11 January 2022
I decide to make a visit to the Midden in the Cheesden Valley. Set my alarm for 7am - out, unshowered for 0730 into the darkness of Chesham Lane. It’s just under three miles walk to the Midden.
The Cheesden Valley is my go to place when I need to wind down. It's situated in the Rossendale Hills in Greater Manchester. A few years back I discovered a strange quirk of nature: a babbling chronograph. Half way down the valley the brook has cut into a midden which holds the detritus of a hundred years of occupation. The valley is wild and empty now, but it once housed several mills and a terrace of workers houses.
Theres something about walking from darkness into a foggy twilight; moving along as the surfaces start to luminesce, and the light begins to emboss and shape the world. I walk up Cinder Hill beside the roar of the traffic from the M66. It isn’t usually visible from the lane, but the darkness reveals the stream of red and white lights through the hawthorn. I reach the bridge that crosses the motorway. The M66 reminds me of a snaking animal: roaring out loud with its angry tungsten glare. The vehicles all look so abstract and anonymous. Their windscreens reflect the sky. The dystopian atmosphere is pierced by a jolly red bus which is transparent and lit up from the inside. For a brief moment I see its incumbents staring down at their devices until they are consumed by the smog.
On the road past Sillinghurst farm I can hear the rooks at their breakfast in the field adjacent. The rookery is situated at a copse about half a mile away from here. From the lane, the rookery looks transcendental, part of another world, filigree and backlit by a milky white sky. The bucolic scene is broken as an Ocado van crosses my path.
I reach the top of the lane that will eventually take me down to the valley. The lane rakes alongside a rise of hills through Dunham Farm. Many times I’ve walked up along this drystone wall during sunrise and seen the lichen on the wall shimmer and glow with a curious effervescence. Further along where a hill rises and bridges out into the valley, I’m reminded of the day I saw a rook aerial runway here. It was in April last year during a walk on a howling day. Her’es the notes from the dairy on that day:
“I took a walk up to the Cheesden valley again this week. Whilst walking in parallel to a scarp along Scotland Lane, two rooks fly in front of me towards the hill. They look as though they are going to fly into the hill itself, until the first rook angles itself into the wind, then circles at a stand-still until it faces the way it came. It then soars upwards twenty metres, turning as it rises, so that it's above the scarp and facing the rookery to where it is heading. It then passes above the hill to its destination. The second rook waits until the first has taken the invisible elevator and then carries out the same manoeuvre: to the hill, turn around, use the wind to elevate, turn back around at new height then fly along home. “
On other occasions the rooks from these parts have mesmerised me with their light play in the surrounding fields. Their ungainly silhouettes eyeing the sky then tugging at the earth. Ungainly until a sentinel on the outer edges spots my presence and then, whoosh, they’re off in an orchestrated pattern. They swirl upwards like confetti caught in an updraft. Then there’s the most beautiful sight. As they move onwards and upwards the corvids are caught in the raking light. It isn’t all at once - intermittently there’s a flashing and flickering with lustred ripostes. For a millisecond, as each one passes through the light, they become white and glisten like polished coal. It was similar to the time I saw the sun flounce of the cores of black knapped flint on a church wall in Essex. The effect is like the sparkling of fireworks on a darkened horizon. Sharp, shimmering reflective flecks of light. Each creature is a speck, each speck is white then black moving upwards, white-black, white-black, into the sky.
Today the rooks are padding the field beneath Dunham and there’s only the merest hint of light. The atmosphere is saturated. Fog banks extend down from Whittle Pike into the Rossendale Valley. The fog is clearing over towards Cheesden Valley and, as I walk along Scotland Lane, I see the first evidence that the day is about to begin: a soft pink glow in a rogue cloud above Wind Hill. I've been told that Bonny Prince Charlie hid here when fleeing back home.
Scotland Lane Through the Seasons
There’s been times in the past when I’ve ran all the way up to this point to make sure I catch the sunrise, where I’ve had to stop for respite, sucking in gobs of air, trying to steady my hand on the tripod and camera. Sometimes I’ve arrived too late along the lane, just one hundred metres from the perfect vantage point. Then I’ve thrown up the drone and captured the sunrise from my premature spot. I felt as though I was cheating.
But, today isn’t one of those days. It isn’t a jaw-dropping sunrise - it’s a soft tinted, mottled and misty affair. There’s a sense of being in the atmosphere, rather than apart from it. The coziness is heightened for a brief moment by a triangle of geese flying beneath me in the valley just a matter of metres away.
Before I descend to goose height and into the Cheesden Valley, I instinctively look out for the chimney at Washwheel Mill rising up from a leafless copse. I can just make it out through a thin veil of mist that’s clinging to the valley bottom. The chimney is the lodestar of the valley - it can be seen from most vantage points. I fear the day it won’t be there.
Part way down, as the mist starts to clear, the hill opposite takes on the shape of a comfy hat with a russet, auburn and bronze weave. I walk past the mill and start to climb again along a packhorse route that hugs the side of the valley and then descends into Deeply Vale. I love this road. It’s scoured and scrubbed into the hillside with its edges defined by bony hawthorn. The floor is layered with history. Tiny flecks of patterned encaustic tile give an indication as to the hustle and bustle that this valley once witnessed. I can imagine it now: cob’s saddled with textiles, heads down, hocks bent, clawing their way in the sun-baked clay. Immigrant workers from another distant county, with families in tow. Scouring liquor slopping in barrels, sidling along the humped foundations of the hedgerow. Carts laden with stone for the chimney at Washwheel. White streaks of lime dissolved into the rutting before its slaking.
I pass the ruinous remains of the former mill at Deeply Vale. In spite of its industrial gait, it feels primeval. I think that it’s because of the decay; its inevitable succumbing to nature. The complex shapes and forms are dissolving. They look elemental: shrouded and softened by moss and lichen.
As soon as I reach the bend in the brook where the midden lies, I can see that it’s changed its course once again. The embankment keeps collapsing, revealing more of the midden. I spot a cluster of bottles on a fresh collapse, they look as though they’ve been birthed from the earth bank. One bottle still has its contents intact. Then a women’s leather shoe and some lustre-ware; a clay flagon for ginger beer; a Hoe’s Sauce bottle and the base of a jar of Springfield potted meat from Southport. I spend an hour sifting.
Then, on the way out home, about fifty metres away from the midden, I notice some white bricks cast in the centre of bovine slurry. I make my way carefully over - they’re encaustic - more than likely for a utility room. I turn around and realise that I’m besides the backyard of the former houses. Part of the wall remains, aside a lengthy rise of moss covered stone, hog-backed with self-seeding trees. Perhaps the owner of the shoe I found earlier lived here eating potted meat with a dash of hoe’s sauce, washed down with a glug of ginger beer.
It’s all gone now, the life in the valley is shrouded in moss.
As I leave the valley I hear a sideways call like a squeaking door. A deceit of lapwings circle around the remains of the terrace and then move on over the midden to Deeply Hill.
Next diary entry:
"They swirl upwards like confetti caught in an updraft. Then there’s the most beautiful sight. As they move onwards and upwards the corvids are caught in the raking light. It isn’t all at once - intermittently there’s a flashing and flickering with lustred ripostes. "