February, Glossop Low

Strolling in leisurely fashion past the 1813 Wesleyan chapel and onto Hope Street I encountered the latest generation of mallards, keeping up tradition and mooching around outside Howard Town Brewery. ‘Please slow down,’ reads a polite sign on the low stone wall in front of the building, ‘ducks + residents in’t road!’ I slowed down to a stop and took a photo or two of the resident ducks, and made for Charles Lane which gives out onto a path towards the quarries and the moors. I remember reading somewhere that the chapel had a Welsh blue slate roof, despite the quarries being the main source of local roofing slate until the railway came to Glossop, in the 1840s, and they were gradually supplanted.

The track up past the smaller, lower quarry was deserted but not quiet. Sounds that might have been ventilation systems drifted up from the factories by Glossop Brook to the south-east. An ice cream van playing brief and repetitive snatches of Molly Malone, distorted by Doppler shift, lent an eerie air, with which the moors in February don’t need so much help. Aeroplanes were competing for attention with, and losing out to, the occasional stately jackdaw, and a bird with a short, slightly wedge-shaped tail, short bursts of wing activity and a ch-ch-ch-chip call, which no doubt my fellow author of these pieces would have been able to identify.

The heather was beginning to bud, giving a brownish overall impression, dusted with white and with a deep green swell bubbling under. The path is roughly paved with slates, perhaps lying more or less where they were first split, since the whole hillside formed part of the quarry or at least of the same seam. All the quarry sites have closed now; there’s one I haven’t seen, which is almost completely overgrown, and at which vagrants were supposedly put to work in return for a bed at Glossop Township Workhouse. Changing times brought changes of name and eventual changes of use as the building became Glossop Union Workhouse after the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, later Glossop Public Assistance Institution, then eventually, with the arrival of the NHS, Shire Hill Hospital. A physiotherapist gave me exercises a couple of years ago for a shoulder injury, perhaps in a room once inhabited by men exhausted from swinging picks and splitting slate. What’s the opposite of ‘nostalgia’?

Dry stone walls line the track down both sides at this point, having been left in place despite being rather tumbledown in parts, with a new wooden-posted wire fence, topped with barbed wire, installed behind. It seems unfortunately utilitarian and unromantic, but then maybe the stone had its turn at that when the technology was new. “I don’t know about you, but I just think it was purer when all we had was banks of mud.”

A man passed with a panting spaniel; both said hello. The field behind was dotted with sheep, the softer cows, not fit for purpose, still overwintering further down the hill. On the far side of the field is Swineshaw Reservoir, which I know, from experience and physics, to be level, but which I somehow couldn’t prevent from appearing to slope down from south-west to north-east at an angle of maybe twenty degrees. It’s hard to be precise about the angle, given that it was definitely an optical illusion so it was difficult to know which horizon to trust. Looking across a dip towards North Road, a line of threadbare trees was enough at that distance to entirely obscure the housing development now underway.

Through the next gate, with the broken clasp, and in the right conditions you can hear a sound like you’re nearing a road, or perhaps a fast-flowing river, but which is in fact the wind blowing through a plantation of fir trees, slightly straggly but planted in fairly well-ordered rows. Is ‘susurration’ the word? Off to the right a view opened up at this point towards Snake and I was almost high enough to see a full panorama of the high moors at the head of Glossopdale, with only the plantation obscuring the tops.

I thought I heard a stonechat, my second favourite bird call after – I make no apology – the herring gull, but either it chatted once, thought better of it and scarpered, or it was actually a stone falling onto another stone. A distant raptor – at a guess, a buzzard – was soaring and suddenly half stooped, pulling out of it two thirds of the way down to have another look. The next patch of plantation was moving and I intermittently saw straight through, blue interspersed with the green.

All of a sudden the path was beset by about twenty-five yards of horse manure. There hadn’t been much evidence of horses up to this point, but this looked like evidence of more than one horse, or perhaps of multiple trips. The path is narrow there, and rocky, and seems about the least hospitable part of the track for horses. Which might explain the manure.

The main quarry came into view on the hilltop. The temperature dropped quite suddenly, and for want of food I began to feel dizzy, so I took a photo and turned home.

It was February 29th, a day out of time, an extra. Or so it feels. In reality, of course, we just get back the moments we’ve been losing day after day for the last four years, all in one handy, easy to manage, twenty-four hour chunk. There’s probably a satirical political metaphor in there somewhere, about Health Service privatisation or something, if only I were clever enough to see it.

Still, it’s a good job someone’s keeping tabs on this sort of thing, otherwise we’d drift and eventually Christmas would end up in June and we wouldn’t know whether we were coming or going. I expect that’s what would happen. That’s what used to happen in the old days before they invented leap years, I guarantee it.

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