Field Studies #03

Erringden | The school run through the woods is under branches bowed low with snow, which my son takes great delight in pulling down to unburden them of their load, then letting them go to spring back up to their normal angle. After drop off, at the meeting of the Colden and the Calder, a heron spears and swallows an improbably large fish, spending the next several minutes grotesquely contorting its neck – twisting and wringing, arching and stretching – to subdue the writhing meal and expedite it to its stomach. A melt is on the way, with the atmosphere due to put on nine degrees overnight, but for now the stacked roofs of Hebden Bridge are white and its woods petrified in an ashen rime. High in the parish of Erringden, blue tits and goldfinches are queuing while the birdfeeders are being refilled at Pinnacle Farm. The walls surrounding Armitage Rhodes’s 19th century model farm of Erringden Grange sport a chequerboard pattern, with a bonnet of snow perched atop the small exposed ledges of the outward facing stones contrasting with their black vertical faces. Lower Rough Head’s sheep have congregated around the bale-stuffed feeder, leaving the rest of the sweep of their pasture undisturbed, which, under the flat light of a slate sky, is a blankness that the eye cannot gain a purchase on. At Edge End, a single bellow from the barn confirms the herd is now harboured, and the absence of tracks leading to it suggests that the decision was made before the snow arrived. The only tracks are those of the quad bike and its cargo of hay on their way to see the sheep are sustained through this early snap; perhaps after the melt they can continue cropping the last of the grass, but these tracks mark the start of the winter-long labour of delivering the preserved bounty of summer to the stock.

The Oak Tree Planters | Early on a Sunday morning my son and I almost always listen to an episode from the archive of BBC Radio 4’s Living World. This week we chose one about jays. The high winds of Storm Arwen having put an end to this year’s fine display of autumn colours, we wonder if this will mean seeing less of our local jays, who have been much more visible these last weeks as they industriously cache acorns, beech nuts and hazelnuts for their winter larders. We haven’t ever caught them concealing their stores – which they do in the open so they can keep an eye out for predators both as they bury now and exhume later – but we have been enjoying watching them bouncing around the branches, often in twos and threes, and loping over open ground as they spread their stores around their sizeable territories. In a month, a jay can stash two or three thousand nuts, with acorns being their preferred food. While they remember where they have secreted most of them, and are provided with an aide-memoire in early spring when the first shoots emerge, inevitably some remain unharvested. Pleasingly, given the ambitious targets for woodland creation, money is now available for landowners who want to use natural regeneration. Studies on former agricultural fields abandoned in the 1960s and 1990s which have now succeeded to woodland suggest that jays planted at least half of the trees. The benefits of enlisting jays (as well as other birds, wood mice, squirrels and so on) in the national effort to draw down carbon, restore biodiversity and mitigate flooding are many, not least in minimising the risk of importing new plant diseases and avoiding the use of plastic tree tubes. Perhaps, in the future, more of their forgotten meals will survive to cradle nests of their blue-green eggs.

Cellars | A peculiar phenomenon in the Calder Valley is the existence of cellars that have survived their farmhouse. Of the 80 or so abandoned houses that I know of, many consist of only a few low walls or have been cleared away entirely, leaving only the trace of a footprint in a rushy pasture or a wood. But of these, quite a number have left behind their cellar, the one source of stone that it is too difficult to recycle. Some are dug into a bank if the house is backed up against a hillside, while others present a set of steps descending into the moor. Some are small and simple, but others have impressive vaulted ceilings, recessed shelves and even enormous stone tables. Such sites are ripe for eerie imaginings, but also for reflecting on the uses to which they were put to store fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy, and which justified the enormous effort of digging them out and using what seem to often be among the largest stones in a Pennine farmhouse’s construction.

Great Rock Co-op | With the prominence that the early stages of the pandemic gave to the importance of local food supplies, it is all the more disappointing that one of the valley’s finest projects supporting local producers and encouraging residents to buy local – the Great Rock Co-op – has been forced to dissolve due to insufficient sales. For nearly nine years, the hilltop parish of Blackshaw above Hebden Bridge has hosted, first at a working sheep farm and latterly at the village pub, a shop that drew on a flourishing group of local growers, bakers, smallholders and brewers, as well as artists and craftspeople. On Saturday mornings you could find Carl’s organic cheese from Pextenement Farm; Keith and Julie’s honey, vegetables and goose eggs from Field Head Farm; high welfare pork and beef from Richard at Stiperden House Farm and lamb from Lucy and Phil at Burnt Edge Farm; greens galore courtesy of Luke and Bascia’s UpPlant hydroponics wizardry; Lynne’s delicious flapjacks, jams, pickles and preserves; fine beers from Little Valley Brewery and Bridestones Brewery; and far, far too many other products of every description to mention. A huge proportion of the shop’s stock was sourced from within a five-mile radius of the shop, and it was often possible to meet the producers. Its demise – not for want of endless effort from the Co-op’s voluntary board, but rather, it seems, due to the difficulty of persuading people to compromise on the convenience offered by the corporate food system – is a blow to the burgeoning local food culture, and we will miss returning with a haul of goodies after a morning tramp up the hill.

The Mart | It is easy to despair at the apparent polarisation of the debate over the future of the British landscape but, like our wider politics, I do not believe the conflicts are as intractable nor the antagonism so hostile as social media would have us believe. On the ground, the two main camps of farmers and conservationists frequently work in harmony towards surprisingly common goals. However, I have often been disappointed at a fringe of conservationists who make little effort to understand or appreciate farming. If improving the fortunes of wildlife is your goal then you simply have to understand agriculture if you are to work constructively with farmers, which is a must since farmers manage nearly three-quarters of the British landscape. But if you are not in farming, then it is not terribly easy to gain insights into the culture of agriculture. I have learnt most from face-to-face conversations with the farmers I meet on my walks, but there is now, reflecting an encouraging growth of interest, an increasing number of books, radio programmes, podcasts and TV series that focus on British farming. One such, which my son and I have just finished watching the second series of, is The Mart from BBC Scotland. This delightful series follows the workings and characters at the livestock auction mart at Thainstone in Aberdeenshire: the hopes of the farmers who take their stock to its shows and weekly sales; the endless challenges faced by the mart staff, from burst water pipes to belligerent bulls; the relationships that the auctioneers cultivate with the farmers who rely on them to secure the best price they can; the nerves and triumphs of the trainee auctioneers in their early goes at the rostrum; the bittersweet event of roups, the northern term for on-farm sales of the lifetime-accumulated paraphernalia of a retiring farmer and the rallying-round of their community to give them a good send off; and, centrally, the drama of the ring, where the patter of the auctioneer rings out over the tannoy like a secular incantation while he divines the all-but-invisible bids of the buyers – an infinitesimal flick of a finger, the faintest elevation of an eyebrow. Auction marts are where the farming community come together, an essential social hub for those in an occupation that is isolated and often solitary. If you are bold – and in my experience being accompanied by a young child in wellies can shore up this boldness – you can walk into an auction mart and witness this coming together. In auction marts at Skipton, Hawes and Clitheroe we have sat in the stands surrounding the ring, at the back, staying very quiet and very, very still. Beholding this fascinating spectacle is enjoyable in itself, but it is also one element of my attempt to develop the understanding and respect that society needs to work on maintaining with those who put food on our plates.

Peregrine | When I first read J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine and was captivated by the raptor-eyed vision of the natural world wrought by its astonishing prose, I was unaware of just how familiar to me was the landscape in which it takes place. We can deduce from the text that the county that Baker’s birds soared above and stooped upon was Essex: ‘There are four hundred miles of tidal coast, if all the creeks and islands are included; it is the longest and most irregular county coastline. It is the driest county, yet watery-edged, flaking down to marsh and salting and mud-flat.’ However, until I read Hetty Saunders’ magnificent new biography of Baker, My House of Sky: The Life of J.A. Baker, the Crowdfunder for which I was pleased to support, I did not know that Baker’s – and his peregrines’ – hunting ground was that part of Essex in which I myself fledged. Indeed, I now know that between 1979 (the year I was born) and 1984 (when my family moved away from Chelmsford) I lived but a mile from Baker. When we moved, three years before Baker’s death, it was only to Maldon, just 10 miles away and still centrally within the territory of the The Peregrine. On first reading, though, because of the way that Baker anonymises the landscape, I did not know that ‘the estuary’ was the River Blackwater, down which I sailed many times with my wife’s family on their boat, to anchor off ‘the island’ – Osea Island – for barbecues on the foreshore; ‘the wood’ referred to the green slopes of Danbury, which we explored on family walks when I was a child; and ‘the brook’ was Sandon Brook, which I would cross early each morning for two summers as a teenager when I worked on Sandon Lodge Farm during the harvest. As Saunders says, ‘[t]he part of Essex where Baker did most of his birding has some of the most evocative place names of anywhere in Britain. They record the rich history of the land….[M]any of these place names found their way into his diaries.’ It is from his diaries that Baker constructed The Peregrine. So why, when writing it, did he deliberately omit these evocative place names? (This is an extract from my piece, ‘The Anonymous Landscape of J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine‘, in which I explore the possible answers to this last question.)

Source | We live a little above the River Calder and are separated from it by the railway, but are close enough that at night in the absence of traffic we can hear its rush and the one-note calls of dippers in flight, charting its channel. In honour of a little bedtime story I told my son many times when he was young, about two mice who adventurously followed the river they lived beside up to its source, we have been doing the same. The three miles to Todmorden was largely completed on the towpath of the Rochdale Canal, with peeks taken at the river where it rubs alongside the canal. The next three and a half miles, through Cornholme and Portsmouth, was an exercise of keeping track of its course, as it is frequently culverted under mills, gardens, terraces and from one side of the road to the other. And now, from where the bus drops us today, at the foot of its cascade down the cleft of Ratten Clough, we can complete our journey to its source high on Heald Moor. Across trackless moor with 650 feet of ascent, we cover the roughest mile-and-a-half we have yet encountered on any of our walks. What accounts for the punishing terrain is Molinia grass, which grows in ankle-twisting mounds that it hides under its own growth such that one never knows whether the next step is going to be a teeter atop a two-foot-tall tussock or a plunge into a water-filled hole which skulk in hungry wait between these masses. It is a kind of masochism to voluntarily walk through this jungle, and I keep a close eye on my son, for whom, being shorter, the menace of Molinia is all the greater, but his hardiness never ceases to amaze me and he takes this whole endeavour in his rapidly growing stride. We stop for a snack beside a shattered wall which must have once marked the top of an attempt to ‘improve’ the moor, but the Molinia, an invasive species which chokes out all other species and is a problem with which conservationists, farmers and moorland managers are increasingly having to grapple, has long since erased any progress that was once made. While chemical treatments are often used where the problem is acute, the chronic cause of the problem is undergrazing, so it is good to pass a small herd of Highland cattle – which we watch being visited by two farmers on a quad bike – doing battle. On the other side of the valley, the encouraging hoots and hollers of herdsmen draw our attention to a pageant of 60 cattle being gathered towards pens. These sights of the people who work this landscape are always a good reminder that, however intrepid we think we are being, we are transient, and fair weather, visitors. We push on, following the infant Calder as it dwindles until, probing with his hazel staff among standing water in a rushy bog, we can no longer detect its flow by sound of gurgle or sight of ripple. We declare our quest over, just as the river’s journey to join the Aire at Castleford, 34 crow-flying but 53 river-meandering miles distant, is just beginning. He wants to take a souvenir from this auspicious place, so we empty a pot of grapes and he scoops up some water and adds a short stem of rush and a sprig of sphagnum. On the way up to the crest of the moor I allow him to add a horned sheep’s skull to these mementos. We find enough snow, which down in the valley disappeared five days ago, for a snowball fight, and with his first throw he scores a direct hit down my neck. At the trig point on Thieveley Pike, for as long as we can tolerate the stinging wind, we take in the views of hazed sunbeams glinting on Rochdale’s roofs, the snow-scarped bulk of Boulsworth Hill and the shining, domed whaleback of Penyghent.

Gallery |

Heron, digesting fish
Hebden Bridge
Edge End Farm
Pinnacle Lane and Stoodley Pike
St Thomas the Apostle Church, Heptonstall
Height Farm and Langfield Edge
Approaching the source of the River Calder
Coal Clough Wind Farm and Boulsworth Hill
Fresh snow on Penyghent

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