I balance unsteadily on a mound of Molinia grass that forms an island in the ditch, reach back across and haul my son over to the other side. I let him go ahead to have first shot at finding the geocache which, having given him a free choice, was his preferred mission for today. He peers around the base of a stunted spruce and declares success, but then dismay. As has been reported by several of the most recent finders, the location of this geocache is waterlogged. It’s why we embarked on this walk in our wellies despite the fine forecast, but then again, it takes exceptional conditions for us to forsake our wellies around here. But this geocache is not just damp from its boggy home. Its lid has inexplicably been left off and it is therefore full to the brim with Pennine rain, floating in which is its log book and selection of little offerings. We empty it and put the lid back on, but there is no chance of us registering our find on the mushy paper record, so we resolve to return and replace the battered old container another time.
We re-cross the ditch – I come very close to plunging a leg into it – and sit beside the nearby pond for an early lunch. Close to the edge of the wood, the view out across the moor is framed on either side by the firebreak in which the pond is set. A distant kestrel over the moor enters, hovers within, then exits this frame. Nearby, common hawker dragonflies, just as deadly as a kestrel, quarter their own territory. One, in a brief moment of bemusement for us both, lands on my leg. A dead one floats on the surface of the water, still airborne in the reflected sky. My son fishes it out with his walking stick, delights in a close examination of its hollowed-out head, then delicately replaces it.
We thread our way back through the wood and, as the panorama opens up we can see that now that the dew has burnt off, the valley’s farmers – in John’s fields above Winter’s Lane and Maggie’s below, at Pextenement, at Lower Swineshead – are out rowing up and baling.
In the shade of the sycamore at the ruin of Thorps, we stop for another chapter of our latest book, The Little Grey Men, Denys Watkins-Pitchford’s 1942 classic of the last gnomes in England and their quest to find their lost brother at the source of the Folly Brook. From the neighbouring field comes a current of drifting thisteldown, dazzling white in the sun, reminiscent of May‘s blizzard of pussy willow seed. A charm of goldfinches enters the current then snags itself on a holly and disappears within its dense shadows.
As we make our way along towards Cruttonstall we find Paul just entering Square Field, which we had seen being examined the previous day, to row it up.
Before too long, Chris comes along with the silage baler, revealing that their deliberations had ended with the decision to go for silage. When Kath comes along on the quad she confirms that with rain forecast for tomorrow the grass just did not have the drying time necessary for hay. By September, she says, with the days shorter, the sun weaker and the ground wetter, it was rare – not unknown, but rare – to get hay. She lifts a row up with her rake – which Bill, her collie companion for today, nips at playfully – to show that it is still a little wet underneath, despite the sun.
The field now combed into rows, Paul departs to swap the haybob for the bale wrapper, which my son asks if we can stay to get some videos of. Checking with Kath if they would mind, I joke that they must never have considered baling as a spectator sport before. But my son is inordinately pleased with his videos of the surprisingly delicate handling of the huge round bales that the wrapper executes.
Kath asks my son if he is looking forward to going back to school next week, and gets an enthusiastic response. She asks how I feel about it. I’m glad, of course, but these last six months together, much of the time outside in these few square miles of remarkable landscape, have been precious. She touchingly says he will remember these days for the rest of his life. I hope so. I know I will.
We say goodbye and wave to Paul and Chris in their tractors as we plunge down into the woods. Once again there is a reluctance on both our parts to end the day. He picks a mossy shelf of rock to sit on, requesting another chapter of The Little Grey Men. The hum of the tractors continues above as we read, and the yellowing birch leaves patter down around us.
On this first day of the new school year, instead of our already-circuitous walk via side streets, which we have always taken to avoid the roar and reek of the main road, we choose to extend it further, avoiding tarmac almost altogether, ascending straight away into the woods. They are drenched and dripping, a fog of low cloud condensing heavily on their leaves, every shiver of breeze setting off a cold cascade of plump drips onto us.
The post-summer, and for some, post-lockdown, reunion at the school gates is joyous, intensifying the quiet of the woods on my way back home. My route takes me up the arrow-straight Cat Steps, across which are slung dozens of spiders’ webs at face height.
A stream of silhouettes crosses the chasm of white sky between oaks as a large flock of tits – back into their habit of feeding communally in a mix of families and species as we enter autumn – pours through the oak canopy. The nuthatch spills the wateriest of its three distinct calls – ‘drip, drip, drip’ – into the sodden morning woods.
On either side of Green House Lane the balsam is yellowing, the bracken browning, the spires of foxglove and dock are summer-scorched and spent. Down the lane to the gate, the meadow’s lank grasses combed over by wet westerlies, the haws ripening, the heather rusting.
We set off on a hunt for a horse chestnut tree. Our usual source for conkers is Calder Holmes Park in the centre of Hebden Bridge, home to two fine specimens, but one has now been felled, prompting a search for a backup in case the other is deemed unfit for public space. On Stony Lane we stop to talk to Eileen, lifelong Charlestown resident, who gives us a tip off, recalling that her children set off up the Pennine Way at this time of year. Before we reach the backpacker highway, we come across a medium-sized tree above Underbank House, but peering up into its branches I cannot see sufficient promise to warrant clambering among the dense bramble at its base.
We climb to the bottom of the steps that lead up to the ruin of Higgin House to scan the steep, scrubby fields either side. Reluctant to hang on until autumn proper to display their colours, horse chestnuts are easy to pick out of a lineup in September, and amongst the dense stands of oaks and birches the telltale flaming yellow and orange gives one away. It looks a little small, though, so we press on in our search for one that matches the stature of those in the park.
After crossing Dale Clough, the stream disappearing into a culvert under the bridge, we find a fresh dead rat laying directly on the path. My son’s first close look at one, he’s impressed by its size and its scaly tail, and crouches down to examine it. As he leans in to search for clues as to how it died, I feel myself tense and ready to catch him if he loses his balance and tips forward onto it.
A few paces further on as we step onto the pitched path of the Pennine Way we meet Debs and Alan, installing an impressive structure to support some new decking. (Unsurprisingly, with such compelling reasons to be able to offer al fresco dining, they are not the only household we pass on our walk which is busy installing garden decking.) As so often in local conversations in recent months (though not uncommon before, either), we agree that we have much to be thankful for in being able to walk from our doors amongst such beautiful countryside.
They have much to offer us in our quest, both knowledge – of the small horse chestnut we had seen across the field and of a ‘desire path’ that will see us through the bramble to it – and an incredibly kind proposal that if we are not successful then to call back for seasoned conkers from years past, salvaged from a felled veteran tree nearby. And lastly, incidental to our quest, a confirmation that their house, Lacy Laithe, should most certainly appear on my Upper Calder Valley Farm Map as a former farm; their neighbour recalls feeding the cows 40 years ago in the barn that now forms part of their dwelling.
Since the weather is improving, we extend the walk along the valley side, past the empty terrace where Mount Olivet Baptist Chapel once nestled into the steep slope, down into Jumble Hole Clough, past more hewn hillsides where textile mills once thrummed. We cross the stream and climb a curving path into a horse paddock below Mulculture Hall to find a little stone bench with a fine view, another of Debs and Alan’s recommendations. Despite being just over half a mile from home, and despite thinking of ourselves as relatively familiar with our local patch, it is still entirely common to find something new.
We cross the railway on the footbridge under Common Bank Wood, a winter roost for jackdaws, to which they will soon be returning. The hillside opposite now looks so enticing in the late afternoon sun that we cross the road, river and canal, ascend above Burnt Acres Wood and climb onto the shoulder above Parrock Clough. Opposite, above Common Bank Wood, a tractor is teddering a field of cut grass. The curve of the valley downstream layers three wooded hillsides against one another – Callis Wood, Knott Wood and Eaves Wood.
Perched atop Callis Nab, Edge End’s Flat and Far fields, its last two to be cut, remain green and growing for now.
Down Dick Lane and through the ruin of Burnt Acres to cross the valley again, we re-ascend the Pennine Way to follow the ‘desire path’ up through bramble and balsam to the horse chestnut, but it yields only brown, sickly-looking cases with tiny, undeveloped nuts inside. I’m rather crestfallen at our lack of success, but my son says he’s pleased to find even these poor shrivelled conkers, and that I should be too. Recognising that I should take his reflecting back at me my own advice to him when things don’t go according to expectations, I cheer up and we follow the continuation of the path, ducking under the maturing oaks that are gradually turning these pastures into woodland.
With our friends Rebecca and Andrew, we ascend through Callis Wood, past the rippled roof of enormous Yorkshire stone slates at Oaks Farm and through the rushy pastures up to Thorps. Across Oaks Clough, Flat Field is being mown.
After looking down at the collapsed roof of Thorps, we continue on our way around the bulk of Lodge Hill, and Rebecca asks why the old farmhouses like Thorps have not been rescued and renovated. Perhaps she realises or perhaps not, but if I could plant a question to be asked so I can share my fascination with the farming history of this landscape, this is it. The answer, in short, is that, apart from a relatively small number, they largely have been rescued and renovated. I have mapped 542 farms in the Upper Calder Valley. Of these, I count 56 that remain working farms; 410 that are now dwellings only; and 76 ruins. The abandonment of the farms started around 1870 and continued into the 1960s, but from around this time onward, instead of being left to moulder, each time a farm ceased its working life, the farmhouse and barns were snapped up and renovated. It is this 90-year window which accounts for most of the ruins. The notable thing is therefore not so much how many ruins there are, but just how many of the farmhouses and barns have been preserved in the last 60 years.
Although I have only just warmed to my theme, I recognise that, however inexplicable, not everyone is as fascinated by the farming history of this valley as I am, and there is a general demand in the party for a snack stop. A kestrel hunts above the lightly-wooded Height Rough as Rebecca dishes out chocolate.
In Long Meadow, our son explains how he came to have a sit in a tractor a few weeks back, and after we pass Lower Rough Head he gets to point out the very tractor that it was. We wave to Rachel as she turns by the track.
In Edge End’s meadows, linnets and meadow pipts rise from the regrowth in the Moor Meadow, no doubt feeding on the seed bed that the late cutting ensures has time to build up for next year. Down in the Flat Field, the mowing is nearing completion.
A breezy crossing of Pry Hill takes us down the Pennine Bridleway on Bow Lane into the Colden Valley.
We turn left at the track of Hudson’s Mill Road and emerge onto Smithy Lane at the New Delight, our destination, for it is here that the Great Rock Coop is having its first, experimental post-lockdown pop-up shop. Normally housed every Saturday morning at Staups Lee Farm, it has been soldiering on with online orders and home deliveries for the past six months. But under an open-sided tent are familiar (albeit masked) faces and the normal delicious-looking array of local produce. We are greeted by Phil, while Keith and Julie deal with the checkout. Lynne is there with her Pennine Preserves (we get spiced plum jam), and Carl with his Pextenement organic cheese (Pike’s Delight mature cheddar and East Lee soft farmhouse, from a 1925 recipe he has a copy of on the table). We get leeks from Field Head Farm (that’s Julie and Keith), and from Bascia, Ay Up pesto. Romily, newly-appointed as their shop co-ordinator, is there familiarising herself with everything. Therese tests out their ideas for a Christmas market on us. It is all very cheering, and we come away laden.
Understanding that we would be passing Hebble Hole on our walk, and associating that place with many a summer paddle, at our son’s insistence we have packed his swimming shorts and neoprene wet shoes. Undeterred in the face of the gusting, near-autumnal breeze, he changes and wades in, while we watch, wrapped in coats against the coolness for the first time since the spring. We are so far the only ones at this commonly-busy spot with this bright idea, and only dog walkers hurry by.
We eat some of our Great Rock plunder, all, I think, courtesy of Julie at Field Head Farm – a lemon drizzle cake, a cup cake and a heart-shaped flapjack. Taking the opportunity of the variety of trees on display, I drill our son in a quick-fire arboreal quiz. He has no problem with willow, oak, birch, ash, rowan and hazel. It is only the wych elm and a rogue fir tree which gives him trouble, and even the latter he stabs at with ‘pine’. Pleased as punch at how much he appears to be taking in when we’re out and about, even a little taken aback at his knowledge, I release him back into the river. After a short while a cheer goes up: ‘I skimmed a stone!’ Dashing over to witness this developmental milestone, it appears to be no fluke; he has a perfectly beautiful action, and I have no further advice to offer. They grow up so fast.
Once he finally concedes that he is cold, we change him, cross the clapper bridge and make our way down the northern side of the deeply-wooded clough, past silted up mill ponds and leats, and the chimney of Lumb Mill.
On the fourth day after I developed a fever, I venture beyond our property boundary for the first time and for the only reason permitted: to post my completed home testing kit in the nearest ‘priority postbox’. Luckily, it is only down the bottom of our road, but I make my way there through the woods both to minimise my chances of coming into contact with anybody and to maximise the effect of the journey on my own well-being.
My legs are leaden as I climb the slope, the effect of four days of enforced rest and of what I remain convinced is just a nasty little cold getting above its station. But the sodden woods and rotting bracken leave me in no doubt that my sense of smell – even through a profoundly blocked nose – is intact, and I breathe in the early autumn scents as best I can.
At the end of an appalling week, half of which was spent waiting for a test appointment and the rest in an interminable wait for the result, we have a fire in the garden. It is a late afternoon of liquid golden light pouring through the still trees. Speckled wood butterflies and solitary wasps probe and dance in the basking oaks. Jackdaws idly preen on the chimney pots. A robin perches in the hazel, but cannot bring itself to utter the alarm call it has been directing our way for the rest of the week. A pair of buzzards mew and shake off a jackdaw and soar into a faded blue sky. Wood pigeons try to disturb the peace with a clatter of wings, but no one takes any notice. A great tit catches the mood with its gentle tapping. A pair of pied wagtail bounce and skim across the canopy at the bottom of Beaumont Clough on the other side of the valley, the air so hushed I can hear their ‘chissiks’. A jay lands on a low-hanging oak branch and carefully bounces down to the ground exactly like the woodpecker in Bagpuss descending from the mantelpiece. I lean back in my chair and let the smoke and sun rays and crackle of the fire lull away the week’s frustrations.
With a negative test result having restored my freedom, I treat myself to a late afternoon round of Edge End Moor. I take the alternative zig-zags of an older track which has been overlain by Foster’s Rake up through Callis Wood. These two tracks merge at the top and the last stretch is lined by beech, the remains of what was possibly a Victorian plantation – felled during the Second World War – to supply the valley’s mills with bobbins and spindles.
As I emerge into the light, I am greeted by the mewing of two buzzards, an adult and a juvenile. I scan along the fence line bordering Flat Field below me, and find them, perched 24 fence posts apart.
After a few minutes of calling to each other, the adult (presumably the parent) stands up, lifts its tail feathers high, defecates, then takes off, disappearing against the canopy of Common Bank Wood on the opposite side of the valley. The juvenile continues its higher-pitched wailing for a while, then takes off itself. It is immediately mobbed by a crow, which spits guttural insults as it tenaciously keeps up with the buzzard’s circling, stooping and sudden turns. Unable to shake the crow, the buzzard wisely opts to temporarily depart from what the crow thinks of as its airspace. It traverses Edge End’s six-field width and circles above Beaumont Clough for a while. But as soon as the crow, apparently satisfied, disappears, the buzzard sleekly arrows back. For a moment it slips into the valley and is lost from my view, but I can trace its progress by the spray of alarmed wood pigeons it drives up from the trees. It re-appears, circling again, its mewing now echoed by a siren in the valley, and finally settles in a treetop on the bank of woodland above Oaks Farm.
The cattle herd is down in Flat and Far fields, which were cut 15 days ago now but, unlike the almost instant re-growth of earlier in the summer, are yet showing only the subtlest of signs of greening up. No doubt the liberal spattering of cow pats I am stepping through will help it along before the growing season is over. An engine drone on the other side of the valley draws my eye to the fields below Rodwell Head Farm, where a muck spreader is darkening the fields in a more methodical manner.
Beyond the ruin of Cruttonstall I join the path that circumnavigates Edge End Moor. If the moor were a (somewhat misshapen) clock, my route joins the face at 12 o’clock. I tick round in my favoured direction, anti-clockwise. When I reach 8 o’clock I decide to follow a right of way that cuts in a peculiarly straight line across the clock face – up and over the moor at its hulking shoulder known as Lodge Hill – to bring me to 4 o’clock at Lower Rough Head. But, for all the superb views it affords, this is an almost wholly unfrequented right of way, with no path on the ground, no waymarker to set you off at the right point, and on which the OS map is uncharacteristically unclear. While I am trying to determine exactly which line up the hillside I should take, there is a rustle in the grasses above me and a pair of hare’s ears disappear over the horizon at about the right point, so I follow them up.
There is something about the flanks of Lodge Hill – its folds terraced by sheep trods, its decrepit stone wall, its scattering of wind-blasted hawthorns and its tawny grasses – which recalls the kind of hillsides I would gaze longingly up at during childhood holidays in the Yorkshire Dales before my parents felt ready to let me loose up them on my own. Sometimes, when ascending hillsides like this, I still can’t believe I’m allowed to.
I stop to examine a bleached sheep skull, grasses threading through its eye sockets, tormentil, harebell and yarrow thriving in the shallow dike in which it perished. Behind me, pastures are being burnished by shafts of sunlight slipping through fissures in the cloud banks.
Past the pockmarks of an old quarry, which contains a picked-clean sheep’s pelvis, and across a fence on a stile almost crushed by two leaning stone gate stoops, I become curious about something I have been seeing all way around the moor but which here is particularly noticeable: the ubiquitous tufts of grass and moss left by the pluckings of jackdaws and rooks. I get down close and examine a few, and find that many, perhaps most, are actually tiny rush seedlings. Rushes are not, as a rule, welcomed by upland farmers; they reduce the productivity of grassland both for grazing and for silage, and can impede drainage. Given how extensive the corvids appear to work this rough grassland, I begin to wonder if jackdaws and rooks have an unheralded role in keeping the rushes in check. And why do they pull them up at all? Do certain insect larvae tend to be concentrated at the base of their roots?
In the last few days, summer’s end has been marked by a deep, settled hush. Within the newly-chilled, stilled air, the clarity of soft sounds has been intensified. Passing Lower Rough Head I think I can hear the running water of a stream from somewhere in amongst its buildings, and a little way down the track I again catch a bubbling rush of water. I now recall having seen on the 1853 Ordnance Survey map that the stream of Beaumont Clough was marked as emerging from a spring at the farm and descending amongst the fields on my right, which are now smooth and show no sign of a watercourse in the bottom of their shallow valley. But a footpath across them allows me to follow the sound, and I find that one section of a field drain of considerable size and construction briefly exposes the hidden stream to daylight. It feels like seeing the inner workings of the landscape, secreted away a century and a half ago.
A lone, late swallow surprises me as I enter Edge End’s fields to complete my circling of its moor. As I pass below the farm the quad bike starts up and Chris appears, crosses the Moor Meadow to its upper edge hard against the moor, and starts on a bit of fence mending. The taps of his hammer reverberate behind me as I descend to Cruttonstall, and a curtain of rain is drawn down the valley.