Michael and I step out into the warm equinoctial sunshine and take the track up through Knott Wood. The ascent out of the narrow and steep-sided valley bottom of Calderdale is always something of an ordeal, but catching up with a friend I haven’t seen for some time proves a perfect way of mitigating it, and we quickly dispatch the steepness and emerge above the woodland. I stop us at a favourite spot, affording a view of Hebden Bridge, nestling in its confluence of cloughs, bristling with redundant mill chimneys, swaddled in valley side woodlands.
We continue up the track, bordered on one side by spent brambles, pillaged by blackberryers and blackbirds of all their plump and polished fruits, and on the other by a half-avenue of hawthorns hung with terracotta haws yet to reach their full autumnal livid scarlet. On we go, up across cattle and sheep pastures to the farm of Pry. I wait on the rotting and treacherously unstable stile for the usual gruff greeting from the sheepdogs, but they must be at work elsewhere, so we pass through the farmyard and then cross Badger Lane into more pastures.
We unintentionally herd a flock of sheep over the skyline, which we crest shortly after them to look down over the scattered farmhouses of the Colden Valley, and then angle down across fields and walls to join the Pennine Way. As we start down the final plunging descent to the Colden Water I catch movement on the fast flowing stream below us. I stop and scan across a band of white water, and find a kingfisher on one of the rapid’s rocks. Before Michael has pulled his binoculars from his bag it skims across the water to a sycamore branch above a still and shadowed bend, presumably a favourite branch from which to fish when the picnickers and walkers disappear. We descend in hope of getting a further view, but we have no cover and within a few steps its incandescent blue has flared upstream.
We finish the descent into the improbably idyllic dell of Hebble Hole and sit for our sandwiches on one of the four monoliths that make up the three hundred year-old clapper bridge. Crowding over us are the first of the oaks and sycamores of the woodland that fills the Colden Valley for its remaining one-and-a-half miles to the River Calder. Hidden along its length amongst the seemingly wild woodland are the remains of six cotton mills, their chimneys projecting through the close canopy. Upstream, four more mills moulder beneath the moors. This idyll is very much post-industrial.
We make the steep pull out of the valley, climbing up out of the pastures onto the heather moorland of Hot Stones Hill. Here a much more expansive panorama opens up of the Calder-Aire watershed; from Hoof Stones Height to Midgley Moor our eyes follow the gentle swells of fifteen unbroken miles of moorland.
We walk along the moor for a while, our feet springing lightly on the peat, then descend a sunken, sedge-filled lane for a visit to May’s Shop, the smallest, remotest, best-stocked and most cheerfully-staffed shop in the area. Housed in a small outbuilding of High Gate Farm, it has been open every day except Christmas Day for over 40 years. I lead Michael in and draw his attention to its eclectic magazine rack, exceptional alcohol selection, shelves of traditional sweets in jars and, above the groceries, the vacuum cleaner spare parts, packets of curtain rings and all manner of other offerings pinned to the walls. We take a couple of Bakewell slices from the bakery counter to the picnic bench outside, spreading the map out to plot our next move.
We descend back into the valley to re-cross the Colden Water at Jack Bridge, passing the village school and the New Delight Inn, then climb back up the valley’s southern side to Blackshaw Head. I take us through the field beside the Methodist chapel where, three weeks before, the parish’s late summer fete was held. I recount the produce tent triumphs of Clare with her chutney and strawberry jam, and Bertie with his jar of flowers, decorated buns and potatoes. I take care not to claim any unjustified share of their glory, making clear that my contributions every year are limited to writing the jar labels and taking the entries up in the morning for judging.
Having crossed the watershed between the Colden Water and the Calder we descend again, down ancient flagged paths worn into a shallow trough by wayfarers and water, past the 17th century yeoman farmhouse of Hippins and deep into Jumble Hole Clough. Like the Colden Valley, this thickly-wooded cleft in Calderdale’s southern hillside was once a centre of industry; its stream, which plummets five hundred feet in just three quarters of a mile, powered four mills. We quickly arrive at the topmost of these, Staups Mill. For a century the rattling clamour of its four hundred spindles joined with the thundering rush of the stream which powered them. For the century since, the stream has roared on beside the silenced ruin.
Its sound drops away below us as we take a path that cleaves to a contour and slings us out of the clough and onto the valley side. The late afternoon sun illuminates the woods as we pass the small graveyard of the long-demolished Mount Olivet Chapel. Behind the iron railings lie forty-eight bodies, twelve of which are of children younger than Bertie, not yet three years old.
We plunge down the valley side past decaying remnants of our predecessor’s toil: derelict houses and crumbling field walls, empty gate stoops and obsolete mill goits, and pastures that are now woodlands strewn with the bleached bird bones of the spring bluebells. But through these layers of loss we arrive in Hebden Bridge, where at least some of these remnants are preserved, restored and repurposed to write new chapters in the history of this remarkable palimpsest Pennine valley.