Ramblings

July 1999


Thursday 1st July – Barnsley Canal – After a night of heavy rain the air smells fresh and clean. The Mute Swan family are deep in a reed bed, only the pen visible although noisy sputterings tell me the cygnets are feeding within. A Kingfisher flashes turquoise across the path and up the water. A female House Sparrow is picking through discarded swan feathers, all much larger than herself. It is baby frog time and dozens are on the muddy tow-path, making walking difficult.

Frodingham Railway Cutting, Scunthorpe – Spotted Orchids are still in flower, dozens of purple beacons in the sea of grass. Hemp Agrimony, a local speciality, is coming into flower. Dozens of Ringlet butterflies flit across the meadow.

Saturday 3rd July – River Don – I join the river at Sprotbrough lock. Here the Don falls through rapids so a modern, electrically driven lock, bypasses it. It has been raining heavily (indeed thunder storms – or rather Dill the Dog’s terrified reaction to them, kept me awake during the night). However, the morning is warm and humid. The musky scents of roses, Privet and evergreens pervade the air. The Maureen Eva, a large commercial barge is tied up near the lock. It looks like a coal carrier, but, regrettably, is probably seldom gainfully employed these days. An old industrial building is in ruins, a large cogwheel and shaft rusting away. The trees on the steep bank are covered in ivy, which spills down over the rusty iron railings. The leaves gleam with wetness. An old ornamental wall can be glimpsed at the top of the bank. The bank turns into a quarried face of sandstone. Hart’s Tongue Ferns grow profusely in the damp soil at the stone face’s base. A bridge carrying the Great North Road, the A1M motorway, towers overhead. A singing Blackbird is drowned out by the roar of traffic. The air is so thick and scented breathing seems an effort. One particularly strong scent turns out to be a stand of Spear Thistles. Various flowers grow alongside the path – Field Poppies, Common Fumitory and Red Shank. The latter is also known as Persicaria and has a black spot in the centre of each leaf. Various legends surround this spot, it is where the blood of Christ dropped or either the Virgin Mary or the Devil pinched the leaf. A Chiffchaff calls strongly from woods on the far bank. It seems late in the season to be defending a territory.

Steps lead up to a girder bridge and a disused railway. Wood Pigeons clap their wings as they soar across the river. Across the bridge and then steps lead down to a path on the other bank. This path had a use once as a neat little tunnel carries the railway overhead. Rocks that outcrop from the path are smooth with the wear of boots. Himalayan Balsam flowers and the massive leaves of Butterbur rise several feet from the soil. It is so humid here that the air is misty with water vapour. The path rises and falls along the route of the river, then suddenly emerges into a park. A row of great Horse Chestnuts lines the now metalled track, conkers are forming well. At the other end of the park a road sign tells me I am in Hexthorpe. The imposing tower of Doncaster’s St George’s Church rises a couple of miles away to the east. I head back along the river. A young Robin, barely able to fly watches me nervously. The truncated songs of Whitethroats and Blackcaps float down from the trees. A Dunnock and female Whitethroat collect insects from stands of umbellifers, which have run to seed. I collect a pocketful of Jew’s Ear fungus from an Elder stump. I am now soaking wet, my trousers wringing from the caresses of rain-sodden grasses and the humidity and heat makes me perspire profusely. A Kingfisher flies up from the lock basin.

Sunday 4th July – River Don – I pick up the Don again beside St George’s Church. The river has actually been split here into two – the old course and the New Cut. The bell tolls and Wrens sing. The riverside path is overgrown and starts through rough meadow. Whitethroats sing and call. A short canal from the centre of town joins the main flow. The surrounding area has a decayed, tired look – scrap yards, fenced lots of waste ground and broken gates and railings. Railway sidings are abandoned by all but chattering Magpies. Stands of Tansy rise between the rusting rails. Common and White Melilots and Northern Bedstraw flower on the waste ground. Freight trains rumble past on the main line. The old course sweeps round to join the New Cut. Mallows, Rosebay Willowherb, Ragwort, Hedge Mustard, Meadow Cranesbill, Spear and Scotch Thistles flower. Meadow Browns, Small Skipper and Small Tortoiseshell butterflies flit from flower to flower. The path is merely a suggested line through long grass, which is, thankfully, dry. It sits on top of a levee between the two courses of the river. The New Cut now is called the Wheatley Cut. Various pieces of marshland apparently delineate the old course of the river. A pair of Commic Terns fly upstream calling. Pushing my way through the long grass and plants is taking its toll. My ankles are twisted by hidden bumps and holes. Dill the Dog is having a torrid time forcing her way through. So it is an about-turn. A sluice gate has opened somewhere and what was a dry concrete drain into the river is now a torrent. It begins to slow after a few minutes.

Monday 5th July – North Lincolnshire – A hot morning with a blue sky. But there are pillars of cumulus clouds rising above the cooling towers of Ferrybridge and Drax power stations and even larger formations over Scunthorpe steelworks.

Barnsley Canal – A sultry afternoon with thunder just holding off. The Mute Swan family are feeding on Water Fern. A pair of Bullfinches disappear in a flash of pink and white. A Gatekeeper, wings of shining copper, sips nectar from a Lesser Knapweed. Meadow Browns flit along the edge of the reed bed, whilst Blue Damselflies patrol the reeds themselves. Meadow Sweet (formally a source of aspirin), Great Willowherb and Purple Loosestrife are blooming in profusion. A dead Mole lies by the path.

Saturday 10th July – Edderthorpe – Another hot day in prospect. Gatekeepers dance around the thistles. Clouds of iridescent green/brown flies jump off the slimy surface of a puddle in the track. Bloodsuckers mate on a grass stem. A Reed Warbler sings from the reeds around the pond and a Dabchick wails from the water. Three toed footprints of Coot pattern the drying mud on the path. The flash is relatively quiet. A few Redshank, Ringed Plovers and Ruff search the mud. Young and adult Lapwings and Black-headed Gulls stand around. The Shelducklings are nearly the size of their parents now. Then something spooks all the waders and gulls, but I cannot find any obvious candidate. The older ings are green with algae. A dozen Grey Herons stand hunch-backed around its fringes. Swifts scythe the air, skimming over the water’s surface to drink. All the time, there is the constant background scratching of Sedge Warblers. Scentless Mayweeds, vetches, melilots and other typical wasteland flowers grow from the hard black mud of the abandoned pit site.

Sunday 11th July – River Don – I join the Don again at Sprotbrough but head towards Rotherham. The path is lined by young trees, Willow, Oak, Elder, Sycamore and Hawthorn. Sprotbrough Flash is quiet, mainly Coot with young. Tall Teasels rise above the grasses and brambles, their spiky heads adorned with patches of bright pink blossom. The yellow buttons of Tansy are emerging from the aromatic green leaves. Prickly Sow-thistles rise by the path, their bright yellow flower heads matching the sun. A Sand Martin flies over the flash. Tufted Duck and Mallard sleep on a dried mud bank. Common Pheasants croak in the wheat field beyond. Grey Herons have their heads tucked under their wings as they sleep in the bright sunlight. A male Blackcap disappears into the brambles. Flowering plants line the path, Soapwort (whose boiled leaves and roots provide a lather that was once used to wash wool), Himalayan Balsam, Scentless Mayweed, Stinging nettles and Herb Robert. The path proceeds into older woods, all is peaceful, cooler and much darker. A sign tells me this is part of the Trans-Pennine Trail. A smaller path leads up the hillside, designated a SSSI. The path passes a small grove of Yews. This was part of ride through the woods which was abandoned when a deep cutting, a railway, now abandoned, suddenly crosses the hillside. It is interesting that Sir Walter Scott stayed nearby in The Boat Inn. His description of 1813 poem Rokeby fits the Pot Riding Wood/Don Gorge circumstance well :-

I return to the river. The whole topography of the land seems unnatural, so it is no surprise when the massive Cadeby quarry appears. A loading bay has been constructed at the river’s edge for barges. Massive stone block pillars support an iron girder bridge carrying the railway over the river. The path is now passing through walls of Himalayan Balsam, different shades of pink against the pale green foliage. Beyond is a large reed bed, from which Reed Warblers are singing. On tiptoe in can see over the reeds. There is an algae blotched water, with a family of Great Crested Grebes – the youngsters almost the size of the adults but still striped. As the path moves away from the reed beds, Sedge Warblers dominate the singing. Young Sedgies and Willow Warblers search the scrubby Hawthorns for insects. Another railway bridge towers above, over fifteen great arches across the valley. Beyond is the white limestone tower of Conisbrough Castle. Here I turn back. Butterflies are in short supply, just the odd Gatekeeper, Small Whites and a single Small Tortoiseshell. A Spotted Flycatcher sits on a Willow branch. A bronze-winged dragonfly, probably a Brown Hawker, quarters the riverside. Whitethroats have started singing. The lack of butterflies is suddenly forgotten when a beautiful Comma lands in front of me.

Tuesday 13th July – Elland – The River Calder is low and flows much more slowly than is normal. The islands that were occasionally underwater last winter are now covered with the pink and purple flowers of Rose-bay Willowherb and Himalayan Balsam. A Blackbird pinks an alarm.

Ingbirchworth – The reservoir is quiet, a couple of Mallard and Tufted Duck. A Lesser Black-backed Gull floats over. A tatty black Carrion Crow stands on a branch over wheat that is turning gold. Perennial Cornflower, an introduced flower with a purple crown around a red head is an unexpected find.

Barnsley Canal – It is disconcerting to walk along the tow-path and see small stones suddenly start hopping. They turn out to be, of course, small froglets. Placing ones feet becomes a delicate matter in avoiding extinguishing so short an existence.

Thursday 15th July – Barnsley Canal – A wind has sprung up and swirls the dust around the tow-path. Michaelmas Daisies line the canal bank, purple petals with yellow stamen. Yellow and black striped caterpillars of the Cinnabar Moth feed on Ragwort. The Mute cygnets are growing well and follow their mother, whistling gently. Creeping Buttercup is in flower, a more matt yellow than the familiar Field Buttercup, and possibly even prettier for that. The rough meadow is full of Lesser Knapweed, Ragwort and small patches of Tormentil. Burnet Moths feed on the Knapweeds.

Saturday 17th July – Wombwell Ings – An overcast, windy morning and the ings are quiet. A majority of the duck are asleep. All the male Teal and Mallard are now in eclipse, so there is nothing but dull brown plumage to be seen. A single Greenshank runs across the mud. The rough pasture is spotted yellow by Ragwort. Six foot high Teasels grow by the stream. Dill the Dog is full of life. She rushes up and down the stream, giving herself a good soaking. She then trots along the banking around the pasture and spooks a covey of fifteen Grey Partridge, who whirr into the air with indignant squeaks. Meadow Browns flutter everywhere, along with a few Small Whites and Small Tortoiseshells.

Sunday 18th July – Pugneys Country Park – Five Arctic Terns scream above my head at the flooded sand quarry. Little Grebes call from the pond. Sand Martins skim the water. One Tern persistently attacks me, although I can see no obvious reason. It seems unlikely there are young in the newly mown grasses around the waters.

Leeds – A painted lattice work of cast iron forms the Whitehall Road bridge over the River Aire. The coat of arms of the city adorns stone pillars at each end of the bridge. Below the Aire flows quietly past. Just along the road is the Aire and Calder Navigation. Meadow Sweet and Ragwort flower along the edge of the tow-path. Arrowheads flower in the canal, their name amply describes the deep green leaves, whilst stalks carrying dark centred white flowers stand erect out of the water. Oddy Locks are a large double lock that raises the canal considerably. Patches of fringed water-lily with bright yellow flowers brightening the dark water. A Common Tern snatches insects off the surface of the water. I glimpse a couple of dragonflies, a red one and a huge yellow and black striped monster, but both disappear before I get a good view.

Wednesday 22nd July – Barnsley Canal – Young warblers flit and chase through the shrubbery beside the canal. A turquoise flash as a Kingfisher darts up the water. There are only two cygnets with the Mute pen. They come out onto the tow-path after I have passed. This seems unwise as it is a perfect place for an ambush by the local foxes.

Friday 23rd July – Barnsley Canal – The third cygnet is back with the Mute Swan family – I have no idea where it was a couple of days ago! The canal is drying out in parts, leaving a slimy mud. The thick coating of weed can support the weight of birds, a young, spotty Robin and Dunnocks hop about feeding on insects on the vegetable mat. The area must be at its most verdant – the reed beds tall and luxuriant, trees and shrubs in full leaf, most flowering plants fully grown and the grasses waving in the summer sun, but not yet scorched by its rays.

Sunday 25th July – Castleton – A village nestling in the Derbyshire High Peaks. Twisted streets and byways of grey stone. A stream runs through the village, Brown Trout slip sinuously over the weed-covered rock bottom. The source of the stream is Peak Cavern, a huge gorge leading into a maze of underground caves. High on the gorge sides Mountain Ash cling, their roots apparently in bare rock. Jackdaws chack high above. Also under these peaks are the last remaining Blue John mines. Blue John is a fluorspar unique to this area but is now virtually mined out. Large lumps used to be found which were carved using turpentine into great bowls and ewers, but now only fragments remain in the thin seams. Thus a very small cup of Blue John will cost over £100. 280 feet above the gorge is Peverel Castle. A Norman castle with superb defences – to one side the Peak Cavern to the other, Cave Dale, another deep gorge, probably a collapsed cave system. The castle was started in 1086 and built for William Peverel, the illegitimate son of William the Conqueror and Maud, daughter of the Saxon Earl of Sussex, Ingelric. House Martins fly around us, twittering. The village below is like a toy. The older buildings clustered around the church in the centre. The roads leading out are lined with Victorian houses and the Methodist Chapel lies with them. All around small green fields rise up to the peaks – Mam Tor (The Shivering Mountain) rising high with half its face collapsed, taking the old road with it. In the village shorn sheep laze on the Town Ditch Field, the remains of the medieval ditch that once surrounded the town. It was built in the late 11th century, at about the same time as the castle.

Thursday 29th July – Calder Vale – Common Blue Butterflies flit in the bright sunshine before settling on a thistle head to feed. Purple flowers ring the Teasel heads. Few birds are singing now, just the occasional churr of a Magpie and chatter of Blue. Great and Long-tailed Tits squeak through the bushes.

Saturday 31st July – Wentbridge – A village on the River Went (Celtic for water) on the South/North Yorkshire border. The footpath leads through paddocks of horses. A small red-brick village school stands behind the main road houses, Girls and Boys entrances marked in the stone lintels above the doors. In the pasture behind the school are lines and ridges in the grasses showing where a building once stood. This building was a chapel of ease dedicated to St Eloi, patron saint of Goldsmiths, blacksmiths and farriers. Over the valley a small, neat sandstone church nestles at the edge of woodland. The morning is misty and the distant roar of the Great North Road disturbs the peace. Fat Wood Pigeons sit on wires and cows look down the hillside from over a fence on the top edge. The rough grasses of the meadow are mixed with the blue of Field Scabious and purple Lesser Knapweed. A Green Woodpecker cries from the trees. The path drops down to the river flood plain, maybe one hundred metres across. The water itself is hidden in a rough meadow of dead, brown Cow Parsley heads and stands of Great Willowherb. A few Willows grow and expand. Lesser Burdock (lesser being relative as they stand five feet high) have nearly finished flowering. The path meets the meandering river, which is slow and weedy, a mere five metres across. The lack of rain recently makes it a sad effort. The path plunges into a wood of Ash and Sycamore, Brockadale Nature Reserve (which covers the whole valley). The other side of the river is neatly cropped horse pasture. The mist is condensing on the leaves high above and drops pitter-patter down. Lumps of magnesian limestone dislodged by tree roots lie around the path. Green Hazel nut shells, their meat neatly removed litter the path under a Hazel tree. Small pink flowers and a richly aromatic scent means Marjoram growing profusely in open areas. Wrens churr angrily as I pass. The path emerges into Thompson Meadow, a flower rich grassland which has been traditionally farmed to preserve the flora. Through more woods and out onto Smeaton Meadow. The hillside is covered with Hawthorn and thistles. A flock of Chaffinches is feeding on the latter. Rabbits nibble the short grass. The base of an Ash is ringed with large layers of bracket fungus (probably the Giant Polypore). The path then enters the village of Kirk Smeaton. In a wall a now non-functioning drinking fountain, erected in 1893 is carved with the words

It is now 10:00 and the day is warming fast. The church bells mark the hour. The church, St Peters, is of typical Norman design with a later tower from the period of 1150 - 1170. There was an earlier Saxon church, probably of wooden, wattle and daub construction, on the site. The church has been altered and restored in the 12th and 14th Centuries and to major degree in Victorian times. A large flock of Swallows feeds around stables on the edge of the village. On a restored barn is a wind vane of a farmer chasing a pig. On the north of the river valley the old chapel has been converted into a domestic dwelling. A path leads back along the top of the valley side. An exposed stone in the path has been used as an anvil by a Song Thrush, evidenced by the numerous broken snail shells surrounding it. Beside the path is a sea of golden wheat, but nothing else in it. The sickly trees and plants at the edge tell of the spraying of broad-spectrum herbicides. Clustered Bellflowers, Lesser Bindweed, Common Hemp-Nettle and a white flowered willowherb bloom beside the path. I pause awhile on a limestone outcrop above the valley. Another Green Woodpecker is calling a two-tone cry, but remains hidden in the thick greenery of the Ashes opposite. The path re-enters Brockadale nature reserve. It is now very hot, the sun blazing in a cloudless sky. Out on another outcrop, Harebells bloom like delicate blue porcelain. Greater Knapweed is in flower. A Yellowhammer is calling only the first part of his song. Garden Warblers chase through the Hawthorn scrub. The path drops down the hillside and crosses the river to rejoin the original route at Thompson Meadow. It is at his point Dill the Dog finally decides to jump in the river. Back in the woods, Partridges are calling and Dill the Dog scatters a covey. The air hums with the wings of insects. A Kingfisher flashes upstream. Dill the Dog goes swimming. A Willow Tit wheezes loudly. Brimstone and a Peacock butterflies feed on thistles. The Brimstone is delicate in its pale yellow, whilst the Peacock with closed wings looks dark and menacing, then it opens out into a dazzling show of reds with the yellow, red and blue eyes staring back at me. A flock of Long-tailed Tits and Willow Warblers flies through. The floor of the woods on the flatter parts is carpeted with Dog Mercury.