find another geocache amongst the stones.
I give him a little pot into which I’ve decanted some well-earned sweets, and while he sits on a boulder I lay down on the ground and soak up the sounds, of grasshoppers, an occasional yelp of a dog up by the monument, the hum of David’s baler at work below Kilnshaw Farm, a distant siren down in the valley, the shy ‘seep’ of meadow pipits and, close by, the contented mastication of Haribo. But I now tune into what underlies these sounds: the wind in the grasses and rushes. It is the archetypal sound of a lonely, deserted and perhaps sinister moor, the kind created by the covered rotating drum of an aeoliphone, beloved of foley artists for instilling atmosphere in a radio play. But today, when it is at its gentlest pitch, it evokes nothing but benign peace.
It is too rare that I hear this sound, I decide. Why is this? Perhaps because there are a number of conditions that have to be in place: a breeze of just the right strength, enough to make the sound through the grass but not too much to drown it out by buffeting your ears; a day of sufficient warmth that makes you want to sit, or better, lie still, which is rare enough on a Yorkshire moor; and perhaps the time of year matters too, for while I daresay the sound is made in winter (even if you were minded to lie down in that season), I think that it is at its best when the moorland grasses have gone to seed and their flowerheads are standing tall on stiff spires. In a moment of clarity, I substantially elevate in my ordering of what really matters in life laying on a moor, on a day like this, listening to this sound – a soughing sigh with a hint of a celestial choral harmony.
We blunder down off the moor, signally failing to find the delightful but faint shortcut path onto London Road until we are almost down. From our vantage I can see there are two choices to give to my son: does he want to watch David baling in his meadows, or does he want to watch the tedders at work in the starling fields beside Lower Rough Head? After careful consideration he chooses the latter, so we strike off onto the Pennine Way and arrive in the field as the tractor has four more passes to make. Its work is not to spin the grass into windrows ready for baling, but to spread the rows left by the mower out for extra drying – teddering. I give my son his camera, and he runs up and down taking photos. The woman inside the cab gives him a lovely wave and I do my best with expansive mime to check she is OK with her work being so assiduously documented.
When she has completed the last row, my son’s intense interest is rewarded by her driving over, exiting the cab and allowing him up inside. She introduces herself as Rachel, and we talk while he takes what I later find to be 23 photos of every aspect of the inside of the cab. A self-confessed ‘town girl’ from three-mile-distant Todmorden, she has been at Lower Rough Head for 26 years with her husband Ian, who she gestures towards, at work in the neighbouring field, and who was born and raised at the farm. She points out their land and cattle, and I learn that the field we are standing in is called Long Meadow. Ever fascinated by the details of farming life, I am nonetheless conscious that other fields require her attention, so I haul my son down from the cab, we thank her, wish them good luck with getting the silage crop in, and wave her off into the next field.
Passing their farm, we watch swallows mob a sparrowhawk up into a sycamore, and hear a curlew on Edge End Moor. We always choose to cross Edge End’s fields and descend via Cruttonstall and Foster’s Rake rather than down the Pennine Way, but the hum of tractors gives us extra reason today. Though we see the Miller family often on the skyline from our house or from afar on our walks, it is rare we are in the right place at the right time to be able to speak to them. I have only spoken to Chris once before, last year, when I encountered him with one of his sheepdogs at Oaks Farm along the hillside, which he also farms, where we had a fascinating chat about the history of his farm and of Cruttonstall. I’m conscious, though, that farmers always have plenty of jobs to be getting on with, but today his wife, Kath, is raking grass away from the field edge beside our footpath for Chris to pick up in the baler, so I don’t feel too bad at stopping to quiz her about what’s happening. She introduces herself as Kath, and gestures to Chris in the tractor with the baler and Paul, their son, who is in another tractor in the neighbouring field, carrying already-wrapped silage bales back to the farm.
We learn that while these meadows are being baled as silage for their cattle, they are hoping to bale the field above us as hay for their sheep, as they had managed with the field we had seen them bale five days ago. But for this the weather will have to stay fine; some years they barely manage to make any hay at all, and some particularly bad years it is a struggle to even bale enough silage.
I ask what auction marts they take their stock to, and how they are operating now. She explains that at Skipton and Clitheroe, the marts they use, you are now allowed into the ring just to see your stock being sold, but then must leave, but even this is an improvement on the way things were in the spring when you had to drop your stock off and leave. Having visited Skipton and Clitheroe marts, as well as Hawes, with my son to show him the fascinating events of cattle and sheep sales, I have some appreciation of what a loss this must be to the social, and not just the economic, life of the farming community.
As at Lower Rough Head, I ask her the names of their fields, which all farmers have but which appear on no (public) maps. They are gloriously short, functional and descriptive: Home, Moor, Reseeded, Middle, Far, Cruttonstall House, Square, Long and Flat, each with the suffix of ‘Meadow’ or ‘Field’. It is Moor Field they are hoping for hay from tomorrow, and Middle Meadow Chris is baling now.
As she talks and rakes, one of their three sheepdogs takes the raking as a game, stalking it and nipping at its teeth, which delights my son. It is only the head of the rake he takes as his quarry, for when Kath upends the rake and uses the butt of the handle to shift the piles into a row he never takes his eyes off the head as it waves in the air.
Since cutting and baling the winter fodder must be done in fine weather when the landscape and the elements are at their most benevolent, it is not exactly the right time to compliment a farmer on the beauty of their working environment without coming across as a hopelessly naive rural romantic who thinks farming life must all be like this, but I cannot help it. In response, she mentions that on a recent visit across the valley, to a farm at Old Town for a tractor part, she complimented its owner on the fine view from his place, to which he replied that on a recent visit to her farm he had thought exactly the same thing. ‘I suppose you get used to it’, she says with a smile.
Once my son has taken sufficient photos and videos, all cleared with Kath, of the baler at work, and it is time for her to move along the field edge on the quad bike, we wish them all the best luck with the weather and getting the hay they would like, and move on. When we get to the end of the lane at the top of the woods we both seem reluctant to descend Foster’s Rake and end such a wonderful day. My son becomes suddenly fascinated with a soldier beetle, and why, among the never-ending harebells, some of the normally-white yarrow is pink. Despite it being late – we have been out now for 10 hours – I indulge his sudden, stalling interests, of a piece, it seems to me, with the flurry of questions and tasks that occur to him when it is time for bed. Just before we cross the threshold of the stile, our delay is rewarded with the sight of a roe buck and doe down in Flat Field.
On our way home a fanciful analogy occurs to me to explain our resistance to descending from the shining ‘tops’, as all land above the lip of the lower valley is called in these parts. Just as the Millers are aiming to preserve the goodness of summer in their hay bales ready for the lean times of winter, so too in the light and wide space of this open landscape I am attempting to store up something sustaining for the uncertain coming months. We are engaged in our own hay time, lingering over long days, saving something of the nourishment of summer’s pungent warmth and vivid brightness.
We are able to witness the Millers’ success in the Moor Field the following day. On a walk with friends for a picnic to May’s (7th) redstart field, the sun starts to break through after a cool, overcast morning. As we are packing up, across the valley we can see work beginning: a haybob is rowing up, spinning the grass into windrows for a last hour of drying and ready for baling.
After an amble home along Winter’s Lane and down through Lower Rawtonstall, we wave our friends goodbye and I re-ascend the hill to watch the baling from across the valley. The rowing up is complete and the baling is in full swing. Kath nips around on the quad bike arranging the bales ready for the second tractor, with a bale accumulator grapple, to clutch and lift eight bales at once onto the trailer.
Though I cannot hear from across the valley whether their bale grapple has a similar voice, I can vividly recall the squeal made by the one I worked alongside in Essex arable fields for two harvests in the mid-1990s as it sunk its hooks into straw bales.
Though there is plenty to do at home, I find myself mesmerised, watching row after row disappear, and the bales being gathered, stacked and carted to the barn. And more than this, I feel that I want to stay and watch through to the last row. Giving in to this feeling, I settle down amongst the grass to wonder what is behind it. Is it a sense of solidarity, having taken part in hay time on a small farm and appreciating its importance? Is it understanding the bringing in of the fodder that will see the stock through winter to be a pivotal moment of the farming year, and my conviction that if you want to understand this landscape you have to understand the nature and rhythms of its small farms? Is it my yearning to feel more deeply a part of, a participant in, this landscape, and since I am not a farm worker I must find a role in bearing witness, paying heed to, this landscape and the lives – both human and non-human – lived in close relationship with it? I am content that it is for all these reasons that I am rooted here.
A buzzard and two monstrous juvenile herring gulls float by in the gulf of valley space that separates me from the baling. The sun goes in, and against the keening breeze I snuggle further down amongst the grasses. Richard Mabey said in his 1983 work In a Green Shade that he considered his writing a kind of rural work. Insofar as observation is essential to writing, might I be considered to be engaged in a kind of rural work right now? Certainly, the mode in which I spend most of my time in the countryside these days does not fit easily into any of the categories of outdoor leisure pursuits. I long ago gave up being interested in summits or slavishly following recognised walking routes or visiting marketed beauty spots. I quickly found the answer as to whether mountain biking was for me and was able to sell my wheels in almost mint condition. I am no fell runner; indeed, I have never been known to break into so much as a trot out of choice when out in the hills. For the period that I was intensively mapping farmhouses I used Strava, the popular app for recording and timing one’s cycling and running routes, to help with my photograph record-keeping, and it informed me that typically I spend 50% of my time when out ‘walking’ stationary. I’m not so much a walker as a stander-and-a-looker.
Or, in this case, a recliner-and-a-looker. I might even be sprawled. My ears are again amongst the grass seedheads; I compare the soft soughs made by the delicate common bent grass seedheads with those of the wiry moorland grasses of yesterday. The lulling hum of the baler drifts in and out of hearing from across the valley, and as I continue my ruminations on whether what I am doing can be considered work….I fall asleep.
It must have been only a quick doze, but I ruefully laugh at myself, and the irony of the nature of the thoughts I went to sleep to, when I awake. No such breaks have been had in the Moor Field, where the real work is happening. The sun is back out and only a few rows remain.
By the time the last row is done it is high time I went home, but there must be another hour or more of work to bring in the remaining bales.
To the Suffolk coast, for our summer holiday, the fourth in a row in the same cottage in Southwold. Ordinarily we travel by train, but without clear government guidance on the use of the rail network – are we still supposed to be leaving its reduced capacity for key workers and others who have no alternative? are holidays considered sufficiently essential to justify the risk? and what is the risk? – let alone the discomfort of wearing a mask for six hours, we reluctantly hire a car. The last time we made a car journey south like this was 14 years ago, when we returned to our home town in Essex to get married. This repeat does nothing but utterly confirm in us our conviction that a car-free life is the one for us. We stumble, shell-shocked, from the car and onto the beach for the relief of stillness and misted sea air.
The sea fret clings to the breezeless coast through the following day, though the air is warm and we have a perfectly good day on the beach. In the evening, though, I succumb to its flat gloom, which settles into me as I walk out along the edge of, and then into, the town. I am hoping for the susurration of the reedbeds and the lowing of the cattle in the pastures beyond, but both are silent. The lights beyond the River Blyth in Walberswick look not cosy glows of conviviality as in previous years, but lonely vigils of the isolated and scared.
I visit the charming little cinema. The lightboxes display not tonight’s feature, but a list of films they look forward to screening once they can open their doors again. Towering hollyhocks have sprung from the pavement where its velvet ropes and brass-buttoned concierge should be greeting the queues. They smother its exterior and obscure its benighted neon sign. We have always loved Southwold’s hollyhocks, which no garden here seems to be without, but here they seem like a sinister foreshadowing of the growth of weeds that could overcome these places of communion and community.
In a walk down the High Street I find the pubs and restaurants sparse of patrons, even allowing for distancing measures. Those there are are trying to summon the spirit of summers gone, but it looks to me a wary and forced jolliness. This feeling of a town withering is compounded by the grass on all of its famous, spacious commons having been scorched and browned by the recent heatwave.
Down on the beach there is at least the constancy of the waves. The mist thickens so that I can hardly see the pier up the beach. I know, from looking at a marine traffic website earlier, that there are 20 oil tankers moored just a few miles out. I don’t know what they’re waiting for, but I feel their unseen presence as predatory, circling a weakened country.
I come across the two sandcastles that were built earlier by my son and his granny, who visited for the day. The beach was pleasantly populated then, but it is only myself and a fisherman along the shore now. Beyond him, the blinking red-green flashes of the port-starboard lights marking the entrance to the River Blyth. The lights of the pier have come on, and the beam from the lighthouse in the town blindly sweeps through the mist.
But perhaps the sea fret is having the melancholy effect on me that I expect it to, making me see the worst rather than the best, the loss rather than the hope.
The following day we head to Somerleyton, a stately home, for its gardens. They are melancholy in their own way, being somewhat run down, though charmingly so. But as I hoped and expected, a bit of sun transforms my mood. Down at the Blyth’s blackshore the following day, it is busy with families crabbing, and the coast stays clear of the mushrooming cumulus inshore.
An afternoon at the beach under blue skies and the holiday is in full swing.
My parents come down from Norfolk to spend a lovely day with us, the first time we have seen them in nearly eight months. And in the evening after they have left we are treated to the kind of sunset in endless skies that I love to come back to my home region of East Anglia for.
The following day we visit Staverton Park, an extraordinary woodland which I visited several times over twenty years ago while living in nearby Woodbridge when attending Otley Agricultural College for a diploma in rural studies and conservation. Entirely unheralded and off the beaten tourist trail, with no car park or signposts, it is one of the largest collections of ancient trees in the country, with over 4000 oaks, any one of which would be a celebrated icon of antiquity if transplanted to anywhere else. Pollarded in the distant past but untouched for well over a century, they are squat rather than tall and spreading, but their gnarled girth is astonishing. Privately owned by a local farming family – the squeals and grunts of whose pigs in the neighbouring field one could fancy as of the wild boar that would be well at home amongst the oaks – they have been studied in intense detail. Every tree has been mapped and assigned a number, every dead branch has been counted, every sap run, rot hole, branch stump and heart rot.
And everything I have said so far is only about the ‘parkland’ part of the woodland. But abutting it to its south is an almost equal-sized woodland called The Thicks with a very different character, its oaks largely unpollarded and not spaciously separated but densely crowded with Britain’s tallest and most ancient hollies. This area has not been mapped in the same way as the Park, apparently simply because it is too demanding a task.
We wander along the one public footpath beside the fenced-off Park, peering into its interior, where, I am pleased to see given my recent appreciation of the importance of herbivory in maintaining healthy woodlands, cattle are browsing. We emerge at its north end beside a lake, where squadrons of dragonflies and damselflies quarter us as we lay on the grass. Our son exercises his field skills in carefully approaching one which lands on a molehill in order to photograph it, and another pair in the process of mating.
Heading back the way we came we spy a thatched cottage straight out of a fairytale, nestled under the eaves of the boundary oaks of the Park. When we reach the unfenced Thicks, we cannot resist plunging off the path, and wander for an hour through its heart, marvelling at more or less every oak, birch and holly we encounter.
Re-entering the modern world, we pick our way up coastal lanes that get progressively narrower and muddier at every turn to call in at a pick-your-own fruit farm to harvest a punnet of plump blackberries for pudding tonight, waving at the tractor driver as he carts containers of apples from the orchard. I hope they are finding good markets for all their bounty.
We visit the 12th-century Orford Castle, of a similar vintage to the oak trees in its hinterland, and from the small harbour stare out across the choppy River Alde through the rain at the eerie shingle spit of Orford Ness and the strange structures of its disused Cold War-era Atomic Weapons Research Establishment facility.
On the way back to Southwold we stop in at Reydon Wood, and while my wife walks along the lane to a pick-your-own flower farm, my son and I do a circuit of this very different kind of ancient woodland, where the Suffolk Wildlife Trust maintain a traditional coppice regime. Several fells (the compartments into which coppice woodlands are divided and rotationally cut) have recently been coppiced, and have been enclosed by ugly metal fences, no doubt more effective at protecting the young shoots from deer and certainly much quicker to erect than the traditional barriers of woven brash which I spent much time at college constructing. We find ponds at the crossroads of the rides which have recently been found to contain a colony of great-crested newts. My son is keen to see them and I to defiantly count them, but there is a healthy amount of weed for them to remain enigmatic in. My wife meets us on our way out along the ditch-and-bank boundary, the giveaway of an ancient woodland, beaming at her jar of colour in the growing gloom.
Another fine day of sandcastles, body boarding and mini golf brings us to our last evening. After dinner we have a last Harris & James gelato each while staring out at a sea sky brushed with mare’s tail.
A last walk on the beach, our son in clean clothes for the evening, inevitably turns into a paddle, which turns into running up and down, splashing in the waves in joyous abandon, which also inevitably turns into well-warranted tears that the holiday is over.
A gentle re-acquaintance with the garden – birch seed is gathering on the paths, acorns are swelling on the oaks – and the landscape, with a walk up to the gate. My son jousts with Peter, tending his vegetables, over whose runner beans are the tallest, with neither willing to concede. We pass John and Margaret, which gives me an opportunity to quiz him as to whether any of the curlews that spent the spring and summer in the fields behind his old farmhouse nested, but he cannot say. My concern for them grows, and my resolve to act next year when they return deepens.
The lane is lined with blackberries and ripening elderberries. At the gate we roll our eyes over the familiar fields and folds of the hills. Edge End’s Moor Field, which we last saw in its immediate post-baling brown, is now a lush green, the hay baler left where it finished work.
Cutting has evidently continued in the Cruttonstall House field, where there are black-wrapped silage bales beside the ruin. Several neighbours pass as we drink it all in, enquiring as to whether our holiday was a success. It was, but it’s good to be home also, and we all turn our eyes to the view. Descending through the oaks, which seem in the first flush of youth after Staverton Park, we notice for the first time that the now-quiet jackdaw nest hole, just above the bee hole, must have admitted an unwanted draft, as it is stuffed shut with downy feathers and fur.
Through cool woods and the Butterworths’ meadows to get ourselves up and over to the Colden Valley. My son has an obligatory dip and splash in the water at Hebble Hole while I gaze around at the almost painfully idyllic dell. Ash, oak, willow, alder, birch, wych elm, rowan and sycamore swaddle a grassy clearing with rosebay, bilberry, heather, buckler ferns and woodrush, and after flowing under the 300-year-old clapper bridge the Colden Water, which will eventually pass under the his school playground, is here briefly perfect for paddling.
It’s always worth a dawdle here, but we have our eyes on a prize up the hill: an ice cream at May’s Shop. It’s too long since we marvelled at the improbable cornucopia secreted within this small farm outbuilding. May, stooped and ever smiling, arrives and leaves again, seemingly in the middle of driving deliveries around the lanes. We sit and slurp our bounty on the wall outside, and chat to a couple out on a cycle from their home, nestled under Stoodley Pike.
On the way back, we pass three Pennine Wayfarers in quick succession. Being twenty years since I was inclined towards tottering under a weight on a long-distance trail (the Coast to Coast being the last), I am fascinated by these transient visitors that bisect the delights of our valley (and dozens of others) in a matter of hours. We stop and chat to a couple of them, one well-equipped and upbeat, the other days behind his schedule already and, seemingly, learning to read a map along the way. We make sure they know to call in at May’s Shop, and my son recommends the best ice cream. Beside us, sheep are being gathered in.
We peel off the Pennine Way and contour up through the lawn-like re-growth after the silage cuts in the fields of Rawtonstall Hey. We stop at a post that helps walkers keep to the line of the right of way, since it is so little-frequented that there is no path. What I think of as the landscape I inhabit is actually a patchwork of smaller landscapes, each of which I can walk to and in within a day. It is from this spot that the greatest number of these different landscape patches can be taken in at one time: the undulating skyline of Walshaw Moor; almost the entire length of the Colden Valley; the headwaters of the valley above Todmorden; Stoodley Pike and Langfield Common; Erringden; Heptsonstall; Wadsworth and Midgley Moor; Crimsworth Dean; and, of course, the ridge of Blackshaw Parish on which we stand and at the bottom of which we reside.
At the end of a wet Friday, in what looks set to be the last of the rain until Wednesday, I circumambulate Edge End Moor in the manner of the devout circling of Mount Kailash, my own prosaic pilgrimage. At Cruttonstall the day-long drizzle lets up, affording the dull air an astonishing clarity.
As I curve around the hillside beside a wall, two things arrive at once: the return of the rain and Edge End’s cattle, a 35-strong herd of mothers, calves and a bull.
The herd, and not just the rain, has watery qualities as it slowly, steadily surges around the stationary white rocks of sheep like an incoming tide. Like any tide, this one is not for defying; I bow to it and beat a retreat, turning downhill at the wall’s corner. The first few reach the corner, stop, scrutinise me for all of a second, bellow behind them that I am of no consequence and lead the rest on, all of whom ignore me. I watch their bulky silhouettes recede against the retreating brightness.
On past the ruin of Thorps and through harebells and tormentil above Height Gate. The blades of five of the Crook Hill wind turbines are curving above and disappearing below the tabletop skyline of Langfield Common, and in a moment of coordination usually absent from wind farms their blades move in unison and look like the arcing arms of synchronised swimmers.
I gradually turn my back to the wind as I drop into a lane choked with deep, sodden rush, which press on and soak through my old waterproof trousers. And then for the first time that day the sun musters and pools a watery shadow in front of me. I turn and watch the sky brightening, while above me the north-westerly wind wails through the wires.
One thing we have desperately missed this year are the agricultural shows. We would have been at the Otley Show in May, and the Halifax and Malham shows in August. I always put others in the calendar that I aspire to get to but never manage, mostly the smaller, more traditional shows in the Dales – Tan Hill, Muker, Moorcock and others. We always go to our most local show at Todmorden, but worryingly for its future it was not going to be on this year anyway. We’ve tried the Bingley and Kilnsey shows as well, but we’ve got to know our favourites. They are a perfect family day out, with something for all of us: rides, tractors and children’s races for our son; flowers and produce for my wife; and sheep and cattle judging and, generally, observing the cultural life of the farming community for me. We can only hope they are back next year.
We would also have been participating in our parish fete, the Blackshaw Head Fete, around about now, as well. And when I say ‘we’, I mean my wife and son, who together put in an extraordinary number of cakes, vegetables, models, preserves and sundry other items to the produce tent competition, and bring home a goodly number of rosettes each year. This frustrated creative zeal bursts out today and we assemble a produce table in the garden. Our son manufactures rosettes and I am appointed judge for various of the flower, vegetable and baking categories.
We go in search of the tractor component of the show in the afternoon. On the way up the hill we introduce my wife to the fun of geocaching, recruiting her to help poke around under boulders in the bracken on the precipitous edge of Jumble Hole Clough. On the verge of giving up and resolving to come back once the bracken has died down, I push a thicket of it back from one last stone and strike gold. We sign the log book and puff up the Pennine Bridleway, pursued by three horses. We watch them pass as we are standing beside Babs’s honesty box of jams at Dove Scout Farm, preserves which would ordinarily be in the Blackshaw produce tent, along with her famous scones.
The tractors are found at work in the fields below Popples Farm, teddering the cut grass. As we are watching it another lumbers down Marsh Lane, and we have to press ourselves against the wall, the tines of its folded tedder brushing past our faces. It enters John’s fields, where on his fourth birthday our son was treated to a ride on John’s old Grey Fergie tractor. He now spends half an hour taking photographs and videos of a much more modern machine working efficiently up and down the small fields.
Across the valley, Edge End have another field cut, and a figure now enters it on a quad bike, dismounts and examines the grass: no doubt there is a decision to made about whether to bale today or tomorrow, or perhaps over whether to bale as silage or hay.
Later on our walk, we see the quad again racing towards the field from the farm, this time with a dog dashing in front. The shows are an important part of the life of the agricultural community and no doubt missed by many farmers this year, but the work of the farming year goes on.