Ramblings

November 1998


Sunday 1st November – Huddersfield – A frosty morning with ice patches. The Huddersfield Broad Canal is quiet and flowing gently. The commercial yards below the tow-path are a strange mix – brand new cars in one, thousands of wheelie bins in the next. The other side of the canal is lined by a huge chemical complex. A Wren sits on a fence before disappearing into the reeds. A female Bullfinch calls quietly as she slips along the bottom of Elder bushes. The lock gates are completely submerged as water swirls and crashes over their tops. A long, tall railway viaduct dressed in a black-red glazed brick crosses the canal. It is crumbling away at the top – no longer used. The River Colne flows noisily a short distance away. An apple tree hangs over the canal, fallen apples laying in the water like mines. There is now another chemical plant straddling the canal. It is a mixture of styles – one building has art nouveau lines, another the square brick functionality of the 50s whilst others are concrete and steel hi-tech new builds. A stone built stump on the far side says Private Bridge 1860. Its fellow stump on my side has stone slab steps leading nowhere. I am actually wrong about it being a chemical works (or am I?) – it is a Yorkshire Water plant. The canal swings round in a great curve and a final lock brings it into the Calder, to link up with the Hebble and Calder Navigation. The walk back along the main Leeds road has strange contrasts. Two isolated buildings are a Pizza and a Fried Chicken takeaways. A modern factory has smoked glass windows through which looms, little different to those of a century ago, flash in high speed weaving. A church stands surrounded by industrial units. Gymnastics Club says the sign over the door. The graveyard is overgrown and neglected, despite there being graves dated 1996!

Tuesday 3rd November – Barnsley Canal – The floods have receded but everywhere remains wet and muddy. There are really good numbers of Blackbirds in the valley, one every ten metres or so in the Hawthorn hedge. Rooks, Wood Pigeons and Gulls fly high and purposefully, in different directions. Redwing numbers remain high. The Mute Swan nursery nest is empty, but there are telltale tracks through the Duckweed leading further up the canal where they are feeding. A Moorhen finds itself on the wrong side of the tow-path and rushes off down the bank and across the meadow with a strangled squawk. It has its wings out, maybe for balance although they seem pretty ineffective. It stumbles from side to side, trips and falls in its desperation to get away. It is about forty metres away when it calms down enough to run with any dignity.

Wednesday 4th November – Barnsley Canal – The area has a luminosity this morning that seems to say snow. I hope I am wrong, but with grey skies and a temperature little above zero – maybe! Birds are noisy, Blackbirds, as usual, giving their alarm calls, Moorhens and Coots both muttering, short, poignant fragments of song from Robins and the ever present chattering of Magpies. Suddenly, short chacks from overhead as a flock of thirty Fieldfares appear and land at the top of a bare armed Ash. As the sun appears, a glint of gold shines from the top of a Hawthorn – a Yellowhammer. Mistle Thrushes feed on the bright berries, surrounded by Redwings.

Thursday 5th November – Barnsley Canal – A wet, cold morning. Small flocks of Fieldfares roam the valley. Only one cygnet is on the canal, but some minutes later, the adults and other cygnet fly across the valley from the Smithies Pond direction. Large numbers of Magpies are flocking around the bottom of Willowbank. A Water Vole plops into the canal as Dill the Dog approaches. She gets excited again when the resident Grey Squirrel moves along the bushes by the tow-path. A flock of sixty plus Fieldfares fly up the valley from the east. Smaller flocks of Redwings are also moving in from the east, up the Dearne Valley.

Friday 6th November – Barnsley Canal – The moon is high in the sky, past fullness and wan in the face of the rising sun. Fieldfares stand in the Hawthorns with a look of arrogance, beaks tilted upwards, challenging my presence. A young Birch feels the destructive action of a horse’s tongue as it browses its branches.

Saturday 7th November – Edderthorpe – Clomp through the mud to the track running across the top of the flooded meadow, although now it is beginning to look like a permanent flash. Several hundred Golden Plover stand on a mud bank in the middle. The wildfowl numbers continue to grow with over one hundred Wigeon, at least three Goosander (difficult to see them as they are round the corner), Goldeneye, Pochard, Tufted Duck, six Mute Swan, Teal, Mallard, Shoveler and Ruddy Duck.

Sunday – 8th November – Old Haigh – A pure white albino Pheasant feeds in a ploughed field. Further on a harrowed field hosts Wood Pigeons, Rooks and Gulls – Black-headed and fuscus and graellsii sub-species of the Lesser Black-backed Gull.

Flockton – Just outside the village is a farm that maintains a flock of old breed of sheep. Strongly horned and having brown and cream coats. Rooks are standing on the sheep’s heads and backs pecking. Generally the sheep seem disinterested although occasionally a Rook must hit a sensitive spot as the sheep shakes the bird off.

Elland – The River Calder is still very high. I set off down the much calmer waters of the Calder & Hebble Navigation towards Brighouse. At Elland Lock, the small lock-keepers cottage is now just an office. Elland Park Woods rise to the north, golden-green like old bronze. Along the tow-path, old cast iron signs instruct that mooring pins must not be driven into towing path, because of high pressure electric cables. An old stone mile post reads: From Fall Ing 17 Miles. I will need to consult a map as I have never heard of Fall Ing. (Fall Ings, I later discover, is in Wakefield at Calder Grove.) A turquoise and chestnut flash as a Kingfisher flies down the canal just before Brighouse. The canal turns sharply as Red Beck flows in from the hills. The excess water roars down a weir under the tow-path into the Calder. Bubbles rise on the canal – feeding Tench maybe. At Ganny Lock the lock-keeper’s cottage has been restored and extended into a current dwelling place. In Brighouse it is clear that folk feed the ducks from the old road bridge, judging by the number of Mallard. There is also a resplendent male Mandarin following a female Mallard. To prove the theory, a few minutes later someone starts throwing in bread. The ducks rush around quacking and squabbling. House Sparrows and feral Pigeons arrive to check out the possibility of scraps. Head back to Elland. Flowering Ivy on the wall that separates the river from the canal is being visited by numerous insects, especially black flies.

Tuesday 10th November – Barnsley Canal – A blue sky and cold enough to nip the fingers but not freeze the cloying mud. A Jay flies between Hawthorns, its blue wing flash bright. A flock of Fieldfare go over. Moorhens flick their black and white tails, signalling danger, as they slip into the Brambles overhanging the canal. A Mistle Thrush flies from the canal hedge to the telegraph wires, calling angrily at my intrusion. Further along the valley (I usually do not go this far in the morning) is an area of marsh. A Short-eared Owl quarters the area. Goldfinches feed on thistles on the valley floor and a Greenfinch shines in the rising sun.

Wednesday 11th November – Barnsley Canal – The tail end of Hurricane Mitch, that has caused devastation to Central America, has passed through now. The eastern sky glows red and orange. The canal is a swirling pattern of pink and green as the Duckweed dies off. Again, one Mute cygnet has remained behind whilst the rest have departed. There are far fewer winter thrushes around this morning – indeed Mistle Thrushes are the most noticeable beyond the bridge, whilst Blackbirds remain numerous towards the Smithies Lane end. The three Mute Swans circle the area and the lone one calls excitedly. Finding the space to gradually lose height is difficult with the hedgerow and other bushes. Eventually, they fly out and change the angle of attack and drop into the canal.

Friday 13th November – Barnsley Canal – A cold north-easterly caresses my face and nips my fingers. The sky above has different avian levels in the way that it does for aircraft. Local traffic is low – Wrens flit at ground level, Robins and Blackbirds cross from bush to bush. Redwings and Fieldfares move at tree top level. Next higher are Wood Pigeons heading for the grain fields. Rooks pass over much higher, singly or in small groups. Currently, the highest long distance movers are gulls moving across the area from their roosts in the big reservoirs, miles away.

Sunday 15th November – Holmfirth – A typical Pennine Mill town that has been popularised by the television comedy series, Last of the Summer Wine. The river runs through the town and is heavily industrialised, although many of the units are 20th Century, clearly built on the sites of old mills. Despite the cool weather Dill the Dog is in the river and then rolls in the thick layer of Oak leaves on the ground. A weir waterfall flashes silver-green in the grey morning.

Tuesday 17th November – Barnsley Canal – The first heavy frost of the winter. The mud crunches underfoot. Willowbank and the valley are pale like an underexposed photograph. Vapour tails above turn the sky into a giant blue tartan. Apart from a few chukking Blackbirds and a single loud Mistle Thrush, the birds are silent. The Mute Swan family preen in a clear pool in the greasy ice on the canal. Small numbers of Mallard move up the valley.

Saturday 21st November – Barnsley Canal – A slight rise in the ambient temperature means no ice and lots of mud. Flocks of Fieldfares and Redwings are active all along the valley. A Green Woodpecker calls from Willowbank. Again, just one Mute cygnet is on the canal and looks blankly when I offer her/him some bread. Much whistling on the loop comes from a group of male Teal circling a couple of females. Kestrels are on the wires and hovering over the fields.

Wednesday 25th November – Barnsley Canal – A typical November morning. A grey sky, the area around the canal at the bottom of Willowbank is icy, the fields and meadows are paled with frost, but elsewhere the mud remains. The Mute Swan family remains near the bridge, where the Duck Weed remains emerald green. Along the rest of the canal it is shades of pink through to brown. Blackbirds and Mistle Thrushes are noisy. The Hawthorns stand naked in the growing light, their crop of scarlet berries much diminished by the winter thrushes.

Sunday 29th November – Elland - Halifax – Up the canal from Elland towards Halifax. A bright and frosty morning is being greeted by the songs of Robins. A canal boat noses into Woodside Mill Lock. The mill is a few ruined walls and arches in a young wood. The canal continues along between the A629 and the River Calder. A tree has lost a limb and has the bright orange heartwood of rot. A Woodpecker has discovered this and has left a nesting hole. Old stone walls in this wood are verdigris green with lichen. The Trans-Pennine Express passes over, a grand name for a three carriage DMU. At Long Lees Lock, Dill the Dog must carry out her imperative of crossing the canal by the narrow planks over the lock-gate. Pale green leaf buds are already forming on an old rambling apple tree. The canal turns at a near right angle into Salterhebble Locks. A narrow, six foot high passage takes the footpath under the road. One of the lock gates is a towering steel mechanical construct made by Ransomes & Rapier of Ipswich in 1938. The instructions call it a Guillotine Gate, and it is easy to see why. Here the canal splits, west to Sowerby Bridge and the Rochdale Canal and north on the now truncated Halifax Arm. I take the latter. The canal peters out after going under the A629, but Salterhebble Brook continues. A huge cast iron sewage main is buried under a steep bank, just exposed occasionally. The remains of the filled-in canal appear sporadically. A white flash reveals a Bullfinch in bushes. An old Greyhound stands guard over a small-holding. Sheep and huge white geese feed in one field whilst a pair of pigs root in the woods on the hillside. It is just before 10am and church bells peal across the town.