November: The Failing Light

1st November

On a sodden walk up the Pennine Way with our neighbours and their boys, the hillside rings with rushing water after a week and more of rain, new streams spilling from gritstone cracks onto the woodland floor. We slop through Scammerton Farm’s saturated silage meadows and are drawn over Pry Hill by a brief rainbow.

At Hebble Hole the boys wade into the whisking current a little too far for comfort, probing the peaty water with their sticks. In Slater Ing Wood, where lichens furl the oak limbs and beech saplings flare in the dim understory, we float above the cascade on the ramparts of silted millponds. Us grown-ups, unaware we have entered guerrilla-held territory, are ambushed as we enter a little canyon, three heads bobbing up and down behind a boulder, fistfuls of leaves raining down on us.

As we rest for a snack and a drink we crane at Upper Lumb Mill’s chimney, itself straining with the sycamores for the air and light above the humid confines of the clough. We march down the unmade Colden Road, formerly known as Gamaliel Road after Gamaliel Sutcliffe, the worsted manufacturer who built the road to his new mill in 1802. He also built the moorland reservoir of Noah Dale Dam in the headwaters of the clough, which ensured the flow to the ten mills along the length of the valley. My son and I drop down on to the road to Gamaliel’s riches from Rawtonstall Wood every day on our way to school, and it is this way that we complete our walk today, with a quick go on the rope swing as the strengthening wind buffets the wood and the light fails.

6th November

A friend and I spend the morning exploring Horsehold and Callis woods. After weaving under, over and across the arteries of the valley – railway, road, river and canal – we climb to the ruin of Goose Gate. Abandoned a century ago, it has almost finished collapsing in on itself, a lintel inscribed with the year 1749 now lying within one of its chambers.

On a path perched 50 feet above the canal we follow the line of the Sowerby Ramble, a 6-mile long strip of land that marked out the boundary of Erringden Park, the Earl of Warren’s medieval deer hunting ground. The ditch and fence that would have enclosed the park, designed in such a way to allow deer to bound in but not out again, lasted a couple of hundred years or so, but when in 1449 the park was dispaled and the hunting grounds opened up for tenant farmers and the harvesting of their rents, the Sowerby Ramble remained as an artefact, a tentacle of the township of Sowerby reaching around the new township of Erringden for 400 years after the fence it shepherded was removed. It appears on the 1853 Ordnance Survey map, just before it was absorbed into the parish of Erringden.

We reach the footings of a bridge erected during the Second World War to remove the timber from Callis Wood’s felled beech trees. According to the research of the Charlestown History Group, the bridge was not equal to its purpose, stating that the ‘trees would turn off the bridge so it was never completed‘. Two things about this account puzzle me. Firstly, there is a photo of the bridge which accompanies this text, and in it the bridge certainly looks complete, spanning the canal to the other side from the footings on which we stand. Secondly, I wonder if the text is meant to say that the timber would not turn off the bridge. The photo shows that it had high metal sides, meaning that significant lengths of timber would have had to be manoeuvred all the way off its end before making a turn. But such is the awkward siting of the bridge that it would have landed the timber on a narrow tongue of land formed by the almost-meeting of the Rochdale Canal and the River Calder. It is difficult to see how there would have been room to accommodate the timber in this space before having to make the 45 degree turn along the end terrace of Thistle Buildings, which would have been needed to avoid the road bridge that carries the Halifax Road over the Calder. So perhaps the bridge was never used and the timber was removed across Callis Bridge a half-mile upstream, but either way, the beech were clear-felled, as a 1948 RAF aerial photograph shows.

We cross Beaumont Clough, its stream split by a dam with a small opening, with some flowing into and some under the canal, and thence under the terrace of Woodland Dell and the road into the Calder. Here, we cross from Callis Wood into Horsehold Wood, where the beech largely escaped the wartime felling. On the higher slopes up the clough there is the absence of an understory characteristic of a mature beech plantation, but here at the foot of the clough there is a dense stand of self-seeded saplings. We push through this and follow a faint footpath which contours along above the canal. We come to a charcoal burning platform with a neatly-constructed, semi-circular retaining wall to create a level space on the steep hillside. Further on, we lose the path among the sweep of hillside below Horsehold Scout, a jumble of mossed boulders and crouched, wizened-looking oaks, which a remarkable 1910 photograph nonetheless shows as utterly treeless.

The steep and direct ascent from Stubbing Brink brings on onto Horsehold Road, where we meet a neighbour and her daughter, home after her secondary school bubble popped. While they peel away onto Horsehold Scout and the lower path through the wood, we opt for skirting the top of the wood along Beaumont Clough Road towards the Grade II-listed 18th century packhorse bridge. But before we reach it, we become interested in the field boundaries and their orthostatic stones that run downhill, almost certainly pre-dating the plantation, and so meet our friends again at the stepping stone stream crossing on their lower path. But again we are diverted, this time by a mysterious culvert, barely discernible among the bilberry and woodrush and drapery of mosses, that I discovered some years back.

In 2017, while joining Chris Atkinson as a volunteer on one of his archaeological surveys for the excellent Celebrating Our Woodland Heritage project, I directed his attention towards this culvert, and we all followed him along its length as he examined it closely and quietly, keeping his counsel until its end, where it peters out on the hillside at a level platform. I awaited his verdict with intense anticipation that its mystery was about to be solved, its ancient purpose revealed. But no, he had no clear-cut answer, and a mystery it remains.

With a fresh set of eyes on the problem, today we probe upstream of the path, clambering beside the waterfalls of this wildest, deepest part of the clough, where the boles of the trees sunken in its steamy micro-climate are pennanted with epiphytic ferns. We think we find another platform and, better yet, the place where the water would have been diverted into the goit, before walking its entire length, elegantly contouring along the hillside as the stream plummets away below. We stand on the platform at its terminus, pondering whether the system could have anything to do with references to 16th century iron workings, known as bloomeries, within the valley. Despite my ignorance of the precise purpose of ancient features like this, I relish the connection they create to those who worked this landscape in centuries past.

I spend the afternoon inside, but just in time, a little before 5 o’clock, I notice the light beginning to fade and make a break for it up the hill, and confirm for the thousandth time that going outside is never the wrong thing to do. A gauze of mist has been dropped across the landscape, and the lowering sun is delicately illuminating its blue haze. The effect, entirely autumn’s own, is profoundly peaceful.

The sun comes to rest on the Upper Eastwood hillside beyond Jumble Hole Clough…

…and rolls behind the distinctive triple-stacked roof of Whiteley Royd.

A neighbour arrives just before the sun disappears, in time to take photos of its splendour which he promised for his daughter. We stand and watch as the sun slips away and the brume darkens, leaving the valley’s sculpted pleats in outline only, under the glowing bars of cirrus.

12th November

Between beech on a whaleback promontory and oaks that fringe the canal, a stand of birch has colonised a particularly steep section of the Horsehold hillside opposite our house. Within this stand, year after year, there is a particular birch that is the last to flare in the autumn, significantly outlasting its fellows. This year is no exception.

On the way to pick up my son from school, the afternoon sun picks it out. Given that the winds of the next incoming front could extinguish the beacon, I decide that this is the evening to embark on a pilgrimage to it. My son, as ever, is entirely comfortable with the idea of walking the long way home. So we quickly dispense with the 350-foot climb to Horsehold Scout, where we look across to St Thomas the Apostle Church on the Heptonstall ridge, and down to St James the Great Church at its foot in the former hamlet of Mytholm. In the rocks on which we stand is a slot where for over 30 years Hebden Royd Churches Together install their 20-foot cross between Palm Sunday and Pentecost, it being stored at Horsehold Farm at our backs for the remainder of the year.

Further along in the woods where the beech canopy shields the lower trees from sight we lose the sense of exactly where we should start descending, so we edge out on one of the ribs of outcrop that jut from the slope, and catch sight of our destination.

Now confident of where we should take the plunge downhill, my son leads the way, zig-zagging to ease the steepness just as I have taught him, instructing me to follow exactly in his footsteps, which I do. We stop every so often to crane up and find the spray of yolk-coloured leaves, tracing the slender trunk down to the ground so we can carry on in the right direction. At last we reach its slightly splayed base, clinging on to it to steady ourselves as we look up.

My son asks it its secret to being the last to lose its leaves every year, and presses his ear to a rent in its bark, listening intently. I am not privy to its answer.

Instead of scrambling back up the slope, we carry on down to Beaumont Clough, crossing the dam that bifurcates the stream, and ascending past the old bridge footings to the ruin of Goose Gate. Here we stop for a snack on its crumbling walls, and he notices that I have my normal storybook-harbouring rucksack instead of the smaller school run bag, and requests a tale as the gloaming gathers under the willows that grow from its rubble.

13th November

After a trip to the dentist I climb flights of steps that thread through the piled-up terraces on Hebden Bridge’s eastern hillside, hearing the first ‘teacher, teacher’ great tit song on the way. At Tenacres Farm I stop to read a sign about the natural flood management works that have been carried out: the removal of shallow-rooted beech and their replacement by deep-rooted species, revetments to slow the flow and catch tanks to store and slowly release the torrents that are funnelled this way by the unalterable forms of the land. Today, though, the air is dry, the low sun piercingly bright in a crisp sky, the north-facing woods cast deeply in shade.

On Rowlands Lane, I lean over a gate and look across the bowl of moor-capped pastureland that drains into Nutclough, noticing another recent intervention – an attenuation pond below Hurst Road – to arrest the surge of water that follows a deluge. Beside me, the breeze-ruffled dried leaves clinging fast to an oak sapling on the lane verge sound like pattering rain, and from across the fields come the happy screams of children at Old Town School.

I round the head of Nutclough onto Walker Lane and pass the Old Town Methodist Chapel; built in 1872 and holding its last service in 2013, it is now smartly restored as three dwellings. Beside and behind the chapel, concrete-clad council houses and sandstone semis form a little sprawl of suburbia, soundtracked, as it should be, by house sparrows. Further on, a much larger restoration of the remnants of the valley’s non-comformist industrial past is in progress at the 170-year-old Old Town Mill. Twenty-five dwellings will be made of it, but today the operation seems to be scaled down, with only the low growl of a single cement mixer and the blare of a radio celebrating Scotland’s qualification for the Euros to accompany the few workers on site.

Below the mill, the furzed maw of Hardcastle Crags gapes from across the valley, layers of dipping hillsides – Heptonstall, Shackleton, Clough Head – leading the eye to the fawn humpback of Widdop Moor. Behind, the stack of Portakabins beside the mill are out of sight and the mill looks as it ever has done to me, a relic, towering over the community it once hummed at the centre of. I turn and face into the sun, sloshing through the saturated, slender town fields, down to the still-shadowed valley.

14th November

The newly-shed leaves of Common Bank Wood’s beeches hide the stones that have tumbled into the century-deep humus built up between the mossed walls of the track. Above the wood, after bullying between brambles on the choked lane to Upper House Farm, we look back above the canopy to Stoodley Pike, above which a buzzard scuds on the rising wind.

On the verge of the track leading to Eastwood Lane our son notices that there are still blackberries, and leads a late forage for hit-and-miss sweetness. Standing on the bank, peering across the cope stones of the wall and the site of the vanished dwellings of Top of Common and Knowl End, we notice that Far Meadow, just beyond Cruttonstall, has been manured, vindicating my son’s insistence that he could smell muck spreading in progress in the past few days.

Neither my son nor wife have been on these paths before, but I know exactly the point to draw her attention to my son’s face, just before the layered gritstone outcrop of Great Rock hoves into view. As I knew he would, he lights up with recognition and immediately recalls repeatedly leaping across a little canyon here on a bright day back in May. Today, he finds the spot slicked with autumnal damp, but still wants to climb to the summit of the rock, so we ascend into the teeth of the now-ferocious wind. I follow him closely up, but still have to shout my instructions to stay low to be heard.

On the top of the crag there are two perfectly circular, possibly manmade depressions. Today, as on probably most days, they are filled with water, but the gusts whip and whirl the pools so fast that water spills up above the lip of the pool and is whisked away.

We help him downclimb, and he puts his jacket, hat and gloves on, but then wants to go back up again. So we ascend for another blasting, during which he shouts down with glee to his mother, who is spared the observation by the gale carrying his voice away, that the snot is being blown right out of his nose.

After a more practiced, elegant downclimb we retreat back downhill, past the distinctive three-chimney roofline of Whiteley Royd that was silhouetted by the blazing sun six evenings ago, across the tiny fragment of unenclosed land called Rock End Moor, and down into sudden shelter, deep heather and bilberry, and the sharp sweet smell of a copse of conifers.

19th November

Another after-school walk, this time up the northern side of the valley. As we surface from the woods it becomes clear that the sky has something special in store for us.

Having intended nothing more than the walk that we call ‘the loop’, I cannot bring myself to turn our backs on this display, so on up we go, to Lower Rawtonstall, but even there my instinct, as always at twilight, is to keep ascending. We strike off up through the fields and a little copse to Pry Farm.

As we approach the farmyard we are greeted by the rich fermented scent of a freshly-unwrapped bale of silage, and we cross the stile to find David, the farmer, watching his cattle, heads stooped over the gates to their barn, eating the first of the winter fodder. He tells us that the herd made their way inside today of their own accord, and we talk for some time about silage and hay, curlews and lapwings, the dry spring and the wet autumn. But the light is fading and my son is chilling in the frigid air, so we say bye and cross behind the farmhouse and out into the pastures towards Scammerton.

I break us into a run on the Pennine Way to get some warmth back into his toes. His hardiness on our walks never ceases to amaze me, but I’ve let him get too cold this time, and all our talk on the way down is of just how warm and bubbly the bath that I have called ahead to order will be when we get home.

22nd November

We set off to Old Chamber to view the astonishing 110m-long field painting – of a girl’s face, to mark International Children’s Day – created by Sand In Your Eye, an arts organisation run by parents of one of our son’s classmates. Our route takes us south up the Pennine Way. After a little stop below Callis Wood Farm, where we have a chat with David, the farmer, about rights of way and woodland management, we haul ourselves up the hillside. Being on a time-limit today, I have to deny our son his wish to have a splash in the stream at Beaumont Clough Bridge, but promise him he will get to see the stream when we cross it higher up its course. I enjoy his perplexed face when, a little later, we enter a field to cross its shallow valley and the stream is nowhere to be seen, channelled as it is in a remarkable 500-yard-long field drain from its source at a spring at Lower Rough Head. But as we near the sound of running water in the one place along the length of this drain that it is exposed, his smile grows, until he catches sight of it and runs down to it, to peer into the darkness where it plummets back into the remaining 175 yards of its incarceration.

We stop for a snack, standing on a fallen gate stoop of almost megalithic proportions on Pinnacle Lane, before crossing David’s higher pastures to emerge onto Kilnshaw Lane at Kilnshaw Farm. In a delightful little book, Born to be a Farmer, Edgar Lumb recounts his early life there, born in 1923 and leaving when his father moved the family to a smallholding in the valley in 1947. We squeeze up the narrow path beside its garden’s well-clipped hedge, climbing steps to the last steep rise to Erringden Moor. Descending the field above the farm we can see two walkers, well-equipped with smart waterproofs and rucksacks but ill-equipped with navigation skills, blundering down a sheep path, which to be fair to them is a much more obvious path than the human one they are meaning to follow. But they are too far away to be able to convey this, and their hesitation gives me confidence their mistake is beginning to dawn. Our son leads us up between the walls of a little lane onto Erringden Moor.

Banks of cumulus boil and billow…

…and light and shadow play across the landscape.

Up on Rough Edge, Lower Rough Head’s herd of cattle start bellowing and heading east. It can mean only one thing, and sure enough within seconds we become aware of the growl of Ian’s tractor labouring up the unmade Whittaker Road, a silage bale on his front forks and another at the back. I open the gate for him and let my son hold it, in return for which Ian gives him a thumbs up and a toot. He heads on up to the ruin of Johnny’s Gap at the head of Dick Lane, onto which the herd has moved.

But as we watch him go, we catch more movement amongst the fields of Christopher Rawson’s failed farms on Law Hill. Indecipherable but evocative hollering is borne down to us on the wind and we realise that sheep are being herded. Eventually, between the gaps in the walls, we catch sight of Rachel on the quad bike, weaving back and forth as she gathers. Ian stops his tractor so as to not interfere, and suddenly the flock bursts out of the enclosures onto the moor. They spurn the track and pour down their own paths, followed by Rachel but apparently knowing exactly where they are meant to go, for after a couple of hundred yards they turn into pastures at the top of Whittaker Road. With the bulk of the herd in, Rachel rounds up a few stragglers, and Ian can continue on to the cattle, now quietened and standing patiently on Dick Lane.

We turn north and skirt the immaculate pastures surrounding the extraordinarily exposed farmhouse of Rake Head, always a landmark on the crest of the moor. As the ground falls away we peer expectantly down for the painting, but the lower half of the face is obscured by Old Chamber’s barns. In truth, I did not have high hopes for a vantage that would afford a view of the painting to match the fantastic images captured by drone and gracing so many newspapers and websites, and am surprised it can be seen from up here at all. Rather, coming to see if it was possible was just an excuse for a walk up on the tops, and I feel nicely vindicated as a rainbow dances across Midgley Moor.

We cross the moor a little way to see if we can uncover the whole face, but it is not to be, so we drop down to the lee of the Buckley Stone for lunch. Hebden Bridge glows as through misted glass while rain darkens the woods and moors above.

Down at Old Chamber we stand on the public footpath at the top of the painted field and, having seen the aerial shots, we are able to pick out the hair and the eyes and mouth from ground level. It brings back good memories of helping schoolchildren frame Sand In Your Eye’s portrait of Greta Thunberg for International Women’s Day back in March, on the cusp of lockdown. There is brisk traffic up and down Spencer Lane, and some people walk out to the painting to see the outlines of 6000 playing children that make it up, representing UNICEF’s warning that 6000 preventable child deaths could occur every day as a result of the pandemic disrupting weak health services and routine health services such as vaccinations.

We stop in at the Honesty Box for some of Ann’s Victoria sponge and eat it while plodding up Back Lane. As we round Erringden’s shoulder the rainbows continue, one dipping down into Colden Clough in front of Lumb Bank.

On the approach to Bents Farm we face into the fitful sunshine before turning for home down Horsehold Road.

27th November

The mist is thick and stationary and low, and so wet that it is wholly unclear whether it is drizzling or not. Either way, within the woods, where we intend to stay on our walk, there is the steady patter of a gentle rain onto the freshly-fallen leaves as the trees gather the saturated air onto their bare limbs and weep plump tears.

We quickly leave the path and contour across a hillside that we have never traversed before, there being only paths running along its crest and its base. There is no doubt as to why no path traverses its 300-foot face, since it is steep even by the exacting standards of the Calder Valley. We take what footholds we can, and clutch at buckler ferns to swing ourselves along to the next hint of a terrace that cradles a few leaves for a little traction. My son, being much closer to the ground as it were, is at a significant advantage, and he spends much of the time moving more akin to a quadruped across the 45-degree tilt of the woodland floor. I can see from the off that his waterproof coat, trousers and gloves will all be for the wash back home.

We come across four notable oaks: one with a girth that marks it out as considerably older than any other I know of nearby; one that has twisted itself into a bulbous knot; another with a striking collar of cankerous growth around its trunk about fifteen feet up; and one long dead, naked of bark, a single sprig of bilberry growing from a crack in its exposed, smooth, bleached cambium.

We stop often and scan for signs of wildlife, a constant on all our walks, but sometimes – as today, with vistas closed down by the mists – their explicit purpose. My son picks up more than his usual quota of cherry galls; we stop to examine the bare patches of earth where roe deer have been laying up; and after his find of a bone-encrusted pellet earlier in the week beside the tell-tale white splashes below where a tawny owl had been roosting, we peer particularly closely at the ground where we come across other milky spatters. Having found a badger sett on the other side of the valley a few weeks back, we had begun to surmise that this hillside might itself have one (hence I am keeping it anonymous), but as ever, the natural world serves us up something unexpected and unlooked for. As we take another precarious step along the hillside there is an explosion from our feet as a woodcock launches itself low and fast through the hollies and away.

As we recover from the shock of it, I explain to my son how lucky he has been; it is only my third such encounter with a woodcock within (as opposed to above) these – or any – woods. They have all followed this pattern, of the long-billed, bulky wader waiting until the last moment, banking on its cryptic mottled brown camouflage to keep it hidden and safe, and only breaking for escape at the last possible moment. The second time I chanced upon one, about six years ago, went exactly like today’s and was quite nearby. The first, about ten years ago, happened just outside the boundary of our garden, and was in the snow. I had come across a perfect imprint of a landing bird, like a snow angel, on the upper part of our lawn, and had followed its tracks to – and then through – our wire netting fence. Ten feet beyond, I traced the tracks ahead and for a split second caught sight of the crouching, still bird before it took flight. Given that they are present in the woods all year round (with their numbers being bolstered now for the winter by migrants from Scandinavia), and given how much time we spend crashing through their territory, it is incredible that it is so rare to see them. This encounter today, therefore, somewhat makes up for our disappointment at failing to see the territorial flight over the woods of the male this spring, which is the first time I had missed it in the 11 years we have lived here, and also, crushingly, the first year I had felt able to keep my son up late enough to try and see it.

A little further on we come to a natural end to our traverse of the hillside, so make a slippery ascent to the track along its top. But I only allow us the ease of a level and well-made way for a matter of yards before I drop us down onto a curious, almost-vanished path, little more than a faint terrace that at times one could imagine was natural, until a section that has a small retaining wall on the downhill side confirms that one is not imagining it. And it is here we have our second unexpected wildlife sighting of the day, as a brown hare sprints from a patch of bracken ahead of us and rounds a spur of the hillside. I can’t think that I have ever seen a hare in woodland, though I have seen one several times in the fields just above us, and, like the woodcock, it is a first sighting of any kind for my son. For the second time today I give his filthy glove, encrusted with woodland detritus, a high five, and we’re ready for home.

29th November

I go up to the garden where my wife and son are raking leaves and putting them in the leaf mould bin, while leaving plenty for overwintering insects – banked up under the rhododendron hedge, swept into corners under ferns, covering our wildlife rock piles.

The low cloud presses down into the valley, the clagging mist thickens. The day has barely managed to distinguish itself from dawn, and at three o’clock it is giving up the ghost altogether. Nonetheless, my son and I set off for a walk, following small flocks of jackdaws sculling upstream. I’ve had a mind for a few weeks that we should pay a visit to their winter roost at Common Bank Wood, now that they will have returned. But as we approach up the driveway of Mulcture Hall, the beeches which bear down on it are silent and still.

We position ourselves on the footbridge over the railway, the best viewing place for the spectacular dusk murmurations of this 500-strong roost which we enjoyed, and brought several of my son’s friends to, last winter, but today there is no sign of them. We mull over two theories: that the flocks we followed were not the first of the returning birds but the last, and that they are already settled early today (in out-of-sight trees higher in the wood) because of the appalling gloom, or that the roost has moved. Only later visits will tell which one is correct.

A pair of crows that have been skulking in a sycamore since we arrived mutely cross the valley and lose themselves in the mist over Burnt Acres Wood. Above Oaks Farm, dark hollies are softened in the smirr, and above the intake wall, the summit of Edge End Moor is lost in the low cloud.

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