In the summer of 2020 I began swimming (I decline to add the unnecessary prefix ‘wild’ because, as my Aussie friend always points out, it is after all just swimming) in a whole series of new places. Until then I’d assumed there were only two good swimming spots in the valley, both of which had become overrun long before Covid-19. I went in Gaddings Dam occasionally early or late in the day or the season, but never on a hot day in summer, and I had long since abandoned the dark hole of Lumb Falls to the local kids bombing from the top of the waterfall.
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Believe it or not the English were once thought of by southern Europeans to be rather whimsical and prone to flights of fancy, such was our belief in fairies, fauns, dryads, nymphs, pixies, goblins, trolls and demons. I’m not sure what happened, but if this sense of magic still resides in us I think it is most likely to be brought out by the woods. It is easy to find yourself wanting to skip when walking through leafy bowers between twisted oak trees or crossing a carpet of bright bluebells. The woods can excite the child in all of us, make us want to spend all day building dens and tree houses, chasing each other with spears or bows and arrows or playing silly hide-and-seek games as we used to before we brought too many thoughts into the wood with us.
I end the day’s work on the beach at Porthcawl. It’s intentional, but this isn’t quite how I envisioned it. It isn’t raining, but it’s wet. That’s Wales for you. The grey air is full of moisture and the wind drives a fine spray over me. All day long I have hunched over the tablet I’m working on, trying to keep it dry while ploughing through variously obstructed footpaths.
I’m always on the hunt for new ways to experience the moors of West Yorkshire, so when an opportunity came up to plant sphagnum moss for Moors For The Future I was keen to try it out.
We meet near Cock Hill mast above Hebden Bridge on a predictably wild day. It’s not raining yet, but the wind blows the car door shut every time I try to get out. Everyone else is donning all their layers at this point, so I follow suit, pulling on overtrousers and all my fleeces (four I think in total under the waterproof), then two pairs of gloves. I feel like Michelin man as I load up with sphagnum plugs from the main van – we each take four bags of 20 rolls. 80 plants I think, that’s easy.
I’m here with the proponents of Ted Hughes’s Yorkshire, who have commissioned me to produce three walking leaflets exploring the Calder Valley of his youth. I don’t admit to not being a massive Hughes fan but, as the day wears on and we walk the landscape through this particular lens and read his Elmet poems in the places that inspired them, his words start to grow on me. It may be just a line or two here or there, but it is enough to appreciate his unique view of a place that no longer exists. Gentrified Hebden Royd is a world away from the smoky den of the 1930s, which Hughes thought was dying on its feet. It is strange then that he returned in 1969, buying the house at Lumb Bank in Colden Clough that he had for many years dreamed of owning. He lived there for just a few months, the Calder Valley unable to live up to his vision of it, but its landscape fascinated him throughout his life.
I don’t know why I am heading to the North Yorkshire coast on the Bank Holiday weekend, but I am. Maybe it is reaching a dead-end at Howsham that I question the logic of this. Maybe it is sitting in traffic for over an hour queuing through Malton (not the first time I have experienced this). I am nowhere the route I want to be on, but this Bank Holiday traffic has defeated even my cunning back-road detours. I give in and queue, all the while listening to England’s ignominious dispatching for 67 runs by Australia at Headingley as I get steadily grumpier – two of my least favourite things combined.