In the frigid evening air at the end of an intensely bright day, the lingering smell of sun-warmed soil kindles an almost painful hopefulness. Spring is a little way off yet, but today, for the first time, I allow myself to dream of its coming.
A fresh and heavy snowfall in the night has brought the village green into condition for sledging, so this is our outdoors exercise for today. My son makes a jump at the bottom of the steep embankment, perfecting his run such that, for a moment, ground, sledge and boy are entirely separated from one another. Around us, the valley’s trees are bent and bowed under the weight of snow, but as it inexorably slides off each bough the white woods gradually darken.
Other neighbourhood children have added to the jump, so the following morning the gap between sledge and ground increases.
I peel off for a walk. As the rain starts I meet Ann, and I offer her a compliment on her wonderful garden along Winter’s Lane, the only haven for house sparrows I know of between Hebden Bridge, Heptsonstall and Blackshaw Head. She kindly offers us any cuttings we might want when the time comes. A few paces further on, Mick is coming down the hill on his bike, trailer laden with bird food, and George and his daughter are coming up the hill, heading to their favoured sledging field.
Dank vapours furl over field and wreath through wood, trees weep fat tears that slap on the slush of liquefying snow. As ever in this Pennine valley, it’s all about water, whatever its state.
Now I’m up here, I don’t quite know where I want to go. I briefly consider crossing Jumble Hole Clough, or going up to Blackshaw Head, but in the end I complete a tiny circuit of Marsh Farm’s fields, listening to the muffled quiet, watching the slowly-moving mists and a pair of song thrush feeding amongst the streaked snows.
On my way down the merest hint of tea-stained brightness confirms the improbable: that somewhere beyond this leaden murk, the sun still shines.
The rain sets in as I descend, but Renos, ascending, is undeterred. We stop and talk for a while about birdsong and fungi. In the last grim year, meeting so many neighbours on walks has been such a pleasure, and that the focus of our conversations has been wildlife, seasonal changes and our love for our local landscape has made that pleasure even greater.
At first light, the opposite side of the valley, all of 350 yards away, is blocked from view by dense fog. It takes until two hours after sunrise for it to loom through the mists as they thin and break up, the beech black and smoking like the charred aftermath of a forest fire. I am not the only one who is out on the road admiring the scene; Richard stops on his way down the hill and we exchange our favourite routes through those woods that we look out at every day.
At the end of the day my son and I set off with the intention of making it to the far side of the Colden Valley above Lumb Bank and a return along the Pennine Way, but these ambitions take no account of the high probability of meeting people to talk to along the way. So by the time we have talked to a chap at the Bowling Club who is making a bonfire of an old shed to make way for a new pavillion when a loosening of the rules allow a few members to form a work party, and then David, a newcomer to Hebden, with whom we compare our Big Garden Birdwatch tallies, we have to radically scale back our planned route. We climb the Cat Steps and, for the first time, I show my son a forgotten old track that traverses below Green House Lane on its way seemingly to nowhere.
As it crests a promontory we are elevated above the canopy for a view of Stoodley Pike. Behind it, the peach south-western sky, and in the blue shadows, the last snows are holed up in the folds of Edge End Moor. We leave the track to climb to Green House Lane, where, across Steve’s field, the tower of St Thomas the Apostle Church at Heptonstall breaches the Wadsworth Moor horizon into the fuschia flush of the north-western sky.
It is difficult to believe that a substantial snowfall has come and almost gone in the intervening four days, but just as on 1st of the month, the mildness of the evening is bringing forth the scents of the coming spring. I ask my son if he can smell the soil warming up, the green and growing things eager for the off. In response to my overexcited effusiveness he obligingly sticks his nose into the lane verge before claiming he can’t smell anything because he is too out of breath from the climb.
Hebden Bridge is lighting up as the shadows sink into the valley…
…and as we reach the gate, he reminds me that he had requested to stop for a snack.
I am always only too happy to stop here. We sit on the wall, and I ask him what stream we can hear. He looks up and turns his head from side to side to pinpoint the source of the rush of water, then points across the valley: ‘Beamont Clough’. It certainly is, and despite the greater movement of people and attendant volume of traffic during this lockdown compared to last spring, considering it is rush hour on Friday, there is very little engine noise to compete with this sound. Soon, the government will be making decisions about how and when to ease the lockdown, so these next few weeks may be the last of this kind of hush at this time of day until the widespread adoption of electric vehicles. The chorus of robin song that seems to echo around the valley – another sign that the year is turning, regardless of what winter may still have up its sleeve – seems all the sweeter.
Even when staying local has become a way of life, there are gradations in what it means. Today, the garden is the extent of our landscape. Incessant rain pools on the lawn, but we spend the afternoon out in it nonetheless, putting up more bird feeders, re-deploying the trail cam, finding a suitable V-shaped branch for a caterpault, and hewing and hurling holly spears.
At one point I glance up at Foster’s Stone, and the rain does not look quite right – the sweeping curtain too slow, the drops too large. I call my son over and we peer up at it, a third of mile away and 300 feet above us. He agrees: that looks like snow. Within a minute, flakes smuggle themselves down to us amongst the raindrops. It thickens, and for a brief while, the snowflakes outnumber the raindrops, before the rain reestablishes its dominance. But the forecast has this as the last of the positive temperatures until Wednesday. Storm Darcy is on its way.
I resolve my focus back into the garden and its offerings. No matter what the weather does in the coming week, the hellebores, snowdrops, witch hazel and winter honeysuckle offer a rebuttal to the bluster of winter.
It is bleak and bitter under the slate skies. Once up on Dark Lane we are thankful that we have ended up walking our normal loop anti-clockwise, for on this highest section the biting easterly is now at our heels, hounding us home.
The snow has returned, and after a morning homeschooling, I set out in the middle of the afternoon determined to complete Friday’s aborted mission: to reach Slack, where the ridge from Heptsonstall curves around the Colden Valley and affords a view – of Shackleton and Crimsworth Dean – that I have not seen for too long. I make short work of getting to Lumb Bank and of the ascent behind it on Lumb Road.
Towards the top of the lane an icy squall blows in. Not only is the air full of newly-falling powder snow, but the fierce wind is whipping snow over the wall of the lane at exactly face height. I put my back to it and attempt to sit it out, occasionally snatching glances over my shoulder to see if any lightening of the sky gives hope that it may be passing. After a short while, I decide I can detect some brightness, and make for Smithwell Lane. Sure enough, when I turn south, Stoodley Pike has reappeared, although it looks as if it is behind frosted glass.
I had been allowing my hopes for the view to drain away when the last flurry had engulfed me, but it is a wild afternoon of squall after squall obliterating the world and then revealing it anew, of clouds bruised then aglow, of horizons white and knife-sharp then spindrift-blurred and blue. Down at Slack, as I duck down a lane beside an enormous stone barn, behind which two horses in heavy winter coats are being led away, I arrive as the curtain sweeps away.
High abobve Crimsworth Dean, Spinks Hill Farm, South Shields Farm and Hill Top Farm hunker under the moor’s wind-smirred horizon.
In this tempest, Shackleton and Stony Holt Farm, and their sheep huddled around ring feeders on the brow of the hill, seem cut off from help by the dark wooded gulf of Hardcastle Crags…
…and beyond, at the head of Crimsworth Dean, the moor gleams, though it is wholly unclear how the light is finding its way through the heavy clouds.
Back up at Slack, I find the horses, with backs to the wind and whipped snow. If I were them, I would be bewildered as to why I had been brought out of my stable into this.
I walk up the road, past the Mount Zion Baptist Chapel, across Popples Common and down Faugh Lane, where I am briefly engulfed by another squall. At Little Lear Ings, the wind is producing a polyphonic whine through the holes in galvanised steel gateposts, recalling the Singing Ringing Tree, a wind-powered sound sculpture on the hills above Burnley.
I dip down the Pennine Way, glancing across the fields and the unseen gulf of the Colden Valley that I earlier came up and am now about to cross again, to Heptsonstall and its church.
The drifts against the wall on Pry Hill are impressive and I resolve to bring my son back to them. Erringden and Langfield hove into view, lights winking on under the dimming moor.
With the homeschool work licked, I race us up the hill driftwards, stopping only to pluck from a cliff an icicle that has been shaped into a ceremonial dagger with round hilt and fine, finned blade, which my son clutches the rest of the way. In Callis Wood, Foster’s Rake, usually entirely invisible, is as clear as day, its zig-zags picked out in snow, with even the older track that underlies it discernible.
I haven’t told my son about the drifts so as to keep them as a surprise, so he must wonder why I am being such a sergeant-major, racing him past up the hill past Popples Farm.
But when we get there, the unadulterated joy with which he greets the sight of a quarter-of-a-mile-long sculpted, corniced, waist-deep drift is glorious. I enviously reflect that this kind of unreserved pleasure is the preserve of childhood. He barely knows what to do first. He climbs on top to experiment with how far down he sinks, walks along the crest a little way, then rolls himself off its edge.
He immediately realises that his ice-blade will be a hindrance, so asks me to deposit on the coping stones of the wall that has made this drift possible, trapping the snow that has been driven by the easterly across Gordon’s fields for the last 48 hours.
While my son digs into, tumbles along, climbs up and flings himself off, and, in general, wrecks the beauty of the drift, I spin about attending to every direction, every familiar scene rendered so unfamiliar by snow and spectacular cloud and light: the Crook Hill Wind Farm materialising from an icy tumult of wind and ice…
…the bowl of fields below Wadsworth Moor cupping the sun and funnelling it into the valley…
…the upper reaches of the Colden Valley, serenely ignoring the scudding storm that stalks it…
…the distant high farms of Egypt, Coppy, Thurrish and Spinks Hill, variously bathed in sun or sunk in shadow according to the whims of the squalls…
…Old Town Mill with its guard-of-honour phalanx of trees.
I move us along the drift and over the gentle ridge until we are fully overlooking the Colden Valley, out shadows draped down the hill.
In lieu of a sledge, we run across the icy crust down the hill a little way. While he creates a little snow den from which to ambush me, I take in the cluster of Hudson Fold, Broadstone Fold and Halstead Green, with the curve of Hot Lane leading to the speckled Heptonstall Moor…
…the ever-pleasing terrace of Knowl Top and its 13 chimneys…
…the ruin of Field Head on the curve of the Shackleton headland.
We make our way back along the drifts. For most of its length, a strange effect of the wind has maintained a gap between drift and wall, but where the wall has partially collapsed, this effect has failed and the snow has entirely banked up against the wall. Here I go in up to my thighs and the snow, if I am not careful, enters over the top of my wellies. My son, however, walks on top of the snow Legolas-style, though he makes an effort to blaze a trail for me.
The western sky is changing as the sun lowers, with Staups Moor, the Bride Stones and Langfield Moor all backed by bronzing, billowing cumulus.
Before leaving the drift, we remember to pick up his knificle, and make our way down the Pennine Way.
As the valley becomes shadowed, the woods become monochrome.
We spy some even better icicles and climb to admire them. Below us, on the track, Lee and his daughters are ascending. He calls up to us and I gesture that I can’t hear him for the water. He points up the hill and marks a level at his waist, and I instantly know he is recommending the drifts. I give him the thumbs up and mime as best I can that we have just been there.
What we saw from the opposite side of the valley I now trace through the woods: the subtle white trail of Foster’s Rake, its terrace leading me up through Callis Wood.
Across the stile at its head and into the open fields, the light is striking, gleaming through infernally dark clouds.
As if to show that the clouds are not as dark as all that, two pairs of ravens grapple in the air, trading unspeakably black insults at one another. One pair concedes the airpsace and makes off towards Jumble Hole Clough. One of the triumphant pair circles me and lands on Edge End Moor, swaggering in victory, baying with all its body, tearing at the turf and hurling clumps away. The other joins it for whatever delicacies the frozen soil is affording.
Bulked knots of cloud stoop over the moors, now shining in the sun, now eclipsing it.
Keelham Farm is caught in the spotlights that scan across the fields below Wadsworth Moor.
Edge End Farm, usually in the lee of its namesake moor from the westerlies, is now exposed to the week’s weather.
As I make my way back to Cruttonstall I take a closer look at the wet flush that has been created by a badger digging under a wall and blocking a field drain. As I take the last few steps towards it a snipe launches and jinks away, its complaint the grate of a rusty hinge.
My son felt left out at me having gone ahead on Monday with our unfinished walk from the previous week, so once again I trek up Colden Road, but this time with my usual stomping companion. We meet Lee, who confirms that it was the drifts in Gordon’s field that he was attempting to tell me about the other day. He also gives us a valuable tip off: that there are icicles of epic proportions in the old quarries in Dill Scout’s Wood on the south side of Colden Clough. We defer that pleasure until later, first weaving up through Slater Ing Wood on the north side, quickly coming across an aperitif of fine shards, accompanied by the thin, half-whispered whistle of a treecreeper, probing among the mossy sycamore trunks.
Climbing out of the shadows of the clough to Popples Common on what is today the most inappropriately named Murking Lane, the brilliant landscape is dazzling. Under an unfathomably blue sky and with the air still and benign, I feel the possibilities are as wide open as the horizons, so I turn us up onto New Lane towards Mount Pleasant.
This affords us a view of Knowl Top’s thirteen chimneys from the other side, backed by Gordon’s fields where we will inevitably end up later. Indeed, there is Gordon now, ascending through them on his quad bike.
Looking north, I point out to my son a patch of woodland above the hamlet of Walshaw, where lie the remains of a farmhouse called Moor Cock. I remind him that we visited this on a long walk. It was May 2019 and he was five years old. I don’t really expect him to remember. ‘Yes, there was a mast in the side of the wood, and a blue muckspreader, and we sat on a rock by a gate…’ I am astonished at his recall, but the final detail he offers suggests why it is so cemented in his memory: ‘…and you gave me a packet of sweets.’ Yes, I did. I suspect he could not so vividly describe every step of the nine miles we covered that day.
In contrast to Monday, the farms – derelict or not – look content in their remoteness: Lady Royd and its silent, shuttered school, last echoing with children’s laughter in 1948; Coppy, its blank eyes peering over the crest of the hillside it nestles into; Roms Greave, which has been rendered roofless since I last saw it; and Clough Head, its weather-tightness assiduously attended to, preserving the possibility that it may one day be a home again.
At Mount Pleasant we find a frozen frog, which my son, in what strikes me as a macabre gesture but which he seems to think otherwise, places on top of a fence post to leer a frozen grin at anyone else who may pass this way. An energetic and vocal flock of reed buntings – our second moorland flock of the winter – feed among the young trees surrounding the farm and its outbuildings.
We pass through the gate from Mount Pleasant’s enclosures onto Heptonstall Moor. Hot Stones Hill – this particular, most easterly patch of a moor which it would take rough miles to walk across from here – has long been a favourite of ours, due to its proximity to a bus stop and to May’s Shop, where we would call in for a paper bag of penny sweets. I long for the days where a reasonable interpretation of ‘essential shopping’ and ‘essential travel’ does not exclude this jaunt from consideration for a little afternoon excursion. It is good to be on the moor again, so instead of going straight down off it we do our traditional walk along the wall at the top of the enclosures above Edge Lane to Stony Turgate Hill.
At the corner where the enclosure wall turns a sudden corner down to Stony Lane, and while my son puts all his effort into breaking ice of considerable thickness on the little pools that gather here, I sweep my eyes along the rolling horizon: to the escarpment of The Scout and Grey Stone Hill above Widdop Reservoir; to Boulsworth Hill, at 1699 feet the highest point in the moors that enfold our world; to cars creeping down the Keighley Road on the flanks of White Hill…
…and closer, to lone figures traversing the moors.
My contemplation of the view is evidently considered sheer idleness, so I am enlisted to help with a particularly intractable iced pool which has thwarted all my son’s efforts. We cast about for a rock, but it is beyond even my attempts to satisfy his unwillingness to allow any perfect ice crust to go unmolested. I can recall sharing his urge to – and I don’t think I can put it any more charitably or delicately than this – destroy these perfect formations of nature. If I, at seven years old, had been armed with a stout staff of seasoned hazel and presented with an endless supply of frozen pools and puddles, I too would have laid waste to them with a comparable zeal. What drives it, I wonder? I think it somehow allows one to experience the corporeality of the world in a way that is usually disallowed. That is, as children we are allowed to lay about ice and snow in a way that we are not allowed to with plants. I think this latter point must be accounted for by the ephemeral (and, of course, inanimate) nature of ice; given nature itself is either going to repair one’s damage that very night or destroy its own creations with a temperature rise in the subsequent days, little harm is done. Similar though they may be in structure to icicles, the destruction of a stalactite would be considered vandalism of the highest order simply because of the time they take to form. But despite my understanding, I nonetheless still periodically draw his attention away from his preoccupation with the ground to admire the view and the clouds and to listen to the intense silence of the frozen moors, before allowing him to go on with his Sisyphean efforts.
Southwards, Pennine horizons pile on top of one another…
…and on the north-facing side of the Colden Valley, figures climb towards the sepia sky.
After crossing the Colden and two-and-a-half hours after receiving Lee’s tip off, we marvel at the wall of ice in the secreted quarry beside Hudson Mill Road. It has been worth the build up.
As we climb about to find the longest icicles, I glance down at the track and see a figure looking up at us. It’s Steve, so I leave my son with permission to harvest icicles from a safe ledge with nothing to impale him from above and descend to have a chat about dipper nests in the clough and the ravens I saw yesterday. When I return to him, he proudly shows me his cache and I dutifully admire each spire, before we chase the retreating sun up Pry Hill.
A patch of iridescence to the north of sun which we first saw an hour ago still lingers and has intensified, while the sun goes down in a veritable blaze of glory behind Keelam Hieghts.
At the end of the drifts, my son continues work on a snow shelter that he started with my wife yesterday while I was up at Cruttonstall. I pitch in to help mould the walls, and he cocoons himself within what protection it affords.
The Langfield horizon reflects the glory of the sunset as we descend, but eventually the blue shadow of the earth prises the pink from the land and lifts it to dissolve into the coming night.
At Long Hey Top we meet Lucy, out with her binoculars to look for the barn owl. As we talk of our hopes and fears for the curlews and lapwings that will soon return to these fields, it appears behind her and we watch it ghost across the fields for a full minute, a fine final gleam in the gloaming of this shining day. It increasingly strikes me that winter weeks like this one cannot be taken for granted any more, and as my son grows up they are likely to become scarcer still. I am glad we are in a position to make the most of these days, hoarding wintry memories for warmer times ahead.
I feel exhausted from four days out in the fierce cold, but there is one aspect from which I have not enjoyed the valley this winter: the eastern arm of enfolding moors above Old Town. I cycle to town and make the short, sharp ascent to Dodd Naze and Rowlands Lane. The view across to Old Town Mill shows just how much the snow is succumbing to the strengthening sun, despite the air temperatures staying at or only just above freezing day after day.
Behind me, the neat fields above Old Chamber are being bathed in this benevolent sun…
…while beyond Heptonstall, the ridge on which we have spent the last four days is defined by Badger Lane’s sinuous path just below its crest.
But it is the high ground of Erringden Moor and its blessing by rays of sun which is proving to be the most arresting portion of the substantial view that is opening up as I climb.
But while the light has an aqueous calm to it, it is illuminating the effects of the furious wind lashing across the terribly exposed fields on Law Hill, where Ian and Rachel’s sheep must be sheltering behind the ruinous walls of Christopher Rawson’s failed farms.
Rake Head, constructed of unusually large blocks of stone, appears as stalwart as ever in the face of this onslaught…
…and the Stoodley Pike Monument, its shadow weakly cast next to the glinting path, appears deserted by its usual throng of callers today.
Beam after beam sweep across the valley, one way pendulums swinging from the unseen fulcrum of the sun.
On Keelam Lane I stop to put on my waterproof trousers and an extra jumper, and cross onto the moor. After a brief, shallow climb, I crest the ridge into the full force of the vicious wind and look across to the upper reaches of Luddenden Dean and the Ovenden Moor Wind Farm.
The bowl of Widdop is pressed under a dense mass of cloud, but the sun manages to find a way through to Boulsworth Hill…
…glancing over the long white whaleback of Black Hameldon.
I walk off the path that keeps me on ‘my’ side of the moor so as to reveal the whole eastern horizon. If it were not for the vicious wind and my hands being on the edge of being irrecoverably frozen even inside my winter mountaineering-quality gloves, I would put some effort in with my map to work out what I was looking at. As it is, I am reasonably sure I can see parts of Halifax, Bradford and Huddersfield, and beyond this, the dark, snow-free plains leading to Leeds and Wakefield. After only having been out of the encircling arms of our valley twice in the last 11 months, and not at all for the last four, it is a dizzying, slightly unsettling prospect to see, as Ratty would say, the Wide World. Though I have heard much about it through the news, it is an unexpected revelation to confirm its continuing existence with my own eyes.
I return, like an institutionalised prisoner overwhelmed by the outside world upon release, to the comfort of the familiar. On Sheep Stones Edge, I encounter the single other soul on the moor, being similarly buffeted. No thoughts of standing for a shouted chat enter either of our heads, and we pass with a nod.
Rays continue to sweep across Bell House Moor and Erringden Moor as I reach the trig point.
I stay for as long as I can, and even take to jumping up and down and swinging my arms to get some life back into my hands, but they are demanding more warmth than I can generate up here, so I begin my descent. The receding horizons ahead of me to the south are unknown; we have never ventured this way, partly because the Dales to the north are so beloved, and partly because the journey looks excruciating, with all the roads being east-west. But I like having unknown horizons within easy sight.
The sun is gilding the wind-contorted drifts beside the enclosures surrounding the ruin of Nelmires. The wind is scarcely less forceful down here, blasting me with the endless supply of powder being driven across the fields and over the wall, through the netting and around the fence poles which are presumably responsible for the drift’s twisted forms.
The wind finally lessens down by Mount Skip golfcourse…
…and above the modern estate of Chiserley I can stop to take in the strange quiet after the roaring moor.
The very air of the upper valley is being burnished beyond Bents Farm…
…and as I descend, Rake Head and the Stoodley Pike Monument are converging…
…until the monument seems a folly in the grounds of the farmhouse.
St Thomas the Apostle Church at Heptonstall, too, rears into the sky as I lose height…
…until it appears as a figurehead on the prow of a galleon, looming out of the sunset sky above a frozen sea.
In the next 40 hours the temperature is set to rise by 12 degrees, so we head to the tops to gulp a last icy draught. The snow has continued to thin, but the icicles just get better. Having been racking my brains for more places where they might be, I hit upon an outflow from a field drain on Beaumont Clough Road, an unmade track above Horsehold Wood. We strike silver, and my son crawls and slithers over the knots and knurls created by the little fall’s splashes. Other walkers, forced to walk at the edge of the track by its covering of ice, peer down at this strange but friendly troll in delighted bemusement.
We cannot resist going higher, and make a quick loop up onto Pinnacle Lane and down through Ian and Rachel’s fields…
…and then our customary diversion from the easy and quick way home down the Pennine Way, through Edge End’s meadows and past Cruttonstall.
We use the very last of the light to have a snowball fight amongst the drifts caught in the little lane from Cruttonstall to the top of Foster’s Rake. I quickly find that my son, who has been studying the condition of the snow much more closely than I have over these past days, has perfected how to make snowballs with this dry powder, while all I am able to do is fling a mist of ineffectual spindrift in his direction. He generously concedes his advantage and teaches me how it is done, which is to kick deep into the drift so as to crumble the pack into large blocks. These blocks must then be delicately scooped up with arms rather than hands, with no attempt to grip them, and hurled whole. His tutoring results in a much more even battle, with direct hits on both sides. If the winter is to end here, with a snowball fight in deepest twilight at our favourite place, it is a good way to end it.
The forecast tells us we have another few hours before the thaw sets in. We have the bit between our teeth when it comes to our hunt for the very best icicles the valley has to offer, and in the night I think of two last places we would regret not visiting. So we get out early, and make a first stop at the waterfall in Dale Clough. After six sub-zero nights, it offers an astonishing display.
I let him climb up to, but most certainly not directly underneath, the most impressive jagged curtain. He runs his stick over the bobbles of ice caused by the splashing of the waterfall, and he rightly suggests it is a good candidate for Elizabth Alker’s BBC Radio 3’s Saturday Sounds feature, so we take a recording.
We move on along the hillside. The Callis Wood birches have assumed the beginning of their spring purple tinge, detectable against the tired and thinning snow in their interior, so bright and fresh five days ago. In the fields at Burnt Acres and Height Farm, the green underlay of the fields is showing through the snow’s remaining threadbare covering.
We plunge into Jumble Hole and up the far side, through Dean Wood and across the footbridge above Staups Mill. Here are some of our best finds, where water has oozed over the little crags and buttresses, creating columns and fluted fins.
We venture up to the little waterfalls above Hippins Bridge, and find that the snow has melted enough now to make properly compacted snowballs, so spend some time pitching them at icicles on the far side of the stream.
On our way back past Hippins Farm, we encounter one his classmates and his dad, working on their magnificent new treehouse. They have not seen each other for six weeks, but their greeting is like it was any normal weekend. After a short chat and catch up, we complete our circuit of the clough by dipping down to Berverley End and taking in my last idea: Scout Delph, a particularly deep quarry. Unlike those in Colden Clough, this one is not especially damp and dripping, but all it needs is a trickle, and sure enough, there are a very few of the most spectacularly long icicles we have seen, one of which is safe enough to harvest and take home as a fleeting memento of this most unusual few days of foraging.
Somehow, we traverse the mile of steps and stiles and gates, and trees pressing against the path, and arrive home with it intact. On the way I learn that he has acquired an unexpected but, for now, unshakeable belief that he must get his mum something for Valentine’s Day, and has decided that this is his gift to her. She is certainly delighted with it as she opens the door. But it is me that comes up with the idea of what to do with it now. I dig a hole in the snow-free and already spring-like front garden and plant it. We look out at it from the living room for the rest of the warming day as it imperceptibly but undeniably shrinks, an ice-timer counting down the last hours of this most wondrous winter week of my son’s childhood. By the time we have a neighbour call on us in the rainy evening to borrow something and we excitedly point it out, it is so underwhelming that I have to spread my arms – like an angler telling the tale of their improbable catch to an incredulous audience – to try and impress what its dimensions were just a few hours earlier. By the morning, along with most of the snow, it has vanished.
Monday: After seven days in a row of making the absolute most of our daily exercise in at times challenging conditions, we fall back exhausted and reign in our zeal for wringing as much as we can from every excursion. But from under the thawed crust of winter, changes that have been pent up are suddenly released. Chief among these is birdsong, and in this week of lower energy for us, the land is tuning up for the frantic months of spring. Dunnocks, wrens and chaffinches are all in full voice, and at last light, a mistle thrush takes to the crown of a sycamore, looks out over the freshly unveiled valley, and sings of the coming spring.
Tuesday: A late-afternoon amble to the gate to bid farewell to the last of the snows is the first for which there has been no need for a coat.
Wednesday: The first green woodpecker yaffle tumbles down through the woods.
Thursday: The first blackbird evening carol rises from the scrub on the railway embankment.
Sunday: My son bursts into the house from the garden. ‘Daddy, I just heard the first curlew. They’re back!’ I don’t know what pleases me more: the news he reports, or the breathless excitement with which he delivers it. The latter is one reason why we must not lose them. I check in with Matt, and he confirms that he heard his first one yesterday. As a little side order to this generous helping of spring, a wood pigeon offers its charming, clattering display flight and its gentle, cooing complaint of, ‘My toe hurts, Betty.’
Although we have seen a pair of song thrush in the garden in the last few weeks, busy bashing the living daylights out of snails, we have yet to hear one join the mistle thrush in song. From an online conversation I had with three neighbours, it seems I am not the only one waiting. So it is welcome when the unmistakable, insistent refrain filters through into my consciousness as I wake. Before starting the homeschool tasks, my son and I nip down the road to find it in the woods behind the end of the terrace, which is a usual territory year after year. As we spot it high in an oak, from somewhere across the valley comes the drum of a great spotted woodpecker. The rush at which these ‘firsts’ are coming is dizzying.
On my way up the hill in the afternoon, I chat to Steve about his pond to get ideas for another one of our own that we have hatched a plan for in the past few days. As I am passing Peter’s a little further up in the woods, I hear, faintly, a familiar clarion of communicative honking. I know that sound well; when my wife and I lived on a farm 15 miles outside of Edinburgh, 15,000 pink-footed geese would fly over out cottage every evening through the winter to their roosts on the lochs of Fala Moor. I focus my eyes into the distant, cloudless blue, and find the skein heading west.
I calculate that I don’t have time to bang on Peter’s door before it disappears behind the trees, but after it has done so he emerges from the back garden asking what they were, having been watching all along.
But this skein is only pointing the way to what I am really after, and after passing under some meadow pipits preening on the telegraph wires in the rough and rushy pastures of Scammerton and Pry farms, a curlew announces its presence with a sudden, startling alarm call as it rises. I am sorry to have put it up, but it is so good to see it, and it soon lands a little further away and allows me to admire the profile of its long legs and the impressive sweep of its spectacular bill. After a while of seemingly aimless stalking about, it rises again, circles, showers the fields with its bubbling, melancholy call, and disappears over the other side of the ridge. The return of curlews is a benediction for a landscape.
To keep up the punishing pace at which the harbingers of spring are arriving, a pair of lapwings dive and swoop and shriek and rasp in the golden light that illuminates a shimmering sea of gossamer slung between the rushes. And the lapwing is not the last aerial addition I add to my growing catalogue of evidence that winter is well and truly losing its grip.
On Dark Lane I stop and talk first with Renos, and then with Sian and Bridget about the return of the curlews, and am pleased to find that Bridget is a fellow-admirer of Patrick Laurie, the Galloway farmer, conservationist and writer who is doing so much to increase awareness about its desperate plight. But even as we speak the sun dips behind Staups Moor and the air instantly chills. I have got ahead of myself thinking spring is already here these last few heady days. But when I arrive home, the song thrush has moved to behind our house, and is still singing.
My son is rightly put out that, having been the first to hear a curlew, he was left out of the first visit up the hill to see them. So we make an after-homeschool pilgrimage to our new favourite field.
Foster’s Rake is picked out not in undisturbed snow but the stripes of low sun and slender birch shadows.
I can scarcely give credence to the thought that 15 days ago we were here in a frozen twilight, heaving blocks of snow at each other. Today we bask in warm sun, the cool air utterly calm, all the wind turbines that crowd the western horizon at rest. The rush of Dale Clough across the valley does not mask but rather deepens the hush. Distant sounds drop like pebbles in this vast, still pond. From Lower Rawtonstall come the joyful shouts of children playing football. The ‘chissik’ of a pied wagtail, perched on the wall along from us and seemingly enjoying the calm as we are, echoes off the walls of Cruttonstall. The tear and champ of the sheep at the ring feeder next to the barn, consuming the last of the previous year’s growth even as the warmth and light is stimulating this year’s. The slow winding up of a curlew’s song, far across the valley at Marsh Farm, propels it in a high arc straight across the glare of the sun, blinding us as we track its dark speck, our squinting eyes watering as it lands in the fields around Height Farm. And then, from somewhere over the brow of Edge End Moor, the exquisite, unending stream of joy that is a skylark’s song.
We pass through Cruttonstall and make our way down through Edge End’s fields in a reverse of how we usually finish our walks. As we descend under the Moor Field, the low light picks out the quad tracks through Middle Meadow which record the recurring labour, soon to ease, of keeping the stock fed through the winter. We glance up at the farm and its magnificent sycamores, and a figure appears and gives us a wave. My hunch is that, even at this distance, we have been recognised, since I doubt many children pass this way. It is lovely to feel welcome on these paths which have become so important to us over the past year.