Ear to the Ground with Steve Blacksmith: Autumn beauty on our scenic rural ramble

A waterfall at Gorpley Clough, Todmorden. Picture by Steve Blacksmith
A waterfall at Gorpley Clough, Todmorden. Picture by Steve Blacksmith

We took a walk up Gorpley Clough between Todmorden and Walsden, a dramatic gorge with waterfalls and weirdly shaped overhanging trees.

The sides of the gorge slide down onto the path occasionally and trees keel over, but the Countryside Service does a good job of keeping the path open.

The path is slippy and muddy in places, but with good safe footbridges across the stream.

The best experience of the trees and the stream are from the lower path, but there is a high level path which is less slippy on the north edge of the valley.

To get to this you take a steep zig-zag path starting with a stile from the right-hand side of the car-park when looking from the road, a way I had not noticed before.

It is beautiful at this time of year when a few of the trees cling to their bright autumn coloured leaves, whereas others have dropped them, allowing views through the woodland.

There is a competent interpretation board at the start, explaining the special geology of this part of Todmorden.

There is another signboard at the top of the clough, when you’re nearly at Gorpley Reservoir, explaining Yorkshire Water Plc’s intention to manage the woodland back into its original form, to emulate an ideal of “Ancient Woodland”.

A laudable idea, but I hope they aren’t felling all the sycamores simply because they are thought to be alien.

They are beautiful trees and support many insects for the birds. Their bark has two phases – a smooth silvery type when young and middle aged, then a wrinkled, randomly plated bark in old age that can have swirling patterns in it, unlike any other tree.

Also unlike many other trees, the twig scar from the sapling remains on the bark, getting bigger over the years, as does the eyebrow-like crescent mark above it which is where the leaf stalk was attached. It gives the impression of eyes looking out from the tree trunk.

Another thing about sycamores is the fantastic shapes in the exposed roots as the soil is eroded from around the trees growing on steep slopes. This is a result of the heavy rain drops falling from the leaves, and the fact that the tree shades out the other soil-stabilising plants. These contorted roots, along with the finger-like twigs and knobbly outgrowths of the trunks, are very much the stuff of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations when he used trees and woodland scenery as his stage-sets for the mysterious goings-on of goblins and fairies.

There were flocks of hundreds of birds up there, feeding on beech-mast. They were Bramblings and Chaffinches. There were lower numbers of Fieldfares and Blackbirds feeding on haws on the hawthorns. Some of the finches were also feeding on insects among the sycamores with leaves remaining on them.

We went up again the following day to try and get a better estimate of numbers, and the proportions of each species, particularly the Bramblings, but they had moved on already. This finch is a northern version of the Chaffinch, which breeds across the North Sea, and passes through the UK on its way into Europe where it spends the winter feeding on seeds in mountain forests.

Bramblings are more light chestnut than the pink of Chaffinches, with black wings and tail, barring on their flanks, and the defining field mark of a white rump, but not as conspicuous as the white rump of a bullfinch. Chaffinches never have the white rump or barring on the flanks. Bramblings are sometimes attracted to garden seed-feeders.

If you go along the top path, don’t miss as I did on the first day the entrances to the old adit mines on the side of the path (I was absorbed by the birds.)

These were horizontal or near-horizontal mines dug into the sides of the clough where the coal was exposed. They are blocked off now with metal grills, the dripping water within appalling us as we imagined the working conditions of the miners. There is even an odd piece of railway line showing that they used tubs on rails to bring the coal out.

After the walk in the clough we went back to Todmorden and walked up to the Quaker Burial Ground at Shoebroad Lane, up behind the Unitarian Church with the steeple. A friend had seen a tree he couldn’t identify up there. It had been planted since the last time I was there and was a young Whitebeam, but one with huge leaves about 6 inches long and wide (17cm) It is a variety called Mitchell’s Whitebeam.

The Whitebeams have whitish undersides to their leaves, which look especially decorative in spring as they emerge from the buds. They are good trees for gardens as they never attain the size of forest trees like sycamores.

There is a confusing new sign at the burial ground saying “Shewbread Quaker burial ground c. 1668” The Shoebroad of the district’s current name is apparently a corruption of the biblical “Shewbread” meaning the table of God.

The gravestones exhibit the Quakers’ former disdain for our names of the months, named as they were after and Roman Gods and Festivals. The carvings are in the format “died 6 mo 16 1865” which means “died in the 6th month, on the 16th day, 1865”.

Shoebroad Lane leads on to the high ridge of Langfield Common, where you can bear left, east, towards Gaddings Dam and Stoodley Pike, or right along the top edge of the valley overlooking Walsden.