We make a rare foray into town for a homeschool history project on Lavena Saltonstall, a Hebden Bridge-born suffragette. We visit her birthplace at Rawholme on Midgehole Road, and later residences on Unity Street and the vanished terrace of Buttress Brink, as well as several mills where she might have worked as a tailoress and St George’s Square, where Emmeline Pankhurst gave a speech to hundreds when she visited the town in 1907 to support striking fustian workers.
The woodland floor is suddenly green with the growth of bluebells, and the dark clouds wink with fleet flashes of light from the hidden sun.
Instead of crossing Dale Clough at the waterfall, we about turn at the few remaining stones of Higgin House, pausing to speculate where, among its surrounding terraces, its vegetable garden would have been. My son remembers every place we had identified back in October where roe bucks might dislodge their antlers in the early winter, so he checks the gap in the wall half way up the steep and roughly-cobbled lane that would have served the house, where a low oak branch might one day snag a prize for him. At the top of the lane we double back again – zig-zags are always the sensible way of elevating oneself out of this valley – and traverse along the top of two fields known, in the 1700s, as Long Pasture and Great Pinhill, now wholly reverted to scrub. From this unruly, spiky mass comes an unfamiliar bird call, insistent, repetitive, strident. We creep nearer, excited by the possibility of a new find. But the coming of spring is going to my head, and I am forgetting my friend Rob’s sage caution, that if you think you are hearing the call of a new species, it is likely to be a great tit or a chaffinch. Sure enough, it is the former, but nonetheless, I appear not to be the only one who is over-excited by the prospect of the new season – it is belting out this novel riff for all it is worth.
At our feet along this sheltered bank, lesser celandine are greeting the sun as enthusiastically as we are, although even now spots of rain are beginning to fall and this looks to be the last of the brightness for the day.
The curlews are calling us up the hill into the rough and boggy pastures, but the shower means business and we did not come fully equipped to confront it, so we abort and stay low along Winter’s Lane. But by the time we are watching the house sparrows, dunnocks and long-tailed tits at Den, it has eased off, and then stops when we meet Billie along Dark Lane. We talk awhile with her about the curlews and lapwings, the little owl and barn owl, and the causey stones that she discovered and helped uncover last year.
Now the shower has moved on, our will to go higher is renewed, so we bob up to Pry, with the intention of crossing Badger Lane and expanding our horizons north, but as we begin to crest the rise on the approach to the farm, we can see that the showers are forming an orderly, socially distanced queue today – another one is already blurring the Wadsworth Moor horizon. We touch the stile at the farmyard and have a quick look at the cattle in their open-fronted barn, then retrace our steps.
The showers may be icy and the sycamores still skeletal, but what with the great tit and the celandine and, back on our village green, the furring willow buds, the valley is continuing to come to life.
I have left it very late in the day and have a considerable amount of inertia to overcome to get myself out. With so little time I resort to desperate measures and seek out the most efficient way of getting the blood pumping – a power up one of the valley’s many steep flights of stone steps, built to get workers from the high farms to the mills in the valley bottom. This particular one has, roughly, 230 steps…
…and is flanked by a couple of fine sycamores half way to cheer you on up.
Ten years ago, in the course of levelling a part of our garden for some vegetable beds, I uncovered some very old infrastructure to deal with water that seeped out from under a retaining wall. A brick-lined well had been sunk to collect the water, presumably so that a watering can could be dipped into it for gardening. Further excavation of decades of leaf litter revealed a ceramic half pipe which took any overflow from the well along the base of the wall, but this then mysteriously stopped after 15 yards. Did it just seep onto the lawn, we wondered? Then last year, we discovered a hitherto hidden drain in the middle of our lawn, and finally understood that the the water from the half pipe should have ended up in this drain by means of a further pipe that the construction of the summerhouse by the previous owners had destroyed.
For a while, we toyed with the idea of reinstating this drainage system by means of a wildlife ditch to take the water from the end of the half pipe to the drain, but we have now decided to not do things by half and dig a wildlife pond. Beginning this project is today’s task.
Although I have known this day would eventually come, it is nonetheless shocking to see the brutally swift flattening and shredding of a nicely-developing patch of scrubby woodland. The site was once occupied by the 18th-century, six-storey, cotton- and silk-spinning Mytholm Mill with its 52-foot diameter water wheel. From 1901, it was converted to an engineering works, but was damaged by fire in the 1980s and demolished around 2005. Since then, willow and birch have been colonising the site, hiding the mill’s few remains. Subject to at least eight planning applications since 1989, variously for housing, retail and industrial units, all had been quiet for the past five years, and in the meantime the Environment Agency had designated it a flood plain in category 3b, meaning significant restrictions on what development can take place. The residents that we pass on the school run are therefore understandably in shock at this sudden turn of events, and are awaiting the developers to deign to inform them of their intentions for the site, and to afford the community and their representatives of the opportunity to scrutinise their plans in the normal way.
Callis Wood is bright with the songs of wrens, coal tits and song thrush, but there are ominous signs of what might greet me once I have gained some height.
I encounter the Cruttonstall buzzard early, not as I enter the fields as usual, but this time within the woods. It silently navigates its way through the wizened oaks under Callis Nab. Higher, I notice a thin track on the older Foster’s Rake track as I ascend, which I then join on the next level. It cleaves hard against the edge of the track, and I worry for a moment that it is a newly-establishing mountain bike trail, but it leaves (or joins) the rake from the woods at the topmost bend, allaying my concerns. I cannot tell whose trail it is – I often wish I could magic my friend Dan Puplett, naturalist extraordinaire, down from Scotland at moments like this – but I appreciate the evidence that other lives are lived in this wood that I look across at every day, even if I don’t know which species these lives are members of.
After receiving a thorough soaking on her run this morning, my wife had warned that if I was going to get wet on my walk I would do so in spectacular fashion, and as I reach the top of the rake and cross into the fields she is proven utterly correct by the sight of a curtain of rain and hail sweeping towards me.
A small flock of redwings pass in front of the veil just before it reaches me, heading towards the shelter of the wooded slope below, hurrying each other along with their gentle ‘seeps’.
I had been in a huff with March ever since it had put the spring-like warmth at the end of February so decisively on ice, but as I am exhilaratingly pelted with wind-driven hail under wild, magnificent March skies, I cannot stay mad at this month. It is being utterly itself, just as it should be. In any case, the shower is short-lived and passes on quickly, though the rays that bore through the clouds illuminate more rain on its way.
Now the atmosphere has calmed a little, I attend to the load roar that has accompanied the drama throughout. I had thought it was the wind in the trees below, but it is not just this: the glass-scratch of white water in Dale Clough on the opposite hillside reveals that the roar is made up not only of wind in trees but also cascading water, the aftermath of the intense rain of the last few days. Elsewhere on the hillside, some of this water is making its way down to the Calder through our unfinished new pond. Our newly-restored drainage system had to prove its worth earlier than expected and we were forced to allow the pond to fill before we had a chance to line it. Our garden is a microcosm of this entire valley: more recent generations have not taken sufficient care of the infrastructure our predecessors constructed to manage the water that has always poured off the hillsides. While there is legitimate debate about whether getting the water off the hills and into the river as quickly as possible is the right thing to do, allowing the field drains that were built to do this to block and collapse undoubtedly causes problems, since dwellings, gardens, roads, substations and all other infrastructure has been built in places whose suitability was predicated on the drainage systems that were in place. If these stop functioning, the water simply has to go somewhere else, and that somewhere else usually causes problems.
Through the reverberation of tree-roar and water-fall that fills the valley, jackdaws head roostwards against the wind. They yowl and caterwaul as they battle against the current together. I find it difficult to hear their sociable, loud-mouthed gabbling as anything other than an expression of having fun, even in these conditions.
Despite not being able to discern any growth in the grass whatsoever, the munching sheep – now spread out across the fields away from the feeder they have huddled around for months – are telling me otherwise.
I am surrounded by showers, draping themselves over Heptonstall, looming behind Edge End Moor, but for now I am dry, and remain so all the way back. On the village green I am hailed home by a carolling blackbird in an ash that I am dreading coming out in leaf, so sure am I that it will look so dreadfully sick after the hammering that last year’s spring drought inflicted on this already ailing species.
To the sodden fields, running with the week’s rains, to see the curlews. We hear the call and follow. In sudden sunlight, no sooner gifted than snatched away by the bitter wind, they circle and vanish into the rushes.
As sometimes happens, my feet surprise me by taking me somewhere new. They race three-quarters-of-a-mile along the canal and then cross river and road and, on the only footpath to do so that I know of, the railway lines themselves. As I stand on the other side looking up at the wind-swept hawthorn that points us homeward as we descend from Lower Rawtonstall, it dawns on me that the reason this footpath is here is that this is the site of the old Eastwood station, closed in 1951.
Climbing beside the residences imaginatively perched among the terraces left behind on the huge site once occupied by Cockden Mill, Stoodley Pike presents itself across the valley in a new way, floating above Height Wood, the paraphernalia of communication and transport in the valley below entirely hidden.
I enter Eastwood Wood, ascending on a fine old flight of steps and, to my bemusement, under an ornate old lamp post. As in so many places in the Calder Valley, a fingerpost presents one with a dizzying number of options at a complex intersection of footpaths. Above the steps, the path becomes cobbled and was once lit by another of what would once have been attractive lanterns.
I re-join Eastwood Lane, which has been performing a long zig-zag and tight hairpin while I have been climbing the steps and cobbles of the footpath. Leaning over gates and walls, I enjoy the new perspectives on familiar views, across folds of fields and woods to Langfield Common, and to the slope of meadows down which Cruttonstall looks ready to gently slide.
So enchanted am I at being in a new place that I make extremely slow progress up the lane, stopping and looking long at the silhouettes of trees surrounding Upper East Lee and Eastwood Old Hall…
…and the long, curved whaleback of Edge End Moor.
The relentless lane leads eventually onto the summit of Great Rock. It will be four months ago tomorrow that I was last here, on a turbulent November day when my boy and I had to shout to hear one another. The muted colours of the view are remarkably similar, but the atmosphere this evening – still, peaceful, with the early spring song of robins and blackbirds floating over the fields – could not be more different.
The portents for our after school walk are good. The day starts with opening the front door for the school run to be greeted with the ‘chiff chaff’ of a chiff chaff, our first summer migrant, newly-arrived from sub-Saharan Africa. Bookending the school day are a pair of sparrowhawks, audaciously wheeling above the treetops, and a pair of buzzards, circling in the warm air over the playground, mewing at the same pitch as the screams of the children.
We stride purposely up the Colden Valley, my son doing so not on the track but instead on the slim bank along the edge of the precipitous drop into the clough.
As the clough takes its sharp change of direction, from more or less north-south to east-west, and as Hudson Mill Road raises us on the south side of the clough, we stop to look across at all that remains of Upper Lumb Mill: its chimney. The tree canopy from which it emerges is about as high as the five-storey mill it was once part of. Constructed probably at the end of the 18th century, it closed in 1876 and was partly demolished by 1900. Little did the Sutcliffes of Stoneshey Gate know when they raised this chimney that it would spend the far greater part of its life as a curious industrial remnant in a wilding valley of trees.
On past the old quarry in Dill Scout’s Wood, mantled with icicles only five weeks ago. At the foot of the Pennine Way’s climb to Pry Hill we meet two Pennine Wayfarers labouring up out of Hebble Hole on the return leg of their there-and-back walk along this stage of the route today. They encourage us to go ahead of them within the mini ravine formed by two high dry stone walls, but when we stop upon hearing our first lambs of the season from across the valley, they catch us up. And then, from across the fields above us, comes the call of a curlew, and they wonder aloud whether they have been right during the day in surmising that that is what they have been hearing. Luckily, they are within earshot of a budding curlew expert, so my son confirms that it is.
We take the opportunity – indeed, we never miss one when they are presented – to inform them of the curlew’s plight and of the work of Curlew Action to arrest the terrible decline of this glorious bird. After we peel off from them up through the harrowed fields under Badger Fields Farm, we encounter more curlews. Up here, they give the reassuring impression of doing well, although without data on the success or failure rate of their nesting, there is the danger that it is only an impression. Our attention is momentarily distracted by a brown hare darting into a rough field corner ahead of us, but one curlew is standing so imperiously on the near skyline and others swinging back and forth in front of distant Stoodley Pike, that we soon forget about it.
I regret doing so, though, because as we are crossing the stile by the rough corner, the hare bursts away from us. Had we remembered it was there, we could almost certainly have had an extraordinarily close look at it crouched in the grass, hoping we would pass without noticing it. As it is, though, we are able to watch it for a good 45 seconds as it describes an enormous arc through three fields to get behind the skyline from us, weaving in and out of sheep that, if they notice it at all, are entirely unconcerned by this furry missile thundering past.
Smoke from moorland burning is drifting across the far horizon. The season in which burning is permitted extends until April 15th, but with new legislation to ban burning on areas of deep peat that are also SSSIs due to come into effect on 1st May, this should be a less common sight in future years. Unless, that is, the concerns of campaigners at how loosely interpreted the ‘conservation purposes’ that grouse shooting estates can claim for burning means the ban will be less effective than hoped for.
My son points out what he poetically calls a ‘pool of sunlight’ at Pecket Well…
…but none is dribbling our way for now, and the wind chases us off the crest of the ridge.
At Pry Farm, while we are watching two of the farm cats patrol their territory, David emerges from a barn and we stop for a chat. He confirms that the grass has started growing – just – in the last few days, and that he is now heading out to spur it on with a little fertiliser. His ewes having been tupped on 6th November, lambing will be underway in the next week or so in a field close to the yard. The lambs will then be brought in to the barn for a short while at first to get them started. We talk about the curlews we have been delighting in, and he recalls moving eggs away from the rollers that are used to stimulate grass growth and back again when the tractor has passed, and of seeing chicks running around late in the season on land he works higher up the valley. It is always excellent to hear how much farmers care about the wildlife on their land, even though the market – through consumer demand for ever-cheaper food – and government agricultural policy has pushed them towards intensification for decades.
As we leave him to his work and head down through his lower fields, lapwings and more curlews drift and swoop in the late afternoon light, one fluffed and preening itself in the low golden light.
The shadows lengthen as we reluctantly descend to Lower Rawtonstall…
…where we chat with Mark, and then meet Steve on his way home from a much longer walk than ours, past one of the classic views of Hebden Bridge, now sinking into twilight.
Steve points out some of his more specialist bird boxes in the woods, for tawny owls and treecreepers. And we meet Rebecca and Andrew, who tell us about the new pond being dug by Peter in the woods behind them. Everywhere, there are people quietly doing things for wildlife. It is a comforting thought as we arrive home, three-and-a-quarter hours after leaving school, as the jackdaws pass overhead in a sky now fading from blue to graphite.
As at Pry, the ewes at Callis Wood Farm are in a field close by the house ready for lambing. Their bleats echo up through the wood as I ascend Foster’s Rake. In the settled weather of the last few days the sycamore leaves have dried and now lie like so much scattered paper, ready to be subsumed among the rush of growth to come.
Wood pigeons clatter away from Cruttonstall as I emerge into the cold wind and greening pastures.
Sun rays mistily cascade over Todmorden, falling upon but too delicate to illuminate the 1865-built, Gothic revival-style Todmorden Unitarian Church, in which, before the pandemic, we would gather to have a hot Sunday lunch after working with Incredible Edible tending their flower and vegetable beds around the town.
Apart from those we had distantly seen in the Colden Valley four days before, the first lamb I have seen close up crosses the little lane that leads up to Cruttonstall and suckles from its mother for reassurance as I approach.
Light plays over the landscape, bathing one side of Colden Clough in a vivid warmth while the other is left in winter shadow…
…and throwing the crumpled ridge and sheep paths above Burnt Acres into detailed relief.
After reading my friend Nigel’s articles on the vaccary, the cattle ranch, that occupied this site in the 1300s, I look afresh at these fields and the ditch-and-bank boundary that may mark its boundaries within the Erringden deer park…
…and the walls of rough, undressed stone which may have been here for 700 years, or at least mark the ancient pattern of fields.
A flock of seven meadow pipits dart about among the short grasses of the Moor Field, flying off as I approach and making a show of moving on, only to circle back and resume feeding in more or less the same spot when I have passed.
While welcome because needed to fill our pond, a forecast of incoming rain prompts us to take another after school walk while the fine weather holds. We put in the work on the punishingly steep lane beside Stubbing Brink to haul ourselves out of the valley up onto the unmade New Road above Crow Nest Wood. The sun is bright and the shadows sharp, though the wind is colder than expected.
We raid the freezer at the Honesty Box for Just Jenny’s ice cream (white chocolate for him, honeycomb for me), and he races along Back Lane to our favourite perch for slurping.
The sycamores of Armitage Rhodes’ fields, snug in their little enclosures, are variously silhouetted against a cirrus-bright sky or gilded and glowing, depending on which way one looks.
At the crossroads of Three Gates we turn up the lane known simply as Rake, its verges studded with the brilliant yolks of coltsfoot. Having crested the ridge and on the approach to Rake Head, we spend some time scanning the blue for a skylark singing over the unseen heather of Erringden Moor, just one narrow field away. Unsurprisingly, it is my son, standing on a throughstone to see over the high wall, that spots the speck first, orienting me to it with descriptions of cloud shapes.
At the head of the lane we cross onto the moor, and a pair of curlew issue their alarm call. A memory comes to me which, since reading in the past year of the curlew’s decline and the way in which it is due in part to the increase in predators, I had not recalled until now. It is of a pair of curlew on this precise patch of moor, years ago but for all I know the same pair, desperately defending their nest from a fox, calling and diving over and over again, the fox ducking but undeterred. This is one of the ways in which the curlew’s decline is playing out – another year of eggs or chicks eaten, another year of the older birds in the population dying without being replaced. Curlews face a whole range of threats, and were their population not in such a perilous state then predation need not be the significant problem that it is, but as it is, now that breeding season is here, I look askance at crows and foxes in a way that I wish was not warranted.
We leave the curlews calling on the moor as we cross back into David’s fields on a right of way so unfrequented that there is no physical trace of its route on the ground, and I challenge my son to spot the gateways and the throughstone stiles that see us across the shattered walls.
We descend the edge beside Kilnshaw Farm and stop to chat with Mark and Sheila and admire their pond and maturing woodland of hazel, oak, rowan and larch.
As happened so often last year, as we near Edge End Farm down the Pennine Way, we hear the hum of a tractor. Our guess that it is muck spreading is vindicated when we enter the fields. With the tractor moving at such a steady, deliberate pace, compared to mowing, rowing up and baling it looks like a slow job that will take some time to get each field covered. But in short order, the lambs and their mothers that are grazing in the flush of evening light will benefit from the boost it will give to the grass.
At Cruttonstall, I do something that I have never done before, which is to hoist my son up onto the seat of the Massey Harris hay rake. I do not know how long it has been here, but Chris the farmer tells of when his father bought it new and of it being drawn by a horse. I wonder if it was brightly painted, perhaps in the livery of the company with yellow wheels and a red body, as I have seen in photos of preserved and restored ones. We enjoy watching Chris and his son rowing up with their hay bob nowadays, but the horse-drawn hay rake must have been quite a sight, too.
The sun blazes as it rolls behind Staups Moor…
…and leaves the dimming valley suffused with its glow.
But other lights still burn: the waxing gibbous Moon and the male flowers of the goat willow.
On by far the warmest day of the year so far, the ‘Kojo-no-mai’ is alive with the humming of Greg’s bees, with which a peacock butterfly jostles for its share of nectar; the hornbeam and rowan leaves are ready to burst; the ‘Tête-à-tête’ daffodils and snakeshead fritillary are at their peak; a blue tit emerges from one of the next boxes; and the hazel catkins and willow flowers glow in the spring sun.
We end the year in which I have kept this journal as we began it: reclined on the heath bedstraw on our favourite perch above the valley, picking I-spy challenges for one another from across the panoramic landscape. And while we play, we do what we have done all this year of circling our local acre: we pay heed to the lives – both human and non-human – that are lived in close relationship with it: to the great tit chanting its two-note call with full spring breeding passion from amidst the hazel coppice; to the jackdaws in their sudden, swirling bursts of energy and laughter, one of which drops a feather on its way overhead, backlit brilliant white by the strong sun as it floats to earth, my son racing down the slope to see it land; to the bleats of expectant ewes at Callis Wood; to the hum of the muck spreader in Far Field as at Edge End the preparation for the spring growth and the summer hay cut continues.
The continuation of these natural and cultural cycles provided a grounding reassurance as we entered the unknown twelve months ago. A year on, the world has changed immeasurably and the ramifications of what has passed will play out over many years, but the renewal of life after so much loss and the continuity of the ancient rhythms of the land after so much upheaval is a solace: the curlews have returned and the meadows we look across to are being tended in the same way they have been for perhaps 25 generations. And that during the turmoil I was in a position to spend so much time exploring our small patch of the Pennines with my son is something which I never took for granted, and for which I shall always be thankful.