Friday 2nd March – Willowbank – The sun lights up a frosty hillside. Bullfinches disappear into the undergrowth with a flash of white rump. By the great Hawthorn thicket running down the hill this undergrowth has been chomped back by horses leaving a few dead Willowherb stalks, some over six feet high. The canal is still very full with water flooded around the Hawthorns at the bottom of the slope.
Saturday 3rd March – Barnsley Canal, Old Mill – Mallard can be heard quacking along the canal. Bird song comes from all sides – across the valley and up the steep slope to the retail park. Pussy Willow buds are about to burst into their grey furry bobtails.
Old Town – In the evening there is a total eclipse of the moon. I am in the pub when it commences and a few of us go outside for a view. By the time I leave, around eleven o’clock, the totality has been reached. The moon glows a dark red colour.
Monday 5th March – Dearne Valley Country Park – A Moorhen scurries back across the grass to the River Dearne as Dill the Dog and I head down towards the water. Daffodils are beginning to come into flower, bright spots of yellow against the dull brown of dead stalks of Japanese Knotweed along the river bank. Blackbirds, Robins and Great Tits predominate in the bird song. Mallard swim up the rapidly flowing river. A few yards further down stream, the waters are placid, indeed they hardly appear to be flowing at all, then there is an area of underwater obstacles that turn the river into a mass of white waves and eddies. The bridge carrying the Pontefract Road was refaced and re-pointed last year and it now shines palely in contrast to the old weathered stone of the walls either side of it. MMVI has been carved into the topping stone. Dill the Dog seems in fine form and is trotting along quite happily.
Tuesday 6th March – York – National Railway Museum – We take advantage of the excellent “Park and Ride” facilities and the bus takes us to the railway station in a few minutes. Over the quiet concourse despite it still being a major network junction. The museum is overlooked by the Yorkshire Wheel, a large ferris wheel. Entry to the museum is, remarkably, free. It is divided into two main sections, the Station Hall and the Great Hall. The former is a reconstruction of a station in one of the old York railway works sheds. Here are various engines, including Battle of Britain Class “Winston Churchill”, carriages and wagons. A number of carriages from Royal trains are displayed, probably some of the most luxurious railway carriages ever built. The Great Hall was the main shed and still has a working turntable. Many famous engines are here, “Mallard”, the Class A4 which still holds the world speed record for a steam engine, “Evening Star” the last steam engine built in Britain, Midland Railway 4-4-0 No. 1000, one of the great workhorses of early 20th century and many more. Off the hall is the Warehouse which contains hundreds of thousands of pieces of railway history – busts of railway greats such as Joseph Locke, signs of stations, yards and trackside, shunting yard signal systems, crockery and cutlery, models of engines, carriages, stations, goods yards and so much more.
We head into the city centre along the River Ouse. York derives its name from the Brythonic ebor acon meaning “Place of Yew Trees”. The Romans called it Eboracum and the Vikings Jorvic. An alternative translation of Eboracum is “Estate of Eboros”, which might lend support to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s claim that the founding king of York was Ebracus, in the 10th century BCE. The city’s history was called the history of England by King George VI, which good cause. In 71CE the Governor of Britain, Quintus Petillius Cerialis, sent the 9th Roman legion to take the Brigantes controlled areas of Northern England. The Romans realised the area around the confluence of the Rivers Foss and Ouse made a good defensive site. After the Romans withdrew in 410CE the Saxons took the city and renamed it Eoferwic, and it became the capitol of the Saxon kingdom of Deirwa. Around 650CE as England became Christianised and York became the second most important religious centre in England next to Canterbury. Egbert (732-766) was the first recogised Archbishop of York, and he made the cathedral school and library of York Minster the most eminent in Europe. But in 866CE, Ivar the Boneless led an invasion of Vikings and they captured York and made it Jorvik, the capital of their Northern Kingdom. In 954 Eric Bloodaxe was defeated by Eadred, King of Wessex. Eadred forged an alliance between the northern Kingdom of Northumbria and his own domains in the south. But the Norsemen kept raiding to try and recapture York until Harald Hardrada was defeated at Stamford Bridge, just eight miles from York in 1066, by Harold II. However, Harold’s victory was short-lived as he had to race south to meet the invasion of the Normans under William of Normandy. The Battle of Hastings was probably the most pivotal in British history and Harold’s defeat changed everything. We head over the Lendal Bridge towards the Minster.
St Wilfred’s Catholic Church – Catholics were persecuted in York, as everywhere else, after the Reformation. However, many continued to meet to hear Mass in secret. One was St Margaret Clitheroe, who lived in the nearby Shambles and was executed in 1586 for harbouring priests. Despite York being a major centre for the Anglian Church, it was also a centre for Catholicism and St Wilfred’s Mission was established in 1742. Mass was said in a house in Little Blake Street until 1802 when a chapel was built on the opposite side of the street. This chapel was demolished to make way for the building of the present church, built between 1862 and 1864. It is a somewhat plain church, built in the Gothic Revival style, but has some fine features. High over the altar is a semi-domed ceiling of painted wood. The altar is a fine affair with a high reredos and relief sculptures of saints and apostles – Adam, Noe, Abel etc.
York Minster – One of the great cathedrals of Britain. The first church was a wooden building erected around 627CE by Paulinus for the baptism of King Edwin. A stone replacement stood until 1069 when it was destroyed during William the Conqueror’s “Harrying of the North”. Between 1080 and 1110, Thomas of Bayeux built a great cathedral which was extended in the mid 12th century by Roger de Pont L’Èvêque. A little of this building remains under the present cathedral which was begun in 1220 by Archbishop Walter Gray. The south and north transepts were completed in 1253. The Chapter House was then built with a great, unsupported, dome. The nave, quire and east end took over 250 years to complete. In 1407 the central tower partly collapsed, but the building was considered complete enough in 1472 for a service of consecration. Many features were destroyed during the Reformation and fires in 1829 and 1840 destroyed the roofs of the quire and nave. In 1967, large cracks in the foundations resulted in a major five year rescue. In 1984, the roof of the south transept was destroyed in another fire. However, restorations have resulted in a stunningly beautiful church. The quire is surrounded by a forest of wooden pinnacles. Unusually, there are no misericords, these were destroyed in the 1829 fire, started by the religious fanatic, Jonathan Martin, and replaced with fixed seating. The quire screen is set with statues of fifteen Kings of England from William I to Henry VI. The stained glass is stunning especially the Great East Window made by John Thornton of Coventry between 1405 and 1408. In the North Transept is the Five Sisters window built in the mid 13th century in the Early English style and filled with grisaille glass – clear glass etched with fine black lines and set into geometric patterns. The Rose window in the South Transept was restored after being damaged in the 1984 fire. In the South Transept is a “Cope” chest, a semi-circular wooden chest, dating from 1290, which held the archbishops copes – their richly embroidered capes. The Chapter House is an octagonal building containing 44 seats for the full Collage of Canons. Around the canopies a fine carvings of faces, many funny and grotesque, animals and mythical beasts. One depicts the Virgin Mary breast feeding the infant Jesus, an odd depiction which would surely have raised questions about the humanity/divinity of Christ. In the nave, rehearsals are taking place of a music and tableaux event by young people.
St Michael le Belfrey – This is the parish church of York. Built during the Reformation between 1525 and 1537 by John Forman in the Tudor Gothic style, it is a light and airy building. Glass in the windows is mainly original from 1330 onwards. The nave has an upper section, a clerestory. The reredos was designed by John Etty (who possibly built Cannon Hall) and completed in 1712 by his son William. The pulpit and choir seats were removed in 1973 giving the chancel a rather empty feel. Guy Fawkes was baptised here on 16th April 1570.
Thursday 7th March – Salford Quays – Salford rose to prominence at the turn of the 20th century. Although the area grew with the Industrial Revolution, the opening of the Manchester Ship Canal in 1894 brought ships right into the centre of Manchester and the docks at Salford was the heart of the great Trafford Park Industrial Estate which was employing 75,000 workers by the mid-20th century. But, like the rest of industrial Britain it declined in the late 1960s and by the late 70s, Salford Docks were a squalid and polluted mess. They closed finally in 1982. However, since then there has been a regeneration of the area and now it is a remarkable place. We had come, primarily to see The Lowry, an art gallery, theatre and restaurant complex that houses a superb collection of paintings by L.S. Lowry, one of England’s greatest painters of the industrial north. There was also an excellent display of art dedicated to football around the world. The building is a fine combination of shining metal and glass. It is stands on the edge of the dock and around it are tall imposing structures containing apartments, offices and retail outlets. For once, it is a modern development that breathes life rather than most the sad boxes thrown up by less imaginative architects (such as those “remaking” Barnsley). A bridge crosses the Manchester Ship Canal. On the far side is a tall office block of bronze glass. Further along the dock is sectioned dome of a building in silver-grey with an “Air Shard” of steel rising into the sky – the Imperial War Museum North. I must admit, I am old fashioned in how museums should be laid out, and this was a modern, interactive type, but nonetheless surely instructive to the many young visitors inside.
Friday 8th March – Barnsley Canal – A bright Spring morning, but a noticeable nip in the air from a northerly wind. It may be this wind that has muted the bird song, for there are only a few snatched fragments on Willowbank. Pussy Willow has blossomed. Near the canal, a Willow Tit is in an old Elder giving out a clear whistling note, very different from its usual nasal buzz. A Little Grebe calls from the river below. Along the canal tow-path, which is a quagmire not helped by horses and illegally ridden motorbikes. A Great Tit reels his squeaky song from the top of a ten foot high briar. A Grey Heron lumbers into the air and over the Hawthorn hedge. Three more Willow Tits are chasing through bushes. Back up the hill to Greenfoot Lane, where fresh dark green leaves with black spots of the Cuckoo Pint have emerged. In Wilthorpe Park, a large Weeping Willow cascades yellow branches against a now grey sky. Flowering Cherries are adorned in pink and white.
Monday 12th March – Tankersley – A path runs alongside Carr Lane out of Tankersley. It is part of the Trans-Pennine Trail and called The Timberland Trail. Beside it runs a fence which is behind Tankersley Industrial Estate. A cock Pheasant rises from close to the fence, calling loudly. Dill the Dog actually hears it and looks surprised! A Song Thrush is singing strongly nearby. The path follows the road through a strip of woodland. Now there is what is almost a heath-like area of land beside it – long grasses, small ponds and patches of gorse. The path takes a left turn, as does the lane, and runs into a plantation of Silver Birch and Alder saplings, maybe ten years old. There are several clumps of Primroses in flower. The path divides and one leg heads off towards the industrial estate through some older trees. A Green Woodpecker flies silently overhead. Through the estate along a road filthy with rubbish. The road turns right and joins the A61. A path leads off into Potter Holes Plantations, a designated Nature Reserve. Between 1775 and 1841 ironstone was mined here using the Bell pit method of mining. The area was planted with trees by 1841 as the mining had made the land unsuitable for agriculture, although timber was a possible cash crop from these plantations. Again, the area is sadly covered in the detritus of human activity. The extensive network of paths around the area, now mainly over unused land indicates how land use has changed. New housing is rampant around the village. There are several shrubs covered in pale orange berries. They look very much like Sea Buckthorn, although this seems an odd site for such a plant. The path comes out at a junction in the village where Carr Lane starts. So we head back up the path that runs near the lane. It is very muddy and at one point Dill the Dog manages to fall splay-legged and cover herself, requiring a shower when we return home. Sky Larks are singing in the fields over the other side of the road. Rooks are also calling from these pastures. A pair of Bullfinch fly off at our approach. An old stone gatepost stands almost hidden in brambles and the remains of a stone roadside wall now separates the path and road. There is a fine rain falling.
Home – The Great Spotted Woodpecker is still visiting the peanut feeder regularly. It is the male but I have not seen the female for some weeks. In the early afternoon I notice a ball of frog spawn has appeared in one of the ponds.
Tuesday 13th March – Old Royston – Dill the Dog and I set off down the steep slope from High Bridge in Old Royston – a hamlet of maybe a dozen houses – to the Barnsley Canal. The water is green and scummy here. Great Tits are everywhere and making it loudly obvious of the fact. Woods cover the steep slope above the opposite bank and a couple of chained-up dogs on the top are barking at Dill the Dog, who is, as usual, oblivious to the noise. Wrens, Robins and Blue Tits are joining in the cacophony. The path turns and comes out the other side of the old Sheffield to Leeds Midland Railway line that ran via Cudworth. The line is dismantled beyond Cudworth yet the rails have only a light veneer of rust which would seem to indicate they are still occasionally used. Back across the railway and up a bank to come out above Bear Cave. I head on towards Royston. The older trees are replaced by much younger Silver Birch and Alder and the canal is wider and clear of weed. Pussy Willow is bright yellow with pollen. A pumping station stands by the canal and what looks like a feeder pond is be the opposite bank. A noisy pair of Mallard descend to the pond. It is a bright day but there is a lively wind blowing. Back across to the railway. A now lifted railway line split off from the main line here and runs parallel to it. Another line drops down from the Monckton Coking Works, also lifted and joins this track. Up the slope is yet another line, more recently lifted, running again from the coking plant.
A Robin perches silently on a low branch in a willow sapling. The higher line merges with the path I am on. Here there is a concrete enclosure a couple of feet high with the buckled remains of a steel fence inside it. In the centre there appears to be a pit or small shaft out of which is growing a willow which is at least ten years old. A set of buffers made of old rail stand at the end of a short spur off the main track. There are the remains of a set of points that would have taken a line off onto the one on which I am walking. Shortly the land beside the track rises and has been shored with large blocks of dressed stone; many now are being forced out by the roots of trees on the slope above. There is the base, just three courses of stone blocks high, to the pillar which held the Grand Central Railway branch from Barnsley. Two other pillars, still at their original height are on the other side of the railway, one on the far side of the canal. An old wayside sign lays, with its large concrete base, broken on its side. A workmen’s concrete shed has collapsed. The track now curves off to the north-east to join the Grand Central Line which would have joined the West Riding and Grimsby Joint Railway line near Nostell. The intact line heads on up towards Wakefield. Blackthorn is in flower and the herald of spring, a Chiffchaff is singing. The track crosses Church Lane where I turn and then turn again onto Navvy Lane which leads back to Old Royston.
Home – With the house on the market I have been debating whether or not to plant anything at all in the vegetable patches this year. However, interest in the house has been decidedly slow so in go seven rows of Broad Beans. Ground Elder is coming through fast so I hoe it out. Then a quick cleaning of the ground in the greenhouse. A tray of lettuce and one of tomatoes are sown indoors.
Wednesday 14th March – Wincobank, Sheffield – A footpath from Newman Road leads up onto a ridge running down from Wincobank Woods. The centre of the ridge is the dyke called Roman Ridge. The ridge is wooded so little can be seen of any detail. (Several days later I find an 1854 map which shows the Roman Ridge is further to the south and the wooded ridge is called Rawson’s Spring.) The land drops away towards Meadowhall and the Don Valley. There is standing traffic on the southbound carriage of the M1 motorway far below. Back up the ridge. The path has a stone kerb so it must have previously been far more substantial than the dirt path of today. Stone cobbled steps lead up – again through extensive rubbish, including burned out motor scooter – onto a mown grass area. The landscaping here make it impossible to define where the old dyke ran. There are several large stone slabs, one laying on top of another, the gap where they meet making a splendid shelter for dozens of snails. A Jay in the trees is getting very angry with a pair of Magpies. Another stone slab is lying on the ground, this one with the stubs of a wrought iron fence (it would have been cut off during the Second World War for iron, although this happened mainly in the north, not in London where their nice wrought ironwork remained intact!) Thus there must have been a substantial wall here – somewhere.
Over the road and up a track of cobbles and on top of the hill is the remains of Wincobank Fort. Built by the Brigantes, the fort is an oval with a, now discontinuous, bank and ditch. In excavations, it was shown the bank shows signs of vitrification which indicates intense heat, although how this happened is unknown. The fort had been reinforced to try and block the Roman advance northwards. It is likely that the fort was eventually overrun in about 75CE when three divisions commanded by Petilius Cerialis and Julius Agricola outflanked the southern defences of the Brigantes by moving to the east of Doncaster and then back down via York. The fort’s interior is scrubby and paths have been grooved by motorbikes. However, the most striking thing is the stunning panoramic view afforded on all sides. An anti-aircraft gun was stationed inside the inner south rampart during the war. To the east the Don Valley heads through Rotherham to Doncaster, then southwards the hills leading to the Dukeries, due south towards Chesterfield, then all points westward look over Sheffield and the moors of the Peak District beyond. Northwards the hills rise before Barnsley and north-east stands Keppel’s Tower, with Scholes Copse fort hidden below the hill, and beyond Hoober Stand is on the horizon.
Home – The sun has been shining all day – Spring now seems real. After commenting on Monday that I had not seen the female Great Spotted Woodpecker recently, it comes as no surprise she is on the peanut feeder this afternoon.
Friday 16th March – South Kirby – To the west of the former mining town of South Kirby is an Iron Age settlement. A nice car park is situated next to the site, but that is about the only good point. The entrance has a chain nailed across it. The ground across the site has been chewed up by horses. The OS map indicates a spring, which is quite active as a stream runs down the northern side of what seems to be the encampment. There was once a bridge across this stream but that is now just a few stakes in the mud, so the crossing point is a couple of sheets of corrugated iron. All that can be discerned of the settlement is a ditch and bank to the south and eastern sides, heavily overgrown with brambles. A number of sources, including the local MP’s web-site, regard the site of national importance – its condition hardly reflects that!
Saturday 17th March – Barnsley Canal – Down Willowbank to the insistent call of a Chiffchaff – the avian herald of Spring. A Little Grebe – Dabchick – is calling its haunting howl from the Loop, accompanied by a sharp tic of a Coot. Across the valley, Lapwings soar and dive over the fields calling their colloquial name peewit. A pair of Mallard rise from the canal, quacking loudly over my head. There is a swirling in the shallow water as frogs are mating. A huge mound of spawn has already been deposited. A Bullfinch flashes white ahead as it slips away. Another white rump is less subtle – a Jay squawks harshly as it flies up into the trees opposite and then away. Three Canada Geese cackle overhead.
Sunday 18th March – Home – The wind is howling when I get up, but the sun is blazing above the horizon. I put some washing into the machine and then watch the sky darken. The day continues as a weird combination of bright sunshine and wintery showers. The Great Spotted Woodpecker is searching one of the apple trees for food. More spawn has been deposited in the pond – all in the northern one (they are separated by only a couple of feet so saying northern and southern is a bit pretentious).
Monday 19th March – Thurgoland – Overnight snow has turned the world white, well whitish. It will not last long in the morning’s bright sunshine, although it is still cold. I climb up a small hillside between Silkstone Common and Thurgoland to the west of Barnsley. A wall separates the scrubby field from a woodland. A pair of Red-legged Partridge burst out of the wood, over the wall and off across the field. A Robin and Great Tit are both declaring their territorial interests. I then head off to a woodland near Wortley. A fox has been up and down the paths from the fields above the woods. From the fields it is clear that the snow has not travelled far east; beyond Barnsley there is little sign of any at all. Here it is blinding in the bright sunlight.
Home – The Great Spotted Woodpecker calls out in alarm when Dill the Dog and I go out into the garden. A Dunnock is singing. There is now frog spawn in both ponds.
Wednesday 21st March – Fleets Dam – The snow has all disappeared but there is still a strong and bitter north wind. Hence, there is little bird song to be heard through the willow carr or around the lake. On the lake there are six Great Crested Grebes. Two are parallel swimming and then turning to stretch their necks at each other. A third grebe approaches but is ignored. They commence parallel swimming again but soon break off and just drift across the water together. The cold wind is probably not conducive to courtship.
Friday 23rd March – Smithies – Along the old Great Central Railway line that ran across Old Mill Lane and parallel to the Wakefield Road before swinging north-east towards Royston. I join the track at Smithies Lane. There is an overgrown hedge of Flowering Cherry and Leylandii that runs towards the Smithies Lane bridge. The continuing existence of this bridge is mystery as it restricts the height level of lorries which are heading for the main council depot in Smithies Lane, forcing them into a detour through unsuitable urban streets. A pair of Mistle Thrushes fly off, rasping noisily. Along the track a way a new bridge, in the form of a steel plate with railings, has been created where the old brick railway bridge had been removed some years back resulting in a steep clamber down and back up the embankment. A Chiffchaff is calling in the trees along the track. There is still a cool breeze blowing from the north. A Sky Lark is singing high over the North Gawber colliery waste stack.
Saturday 24th March – Barnsley Canal – A bright morning that is beginning to cloud over. Down Willowbank to the sound of a Chiffchaff and various squeaks, squawks and gurgles from the Loop far below. As I walk along the tow-path it occurs that I always look out for the first sighting of avian summer or winter visitors, but rarely notice their departure. The winter thrushes have gone, but when? Last week, last month? Robins and Wrens are singing. A noisy pair of Jays are in a high hedge of Hawthorn that runs across the valley bottom. A bright sulphur-headed Yellowhammer is sitting in a bush by the old lock.
Tuesday 27th March – Kirkheaton – A small town (or large village?) to the north-east of Huddersfield. The hills around the area are foggy, but this disappears as one drops off the tops. I follow a path down a hillside towards the town below. A dry-stone wall follows the path for a while. Hawthorns line the other side of the path – bright emerald leaves just emerging. The path leads to the road besides the “big house”, if not the former mill-owner’s, then a higher manager of the mill I should guess. Across the road is “Doctors Row”, a row of six cottages in Shop Lane. Beside and behind it is a large mill – Huddersfield Fine Worsteds. Down past a trough by the roadside being fed by a small spring coming out of the base of tall stone blocked covered abutment. A ginnel runs up by the mill. Below is an abandoned piece of land with the roof of a painted shed just visible above the undergrowth. The mill is silent, no shuttlecocks rattle across the looms here. It is quickly apparent the town is a dormitory for Huddersfield – few people, a lot of newer houses with 4x4s and patio heaters. The centre stands on a crossroads – a pub, convenience store, two hairdressing salons, PC repair shop and a fish and chips. The butchers shop has closed, the name still readable in the ghost dust of the removed lettering. The urban sprawl continues down the valley, gobbling up more villages until it merges entirely with Huddersfield at Mold Green.
Wednesday 28th March – Willowbank – Another foggy morning, although yesterday became bright and sunny once the fog had burned off. I head round Willowbank in the opposite direction from usual. It is strange that some very obvious things are seen for the first time, despite the many times I have passed them, albeit from the opposite direction. In one thicket, not far from a capped mine shaft, there are large pieces of worked stone looking like quarters of a large round plinth. By the other shaft cap there is the remains of a stone wall, probably the mine head and winding gear. Chiffchaffs are calling, Song Thrushes, Robins and Wrens singing, a Chaffinch pinks continuously. It is difficult to imagine the land as it was in its industrial days. The colliery, pottery kilns and houses had all gone before my first visit here nearly 20 years ago; the area was already grassed over and the Hawthorn thickets were well developed. The path near the entrance from Smithies Lane has been cleared of nettles and brambles – by horses or man I know not. This reveals the remains of a wall running alongside the path. The stones are covered in yellow moss, long deprived of the sunlight that creates the greenness.
Home – The afternoon is sunny and much warmer. A Brimstone butterfly crosses the garden, flits around the rapidly growing rhubarb and then up and over the wall.
Friday 30th March – Fleets Dam – A damp and grey morning. Stinging nettles and Wild Garlic – Ransoms – are growing thickly along the river bank. Chiffchaff and Robin song is being loudly proclaimed. A Grey Heron stands atop the water oxygenating equipment in the middle of the lake. There seems to be only a single pair of Great Crested Grebe here now. A Cormorant circles high above. Suddenly something small sweeps across the water’s surface. It goes out of view towards the end of the lake and then back again – the first Swallow of the year.
Saturday 31st March – Barnsley Canal - Old Mill – A bright morning. Pussy Willow (or more correctly, Goat Willow or Great Sallow) is now in full blossom. The grey fluffy flowers covered in bright yellow pollen are covering the branches and are beginning to fall creating a yellow dusting over the canal. A Chiffchaff starts singing, a little hesitantly then loudly and clearly. Mallards, mainly males, are on the canal, floating quietly for a change. The sides of the path have been strimmed and the stalks of the rampant Japanese Knotweed have been cleared away. However, the roots have been left and buds are rising from the ground.