Is the landscape our ancestors handed down to us fit for a climate-changed future? Can we preserve the inheritance from our predecessors of a traditional farmed environment while meeting the momentous challenges ahead? Or to do well by our descendants must our familiar countryside be radically transformed to lock up carbon and restore wildlife to the abundance of the past? These are the questions I posed on two ‘walking conversations’ with groups for the launch of Hebden Bridge Arts‘ Open Space 70 project. This year-long creative project will see communities, artists and environmental experts working together to explore the climate emergency and what action we can all take to tackle it, culminating next summer in 70 exhibitions, performances, happenings and walks across Hebden Bridge and the surrounding area.
When I arrive at the Town Hall, it is already abuzz with the project’s beginning. The cafe is busy with people arriving for the other workshops of the day – for insect printmaking with Rachel Red, making wildflower mossballs with Laura Burfitt, Indian woodblock printing with Saima Kaur and sun-powered tree stencilling with Lizzie Lockhart. In the Waterfront Hall the stage is prepared for a day of folk, classical and jazz performers, and the stalls of local environmental groups are set out. Adrian, from the inspiring natural flood management group Slow the Flow, tells me of plans to expand their focus onto education now that much of the practical work they hoped to achieve after the 2015 floods is (thanks to the drive of volunteer committee members like him, and with the help of hundreds of locals) nearing completion. Mo from Hebden Bridge Walkers Action and the lauded local rights of way maintenance group CROWS fills me in on the work to keep local woodlands free from the invasive Himalayan balsam. Anthony from Friends of the Earth Calderdale is here, too, whose indispensable analysis of technical planning documents and legal air pollution limits has alerted the town to many an important environmental issue. It is going to be a good gathering here, but it is time to gather my own group.
In the foyer, I find that Lisa has helpfully been doing this for me, and Dorothy (and later on, Pete) is ready as back-marker and is equipped with the first aid kit, so I bring the group outside for a little introduction. (I will now merge the two walks to write of them as one.) For this is not quite an ordinary guided walk, I explain, though I assure them that we will have a pleasant ramble. Rather, my role is to not only guide us around the 90-minute route, but also through a conversation about our landscape, about its past and present and how they might inform and shape its future in a time of climate change, and hopefully a time of great nature restoration. We will talk about the stories that are written into the landscape, and about stories that we will write into it that will go on to be read in its features by future generations. And I also want to offer a more creative, more philosophical way of thinking about what can at times be presented as very technical scientific and economic issues. So this is not just going to be a good walk, but a good think, too – a wander and a ponder, if you will.
We stride off up Valley Road, exchanging where we’re from – some from Hebden, yes, but others from neighbouring towns up and down this green Pennine valley, some from other towns with similar industrial pasts over the moors that enfold us, some from Manchester – and also our relationships to the landscape we are venturing into, some newly discovering it, others whose feet know its paths well, one reacquainting themselves with it after a long absence since childhood.
As we start our climb among the over-and-under terraces that crowd the town’s amphitheatre of hillsides, I point out Nutclough Mill. Saved from demolition in the 1960s and now inhabited by a hi-tech audio equipment manufacturer, its thread will weave through the stories the landscape of our walk will tell. A last push across Keighley Road, at the start of its long climb over the moors to Brontë country, and we abruptly leave the town and enter a narrowing wooded valley, its beech and sycamore straining upwards for the light. I encourage people to look around and keep their eyes open for evidence from the past, for smoothed over by time and nature though it is, it is there. Past old walls and workings, culverts and dams, up stone steps and across a stream that braids in a most un-Pennine-like way and is unexpectedly adorned with the yellow-topped spires of flag iris, we stop and gather, and I introduce the valley: we are in Nutclough Woods. Nutclough. This local term ‘clough’ refers to the steep-sided, almost gorge-like tributary valleys, incised by the action of water funnelling down the steep sides of the main valleys of the Calder, itself cut from glacial meltwater, and the Hebden Water.
And as a song thrush, somewhere high in the canopy that arches over us, picks out some of the more exotic phrases from its repertoire and performs its trick of aurally transforming a British woodland into a tropical rainforest, I start to introduce a different, more creative way of thinking about how we may deliberate between the options for meeting the climate and nature emergencies. Different from, and more creative than, what, though? I spent a decade in academic research working, from my home in the philosophy department of Manchester University, with economists, and in doing so I became familiar with their methods to aid environmental decision making, methods which dominate the political and policy world. This approach lists the values a place has now, puts a monetary figure on them, trades them off against each other and recommends, through a cost benefit analysis, which options maximise the net value of the place. Technically sophisticated though this method is, it is very poor at acknowledging the value of time and history. It is, in the jargon, ‘ahistorical’. It may treat history and heritage as one value among many, but it cannot understand landscapes for what they are – deeply historical entities, shot through with narrative. They embody stories of communities – human and other-than-human communities, and relationships between the two – that stretch across time. And these stories are written into the very features of the landscape itself, and if we attend to the landscape then we can often read its stories.
To get a feel for what it is to read a landscape, instead of giving the group a potted history of this place, I invite them to look around and to share what they can see of the story of this place, both of its past and how it developed and was used, and about its present too, how it is used now. Eyes scan around and tentative suggestions are made: there doesn’t seem to be much water coming down the clough, so has it been diverted higher up?; the beech trees seem to be planted very close together; an attractive semi-circular wall draws attention, and whether it was intended to be functional or ornamental is mused over; and this unnaturally flat bottom to the valley on which we stand clearly signifies some major alteration to the topography, but to what end? The clues left behind are tantalising, but as so often, inconclusive.
Judiciously bringing in a little background knowledge to help interpret these clues, I point to the way that we can see into the deep past of how this stream, benign though it is today, has deeply cut this gorge over thousands of years to form a very steep-sided, narrow valley, and how because of this topography we can see that probably it was never cultivated and used for farming in the way that much of the land above the clough has been, so probably to a greater or lesser extent it has probably always been wooded. (see this 19th century painting by John Holland, for example) These woods will have been managed for various uses and products over millennia, but in the 1700s, industry arrives. The stream is dammed and culverted, and two ponds are created – one lower down against the road, and one in whose silted-up remains we stand – to power two mills: the enormous textile operation of Nutclough Mill that we passed on the way up through the town, and also a long-vanished saw mill which was situated between the two ponds and whose clamour would have filled this valley for decades. But then in the second half of the 20th century, the mills cease operations, the saw mill is cleared away, the stream ceases to provide power, the clough becomes peaceful again and is used as a local green space and managed as an amenity for the community and for wildlife.
From this very brief reading of the story of this place it is clear this little valley has been through huge changes and massive upheavals over the centuries. It is not a dry and dusty list of dates and events that I refer to when I talk of stories in the landscape, but rather a roller coaster of a narrative. And this is how we can think of the landscape: as like the subject of a great novel which chronicles – in a way that novels usually do with human characters – its fortunes, its ups and downs, triumphs and tragedies. In doing this, it does what all novels do, which is to make judgements about how well its subject is faring at different points in the story.
This story, with the landscape as its central character, will of course be made up of many sub-plots, sub-narratives of both human and other-than-human characters that have participated in the overarching history of the place, and not all these characters would have the same perspective on how well the landscape is faring at a given point. The 19th century mill owner might think the fortunes of this valley have sadly gone downhill since the closure of the mills and the neglect of all this engineering that served productive ends, whereas the contemporary dog walker might think that with peace and greenery returned, this is the valley’s heyday. But even with this weaving of a multiplicity of narratives and perspectives, I suggest that thinking of the landscape itself as having an overarching narrative opens a helpful way of deliberating over its future: we can ask the question, what is the appropriate continuation of the story of this place? Given what has gone before, how should the story go on?
Because go on it will, and already is: it might seem like its story is over, that since industry left, this valley has settled into stasis, but this is far from the case. Only in the 1970s, where we now stand on silt and gravel was a clear and deep pond, fished for trout, something one among the group remembers, and some locals lament that the silting up was allowed to happen. This silting was accelerated by the floods of the last decade, which brought hundreds of tonnes of stone and soil down the clough. After 2012, when the water overflowed onto Keighley Road and contributed to the flash flooding of the town square, there were major engineering works at the lower pond to stop this happening again. Over the years, Calderdale Council and the Friends of Nutclough Woods (which has now been wound up) have been adjusting the balance of tree species; the Victorians planted many beech all over the region, partly in admiration of their aesthetics, partly in an attempt to stabilise the steep hillsides, partly for their easily-turned timber, which was used for bobbins and shuttles in the mills. But it is now recognised that beech exacerbate flooding in virtue of their deep shade and thick leaf litter preventing other plants from growing underneath their canopy, so they are slowly being felled and replaced with other species where possible.
So the story of this little valley goes on, albeit in less dramatic, quieter episodes than during its industrial period. The question to ask, of this particular place and of the wider landscape surrounding it, is how should we write our chapter into it, and what changes would this chapter make to the trajectory of its narrative?
With this question hanging in the quiet air of the sheltered valley, we ascend the narrow path through the boles of the beeches, peering down at the stream, which drops away as we climb. Other walkers coming down the clough step aside to let us snake past, standing among tangles of beech roots, patiently receiving a succession of thank yous in return. At the 18th-century packhorse crossing of Hirst Bridge, while some of the more eager photographers among the group illuminate the moss-green shadows under its elegant span of stones with their flashes, others talk of the extraordinary network of paths in which we walk in the clogged footsteps of our predecessors, and we imagine the clatter they would have made on these cobbles. Looking further upstream from the bridge, I point out the absence of Himalayan balsam thanks to Mo and others – another way that work quietly goes on to alter the valley, albeit to counter an unintended change humans had already brought about with the introduction of this invasive plant.
We slip between the old whitewashed farmhouse and the beautiful gardens of the newer terrace at Sandy Gate, where Joseph Greenwood, who will soon enter the story, lived out his days a century ago. Facing the terrace across the road is a steeply-sloping field, which we now enter through a new gate. Without lingering at the entrance, I deliberately draw the group up the incline, allowing the view to open out at our backs so that the full effect of the new openness after the confines of the clough can be a surprise when we stop and turn around.
I position myself downhill from the group so they can look over my head at the view as I orient us by picking out the landmarks of St Thomas the Apostle Church at Heptonstall and the chimney at Old Town’s Mitchell Mill. I explain that this sweeping shelf of land is where almost all the farmland is, jigsawed over centuries into stone-walled meadows and pastures for cattle and sheep, a strata of laboriously-created green fertility between the steep, wooded sides of the valley-within-a-valley below and the dark moors above.
The field we have entered once belonged to a very grand farm, High Hirst, perched on the shoulder of the hill above us. But by the 1940s it was falling into disrepair, and at some point after that the estate was acquired by Hebden Bridge Urban District Council for the construction of council housing. The farm was demolished but this meadow was never built on. Rather, it continued to be grazed by dairy and beef cattle herds from various local farms over the decades. In 2014 half the field was planted with rowan, hazel and hawthorn by local environmental group Treesponsibility, with the help of schoolchildren. But then in 2021, a grassland ecologist, Steve Hindle, carried out a survey of the site and discovered that it is an astonishingly precious, rare habitat, because unlike so many of the other green pastures and meadows that are in view and which look superficially similar from a distance, this one has never been ‘improved’ in any way. That is, it has never had a dressing of artificial fertiliser, or been ploughed and reseeded with more productive grasses. Its soil has therefore remained undisturbed, and it is this that accounts for its incredible diversity of wildflowers. I point to pignut and bitter vetch, sweet vernal grass and meadow foxtail, wood anemone and heath bedstraw. In all, 17 species of wildflower and 12 species of grass that are associated with ancient grasslands flourish here. And in addition, in the soil there is a correspondingly rich diversity of fungi associated with this kind of undisturbed grassland.
In consultation with Steve, hay meadow expert Neil Diment and others, the councillors made the wise decision, in light of the fact that trees had already been planted on part of the site, to take inspiration from the pioneering Woodmeadow Trust, who champion a mixture of meadow and woodland to create phenomenally diverse habitats with ‘messy edges’ at the boundary between trees and grassland, which turn out to be the most biodiverse habitat of all since 90% of our terrestrial species evolved within such a mosaic. Hebden Royd Town Council therefore have named it High Hirst Woodmeadow, and have in the past year, with help from volunteers, planted a hedge of hawthorn, blackthorn, rowan, hazel and dog rose, as well as 40 fruit trees of traditional varieties, to further enhance its wildlife and community value. Plans for a pond are also being explored. But the heart of the project remains the traditional management of the meadow to conserve this treasure. Ann from Old Chamber Farm grazes some of her sheep at the appropriate times, a meadows activity day is planned for July, and come August there will be sycthing courses on offer so the hay can be harvested, with a celebratory community picnic to echo the past significance of hay time in the farming calendar.
For all these reasons, I explain, it was a place I wanted to bring the group to, but it is also a helpful place to think about that question I introduced earlier: where does the story of this landscape go from here, how do we continue it? Because up here in the patchwork of these small fields carved out by the labour of the past, it is a very live question, given that bodies like the Climate Change Committee, the official adviser to the government, state that we need to plant 30,000 hectares, equating to around 100 million trees, every year until 2050 in order to meet our net zero commitments to have a chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change. This means that some of our agricultural land needs to be planted, and if we want to preserve the most productive land in the lowlands, much of this will need to be in the uplands.
The debate over the contribution that farming has made to the nature and climate crises, and the the potential contribution that shifts to regenerative (or agroecological, or nature friendly) farming could make to improving the state of nature and helping draw down carbon from the atmosphere, is hugely complex, and far more nuanced than most media portrayals. But with that acknowledgement in mind, whatever we think of livestock farming, this farmed landscape is our inheritance from our predecessors; for centuries it has looked like this and been farmed in more or less the same way, although nowadays by far fewer farmers. But now there are calls for those traditions to come to an end in many areas, to make way for a radical transformation to upland landscapes like this by ‘rewilding’ these fields which have been grazed for centuries for the production of meat and milk.
So, given that this is the landscape we have inherited, how much weight should we place on attempting to preserve and respect that inheritance in the face of the crises we now face? Should the story of these farms and fields go on, or should there be a major plot twist in the narrative of this landscape if the times demand it?
These are big questions, and the thudding of the drums from the Platinum Jubilee celebrations at Old Town above us and the buzzing hum of a distant forage harvester drift in and out on the breeze while we grapple with them. Both aural accompaniments are significant in their own way – it is the last 70 years that has seen the intensification of agriculture to the extent that it is routinely identified as a main driver of climate and ecological damage first and a provider of food second, and the forage harvester is hoovering up the first of this year’s silage cuts, silage having replaced hay as the winter fodder of choice in the past decades as government policy and market forces, both driven by society’s demand for cheaper food and agri-business and retailers’ demand for more profit, has forced farmers, even small family farms such as predominate around here, to maximise efficiency and productivity. Silage meadows, though, support less plant diversity and are cut multiple times through the growing season, starting in late May, which means the eggs and chicks of curlews and other declining ground-nesting birds are in danger, but to ask farmers to forsake the advantages of silage given the economics of marginal upland farming is unrealistic and unreasonable. Subsidies are on offer to do so, but are far from sufficient for many. If those for tree planting, currently being designed, are more attractive, it may drive substantial changes in landscapes such as this.
The dilemma about planting trees on meadows like this is appreciated among the group, and surprise is expressed that tree planting is not always the unalloyed environmental good it is often portrayed to be. There is approval of the celebration of the heritage of this meadow by the Town Council and its balance with looking to how it can be further improved for wildlife, but caution that a romanticised image of a bucolic past not beguile us into avoiding our responsibilities to the future. There is a hope expressed that there is a sufficient proportion of fields that have had their diversity diminished to the extent that tree planting is a better option given their current state, although even if we can trust that subsidy schemes will ensure that the richer fields are avoided and only the degraded grasslands are targeted, I offer two rejoinders to this point to the effect that grassland remains a viable choice even in these circumstances: firstly, the seedbed of ancient grassland species can survive dormant in the soil for decades, waiting for favourable conditions to resume, and secondly, even grasslands in which this repository of the past is definitively lost can be restored. Indeed, our meadow here could one day be a ‘donor’ meadow, its hay and precious seeds spread on improved ‘receptor’ meadows to restore their botanical diversity in a manner pioneered by the Hay Time project of the Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust. Finally, a sober thought is offered, that unless we reform or replace the broken system of economics, namely, capitalism, that has brought us to the point where ’emergency’ tree planting on such a scale in such a tight timeframe is required, then it is wholly unclear that even if it is achieved the worst of the climate and ecological breakdown will be avoided.
I conclude our discussion before moving us on with something I had not intended to say, but the reflective nature of the group’s contributions brings to mind from my days in academic philosophy: that the task of philosophy is not to provide answers but to reveal complexity. The enticement of the calculative, algorithmic approach of modern economic cost benefit analysis is that it offers the promise of directly comparing different values and trading them off against one another to determine a single, optimal solution to a problem. But in truth values are not comparable. Rather, there is a plurality of incommensurable values and a range of admissible options that preserves, to a greater or lesser extent, some things of value at the expense of others. Perhaps we are simply faced with an unpalatable menu of tragic choices, all of which involve loss, loss which cannot be compensated for by gains in other dimensions of value. While it may be that the climate and ecological emergencies are so dire and urgent that we must do whatever is necessary to maintain the conditions for life to flourish in some form, this is not to say that much of value will not have to be sacrificed along the way to secure this future, besides that which is already condemned because of our inability to act sooner. And perhaps the very real thing of value that is an ancient Pennine hay meadow, created out of a benign relationship between humans and nature that was sustained for perhaps ten centuries, is just one example among regretfully many things which we may have to lose, and whose loss is a cause for lament.
I am glad I have managed to preserve a little time to allow the group to scatter and enjoy the meadow for a while; some visit the fruit trees and the infant woodland, some lie on their bellies in the grass and gaze into the miniature world of the meadow flowers, others carry on the conversation. But soon I purposefully open the gate and usher people along Sandy Gate to our final stop. We re-enter woodland and come to an ornate, rusty iron gate, which gratifyingly sounds like it looks, creaking as I push it open. As we enter the overgrown burial ground for the Birchcliffe Baptist Chapel (visible, as is High Hirst, in this photo in the marvellous Pennine Horizons Digital Archive), founded in 1764 but demolished some time after 1898 when a replacement was built down the hill, there is a hushed wonder behind me, whispered astonishment from some at being unaware of this place. In the deep shade of sycamores, we slowly pass between rows of gravestones in the newer part of the cemetery, with some burials dating from after the Second World War, until I gather us at the limit that this permissive path (part of a Pennine Heritage e-trail) will allow us, and from where we can see into the now privately-owned older part of the burial ground, where holly grows out of the graves and thick trunks of ivy tentacle around monuments.
This is a strange place, I admit to the group, to think about the future, but that is what I have brought us here for. For it is a good place to think about the way that a person’s narrative does not necessarily end when they die. We know of two individuals in this cemetery whose narrative continues in things that have endured long after they died, in both the physical changes in the landscape and in the ideas they left behind. I point to the impressive tombestone marking the resting place of Jesse Gray and gesture to where Joseph Greenwood’s grave lies a little way away under a shroud of holly. These two men were central figures in the co-operative movement in Hebden Bridge that thrived in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Joseph Greenwood in particular was a founder member and chair of the Hebden Bridge Fustian Manufacturing Society, a worker’s co-operative that successfully ran Nutclough Mill for 50 years, sharing profits and doing extraordinary work in improving the educational opportunities available to its members, some of whom themselves became instrumental in further endeavours such as the Workers’ Educational Association, still going strong today, and the international co-operative movement.
In the meadow we thought about the duties we bear to our predecessors to respect and preserve that which we have inherited from them, but how we must balance that obligation against the possibly incompatible responsibilities to our successors. I think it is fair to say that Jesse Grey, Joseph Greenwood and their fellow co-operative pioneers discharged this latter duty well: they left a fine legacy – in the success of their co-operative model, in the extension of educational opportunities they fostered, in the mill building that now houses a large employer after it was saved by Pennine Heritage, which was instrumental in their good works to preserve the town’s history. This legacy has resonated on into the future beyond their deaths. They were, in other words, good ancestors to future generations – us – who inherited their legacy and benefited from their endeavours.
One diagnosis of how we come to be in the predicament we now find ourselves, is that our time horizon is too near, our thinking too short-term. Being here at the graves of people whose works are benefiting us a century and more on reminds us that we need to look further to the future, and in the face of the climate and nature emergencies ask: how can we be good ancestors, not just to our immediate successors, but to our more distant descendants? What legacy in the landscape do we want them to inherit long after we have gone?
While a robin enchants us, perching on a holly branch just above our heads and singing its tentative song as if it modestly wanted contribute its own thoughts, there is talk of the small actions we can engage in to ‘do our bit’, of recycling and wildlife-friendly gardening and the like, but a wisely circumspect suggestion is made that resonates with many: that it is difficult to know what tangible things the future will need, so perhaps the best and most useful thing that we can hand on to our children and thence down the generations is an ‘ethos’ of awareness, caution and mindfulness that our actions will affect the future. Others agree, pointing out that this can be said of the co-operative pioneers we are here to pay homage to, that it is perhaps not the material legacy of the mill that is their greatest gift to the future, significant thought it is in now housing the largest employer in the town, but the intangible, inspirational ideas of their movement. These ideas endure and manifest up and down the valley in myriad ways the pioneers could not have foreseen, from the thriving Valley Organics Worker’s Co-op showing the resilience of a local, ethical, organic food culture during the pandemic while industrial food chains faltered, to the inexhaustible efforts of worker’s co-operative Forus Tree to address the climate emergency across the landscape, to the desperately-needed innovations to social care being developed by Equal Care Co-op. The Calderdale Co-operative Association have organised a day of events on 2nd July, called Co-operatives Work!, to celebrate this ‘solidarity economy’, which includes a heritage walk led by Andrew Bibby, author of All Our Own Work: The co-operative pioneers of Hebden Bridge and their mill, which will come here to lay flowers at the two graves we are visiting today.
There is time for those who wish to take the prescribed route to view Joseph Greenwood’s grave, pushing through holly to look down over the retaining wall at the back of the cemetery at his and his wife’s prostrate gravestone, only rediscovered in the past few years and turned over so it can be read. When it is time to leave, there is plenty of reluctance, and the group becomes strung out among the graves, but I am mindful that some are banking on getting back to the Town Hall at the advertised time. So we close the groaning gate behind us and weave down through the terraces that mounted higher up the hillside through the 1800s. The talk is of delight in seeing new places; of the choices some farmers have made to abandon the post-war model of intensification and pursue a regenerative approach, or even rewilding; of the changing economy of the town we are now re-entering, its loss of ‘useful’ shops and its serving of the visitor above the residents, just as the surrounding landscape is no longer principally serving a local economy but may increasingly be enlisted to serve society at large in a national effort to avoid dangerous global heating.
Beyond St George’s Square, with its cheerful cacophony of music and market and children running round its sundial sculpture fashioned in the form of a fustian cutting knife, pointing north to Nutclough Mill, we say our goodbyes at the Town Hall. Ours has been one among thousands of conversations that will be had across the year of the Open Space 70 project, celebrating our landscape and the stories it has to tell, and sustaining the sometimes fragile hopefulness that, at this momentous juncture, we can write a redemptive chapter in its narrative.