One of the joys of having a local patch is its ever-growing familiarity. As you get to know and love a place, you get to know what to expect—or at least what to look out for. There’s great comfort to be found in the familiar: the world can’t have gone entirely to pot if swallows are still hunting for insects in the lea of the woods on the top road; or that small clump of harebells has come into bloom again at the end of the lane.
Although I’d never try to pass myself off as even a half-competent naturalist, in the quarter-century I’ve been taking walks on the local moor, I like to think I’ve got to know the place pretty well. I know when to start anticipating the first lapwings of the year, and the best places to look for their tumbling courtship displays. I know when the wheatears are due to return, and which section of wall they’re most likely to visit to flirt with me. And there’s always that brief period to look forward to in August, when the heather is at peak purple, and you could swear you smell honey in the air.
As you become more familiar with your local patch, you begin to notice—or possibly imagine—the little things: how rust-red moor-grass is a reliable indicator of a bog up ahead; how the grouse seem to take flight less readily in the colder months, and far more readily as the Glorious Twelfth approaches; how, in autumn or winter, a kestrel can often be seen hovering in the updraught of the edge as sunset approaches. Noticing such things for yourself makes your relationship with your local patch more intimate: the relationship becomes part of your identity.
Once you get to know your local patch, you also become more attuned to the unfamiliar or the out-of-place: grouse perching on fence-posts when snow is on the ground; the mysterious wheezing call that turns out to be your first golden plover; the unearthly, what-the-hell-is-that bleating of a snipe’s drumming courtship display.
I enjoyed just such a novel experience a couple of weeks ago. It was an inauspicious, cold mid-afternoon. The sun had disappeared behind thick clouds. My legs were more weary than usual after a scramble through one of the quarries in a vain attempt to photograph a grouse I’d seen sneaking up there. But then things improved: I flushed a snipe—a relatively rare sighting—then spent a few minutes admiring a kestrel hunting below the edge. As I climbed towards the top of the edge, a small flock of birds shot past. Little brown jobs: meadow pipits, most likely. When you see small birds flying like that, you should look to see if they’re fleeing from something. Which I instinctively did. And there it was again, the kestrel I’d seen a few minutes earlier, flying along the skyline.
But no, something was different. The kestrel was flying wrong, quartering back and forth above the heather. And it was too big. It looked almost like a… HOLY CRAP! A flash of white rump! A female hen harrier: my first in 24 years’ walking on the Moor!
I’ve seen one or two hen harriers before, in winter, hunting above the Dee Marshes on the edge of my native Wirral peninsular. But finally getting to see one hunting on my local patch—on my beloved Moor—made the experience intensely personal: something I’d long hoped for, but feared I might never see.
The encounter lasted all of ten seconds before the harrier disappeared over the camber of the hill. But I saw one. After all these years, I finally got to see one: a hen harrier—on my own local patch.
I like to think I behaved pretty much impeccably today. Not that I did anything praiseworthy, you understand; it’s just I didn’t get up to anything particularly reprehensible either. True, I drove my car, ate meat, and drank caffeinated tea—all of which would no doubt mark me down as a bad person in some people’s books—but they’re not the sort of actions society as a whole would admonish. Not like robbing a bank, say, or setting fire to an orphanage.
All of which is astonishing, when you think about it: a person without a religious bone in his body behaving like a ordinary, decent human being. How did that happen? I mean, without religion to guide me, what chance do I have of distinguishing right from wrong?
In addition to not robbing any banks, and not setting fire to any orphanages, the particularly reprehensible acts I didn’t get up to today included killing. I didn’t kill a single person. Not one. The idea never entered my mind. Killing people just doesn’t seem right. Nor, come to think of it, did I commit adultery, bear false witness, or covet my neighbour’s ox—even though there was absolutely nobody there to tell me I shouldn’t.
Perhaps it was blind luck. In the same way a broken watch tells the right time twice a day, perhaps an atheist’s misaligned moral compass just happens to point in the right direction once in a while. But managing not to kill or steal felt like more than mere oversight; it was almost as if I was consciously doing the right thing—even though, most of the time, I wasn’t giving it much thought. As far as I can work out, I happened to do the right thing because that’s generally what I do by default. In which case, well done, me!
On a less self-congratulatory note, among the many religiously praiseworthy acts I didn’t get up to today was honouring the Lord my God. In my defence, for an atheist, that pretty much goes with the territory. I never gave Him a second’s thought. Nor, while I wasn’t at it, did I utterly destroy any Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, or Jebusites dwelling in any of the cities of my inheritance. Not a single one. Not least because, as I say, killing people doesn’t seem right—no matter Who might be commandething me to do so.
To be honest, I’m kicking myself. To think of all the deliciously immoral acts I could have been getting up to today, if only it had occurred to me I needn’t be impeded by any sense of right or wrong. I mean, I had the perfect excuse: I can’t help myself, I’m an atheist, I don’t know any better!
But that’s the problem, you see: I do happen to think I have a sense of right and wrong. It might not always agree with everyone else’s sense of right or wrong, but I suspect it does a lot of the time; and I like to think I’m fairly consistent about what I think is right, and what I think is wrong—even though I recognise there are one or two grey areas that occasionally do my head in.
It’s the grey areas I find interesting. I’m sure a lot of religious people—other than the most barking of fundamentalists—recognise moral grey areas of their own: areas where their religious doctrines offer no, or even conflicting, guidance. So what do they do in such situations, these religious people? I’m sure they must think long and hard about the dilemma in the hope of coming to some sort of conclusion about the right stance to take. In thinking about the problem, they no doubt try to factor in how it impinges on other moral positions they already hold. These existing moral positions might inform their stance on the new moral dilemma, or, conversely (and more interestingly), the new moral dilemma might lead them to question their existing moral positions in other areas. Which is exactly what I, as an atheist and, I like to think, fairly decent human being, do too.
A significant proportion of my annual early-September holidays in Anglesey is spent sitting on my favourite rock looking out to sea. Nature waiting, I call it: just sitting there, waiting to see what comes along.
It used to take me a couple of days to work out how to switch off, to divert all my attention to doing nothing. Nowadays it takes about 30 seconds. I sit on my rock, place my camera bag at my side, take out my flask of tea, hang my binoculars around my neck, take a couple of deep breaths, and I’m there: in the zone.
Being in the nature-waiting zone is a humbling experience. It’s almost as if you’re not there: you become an irrelevance in the landscape; a passive observer watching the natural world simply getting on with being, without the need for any input from you. Which is all the natural world should ever do, when you think about it.
There are occasional thrills—grey seals, dolphins, gannets, Manx shearwaters—but my favourite nature-waiting sessions are those in which nothing particularly extraordinary happens: gulls squabble, cormorants dive, oystercatchers panic, turnstones potter—all of them simply doing what they do, getting on with getting on.
After a few minutes in the zone, you begin to appreciate passing seagulls as autonomous individuals going about their gullish business, motivated by whatever it is that motivates gulls. These things are alive: they’re living their lives. The wheezing juvenile herring gull down on the rocks is wheezing for a reason: begging for food from the nearby adult. And the adult is doing its damnedest to ignore the wheezing: maybe because a mid-summer instinct to pander to wheezing juveniles has been supplanted by a late-summer instinct to look after Number One and let youngsters start fending for themselves.
It’s easy to anthropomorphise, so you try not to. There’s no way to know what’s going on inside these creatures’ heads, but something most definitely is going on: something is helping them decide which particular clump of seaweed to explore, where to head off to next, and when to alter their course to make a speculative dive at some unsuspecting colleague. (Colleague: see what I mean about anthropomorphising?)
Then there are the elements—the wind and clouds, the tides and waves—all driven by dumb physics: the spin of the earth, the heat of the sun, the pull of the moon. No danger of anthropomorphism there. Predictable to an extent, yet utterly chaotic. Always changing. Never the same. Mesmerising.
The true wonder of being in the zone comes with the realisation that the things you're watching don't require any observer—no matter how passive. The waves would still break against the rocks, the tides would still rise and fall, the clouds would still drift across the sky, whether you were watching them or not. The creatures would still be strutting their stuff, being gulls and guillemots. Their ancestors were doing so long before you were born, and their descendants will carry on doing so long after you're dead. They're doing so right now, on my favourite stretch of coastline, as I write these words 140 miles away in the landlocked Yorkshire Pennines
Men that undertake only one district are much more likely to advance natural knowledge than those that grasp at more than they can possibly be acquainted with: every kingdom, every province, should have its own monographer. —Gilbert White, Letter VII to the Honourable Daines Barrington, The Natural History of Selborne.
If ever you catch quite a beginner, and want to give him a taste for Botany, tell him to make a perfect list of some little field or wood. —Charles Darwin to Joseph Dalton Hooker, 15 June 1855.
You could spend a lifetime studying a hedgerow, or a pond. —Roger Deakin, Notes from Walnut Tree Farm.
When I was reading around, trying to hone in on exactly what I wanted my first book to be about, these quotations from three favourite authors leapt out the page at me: keep it local; find stuff out; concentrate on the little things. Gilbert White wrote about the swallows and hedgehogs in his local patch; Charles Darwin, when he wasn’t busy explaining the meaning of life, wrote about barnacles and earthworms; Roger Deakin made notes about crane-flies struggling in a spider’s web in his study. So, why shouldn’t I write about my local Moor, and the things I encounter there?
Notes from Walnut Tree Farm is by far my favourite Roger Deakin book. His assembled notes and jottings are packed full of ideas. The signal-to-noise ratio is phenomenal. Here’s a random example:
What were once lapwings on the plough in late autumn or winter are now seagulls on the gleaming new sods in August. A footpath sign points forlornly at uninterrupted stubble as though pointing at something departed.
A 36-word prose poem that might easily inspire an entire book—or a PhD thesis.
Every time I re-read Notes from Walnut Tree Farm, I wonder whether I’m missing a trick. In this age of the 140-character tweet and the Facebook Like, plenty of people rightly bemoan the loss of serious long-form writing. But if 36 words can tell a story of changing farming practices and the decline of the British countryside, perhaps there’s a place for short-form writing too. As Deakin himself observes:
Much as I enjoy the process of writing and the exercise of my own skill and craft in getting it right, none the less I would often prefer to be a jotter.
Jottings, in their spontaneity and complete absence of any craft, are often so much truer to what I actually feel or think at a given moment.
It’s always debatable whether writing never intended for publication should be published posthumously. Philip Larkin’s secretary and former lover, Betty Mackereth, is both vilified and praised for honouring the poet’s dying wish by destroying his 25 volumes of diaries. But reading such writing is perhaps the best way to get inside the mind of a great writer. Charles Darwin’s epic Correspondence (22 volumes so far, with more to follow) tells us far more about Darwin the man, and the way he thought, than reading On the Origin of Species ever could. Editors Alison Hastie and Terence Blacker, encouraged by Roger Deakin’s literary executor, Robert Macfarlane, did the world a great service in curating and publishing his thought-provoking notes.
…Well, I say easy, but I was staring right at the spoonbills for at least a minute before I realised what they were.
In my defence, they did have their backs to me, so I couldn't see their eponymous spoon-shaped bills, which would have been a total give-away. At first, I assumed they were little egrets, which are remarkably common on the reserve these days. But then it dawned on me that they were a tad too big for little egrets. Indeed, it was their size that threw me: the spoonbills were far, far bigger than I'd imagined. I'd expected them to be about the size curlews; they were more like the nearby Canada geese in size, if not in bulk.
I've made this sort of mistake before. The first time I saw dippers as a boy, I was astonished at how small they were. I still am. Having pored over my Observer's Book of Birds, trying to learn as many species as possible, I'd assumed that a dipper would be about the size of a moorhen, rather than somewhat smaller than a blackbird. And, from the pictures in other books, I'd always assumed that weasels and stoats were about the same size. They're not even close. A weasel is like an elongated mouse; a stoat is similar in size to a squirrel. Yes, maybe if I'd troubled to read the descriptions that accompanied the pictures in my books, I wouldn't have been quite so surprised. But who wants to read text when they can look at pretty pictures? And besides, saying a dipper is ‘nearly 7 inches’ in length didn't mean an awful lot to a primary school kid who was just being introduced to the newfangled centimetre.
Despite having pored over bird books throughout my childhood and adolescence, I still struggle to identify species in the field—and especially in the marsh. Certain waders remain particularly problematical, and ducks totally do my head in. But, at the age of 51, I continue to learn. I'll never mistake a spoonbill for a little egret again—nor a marsh harrier for a buzzard. To me, struggling to identify a species, before actually identifying it, is by far the best way to learn.
The following article appeared on the Caught by the River website on 21st July 2016. It was subsequently re-published, with slightly amended wording, in the January 2017 edition of Dalesman magazine.
“Is this the Hebden Bridge?” visitors invariably ask when you show them the 16th-century packhorse bridge spanning Hebden Water in the centre of town. Well, yes it is. And a lovely bridge it is too, with its three wide gritstone arches and steep cobbled walkway. It’s a bridge that would grace any town. I’m glad it graces ours.
Like many people, I’ve visited my share of famous bridges over the years: Menai, Clifton, Forth, Tower, Ribblehead Viaduct, Dublin’s Penny Bridge, Sydney Harbour Bridge, Ponte Vecchio, the Bridge of Sighs. But, architectural icons aside, we tend to take bridges for granted, speeding across them in our cars and trains, often oblivious to their very existence—as I soon discovered, when I decided to photograph some of the other bridges in our area: Hebden’s non-eponymous bridges, so to speak.
For my project, I set myself the task of photographing all of the bridges in the Hebden Bridge ‘catchment area’. I defined the limits of this area as the railway viaduct to the west of town, and the bridge over the River Calder at Walkley’s Mill to the east. Any river-, road-, rail-, canal-, or foot-bridge in the valley bottom between these two points was fair game, as was any bridge on any water-course, track or thoroughfare that descended into the valley between the two points. Initially, I didn’t stop to consider all the bridges associated with the many local reservoirs, but added a few of these to my project as representative samples. In all, I identified over 100 bridges in my arbitrary catchment area: far more than I had imagined.
With hindsight, what I enjoyed most about my project was getting to visit hidden corners of the upper Calder Valley that I’d never been aware of before. These new locations provided some of my favourite photographs from the project. But I also got to re-visit old haunts, exploring them in more detail with fresh eyes. Here are some notes about a few of my favourite bridges from the project:
Aqueduct bridge, Middle Dean
I’d wanted to visit this bridge for some time because of its subterranean link with the three air-shafts on my beloved Moor—and for its extremely tenuous connection with my hero Charles Darwin (see my forthcoming book, On the Moor, for more details).
An underground aqueduct carries water to Halifax from Widdop and other local reservoirs. Its route crosses a steep valley at Middle Dean. Rather than trying to dig a tunnel beneath the beck running along the bottom of the valley, the engineers built an bridge across the beck and ran the aqueduct through the bridge. The aqueduct bridge is hidden deep in a secluded section of Middle Dean. It took me two fly-bitten, thistle-pricked expeditions to track it down.
Strines Bridge, Colden
Without doubt, this is the narrowest and steepest packhorse bridge I’ve ever crossed. You’d struggle to stand two-abreast on it. The bridge’s almost non-existent parapet is most disconcerting. It struck me as the sort of bridge on which a gruff billy-goat might encounter a troll, or a wizard might fend off a balrog.
Packhorse bridge, Lumb Falls
A famous local beauty-spot, immortalised in verse by the late Poet Laureate and local lad, Ted Hughes. I trekked several miles with a heavy rucksack and tripod to photograph this bridge, only to find the pool beneath it filled with dozens of swimming school kids. I could see the Hebden Bridge Times headlines right away: MIDDLE-AGED MAN SEEN PHOTOGRAPHING BATHING CHILDREN. I decided to come back another day.
Road bridge over Hebden Water, Blake Dean
Another popular local beauty spot. This bridge is more accessible than most. When the river is low, it’s even possible to stand beneath the bridge without getting your feet wet.
Station Road bridge, Hebden Bridge
Anyone who’s visited Hebden Bridge’s wonderful, old-fashioned railway station will have crossed this bridge, no doubt enjoying the picturesque view of the River Calder far below. But, like me until I clambered down the steep river bank in search of a more photogenic angle, most people who use the bridge probably have no idea how elegant it is, with its two wide stone arches. A gem hidden in plain sight.
Footbridge over Hebden Water, Hardcastle Crags
There are a number of footbridges in the National Trust’s woods at Hardcastle Crags, but I was particularly pleased with this photograph’s early-autumn tints. The bridge was swept away in the 2015 Boxing Day floods that caused so much damage in the Calder Valley.
Clapper Bridge, Hebble Hole
This bridge is constructed from huge stone slabs supported by stone piers. It allows walkers on the Pennine Way to cross Colden Water without getting their feet any wetter. Standing stones at one end of the bridge prevent the local livestock from availing themselves of its facilities.
Spillway bridge, Walshaw Dean Middle Reservoir
Not as picturesque as many of the other bridges in the area, perhaps, but I enjoyed this bridge’s graphic qualities in the strong sunlight. I spent an afternoon exploring the Walshaw Dean reservoirs without encountering a single other person.
Bridge 18, Rochdale Canal
Like a number of bridges on the canal, beneath its arch Bridge 18 shows clear signs of having been widened to accommodate modern traffic. It was just down the canal from here that Sgt. Catherine Cawood had her final showdown with the evil Tommy Lee Royce in series one of Happy Valley.
Packhorse bridge, Nutclough Wood
The nearest bridge to my home. I’d lived in the area for many years before I finally ‘discovered’ it. Now it forms part of my favourite walk down into Hebden Bridge.
I grew up in a 1960s suburb. Our house was built at the beginning of the decade, a few years before I was born. It was in one of a group of roads with Scottish male forenames: Alistair Drive, Malcolm Crescent, Bruce Crescent, Angus Road. Slightly farther afield came the famous golf courses: Birkdale Avenue, Ainsdale Close, Fairhaven Drive, Sunningdale Drive, Wentworth Drive, Troon Close.
My mum, who was brought up less than a mile from where we lived, could remember the area when it was all fields. She’d reminisce about how she and her brother used to go dipping for sticklebacks in a pond just across the road from our house. For many years, the house built on top of the pond had a major damp problem.
Beyond the golf courses were even newer roads, named after locations in the Lake District: Bowness Avenue, Coniston Avenue, Keswick Avenue. My friend Ian lived in Keswick Avenue, which was still under construction when we were kids. Honouring family tradition, Ian and I used to go dipping for sticklebacks—and angling for illusive carp—in a couple of ponds just beyond where the new houses gave out. I’d meet Ian at his house, and we’d walk to the ponds through the wood at the back of Keswick Avenue. We didn’t know whether the wood had a name—and I still don’t—but we called it Keswick Woods.
Keswick Woods nestled in the steep valley of the grandly named River Dibbin: a stream you could jump across, if you could find a suitable launch site. You needed to cross the stream to get to the ponds. When we weren’t off fishing, Ian and I and other friends would spend hours in Keswick Woods. To be honest, I can’t remember what we did there. Tree climbing was occasionally involved, but we generally just mucked about. I remember Ian and me digging up sherds of blue and white Victorian pottery by the side of a rainwater drainage outlet once: my first (and thus far penultimate) archaeological field trip.
In these paranoid times, young kids would no doubt be warned against playing in the woods. Mum just asked me to watch out for ‘bad men’, and told me to hide if ever I heard any approaching. I remember hiding behind a log with Ian and some other boy once as a group of people we’d decided must be bad men passed noisily down a path a few feet below us. They were probably just teenagers. I was bitterly disappointed none of them mentioned any ‘buried loot’, being deeply into Famous Five books at the time.
Mum died five years ago, but my dad still lives in the same house they bought together over half a century ago. I visit him most weeks, driving past the end of Keswick Woods en route.
Last week, after a gap of 40 years, I decided to pay a visit to the woods, to see what memories returned. If you’ve stayed with me this far, you’ve already read them.
The woods were far more overgrown than I remembered. So overgrown that I struggled to find my way in at first. I entered from the far end near the ponds, aiming to walk through the woods towards Keswick Avenue.
Despite the blazing June sunshine, the woods were oppressively dark in places. The River Dibbin was little more than a muddy ditch after the recent dry spell. There were fewer stinging nettles than I remembered, but more undergrowth. I heard blackbirds and chiffchaffs. I recognised dock leaves and campion. But I saw not a single other person in Keswick Woods, adult or child. I kind of hoped there were children in there somewhere, hiding as instructed from the bad man, but I was pretty sure there wouldn’t be.
Eventually, the path climbed to a house at the edge of the woods. A man was mowing his lawn. We got chatting. I said I’d last been in this wood 40 years ago. He said he’d moved into his house just after it was built, 41 years ago. I probably saw it being built. I explained that I was aiming for Keswick Avenue, but the man informed me the woods were now private property beyond his house, having been incorporated into his neighbours’ back gardens.
I’d always assumed—or at least liked to think—that Keswick Woods were still going strong, unchanged from how I remembered them. But they’re not really there any more. Not the woods I knew. Ian’s and my route to the ponds has, it turns out, been gone for over four decades.
I thought of mum, and the lost fields of her childhood, and found myself mourning the woods of my own.
One week into Flaming June, and it has been unseasonably hot and sunny in Hebden Bridge. So much so, that I've had to open all the windows and doors in the house and don my shorts. (Sorry, no photos.)
I was working at my computer in the study a short while back, when there was an explosion of high-pitched notes very nearby. As I explain in my book On the Moor, although I'm generally a fairly placid chap, I'm very highly strung when it comes to sudden noises: I invariably jump out of my skin and bellow. This time was no exception. I jumped out of my skin and bellowed.
I turned to look out the window, only to find myself nose-to-beak with a wren. It had perched two metres away from me on my windowsill. As I reached for my camera, which happened to be right beside me next to my computer keyboard, the wren flitted off into the tree outside the study window, then continued to belt out its territorial song.
I like wrens a lot. I like their bolshie attitude. And I can never get over how such a powerful sound manages to emanate from such a small bird.