December: Near Horizons

4th December

What little light the day has mustered is ebbing away. The wet snow that has been falling intermittently all day has failed to illuminate the interior of the woods across the valley, which remain resolutely black. But I know it is likely to be a different story higher up. So I push my feet into my wellies and slither uphill through the slimy leaf litter. In the old pig field, 150 feet above our snow-free garden, there is already a patchy covering, and at the gate, another 150 feet up, there is enough for a sledge. I ring my wife, who is making her way through the woods with our son on their way home from school, and let her know. They stir the sledge from its summer hibernation in the shed, and make their way up.

A day short of four months ago the hay meadows at Edge End were being baled, the epitome of a summer scene. Now their wan green barely shows through from under the heavy dusting of snow.

The way in which slight differences of elevation make significant differences to the conditions each farm must deal is starkly shown in the pastures and meadows of Erringden. Across Beaumont Clough and at the same elevation as Edge End’s meadows, Horsehold’s have the same dusty covering through which the green can still be discerned. But just 100 feet higher, Erringden Grange’s lower fields below the farm are purely white, and 100 feet higher still, those those that sweep down from Rake Head are thickly covered.

Down in the valley, Hebden Bridge is lighting up among the dimming woods.

A pattering rain of melting snow echoes through the woods as I head home, with occasional louder slumps as slabs slide off branches that have been bent under their weight. At this rate, there will not be much left to sledge on here tomorrow. My wife makes sure our son makes the most of it, and it is well dark when they arrive home.

5th December

We amble off up into Knott Wood, taking note of Steve’s new robin nest boxes so we can position the one he recently gave us for our garden correctly. Even though we have not yet reached the solstice, I feel it is time to hunt for signs of new life. In a little amphitheatre that is our favourite place to come in May for bluebells, I set my son off to scour among the leaf litter. It doesn’t take him long to find their first green shoots. For all I know, their appearance this early is yet another sign of the warming climate and shifting seasons, but in this year of all years, we will take in good faith the hopeful symbol of renewal that they offer.

As we exit the wood, I recall a remarkable 1774 map of the holdings of the 15th-century Underbank House that I had been studying recently. If I have been reading it correctly, this field was labelled the Well Field, and in its centre is marked a ‘well or spring’. So again, I release my bipedal pointer, and in no time he has found a likely-looking depression, hidden by wilting ferns. I find him a stick and he probes deep enough for us to be reasonably sure that this is not a natural hollow, and is likely the long-lost well that gave the field its ancient name.

Above the woods and up in Scammerton Farm’s meadows, I make good on a promise I had made my son before we set off: to take him on a path he had never been on before. In fact, the path that crosses in front of Popples Farm between the Pennine Way and Marsh Lane is one I have never been on before, since there is no particular need to take it it.

It is an oft-made boast around here that, by some measure or another – highest density, or perhaps greatest total length – we have more public rights of way than anywhere in the country. I have no idea whether this is true, or where the claim originated, but it is plausible. There are a lot of public rights of way in our valley, and consequently, some of them are, in a sense, redundant, in that you can get to the same place multiple other ways. And some of these redundant paths go right through people’s gardens, or right in front of or behind people’s windows. So although my usual mode is to wilfully explore every last corner of this landscape, I keep my use of paths like this to a minimum as a courtesy to the residents that have probably got used to not seeing anyone. The Popples Farm path is one such, and in 11 years of walking here I have never traversed it, nor have I seen anyone else doing so. But today we are going to go for it. And astonishingly, just as we are about to take the left turn off the Pennine Way onto it, a runner barrels along it coming from the other direction. I stop us, inwardly open-mouthed at the coincidence, as he splashes past.

On we go, and it is nice to get a closer look at this classic laithe house – farmhouse one end, barn with an archway cart entrance at the other – up close. It has a peculiar feature of two substantial buttresses either side of the cart entrance which I have not seen on any of the hundreds of other such laithe houses in the valley, but there is no one about to wave to or enquire about this unusual architecture.

On Marsh Lane we meet friends out for a walk with their children, engaged in a running snowball fight down the track. We cross Badger Lane and go through the stables behind Badger House on another footpath that my son has not been on before, crossing first a field heavily poached by horses, and then the sheep pastures of Pry Hill. Now the views open up across the Colden Valley and out to Crimsworth Dean and Wadsworth Moor, where the snow seems to have fallen the heaviest yesterday. He races across far in front of me, spotting the gaps in the walls and the stiles in fences that keep us on the line of the right of way as we cross successive fields, since there is no path on this unfrequented route.

I pick out a quartet of the remaining fifty or so working farms – Egypt, Thurrish, White Hole and Spinks Hill. At between 1130 and 1230 feet, they are the very archetypes of a high Pennine farm, and have weathered at least a millennium of winters between them.

At the same height but abandoned in the 1950s and in a terribly exposed location, the blank white eyes of Coppy’s empty windows stare out across the fields its generations of farmers once tended.

We dip down out of the sun as we re-join the Pennine Way, but no sooner have we descended one field on it than we leave it again for another little-used path, which slants back up the eastern flanks of Pry Hill, in search of the sun’s warmth, or at least, the illusion of its warmth. In the first of the four fields back to the light, we look across to Heptonstall, where the Victorian St Thomas the Apostle Church and the ruin of the 13th-century St Thomas a Becket Church are lit against the basin of pastures surrounding the houses of Chiserley, grading from the green of fields below to the white of Wadsworth Moor above.

In the second field, we find ourselves being herded up the hill and seen out of their pasture by a bold flock of sheep. In the third we stop, unharassed, to watch flocks of jackdaws, rooks and starlings weave around each other above the gulf of Colden Clough. In the last, we regain the sun, our long shadows draped down the hill.

We re-cross Badger Lane to Pry Farm, slip behind the farmhouse and past its yard, through the sounds and smells of a hill farm: the shuffle of cattle in the open-fronted barn, the tang of muck and winter fodder. Looking up behind us as we start the descent home, a farmer – perhaps David from Pry, or perhaps his neighbour two fields east at Higher Rawtonstall – is walking the fields with his stick and his dog in that distinctive way of a hill farmer doing the rounds, apparently leisurely but deeply attentive, doubtless noticing dozens of details, of walls and fields and gates, ditches and drains, rushes and thistles, jackdaws and rooks, and above all his stock.

The dogs at Higher Rawtonstall are barking now, possibly at us, or maybe at the imminent return of their own. I like these sights and sounds of a worked landscape, ones that would be recognisable to the predecessors that worked these farms in centuries past.

As we descend further the southern side of the valley comes back into view, the lowering sun casting the relief of Edge End’s fields and old drainage ditches on the moor above.

At Lower Rawtonstall we stop and chat with Helen as the darkness starts to well in the bowl of woodland below us. On the last lane home, my son recalls a game we used to play in which we held hands and ran together down the wide, grassy track, but I would outrun him to the extent that his legs were swept out from under him and he ended up more or less suspended in the air in my slipstream like a flapping cloak. Thinking back now, I cringe at the thought of the potential injuries, but he was light enough then that I felt in total control. This time, I strike a fine balance between speed and care, but actually find that I would no longer be able to outpace him even if I tried. Or, as he puts it, panting, at the gate at the bottom of the lane, ‘You can’t outpelt me any more, Daddy!’

We arrive home as the sun sinks into the headwaters of the valley. The skyline beeches are charcoal etchings against smoky clouds suffused with the last of the day’s light.

13th December

My son leads me on what he calls ‘the ice cream walk’. This is a route he does from time to time with my wife which ends with an ice cream in town, but instead of the direct, mile-long walk along the canal to get there, covers two-and-a-half miles and starts off heading uphill and in the wrong direction. So off we go up into Knott Wood, past the willow-thronged ruin of Higgin House and across Dale Clough, then doubling back up to the hamlet of Winters, which for much of the 19th century was the site of a cotton mill that employed, at one time, up to 90 people. At the top of Dale Clough, the stream that initially powered the mill until it was converted to steam spills from its confinement under the hamlet and, above, through the course of the mill ponds of Higher Dam and Winters Dam.

Up on Winter’s Lane (which, curiously, has been bestowed the possessive apostrophe, unlike the hamlet, ever since the first edition of the Ordnance Survey map in 1853), we herd a charm of goldfinches along the hedge towards Higher Laithe Farm, whose feeders are always thronged with them. At Den Farm Cottage, we hear the cheerful chirping of house sparrows from the dense thickets of dogwood, the first time I have heard them anywhere in the parish apart from Blackshaw Head.

Low cloud bears down on Pry Farm on the skyline as we enter the quagmire of Dark Lane. Two walkers enter the lane from the other direction and look uncertain – they have never been this way before and ask about the conditions underfoot. I give them fair warning while also striking a note of encouragement, explaining that the extraordinarily high tideline of mud on my son’s wellies has more to do with his propensity for seeking out the deepest parts of any bog.

The high farms disappear as the cloud descends further – it drifts across Green House Lane as we drop into Rawtonstall Wood. He leads me down the Cat Steps and we make up a new word game for me to try out on my Year 6 Zoom philosophy class tomorrow.

At St James Church I propose that we deviate from the official ice cream walk in order get ourselves into the town centre while avoiding the appalling noise of tyres on the wet A646. Having secured agreement, we cross the Colden Water, round the Heptonstall headland on a path in Granny Wood that traverses along a treacherous drop, then cross the road at the Fox and Goose and enter the wedge of woodland between Bridge Lanes and Heptonstall Road. I try and conjure for my son, and myself, what this wide track amongst the trees would once have been like, before they were demolished in the 1960s; a bustling street between a crowd of terraces, two-storey in front and four behind where the bank falls away to the main road.

I’m enjoying the challenge of reaching the town centre without using the main road, and I know my son will enjoy the feeling of discovering secret snickets and steps, so at the Cuckoo Steps we don’t drop all the way down to Market Street but instead squeeze through onto Melbourne Street, then again on more steps to Brunswick Street, and at the end of Garnett Street down more steps which finally drop us onto Old Gate. The destination, this time, is not an ice cream (though, despite the singular inappropriateness of ice cream on this cold and damp day, he would certainly have one if it was on offer), but a warming grilled cheese sandwich from a little hatch in a cobbled yard off Crown Street.

14th December

The later sunrises are increasingly rewarding our relatively early start on the school run. If we took the three-quarters-of-a-mile route along the main road we would only have to leave at 8.45, but our longer, slower walk through the woods means we leave at 8.15. There’s a good deal of ascent and descent in the walk, too: 34 metres of ascent and 58 metres of descent on the way there, and vice versa on the way back. Rounding that up for all the dips and hollows in the woods, that’s 100m of ascent per day. Across the 39 weeks of the school year that’s 19500 metres of ascent – well over two Mount Everests, and not the climb from Base Camp, which cuts out well over half its official height of 8848m, but from sea level. He also gets, at a minimum but often longer depending on our dawdling, five hours a week in the woods built into his school days, practising our birdsong ID, spotting oak galls, poking around in streams, swinging on the rope swing, noticing the seasonal changes. It is a privilege to have a route like this available to us, which cuts the amount of tarmac we must pound to a matter of a few hundred yards, all on side roads. Since the autumn set in we have arrived at school, no doubt inexplicably to some, with our wellies caked in mud, but always in time for me to help him change into his school shoes.

15th December

Not infrequently we extend the homeward bound school run, sometimes on the southern side of the valley through Horsehold Wood, but mostly by striking further uphill on our northern side. Today we climb into Dill Scout’s Wood, which curves around the southern side of Colden Clough and, at its top, sports a series of outcrops that command a view down into and across the little valley.

In the fields at the top of the path, we turn back south into a glowering sky that hurries us home.

16th December

Over the 30 years that I have been interested in the ‘outdoors’ I have oriented that interest towards one or another aspect of it at different times. Initially, from my early teens until well into my twenties, I viewed the landscape principally as an arena for various outdoor pursuits – hill walking and long-distance path hiking; scrambling, rock climbing and winter mountaineering; surfing and kayaking. It was, centrally, a provider of personal challenges, routes and summits, lists of achievements to tick. I would engage in long and earnest exchanges in youth hostels and campsites with like-minded types on which mountains or whole adventurous regions – Dartmoor, the Brecon Beacons, Assynt – one had ‘done’ or still had to ‘do’.

But even while this mode of engagement with the outdoors was my main focus, it was always accompanied – as it will be for so many fell runners and hikers and climbers – by an interest in nature and wildlife. I studied nature conservation at college, and worked for years for Trees for Life, an ecological restoration charity in the Scottish Highlands, planting native trees to reforest denuded glens. Birds have always been my main love, but I intermittently try to improve my wider wildlife and plant identification skills.

The third and most recent subject of my interest has been the history of human uses of the environment, and how these have shaped the landscape and our relationship with it today. To understand the landscapes of Britain, it is essential to understand how they have been moulded by past cultural and economic forces, so to better appreciate my own landscape of the Calder Valley I find myself reading as much about the textile industry and the evolution of the ‘clothier-farmer’ as I do about its wildlife. In fact, nowadays, if anything contributes to me better understanding the landscape in which I reside – a pamphlet on water-powered mills, a book of historical photographs, a citizen archaeological project, a local food producers market, a new DEFRA report on hill farm business income, a local history society talk on the history of commons disputes, an old PhD thesis on the vernacular architecture of Pennine laithe houses – then I am interested. Perhaps central to this strand of my interest is farming, since it is principally agriculture which has shaped our countryside, and continues to do so.

I characterise the subject of my interest as landscape rather than nature, but I conceive this to encompass the natural as well as cultural elements that make up a place: its geological and ecological history; its wildlife, both animal and plant; its economic and social history that have conditioned its human-made structure, made up of lanes and roads, walls and ditches, farms and hamlets and fields.

My favourite walks are those which touch on and move easily between a multiplicity of these elements as they present themselves. Today’s walk with a friend is just such a walk. We peer into culverts and old mill ponds, marvel at flights of stone steps, note where deer paths transect ours, check badger setts for signs of recent activity, conjure the hard lives of those who lived in the old farmhouses, share our (sparse) geological knowledge of the valley’s creation, recall encounters with summer migrants and anticipate their return, exchange information on the latest projects of the community groups connected to the landscape we are acquainted with. No element of the plurality of aspects of the place is ignored. Again, if it helps us better understand our surroundings, it is interesting. Landscapes are constituted by a plurality of human communities and non-human species, and a plurality of relationships between them. To appreciate landscapes for what they are, on their own terms, demands an interest that is all-embracing.

17th December

After our school drop offs, I meet a friend for a quick catch up. We scuttle up through Granny Wood on the long path up the Whins, the flanks of the headland on which Heptonstall is perched, which affords glimpses through the trees of sun-washed Rawtonstall Wood.

At Hell Hole Rocks, jackdaws career in the cold air, and Stoodley Pike Monument teases an appearance through the mist, but ultimately fails to make good on the promise. Past allotments on the regular dog-walking routes on the outskirts of the village, we join the path back down that brings back a delightful memory.

It was a late-November dusk, and the end of my son’s 4th birthday party at the nearby bowling club. I had expected him to be overwrought when all his friends had left, but after we had finished clearing up the aftermath I found him sitting on the door step holding a balloon and apparently quietly enjoying the sunset. But then there was only room in his Granny’s car for one adult passenger and the party paraphernalia, and after my wife and her mum drove off home and having found at the nearby bus stop that there was a lengthy cold wait for the next one, I again anticipated a possible wobble from a tired party boy. But I had forgotten he had often walked down from the bowling club with his mum after Monday playgroup, initially in the sling, but later under his own steam, and so was surprised when he took my hand and reassuringly said, ‘Never mind, Daddy, let’s walk down.’ So off he led me on a path I did not know towards the glow of the west and the winking lights of the valley.

20th December

On the first day of our son’s Christmas holiday, we ease our way up through Callis Wood. The birches spire into the afternoon sky, their delicate tracery daubed here and there with witches broom or old nests of shaggy moss. For variety, we take the older zig-zag of Foster’s Rake, climbing up the small retaining wall at two points onto the newer one which was overlaid onto it. But both arrive at a final avenue of beech climbing to the skyline which for some lost reason, or perhaps no reason at all, was left when the plantation was clear-felled in the Second World War.

When we are all over the stile and turn to face the fields ahead, a buzzard pendulums low across the tumbled walls of the lane to Cruttonstall between Far Meadow and Square Field, and then lands on the stones of the western wall. Our son does his best to stealthily approach it for a closer look, and does reasonably well before it decides he is near enough.

But it does not go far, landing on a post on the wall dividing Cruttonstall House Field from Edge End Moor. It periodically drops from one post to the ground, then lifts itself back onto the next post along. Behind it, a small flock of redwings stop-dart among the rushes.

Having all shed layers on the climb, we each re-apply them now we have stood facing into the chill westerly watching the buzzard. At the top of the lane, our son claps across the 20 yards to the decaying but still substantial back wall of Cruttonstall to receive the echo back.

Across the valley, the windows of Marsh Farm and, behind, the array of cottages strung out along the eastern end of the six-mile Long Causeway reflect the glow of the imminent sunset. We briefly consider walking a clockwise loop so that we can be facing into what will be, along with the solstice tomorrow, the latest sunset of the year, but a rain squall is crossing the Cliviger Valley and blotting out the Bride Stones as we are trying to decide, so we turn our backs as its misty sheets bear down into Jumble Hole.

It starts slapping on our backs as we cross into the Moor Meadow. The path, being a subtle holloway, and in common with all but the most well-drained tracks we have walked in the past weeks, is a quagmire, but unfrequented enough that it has stayed green.

The rain squall is short-lived, and the Moon appears over Edge End Farm and its sentinel sycamores. As we stand and watch the rose-tinged clouds pass across it, the quiet of the evening sinks in to me. It has long seemed to me that upland pastures at dusk exhale a distinctive kind of quiet, but I have not reflected on why. I put it to my wife, and she has an immediate answer that must be a central part of the explanation: it is a quiet that sits against the backdrop of a potential for the sounds of purposeful activity. At any moment a quadbike engine might thrum to life for a dusk patrol of the stock, or the insistent bleat of sheep might herald the coming of a hay bale. It is the quiet of land in good order, where the jobs are done for now and all is well, but where it is just a matter of time until the next of an unending cycle of tasks needs attention.

Banks of cloud continue to roll across us on the way down, and we reach home in the last of the light. I suggest we climb up to the garden before we get ourselves in the warm to see if Jupiter and Saturn, due for their Great Conjunction tomorrow but most likely to be hidden from us, might make an appearance. We trace the line of the elliptical from Mars, through the Moon and down towards the sun’s afterglow to get a rough idea of where they should be, but dark cumulus sit squarely in their sector. But there are enough breaks that it seems worth waiting. After 20 minutes of tracking promising but interminably slow-moving breaks moving our way, the wait is rewarded. Jupiter below and Saturn above are finally revealed.

24th December

We step off Dark Lane and into the rough pasture behind Den Farm to take in the view above the hedgerow and power lines. The wind is chill, the air clear and the shadows lengthening. Returning to the lane, our son balances on the stones of what was once a lane wall, hidden among the rushes, beside which is one of my favourite ash trees.

We have come along Dark Lane to see the excellent work of CROWS (Community Rights of Way Service), who have put themselves to the task of restoring Dark Lane to a passable state and, in doing so, have uncovered a line of causey stones which nobody I know recalls having seen before. Nonetheless, our son still prefers plodding along in the mire beside the stones.

Lower Rawtonstall Farm’s sycamores, which on the western approach appear as a single giant, resolve themselves into a trio as we pass, backlit by the lowering sun.

Our son careers down the lane from the hamlet, then puffs back up the hill to us. I notice that this fits a pattern of the whole walk, in which his usual propensity to cover considerably more distance than us has been intensified in what now strikes me as very deliberate. We ask if this is so, and receive a perfectly reasoned answer: he is consciously wearing himself out so that it is easier to get to sleep tonight and, therefore, Christmas Day will arrive all the sooner.

The last of the sun is pouring through the woodland like liquid.

Through it swim a flock of tits and finches, but in amongst their familiar contact calls is one I do not recognise. From the shadows we crane up at the gilded branches, and find an entirely new bird for us, a redpoll, working with its companions through alder and birch.

25th December

Between an indulgent breakfast and several episodes of present unwrapping, we manage to fit in a goodly amount of time outside in the morning, releasing our son onto the green to test his new breastplate armour and double-headed axe against two centurions who come knocking for a battle in their new armour, and getting him to break the ice on the pond (with a holly staff, not his axe). But we are determined to fit in a quick walk by way of preparation for Christmas lunch, so we set off with our armed guard along the lane below Ferny Bank. Like Dark Lane, it has more or less become a watercourse in the last few months, and also requires some attention.

In its tunnel of holly and decrepit hawthorn, a mote of something falls past my face. Could it be? I turn and sound an alert, and all eyes are directed skyward. Yes: there is a most delicate drifting descent of the slightest snowflakes. It is almost nothing, but also, symbolically, it is everything.

29th December

An impressive fever in our son shrinks our available landscape to our garden at the worst possible time, on the eve of a fresh snowfall which brings the village green and its steep embankments into perfect sledging condition. Feeling better on the second day of our isolation, he endures the sound of his friends playing out the front with admirable equanimity as we push him around in his sledge on our appallingly flat lawn. But at least we have a garden, and galled as I am to be unable to get above the confines of this narrowest part of the valley-within-a-valley for the expansive views on the tops, I am determined, as I have been throughout the last nine months, to appreciate our near horizons.

By the late afternoon, the black trees of the morning are glowing, and the edging of white that curved along every dark limb has melted way.

30th December

We are released in the afternoon of the third day of our quarantine by a thankfully quick and favourable result, so immediately celebrate by hauling the sledge up to the gate. A flock of forty redwings are blown through the wood as we climb Turret Hall Road. Apart from distant glimpses among the rushes on Edge End Moor this is the best view my son has had of these Scandinavian visitors. Not that many are pausing to show off their dashing eye stripe, with only some snagging on the highest birch twigs before being dragged along in the slipstream of their companions.

The icy crust slides the sledge over the tussocky mounds of grass, and all is well again in our little world.

My wife looks up the moonrise times, and once we are home she urges me to get myself back up the hill for its appearance while they warm themselves up. Mists continue to glissade across the frozen hills as I stoke some warmth to see myself through a wait of unknown length, for while the official rising time is 4.03pm, it is difficult to tell what time it will actually be with the hills and the mists in the way.

I pass some friends on the way up, and Lee gives me a tip off as to the precise direction I should look to for its entrance, having seen it rising over Cock Hill from the vantage of Heptonstall the previous evening. This settles that I should certainly not wait at the gate but should round Green House Farm and cross Badger Lane to bring the full north-eastern horizon into view. For now, I find it obscured by a river of cloud that is sliding along in the valley of the Hebden Water the other side of Heptonstall. Above it, Earth’s blue shadow is climbing into the rose afterglow opposite the sunset.

At the end of the second field I climb up onto a high stile, which for some reason makes me feel like I will be able to see the Moon sooner. For half an hour I listen to the softened sounds across the intense quiet of the snow-clad landscape: the cluck of a pheasant and the ‘drip, drip’ of a nuthatch; the two-note hoot of a passenger train that should be full of shoppers returning from Leeds and revellers bound for Manchester, but will be empty; the crunching pad of sheep hoof; the rush of water down in the clough. White lights come searching down the moor on three-and-a-half mile distant Keighley Road. Across the void of Colden Clough, the 596 bus comes off the cobbles up onto Cross Hill, its pale livery reflecting the lemon-apricot sky behind me.

All the while I watch the slow drifting vapour, and hope that the hidden trajectory the Moon is on will bring it up to the one stretch of skyline above the smart pastures of Spinks Hill Farm that is consistently clear of mist. And when finally, fully 40 minutes after its official rising time, the plump peach heaves itself over the horizon, it is indeed within this window.

When it has crested and cleared the white rind of the moor, I head home. By the time I am on New Lane on the way to Green House Farm, the whole north-eastern horizon has cleared itself of mist, the orange glow has transferred from the Moon to the lights of the village, and the white fields are palely shining. But as I turn south-west I descend into a murk that has crept up the Calder Valley while my back has been turned. I see no more of the Moon that night.

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