It was my turn to lead our walking group on a hike on Saturday. When I was planning what to put in the programme a few months ago, I had an idea of taking the group on a pleasant wintry walk along frost-rimed canal paths with delicate fine sheets of ice coating any puddles we met. A weak sun would glimpse through downy dove-grey cloud, and we’d walk briskly in the cold clear air.
Well, that didn’t work. Last week, we’d had four days of largely non-stop rain. And Saturday was no different. Anybody with any sense would have rolled over in bed that morning and gone back to sleep. I got up, and took myself off to our rendezvous, completely confident that nobody would be there waiting for me. I’d come home and toast my toes by the fire.
Five would-be walkers greeted me. Yes, they did want to walk. No, they didn’t think it was too wet. We’re here now. Let’s get on with it.
So we did. We’re an amiable bunch who like one another so the conversation flowed. We got in our several-thousand-steps for the day. But we also couldn’t see much as our glasses got wetter and wetter. Our rain gear kept the rain out and the sweat in. Our over trousers dripped and sulked. Our boots got damper and damper. The canal tow path, normally a fine surface for a winter’s walk, slipped and oozed. The trees dumped giant water drops on our heads to add to the rain’s constant spillage
We got to our half-way point in record time. We got back to base in an even more record time.
‘Now honestly,’ I said to my fellow-martyrs as the end drew nigh.’If you had your time over again, knowing what you know now, would you have come?”Of course!’ they all said. And they meant it. Not me. I scuttled off home to my fireside, and stayed there for the rest of the day.
The early 1950s were in many ways the fag-end of the war. I lived in Sandhutton, a little village outside Thirsk, where my mother was head of a two-teacher school. I was with the under eights, while she taught the nine to fifteen year olds. Few pupils aimed to pass for Grammar when life as a farm labourer awaited. The school photo confirms my memory. Everything was beige and grey.
Sweets were almost unknown, and we were happy to supplement our adequate-but-dull diets by marauding the hedgerows for blackberries and rosehips, or by getting up at four in the morning to go mushrooming on the now-abandoned airfield.
Perhaps that dinginess is why my memory of that meadow is so vivid. Not far from our house, it was where we’d go sometimes when, during the long school summer break, my mother put together a picnic . I enjoyed running wild in the fields, while she managed a rare daytime doze in the sunshine. What I remember is flinging myself down in the grasses which then rasped and tickled my bare legs. I was searching, among the vetch, the buttercups and the poppies for daisies or other small flowers that I could make into a daisy chain. I wasn’t very good at it. The stems would split and mash, and my chain would tumble apart before it had even reached bracelet proportions.
I remember the fuzzing and the droning of the bees and flying things that murmured and hummed about my head; the brief sting of one of the single-minded ants out to seize any of our stray crumbs. I think back to the vivid colours of the meadow flowers – yellow buttercups and vetch, blue cornflowers, white meadowsweet blushing faintly pink or yellow, and the delicate papery petals of scarlet poppies. It smelt – well, green – and wafting from the next field was the sappy smell of recently cut hay. In the early afternoon there were no birds singing. Instead, the whirring of insect wings, the rumble of a distant tractor.
Directly above, as I lay in the grass, were no threatening clouds at all – of course there weren’t – just puffs of white cumulus, or ethereal streaks of cirrus in the perfectly blue sky.
Distance lends enchantment to the view. But it really was like that.
This miscellany of photos doesn’t come from Sandhutton at all, but from bits of North Yorkshire, from Shopshire, from Franconia …. anywhere that has a meadow. Click on any image to see it full size.
We don’t live near the sea: 61 miles, to be exact. But sometimes, on a hot day, only a wide expanse of water will fit the bill. And that’s what Nosterfield, fewer than four miles away can provide. It was – and still is – a gravel quarry. On any day of the week, you’ll see great yellow trucks lumbering down the road, laden with gravel. Back before the 1980s, this area was a lunar landscape: sand and gravel pits, gargantuan earthmovers,spoilheaps. Some of it still is.
But in the 1990s, a professional landscape architect, Simon Warwick, spotted its potential. He’d noticed how even as an industrial site, the area attracted thousands of migrating ducks and geese each autumn. Parts of the site were no longer economically viable and no longer being worked. Not without considerable difficulty, he established the Lower Ure Conservation Trust, and focused on creating an area of wet grassland, with water attached – sometimes extensive lakes, and at other times drying out into muddy scrapes. Native flora were allowed to regenerate naturally.
Wildfowl are delighted. Wading birds are enchanted. 200 species of bird make use of this service station for birds, halfway between the important migratory staging posts of the Dee Estuary and Teesmouth. Birdspotters and nature lovers generally love this place, and the well-appointed hides that are a feature of the site are rarely out of use.
I wonder who’s on that scrape over there?
If, like us, you’re strictly amateur in your knowledge of birds, you might love it too. It’s a tranquil place, except when the birds are having spirited and raucous exchanges, and a perfect place to spend an hour or two at any time of year. But especially on a hot day in summer, with a cooling breeze drifting from the waterside. With wild cherries, apples, plums and blackberries on offer, you’ll even have a snack provided.
Haworth: a charming village on the top of a high and steep hill, in an area of high, bleak and steep hills; home to the Brontë sisters and the surrounding moorland countryside of Wuthering Heights.
Everyone knows that you can expect ‘weather’ when you come here, whatever time of year you arrive. As you stumble along the church path to leave the village, slashing rain tumbling from sullen hostile skies needles your skin, slicks your hair to your face and saturates your clothes. As you set your face against the wild wind, your boots sink into the sodden peaty turf as you trudge onto the moor. If you dare to glance up, you see unending moorland before you: bleak, barren and bare, with sheep huddled against the dry stone walls which march across the landscape. This is Nature-in-the-Raw, and we expect no different.
I went there earlier this week. None of the above applied.
We are in Week Five of a heatwave. I doubt if either the Brontës or even Heathcliff himself had ever seen the like. Brittle coir matting now carpets the brooding moorland fells: and several weeks early, the heather is almost in flower, rich and purple. Yellowing grasses replace the dense green turf the sheep prefer, whispering and rustling in the light breeze.
There’s a little brook in the valley here. Angry peaty water jostling officiously along its path has been replaced by still, clear shallow pools.
The Brontë sisters would cheerfully have paused here to rest, reflect and write a little. Then, like me, they would have slogged on, up the peat-and-stone pathway that leads upwards, ever upwards, towards Top Withens.
Top Withens may have been the isolated upland farmhouse that Emily Brontë pictured Cathy Earnshaw and family living in when she wrote Wuthering Heights. It’s a ruin now, the roof torn off in a violent thunderstorm in the 1890s. Just as you’d expect.
It was the perfect picnic spot for me. The moorland stretched before me, its hillsides rhythmically rising and falling. The world was silent: not that silence in which there is no sound, but that of the living countryside: the low susuration of the swaying grasses; the humming of the wind in my ears; the occasional complaint of a bird sweeping overhead. Beyond the moorland, greener fields lay, chopped centuries ago into rough rectangles by drystone walls. Some held sheep, some cattle, others recently cut hay. The sun warmed my rocky seat, and I was perfectly content.
Except for the sky. The day was sultry, sweaty, but freshened by a soft breeze. I knew the sun might be chased away by gusty rain. Ash-grey clouds swelled and receded, revealing granite tones behind: and beyond that, cornflower blue once more. It was a signal. Haworth takes weather seriously. Never be tempted to climb these uplands without a very capable waterproof in your kit.
The moorland I saw this week was not the Brontë’s moorland. It’s been a little sanitised. There are helpful finger posts pointing the way at every junction, in English and … Japanese.
The pathways the sisters trod are no longer springy peat tracks, or sticky muddy gullies. Instead, heavy slabs line the way, to prevent footfall damage to this fragile area from the hundreds of people who tramp these paths looking for the Real Brontë Experience.
My day was far too comfortable for that. I was not returning to a draughty parsonage with self-destructive brother Branwell to worry about. If you want to see the Brontë’s life through his eyes, read Robert Edric’s ‘Sanctuary’. You’ll be glad to get back to bustling tourist-destination Haworth for a nice cup of tea.
This post fits nicely into one of the Ragtag Daily Challenges this week: Travel. There’s no need to cross the ocean or even take your passport to discover sights worth experiencing.
I’ve had a black cloud sitting over my head for weeks. Brexit; the parlous state of British politics; the recent visit of a certain Head of State; the current hostile environment for immigrants – you name it. I’m not sure that there has ever been a time when external events over which I have little control have so got me down.
So thank goodness for white clouds: the ones that accompany long sunny days, blue skies and outdoor pursuits. Stratus, cumulus, cirrus, cumulonimbus …. the very names are rhythmic and poetic, and watching them as they drift, mass, diminish and dissolve is the perfect way to calm a troubled, anxious mind. Hooray for actual, rather than metaphorical clouds.
I’ve always been a fair weather walker. I never see the point of trudging through mud as dripping waist-high grasses lash at my already sodden trousers. In heavy rain, my waterproof anorak proves powerless to stop rivulets of rainwater trickling down my neck. And since windscreen wipers for glasses have not yet been invented, I have no view of the path ahead, much less the landscape. Really, why bother?
Then last week, watching ‘Springwatch’, I saw the wonderfully evocative nature writer Melissa Harrison, encased head-to-toe in a black, heavy-duty oilskin. She was tramping across a rain-drenched landscape as she explained the peculiar pleasures of a wet walk, on camera.
So when Saturday arrived with murky skies, I stuffed my best all weather gear into my rucksack, and set forth with my friends on our planned walk. And the rains came. We strode through woodland, protected by all those newly-leafed trees canopied overhead. We relished the fresh sweet earthy smell of the rain as it reached our leaf-mould path. We remarked on the leaves, glistening with raindrops. Even the birds seemed happy and continued to trill and chatter above us.
We hit meadowland. How subtle the tones of green and grey in the misty landscape! How muted the colours! Let’s watch the rain as it soothingly patterns the surface of that pond, a thousand concentric circles at a time! Yes, walking in the rain, we agreed, brought pleasures well worth seeking out.
The rain continued. Our weather proof gear kept the rain out, but perspiration in. Our legs got soggy from walking down narrow paths marshalled by soaking nettles and grasses. Someone’s boots began to leak. Someone else commented we still had six or seven miles to go. Yet another of us was hungry, but didn’t fancy a squishy sandwich. The plastic-encased map revealed that in a mile or two, we could make our escape to the nearest bus route. Let’s do it! Heads down, we traipsed on, only wanting to get it over with now. Every now and then, one of us would get in touch with our inner four year old – ‘Are we nearly there yet?’
Finally, we were. We dripped onto the bus, at which point it (briefly) stopped raining.
*Alfred Wainwright MBE was a British fellwalker, guidebook author and illustrator and something of a National Treasure to keen walkers.
Last year, my son Tom and Team London came to Yorkshire to enjoy Easter In The Country. They saw lambs and ducklings and chickens and rabbits – all the kinds of creatures that the average London park is a little short of.
This year, they asked for more of the same. Easter was early, so we knew that the ducklings probably wouldn’t appear. We weren’t to know though that this year Easter would be very cold and extremely wet with hail slashing our cheeks, then sleet.
Tom and I did manage a walk up the lane to let William see the lambs. That was when we got caught in a vicious hail storm.
As last year though, it was our friends Gill and Dave and their family who saved the season. William stroked their dogs and cuddled their cat Marmite (who used to be ours, before we went to France). Grandson Jack came round, and the two little boys bonded immediately, hunting for the eggs and chocolate treats the Easter Bunny had left (inside: no self-respecting Easter Bunny wants to get chilled to the bone hiding eggs in the garden).
Then it was time to visit Reggie the Shetland pony and his new friend Maple. They were saddled up, the boys were equipped with riding helmets, and off they went for a ride. Well, Jack did. He had first mounted a horse when he was six weeks old so now he’s a pro, trotting and everything. William lasted about two minutes. Sitting on Maple’s back was one thing: wobbling about when she moved off quite another. William preferred walking alongside.
Then it was pay-back time. William was put to work barrowing horse manure from stable to manure heap. There were eggs to be collected – he only smashed one. Finally, he had to feed the hens. And he got to keep the eggs he’d found – scrambled eggs for tea!
Memorable moments for a city child. Thank you Gill, Dave, Becky, Andrew and Carly … and of course Jack … for a very special morning.