For our New Year’s Day walk, my son and I choose a route up the first section of the valley of the Hebden Water, labelled on old maps as Hebden Dale, a name which seems to have fallen out of use. We pass through a rather strange atmosphere in the centre of town, with a few visitors aimlessly ambling around or eating takeaways from a few enterprising food stalls huddled in shut shop doorways. But once across the packhorse bridge we enter a more normal New Year’s Day scene of local families out for walks along the river. We stop and talk to Kerry, one of Hebden’s friendly librarians. She shows us photos of Herry the Heron, who she says may regularly be seen along this stretch. At a little pebbly beach further up, my son practices his stone skimming as a woman follows through on her resolution to see in the new year with a swim, punching the air in triumph even as she gasps at the intense cold. Annie, who sometimes helps out at my son’s school, cheers her on from the opposite bank.
Set amongst the tumble of stones and tangle of trees in this sheer-sided, post-industrial, rewilded valley, we pass the the improbable, impeccable lawn and pavilion of Hebden Bridge Bowling Club. Above the incongruous ski chalet-style houses on the site of Lee Mill, the icy track raises us onto a sudden wide shelf of open land. It is one of only a few plain-like spaces in the upper reaches of the Calder Valley or any of its tributaries, and it always warrants stopping to take in its strange openness. Looking down on it from above Middle Dean Wood stands the Wadsworth War Memorial (although seemingly universally referred to as either ‘mini Stoodley’ or ‘mini Pike’, such is its similarity to its larger, older companion across the valley).
We round the shoulder of Lee Bank and come down to New Bridge, where walkers are gathered at the Blue Pig (Midgehole Working Men’s Club) for a snack and possibly to dream of being able to enter for a pint. But no sooner have we lost the height we had gained and descended to the river, than we strike back up the hill, through Howden Hole Wood up to Draper’s Lane and across the fields towards Heptonstall. Behind us, Hebden Dale, or Hardcastle Crags as this wooded stretch of the valley of the Hebden Water is known today, snakes up between the snowy fields.
In the east, occupying adjacent patches of sky, are two strikingly different cloud formations. Above Pecket Well, a vaguely lenticular cloud squats above Wadsworth Moor like one of the invading spaceships in Independence Day, while above Old Town the sky is rippled like a beach, below which the wedge of Spring Wood is a diving whale.
On Town Field Lane it becomes clear that the sky has a treat in store for us and we have unwittingly chosen the right direction to be heading home.
As we enter the village the dense hedges are alive with chattering house sparrows, and Weavers Square is a concert of starling static. Having grown up in suburbia but having neither species in our immediate neighbourhood, I miss this soundtrack to my childhood terribly.
After a chat with some neighbours who are also out for a walk, we skid and slide through the icy churchyard of St Thomas the Apostle Church.
At Hell Hole Rocks on the far side of the village the full sunset vista is revealed, but it becomes clear that while I was chatting my son has soaked his gloves through making snowballs with his friend and is now utterly distraught with painfully numb hands, so I spend several moments savouring the view while having his frigid hands stuck up my T-shirt.
Frostbite averted and tears dried, he gambols down The Whins as if nothing has happened, and we complete the walk taking in the peace of this first evening of the year.
In anticipation of a deterioration in the weather in the afternoon we get our walk in before lunch. At Ferny Bank, after a flock of redwings has barrelled through, we hear all three of the nuthatch’s calls – the ‘drip, drip’, the trill, the strident alarm – and catch sight of one nosing among the oak boughs. At the gate we talk to Clare and Beth about the photos of our house and garden that Clare’s sister, who lived there 34 years ago, has kindly lent us, and then Mark from Winters about the history of his hamlet. At Lower Rawtonstall, a plump chaffinch calls from a hawthorn.
Winter’s Lane is, in places, an ice rink, and our son sustains an impressive graze on his hip after an inevitable fall. Across the valley, the iron-hard, marble-white Middle Meadow holds a mazy record of the quadbike’s patrols of the stock.
The ground has softened a little, the greens seem brighter. On the way up the unmade Turret Hall Road Peter reports that the redwings we had alerted him to the other day now gather under his feeders for the seeds the fussy great tits discard.
We leave the track for an unnamed lane along Ferny Bank that seems ancient but which only appears between the 1853 and 1894 OS maps. The gate at its head is still just about visible along the tunnel of holly, hawthorn and oak, though the holly, as in so much of the wood, is narrowing the passage every year.
As ever, lower down the valley towards Mytholmroyd and beyond, the snow covering is thinner.
But while yesterday’s brief fall of plump flakes refreshed the old snow in the fields, it has not been enough to drift against the dark walls or smooth the mottled moors.
I learn for the umpteenth time that when it is gone three o’clock on a winter afternoon, and it has started raining, and the forecast assures you that the rain has set in, and your instinct is to write the rest of the daylight off, it is always worth ignoring your instinct and to get out anyway. For sometimes the day has a little more light to give, and even if it does not, it is always worth getting outside anyway. I have taken to asking myself (and my son) not, ‘Do you want to go for a walk?’, but rather, ‘If I go for a walk, will I wish I had not done so?’. For I cannot recall every getting home and saying, ‘I wish I had stayed here.’
This time, the light that the day has kept for the last is spectacular. At this time of year the sun glides low behind the northernmost three of the Crook Hill Wind Farm’s 11 turbines, and today it makes for a spectacular effect of the shadows of the moving blades being projected down to the valley through a bronzed haze.
When we first moved here 11 years ago, the western headwaters of the valley above Todmorden were an unbroken skyline, but since then the three-turbine Reaps Moss, five-turbine Todmorden Moor and the 11-turbine Crook Hill wind farms have been erected. In the 20-odd years I spent working with people who would broadly call themselves environmentalists , I found it was a not-uncommon view that wind farms were not only environmentally but also aesthetically positive. But for some time now I have settled on the view that wind farms are environmentally necessary but aesthetically regrettable. That is, considering them on their aesthetic merits alone, I doubt anyone ever looked at a moorland ridge and thought, ‘You know what that needs…?’. But knowing they are contributing to decarbonising our energy supply does helps to accept their aesthetic intrusion. And in this cauldron of cloud and shadow, it is undeniable that they are creating a striking image.
On the first day of the new lockdown, while our son’s excellent teachers scramble to prepare online lessons and buzz about the valley delivering workbooks they had believed only hours before they would still have time to hand out to students in a last few days before school closures, we take the opportunity for a longer walk before homeschooling starts in earnest tomorrow.
At the railway bridge at the bottom of Jumble Hole we have an unforgettable encounter with a rainbow. The backdrop of the bridge effectively means the curtain of rain in front of us through which the sun projects from behind has very little depth. The rainbow therefore falls in front of the bridge for us, not in the far distance as usual. And as we approach the bridge, the rainbow has nowhere to recede to, so for once we actually get closer and closer to it, until we stand, incredulous, just before the parapet of the bridge, with a metre-depth curtain of rain in front of us and a rainbow right in front of our noses. It is laugh-out-loud delightful, and we play with the effect for some time, reaching out to grab it, moving forward and under the bridge to make it disappear, reversing out again to bring it back, and taking it in turns to stand back and direct each other left or right until we can confirm that, for the observer, the other is actually standing in the rainbow.
Once the sun has finally gone in and the rainbow is extinguished, on the other side of the bridge we meet some friends back down from their own walk up the clough, who caution us not to use the flight of nearly 300 stone steps up to Broad Dean Farm, which are treacherously icy. We follow the stream up its collapsed banks to Cow Bridge and the site of its vanished mill and cottages. From here for most of the next third-of-a-mile the depths of the clough become wild and the banks beside the stream pathless and impassably steep. Only once have I navigated this stretch, when the aftermath of the cloudburst and subsequent flash flood of August 25th 2012 presented a rare opportunity to be able to safely walk on and adhere to the moss-free, sediment-scoured rocks of the stream bed. Today, we peer up into the wild confines of the gorge and turn back for the track higher up.
We meet Matt and his family coming down, and check with him that we were not mistaken the other week with our redpoll sighting. We were not, he confirms, and he gives us a tip that the birches just above us are often home to flocks of redpolls and siskins.
On we climb, through woodrush and beside cliffs dripping moss, always in shadow. When Staups Mill appears among the trees my son claims he has never been here before, and although he certainly has, much more than once, it may indeed have been long enough that it is too much to expect him to remember. We cross at the footbridge above the mill and finally make our way up the steps out of the shadows into the pastures above.
It’s a sensible place to turn for home, but the light is gorgeous and the rough upper reaches of the clough, known as Hippins Clough from here on up, beckon. A line of newly-cleared causey stones beside stunted willows soon peters out, but other walkers have passed this way since the snows so the path through bog and rush is just about discernible. When we come to the ramparts of Old Mill Dam, I tell him that we must scale the sheer wall of stone, but let him go first and work out how. I keep watching his face as he studies the wall in confusion. I usher him forward a few paces and let the subtle optical illusion work itself out, and his face light up as the formerly invisible steps reveal themselves. We traverse along the lip of the dam, our shadows, cast by the sun which now rests on the crest of Staups Moor, walking along in the field below.
It is tempting to go up the source of the clough stream, but we are about to lose the sun, so we save it for another time and ascend through the fields of Copley Home to the track of Cow Side Road. In the shadow of the moor the temperature seems to suddenly plummet, so I bundle my son in an extra layer, his waterproof trousers and his thicker gloves and set him off down the icy lane.
After we cross the cleft of Staups Moor Goit, we turn onto Horsfall Road and round the flanks of the moor. The fields hard against the moor which in which we watched Jonathan’s muck spreader at work to get the lush grass growing in May are frozen and white. Ahead of us, the fields and moors of Erringden and Wadsworth come back into sight…
…and as we start descending Stoodley Pike comes to dominate the view.
We shelter in the lee of Great Rock and have a snack, but forgo the tradition of climbing up it today, iced as it is. So down the lanes we go. Behind us, the sun, hidden from us half an hour ago by the moor, still has plenty of life left in it yet…
…but ahead of us sheets of wet snow are sweeping up the valley, and we get our second rainbow of the day.
Just as it disappears we meet Tim, who lives nearby, and we find a shared fascination with poring over old maps and finding out about the history of our local area, while my son bemuses his dogs by chipping away at an icy puddle with his walking stick. But the sun is setting and the cold intensifying, so we cross Rock End Moor and plunge back into Jumble Hole.
With some maths and English under his belt, we head for the hills on a walk before lunchtime, up to the meadows of Scammerton Farm, where we find Jack doing the rounds of his fields. We stop and talk about mole hills and field drains, rushes and curlews, environmental stewardship schemes and how few of his nearby fellow farmers are still calving cattle. The sun blazes and the fields shine, and my son applies himself to his now customary task to while away the time I spend chatting to earnestly and, he believes, helpfully chipping away the ice crust of the path with his stick.
The wide views open up on the other side of Pry Hill, and two fields down we do our usual about turn to angle our way back up, dipping temporarily into the shadow cast by the sun even at its zenith at this time of the year.
At our backs on the southern slopes of the Colden Valley, the grand front of Field Head Farm is lit by the sun, while on the shoulder below a patch of moorland that escaped enclosure called Lord Piece, Greenland spurns the sun and appears as it usually does, a shadowed bulk on the horizon. A farmer is out with a bale for their sheep above the ruin of Field Head.
There are tractor tracks in our own field as we come back into the sun, the treads meandering towards the near horizon and, on the far skyline, the ever-present Stoodley Pike.
The little snow that fell this morning, just enough for some sledging on the village green, is already beginning to melt. But as ever, our only way is up, to where it might not be. After passing the disappointment of a heap of fly tipping in Callis Wood, we meet John, font of all Erringden knowledge, coming up from Beaumont Clough Bridge with his playful dog Leith. Above the woods, it is indeed a different, whiter world, and we round Lower Rough Head and double back along Pinnacle Lane and then up to Three Gates, a crossroads at the end of the metalled road. Everywhere we look is like a Peter Brook painting.
Our way lies up the lane known simply as Rake. It shelters us between steep, high banks, and we take the opportunity to have a snack before the moor. After passing an old quarry, the lane levels out onto the flat top of the high ridge and takes us past Rake Head, at 1080 feet among the highest and certainly the most one of the most exposed farmhouses in the area, though today its sheltering trees are only gently whispering in a forgiving, gentle breeze.
We are now in a monochrome world of white fields and black walls. As the lane brings us to the open moor, my son asks if I would like a go with his walking stick. This, I know, is code for a request to hold his stick, and I can guess why. For the rest of the walk he keeps up a frenzied barrage of snowballs against any target that offers itself, mostly dry stone walls. If we were being tracked but fresh snowfall obliterated our footprints, our route could have been traced by the regular splotches of compacted snow on the walls we passed.
After heading south on the lane, at the gate onto Cock Hill Moor we about turn to head back north across the frozen turf. After nearly half a mile the ground starts falling away, and as we descend there is an abrupt thinning of the snow cover.
Our destination is the Cuckoo Stone, which we are taking in on our walk after an online conversation with neighbours the previous evening about how Foster’s Stone – the flat-topped outcrop we look up to from our street – is called Cuckoo Rock by some older residents. Moreover, Chris Goddard’s excellent book The West Yorkshire Moors also reports it as being called the Cuckoo Stone. Nonetheless, Foster’s Stone has been labelled as such on the OS map ever since the first edition that covers it was published in 1853, and the Cuckoo Stone we are now approaching has been labelled as such ever since the first digitally available edition that covers it was published in 1894 (the 1854 Yorkshire 230 sheet is not available digitally). So, for the sake of having a destination around which to orient our walk, we thought we would pay it a visit. I let my son traverse towards its wedge-shaped protrusion along the hillside, which is terraced with sheep trods that have caught the snow, each one like an illuminated contour line.
As we approach it a flock of small birds launch from the grasses around it and ascend onto the moor, a few stopping on the posts of the fence we have just crossed, but only for the duration it takes me to wrestle my binoculars from my rucksack and out of their case, and no longer. When they have disappeared from view, I ask my son if he can remember where Matt carried his binoculars when we passed him the other day. ‘Around his neck’. Correct. The mystery I am left with as to what they were – for I am genuinely baffled – is my own fault.
The Cuckoo Stone is surrounded by other, less distinctive boulders and little crags, and we play four rounds of hide and seek among them. I therefore get two episodes of sitting quietly, crouched low, and realise that hide-and-seek is actually a parent’s rare opportunity to snatch a minute or two to really study something up close, in this case the diverse sward of grasses, the ferns hidden under and the lichens clinging to the rock I am hiding behind, and the gentle fall of snowflakes bouncing off it. Given I have been keeping us moving at quite a clip to avoid us getting cold, it is a welcome moment of peace.
As we move off, the 30-strong flock of birds reappears. I am ready this time. They are (I later confirm with Matt), reed buntings, a species that have changed their habits in recent decades such that their name is no longer a good guide as to the habitat one can expect to find them in. David Attenborough’s Tweet of the Day (which we listen to the following morning) mentions moorland as one of their new haunts. He also endearingly describes them as ‘scrubbed-up sparrows’, which pleases me greatly as the only thing I could think of after that first distant glimpse of their mottled tawny backs was indeed sparrow, which made very little sense.
Such was the fun my son had on the moor, cracking and crunching across frozen bogs and hurling snowballs into the wind so they flew back into his face, that he begs for us to go back up. But the snow is coming down a little thicker now and there is no telling what it will do, so instead of heading straight down towards the town as I had intended, I compromise and take us along Jumps Lane. The state of the lane – collapsed walls, empty gate stoops, skeleton trees, with the moribund remnants of the Rake Head Plantation on the skyline – befits the waning light and worsening weather.
My son finds a new occupation with the stick that I have handed back to him, which is to smash through the ice of every frozen puddle we come to, some of which are so tough that they require, aptly for this lane, jumping up and down on after a preliminary weakening with his cudgel.
At Three Gates – the meeting of Broad Lane, Jumps Lane, Kilnshaw Lane and Rake – we are still reluctant to descend, so we slide and skid along Kilnshaw Lane to the remarkable 19th century model farm of Erringden Grange, its prostrate ash tree and its sheep huddled around their hay feeder.
At Kilshaw Farm we turn down through David’s fields, at Pinnacle Lane looking back across to Erringden Grange…
…and then scatter the rooks in Ian and Rachel’s fields. We stop and watch the pulse of the Beaumont Clough stream emerging from and re-entering its field drain. I kneel on top of the drain and direct my phone’s torch down it for my son to peer into from the little bridge, but he reports that the darkness swallows the light instantly.
At the turning for Edge End the light is beginning to fade fast…
…but as ever we cannot bring ourselves to go straight down, and set off across the meadows on the now-frozen quagmire of the slight holloway to Cruttonstall…
…at which we disturb sheep who, as evidenced by the dark, snow-free patches of ground they vacate as we approach, have been sitting out the weather in the shelter of the ruin.
We have been out for four hours and covered seven miles, and it strikes me that this would not have been possible in these temperatures if it had been raining, simply because my son would not have been engaged in the vigorous, warming activity of playing with snow and ice. So we find ourselves descending in the last of the light, and needing the torch for the descent of Foster’s Rake through the woods.
After a morning lazing and looking out at the mist, a slight brightness after lunch tempts us out. It is my birthday, so I indulge a fantasy that we might make it up to London Road under Stoodley Pike. The sun briefly blazes on the canal as we make our way along to the bottom of Parrock Clough.
At the ruin of Burnt Acres we stop to watch a chattering flock of fieldfares, the best view my son has had of them so far.
Once they have moved on, we climb onto and up Dyke Lane…
…while behind us the sun begins to wash across the white landscape.
We pass between Height Gate and its cottage and down to cross the upper reaches of Stoodley Clough.
The snow deepens as we ascend beside Strait Hey. My wife and I have a whispered discussion about whether to strike out for the Pike. The sun is out, the conditions are good, our son is typically buoyant with energy, and despite having set out without any such intention, we have all the food, water and layers of clothing we need. It would be a magnificent way to celebrate my birthday. So at Rough Top, we layer up and get moving.
We have a choice of three ways to ascend: going east to Swillington and up the standard way; the faint path up through the Hare Stones; or rounding the shoulder of the moor on London Road and tackling its steep west-facing flank through Red Scar and Blue Scar. I make a quick judgement that if we are to see any more sun today then it has to be the steep way.
As we re-enter the sunlight it seems the right decision, but a bank of cloud is rolling over Langfield Edge and it is clear that the benefit will not last long.
My wife sets a punishing pace as we race with the rising shadow at our heels. The wind picks up, inevitably, as we ascend, and the sun is submerged in the wave of mist that breaks over the moor before we reach the summit.
The crust of snow on the plateau is sculpted around every stone and tuft of moor grass. We allow ourselves a brief moment to face into the wind and take in the sunset.
As we start our descent towards Swillington it is clear that the compacted snow of the path is going to be unpleasantly slippery, so we opt for the descent through the Hare Stones, which sure enough only shows no signs of having been used by others in the last few days.
We bounce down through deep, soft, undisturbed snow, looking across to the spruce of the Sunderland Pasture plantation, serenely frozen in the sudden twilight. Though we cannot see it now, it becomes clear, as the Pike Monument fades, that the tide of mist has now reached across Higher Moor to where we were standing moments before.
My wife and I had noticed on the ascent that our son had left his stick somewhere on the way up, so once we reach London Road we are committed to retracing our steps instead of going home a different way. Confident that we could find it, we had not said anything to our son, who had not yet noticed, only for him to suddenly realise moments before we reached the spot where we had agreed it was most likely to be – the point where we had stopped to add extra layers. Sure enough, to everyone’s relief, there it was.
Surprisingly, the Pike is not obliterated by the mist, but looks down on us for the duration of our descent. Just before we lose it from view at the shadowed remains of Burnt Acres, we turn for a last look, trying to imagine how hostile, even before night has fully arrived, it must be up there now.
After six hours of homeschooling looking out at the sharp, clear day, our late afternoon walk is in a softer light. The rush of snowmelt still working its way down the hillsides is everywhere.
We trace a stream up into the woodland of Ferny Bank. In places it sinks underground only to bubble up again out of the ground further down, sounding like a simmering winter stew on the hob. At the top of the slope we reach an ash tree with boulders clutched in its roots. We peep our heads over the wall into the fields at the top, which owing to the topography and shielding woodland, must only ever be looked upon by their owners and those few off-road explorers like us. We are rewarded by the sight of a thrush (I cannot tell if it is a mistle or a song thrush), guzzling holly berries. Along the top of the woodland we look for an old path marked on the 1853 OS map, and finally come upon it at the far end, where it brings us back down to our usual route.
Across the valley, Chris’s tractor rumbles up the Pennine Way and a flock of gulls speckles a field at Horsehold. The sun glows through the dark bank of stratus in the west like the bars of a gas fire.
In the morning, the valley’s trees were dark and rain-sodden. Now they are bright and snow-sodden. This is a wet fall. Hollies slump over saturated paths under their weight of barely-frozen water. The woods echo to the slap and splash of the melt. The paths, a layer of snow that is slippery like slime on top of deep, greasy mud, are appalling to walk on. What is needed is a deep, sudden freeze. And it looks as if that is what we are to receive, with the forecast showing the steady 1 degrees C temperature of the day holding until midnight, followed by a plunge of eight degrees by the morning. My hopes are high for a temperature inversion, and I set my alarm for early.
Unusually, I wake my son. We are going to leave at the same time as a normal school run, I tell him, but say nothing of my hopes, in case they are unfounded. He accepts the unnecessarily early start with equanimity. I bundle him up in so many layers that he can barely zip his coat up, but it doesn’t seem to be as cold as was forecast. The mist, too, does not seem to be sitting in the valley in the right way, for I can see the horizon at the top of Horsehold Wood. Perhaps this is not going to come off.
But as we reach the gate, brightness starts to bleed into the grey. We need just a little more height. I urge him on.
As we reach Lower Rawtonstall, the higher farms shine out pink above us. I run us around the back of Green House Farm and we catch the half-disc of the sun just emerging. Once we are across Badger Lane, it is exactly as I had hoped for my son’s first experience of a cloud inversion.
We are not the only ones who put in the effort of heaving themselves out of the valley early for this. In a fantastic coincidence, Mick, who I have only met once before a couple of years ago but whose Twitter-posted photo of an inversion taken from Langfield Edge on 4th January, a day that had been misty in the valley until sunset, had put me on alert for this happening, is also revelling in the view. He could have chosen any number of places to take this in, but we ended up in the same field, and I thank him for getting us up here. He, in turn, is grateful for having my son running around in the snow as a silhouetted subject for his photos.
I wheel about, trying to take in the whole scene before the mist dissipates and the light loses its colour: St Thomas the Apostle Church in Heptsonstall, framed by rimed birches…
…a tilted plate of cloud wedged into Luddenden Dean…
…Stooodley Pike Monument riding the swell like a navigation buoy.
The Colden Valley looks like the aftermath of a volcanic eruption, the trees petrified in ash, Lumb Bank a Pompeian marvel to be found in a millennium or two.
We wander north, away from the valley mists, to enjoy the undisturbed snow.
We return south to Badger Lane avoiding our own tracks and instead following those of a hare.
At Lower Rawtonstall we re-enter the mist…
…and decide to carry on along Dark Lane…
…and Winter’s Lane.
At Long Hey Top, seeing that Scammerton Farm is clear above us, we delay our descent to school work yet again and lift ourselves above the clouds for a last look.
In Knott Wood, the mist grades distance so finely that individual trunks in a stand of ivy-wreathed sycamore or oaks marching downhill are blacker or greyer according to their remove from me…
…and this effect holds even within the branches of a single tree, albeit a sycamore with a magnificently spread crown.
Having been out for three hours, we graft away for the rest of the day to catch up, but with the satisfaction of looking out at woods that remain cloaked in mist, and with the glow of morning cold on our faces.
It was in the gullies on Edge End Moor that I found the last of the snow in April 2010 after its continuous cover since December 15th 2009. And it is these gullies that, by the evening, retain the remnants of yesterday’s fine covering after a day of rain has almost entirely washed it away.
For the first time in this lockdown, I meet with a friend for a walk. I steer us on one of my favourites: a round of Edge End Moor, exchanging homeschooling experiences as we wade through rushes. The valley’s dazzle of 48 hours ago has been entirely muted.
After a morning holed up in the kitchen working on scaled pictograms and a factfile on penguins, I am relieved of duty and barrel up the Pennine Way. The conditions are distinctly unpromising, but I feel in need of a blast of cold air and a stomp across some rough ground.
Jackdaws and rooks are feasting on the supplementary feed put out for the sheep…
…and they noisily scatter as I enter the field, swirling above and then settling into the tops of the beech and sycamore plantation to wait until I pass.
In the fields closer around Lower Rough Head, a rival gang of gulls, their bleached white plumage putting the sheep to shame, jostles close to another swaggering clique of corvids. Up in the top pastures on the edge of the moor, yet more wheel and roister. I wonder if Ian and Rachel had topped up the feeders today and these flocks just happened to be in the right place, or whether the news of good feeding in Erringden got passed around the winter roost last night. Either way, the advantages of sociality are on full display.
It is not just rows of feed spread from a hopper on the back of a quad bike that has been layed out for the sheep, but the hay racks and ring feeders have been stuffed with the summer’s grass, and the rich smell of warm days nearly bowls me over as I pass beside one such buffet on the tiny path beside Kilnshaw Farm. Its slippery steps bring me up on over what, in the valley’s landscape vernacular, really ought to be called an Edge but is nameless on all maps. For my own purposes, I am mulling calling it Rake Edge after the farmhouse that sits on its crest, or Kilnshaw Edge after the farmhouse that sits just under its sweep up to the moor.
Ian and Rachel must be somewhere close by, for their jeep is parked at the top of the unmade Whittaker Road and there is a cluster of sheep around a newly-stocked feeder. I hear the ghost of a call and realise that they must be even higher up with a bale or two for their stock on Law Hill.
I head north on Erringden Moor, hugging the wall, until I come to a gate that lets me back into the pastures. This little loop up onto the moor and back through these three high pastures is all I have time for, but is exactly what I wanted. They bristle with rushes, are pockmarked with molehills and their walls are collapsing. No path exists on the ground, but I dutifully stick to its line, even wilfully climbing up the giant throughstone step stiles over the walls right beside enormous gaps that could be walked through. I stop to watch a hare dart between rushes as Ian and Rachel’s tractor comes down the track from Johnny’s Gap, stops at the jeep, and then both descend Whittaker Road. With the horrendous forecast of rain over the next 72 hours, it feels very much like they are battening down the hatches.
The western sky gets murkier still with the first of the incoming rain, outriders of Storm Christoph. The postie’s van crawls past Kershaw Farm and on down the Pennine Way. A wren flits along and clings to the capstones of the wall ahead of me. The wind gently whines in the bare larches of Kilnshaw Lane’s substantial little woodland, but as ever drops and calms as I regain the lower ground.
I find more preparation for the coming storm down in the valley, where Mick is clearing his drains and grates where the unnamed stream that my son and I traced to its source in July pours down beside his house and under the railway and road to the Calder. We talk about the possibilities of slowing its flow higher up, and I wish him luck for the next couple of days. The robins are doing an admirable job of making up for the lack of blackbirds in the evening chorus as I arrive home.
Water. So much water, cascading from the smirred horizon of snowmelt-saturated moor into the pinched valley-within-a-valley. It fills the ears: the splash of my son through puddles, the gurgle of laneside drains, the resounding rush of the funneling cloughs.
The hillsides are ribboned with white thundering streams, veining themselves like quartz into the fissures of the landscape. As the threat of flooding recedes, their brilliance, illuminating the dark interior of the winter woods, can be appreciated, before they fade and quieten.
I tell my son of a long-lost track I have recently found in the woods behind our house, one that was marked on the 1853 OS map but subsequently lost to all future editions. I tell him that although I find it fascinating, it is not much to look at, and it will be impossible to take him to see it because it can only be accessed via an unreasonably steep and slippery slope and then its course followed by pushing through the densest tangles of holly. He is having none of it, so now I am balancing and pushing and urging him up a slope at a frankly ludicrous angle into an amphitheatre of holly. We slip and slide and hang onto low branches and swing ourselves from foothold to foothold with the long, spindly, vine-like branches thrown out by hollies.
He is quite pleased with the track as return for the effort, and is, like me, convinced that the short stretch of rocks that appear to be a retaining wall and the level terrace that contours around the hillside is manmade. He valiantly follows it through every wall of holly thicket, concerned less at the prickles than that his new hat is not plucked from his head.
We emerge, finally, on a familiar footpath, and strike out for the horizon to our beloved gate, where some breaks in the cloud promise an interesting sky after the gloomy marine green of the deep holly.
He chooses to get closer to it up an oak…
…but I’m content to stay on terra firma to watch the first fleeting sun in six days thread between the shredded, scudding cumulus, throwing dazzling searchlights scanning across the upper reaches of the valley.
We wave to neighbours as they pass up the hill, and once my son has got himself down the tree, then decided to have another attempt to get higher and come down again, we set off on our usual loop after them.
We wade along lanes that are running streams in Storm Christoph’s bitter wake, and in the middle of the quagmire we meet Gary, who has lived nearby for twenty years or so, having renovated a derelict barn himself. We talk about the old rights of vehicular access to the lanes around here, lanes that are now wholly unsuitable for the originally intended horse and cart, let alone anything with a motor. He points out to me the humps of hidden water tanks in the fields and the lines of the water supply for the farms and cottages. He has much knowledge of Winter’s Mill, the site of which used to be in his family. I could go on listening, but it is raw, and my son has got himself thoroughly soaked with the antics in the bog that have been keeping him amused. We press on, into the wind.
At Winters, we descend Dale Clough to take in the waterfalls, which has slightly, but only slightly, calmed from the day before, then weave down the hillside, wringing all the bleak beauty we can from the dregs of the day.
First thing, the valley is entirely snow-free. By mid-morning, after a sudden fall of large flakes, it has been transformed.
We save our walk for towards the end of the day, tacking it on to the end of a spell in the garden in which our son has got himself spectacularly muddy even by his own high standards, digging out a bank in the garden to accommodate a new compost bin. I give him a free choice of where to go, and he opts for Horsehold Scout, so we make the steep pull up beside Stubbing Brink. Although the valley’s trees have shed their covering from the morning, we can see that the upper fields and the moors have not. So in a change of plan, we head higher, into a different world of blue twilit snows, where the sycamores of Armytage Rhodes’s magnificently ordered 19th century fields are fanned like river deltas etched in charcoal, and lanes that ever lead the eye and the feet towards Stoodley Pike.
The air has a touch of hostility to it, but the light is benign. It oils the holly and ivy with a warm briny sheen, burnishes the last of the rusting macrescent oak leaves, steeps the waxing gibbous Moon in duck egg blue.
We have maths and handwriting licked by mid-morning, so get out earlier than usual before some foul weather is due to arrive from lunchtime. My son leads us up on the path marked by yellow daubs on holly and birch through the western part of Callis Wood, under Callis Nab, to Oaks Farm. Crows menace the old farmhouse from the tops of ash trees, and the fields wear a threadbare covering of snow.
We keep an eye for the buzzard as we climb the track to the moor, but this time it does not appear. By the time we reach the gate, a light snow is falling, though it appears unconvinced it would not rather be rain.
At Cruttonstall, a flock of redwings is working the fields, navigating their way between reposed, ruminating sheep. We disturb it as we approach, and they issue their thin ‘seeps’ as they circle over us and, seemingly having determined that we are no threat, land back in the same place to continue their progress. As we emerge from between the farmhouse and barn, they have moved into Square Field, which we saw rowed and baled in September last year, but which is now muted and cropped short.
My son asks to do yesterday’s walk again, but I have taken his recent request for more variety in our daily walks to heart, so suggest we head in the same direction but further on today. At the foot of Parrock Clough we cross the canal into Burnt Acres Wood. It has a distinctively open character, its oaks being sufficiently spaced that its floor is entirely covered with grasses. Our track contours along just above the canal, but we are soon lured above it to investigate some enormous old charcoal burning platforms, and are then intrigued by terraces that may or may not have been paths, but either way, provide a comfortable way along the steep slope.
After a while we intersect with a footpath that doubles us back and leads us up to the top of the wood, where the oaks peter out and become more stunted in response to their exposure. One could almost imagine it a natural treeline, something that still exists in only a handful of places in the British Isles.
We sit on the wall and I present to him a remarkable find from the recesses of the kitchen press: a remnant of last year’s Easter egg, which has somehow survived lockdown comfort eating. We contentedly watch the traffic down in the valley, the chimney smoke from Great House Farm rising straight into the still, mild air, and the sun slip into the first and only break in the clouds that I have been aware of all day.
A little further along, the Bridgeholme Cricket Ground comes into view below us, and he wistfully reminds me that he was going to go to their summer school last year.
We dip into Stoodley Clough, where a giant ash guards the ford. I ask him if he can identify it, and, with the name on the tip of his tongue he correctly, if sadly, gets there by saying it is the species that has ‘some kind of blight’.
We retrace our steps and start up the lane to Height Farm, past Jonathan’s new barn and a pair of grand reclaimed gateposts being erected to frame the entrance to the now-former farm, it having been sold a few years ago. Turning around, we spot a light up on the very unmade London Road. I have never seen a vehicle there. I zoom in with the camera. It is the most catastrophically lost Morrison’s delivery van one is ever likely to see. The driver is out of the vehicle and on the phone. I cannot imagine the conversation he is having, nor how he will extract himself from the predicament it must have taken considerable determination to get himself into. He is a good half a mile beyond where one would expect a delivery driver to appreciate that his satnav is leading him into deep trouble. I do not think he can continue, for the lane must surely be too narrow for him once it is walled a little further on. But reversing up out of the clough he has got himself across is unthinkable. My son is caught up in the drama, and insists that we must come back up in the morning to see if he is still there. As the gloom deepens, it is not inconceivable.
We turn and leave him to his fate, for there is nothing we can do, down Dyke Lane and back to Burnt Acres Bottom, where we watch a swirl of rooks high on the skyline of Common Bank Wood. This adds to our puzzlement over why the jackdaws have been conspicuously absent in the times we have been here so far this winter. My son offers a plausible explanation: might the rooks have muscled them out?
In the last of the light along the canal, we stand for 10 minutes watching at least seven bats out feeding. The mildness of the day must have stirred them from their torpor, but I also hope it is not because they had not built up sufficient fat reserves to see them through the winter. My son is entranced; it is certainly the best view of bats he has had, one flitting low enough several times for him to duck.
My wife has taken over homeschooling for the afternoon and I am settled at the desk, writing, for once content that the afternoon looks distinctly unpromising. But just after 4 o’clock a blush of blue shows up in the grey mist. For a moment I actually feel put out that I am being beckoned up the hill, and I fight the urge to go. But I know it is impossible to resist, and that it would be the wrong thing to do so, so on go the wellies and I race up the hill. I have been on a hair trigger for cloud inversions ever since 15th of this month, and this looks possible.
I pass Rob and his children coming down the hill, and get confirmation from them that the mist is indeed sitting in the valley, with a layer of clear air in between it and the upper layer of clouds. It spurs me on. I only pause in the ascent for a quick chat with David, who is wheelbarrowing hay out for his sheep, but in short order emerge above Callis Wood. I need to get a little higher up the hill to be able to see up the valley, but am immediately distracted by the buzzard flying low over the lane to Cruttonstall. It perches on the gate stoop, and after a dip down to the fields, then a wooden post. Just as my son did last month, I attempt to stalk towards it for a closer view, knowing full well that I stand no chance it being unaware of my exact location. It humours my efforts for a few minutes, but eventually flies off.
I can now take in that I have indeed made it above the clouds, just as they break over the crest of Callis Wood and come rolling across Square Field with a surprisingly defined leading edge, engulfing sheep one by one in its silent advance.
I stay ahead of it as it laps towards Cruttonstall, and I gain more height beyond the moorland wall, only to turn round to find that it has suddenly dissipated apart from a few wisps.
I catch my breath and take in the quiet, and realise that the only way to describe this peculiar atmosphere is, unexpectedly for a late afternoon in January, humid. I move along towards Thorps, where again a swell builds and climbs through the dark hollies in the fields between Oaks and Lodge cloughs. I instinctively back away up the slopes of Edge End Moor behind me, but just as it licks at the wall that separates pasture from moor, it falls back.
Lodge Farm’s tall trees for a moment evoke a grand estate parkland, an entirely alien landscape in this valley, as the vapours eddy around their trunks. The ruin of Thorps is submerged and then surfaces again.
As I approach Cruttonstall on my way back, I notice something that I had missed on my way through: a splinter of roof beam protruding clear into the sky. I realise with shock that a good third of the roof that has been intact for the 11 years I have known it has collapsed since I was last here five days ago. The chambers below are now stuffed with enormous Yorkshire stone slates, and the beams further along are exposed to the elements.
A 1984 photograph on the Pennine Horizons Digital Archive shows the roof of both parts of the house fully intact, so I know that I have only ever known it in a state of decline, with one half of the house already open to the sky. But Cruttonstall is so monolithic that its shape had come to seem fixed, and while I know that the process of decay is ongoing in all the many dozens of ruins that I know in the valley, it is nonetheless sad to see further deterioration in their condition.
Still ruminating on the deterioration of Cruttonstall, I am drawn back up to it at the end of the day. As I mount the zig-zags of Foster’s Rake I look up to see Chris on the horizon, engaged in his lifelong task of checking the ancient wooden fence that bounds his shelf of pastures for fallen rails. As I cross the stile he has moved a little way down Square Field on his quad bike, but as I walk up the lane towards Cruttonstall he rounds back and comes to check his feeders, stuffed with the hay we watched him and his family bale in the summer, and our paths cross beside the ruin. As the twilight gathers about us, he tells me of its history: how at one time the faint path that crosses just above it was a main route from Halifax to Rochdale; how in the 1800s it was divided into three dwellings stocked with 33 souls; how for many of its last inhabited years members of the Halstead family farmed here, descendants of which still sometimes come to visit; how it tragically suffered a fire 20 or so years ago when someone camped out in it, which opened part of its roof to the elements and began the process of decay which took another step – two days since, he says – with the further collapse that I had first seen yesterday.
Our talk ranges from the ruin and over the fields and their names; the different characteristics of his Derbyshire Gritstone and Lleyn sheep that graze them; how he and his herd of Limousin cattle mutually arrive at the decision around early December that it is time for them to come into the barn for the winter; the wildlife – buzzards and badgers, moles and crows – that he shares these acres with; the increase in the numbers of walkers he has been seeing this past year and the very different use we make of the paths than that for which they were originally constructed; the loss of the social aspect of the auction marts in these days of ‘drop-and-go’; and all the way out to the looming changes to agricultural policy made in offices that seem very far from the darkening fields we are looking over.
As the lights of his quad bike recede down the hill on his way to check on his stock at a lower barn, I cannot help but be in awe of his and his family’s deep connection to this place, continuing a stewardship of these fields that is, in its essentials, unchanged in centuries. I only hope that the new policies that will effect small family farms like his to sustain that stewardship in ways that are fit for both changing markets and broadening societal demands are well-thought through and competently implemented.
I was not sure what I was looking for in coming up here again, partly because I had not fathomed the precise nature of the unease that the collapse of Cruttonstall’s roof had induced in me. As I descend, I am not uncertain I am any closer to understanding it. But what is clear is that I am feeling considerably better than I did last night, and that is due to my conversation with Chris. Given that in my 11 years of not infrequent passages through these fields, although we have exchanged a good few distant waves, particularly over the past summer as my son and I made our descents from long walks through the meadows that he he and his family were mowing or baling, I have had only a very small handful of conversations with him because it is rare to happen to cross paths at the right moment. The serendipity of that happening on this of all evenings was most welcome. It was a privilege to hear a little of his knowledge of the old farmhouse. But perhaps more than that, hearing a little about his life tending the fields in which it stands provided perspective. After all, Cruttonstall’s role in the story of this place is, at least for now, over, but the story of the fields its generations of farmers tended goes on.
My son and I route march for two-and-a-half miles along the canal towpath. Our quarry is the kingfisher at Lobb Mill, but our vigil, sustained in the bitter cold by the warmth our searing pace there had generated, is in vain. The lady who owns the nearby stable tells us that it is more often found on the canal than the river, so we split our attention between the two, but to no avail. A pair of dippers, though, is more-than-adequate compensation.
We take four paces up Haugh Road to climb out of the valley before we are hit full in the face by an easterly blast of vicious little balls of ice, and think better of it. It is almost unprecedented for us to stay in the valley bottom, but the sub-zero wind chill today makes for the most inhospitable conditions I can recall this winter. So we retrace our steps, meeting his school’s friendly administrator along the way, dipper song emanating from the river while we catch up.
We leave our Big Garden Bird Watch hour until late in the afternoon, and split it between being in the garden and being in the house where we have a better view of our bird feeders. A nine-strong flock of long-tailed tits is present more or less throughout the hour, along with smaller flocks of great tits and blue tits. A robin, a blackbird and a nuthatch report for duty, but the dunnock, which had been hopping about on the terraces all morning, is absent without leave. A wood piegeon and a flock of goldfinch pass close by but don’t have the decency to land in the garden and bolster our count. And, frustratingly, with two minutes left, the gentle piping of bullfinch can be heard three or four gardens up the hill. It would have been only the third time in 11 years that we had them to visit, so it would have been a coup, but it was not to be. But we do have the satisfaction of adding one reasonably rare visitor to our tally: a coal tit.
As the evening begins to draw in, we light a fire and burn it down to embers to barbecue some veggie hot dogs. This was an idea my son and I came up with last week, and I am slightly surprised, not to say impressed, that we are going through with it in 2 degrees C. But we sit at the garden table for the first time since the autumn with a little camping lantern and a good spread of hot dogs, roast potatoes and salad. A pair of male tawny owls strike up an exchange of shivering hoots, and our son, sitting facing out to the skyline on the other side of the valley, suddenly exclaims that he can see Orion’s belt. To my discredit I am sceptical, as it does not seem dark enough yet. But, twisting round and taking some time to scrutinise the patch of sky where he is pointing, I find he is absolutely right. I am hopeless at constellations, so he enlightens me as to Orion’s full extent and orientation. ‘How do you know all this?’, I ask, for I have certainly not taught him. ‘I’ve been studying my space book.’ Fair enough.
After we have toasted some marshmallows and are sitting back at the table, congratulating ourselves on our hardiness as we bolt down our dessert of chocolate-and-banana buns so we can get back inside, a tawny owl traverses the lawn. With a whisper of wings, it negotiates its way under the oak branches that hang over the garden. If we had been standing next to the bonfire, it would have had to negotiate us. It is a fine way to end a weekend that has, in the best way, been for the birds.