Cover image: looking west over the hills towards Hewenden Reservoir and Viaduct. © Jon Roberts, 2020.
The River Aire rises in the pale limestone hills above Skipton, one of northern England’s most picturesque market towns, and wends its way down through dales and vales. East of metropolitan Leeds the Aire, swollen by brooks and becks and the flood-prone River Calder, spills out onto its floodplain in a series of muddy ings famous for its birdlife. The Aire is born in one soft landscape, and dies in another, but its middle course has an entirely different character. Between Keighley and Bradford, the Aire cuts through sandstone country, following the path of an ancient glacier. Scoured by successive ice ages, the gritstone lies close to the surface. This is the landscape I grew up in, verdant in summer, bitter in winter, always treading the line between beauty and severity. The soil is hard and unaccommodating, the people perhaps more so. But those who can live here, thrive, and this is never more apparent than in winter.
In December, winter’s cold fingers peel back the layers to reveal the naked beauty of the Aire Valley, unsoftened by flowers and leaves. Bare branches scratch the sky, which more often than not is a rain-laden silver. Daylight is in short supply, so for the animals which make a home here through the winter, time is of the essence, and the days are filled with fevered activity. While the rest of the landscape lies dormant, the hedgerows are adorned with berries, a larder of easy pickings. Flocks of fieldfares, grey-mantled winter visitors from Scandinavia, descend to pick the hawthorns clean, raucous in their excitement. Redwings, their more reserved cousins, scramble through the brambles with the resident blackbirds. Rosy-golden waxwings shelter from sleety squalls in the evergreen embrace of hollies, picking disinterestedly at the starchy, bitter berries on offer. A pair of rosy bullfinches skulk in the blackthorn, quiet and unobtrusive, easily frightened off by a chattering charm of goldfinches passing overhead. The winter solstice passes as an almost unnoticed turning point, the days lengthening imperceptibly, by seconds, but bringing the promise of better times.
January dashes those promises to shreds with its high winds, bringing moist air in from the Atlantic to drop its load over the Pennines. The water pools on hilltops and in fields, wherever the passage of livestock has compacted the ground into an impermeable surface. It works its way down hillsides into becks, scouring footpaths down to the bedrock, carrying clouds of mud into successively broader streams. Banks burst and bridges submerge as the rain falls for days, weeks without pause, a minor echo of the major disasters unfolding further downstream. But January’s storms bring good news for one group of customers, the waterfowl, which take to the flooded fields like – well, like ducks to water. Teal, neat little ducks, bob unperturbed between larger mallards and wigeons. The skies are filled with skeins of wild geese hundreds strong, pink-feet and beans and greylags heading for the coast, doubtless accompanied by rarer brents and white-fronts. Occasionally a troupe of tundra or whooper swans will stop to rest on one of the moor-top reservoirs, serene and perfectly white, but never staying for more than a day or two before moving on.
February brings a change in the weather, and rarely for the better. Sometimes the storms give way to glorious sunshine, pouring down crisp and freshly-minted from the sky. But usually cold air surges down from the north and the rains turn to snow, burying hope of spring. Or at least, attempting to do so, but signs of hope are everywhere if you know where to look. The yellow branches of willows are laden with furry silver buds, hugging close to the bark for warmth. Hazels dangle their golden catkins temptingly in the breeze, hoping to entice an errant gust into assuming the role of pollinator. Under the hedges, sheltered from the snowfall, snowdrops hang their white bells; crocuses sit yellow and purple, ready to unfurl at the first sign of warmth; the glaucous green leaves of daffodils spear up from the frozen earth. The planet tilts, the days lengthen, and while spring’s arrival may be delayed it cannot be stopped.