Friday 1st February – Barnsley Canal, Old Mill – February enters wet and windy. A Song Thrush sings from the slope above the canal. A Blackbird sits nearby silently. About fifty yards further on, another Song Thrush is also singing its little heart out, and yet another by the foot bridge over the Dearne. I have only recently become aware of the significance of this bridge. It stands on the piles of the aqueduct that carried the Barnsley Canal (the main canal from Wakefield) over the Dearne and the railway to join the section of the canal that comes down from Barugh (the part referred to in these Ramblings as “Barnsley Canal” i.e. the section by Willowbank in Smithies). The aqueduct had a chequered career as the raison d’être for the canal was also its downfall – mining. Although the railways had already made parts of the Barnsley Canal system unviable, the locks and canal above Barugh being abandoned in 1893 as maintenance costs were far more than the tolls received, coal from the Silkstone field now going by train, there was still traffic from Wakefield. However, subsidence caused a major breach on 20th November 1911 when part of the embankment at the end of aqueduct failed and collapsed. The canal remained closed until 12th July 1912. The whole canal system was abandoned after the Second World War, the last boat passed through Royston on 7th December 1950. The aqueduct was declared unsafe and demolished in the Spring of 1954. The heavy machinery that actually stood on the aqueduct as it was destroyed raises questions as to how “unsafe” it really was. It would have been a great asset to the local landscape if it had been kept, but like so much of the older parts of Barnsley it was swept away and either left to rot or be replaced by grotesque concrete modernism. Beside the bridge, Alders still have the autumn’s fruiting bodies next to this year’s catkins. A pair of Mistle Thrushes sit on overhead power cables. A Magpie croaks noisily beside the car park.
Saturday 2nd February – Dearne Valley Park – A wet and windy morning, so the walk with Dill the Dog is truncated. Head up the valley for a change. Various paths and tracks lead up towards central Barnsley. This one runs behind Hoyle Mill towards Oakwell. Behind the White Bear public house is a large culvert where Slough Dike finally emerges having travelled under the centre of the town. There is a steady flow of water into the fast flowing and muddy Dearne. The river is crossed by a modern footbridge which is on two substantial sandstone block pillars. The railway was on the other side of the valley, so it is not clear what the original bridge carried. I will have to check through the various books on old Barnsley. These are such an important resource, recording local history that can so soon be lost. (Some time later I have looked at the old maps. The railway line came from Smithies (it ran on the far side of the Barnsley Canal valley) and divided into two sets of tracks at Oakwell Junction. The northerly line runs parallel with the southern line and they cross the Dearne at the two bridges whose stanchions can be seen at the end of the car park and further across the valley. The northern line then turns south at Stairfoot Curve, crosses the southern line and sweeps round to join the line from Barnsley Station, the modern line, forming a triangle of lines.) High on the slope above the valley is a stanchion in sandstone. It is all that is left of a large viaduct that carried a railway line from Cundy Cross to Stairfoot.
Sunday 3rd February – Pugney’s Country Park – The wind is howling across the Sand Pit lake. Many Coot, Teal and Mallard have retreated to the pond which is just a little more sheltered. The Coot move away from the shallows as Dill the Dog bounds from the car. A young Mute Swan glides across the water. Out on the main lake a few Coot and Mallard are bobbing around in the choppy water. On the far side the shingle bar and sand bank are much reduced as the lake’s water level is raised. Seven Redshank probe the mud in a group. A few Lapwing and Black-headed Gulls are hunched against the wind.
Monday 4th February – Hound Hill – The hill runs down from Genn Lane which runs along the hill top from Ward Green to Kingstone. On Hound Hill is a white, square house in a 1920’s Art Deco style. Nearby are the remains of a pair of towers, marked as antiquities on the Ordnance Survey map (history). The M1 motorway travels through the bottom of the valley and to the west, the land rises again, through Stainborough to Wentworth Castle, a magnificent 18th Century country house. Formally the seat of the Earls of Strafford, the Wentworth family. Green Lane runs next to the M1, which is busy as the noise testifies. A hedge along the lane has been recently cut and laid in a most professional manner. It is good to see the old crafts still being used. A footbridge crosses the M1. Dill the Dog is a bit taken aback by large lorries roaring under her feet. On the other side is just rough grass meadows and a little further fields of Willow being grown as a fuel crop.
Tuesday 5th February – Anglers Country Park – A bright winter sun is still low in the sky. A sharp breeze blows across the expanse of blue water. The lake has a decent number of waterfowl – Coot, Canada Geese, Wigeon, Tufted Duck, Pochard, Ruddy Duck, Goldeneye and Mute Swans. The white sides of Tufted Duck flash brilliantly in the sunlight. Wigeon are in breeding plumage and look gorgeous. A Heron flies across the lake, croaking. A large roost of gulls is breaking up with gulls departing in every direction. Cormorants and Black-headed Gulls are standing on the rocky islets. In a field beyond the lake, Great Black-backed Gulls of all ages and plumages stand preening. A pair of Sky Larks chase low across the grass. A Mallard quacks from the Pol.
Wintersett – There are greater numbers of Goldeneye here. The handsome black and white males, with a distinctive white spot on their cheeks glide away from the corner of the reservoir. At least one Great Crested Grebe is in breeding plumage, having regained his head-dress after the winter plumage. Goosander also have now emerged from the corner of the water. Great Tits skip through the trees by the roadside.
Edderthorpe – Large numbers of Mallard and Shoveler are resting at the north end of the flash. Teal stand on the muddy spits. At the other end, Coot are numerous and half a dozen Grey Heron stand in the water. A couple of Cormorant are fishing. Large numbers of Black-headed Gulls are moving around the site. There are Lapwings everywhere. Suddenly a vast flock of Golden Plover rises and wheels around low in the sky.
Home – The sunshine encourages me to start pruning back a couple of long neglected fruit trees. The apple at the bottom of the garden has given few fruit so a serious pruning back is required. In the denser wood area, a tall Pear tree has been neglected even longer. I remove an Ash sapling to give room to have a serious go at the Pear. Off come some dead lower branches and many of the higher ones are trimmed back. The top of the tree is beyond reach, but hopefully enough has been removed to encourage decent cropping. In the afternoon, a Goldfinch is singing from the very top of one of the Ashes. A large block of sandstone is being used to hold down a plastic mesh on the lawn. There are Fox droppings (scat) on the top of the stone. The Fox must come in over the low wall at the bottom of the garden which separates our garden from next door.
Wednesday 6th February – Netherwood Country Park – There is a small fishing lake beside the road in the park. Three male Goosander are cruising around – they will be popular with the anglers! Mallard and a Mute Swan are beside the bank. Over the road and along the River Dove. It is high and flowing fast. A Green Woodpecker flies by, oddly silent. The path turns into the Silver Birch and Alder woodland on the slope of the waste heap from Darfield Main Colliery. Underfoot is very wet and muddy, but the riverside path runs along the top of a friable sandy bank which is close to collapse, and so not a sensible route. Several trees have been blown down, although they do not look particularly recent falls. Over a wooden footbridge to return down the other side of the river. A flock of thirty plus Siskin twitter in young Alders.
Friday 8th February – Barnsley Canal – Robins and Great Tits have maintained bird song throughout the winter, but they are now sharing the aether with Song Thrushes and Chaffinches. From Willowbank a horse neighs, although it is more like a bellow. The Mute Swan family is still complete. They head rapidly towards a dog walker on the opposite bank who feeds them scraps – clearly a regular event. A Kestrel flies out of the Hawthorn scrub on the hillside and heads for The Fleets. A flock of finches, Greenfinches, Yellowhammers and Chaffinches in is bushes around the footbridge. A Long-tailed Tit flits through the Silver Birch saplings. A pair of Partridge are flushed by Dill the Dog from the meadow by the loop. They fly across to the bare field on the other side of the river, but land out of view, so I am unable to decide which species they were. A Sky Lark is singing somewhere above the field. Both Dill the Dog and I are covered in mud by the time we get back to the road.
Saturday 9th February – Blackburn Meadows – A Green Sandpiper is sheltering under the far bank from the wind. At least ten Gadwall are milling around the middle of the pool. There are also Coot, Tufted Duck, Mallard, Mute Swan and a female Goosander on the pool. A male Goosander flies overhead, fighting the wind as it heads towards Meadowhall. The pool on the far side has filled again and is noisy with whistling Teal. A white duck stands in a clump of sedge and is being guarded by a drake Mallard. The ruined factory on the other side of the Sheffield-Rotherham canal has been levelled. A Chaffinch pinks from the tree tops. Common Inkcaps are growing around large logs that form seats near the entrance to the site.
Sunday 10th February – Netherwood Country Park – A large flock of noisy Goldfinches and Greenfinches are in the trees by the car park. They fly off across the park. It is a steady climb up the spoil heap, now covered by Silver Birches and Willows. There are few birds up here, the occasional Blue Tit and Magpie. Down the other side to the River Dove and back into the parkland. Further up the Dove, Dill the Dog disappears and then re-merges up the bank, soaking wet, rather muddy and looking very pleased with herself. A Green Woodpecker yaffles in the trees, but the only woodpecker I can see is a Great Spotted. Mistle Thrushes are also in the trees, looking alert. Pussy Willow is bursting out into little grey fluffy catkins. Back at the car park, a small flock of Siskins, beautifully marked little green finches, are in the Alders.
Monday 11th February – Trans Pennine Way, St Helens-Carlton – The track starts behind the Redfearns (now named Rexam) glass factory. Pallets of bottles and jars are stacked in compounds, whilst the massive glass works towers above. Tall chimneys smoke steadily. The track is mainly cinder, but here and there sandstone cobbles show through, indicating it was a more important route once. To the north a great gently rising mound of grassland heads off into the distance. As the path nears Carlton Marsh, several railways lines merge – although only one actually has rails still laid. Another is the track out of the glass works. Now all the materials are transported by road – more’s the pity. Sky Larks are rising over the grasslands, singing. A Grey Heron flaps away from Carlton Marsh towards the strangely shaped tower of Carlton Church. It is a wooden affair somehow like a Dutch roof and is called a “saddle-back tower”. It was built for Edward Montagu, Earl of Wharncliffe in 1878/9 by George Edmund Street, the famous 19th century architect. It has been described by Pevsner as “his grittiest church”. The landscape is now rough, the ruined remains of works. Large lumps of weathered concrete emerge from the coarse grass, Willow and Silver Birch scrub. The path meets Shaw Lane at Shaw Viaduct. Up Shaw Lane and then back along the main road to the beginning of the path again. At the Carlton/St Helens border a fast flowing stream rushes under the road. The weather has changed from steady rain when the walk started to bright sunshine.
Home – I continue to dig out a patch of dumped grass sods and weeds to make room for a greenhouse. It is heavy going, although cheered by a bright sun. A hibernating Toad is disturbed, but fortunately not injured by the spade. I move it to a spot behind the compost bins and it soon crawls off to a new hiding place. Several Ladybirds are also hiding in the rank grass. A butterfly appears up and over the garden wall – too fast to identify. A Great Tit calls from the large Cherry. There has been a bird nesting box on the trunk of the cherry but nothing seemed interested. So I move it down the garden and screw it to the trunk of a pear tree.
Wednesday 13th February – Barnsley Canal, Old Mill – Everywhere trees are in bud. Catkins – Lambs’ Tails – are dangling. Stone walls border the steps down to the bridge over the River Dearne and they are covered in brilliant green mosses. One has a capsule (sporangium) like a green snowdrop. Another has feathery leaves, whilst a third has disc-like leaves resembling tiny pennyworts. The Dearne is high and fast flowing.
Thursday 14th February – Barnsley Canal, Old Mill – A completely different day to yesterday – gone is the dull, grey rain and mildness to be replaced with brilliant sunshine and ice. The frost was not harsh but what a difference! A Dunnock is singing from the top of a Hawthorn. Usually a secretive and skulking species, this one refuses to let anything, including Dill the Dog disturb its serenade. Overhead, a Wood Pigeon “cracks” its wings as it flies along the valley. Below, Magpies chatter noisily. The path continues beyond the ruins of the buildings at the top of the footbridge over the river. The canal is walled off here and beyond is an overgrown lock; no gates or any sign of the area needed to operate them, just slots in the stone pillars where they would have fitted. Over a slope of rough pasture rises the massive East Stand of Oakwell – Barnsley Football Club’s ground. Ahead, the winding wheel and engine house of the closed Barnsley Main colliery stands on the sky line. The dry canal bed swings south but soon disappears into an industrial estate. A Magpie is rebuilding a nest of sticks in a Hawthorn. Song Thrushes are singing across the area – which is good news for a species that has declined substantially. A Bullfinch sits atop a tree, a flash of brilliant rose pink in the sky. A few bits of Gorse are in bright yellow bloom. Long-tailed Tits and a single Goldcrest move along the bushes by the path and over the canal to the Silver Birches on the steep slope above. The section of canal north of here is lost. It finishes in Smithies Lane (the Barnsley Canal of these reports). The route from here at Harborough Hill is clear as it crosses the gyratory road system. There is an old wall running all along the back of the B&Q Store which is on an island surrounded by roads. It then runs past a short row of terraced cottages and on to the road and car park of The Keel public house, which was on the canal side once. It is then lost again until it is picked up again by the Fleets.
Friday 15th February – Stairfoot – Up onto the railway by the usual Grange Gate walk. This was a complex rail junction once. The bridge across the Rotherham Road carried the Barnsley-Mexborough line, now closed. The Cudworth line joined here – that is the Grange Gate track. Just up the Doncaster Road, the still open Sheffield line crosses the road. Over the bridge and then off the track into some rough ground. There is an elongated oval pond here, for fishing. Not a pretty sight, rubbish everywhere. However, the shape shows it is a remnant of the Barnsley Canal. It disappears into an industrial site. Four Blackbirds are in a small bush and beside them a Dunnock sings, ignoring them entirely. A female Bullfinch flashes through the bushes. Children have a den in a thicket of Broom. Back down by the bridge, the course of the canal seems clear. There is an old stone retaining wall beside Burger King. Across the roundabout and a little down the Rotherham Road, another public house called The Keel (see yesterday’s rambling) stands. There is an industrial estate behind the pub and the canal would have run across the lawn of the pub’s garden. In a filthy patch of waste ground there is a dyke and behind a muddy mess that is the canal again. It is not possible to get onto the tow-path as there is nothing but a earth bank covered in long rank grass. Following the road into the industrial estate – which is really one cash-and-carry and a very large abandoned and vandalised factory – and the road ends. The canal can be seen bending its way round what is now Tesco’s Supermarket. Across a field to a hedgerow running down from Kendray. The hedgerow marks a stream, Dobs Sike. A short muddy walk down beside the stream brings the path up and onto the remains of the tow-path. Up on the hill, the quaint Victorian Gothic chapel of a cemetery stands on the skyline. A chattering Wren moves along the tow-path from clump of reeds to small bush and onwards. The tow-path and the canal end at the unmade road leading to Swaithe Hall Farm. Up on the hill, a very large farmhouse is surrounded by outbuildings, which are being converted into bijoux habitations. The retaining walls of a bridge that would have carried the road over the canal still remain, although parts have crumbled and the middle is filled in. Pied Wagtails flit along the canal on the way back.
Saturday 16th February – Lundwood – I leave the house is blazing sunshine but as soon as I descend the hill into the valley of the River Dearne thick fog covers everything. This continues up the other side of the valley and on to Lundwood. Here the TransPennine Trail follows the line of the old Cudworth railway line out of Stairfoot. I head back towards Stairfoot, round Cundy Cross. It is cold, -1°C. Not the most interesting of tracks, the backs of houses on one side and either high banks or a stable on the other. A pony and horse are busily chomping down pellets. A Blackbird edges closer and closer to the pellets but dares not get close enough to feed on any. Greenfinches call from the top of trees and House Sparrows chatter in bushes.
Sunday 17th February – Barnby Green – A road leads up to Barnby Farm from the Manchester road. Under a tall bush there is a small clump of Snowdrops in flower, delicate white petals against mud and rough grass. Both Dunnocks and Chaffinches are singing from trees beside the neatly pruned hedgerows along the field edges. The deep green arrows of Cuckoo Pints grow under the hedgerows.
Monday 18th February – Lundwood – Back to the railway at Lundwood. This time head northwards towards Carlton and Royston. The path drops under the Cundy Cross-Cudworth road. It is difficult to work out what was the original level of the railway here. Most of the underpass looks fairly new. The gradient down to the underpass is far too steep for a railway, yet the other side is a typical railway cutting. A large flock of finches flies away, twittering. The land here is a large area of rough ground running down from Cundy Cross and Monk Bretton to the west, bounded by the Monk Bretton-Cudworth Road to the north and the Pontefract Road to the south. Across the land is a large green iron pipe, well marked with graffiti. Monk Bretton Church is on the skyline, dark and brooding. Rather more intrusive is the Rexam glassworks. Towards Cudworth are a series of breakers’ yards. On the return leg, the finch flock has settled by the underpass – Greenfinches, Goldfinches and Chaffinches. Great Tits also move through the bushes.
Thursday 21st February – Blackburn Meadows – A grey sky and a chill wind blows down the valley. Ten Goosander glide and dive on the first pond, six males. A single male Shoveler in brilliant breeding plumage sits by the bank. A lone female Pochard, one Little Grebe, a few Mallard and some Coots complete the wildfowl on this pond. It is surprising that not a single Gadwall is to be seen. A few Black-headed Gulls swim and fly about. Thirteen Teal are on the back pond. There is ice around the edges of puddles. A Magpie looks odd sitting in a reed bed. By the canal, several Great, Blue and Long-tailed Tits are noisy in bushes.
Friday 22nd February – Old Mill – A gale is blowing. Waves ripple up the canal. There is a rising and falling drone through the electric high tension cables overhead. Three Mallard (one actually a feral cross) bob on the water. The Dearne is a rushing torrent of grey-brown water under the bridge. A Chaffinch blows past, clearly having little control over its flight. This is the only bird in the air, not even Black-headed Gulls which are used to high winds are venturing down the valley. A Carrion Crow searches a paddock, opens its wings briefly to leap across twenty metres or more a new feeding spot.
Tuesday 26th February – Old Mill – Yet again a gale blasts down the valley. It is wet and grey. Despite the poor weather, Pussy Willow is bursting into blossom, yellow pollen coating the grey fluffy catkins. Bright yellow catkins of Alder hang from branches higher up the bank. The River Dearne is still a roar of dirty water. Up on the route of the old canal on the Monk Bretton side, five Blackbirds are searching the sodden grass for worms. A Goldfinch is in full song from inside a Hawthorn bush. Back at the paddock, nine Magpies are in a “parliament” together. Later both in town at midday and again in the early evening, massive hail storms hit the area. In the evening storm, thunder cracks (seriously upsetting Dill the Dog) and the ground is coated white. Sadly Peter calls to say that Buster, the Golden Labrador, is no longer with us. He had been deteriorating in health for some time, but has rapidly gone down hill over recent days.
Thursday 28th February – Barnsley Canal – The tow-path is badly churned up mud, with large puddles. Song Thrushes are singing across Willowbank. The canal is full to overflowing. There is some flooding around the Loop, the old river channel. A pair of Mute Swans sail serenely around the waters. Thin flakes of bark are peeling off a Silver Birch and in the sun are pale golden-brown and translucent.