Thursday 21 June 2012

Landscape in particular 4: Worth Valley

View of Oldfield in the Worth Valley
This is the latest in a regular-occasional series of posts on specific landscapes that mean a lot to me, or are new discoveries; after all, interest in the topographical is nothing without a feeling for sense of place: genius loci.
 

Previous 'Landscape in particular' posts:
Cold Ashton
Kenilworth Castle
Bolton Abbey

The Worth is much like any of the other green valleys that snake through the Millstone Grit uplands of the South Pennines, a transition zone between the more venerated and celebrated landscapes of the Peak District to the south and the Yorkshire Dales to the north: here is a heady mix of 'dark satanic mills', non-conformity, rugged beauty and often harsh weather; the topography seeming to embody the very essence of the cussed independent spirit that Yorkshire folk (because that is how we must refer to them) are so stubbornly proud of. Its a landscape in which dispersed farmsteads, miles of dry stone walling and pack-horse tracks across the high heather moors share space and time with woollen mill towns and villages battered by the elements and economic decline, and narrow valley floors often crowded with two centuries of communications networks: canal, railway and road. In his classic study of the region, Millstone Grit, Glynn Hughes captures the essence of the place thus: 
"Those towns whose lights at night dance in little cups and hollows between peninsulas of the moors, from which they look like safe little harbours." 
The Worth valley is, though, different because embedded on its slopes is the small town of Haworth, once home to the Brontë sisters, Anne, Charlotte and Emily, and its fields, farmsteads and moors were the inspiration for their brief but astonishingly creative burst of Gothic Victorian writing. It is by no means the only locality in the area that has significant literal or artistic associations: Ted Hughes hailed from nearby Mytholmroyd and much of his poetry was rooted in the hills and towns he grew up in ("The valleys went out, the moorland broke loose" Heptonstall Old Church); Simon Armitage's contemporary poetry is similarly influenced by his Marsden base, a little to the south; David Hockney and JB Priestley are sons of nearby Bradford; and the town of Hebden Bridge is awash with galleries, artists and generic northern bohemia. However, the Brontë's are on a different plane of international recognition and canonisation, up there with Jane Austin and Charles Dickens.


The 'Brontë effect' is not, though, the reason for my love for this corner of 'God's Own County'®; even though Wuthering Heights has a scorching, visceral physicality that few books I've ever read can match. Both of my parents were born and raised in the valley, my grandparents all lived there for the majority of their adult lives and into old age and many relatives are still in the area. My brother and I were exiles, born further north and living 100 miles south. Regular visits during our 1970's and early 80's childhood were, to my mind, to an almost mythical utopia (albeit a fairly wet and windy one); even the journey on the prosaic M1/M62 motorways was filled with images seen through the car window - regular staging posts - that are lodged with me still: coal mines and steel works (mostly now gone as a physical reality) in Nottinghamshire and South Yorkshire, 'Man Utd' sprayed onto a railway bridge near Barnsley and regular patches of summer snow around Queensbury, 'the highest village in England' (not sure if this is really true?).

On arrival we would alternate between staying with our paternal and maternal grandparents. The former a portal into a seemingly more wholesome 1950's and 60's world that appealed to me at the time. The vista from their back garden, high above the main town, ranged across Victorian terraced streets and mills, the town fields and ornamental park, up to the Brontë's church and parsonage on the opposite side of the valley, with the hills and moors stretching into the wide beyond. Best of all, the smoke and power of the steam locomotives of the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway could be seen and heard down in the valley bottom. Visits to the latter were an even more exciting and bucolic proposition, living as they did in a seventeenth century farmhouse and working hill farm high up the valley in the hamlet of Oldfield: my Grandad the embodiment of the Yorkshire hill farmer (twine for a belt, speaking only when necessary and a hatred of officialdom in general and 'the tax man' in particular). The house was enough to set the young mind racing, heated only by fireplace and range, with heavy doors, flagstone floors and mullioned windows. But it was the farmyard and surrounding hillside fields that were the endless playground during summer holidays that seem suspiciously sun-drenched in memory. Looking back now it would have been no surprise to see a brooding Heathcliff ride through on horseback. This idyll of timeless rurality is only slightly tarnished by more recent visits to the farmhouse and outbuildings now suitably gentrified as the valley has moved into the orbit of the Bradford/ Leeds professional commute.

Although I have not visited so often in recent years, memories of time spent in this landscape easily flood back and are never far from my thoughts. Joining the kids at the tiny village school (still going strong) during our holidays and then running wild with them down to the river Worth in the valley bottom, complete with ruined mill and lone gravestone down slope from a huge boulder (it being the wish of the owner of the mill to be buried wherever the boulder came to rest). The mother of one of the children banging a huge gong in the garden when it was time to return from adventure in the valley for mealtimes. Helping with haymaking in the top fields in late summer. Throwing half burnt fireworks into the embers of the village bonfire in my grandparents field called 'The Green' the morning after Guy Fawkes Night. And riding the train up the valley from Keighley to Oxenhope, through the perfectly preserved Oakworth station, the setting for the much-loved film of Edith Nesbit's The Railway Children.

As I moved into my late teens and early twenties, and developed a taste for long, solitary tramps in the hills, I regularly circuited the surrounding high ground and neighbouring valleys, revelling in the epic space and bleakness of the moorlands. The most memorable outing being the Watershed Walk, circumnavigating the high ground surrounding the valley through 29 long miles. And I have spread out in front of me now the battered Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 map of the South Pennines, barely held together by yellowing sellotape, the paths I walked marked with green highlighter pen; simple, one-dimensional lines that help to unlock the buried sensory memories of half forgotten days on the hill.

And on that map are the names in the landscape that speak of the deep history, and Anglo-Scandinavian heritage, of an area that I have visited in body and mind throughout my life:

Clough Hey ('Clough': Middle English for 'a steep-sided narrow valley'; 'Hey': Old English for 'high'); Ponden Kirk ('Kirk': Old Norse for 'church'); Wolf Stones Slack ('Slack': Old Norse for 'a shallow valley'); 
Bully Trees Farm; Lumb Foot; Two Laws; The Wage of Crow Hill; Wattersheddles...

As the Bron's are never far from the surface when traversing this landscape, I'll end with the words of Charlotte in her poem, Speak of the North:
Speak of the North! A lonely moor
Silent and dark and trackless swells,
The waves of some wild streamlet pour
Hurriedly through its ferny dells.

Profoundly still the twilight air,
Lifeless the landscape; so we deem
Till like a phantom gliding near
A stag bends down to drink the stream.

And far away a mountain zone,
A cold, white waste of snow-drifts lies,
And one star, large and soft and lone,
Silently lights the unclouded skies.
      
Select bibliography

Brontë, E, 1991 Wuthering Heights London: Everyman's Library

Cotter, G (Ed), 1988 Natural History Verse: An anthology Bromley: Helm

Gelling, M and Cole, A, 2003 The Landscape of Place-names Donington: Shaun Tyas

Hey, D, 2005 A History of Yorkshire: County of the Broad Acres Lancaster: Carnegie

Hughes, G, 1977 Millstone Grit London: Fortuna

Hughes, T, 2000 Poems selected by Simon Armitage London: Faber and Faber 

Hughes, T and Godwin, F, 1994 Remains of Elmet London: Faber and Faber

Jarratt, J, 1988 The Watersheds Walk Otley: Smith Settle

Sellars, G, 1991 Walking in the South Pennines Milnthorpe: Cicerone

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