Minor Road Trip

I.m. Jeffrey Boden, 28 April 1927 – 18 August 2008

‘We can walk between two places and in so doing establish a link between them, bring them into a warmth of contact’, Thomas A Clark, In Praise of Walking

 

The Scenic Route

I’ve just returned to Edinburgh from a minor road trip, or minor-road trip, or narrow road trip to the North of England. Or, perhaps, a Sentimental Journey to places from my past. I started driving again a couple of years ago, aware that there are already too many cars on roads not designed for them in such great numbers, on a planet not at all designed for them – having passed my test at the age of 18, but never built up much practice or experience. My friend Gill, who knew that I wanted to be able to take myself to places off the bus route, and no longer carry all my luggage / in bad weather, offered me the use of her late mother’s Micra. I wasn’t certain I could re-acquire what seemed to be skills more complex than those needed for anything else I do.  With the help of several friends, most of whom were professional educators of some description – it sure is a transferable skill – my extreme nervousness dissipated and I started to gain confidence. Last year I was able to drive down to the Borders for work and walks and short breaks, and contemplate some day moving out of the city. I took over ownership of the car. On a couple of occasions I crossed briefly over the border into England. I became very interested in the idea of  The Border itself – which will be the subject of another post, and some poems.

This August I planned my first proper self-drive holiday, to Yorkshire, where I grew up. Three years ago another good friend, former Newcastle flat-mate Lesley, told me that her sister, who now lived in Malhamdale, wanted a cat-sitter in the summer holidays. I’d been looking for ways to spend more time in Yorkshire, where I no longer have close family,  on a budget, so this was a perfect opportunity. I travelled down by public transport in 2016 – blog post here, with better weather! – and 2017 and had an amazing  time exploring again the limestone scenery that was the destination of regular childhood trips from the (gritstone) edge of the West Riding Pennines where we lived.

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From Limestone Pavement to Malhamdale

 

So far I still don’t drive on motorways and the larger trunk roads. You can, however, get from Edinburgh to the north of England without the A1 or M6 if you allow enough time. The plan was to use the A7 and A68 through the Borders for the first and last stages, then get off the big roads, and wander down to Malhamdale and back via places I haven’t seen since I was a child in the 70s (Kielder), since I was a student in Newcastle in the 80s (Hadrian’s Wall, the North Pennines), since I met up with elderly parents for short breaks in the first decade – their last – of this century (Kirkby Stephen, Ribblehead, Swaledale, Arkengarthdale). Plus some regular favourites, familiar from youth and  the more recent cat-sitting trips (Gordale Scar, Malham Tarn), and some completely new locations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of course some familiar places have changed quite a lot – popular sites now necessarily have more car parks and visitor centres. As when abroad and in places like Orkney, I prefer the charm of  visiting the lesser-visited. (And yes, as with the actual driving, I am aware of the irony if not hypocrisy of so doing. But I do contribute to the local economy, buying  home-made and home-cooked, or items from which the profit goes back into local organisations, whenever I can).

The backroads and byways were subject to several closures and diversions, and not just where the well-publicised recent Yorkshire floods had occurred. Journeys were also repeatedly lengthened due to driver error. I generally have a good sense of direction, and can judge distances well when walking and cycling – or as passenger-seat map reader. Driving alone without satnav, however, I took wrong turnings with comic regularity – for example when avoiding bigger roads after crossing the North Pennines and descending to the Eden Valley from Hartside. (So many bikers! So many seats commemorating bikers’ deaths! So many memories of  trips to the Lake District from Newcastle!)

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Hartside, Cumbria: edge of North Pennines / Eden Valley, looking West

Below the Pennines between Melmerby and Kirkby Stephen, I drove through many pretty red sandstone villages with big well-tended greens and inviting pubs – to which I declined the invitation and persisted on my quite tiring way. I did need to cross the A66 trunk road at some point, and just before this I found myself driving through a strange, deserted MoD landscape that wasn’t even shown on my road-map. I started to wonder if I was imagining it even while I was there.

The core of the trip was my cat-sitting stay in Airton, Malhamdale. The village is just south of the Mid Craven Fault’s limestone showstoppers Malham Cove and Gordale Scar, connected to them on a section of the Pennine Way by a lovely hour’s walk upstream beside the young River Aire (strong enough though to merit its second mill en route to Skipton and Leeds by the time it reaches Airton, just  two miles south of its source). Walking these riverbank paths to Malham has become established as a contemplative ritual, of unwinding and arriving and then preparing to depart, over my three recent visits.

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Approaching Airehead from Scalegill; Gordale ahead

 

The destination, the furthest point south, the cat sitting, were important – but so were the stages en route, and the route itself, including all the ‘wrong’ turns,  and all the country lanes which driving provided the opportunity to explore. I travelled widdershins, south from Newcastleton, after an evening excursion to Kielder and stopover in Liddesdale, and walked a short stretch of the Roman wall near Gilsland. On the return I planned a more easterly journey through Northumberland to Jedburgh.

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Hadrian’s Wall near Gilsland

 

Airbnb makes booking stopovers easier and more enjoyable than it used to be, though I’m accustomed to the high quality and comparatively low-price, high-availability of the Scottish Borders: finding suitable places on the right dates in the Yorkshire Dales National Park was bit harder. So I stayed in the rather lovely Eden Valley village of  Crosby Garrett on the way down. A beck runs through it, with (slow) lanes on either bank, and there’s a viaduct on the Settle-Carlisle line at the head of the village. A farm track passes under this and up onto the hillside, where on a humid Saturday evening I started to orient myself in relation to familiar North Pennine and Dales landmarks (Cross Fell, Ingleborough).

The two consecutive nights that I wanted in family favourite Swaledale on the start of the journey back north weren’t available either, so I stayed for one in the next dale south, Wensleydale, where my host persuaded me to try the early bird menu at the local Michelin / gastropub along the road, rather than the local pub grub with real ale round the corner that I’d have been happy with. Never been anywhere that serves an amuse-bouche when travelling alone before, but it was all so lovely that I also had pudding (lavender – apparently now A Thing in Yorks – pannacotta with strawberries several ways) after the (relatively) cheap two-course menu.  I am not someone who photographs my food, in restaurants or at home, but:

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Honesty, Tea & Cakes

It was an appropriate celebration of having come so far, but no more enjoyable than seeing a Cakes for Sale sign at a farmhouse gate when driving over to Ribblehead on the way down to Airton. I’d been hoping for some Eggs for Sale, common in rural areas, but this would do very well too.

In two places I encountered the phenomenon of the ‘honesty tea shop’. The first was in the hamlet of Halton Gill at the head of Littondale, after a steep  descent of Penyghent Ghyll (named for being at the foot of the most shapely of Yorkshire’s Three Peaks). I gather this is a favourite cyclists’ refreshment stop. I’d just driven over from Malham Tarn, on my first leg of the return north, and was ready for re-fuelling.

 

 

 

 

It’s wonderful motoring country. I expected to find the gradients and corners and summertime congestion difficult compared to southern Scotland, but it wasn’t very busy and I took to driving through this terrain as readily as I had, decades ago, to walking. But this is also God’s own cycling country: it hosted the grand départ of the 2013 Tour de France, and next month will host the UCI World Championships. My dad cycled these roads before he drove them, sometimes for 200 miles a day. He’d shoulder his bike and walk over the peaks, too.

Just below Katie’s Cuppas is a rowan tree, and a plaque on a stone next to it. It commemorates the 2014 TdF passage by quoting Blake, supplementing the ‘green and pleasant land’ reference with ‘the fool sees not the same tree that the wise man sees’ from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell – hard now not to invest this with Brexit-era significance (though most of Yorkshire voted Leave, something incomprehensible to most in Scotland).

The second honesty tea stop was in the Old School Muker Gallery, one of several repurposed former education buildings in Swaledale, and new since my last visit. It was nearly closing time; the afternoon had somehow gone by while I walked around lovely Keld at the head of the dale, in my own footsteps and those of my late parents, then drove down to Muker and walked back to the River Swale over the paving slabs on the famous wild flower meadows (now cut for hay). I’d already had my tea, and my cake, at the Keld farmhouse that serves them, but I found time – on a day spent productively losing it (the Keld area seems to have that reputation, of displacing time in the way that a sea voyage can) – to buy some presents. An agitated woman appeared to be pushing in behind me at the till but it transpired she was agitated for good reason: the passenger window of her car, parked along the verge near mine, had been smashed and valuables grabbed from the interior while she and her family were enjoying refreshments in the honesty tea room. With no signal in the dale, she needed to use the shop’s WiFi and landline to contact the AA and police. Thieves operate in this area / Don’t leave your valuables in sight notices are, alas, common, alongside more appealing way-markers, useful interpretive panels, and Slow Down for Red Squirrels, Do Not Interfere with the Industrial Archeology, or Eggs for Sale signs.

 

 

 

Agnus Dei

Stopping for the priority movement of sheep and cattle on the road can cause frustration if getting from A to B quite quickly happens to be your priority.  Luckily it wasn’t mine and I was happy to pause for the flock moments after crossing the county boundary into Yorkshire.

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Welcome to Yorkshire

 

Later at Malham Tarn, my car was engulfed by a positively Biblical, seemingly endless, ovine flood. Biblical-pastoral imagery is inescapable, and attractive, in a place so long predicated on sheep farming, and where Christian religion can still be deeply entrenched in valleys historically rooted in non-conformism – despite depopulation and the problematic increase of holiday homes. Nonetheless on my last night in the Dales I was quite surprised to hear that my Gunnerisde host’s neighbour disapproved of her hanging out washing on Sundays. Reading leaflets at Keld Resource Centre, housed in the former village Literary Institute, I was less surprised to find a softening of Old Testament-type values in favour of emphasis on compassion, mindfulness and environmental awareness (not incompatible with the core Christian message, of course, but often submerged under a more oppressive, controlling, discourse that has been internalised over generations, and is still sometimes evident in people’s speech and behaviour).

Tiny, tranquil Keld, a ‘thin place’, according to more Resource Centre interpretative borrowing from Celtic Christianity or pre-Christianity, has a high proportion of public buildings to private dwellings. The windows of the unadorned, atmospheric United Reformed Church look out on the Dale in the way the Telford kirks do on the Scottish Highlands and Islands. Several Anglican churches in the Dales have bespoke stained glass depicting local scenes, like the beautiful example at Muker.

 

 

 

 

Quite a number of people seem to have claimed Keld as one of their favourite places on earth, and I’d add my name to them. It featured in a Scotsman article in 2013 which draws attention one of the village’s most famous twentieth-century admirers, North Penniner W H Auden. In ‘Streams‘, part of the 1953 sequence Bucolics,  Auden describes, in full Wordsworthian voice,  dozing beside one of  the waterfalls at Keld, ‘where off its fell-side helter-skelter, Kisdon Beck / Jumps into Swale with a boyish shouting’, and having a surreal dream that coloured the rest of his day: ‘fortunate seemed that  / Day because of my dream and enlightened’.

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Centuries of Transport and Industry

Gunnerside, Muker, Thwaite and Keld: names with the sonority of a liturgical chant; they certainly have the power to regulate and improve my mood. But as well as being a magical place with an undoubted aura of spirituality, this is also a former industrial landscape. Abundant remnants of the lead mining that took place in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are assimilating with natural screes in places like Gunnerside Ghyll. Together with  place-names like Surrender (as in give up your land to the mine owner)*, they add considerable interest to today’s walks. Like in Orkney, the presence of the past is everywhere: evidence of changing uses of the land – and, with a little imagination, especially in bad weather, of the hard lives of those who worked it.

* The Surrender Mining Company is one of several that operated commercially  in Swaledale in the eighteenth century. ‘Surrender’ is also a legal term internationally associated with the handing over of mining rights and land.

 

 

 

In addition to numerous drove roads – the lovely ancient walled lanes, sometimes incorporated as part of modern long-distance walking paths – and the tracks that have become metalled roads, the Settle-Carlisle railway line famously travels up and down the Dales. For about a decade from the mid-90s I’d meet my parents, at Ribblehead Station, for short breaks and celebrations in Swaledale and Arkengarthdale –  including their 40th wedding anniversary and my mum’s 80th birthday. When they set off back to West Yorkshire I’d go for a walk around the iconic viaduct, sit on the limestone scars, have a poke around the sink holes where  water seeps underground through the soluble limestone (when do ‘sink holes’ become ‘shake holes’ as you travel northwards? When do Swaledale sheep become Cheviots?) before boarding a train back to Scotland.

Ribblehead Viaduct was built, at considerable human cost, by navvies who lived in the temporary accommodation constructed for / by them on Blea Moor. It now has surfaced parking spaces and access paths and little evidence of the ‘shanty towns’ save a memorial plaque. I stopped off  to pay homage en route between the Yorkshire border at Aisgill on the upper reaches of  the River Eden, and Airton. As ever the presence of a fair number of bikers and cavers and families queueing at the ice-cream van made little impact against  the scale of the built and natural environment.

 

 

 

 

Eden Regained

Talking of Blake, and faith, the well-planned trip turned out to have some unplanned symmetries and highly pleasing synchronicities. My final stopover was, like the first, to be in the Cumbrian district of Eden according to local government demarcation – but somewhere that felt less like a garden than Crosby Garrett, in one of those high moor villages with which I feel great affinity, near the source of the South Tyne.

I left Swaledale by making the low-gear ascent onto Reeth High Moor, then down steeply to Surrender Bridge, up again, across more open moor, down again,  through the original  All Creatures Great and Small ford, back steeply up onto Reeth High Moor – where I  pulled up and looked down over Arkengarthdale. I’d stayed in this most northerly dale with my late parents on maybe half a dozen occasions in the years before they became too frail. Then I quickly crossed the dale bottom, over the Arkle Beck.  Steeply up once more, this time over The Stang and into Country Durham – stopping again at the top to look back, and forward, as I had repeatedly, ritually, at other summits, high points of passes, and county boundaries, over the course of the trip. If I didn’t know, and in a few months’ time, would I be able to tell which of my photos look forward into the dale, and which back at it?

 

 

 

So I returned to the North Pennines on my way back to the Border via Haltwhistle. I’d intended to head in a north-easterly direction, directly to Haydon Bridge on the final day, but I – who am supposed to Know the North – took a wrong turning, somehow confusing the two place-names beginning with H . . . my mistake at least gave me the opportunity to drive – straight-  along the rollercoaster Roman road parallel to, sometimes on the course of, Hadrian’s Wall. Thence to  Bellingham, where I bizarrely both cut a finger quite deeply on the door of an old railway carriage repurposed as a cafe, and got stung on the back by a wasp.

This was a road trip, enabled by having four wheels for the first time in my 54 years, but I am foremost a walker, a pedestrian (and secondarily a cyclist). The Pennine Way and my path had appropriately, it felt, intersected at several points. It ran adjacent to where I was staying both in Airton, and finally at Garrigill, just south of  the north Pennine crossroad-town Alston. I encountered the Pennine Way signage, and walked a few paces, or a few miles, along it, in both of these places and wherever else we met: at Malham Tarn, the foot of Penyghent, Keld and Muker, Dufton, by the Roman wall and the A68.

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Weaving in and out of North Yorkshire, Cumbria, County Durham and Northumberland,  I relished too the modulation of accents from the north, south, east and west of the region – and was bemused that mine, which I take to be a fairly readily intelligible Northern English, could not always be easily understood: on several occasions I did not get the ice cream, or the beer, that I thought I’d ordered. But I did get to savour instead some pleasant surprises for the palate, as well as for the ear and other senses. A twenty-first century sentimental journey, aye; a grand tour of sorts, yes.

These are places that Auden loved to re-visit; they are places where my West Riding baker dad drove, cycled and walked. He introduced me to them when I was young and I’ve loved them all my life, but as I got older we didn’t have much else in common. We argued, as is common, when he supervised my teenage driving practice; otherwise I ignored him. I don’t think he ever really understood what it was I did after I left home. When my mum died in 2007 he tried to persuade me to take up driving again, and added me to his motor insurance. I discovered when I saw the documents after he died eleven months later, eleven years ago today, that he didn’t know what my title or my job title were. But there were places where we were able to connect in his later years, especially the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, near where they lived; and Swaledale. I inherited his car and wanted to keep it on and bring it up to Scotland, but (having no choice but to deal with the house) driving still felt too much to take on at that point; for this and other factors connected with the estate I sold it. I like to think that in making this commemorative trip, he would have understood my reasons for doing so, and my experience of place, as much as anyone; and that in driving safely on the roads he loved for twelve days of August (ok, the car sustained minor damage to number plate and wheel hubs when I was trying to park when tired, but I’m not the perfectionist he was), I would have made him a little bit proud.

mum and dad

home county

On the final page of A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit writes: ‘the county was something I chose to return to again and again’. She is referring to Marin County, CA, and the last chapter of her meditation on loss in all its senses, place and memory, describes her involuntary revisiting, in dreams, of the ‘one story house’ where she grew up. She comes to realise that it held more narrative versions, and more connectedness to the wild hinterland she loved, than she had previously believed possible. It seemed an appropriate thing to read on my final day in the county I choose to keep returning to, Yorkshire.

I grew up in the West Riding, which had become West Yorkshire before I went to secondary school. We had many school trips and family days out in the Dales, about 40 miles north of the industrial towns, some of it administratively still in the West. My dad, a baker from Dewsbury, used to spend all his weekends cycle-touring up there, and later he took his family by car on practically every day off. I’m not entirely sure that was what his wife had bargained for, but his daughter took to it as eagerly as she took to her schooling, and it established in her a pattern of escaping the urban at every opportunity. It was the perfect place to study for O and A levels in Geography, though I suspect I actually became quite complacent about it, underwhelmed by the things that made other tourists gawp. And quite dismissive of the tourists. It was far more exciting to go up to the Scottish Highlands.

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Malham Cove

I live in Edinburgh, and go back to some part of Yorkshire every eighteen months or so. I’ve just returned from cat-sitting for a friend in Airton, Malhamdale. Airton was somewhere you passed through en route to limestone mecca Malham. A couple of miles south of the Craven fault-line which is the reason for the geological highlights of Malham Cove and Gordale Scar, it’s a farming village with a main green and several satellite ones, and seventeenth-century buildings, including a Quaker meeting house. It’s near the source of the Aire, which goes on to flow through Leeds, and which I always thought of as a more industrial river than, say, the Wharfe or Swale, more like the Calder I grew up beside.

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Village green, Airton

I’m not synaesthetic, but I am highly sensitive to the way bedrock and soil colour the land. Limestone has always signified light and brightness to me, in contrast to the gritstone of the southern Pennines. Millstone grit, to give it its full name. Think wuthering heights, remains of Elmet, the small-town toxicities of Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley. The green over limestone has a luminescence; that over gritstone – beautiful also, despite the grimupnorth connotations – generally produces a more matt, olive tone.

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limestone green

WH Auden’s  poem ‘In Praise of Limestone‘ opens: ‘if it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones / are constantly homesick for, this is chiefly  / because it dissolves in water’.  The poem is at least as much about the karsts of southern Europe and the crises of masculinity as it is about the poet’s own formative Pennine landscapes. I have also been homesick for the red sandstone of Arran and the gneisses of the far north of Scotland and Isle of Lewis; for the coastal bluffs of the south of France. I am probably homesick for whatever sort of rock I have most recently left behind, but a real feeling of hireath is most likely to be triggered  by the sight of Pennine millstone. Limestone gives  a lighter sense of longing and nostalgia, and also, I think, of hope.

The first evening was quite disorienting: familiar and unfamiliar both, unhiemlich, even. I went to the pub in the next village, Kirkby Malham, for ‘home killed’ (not cured) gammon, sold by weight. I had the smallest, and it was huge.  Intending to continue towards Malham afterwards, I actually took the wrong road, and headed uphill towards Settle. I was rewarded with a fresh angle on Malham Cove, and southwest of me was the Lancashire witching hill, Pendle Hill, and the dark moors that extend towards Bradford and the industrial cities. I felt caught between the two, and surprisingly far from home.

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first night

Next morning I went for breakfast and provisions at the excellent local farm shop (it’s local, artisan, everything nowadays, unlike in the 70s and 80s), and felt a bit foreign, with my strange bank notes and own shopping bags and not realising you could buy alcohol before noon on a Sunday. But it’s the post Tour de France D’ales, and you can. After a couple of days of walking, eating and looking after a lovely cat called Picasso, I re-acclimatised. Oh, I love limestone! Walking down a green lane between limestone walls has long been a favourite pastime and a source of joy.

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scar, scree, walls

The contrast between the worked countryside and the wild is marked in Malhamdale, courtesy of the decisive Craven fault, though cattle graze above it, and uncultivated species blossom by the riverbank below it. Nuances within each category become discernible, when you have the leisure to savour them all on daily walks that connect places in, above and around the dale over a ten-day period at harvest-time.

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farmland, cove

 

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moor, scar

Venerable drystone walls in limestone demarcate ancient field systems above Malham village. From a distance, they resemble bobbly knitting (though admittedly there may be a chicken-and-egg issue here). Downdale, modern machinery worked the fields all day and into the night, and serially transported its loads to farm-yard, competing on the narrow lanes with tourist traffic. When not walking off-road (cattle! mud!), I hopped onto the verge to let them all pass and admired the wild flowers. As well as being the longest single stay I’ve had in the Dales, this was the first time I – a bad hayfever sufferer – had been resident in summer. I took my anti-histamine, and went out to find what was there, just as I’ve taken in recent years to going for walks at dawn and dusk, when you see, hear, smell, different things. The sparse vegetation capable of flourishing in the limestone grykes, that I’ve only seen in books before, was at its peak.

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Limestone gryke

I’m surprised by how scant my recall could be: I remembered key sites / sights, like the Cove, that tend to appear frequently on calendars and magazine covers anyway, and I remembered details like the whitewashed – now flaking – sweetshop where the roads fork in the village. But I’d failed to retain any image of  what excites me most, the  sweep of the county seen from the heights, the horizons, the extent of view. This shouldn’t surprise me, as I know all about the sublime: the unrepresentable, the unrecoverable, the impossibility of retaining what we most desire, but it does. It made me wonder (given little in the broader picture will have changed), what did I actually see as a child?

My dad, though never an assertive person, used to have set itineraries and omissions that he stuck to – there were some places we always just drove past. Maybe he had more of the cyclist’s mindset than the walker’s, and of course he’d be aware of what time he had to return to bakery duties. I’d look out of the rear window, wanting to stop and explore. Malham Tarn was one of these places, and now I finally got to linger there.

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boathouse, tarn

Last Saturday had been hot by this summer’s standards – I walked in a t-shirt, and sat for long periods with books and ice-cream. Sunday was wild, like one of those Hebridean ‘summer’ days, and it was a delight to explore the variety of topographies in the National Trust Malham Tarn estate: upland moss (raised bog) and groundwater-fed fen, bird hide, boat house, broadleaf avenue, an orchid house which has been converted into a sustainable building for group use.  I emerged tarnside to the accompaniment of waves, then crossed the flat high grassland  and dropped into the shelter of the limestone valley above Gordale.

Underfoot conditions are tougher than in my local Pentland Hills, but there are also more people around participating in recreation activities. When I fell into a deep concealed ditch in the less visited southern Pentlands last month, there was no one around (actually I wasn’t badly hurt, and I was quite glad there was no one to witness my tumble). Now, scrambling down to the top of the force (waterfall) at Gordale, as I had up to its base  the previous day, I knew that if I had newer boots with grippier soles and the rock was drier, I could still make the direct connection between the two, and was happy to leave it at that for this trip. When I was young and lithe, I took for granted what my body was capable of, in the same way as I took for granted the scenery I was privileged to be able to experience. Now I try to make the time to cherish both.

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Gordale / above

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Gordale / below

Places like Malham village were very busy on weekends and bank holidays when I was a kid. My dad’s car used to give them a swerve and head for quieter spots. Nowadays, an off-season traveller with a love of remote places, I’m even less used to tourist hotspots. One thing that struck me, though, was that in my Yorkshire youth you only ever saw white faces once you were out of the city. You still wouldn’t call it multicultural, but now there are Asians and a smattering of other ethnicities, clad in lyrcra or gortex for their chosen pursuits, or chasing their ice-cream eating children around village greens. These will be second- and  third-generation children of immigrants, now at home, in this country, in this county.

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Gordale, climbers

GENERATION and regeneration

I spent a lot of time this summer and autumn at the GENERATION exhibitions celebrating art made in Scotland over the last 25 years. Sometimes I was working, as a freelancer in the NGS education department, sometimes working on my own material, and others being a tourist at other exhibitions in the series around the country.

In the RSA building on the Mound in Edinburgh there were seven rooms devoted to the work of seven different artists. To my own surprise, my personal favourite grew to be Martin Boyce’s installation of a park at dusk. This comprised skeletal steel benches, bed-frames and off-kilter bins in primary colours, was divided into sections by black mesh fences placed at oblique angles, and lit by fluorescent tubes representing trees. Originally designed for Glasgow’s Tramway, a larger, more industrial space than this, the biggest room in Robert Playfair’s RSA building, it appeared to be (re)creating a sense of urban decay and fostering a feeling of menace. I’d ask my tour groups how optiimistic it made them feel on  a scale of 1-10; most responses were between 3 and 5. The work’s apparently incongruous title,  Our Love is like the Flowers, the Rain, the Sea and the Hours is the chorus of the song ‘The Village’ in  New Order’s 1983 album  Power, Corruption & Lies.

Music, it strikes me,  is possibly more ‘generational’ than any other artform. Members of my tour groups tended to be either too young or too old to know  much about the post-punk and ‘industrial’ sounds, often emanating from Manchester, that became the soundtrack to the lives of students in another post-industrial city.  Boyce and a number of other artists in the exhibition studied on the Environmental Art course set up at Glasgow School of Art in the 80s. The course is credited, in the Generation Reader, a collection of essays published to  accompany the exhibition catalogue, and in a BBC documentary made about the exhibition, with being responsible for  the artist-led energy that produced such a diverse body of work during this time. Both stress how great emphasis was placed on socialising. I wondered what happened if you were an introvert with different tastes in music – what happened to the artist as outsider? – but maybe you just (just!) studied painting.

Anyway, after three months I’d settled on the Boyce room as the one most conducive to writing, low light levels notwithstanding, and I started to find it uplifting. At twenty-minute intervals, a  plangent soundtrack, specially composed for the installation, played as text slowly formed, then dissolved, on one of the walls. It was hard to read – Boyce devises his own fonts to blur the boundary between text and image – but seemed to say this place is dreaming. For a time I thought it read ‘this place is breathing’.

It occurs to me now that Boyce’s text could also be a reference to the phrase terribilis ist locus iste.  Originally from the Vulgate version of Genesis 28.17, and most often found inscribed on door lintels,  this was Jacob’s response to his vision of a ladder leading to heaven. Terribilis has been variously translated as ‘dreadful’ (King James) and ‘fearsome’ (New English); it means ‘awesome’ in the sense of sublime, terror-inducing.

This place is not terrible to me. I have partly measured out my adult life in the exhibitions I’ve seen in these rooms; sought them – and found comfort – in times of distress, shared memorable afternoons in them with friends, and been privileged to work in them.  This year, Boyce’s soundtrack and text and manufactured gloaming worked against the urban harshness of his physical materials in a way that allowed memories and imaginings to float free. This place was breathing and dreaming because it was immersive, real and unreal simultaneously, a creative and potential space. Also . . .  the portable gallery seats unintentionally referenced the steel and chain-link of the fencing and bed-frame components of the installation and, with a person seated on them,  became a temporary part of it. (These paragraphs are in the past tense because the exhibition closed on 2 November. Our Love was de-installed and returned to homes in various collections, including Tate.)

The open thresholds between the rooms gave sight-lines to works by other artists. From Our Love you could glimpse the gorgeous purples of Callum Innes‘ Exposed Painting series, or the black and white palate of a space made over to woodcut prints and ceramic works by David Shrigley that  playfully questioned the limits of black-and-white thinking. I’ve written in the company of Innes’ slow-burning paintings before, and it’s easy to find in them a meditative quality. More surprising was the  effect of sitting amidst Shrigley’s army (or pantomime cast?) of torso-less boots on plinths – boots that we are figuratively invited to fill, and that Shrigley will fill when his work is sited on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square in 2016.

Over at the Portrait Gallery, Luke Fowler‘s 61- minute film The Poor Stockinger, the Luddite Cropper and the Deluded Followers of Joanna Southcott loosens the memory in a manner different to Boyce’s parkscape. Shot in 21st Century West Yorkshire, it features footage from the 1950s of Marxist historian E P Thompson, and an original soundtrack which includes a setting of Blake’s ‘London’. A voiceover (sterner in tone than that of the charismatic Thompson himself) reads from Thompson’s reports on the WEA classes in Social History and Literature in eleven West Riding towns. As well as a portrait of a man, he’s created on 16mm film a narrative of a place where industrial and rural landscapes are held in balance. Fowler’s image-assemblage maybe even works a bit like memory itself. He shows where habitation has spilled up hillsides, like a reverse landslide.  A lorry passes between gritstone walls at the pace of a horse and cart as smoke from a chimney in a field merges with cloud. Skies are punctuated with pylons and factory chimneys that look like Venetian campaniles.  Fields, olive from their gritstone underlay, are overlaid with snow. At night the moving lights of cars weave amongst the still ones from buildings, creating illuminated  townscapes where neon, sodium, street, factory and domestic lighting co-exist in a painterly fashion.  The time it takes a car to pass across the frame seems longer than if you were standing on the pavement yourself. Fowler cuts from the shot of a  factory, chimney and tower block warmed by a sunlight that makes of them a Mediterranean composition, to a close-up of the chimney’s top showing, not a cloud-capped tower, but one crowned with scaffolding. He revisits a frame from earlier in the film, but now the soundtrack has moved on.  And he dwells, too, on the details: the interiors of educational institutions, from stained-glass crests in windows opening onto more West Riding masonry, in both its hewn and unhewn states, to corridors and functional seating. (This paragraph is in the present tense because the film exists even when it isn’t being watched.)

I had a four-day interlude in the West Riding myself at half term. I visited the Hepworth Wakefield for the first time and Yorkshire Sculpture Park for the umpteenth, but  it retains its power to seep onto my soul. One of the other reasons for my visit was to look at and try to write about the horizon – the elongated concave  profile of Saddleworth Moor, the skyline as seen from the Calder valley. I was prevented from achieving this by a mist which pressed down into the valley, amplifying the hoot of the Transpennine train, and on the upland spur where I was staying accentuating underfoot textures – flag, cobble, pebble, brick, grit, leaf, mud – on by-ways with names like Beaumont’s Bolt and Pudding Lane. It insinuated itself round the midriff of Emley Moor television mast, and chilled through several layers of clothing in the  mornings, as I stood at an exposed hilltop bus stop where a big vista of high moor and industrial valley appears in clear weather. By midday sun had squeezed enough heat through the mist and onto the land for lunch to be taken outdoors at a village pub. It obfuscated plans, but it assisted memory – being up here on winter nights, high above the conurbation lights – and enabled the creation of new narratives, such as the fit between Luke Fowler’s vision of the location and my own experience if it.

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During this period the wonderful Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival  was running, this year with the theme ‘The Power to Communicate’. South Side Writers generated the text for a great wee exhibition at the Southside Centre. I attended a screening of Regeneration at Craiglockhart campus, formerly the war hospital where Wilfred Owen met Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon, who acted as poetic mentor to the younger Owen, was treated by the psychiatrist WHR Rivers, pioneer of psychotherapeutic methods used with ptsd today, and surely one of the great heroes of WW1. Rivers also worked on the regeneration of damaged nerve tissue. In the film of Pat Barker’s novel, adapted to give more of a  narrative arc (I don’t recall having any problem with the book’s narrative geometry), he is shown to experience secondary trauma. In the novels, if my memory is accurate, his own neuroses are attributed to his experiences working as an anthropologist in Melanesia in the Pacific, and a relatively minor childhood worry – one doesn’t need to have been to war to be beset by hard to-shift-demons. If one has been to war. . . well, thank the goodness that remains for Rivers and his legacy.

Afterwards there was a panel discussion involving the screen writer Allan Scott, an Afghanistan veteran and two psychotherapists from the Rivers Centre for traumatic stress at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital – where, in addition to medication and talking therapies, it seems they offer art therapy but not creative writing. Of course, there are many situations where the non-linguistic nature of art, or music, is what is needed –  but wouldn’t it be a highly appropriate tribute to Rivers and his most famous patient if, as more research is conducted into the efficacy of the ‘writing cure’, this were to be adopted in the clinic named for him?

Pat Barker, unable to attend, sent a generous message, which included a phrase that went something like: ‘while you work on the material, the material works on you’. This is an excellent encapsulation of the therapeutic benefits of creative writing. To put it another way: you generate the material; it regenerates you.

le cote de blubberhouses

It was as emotional a weekend as it’s possible for a woman with absolutely no interest in football to have in front of her telly. I’d felt quite teary on hearing the announcement that the grand depart of the 2014 Tour de France would be in North and West Yorkshire, and drew big rings round the dates in my diary. Eighteen months later, last weekend, I stocked up on Wensleydale and retreated to the sofa to watch the world’s elite cyclists speeding along the routes that my father regularly rode on his day off, and which he introduced first to my mother, then me, in the car. We spent practically every weekend of my childhood driving out to the Dales or up in the local Pennines, sometimes with some grandparents, taking in a walk and  lunch. This was where I learned to love landscape and place-names, to admire the way roads (and the M62) were engineered into the contours of the uplands, and to become aware of subtle distinctions in vegetation, building materials and accent as we moved from south to north of the region.

The entire race route seemed to be filled with places of familial significance. The start was of course in Leeds. This was the city where my grandmother took me Christmas shopping (to Schofields department store, the late Fortnums of pre-Harvey Nicks era Leeds) every autumn half term, and where I took my mum to Next and the Body Shop before lunch at Pizza Express on every other trip down from Scotland – a treat for her. On the alternative visit, we’d go out of town and up into the hills – a treat for me. The roles of taker and taken varied across the county, as well as across the generations.

The cyclists pushed north-west into the Dales National Park, the Tour helicopter  performing its duty of diverting from the route to pick out landmarks, often of an ecclesiastical nature. Simultaneously, their names were engagingly captioned into French for the TV screen. Between the late nineties and 2005 I’d meet my parents for a weekend in the Swaledale area once a year.  I’d usually travel by train to Ribblehead on the Settle-Carlisle line, where they’d pick me up. We’d drive down to Hawes for afternoon tea, then over the  Buttertubs Pass, from now on in the Cote de Buttertubs,  into Swaledale, where we’d spend a few days wandering around the villages of Keld, Thwaite, Gunnerside and Muker, or driving over the high moors to Tan Hill, the highest pub in England, close to where North Yorkshire, Cumbria and County Durham coalesce. At points along the road you can see over to the Lake District and the Irish Sea; at others, to industrial Teeside and the North Sea. Everywhere there is headspace aplenty, and you feel as though you really are on the roof of the country. Another day my parents would maybe drive down to Richmond while I took an excursion on foot into the hills – the walks above the Swale from Keld to Muker, and up past the leadmining scars of Gunnerside Ghyll are in my all-time-anywhere top ten – before meeting up again for the obligatory tea and cake. We were there for their fortieth wedding anniversary in 2001 and my mum’s eightieth birthday in 2003. Last weekend I was genuinely moved by  the huge crowds at the usually deserted top of Buttertubs, already legendary in Tour and tyke lore – as well as by the sight of Jens Voigt, the oldest man in the race, who was first to the summit.

I had registered that Day One would cover the northern Dales and Day Two, the Pennine moors west of where we lived, but hadn’t actually checked out more detailed routes – it’s a bit like me not being able to engage with the Edinburgh Festival programme before August, or a travel guide before setting off on holiday. So it was a delightful surprise to learn that, after leaving York (‘change here for Leeds, Huddersfield and Manchester’ ) and Knaresborough (Mother Shipton’s Cave and a shop in the market square that sold amazing home-made biscuits in the 70s), the route continued on the A59 up to Blubberhouses Moor. Fab name, in either English or French, possibly from the Anglo-Saxon for ‘house / fortress by the bubbling stream’. Despite the initial semantic association one tends to make, its derivation has nothing to do with the emotions provoked by this occasion, but it is the scene of significant childhood and family memories.

The Simpsons, friends of my dad’s parents, farmed at Kex Gill, right upon the summit of the Cote de Blubberhouses, after being relocated a few miles upstream from their previous home, at West End (really) when the valley was flooded by the water board to create Thruscross Reservoir. Their original farm was called The Gate. A pictographic sign of a five-barred version hung from a tree beside the road. I know this because I  inherited a watercolour and an oil painting of the scene by Albert E Jackson. I have rarely felt stranger than when looking at them on the wall of my Edinburgh flat when I brought them up shortly after my dad died, eleven months after his wife. Now they’re just part of my furniture, alongside other artworks from and of the region, in a small corner of Lothian that is forever Yorkshire. I don’t even look at them properly very often, so this was a timely reminder to savour my possessions and the memories they engender. They are conveniently situated just above the TV, now showing the Tour back on French soil, minus two significant British riders.

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My own parents became friends with the next generation at Kex Gill, Shelagh and Peter Harrison, and took me there from an early age. I used to name and bottle-feed the pet lambs, those orphaned or rejected by their mothers (I can still remember calling one Hannah); and Peter taught me to drive a tractor on one of their steep fields when I was about thirteen. At that time I wanted to be a vet. Shelagh, baker of the best cakes I can remember, is in her eighties, and we still exchange Christmas cards.

The Tour turned south towards our ‘local’ moors, over Oxhenhope, close to the wuthering heights of literary fame, but better known to my family for its hostelry, the Raggalds Inn; down to Hebden Bridge, former textile town turned hub for artists and writers since its Hughes / Plath era, and up Cragg Vale, the longest continuous road climb in England. I’ve walked up, but if my own cycling renaissance of the last couple of years has taught me anything, it’s that you experience terrain very differently en velo.

After skirting Huddersfield and whizzing through Holmfirth, the peloton headed up the biggest climb of the day, Holme Moss, on the Derbyshire border, before turning towards the finish at Sheffield and the steepest climb, a previously unknown suburban street called Jenkin Road. If I hadn’t been busy wanting to be a vet, mountaineer, dancer, plumber, opera singer, writer or teacher (only some of the above remain unrealistic dreams, so I’m not entirely beset by unfulfilled professional longings),  I think I might have quite liked to be a tour planner, scouting locations and scrutinising gradients to create a route. I can imagine something of the challenge and satisfaction of orchestrating the   combination of a series of lines of tarmac on the land surface (and of  coloured inks on the map page) into a course, the template for an event. To a degree the selection is arbitrary: I also enjoyed re-imagining the roads not taken by the Tour, and in combinations possibly never taken  on our family trips either.

From a (TV) spectator point of view the route made a most satisfactory visual narrative of how moor threads to dale and limestone turns to gritstone; of the passage between agricultural and industrial, and of the ubiquity of the drystone wall. With the presence of  crowds and racers and great weather the narrative evolved into high drama. On steep and narrow sections of the road competitor and spectator became virtually indistinguishable from each other, a carnival  superimposed on the normally sombre landscape.

Holme Moss was site of one of the two great  West Yorkshire beacons, its TV masts. Like its sibling rival on Emley Moor this local landmark has been locally invested with almost mythological significance. Viewed from the Pennine foothills  where I grew up, they and a series of other communications masts punctured the horizon of the high moor at intermittent intervals; by them you found both your physical and psychological bearings. I recall a semi-rural myth that you could predict who was going to win a general election, not from the exit polls, but from the direction the clouds were scudding (they rarely sauntered) over Emley Moor.  The first sighting of the mast from a train crossing the vale of York meant that, for good or ill, I was approaching home. Like many leavers, when I was younger I did not always want to return. In the last decade I have no doubt romanticised the place, mainly because my parents died, as parents do, and the family home was sold, effectively severing my direct links; and also in resistance to some popular and press views of the region, for example in the wake of the ‘disappearnce’ of Shannon Matthews. The visit of the Tour de France has added a few further stanzas or paragraphs to this narrative of personal engagement – quite literally so, here.

According to certificates from the Mid-Yorkshire District Association of the Cyclists Touring Club, my father cycled 100 miles in 8 hours on September 16th 1945, 200 miles in 24 hours on June 22nd-23rd 1946, 100 miles in 6 hours on October 6th 1946,  150 miles in 12 hours on September 21st 1947 and 130 miles in 12 hours on May 30th 1948. Some of his cycling memorabilia has been used in Jan Bee Brown’s film and exhibition ‘Daisy Daisy’ in the Yorkshire Dales Journeys event at the Dales Countryside Museum, Hawes, which runs until 30 September.

 

 

 

all points north: the poetics of peace and armitage

Simon Armitage’s 1999 essay collection All Points North was re-issued by Penguin to accompany his newer memoir, Gig, last year. I  read it just as the debate  reignited about whether the proposed high-speed train link from London to Manchester and Leeds  would heal or exacerbate the north-south divide.  All Points  is a generically eclectic mixture of ideas of north, innovative on a number of  appealing counts.

It’s largely written in the second person, the better to accentuate the difference between narrator (Armitage, or his literary persona, or a prose-writing variant thereof) from protagonist (his younger selves, including youth growing up amidst trans-Pennine rivalry, and probation officer in Manchester). ‘You were thirteen when you first went to Old Trafford’; ‘Your mum taps you on the back’. From the onset, he lets us know that his version of events, or anyone’s, isn’t necessarily to be believed, when he  follows up an urban myth in circulation amongst the probation service with another professional  anecdote, then concludes ‘that story isn’t true either’. It’s therefore entirely possible that a smattering of examples of good old-fashioned northern sexism, sometimes attributed to ‘your mate’, are made up too, to make a point – albeit an unclear one. That times have changed? That they haven’t?  Various other sorts of fiction are skilfully alluded to: he writes the the script of an imaginary northern-nostalgia TV drama; when  Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration is being filmed, he visits the  set for the Craiglockhart War Hospital, not on location in Edinburgh, but  in a Glasgow studio. His phrase ‘the Leeds of the mind’ reminds us that Armitage’s accounts of, for example, Harvey Nicks, or the DSS HQ Quarry House, are subjective versions of place, recognisble, but different to what say, Tony Harrison’s, or mine, would be; parallel to the Edinburghs of Scott’s or Stevenson’s or Ian Rankin’s minds.

Rather than appearing as stand-alone essays, chapters and fragments are thematically linked into a continuous narrative. So  ‘Jerusalem’, the invented Calderdale soap, follows a critique of the region’s status as prime location for television drama. There are transcripts of real TV films and radio features made by Armitage, too, with his poetry interpolated – on homelessness in Manchester; Saturday night in Leeds; the Humber Bridge. Finally there’s a stunning soundscape/voice collage, ‘Points of Reference – North’ (1996-97), which features the printed voices of a range of experts including Patrick Moore, Ian McCaskill when he was a weatherman, and Rowan Williams before he was an archbishop.

Accounts of print and broadcast news items trigger either personal memories or  a deadpan retelling of the same-everywhere provinciality of local news. Forays to London, Brazil, Iceland, or 1920  are punctuated with six refrains of ‘Over the Top to Manchester’, accounts of Pennine crossings for business or pleasure experienced as ritual re-enactments of a route.  A number of the travel sections start with the preposition ‘to’, a  shortcut to the place in question which becomes a form of literary shorthand: To Portsmouth.  To Rochdale. To Hull. Riffs on identity, mistaken and otherwise, abound, Armitage exploiting his generic northern surname. On page 118, no less, there is a sequence called ‘Directory Enquiries’, where Direct Line threaten to increase his insurance premium because poet is held to be a higher-risk occupation than probation officer.

In 1999 when All Points was first published, my own points of reference  and station stops were a bit further north still.  I was  preoccupied with matters such as  Ossian, and the post-Enlightenment development of the Highlands as a tourist destination. I would quite like to reclaim the term ‘North Britain’, coined after the Union to ensure the Scots knew their place. In many ways – linguistic, topographical, culinary – the northern English and lowland Scots have more in common with each other than the northern and southern English do, or the lowland and highland Scots. I like, too, the idea of being ‘northumbrian’, from (anywhere) north of the Humber.

Since the the turn of the century, my focus has been re-directed south (of the Scottish Lowlands) again. I started to re-read Harrison and Hughes and the Brontes, and seek out literary versions of the region new to me. A preoccupation with grimupnorthness was satisfied but not sated by David Peace’s Red Riding quartet: Nineteen Seventy Four, Nineteen Seventy Seven, Nineteen Eighty and Nineteen Eighty Three, some of my formative years, written between 1999 and 2002 with a sparse lyricism.

Channel 4’s 2009 film of the novels, compressed into a trilogy, was full of   slowburning menace and menacing abstraction. Only the police beatings that regularly punctuated the action had an unfortunate ring of comedy: maybe because they  were performed by uniformed functionaries, they were a bit too much  Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition dressed up as Dixon of Dock Green. The real  nightmare for me was in the architecture, the concrete jungle: the road tunnel  under Leeds city centre,  and the gargantuan cooling towers of Ferrybridge Power Station.  We drove through the tunnel most weekends when I was young: it was the conduit to the other side of the city and what lay beyond – the Dales, the A1- and therefore a means of escape.

Red Riding and All Points North actually have an architectural feature, or location, in common: the Redbeck Cafe outside Wakefield, a no-place where police did bad things to journalists, fugitive sleuths holed up to sort out child murders and their own demons, and an am-dram troupe en route to a convention in Bridlington stopped for refreshments.

Peace, like Armitage, melds fact and fiction. But the former finds no Romantic redemption in landscape. His poetry lies in the cadences of the minimalist dialogue with which he tells of the  Yorkshire Ripper murders, child abduction, organised crime and police corruption. As for the legion of reporters who covered the ‘abduction’ of schoolgirl Shannon Matthews  in 2009, scenery only exists for Peace as metaphor for  social depravation. When his attention is directed  west of the Yorkshire conurbation, it’s towards the legacy of moors murderers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, rather than  the remains of Elmet evoked in poems and photography by Ted Hughes and Fay Godwin. Yet there’s also something libretto-like in Peace’s minimalism. He has   a Wagnerian grasp of theme, and ability to reprise it by flashback and in different voices. The Quartet could be a Ring Cycle for the end of the twentieth century, except that its geometry seems squarely cuboid as opposed to  circular. I’m envious of the scope of Peace’s vision, but not its content. Both Red Riding and All Points sent me back to Armitage’s poetry; to  Barbara Hepworth’s statements about the sculptural forms of the West Riding Hills, and to my own unabashed nostalgia for gritstone wall and flat vowel.

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pilgrimaging

Another cold snap, after a couple of days of the Met Office talking about ‘potentially disruptive snow’, and train companies preemptively cancelling services in case it turns out to be the wrong kind. Came across, and added to,  a piece I wrote in Yorkshire in the lull between Christmas and New Year some years ago. The photographs were taken at a later date, when I was making a seasonal record of the place where I grew up. They are therefore unlikely to illustrate the meteorological conditions described accurately. Although they were in no way intended as an accompaniment to  the writing, its prior existence could well have informed  their creation. 

The 50s semi where we lived till I was thirteen, 269 Staincliffe Road, has been extended to the extent that the daughters of doctors and bank managers  I went to school with would almost have found it respectable. There was a field behind it,  ‘my field’, the house’s natural extension for me, though it belonged to the next door neighbour, whose  house is now also  double its former size. Where my field was there are now nine smart ‘executive’ homes. If the field isn’t there any more,  the view from it, still visible from the lane that runs behind, Scar End View, is better than I remember. It seems now to bear comparison with those in the supposedly superior Dales of holidays and Sunday trips. Now I’m seeing it through eyes that, unlike my octogenarian parents’, have looked at a lot of other places; seeing it through eyes too that have read  Defoe’s respectful description of the North’s industrial valleys — eyes which perhaps first began  to recognise this as their real home when reading Defoe’s Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britian before  teaching it to students at a Scottish university. The view from Scar End looks just fine  through the sub-zero haze of late December afternoons.

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On each of these afternoons, between Christmas and New Year, I walk north along Scar End View. Bungalows are steeped up from the pavement on my right,  the new executive homes above them, while an unfenced playing field, unsnatched by property people, slopes away from the left verge. Below this are more houses, the Moor End council estate, before land  falls away across the main road, Heckmondwike Road, to pastures in  valleys and moors rise to the centre of the country. In a couple of years’ time, a child who lives here will go missing  and a temporary media camp will be established.  My recently widowed father will welcome visits from the police to check his bins and garage.

I’m left in a state of something like suspension, like the year and the season themselves as I look out across the Spen Valley to the Pennine heights; in a recession, or maybe regression from the routines of my adult life.  Then each day I take a slightly different route on Kilpin Hill, now my preferred destination on these walks, though a place I didn’t even really know as a child, despite its proximity, a little north and west of our home. My travels then always took me south and east, to dad’s bakery in Green Lane, to Grandma and Grandpa’s in Thornhill, to school in Horbury, for shopping in the town. I’m childlike now as I explore the lanes of millworkers’ cottages, artisans’ homes of millstone grit, now quite bijou and always somewhat magical, because it  never seems possible to take  the same route twice. Bower Lane, Robin Lane, Cawley Lane, Cresswell Lane, Occupation Lane. Walking daily this December within the bounds of the triangle between Halifax, Huddersfield and Heckmondwike Roads, drawn  across Spen Valley’s  eastern side, I learn more of the lie of this land,  where paths known as ginnels run off the road and lead you as the crow files, while the lane  takes the long route, or turns abruptly into a modern estate. In reality, there’s quite a lot of modern housing: bungalows and semis from every  postwar decade fill the gaps where maybe meadows, fields like mine once lay between the cottages. It is still possible, though, to frame a view with no twentieth-century buildings, that could be forty miles further north, in a pretty dale that attracts the tourists.

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What I’m drawn towards is the end of the hill, where you’ve crossed the boundary into Heckmondwike and reached Halifax Road road: no more lanes and unknown territory. I’ve usually turned back before then, to retrace my steps or discover a new way home, but today I’m compelled to continue to the end of the lane, though this promises only more of the millstone grit and postindustrial grime I remember from childhood and have glimpsed today between the gaps in the cottages of Kilpin Hill. I walk on the road because frost and ice have made the pavement  treacherous.

A large building glows opposite the late afternoon, late year sun on the other side of  Halifax road. I know it’s a nonconformist chapel because I half-remember it from childhood. It’s far larger in scale than the surrounding buildings but it hadn’t been cleaned up when I last saw it, so it wouldn’t have stood out quite so much as it does now, spotlighted by the low-angled orange sun. The facade is audaciously grand: Corinthian pillars and cupolas. Upper Independent Chapel is inscribed in large legend across the lintel. I can’t make out if it’s still in use, or if it’s now offices or apartments.

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Some small disused chapels have become homes in more rural areas; medium sized ones in small towns like this have found ironic new life as Indian restaurants. Larger ones  now house the new, non-geographically specific design and technology industries, just as  old mill buildings have  become retail spaces or art galleries. Design consultancies and architectural practices  like to get their hands on buildings like these. Even when I cross the road, carefully — it’s slippery,  although the gritter has evidently been out — I can’t see any sineage to denote the current use, so I assume that it is still the congregational chapel it always was. I could ask, but  I don’t really need to know. There’s an unimposing modern door at floor level.

Back on the home side of the road, I turn round and it’s shining still, like a monument – mosque or temple – in an eastern landscape, oblivious to its context, where all  other buildings still bear coming up for two centuries’ worth of dirt, not big or bright enough in themselves to be lit up by the setting sun. Even the hall next door, much larger than the domestic buildings, seems dwarfed. They’re all already benighted and  forever grounded while the Upper Independent  seems to float alone, a Mecca beneath the milky gauze of a day that has tried to be bright and clear but is simply too cold not to be hazy.

Next day and in very similar weather conditions, I go back, taking  a slightly different route over the hill. An Asian family  exit through the chapel door as I turn away, but  I’m mindful of my forty minute walk back, during which time the light will be lost and the pavements iced. Whichever way you go back down, by Knowles Hill, School Lane or Church Lane, the hill is steep. I’m anticipating tea and Christmas cake in my parents’ warm lounge, and I fail to ask the Muslims about the Methodist chapel.

Almost obsessively, I seem daily to be re-treading, re-occupying my childhood. I think I’m finally beginning to re-route it. The day after it’s becoming cloudier and milder, and the view from Scar End more limited. No sun: it will be dark sooner, even though theoretically the days are already lengthening, the chapel won’t be glowing and I don’t want to see it dull. So I don’t go on to Kilpin Hill, but cut up onto Staincliffe Road. Just past 269 I take a left turn, into the grounds of the hospital.  Staincliffe General Hospital,  where I was born and three of my grandparents died. I was delivered in the old building, Victorian Gothic, off Healds Road, a few years before the maternity block, now the Bronte Tower, was constructed opposite our house. It was apparently snowing when I  first made the short journey home, at this time of  year, maybe even on this day. At regular intervals during my growing up one of my grandparents was admitted to the geriatric ward, a single-story sprawl between the old and new higher-rises, and didn’t come out again. I’d go with one of the living ones to the hearing aid clinic  in Outpatients, in the room at the end of a long corridor where I also visited the orthodontist yearly. Approaching adolescence, in the couple of years before we moved down to the new house,  I’d  use the hospital grounds as  a place to hang out with my friend Mark, one of the few local children I played with.

Now it’s the District Hospital, part of the Mid-Yorkshire Hospitals Trust. Other than in the context of NHS architecture, Mid-Yorkshire doesn’t exist. Both my parents have undergone minor surgical procedures here.  Both are  on a waiting list for a further operation in one of the   new wards  that extend far back, over fields and ginnels where I also played as a child, towards Halifax Road, which eventually  passes the Upper Independent Chapel, and continues into Heckmondwike. Later my mum will receive chemotherapy at the Boothroyd Centre, named for the former Speaker of the House of Commons from these parts, and a year after her death I’ll come to the mortuary to identify my father’s body. From the other side, Westborough, where I’m now heading, the new construction isn’t so evident. Turning round to look back at the hospital from the playing field between Healds Road and Green Lane, what you see is the original Victorian building: grim,  blackened stone rising to diminutive towers, as if from  across an impoverished Magdalen Fields.

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I’m heading, towards the new house, in the direction of places with which I was better acquainted as a child: the streets of Westborough, where dad had his bakery and shop, and Crow Nest Park. Park Road, Birkdale Road and West Park Street; Reservoir Street, Oxford Road and Stockhill Street, where girls I went to school with lived in architect-designed bungalows, or Victorian villas that were once the homes of the mill owners and managers. Where Staincliffe and Kilpin Hill have undergone some gentrification and growth spurts of new building, here there are signs of decay and of subdivision. Some are  now HMOs; others home to extended Asian families.

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I was walking around here, and along  the park’s broad  avenues on mild autumnal mornings a couple of months ago, when dad was having  hernia surgery in a hospital 20 miles away and there was less time to explore further afield; missing  my daily perambulation round Hunter’s Bog in Edinburgh’s Holyrood Park. Next year he’ll be back in the Mid-Yorkshire Trust’s sister hospital at Pontefract for a hip replacement. He’d have needed  to wait much longer to get it done in the hospital up the road. He’ll make a third trip along the M62 to Pontefract for a second hernia op a few months before his death from a heart attack when out shopping for a new radiator valve.

Today despite all the new building and the midwinter muddy playing field, there still is a lot of green — allotments, fields, parks — or there would be had  the weather not  toned everything down into khaki. Nearly everywhere you can see hills: the foothills of the Pennines, above  valleys where the towns of heavy industry lie hidden, in the north, east and south; the high moors to the west where there are no more towns until you reach Greater Manchester. Despite its location near the hub of the industrial revolution, and its evident scars from that time, this still isn’t properly an urban landscape. I’ve lived in cities since I left here more than 22 years ago, and what I still miss is its openness and variety. Now it’s Scotland that I don’t want to return to. I will go back north tomorrow, but today I’m spending my first New Year’s Eve in a long time back here.  I call in the Westborough co-op to buy a bottle of bubbly and head straight  back down the hill.

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