A picture can paint a thousand words, or so the phrase says.
Perhaps so. On a long office day, editing my back catalogue, a 5×4 slide starts talking about memories.
In 2001 my world, like many other people’s, was turned upside down. On an isolated farm in Northumberland some pigs were fed contaminated food. There followed a silent spring and summer, harrowed by pyres of slaughtered animals and the countryside effectively closed. Restrictions eased toward autumn and my mental health recovered somewhat. Enough that I’d grabbed the chance to get out one evening, carrying my large format camera. This image, made in the fading late summer light, now glowing atop my lightbox was one of the results …
… as were these jottings in my journal.
“It’s late August, bank holiday Monday under a sky of pale forget-me-not blue. Warm still but feeling fresh after the last few days swelter. Three in the afternoon and I’m off to make landscape images, large format camera on my back. Out from the deindustrialised and despoiled regeneration areas of South Yorkshire, through Sheffield to Hathersage. Two trains and about an hour’s travel to a different world. Just time for coffee and cake in Longland’s and then away to Offerton moor. I’m on my way out as the bank holiday crowd is going home.
Beside the road, a hedgerow scuttle of a mouse gorging on a blackberry. This seems a good idea. The sun warmed fruits staining my fingers and lips are sweet and aromatic from one of the best growing seasons in years.
In the fields beside the Derwent sheep, stunned from the lingering heat stare, baffled. Starting to climb I step beneath a pocket of oaks, their doily patterned leaves an echo of insect feeding. Leaving their welcome shade, there’s another field of still, stupified sheep. As I toil equally stupified up to the farm and down the track to Callow Wood late swallows skim all around, desperately feeding up for their long exodus south. In spring this wood is a riot of bluebells and early bees. Now in cool of late summer they’re replaced by a sea of umbelifer seed heads and a mass of fungi. A handful of tiny puff balls, sweet and chewy, from the filed before the wood make a delicious snack; I should have brought a container to take some home for an omelette.
In the woods a squirrel, irritated by the galumphing great human, scurries up a tree chittering loudly. Satisfied, it scurries further off with all the racket only a solitary squirrel can make. Some books describe squirrels as superb and agile climbers, flitting from branch to branch. the writers of these books have obviously never seen a peak district grey in full flight.
Emerging from the dark coolness of the wood brings the evening sun full into my face below Callow Farm. The path behind the farm is one of the few things to benefit from this foot and mouth disaster. Grass and late flowers are growing in along it’s edges as it snakes through birch and hawthorn. The hawthorn, heavy with berries will feed rodents and birds through to spring. Then it’s road walking, eyed by a speculative rook, to Offerton hall. A drink and a snack as a kestrel windhovers only ten metres away, either incogniscant or heedless of me. Now the pull onto the moor, another path refreshed by it’s summer break. A small, ever present spring fed stream flows heard but unseen through the bracken that arches over my head. Just below the lip of the moor this tediously suffocating forest ends abruptly. I’m surrounded now by delicate purple heathers; their scent, driven by days of sun and rain, swamps my senses. Like opening a jar of the finest honey. Sit quietly with eyes and ears open and you realise the entire moor is buzzing with life. Eggar moths flitter over the flowers whilst their caterpillars, rotund and hairy trundle below. Beetles, red as blood, black as professional mourners or dowdy brown as an Edwardian Latin master trundle and buzz earnestly about their business amongst the stems.
Along the open path once more; skylarks erupt from the heather like pale rockets, warbling skywards. Far out over the moor a movement catches grabs my eye. A hen harrier, one of the few left in the peak, grey, yellow legs dangling, eyes down ghosts over the heather searching for a meal.
At Siney Sitch, a small marshy stream emerging from the bog, the light is perfect. Not just for me but for the dragonflies and newts that abound in this insignificant little stream. The dragonflies, Gold Ringed(Cordulegaster boltonii), rattle round like something from a 1930’s science fiction movie, despite their far more ancient lineage. They’re busy with mating dances, one pair fly past in a mating flight, clasped together. The newts(brush up ident skills!) scuttle about the damp margins, occasionally plopping into the pool. Great diving beetles,(Dysticus marginalis) rise for air before returning to the depths to hunt newts and dragonfly nymphs. I remember they’re partial to a nip of photographer’s finger too; and their nymphs are no more polite. Water boatmen scull below the surface tension looking for random, unfortunate terrestrial insects. A last burst of glorious light triggered a furious burst of photography(I think I got the shot) before the sun fall below the horizon. With it went the temperature, from summer’s warmth to autumn’s chill.
Back now along the path, punter error, I forgot my headtorch. In the gloaming swallows and swifts swoop, still frantically refuelling for their migration to Africa. Down again through the claustrophobic bracken and along the road. At the birches the first bat appears, joining the swallows in harvesting insects. Reaching Callow wood they’re out in force. The wood is dark now, cold and pierced by shafts of lunar shivelight, emphasising the darkness. All around me are scuttles and occasional squeaks of rodents, shrews or hedgehogs. Out the bottom of the wood and the flies are replaced by night flying moths in the bat’s breakfast. The sheep are asleep now, unbothered by my passage. Taking the road I’m followed by a cloud of bats as insects spiral above the heat of my body. Spooked by the bat’s sonar moths skulk in the hedgerows, wafting minute doses of pheromones to distant paramours. An occasional owl drifts over the fields or sits, silent on a stump viewing my passage with haughty disdain. Fifty yards later and the road lands me in the edge of Hathersage again. Night vision lost from the lights, I’m back to my normal world of delayed trains and urban life.
On the train back home some fellow passengers seem curious at the smile on my face. I wonder, if they would understand.”
That was at the end of what was a long, painful lockdown. That passed though. And, being able to look pack from near two decades on, it’s a reminder that so will this one.