I respond to the closing down of the days, the bearing down of the clouds, by breaking out of the territory I have circled for the past six months. Pre-lockdown, by the use of local bus services, the region of the upper Calder Valley watershed within which I would walk covers roughly forty-five square miles. In avoiding the use of buses for the past six months, and also, with my six-year-old son for excellent company most of the time meaning not being able to use my bike to extend my range, it is a more compact nine-square-mile neighbourhood that we have been exploring.
Today, then, I cycle to Midgehole for a reunion with a favourite place: Crimsworth Dean, a tributary of the Calder Valley which carves three miles into the moors to the north of Hebden Bridge. I lock my bike at the car park for the National Trust’s Hardcastle Crags, the upper valley’s only bona fide beauty spot, with waymarked trails and a cafe in the old mill. As everyone else locks their cars and heads west towards the hot drinks, I lock my bike and lean northwards into the slope and the rising wind. The lower reaches of the valley are wooded and afford a little shelter, but as I emerge from Abel Cote Wood the bitterness of the day is fully unmasked, and I find myself stopping to put on not only my coat, but also my gloves and woolly hat. Given how many meadows in the view – Anne’s at Old Chamber, the Tennant’s at Horse Hey, those surrounding Heptsonstall – have only just had their last summer cut, this autumn awakening seems a touch rude.
I pass Laithe Farm, one of half a dozen still working in the valley, and then Nook, one of a dozen long ruined. The new season is already sinking from the flat moor tops, with the heather turning russet, but the intake walls are holding it at bay and the fields hold their green for now. At the track to the vanished Shepherd’s Lodge I decide against completing the last mile of the valley still ahead of me and ending up with a rush back for the school run. It is just good, for now, to be able to look up to its highest reaches, the ruins of Lane Head, Roms Greave, Stairs Dike and Mare Greave, and the smart farms amongst these absences of White Hole and Thurrish. On the way back I climb the valley side and cross onto the moor so I can descend again past Coppy, last inhabited in the 1960s but substantially intact.
After a morning of intense rain, we climb through woods ringing with new streams. The path by the Treasure Tree – an old coppiced sycamore in which local children swap little offerings – is crossed by a torrent I cannot recall having seen appear before. The pit of the disused quarry at Castle Hill swallows a fine waterfall. Above the woods we drop down into Marsh Farm’s fields, where the black-wrapped silage bales are still sitting uncollected after six weeks, and look across to Erringden, where the fields are glowing green in the racing sunlight.
We borrow a car from our local care share scheme and cross three watersheds – from the Calder to the Aire, the Aire to the Ribble, and the Ribble to the Lune – to arrive in Chapel-le-Dale for a day on Ingleborough. Having climbed Penyghent this time last year, our son is keen to get another of Yorkshire’s Three Peaks under his belt. It is a glorious morning as we set off on the same route I walked with my dad nearly 30 years ago.
A boggy path takes us up the flanks of Simon Fell, the wind rising with every step. As we crest the last steep section it is unleashed, the extra layers we pull out from our rucksacks flapping like flags as we wrestle them on. As we move off along the elegant curve of the fellside, a kestrel shows us that the way to handle the gusts is with grace and controlled power, giving no quarter whatsoever.
At the bottom of the last rise, we stop in what we believe to be the last shelter before the summit for an early instalment of the extravagant lunch we have packed. A last scramble up its millstone grip cap brings us onto its gently sloping, 17-acre summit plateau, where the wind intriguingly calms as we make our way to the trig point and, for our son’s summit photo, to the westerly edge of the plateau.
We embark on a two-thirds-of-a-mile circumnavigation of the plateau along its edge, walking on the bank of the rubble remains of the ramparts of one of England’s highest Iron Age hillforts. Within its boundary, there were at least twenty hut circles. It is certainly a commanding position for an exhibition of power, but we sit munching on my wife’s birthday cake from the day before and admire the aesthetics rather than the strategic utility of the prospects south across the verdant Wenning Valley to the dark moors of the Forest of Bowland, and west over Morecambe Bay to the 189 turbines of the Walney Island Wind Farm, the world’s second largest offshore array.
Life in such an elementally exposed position must have been tough, though we did find one pool on the otherwise arid summit, so perhaps not all water would have to have been carried up.
Everywhere on the surrounding hills, dry stone walls are picked out by the strong shadows cast by the lower autumn sun; snaking away over Simon Fell, undulating up Wherside’s spine, uncompromisingly arrowing up the flanks of Gragareth, and stepping up the limestone shelves and screes of Twistleton Scar.
A flock of seven paragliders float above us on our descent, drifting back and forth in the updrafts barrelling up off the lip of the fellsides.
But their undoubted skill appears stately or, less generously, ponderous compared to the pair of ravens that are playing amongst them. They first appeared on the summit. Although one or a pair very occasionally enters our airspace at home, they have always been too high for my son to appreciate my insistence that he will ‘just know’ when he sees a raven that it is not a crow, and certainly not a jackdaw. But when I grab his arm and point as one soars low over us on the summit, his face tells me I didn’t need to identify it for him. And now they are following us as we descend, croaking and cawing and cronking to one another as they caper in the gusts. As we reach the linestone pavements which form the plinth on which Ingleborough sits, one lands on a fence post and we watch and listen for long minutes as it utters its guttural incantations to the blasted bare hawthorns. Having been imitating every syllable they have flung into the air for the last hour, my son answers every phrase in fluent raven-speak.
Below us, a strip of bright, bleached ash grow like crystallised outgrowths from the limestone pavement in whose grikes they are protected from grazing. Just above their terminal twigs, at the head of the dale, the twenty-four-arched Ribblehead Viaduct skirts under the shadowed bulk of Blea Moor.
Sunlight flows over the fells, kindling the calcite of ancient coral seas in the limestone scars and screes, setting strips of moor ablaze, until they are extinguished by scudding shadows.
As we drop down the limestone ledges in the ageing afternoon we meet a surprising number of people on their way up. Being such a celebrated summit means Ingleborough attracts a good number of less experienced walkers. Not only that, but the 24-mile route that links it with Penyghent and Whernside to form the Yorkshire Three Peaks is phenomenally popular as a charity walk, organised race and a private challenge. It is easy to spot those engaged in this feat, looking ragged amongst the fresh-faced late-starters. As for our son, he looks like he could turn round and guide them all up to the summit.
Another walk up to the Great Rock Coop at the New Delight Inn. A haul of year-old Pextenement mature cheddar, parsley pesto from Up Plant, which will go nicely with the homemade tagliatelle from Field Head Farm, and spiced plum jam and cakes from Lynne. But this time we come home with something extra: a bundle of willow going free courtesy of the Taskers, who run the Inn. Since it is to be used to thicken up his willow den in the garden, our son insists on carrying it the two miles home down the Colden Valley, his determination only increasing the more I offer to carry it.
I emerge from the dark hollies into the softest of autumn light, the sun submerged in cirrostratus. At Oaks Farm, having intended to take the path that doubles back eastwards up the hillside towards Cruttonstall, I find the route is occupied by Edge End’s cattle. They all have their backs to me, heads down and grazing, and I don’t fancy disturbing them. The obvious alternative is south-south-east to Thorps, but here too a mother and calf bar the way. So I carry on south-west across Lodge Clough. I’m pleased at the diversion the cattle have made necessary, for I am facing into the aqueous sun and the silhouettes it is making of walls and gates, telegraph wires, farmhouses and ragged hawthorns.
I climb the track up Parrock Clough between new woodlands. Crows cavort above the russet grasses of Lodge Hill and a magpie chatters from an ash.
A line of holly that marks the old track up the clough meets the modern one I am on, and I am now at the limit of my cattle-imposed detour. I duck under their lower branches and cross through into the open land of Edge End Moor. As soon as I do so the mewing of the juvenile buzzard starts up. I scan the fence line above Callis Wood and find it on a post. It hops down to the ground, then back up to a different post. There is no sign of the parents, and it sounds pathetically lonely.
I can see that plenty of the cattle herd are still on the path I originally intended to take, justifying my extended route. Some, though, have made it up as far as Thorps and are grazing just the other side of the wall from me around the ruin. At Cruttonstall, spattered pats and the cropped grass that had been growing long and rank around the old hay rake tells me they have made their way through here recently. Square Field, baled seven weeks ago now, and Far and Flat fields, baled five weeks ago, are all grazed short by sheep.
I stand beyond the dark bulk of the 17th century farmhouse, listening, paying heed to movement and sound. Three pied wagtails skim by on the liquefied air, and a lone goose sails straight out of the watery sun. The rattle of a mistle thrush alarm, the dry hiss of the bronzed beeches. The first of the autumn redwings round the gable end and settle on fence posts.
Nicola Chester characterises this kind of nature-noticing as a gentle act of resistance. I agree. As Kathleen Jamie said, each moment of attending to nature is a moment when we ‘are not doing what the forces of destruction and inattention want us to do.’ It is when I am so attending with all my senses to my surroundings that I feel most awake and alive. When I put my cold hands into my pocket my fingers curls around an oak gall that my son picked up this morning, one of innumerable acts of nature-noticing that he and I engage in every day to and from school.
Blown beech leaves have been funnelled between the tumbledown walls of the little lane leading to Foster’s Rake, and though I note with regret that the seemingly never-ending harebells have, finally, gone, the stillness and softness of this autumn afternoon has assuaged the sadness at summer’s end.
At half past three I realise I’m in danger of the day having passed without going outside. As soon as I step outside onto the village green the world offers confirmation – in the form of a flaring rainbow – that overcoming my inertia was the right decision.
As at the beginning of the week, my feet guide me up on to the south side of the valley. Again, the juvenile buzzard circles and soars and shakes off crows as I arrive at Oaks Farm.
Again I face west and trace the charcoal silhouettes scratched in the afternoon autumn sky.
This time Edge End’s cattle are not outright blocking the path up towards Cruttonstall, although the bull is grazing on the other side of the strip of holly that borders it. I keep turning round as I ascend to watch the shadows lengthening on the fields the other side of Parrock Clough, and the light pick out the patchwork of colours in Eastwood Wood.
But now the path requires my full attention. It is flagged, but the flags have water running over them and rushes obscuring the view of where to step, and there is a deep ditch beside it. Yet there is more than the stunning light and shadow to take my attention away from slipping. A swirl of jackdaws and crows, which has been present for a few minutes now, turns from playful into something more urgent and menacing. I look for what is agitating them, but the buzzard is nowhere to be seen. Then, a sparrowhawk banks around the holly beside me, drawing the corvids in its slipstream. It makes two more passes among the hollies, jinking and pivoting with astonishing agility, its wings rasping on the air. But its pursuers are determined and numerous, and it makes the wise decision to flee. I follow it as it crosses the valley, until it is lost among the canopy of Common Bank Wood.
I am breathless, and so turned about by following this merciless expulsion that when I take the next step up the path I am not concentrating. I slip, stumble, and plunge into the ditch. It is the most comically spectacular fall I have had in quite some time. My trousers are liberally spattered with mud, and quite how I do not end up with a welly full of water is a mystery, as is the survival of my camera, which is slammed on the ground in the hand I manage to soften my fall with.
When I regain equilibrium and climb out the ditch, I find I that have had an audience of two: a mistle thrush rattles its amusement, and a cow, who is looking at me with an expression as if to say, ‘Now do you understand that you lot were mad to abandon quadripedalism?’.
Reading Bambi, a Life in the Woods – the surprisingly unsentimental 1923 book by Austrian author Felix Salten on which the Disney film is based – the previous evening, my son is intrigued by mention of the stags dropping their antlers in the autumn and winter. ‘Let’s go and look for antlers tomorrow!’ Happy as I always am to indulge his ideas for nature exploration, and while it seems to me as good a way as any to start the half term holiday, I nonetheless explain the meaning of the phrase, ‘like looking for a needle in a haystack’. I ask him what covers the woodland floor that closely resemble antlers, and he can see straight away that distinguishing dead branches from antlers amongst the leaf litter will be a challenge.
Come the morning, though, his resolve is undimmed, so we spend three happy hours slip-sliding in the steep, saturated woods on their dense weave of secret deer trails. We look for where they cross human paths, taking advantage of gaps in walls, and peer closely amongst the fallen leaves under low-hanging branches where loosening antlers are more likely to be dislodged.
Although red deer were reported on ecologist Charles Flynn’s 2008 survey of Knott Wood, roe deer are the predominant species, and the only one I have ever seen. Since late October is only right at the beginning of the period when roe bucks shed their antlers, which will last until the end of the year, as our hunt progresses we begin to reconceive this outing as more of a reconnaissance for the best places to revisit in the coming months. We identify several trails that pass under a good number of antler-snagging oak saplings, and also look out for anywhere that they must jump over fences, walls or ditches, or down banks, where the jar of the landing can also detach their antlers.
We traverse on a trail into Dale Clough hoping that it might necessitate a leap across the gorge, but find they entirely sensibly cross the 300-foot series of cascades at one of its few shallow, placid pools.
On the steps that arrow up the hillside from Underbank House we are at a crossroads of trails, human and deer. This being my son’s mission, he makes all the decisions, and chooses a north-easterly ascent on the sled track up to the old quarry at Castle Hill. It is well chosen, for twenty yards up we spook a deer above us. It leaps up a retaining wall onto the terrace above as I pull my son down into the cover of the heather in the hope that it might linger if it does not feel threatened. For three or so minutes it peers down at us as we whisper our wonder to each other. It does not have antlers, and the view of its white rump – oval or kidney-shaped for bucks, upside-down heart for does – is never quite good enough to sex it. Nor is it easy to age roe deer, which may live up to 16 years, but more commonly eight, but since it is on its own it is unlikely to be a fawn (or, more commonly for roe, a kid) from the birthing period in May and June this year.
Eventually it moves on, and we climb to find the trail we had disturbed it from, and up onto the terrace it vaulted up to, on which we find a fine fire pit. I suggest we check out an area higher in the woods which in previous years seemed to be a favourite site for laying up, which roe deer do to ruminate between feeding bouts, leaving oval patches of flattened vegetation or bare soil. We climb the rest of the sled track and cross the unmade track of Turret Hall Road. The laying up site seems to have fallen out of favour, although we do find the telltale stripped bark – known as fraying – on a prostrate rowan sapling. Bucks fray saplings both to clean the velvet off their antlers from February through to May, and also to scent-mark their territories during the rut in July and August.
My own suggestion having turned up a blank, my son leads us back down the sled track to have a closer look at some fungus – which he has become very keen on spotting since a week of Forest School over the summer – he had seen on the slope below. At the bases of two adjacent sycamores are two very different specimens, but fungi being a complete blindspot for me, I can only marvel at their strangeness.
An unplanned theme of our walk proves to be entrances to the subterranean: we visit the willow-guarded cellar of a ruined farmhouse, a rockfall-created cave and an utterly inexplicable tiny man-made tunnel, into which we thrust the longest stick we can find in a failed attempt to fathom its length and its purpose.
Another theme is boulder-hugging trees. Although Knott Wood is ancient woodland, there are no ancient trees within it. But there are nonetheless some impressive sycamore coppices and plenty of gnarled, significantly old oaks. Those with the most distinctive characters are the ones that grow bulbously around or apparently out of boulders. Indeed, the oaks have good reason to cleave to them, for I suspect that these slopes were never cleared of trees precisely because of the presence of too many large boulders to make worthwhile pasture of them. The fields immediately adjacent to Knott Wood are boulder-free not, surely, because they were removed, but because ones of these size were never present on these slopes.
We return from our walk, as always, with a variety of treasures which my son hands me throughout the walk for the repository of my waterproof coat’s map pocket, mostly vivid leaves this time. But also, having followed the ‘desire path’ under the now-bare horse chestnut we visited on Debs and Alan’s recommendation last month, we are reminded of Debs’ lovely offer of conkers that she salvaged from a felled horse chestnut two years ago at the cemetery of the Mount Olivet Baptist Chapel. So we knock at Lacy Laithe, and my son is given nine small, super-seasoned conkers, and challenged, once we are allowed to engage in this relatively close contact sport, to a future tournament. Resolutions for training are made on both sides.
My son is also an avid collector of oak galls and, as on most of our woodland walks, spots some tiny silk-buttoned spangle galls on fallen oak leaves and two fine examples of the cherry gall, a growth caused by chemicals exuded from the egg of the gall wasp Cynips quercusfolii to protect and feed it while it grows inside a chamber at its heart. This species has a two-year life cycle involving two generations: members of the asexual generation, agamic females able to produce fertile eggs without mating, emerge from the cherry galls and will lay eggs on the oak tree trunk, which in turn will mature into the sexual generation which mate and lay their eggs on the leaves to produce the galls. I reason that if he can spot these strange, small, polished fruits on the woodland floor then, though we have been unsuccessful today, sooner or later he will find a deer antler.
Undeterred by yesterday’s soaking, and with waterproofs having dried out overnight, we are back in the woods. Our mission this time is to find the amethyst deceivers in Eaves Wood, found the previous week by an older year group from my son’s school who were taken out on a nature walk. Given that the directions I managed to glean from his headteacher as to their whereabouts was little more than a gesture up the hill, I am hoping this fungi’s striking purple will be sufficient for us to spot them. But on our way there we do receive another tip off which we put in our back pocket; a mother and son also out on a wet welly walk tell us of the whereabouts of some which we could take in on our way back.
We press on with our planned route for now, dropping into the gorge of Colden Clough and climbing out of it into Eaves Wood. The rain is relentless and the wind is bringing beech leaves down onto paths already thick with them.
We scan either side of the path but I am quickly losing faith that we will be able to spot any amongst such thick and richly coloured leaf litter. We climb out of the wood above Lumb Bank, a grand former millowner’s house, former residence of Ted Hughes and now a creative writing centre of the Arvon Foundation. By the time we have ascended Green Lane and re-entered the wood at the top of the slope, even though we are only at 860 feet, we are in the cloud. It’s that kind of day.
My son is delighted to be in a cloud, but puzzled as to why it is still pouring fat drops of rain on him. I explain that there is a whole lot of cloud still above us, and the rain from the top of the cloud still has to fall through it to come out the bottom. Satisfied, he leads us down a faint path that I have never been on before which angles very gently down through a mix of oak, birch and beech. But by the time we reach the bottom, we still have not found our quarry.
So we follow our other lead, back across the clough and up into Rawtonstall Wood. By this time I have, frankly, forgotten the directions given by the boy. It is my son that has remembered them: ‘under the tree with the den built by teenagers, it just looks like leaf litter’. He spots the den and leaves the path, peering down at ground. I just stand there, dripping, my mind now wholly focussed on getting home and getting dry.
‘I’ve found them!’ Astonished, I revive myself and go over. I cannot for the life of me see what he is pointing at. It is just a carpet of beech leaves. He lowers his pointing finger, then I see: dull purple mushrooms. Not the spectacular purple we had been hoping for, but purple nonetheless. I give him a high five, genuinely impressed with his determination and his eye.
Conscious that not only will our son not get a normal birthday party next month, but, sensing a new lockdown looming, that he might not even be able to meet a single friend outside to mark it, we arrange to get him together with his best friend from school for a very early birthday celebration. We meet him at school and take him and his parents on our school run through the woods to the rope swing, which is where he had been saying he wanted his birthday party since the start of term.
On the way there my son shows his friend the hole where a badger dug up a wasp nest hard against the path, the traffic to and from which we learnt to nonchalantly breeze through twice a day for the six weeks it survived. And below it, having appeared a few days ago and surely unconnected to the attack on the wasp next, a dead badger. When we first found it, it was slumped by a hole it must have been digging, having apparently expired from the effort. But today we find its corpse has been moved a good fifteen feet. A fox? Another badger?
At the rope swing we find a group of older children from an excellent local group called Reach4ward setting up for a day of den building, fire making and other bushcraft activities. I negotiate with the very friendly leaders for use of the rope swing, and the boys have a fine old time while a camp of tarps is set up in the clearing.
On through the woods and down to the garden for pizza and cake, a treasure hunt and party bags. Under the circumstances, we are satisfied to have done our best for him.
My wife’s mother comes to visit from Essex for a couple of days. Given she is already in a support bubble with her sailing partner back home and therefore can only be entertained in the garden, we spend the majority of the two days on walks. The rain is torrential and non-stop, so we stay low, in Colden Clough. Upstream, we walk on Hudson Mill Road through Dill Scout’s Wood, which clothes the clough’s southern side. Since we’re in no hurry, we grant our son as much time as he wants to thoroughly explore the old sandstone quarries that we usually walk past on our way home from higher walks. He pokes about in pools and examines cracks in cliffs, water pouring out of them from the fields above.
After a stop at Hebble Hole we head back downstream, in Slater Ing Wood, and then retrace our route from the day before yesterday, behind Lumb Bank and down through Eaves Wood, back across the clough and to the amethyst deceivers.
There is not a spare radiator in the house after we have festooned them in our saturated gear, but the rain finally eases enough for us to light a fire in the garden in the evening.
My mother-in-law’s accommodation is high on the Long Causeway, an ancient route over the moors to Burnley, and she is keen to explore the area. So we hire an Hour Car and drive up to just near where she is staying, parking at the old Sportsman’s Arms (or Kebs, as it was known), a pub that closed some years ago and of which we have very fond memories. I once worked out that it was, if my memory serves, something like the twelfth-highest pub in England. Of course, you wouldn’t put that on your sign, but my point is that it is high up on the moors, on a lonely road. The 596 bus to Blackshaw Head used to extend its run at 7.00pm on a Saturday evening to take in the pub, and again at closing time. We once spent a birthday of mine there with four other friends, in early January. The fire was going, beside which there were always crumpets, butter and a toasting fork. The long-bearded landlord shuffled down in his slippers clutching a boardgame – I forget which one – that he had got for Christmas, and the whole pub, which admittedly only contained us and one other group, joined in. There was no menu that I can recall, but they would, apparently at random, bring trays of sandwiches and chips and baked potatoes out for everyone. The walls were hung with the landlord’s fantastical, psychedelic art. It was a special place, and it is always sad to see it these days.
We cross the road and head downhill. I had vaguely planned a walk that contoured west along this northern side of the valley – which at this point still contains the River Calder but, above its confluence with the Walsden Water in the centre of Todmorden does not seem to be generally referred to as the Calder Valley – with a return by a parallel set of lanes. But something hoves into view below us which arrests all of our attentions: a heap of jumbled boulders known as the Orchan Rocks. We unanimously agree it needs visiting, and pour down Hudson Moor towards it.
It transpires that we were merely looking at its hunched back. Its downhill side is perhaps four times as towering, and we spend an hour following my son, who swarms up slabs and over shelves, jams himself up chimneys and squeezes himself through passages between wedged boulders. It is a kind of heaven for a child, and a nightmare for parents neurotic about cliff edges.
Having figured out that the attraction of this hillside, which I have only visited once before, is its exposed geology, its outcrops and boulder fields, its Stones – Bride Stones, Golden Stones, Hawks Stones, Wolf Stones, Stanally Stones – I identify what should be our next destination: the Whirlaw Stones. I remember that The Wizard of Whirlaw is a 1959 novel by famed Todmorden personality Billy Holt, Communist Town Councillor, stuntman, BBC broadcaster, farmer, painter…I could go on. I haven’t read the book but the mention of a wizard is enough to prise our son away from the Orchan Rocks, which is becoming necessary as those of us with less energy for exploring its every nook and cranny are beginning to get cold.
Past the ruin of Higher Hartley, along lanes running with water, through high-walled, regular-shaped enclosures between the heather with what look like original, or at least very old, ornate cast iron gates, we reach the knoll of Whirlaw Common and its Stones. Not as impressive as the Orchan Rocks, they still afford some good climbing, and our son finds what he identifies as the wizard’s house, a grass-floored clearing guarded on all sides by formidable boulders, which he spends some time probing for different ways to access, eventually limbo-dancing his way under a car-sized rock. But this is no day to linger and we must hustle him on, so I reach in and haul him back out again.
But having splashed our way a little way along another green lane, I see ahead of me of what looks like an enormous gate stoop but which takes on a profile as I approach it, and I suddenly remember having come across this last year. I put two and two together and realise that this must be the wizard himself. I cover my son’s eyes and bring him face to face with the Wizard of Whirlaw, a sculpture by Mike Williams presumably inspired by the book. He is delighted. It is also a gratifying coincidence that today, for once, he chose not to take with him his hazel walking stick but a longer one he has been calling his ‘staff’.
A final push up Windy Harbour Lane, past one of the highest and most exposed residences in the area at Mast Farm, brings us to the Bride Stones, the most well-known and sculptural of the rock formations on this hillside. The white chalk dust smeared into its little crevices is testament to its popularity for bouldering, and we come across a hardy climber, undeterred by the weather, clinging to the side of rock face with a crash mat positioned more or less underneath her. Our son has far from exhausted his own zeal for clambering up and over and through the rough gritstone, and continues to scrape his waterproofs over the sandpaper-like surface of the rocks until the very end of the walk.