Field Studies #05

Inversion | A hare sprints away, crunching across the frosted field. I forgive myself for not noticing that it must have been crouched in plain view for the past ten minutes just on the other side of the wall I have been leaning on, for the spectacle of the glacier of cloud in the valley below has had my attention firmly captured. It was the mismatched forecasts that my wife and I’s Met Office apps were offering that first alerted me to the possibility of a temperature inversion. Mine was in no doubt that glorious, unbroken sunshine was to be our pleasure today. Unaccountably but suggestively enough for me to race up the hill, my wife’s phone advances the contrasting certainty that we would spend the day wreathed in fog. I find this equivocation of the Met Office’s gargantuan supercomputer to be excusable, for it took but 200 feet of ascent to emerge above the pea-souper outside the front door into the clear pre-dawn sky. The next two hours is spent in a blissful wander above the clouds, first watching the sun ponderously rise over Erringden Moor, then later meeting my wife once she has climbed the hill after delivering our son to his last day of school before the Christmas holidays. We bask in the surprisingly warm sun, watching rays filtering through the trees beside Horsehold and the shadow of the shoulder of Erringden ride on the mists that blanket Hebden Bridge. The temperature plummets as we submerge ourselves into the misted woods. As we descend, so too does the sun, back down behind the horizon until dawn replays itself a full hour and a half after I first watched it, but this time the sun is not a warm orange blaze on the crisp horizon, but is disembodied within a grey void of mist, a flat white disc stencilled with slender birches.

Silence to Song | Each year, it seems, the point at which I need to feel that the year’s cycle has turned comes earlier. I can no longer wait for the first day one notices the growing strength of the sun in February, nor for January’s snowdrops. My impatience for a sign now pushes me back further even than the winter solstice, which cannot come soon enough. But can the cycle of renewal really be said to have begun even while the light is still fading? I think it can, thanks to the humble great tit. For every year, it is a great tit which breaks the interminable four-month silence of songbirds that descends when the summer breeding season is over, and it reliably breaks this silence a little before the shortest day. This year, a strident ‘teacher, teacher’ call echoed through the woods on our school run five days before the solstice, and as every year since I first noticed this phenomenon issuing from a street tree on a busy Edinburgh avenue one bright December day fifteen years ago, it brought a joyful smile to my face. This was clearly not a single great tit getting ahead of itself, for on my way home from school another one was belting out its song from the lone willow that was saved from destruction by a tree preservation order when the regenerating woodland of which it was part was flattened and chipped by developers back in March, apparently, so far, to no purpose other than that it was found to be offensive for nature to be claiming such a potentially valuable investment. Along with the single, inexplicable sunflower that raised itself from the centre of the desecration, this song, from this tree, is a symbol of hope in more ways than one.

Winter Walks | Just as we reach the astronomical start of the season, this episode of BBC Four’s lovely Winter Walks series – in which familiar faces take reflective, solitary rambles in the north of England with an ingenious 360-degree camera – takes place at its very tail end, with crocuses out and the curlews having already returned to the moors. It is a notable episode, for while the walkers in this series are unfailingly interesting choices, here we have someone who works the landscape: farmer and shepherdess Amanda Owen. She is walking one valley over from her home in Swaledale, ascending the Roman Road above Bainbridge in Wensleydale before dropping down to one of the Yorkshire Dales’ very few lakes, Semer Water. She does her best to have a normal walk, admiring the sun rays breaking through the clouds at the the head of the dale, searching for fossils in the limestone, sitting with a tea from her Thermos and appreciating the peace that allows one to ‘catch up with your own thoughts’ and have a break from the ‘mental fatigue’ of work and family life. But touchingly and amusingly, throughout the episode, she finds she cannot consistently inhabit the role of being a visitor to this farmed landscape. Despite apparently having had an attempt at resolving to ‘switch off from shepherdess mode’, she soon finds herself noticing where a dry stone wall has been freshly repaired; regarding Wensleydale’s well-drained pastures and earlier flush of grass with a degree of envy; remarking on the reference in the name of the hill she is ascending – Wether Fell – to it being a good place to fatten wethers, male castrated lambs; and introducing the audience to more shepherding terminology as she watches newborn tup and gimmer twins suckling. She expresses her self-consciousness in being a farmer who is going on a ‘selfish’ walk ‘for no reason’, all her fresh air and exercise ordinarily being gained through her livelihood; her determination to avoid feeling guilty at not being at work on her own land; and the strangeness of not being accompanied by any of her nine children, who, as documented in two TV series, The Dales and Our Yorkshire Farm, as well as her bestselling books, all grow up roaming with her across the 2,000 wild acres of their high Dales farm. (I stayed at their farm, Ravenseat, a few years ago and had a good chat with Amanda and her husband Clive about farming life, and saw the remarkable life that their children enjoy there.) She soon crosses paths with some fellow farmers, who, she remarks, ‘speak my lingo – sheep’, and they exchange experiences of the dry spring of the year before. But elsewhere she meets more conventional visitors out on the trail and amiably engages with them on the beauties of the landscape; a pair of walkers in particular highlight the value to them of the landscape’s openness, uninterrupted by trees, perhaps not realising they are speaking to one of those who are responsible for this quality of the landscape they so enjoy, for without the grazing of sheep and cattle, substantial parts of the landscape would indeed revert to a mosaic of woodland habitats. By the end, you get the impression that Amanda rather enjoyed the unusual experience of a walk for no reason and was reluctant to leave the shores of Semer Water for the slog of her own lambing season back in Swaledale.

Solstice | An hour before sunset on the shortest day, we climb through the woods to mark the occasion of the winter solstice at a favourite viewpoint. The persistent fog of the past four days has finally dispersed, but the promised sun has failed to reveal itself. The most the dusk can muster is to wanly blush the blank shroud of sky. The penetrating cold would otherwise have driven us back down the hill as soon as the unseen sunset had passed, but since the moment of the solstice itself – when the tilt of the Earth’s axis away from the sun is at its maximum – happens to occur but ten minutes later, the ancient impulse to ritualise a significant moment like this asserts itself, and we wait. Our son keeps warm by hurling his freshly-sharpened holly spear – which he has been playing with on the local green with friends for the past four days – into the hard turf. Across the valley, the reverberation of Edge End Farm’s quad bike alerts us to its return from checking on the cattle in a lower barn, the completion of the evening round that began earlier when we watched its patrol of the boundary fence and the delivery of hay bales to the sheep. I make a whining complaint that without the glory of a sunset there is a distinct lack of occasion for this auspicious moment. The response from my wife is kinder than the whinge deserved – to bring out a lunchbox with three brownies, which she has ingeniously impregnated with homemade mince pies. The drab skies are forgiven, and the solstice celebrated. We enter the gloom of the woods to cut a few berry-laden sprigs from one of the peculiarly few female hollies on our hillside. Further down, we gather some ivy from one of the fifty sycamore whose trunks are wholly hidden by this most wonderful wildlife champion, a larder, home and hibernaculum for many species. It is too dark when we arrive home to make the wreath outside, but from now on, the light will be returning.

Gallery |

Looking across the mists to Erringden Moor
Sycamore, Marsh Farm
The shadow the shoulder of Erringden rides on the mists that blanket Hebden Bridge
Fog-thurled Callis Nab
Rays filtering through trees beside Horsehold
Ivy-clad sycamores, Knott Wood
Dawn replays itself, the sun ‘disembodied within a grey void of mist, a flat white disc stencilled with slender birches.’

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