Sunday 1st March – Barnsley North – The car has a coating of wet snow, but there is little on the road. I head for Carlton Marsh reserve but find the road blocked by bridge repairs. However, I had noticed on the map there is a section of canal around the area, so I search it out. It is easily found and looks very similar to the canal I walk in Barnsley, although, sadly even more rubbish filled. There are the same birds calling, Robins, Blackbirds, Great, Blue and Willow Tits. It is not really cold and there is no sign of snow here. The sky is full of broken cloud. I wander along the canal path passing the old end of Carlton with its strange barn-like church with a slate roof and no tower. Into Royston and over the East End road on onto Midland Road. A pair of male Blackbirds are having a furious squabble under a Hawthorn but this is broken up by Dill the Dog sticking her nose in. On the other side of Midland Road the canal is close to Royston Drift mine, closed but still the site of coking plant. A large brilliant orange flame of flare-off gas stands out against the darkening sky. Occasionally a huge plume of steam rises from a tower, pure white against the grey background. I wonder how many therms of energy have been wasted like this over the years and whether it would have been worthwhile using all the heat for some sort of hot water supply for Royston? Now the canal’s executioner has joined us – the railway, itself reduced to a single track. On the top of the bank beside the tracks is a wall of huge dumper tyres and behind them mountains of coke and coal. Continuing on beside the canal and there is a small group of Willow Tits chasing through the trees. The path has changed from a mixture of coal bearing grit and brick dust to pale brown sandstone. The Hawthorns and Elder have been replaced by stunted Oaks and Silver Birches. The path rises with the canal and railway entering cuttings on either side. Jays are screeching somewhere in the woods. Suddenly the canal ends again, in a deep cutting with a strange cave-like hole at water level. It is not clear whether it is a weathered man-made drain or a water-worn channel. I turn back mainly because the sky is now a luminous grey all over, not a break to be seen. It starts raining, which quickly turns to sleet and then to globs of wet snow – decidedly unpleasant. Dill the Dog hardly notices as she is already soaked from a swim in the canal, but by the time we reach the car, her underparts are coloured mud.
Wednesday 4th March – Barnsley Canal – Under an agitated grey sky, I plod through wet grass down Willowbank. It rained on and off yesterday in Halifax and Huddersfield but did not seem excessive. However, there was clearly a serious amount of rain here – the River Dearne has burst its banks and the fields and the loop are all under water. Five Goosander sail across the new lake, along with Teal and Black-headed Gulls. In a dead tree sit four Grey Herons, with a fifth in another arboreal corpse. Magpies are everywhere. Coots and Moorhens seem perturbed by the sudden lack of marsh and reeds, and skitter about the flooded fields looking for patches of mud. Two Fieldfares fly over, heading north. The saturation of the earth was evidenced by the number of earthworms on the surface. A bonanza for Blackbirds and Thrushes!
Friday 6th March – Barnsley East – The car has a coating of very wet snow, which is being rapidly washed off by the drizzle. There is no sign of snow at all at Wombwell Ings, but the rain continues and everywhere is sodden. A flock of Golden Plover and a few Lapwings are on the winter wheat field. The Ings have expanded far beyond their normal boundary. Flocks of Wigeon are feeding on the grass. A pair of Greylag watch warily. A Meadow Pipit alights in the grass in front of the hide and peeps loudly, looking in vain for approbation. But though the mist and rain the glorious song of the Sky Lark rings like a beacon.
Saturday 7th March – North Yorkshire – As I travel North through sudden showers the effects of the recent rain are clear. The Rivers Aire and Ure have both burst their banks and the Nidd and Swale are brown and rushing. The Howardian Hills are dark green to the east.
Sunday 8th March – Whitburn Country Park – Fulmars soar over the tops of the cliffs. Below a grey sea rises and falls in the furious and bitter wind. Herring Gulls scream at the elements. I walk the cliff tops but the cold gets the better of me. But not the Sky Lark that rises defiantly into the turbulent air, singing for all its worth. A period of sea watching from the car brings little. Fulmars preen themselves whilst being tossed around on the tops of the driving waves. A couple of female Eider race past. Dill the Dog is perturbed by the large splat of guano that hits the car window! I would have been rather perturbed if it had hit a few feet further forward, where my window was open!
Durham – Home of the Bishop Princes. Over the old sandstone bridge to the sound of several different ecclesiastical bell towers. Up a steep path which rises along side the broad and muddy River Wear. A Greenfinch wheezes, Wren ticks and below a Mallard quacks. The twin towers of Durham Cathedral loom over the trees. Through a snicket of sandstone buildings and out onto The Green and the great central bell tower dominates. The sonorous tolling of the great bell stops to be replaced by a rolling chime of bells. Around the back of the Cathedral, church buildings meld into domestic properties in a continuum of ancient walls – full of centuries of repairs. Through Bailey Gate and down to the river. Opposite is the Sacrist’s Quarry from where came the stone for the building and repair of the Cathedral. A little up the river is a pillared garden folly known as the Count’s House with the site of the now vanished Count’s Cottage where the 39 inch tall Polish dwarf “Count” Josef Boruwlaski (1740-1837) passed his later years cared for by the Misses Ebdon. Up from the river towards the castle again and a Nuthatch explores the Ivy up a tree. A Coal Tit is in the same growth. On many buildings is the coat of arms of the Bishop Princes. To the right of the shield is a Lion Rampant, to the left a cross with a Lion Rampant in each quarter and a crest of a mitre and a helmet.
Monday 9th March – Newcastle – a city of contrasts. The great bridges crossing the Tyne, some sleek and modern, others complex cast iron behemoths. Looking down the platform at the station a castle keep stands behind the maze of overhead power lines. Modern office blocks, huge Victorian edifices and historic churches and a cathedral stand cheek by jowl. On the side of a late 19th Century office is a plaque that records the existence of a section of Hadrian’s Wall, built in the 4th Century CE, under the building.
Saturday 14th March – Barrow Pit – The wide sweeping hill is the landscaped remains of the old Barrow Pit. From all quarters, high above Sky Larks sing. Great Tits cyclic squeaking ringing across the fields.
Sunday 15th March – Rother Valley Country Park – A bright morning as I wander around the lakes at the Country Park. Reed Buntings call from the hedgerows bordering the fields. There are Canada Geese, Wigeon, Coot, forty Goosander, Goldeneye, Gadwall, Teal, Great Crested Grebe, Pochard, Tufted Duck and Shoveler on the lakes. A Brown Hare lopes by, it apparently does not see Dill the Dog and she, as usual, misses it. There is a flock of large gulls on hill, maybe containing the Glaucous Gull for which I am searching, but no joy. I also fail, yet again, to locate the Red-necked Grebe!
Monday 16th March – Barnsley Canal – The air is full of the sound of tits singing. A pair of Bullfinch are examining the buds in a Hawthorn thicket. Lapwings are displaying over the ploughed field on the far side of the river. A male Chaffinch shines from the top of a Hawthorn. A pair of Mute Swans are nesting in a patch of reeds on canal. Their pinkish bills indicate they are both young birds. What I assume is the pen is on the small reed platform but is then joined by the cob and they both proceed to pile dead reeds around the pen. Like most males, the cob is none too clever about this and keeps trying to impress the pen by pulling on a large, clearly still living, reed which refuses to budge and thus, manages far less practical results. A trio of bright Yellowhammers flits up from the grass.
Edderthorpe – Walking down the track beside the River Dearne and there is my first butterfly of the year, a Peacock being buffeted by the strong breeze. As I reach the corner where the track turns everything is changed. There are lorries and diggers on the abandoned railway, there is a new fence round the slurry pond and the whole of the large meadow is under water. Only two years ago the flash was a muddy puddle at the end of several hectares of meadow; today there is a lake in front of me! Coots, Mallard, Wigeon, Tufted Duck, Wigeon, Moorhens are all feeding, swimming around Hawthorns that used to be fence markers. Sky Larks sing above the slag hill behind me that is now grassing over.
Tuesday 17th March – The Moors – Down the path from the Flouch, through conifer woods ringing with Blue, Great and Coal Tit calls. Wrens are also singing with gusto. It is cold and damp in the morning mist. The woods thin and below is the Little Don flowing into the head of Langsett Reservoir. The moors rise on the other side of the narrow valley, a mixture of browns and greens, the brown of last year’s bracken and the greens of grass and heather. On the moor the mist is enveloping. The white flash of the outer tail feathers of Meadow Pipits is visible but Red Grouse are only heard. Then Dill the Dog flushes one that scares her as much as the grouse! She then heads towards another pair standing in the heather until I call her back. The eye combs on the male gleam like vermilion beacons, whilst his mate chucks nervously. Then as I approach Mickleden Edge, the grouse are everywhere. Still climbing, past a Peak District and Northern Counties Footpath Preservation Society directions sign, erected in 1925 and made of cast iron; past the standard height mark carved into a huge boulder, onwards towards the head of the valley of Mickleden Beck. Occasionally the near incessant wind drops and the area around me begins to glow as the cloud I am walking through lift a little. But then the wind returns and the next bank of white wraiths envelop the hillside. Suddenly, the sandstone path emerges into great tussocks of peat – Howden Moss, on the top of the backbone of England. The path follows a shallow cutting made by one of the streams that form Mickleden Beck. The ground is littered with ankle-twisting stones. Having been severely admonished for chasing grouse, Dill the Dog now just stares at them as they gurgle past.
The wide path is now a test of zigzagging to try and find the driest route through the peat bog. Then the path starts descending rapidly and the moor is behind and, in theory, below is the Derwent Valley and the great reservoirs. However, there is nothing to be seen except cloud. The path is made up of large rectangular blocks of gritstone – a welcome measure to combat the erosion of the thousands of boots that traverse here every year. Now I am out of the mist and the path drops along the side of a huge Pennine Peak. Far below in a deep clough, Bull Clough is a rushing stream that cuts through these great hills. I am daunted by the prospect of climbing back up this hillside when all my prayers are answered. Around the side of the hill opposite floats my target – a Rough-legged Buzzard. It drifts up the valley of Bull Clough then wheels and turns up the valley of Cranberry Clough. It then lands on a wind-blasted tree and watches for while before rising again and flapping lazily up the hillside and over into the valley yonder. As I climb back up the hills, the air rings with the calls of parachuting Meadow Pipits. Although I have avoided the climb from the valley floor, I am soon puffing like an addled saddletank, testament to my lack of fitness. Suddenly the cloud lifts and the Moors roll out before me. Margery Hill still has a crown of mist but my path to the edge lays before me. Now the Moors stretch out, a patchwork of browns and greens with spots illuminated by the shafts of sunlight breaking the cloud. As I walk up the track to the car, I have been walking four hours. So has Dill the Dog who now wants to rush around and play with sticks! Does nothing tire this dog? Now back at the car it is clear my legs will ache for days, but the memory of that magnificent raptor gliding round the hill will remain far longer.
Wednesday 18th March – Sheffield – On the tow-path of the Sheffield and Tinsley canal heading into the centre of Sheffield. Under the M1 and past locks; on past the old economy of the city, the steel mills on the left and the new economy, Meadowhall Shopping Centre and Supertram on the right. A Robin tries to make itself heard above the industrial drone. Blackbirds chase across the canal. The next lock is remarkably deep and is at the end of a basin. This combination is repeated five times as the canal rises. The last two basins contain barges, some commercial, some domestic. The mixture of steel and retail continues with the Retail Park along side the huge Forgemasters’ mills. A massive building is rising, not dissimilar to the rolling mills but a sign says “Virgin Cinemas” – the difference in economies is stressed once more. The remains of a wooden jetty rots away. There is some sort of steel fulcrum, maybe the remains of a draw-bridge over the canal? Here there is more variety in the bird song – Dunnocks, Goldfinches and Long-tailed Tits have joined the Blackbirds and Robins. A new footbridge, 1993, arches over the canal, linking the tow-path with the Don Valley Stadium. Dill the Dog has rolled in something unsavoury, so I invite her to take a dip. She is reluctant to go in, so whilst she is looking at the water a gentle push up the backside assists her! The next bridge carries the canal over the road – the Worksop Road Aqueduct, built in 1819. Mallard drakes are squabbling over territory whilst the ducks look on. A Moorhen slips under overhanging brambles. Industrial buildings now line the canal, some still working, others derelict. The bridges continue to be of all ages – a couple of graceful modern ones, a 1926 study in concrete with little grace, a little gritstone arched road bridge from 1819 and another concrete monstrosity from 1953. A train passed over the 1870 Midland Railway bridge, causing Dill the Dog much consternation. Then it is the Sheffield canal basin and Victoria Quay, just off the heart of the city. There is much modernisation here with new hotels, pubs and office blocks. The number of bridges dated 1819 tended to indicate the age of the canal and this is confirmed at the information centre. The old canal stopped at Tinsley Wharf that was the port of Sheffield for seventy years from 1751. All attempts to extend the canal into Sheffield were blocked by the Duke of Norfolk. But the boom for Sheffield’s cutlers and arms makers following the Napoleonic Wars forced the Duke to change his mind – although the route of the canal had to pass his collieries. So the new canal into Sheffield was opened on 22nd February 1819.
River Don – I then join the River Don. A Grey Wagtail chirps insistently and Mallards get excited as a security guard throws them the crusts of his morning snack. However, the Five Weirs Walk that takes me along the river back out to Meadowhall is still under construction and starts by going through the industrial back streets of the Don Valley, with occasional glimpses of a rubbish strewn river. Eventually, the path rejoins the river at the Washford Bridge at Attercliffe. The area west of the Washford Bridge is known as Royds Mills, probably a corruption of the Rhodes family that had three cutlery wheels, a corn mill and a farm here in the late 16th century. The mills were powered by a mill race or “goyt”. All along the river Blackthorn (Sloe) and Pussy Willow are in blossom. Emerald green leaves are unfurling on the Hawthorns. Sanderson’s Weir is next, constructed around 1580 by George Talbot, sixth Earl of Shrewsbury, husband of “Bess of Hardwick” and jailer of Mary Queen of Scots. The weir was built to provide water, via goyts, to water wheels powering the Upper and Nether Attercliffe iron forges. Many leading Sheffield families operated the forges, including the Copleys who were officers in Cromwell’s army and the Sandersons who were the first firm to export Sheffield steel to the USA. A parliament of Magpies occupies the top of a Silver Birch. All the headstones in Attercliffe Cemetery are blackened by the years of pollution from the iron and steel works. The stones often are tales of tragedy – Beatrice Emily, daughter of George and Mary Jane Smith, born April 16 1876, died July 5 1877. There then follows Albert Ernest, March 1876 to June 1879; James Arthur, June 1879 to April 1880; Gladwin Austabury, October 1880 to January 1882: Rebecca, October 1885 to January 1886. Did this unhappy couple ever see a child of theirs grow into adulthood? Many other stones tell similar stories. Yet others record couples who lived into their 70s. The recent warm weather has wakened a bee that visits a bright yellow flowering ornamental shrub. The river is still a rubbish tip, all the trees along the edge are festooned with plastic waste and the Mallard drakes continue to squabble. Back onto the roads as the trail skirts the Aurora Forgings and Forgemaster sites. The path rejoins the river beside a waste ground with yellow Charlock in flower. A Linnet chatters excitedly from the top of an Alder. The river now flows gently past the manicured lawns of the Meadowhall Shopping Centre. There is another weir but no information, presumably it provided water to the now gone Meadowhall steel works. A pair of Mute Swans, the first I have seen, feed in the murky waters.
Thursday 19th March – Bretton Woods – A Wren greets me as soon as I reach the stile, exploding into song. Robins are singing, Long-tailed Tits chirruping and alone Blackbird fills the woods with its song. Creamy yellow Willow blossoms stand out against the grey-brown of leafless trees.
Hebden Bridge – On the far side of the town and the River Calder is channelled through gritstone walls – even a waterfall is built of gritstone blocks. Just up the road and there is the Rochdale Canal at a point 25 miles from Manchester and 7 miles from Sowerby Bridge, according to the cast iron mile post. The valley is narrow and steep. The three major land transport systems use it, road, railway and canal, all within the couple of hundred metres that is the valley floor. A path leads up the hillside from Rawden Mill lock. In a wood of Silver Birches, Hollies and Hawthorns is the remains of a stone building. HH 1749 around a cross is carved into a block. A search of the moss covered jumble of blocks does not reveal many clues to the provenance of the ruin, although there seem to be large lintels that may mean some large windows, and that surely would indicate a chapel. A double-headed coal train grinds its way up the valley. Below, only the tow-path separates the river and the canal. Short rows of houses line the hillside opposite as my path carries along the side of the valley. A Green Woodpecker calls. A stream cuts down the hillside, its water channelled off by a moss-covered dam some three feet high made of dressed stone. The stones are held together with wrought iron ties and there is a small wooden sluice gate in the middle to release water down a stone choked channel. The woods are now mature Beech and are alive with Blue and Great Tits.
The valley rises steeply now, scattered with boulders from the exposed bluffs above. Rabbits skitter between the rocks. The path is hardly the best defined but it is waymarked regularly. A Fox has also marked it with its droppings. The path leads out across a steep meadow and then a cobbled path leads up the hillside again. The path is treacherous underfoot. The path then leads onto a road that drops down into the town below. Church bells chime the half-hour. Tall stone chimneys rise up from mills on the river. Little terraces of back-to-backs abut the canal, once homes for the mill workers. Jackdaws call and fly along the top of the hillside. The valley sides opposite that the houses that line the narrow roads rising up the hillside are two storeys at the front but four storeys at the rear. In the centre of Hebden Bridge the canal passes over the river. A Greenfinch wheezes in the trees around the park. Pumps are emptying the dry dock as a canal boat is inspected. It seems strange that now the railway and river are on the other side of the road and canal. The town centre is bustling. The original packhorse bridge with its passing spaces arches over Hebden Water, a small river coming off the moors, joining the Calder in the town. The “modern” road bridge is fifty metres upstream and is an ornate Victorian cast iron affair. Terraces of houses rise up the steep valley sides in a jumble of roofs. After visiting the second-hand bookshops and peering into various shop windows I rejoin the canal and head back upstream. It is a warm sunny day and the second butterfly of the year, a Small Tortoiseshell flits along the tow-path. Rooks caw loudly from a rookery near the road. A row of houses backing on to the river have a ledge of stone, maybe a metre wide, out of their back doors.
Friday 20th March – Barnsley – A large Brown Rat scurries through the rubbish behind the Asda supermarket. Along the path a large Bumble Bee searches for food despite the cool early morning temperature.
Saturday 21st March – Little Don Valley – Peter and I head down into the Little Don Valley. Blue Tits are calling from the dense conifer plantations. We catch a glimpse of a Goshawk disappearing round the bend and off down the valley. A Robin is singing from the very top of a pine that has a dead spike instead of a crown at its summit. Goldcrests and Long-tailed Tits are flitting through the open pine woods beside the river. A pair of Grey Wagtails flit about the boulder strewn bed of the river. I get a short view of a Whinchat, the first of the year. There are Chaffinches everywhere but one looks wrong. A quick scoping reveals a superb male Crossbill. We find another two during the walk, this being after I told Peter that it was very unlikely we would find Crossbills in this part of the woods! A birds takes off from an old Oak and soars in the air before starting to sing and parachuting back down to the branches again – the first Tree Pipit of the year. Further up the valley, Red Grouse are watching us. Peter considers them to be pompous fat merchants covered in jewels. We walk back towards the conifer woods again and find Siskin, Bullfinch and a Treecreeper.
Sunday 22nd March – Northern College – Peter has never seen a Hawfinch, so it is off to Northern College at Stainborough. We walk up the magnificent avenue of trees and soon hear a gentle tic above us and there is a splendid male Hawfinch. Nuthatches and Jays are noisy in the woods. Not many of the garden’s internationally important collection of shrubs are in bloom, but we do find a beautiful red Camellia williamsai – “Satan’s Robe”! A swarm of bees is around the stump of a branch on a tall Beech. Around the folly, Stainborough Castle, and my first Yorkshire Chiffchaff of the year.
Rockley Furnace – We check out woods for Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, but there is no sign of them. Celandines and Anemones are in flower and Dog Mercury will soon follow.
Dunford Bridge – We then go up onto the moors above Dunford Bridge to see if there are any Short-eared Owls hunting, but the area is very quiet with only the occasional keening of a Curlew.
Tuesday 24th March – Barnsley Canal – Although it is not cold, the continuous rain makes it feel cool. Wrens are singing alternately from their respective territories. A Yellowhammer surveys the canal. A Greater Spotted Woodpecker has discovered that drumming on the metal stays holding the cable carrying cross-pieces on a telegraph pole makes more noise than just drumming the pole itself. A Grey Heron stands on top of an old Magpie nest on a Hawthorn. The two young Mute Swans are still on the canal.
Sunday 29th March – Anglers Country Park – The Country Park is shrouded in fog, which makes for poor chances of finding any migrants. A male Sparrowhawk swoops low over the Pol then twists in the air and drops into the long dead grass. From there he watches me. Inexplicably, there are three dead frogs on the boardwalk to the hide. Little can be seen across the Pol, a couple of Mute Swans feed, Mallards swim around and Pied Wagtails bob and feed on the gravel islets.
Tuesday 31st March – Barnsley Canal – The stark skeletal Hawthorns down Willowbank and the canal are replaced with billowing green as the leaves emerge. The chorus is still mainly Robins, Wrens and Tits – Great, Blue and Willow – but there is an addition, Chiffchaffs. A Blackcap slips along the bottom of the Hawthorn hedge by the canal. The pair of Mute Swans has built another nest mound. The male still has a brownish head and its bill is still dull pinkish-orange but its bill knob seems larger.