Churning up the snow in Joan’s footsteps. . .

Red grouse on Midgley Moor
Red grouse on Midgley Moor

I parked at Brearley; somewhere I pass several times a week but rarely stop at. My intention was to walk from the Burnley Road up to Midgley Town and then on to the highest point on Midgley Moor.

It’s called Crow Hill.

You notice things like another pub closing down (The Grove here) whilst driving past, but more interesting details immediately appear when you set off on foot. Like a stone arch to the left of the pub, with the words “Grove Brewery” carved into the stones of the arch. Then there’s the house on the corner with fancy architectural details bearing the name Italian Cottage. I once won a panda in the quiz at the Grove, the one and only time I’ve won a pub quiz.

I struck up through the wood after leaving the main road at Italian Cottage, where there’s a little dam with a rowing boat. It might have been the reserve supply for the brewery. The path is rocky but interesting. In parts it still has the large round-edged slabs indicating it was a packhorse route – a causey, or causeway. The heavily laden ponies could get a grip with their hooves in the nicks between the stones.

We are incredibly lucky in the Pennines to have these old ways to walk for our recreation and exercise. They’re not common in the rest of the country, and abroad, they hardly exist. They must pre-date the enclosure of the land into fields.

Not just the packhorse trains used our old footpath system, but adults and children going to work in the mills and factories, and before that, the tradesmen bringing goods to tout round the cottages and farms where nearly everybody lived. Pedlar is a derogatory term now, but householders made good use of them to supply useful things like salt and soap when the nearest shops were up to a day away. The hill top communities were much bigger than they are today. Many rows of cottages have been demolished, including the one where my mother was born.

We owe the preservation of our footpath system originally to rambling groups in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, some of which still thrive, like the Halifax Scientific Society, and also to the sterling efforts of the council’s countryside rangers and small army of volunteer footpath enthusiasts they organise, though they have been almost stopped under the recent cuts.

They had marked my way up to the moor with “Churn Milk Joan circular route” discs nailed onto stiles. After about an hour I could see the standing stone by that name a little way along the Calderdale Way as I walked along it for just a cock’s stride or two before heading uphill through the snow to the swelling in the landscape which is Crow Hill.

There is a legend that Joan used to leave her churn of milk at the stone for a customer over the hill to collect. She was caught in a snow storm and died, the story goes, and to this day the traveller can sometimes find a few coins on top of the stone where her customers used to leave their pennies for the milk she supplied.

The wind from the east was bringing stinging ice crystals into my face as I reached the rounded top, and so far up was my scarf wrapped round my nose, and woolly hat pulled down, that I nearly walked past the little cairn that’s built there. It’s not a high enough eminence to merit a concrete trig point. Despite the cold, the snowdrifts and the wind, there were grouse all around, up to five at a time. A row of butts trailed across the moor as a stark reminder of what will happen to many of these birds. Shooters will harvest the Red Grouse from the “Glorious Twelfth”, August 12, after the closed season when the birds are allowed to breed.

It is almost a farmed bird, though was originally here in a natural state. In fact it is a sub-species of the Willow Grouse of sub-arctic Asia which is endemic to the British Isles and Republic of Ireland. The only other birds tough enough to show themselves in the dull sky were Ted Hughes’s inspirational crows. Did they give the hill its name?

The reason I was refreshing my memory of the route here was that there is another Crow Hill on the opposite side of the valley, between Sowerby and Cragg Vale, and I am organising a “Twin Peaks of Calderdale” walk for the walking festival next September 21. Nearer the time it will be on the blog at Calderdale-wildlife. blogspot.

As I turned my back on the stinging wind and set off back down the hill a grouse called out with its strange chuckling, slightly menacing voice, so evocative of the moors and mountains. “Go back, go back, go back, baaack.”

Too late, I’ve already been.