I step off the 596 bus and into sunshine at Slack Top, a small hamlet high on the crest of the ridge between two of Upper Calderdale’s deep and densely wooded tributary valleys. To the south is the Colden Valley, but it is the valley to the north into which I will descend. The tributary it contains is the Hebden Water, which eventually flows under Hebden Bridge’s 500 year old packhorse bridge, but the valley itself does not have a name appropriate to a valley. Rather, it takes its name from one of its rocky outcrops and is known as Hardcastle Crags.
I walk along the road towards the Mount Zion Baptist Chapel, which sits between the prongs of a forked junction. Its frontage is so imposing that it is its very presence which seems to cleave the road in two. The left fork ascends over Popples Common, the right fork – which I take – is the Widdop Road, which will skirt above Hardcastle Crags before crossing the moors. As the chapel slides past on my left I try to picture more than a thousand people attending its Dedication service in 1808, and dozens of the children of farmers and handloom weavers approaching it across the fields for Sunday School. In relation to my imagining of this heyday of its influence on this hilltop parish it seems subdued in its quiet seclusion amongst trees.
The buzz of thick tyres on the tarmac approaching from behind cause me to press into the snowdrop-lined verge as a ruckus of mountain bikers pass. Their Mad Max-style dieselpunk helmets and protective gear are at striking odds with the beautifully restored 18th century farmhouses and barns I am passing; Acre Barn, Stones Hey Gate, Popples Barn House. The sensitivity of the restoration of the dwellings – thankfully controlled by planning regulations – has not always been matched in the gardens and driveways, some of which are too manicured and suburban.
The sun is routing the mist that has oppressed the morning, lighting the fawn grasses on the shoulder of Clough Head Hill. From across the gulf of Hardcastle Crags a hundred-strong flock of sheep proclaim the approach of their farmer with the feed. A song thrush sings among the yews and horse chestnuts surrounding the grandest of the houses of this parish, Greenwood Lee, from which woodsmoke rises. Rolling down from up on Green Hill, above the ruined farmhouse of Clough Head, comes the effervescent call of a curlew, the first I have heard this year since the local population returned from wintering in Morecambe Bay.
A mistle thrush rattles from high in the magnificent ash which stands at the head of my path down into Hardcastle Crags. The valley is full to its brim with 400 acres of woodland, the most substantial portion of the almost contiguous band of woodland that covers the valley sides of Upper Calderdale and its tributaries, and which amount to over 1300 acres, or 2 square miles. I enter this woodland immediately upon leaving the road, starting with a gentle descent through oaks and hollies, followed by a plunging descent through beech, Scots pine and larch. In just 500 feet of distance I have dropped 150 feet to arrive at Gibson Mill.
I take a turn about an exhibition that tells the peculiar history of the mill. Built by Abraham Gibson of Greenwood Lee – the grand house I had admired on the way here – and then run by successive sons, for the best part of a hundred years water and then steam (together with child labour and human misery) powered the weaving machines that span cotton. But when its remote location made it uneconomic in the 1890s it changed its identity to an ‘entertainment emporium’, with a dancehall, roller rink, arcade machines and a 500-seater restaurant in its weaving sheds; boating on its mill pond; holiday makers staying in the workers’ cottages; and donkey rides and alfresco concerts in the woods. Some of the former mill workers turned their hand to running coffee shops. Half a million visitors a year made the trek up the valley, but by the 1950s this incarnation was over and it – together with the woodland that fills the valley – was donated to the National Trust by the last of the surviving Gibsons. As I sit in the café, watching families sit down with tea and scones and peruse leaflets advertising other National Trust properties, I reflect that its third life is a somewhat staid imitation of its second, and that a component of its offering for today’s visitors is an exhibition about the diversions enjoyed by yesterday’s visitors. But I am grateful that neither the clattering of spinning jennies nor the roar of roller skates are coming from the floors overhead.
I weave my way back up the valley side on one of the many stone flagged paths that served as commuter routes into the valley for mill workers that did not live in its cottages. I pass a rowan that appears to grow clean out of a boulder, and brush against the ever-lush woodrush that carpets the woodland floor. I keep my eye out for the nests of the northern hairy wood ants that I recall seeing along this path before, but despite the sunshine undoubtedly rousing them into their most active day of the year so far, I fail to see any signs.
I ascend the path back up to Slack Top and pass beside the nursery, where snow lingers behind its polytunnels. The nursery is justly proud of its elevation – 900 feet – and its stature as one of the top specialist growers of Alpine plants in the country. I pop in to buy my wife a primrose to plant in the garden later, and muse with the nurseryman over why they fail to grow wild in this part of the South Pennines. I wait for my bus home on a bench in the Baptist cemetery, where greenfinches churr from the tops of green-budded sycamores.