Wednesday 3rd November – Brigg – Ducks squabble and chase on the Old River Ancholme. A young Mute Swan is still with its parents, gliding serenely around the water. The cob’s wings are arched on its back, the primaries fluttering in the wind. The main street consists of 18th and 19th Century buildings turned into shops, many with inappropriate fascias. A trade particular to Brigg was rabbit skinning, although it ceased in 1827.
Frodingham Railway Cutting, Scunthorpe – Robins sing from the surrounding woods. Blackbirds cry alarm. Bright red Rose hips gleam from brown leafless tangles of shrubbery.
Sunday 7th November – Ditchling Beacon, East Sussex – The green, flat Weald lays far below the Beacon northwards towards the Ashdown Forest and the North Downs beyond. A light mist lingers near the rise of Ashdown Forest. St Francis Hospital, formally a huge, rather grim mental asylum, shines, its pale yellow brickwork catching the rising sun. Goldfinches twitter as the fly along the scarp edge. The view from the triangulation point is even better, the South Downs rolling east and west, the long slope to the sea and the full spread of the Weald. Pigeons flying low across the fields and over the Beacon are suddenly hundreds of feet above the ground. Under the Downs nestles Westmeston with its manor house dominating the tiny village. Tall chimneys, probably Jacobean, rise above the trees.
Lewes – We visit a Sunday Market. It is incredible to see such an accumulation of junk. Some is modern – plastic toys and “useful” gadgets made in the Far East, some are older, china ornaments which, whilst is clear why someone is trying to sell them, it is hard to imagine why they were bought in the first place – or even made!
Friday 12th November – Barnsley Canal – A real November morning, chilly, misty, grey and drizzling. The Hawthorns along the Smithies end of the canal have been stripped of their berries, but some remain on the bushes further along. It is here that Redwings congregate. A Grey Heron flies overhead. Mallard rise from the canal and wheel around towards the river.
Home – The first Goldfinch of the season is visiting the sunflower feeder. Unfortunately, so is the local Grey Squirrel. Dill the Dog gets very excited and I let her out to chase the little thief away. It is good to compare Blue, Great and Coal Tits, which are all visiting at the same time.
Monday 15th November – Barnsley Canal – Another grey dawn. Flocks of Tits and Goldcrests flash along the Hawthorn hedge, high pitched calls being uttered constantly. Blackbirds and Redwings dart to and fro. A small flock of Black-headed Gulls search ploughed fields on the far side of the River Dearne. Nothing seems to be eating the Dog Rose hips which have darkened to a rich, glowing crimson. Further along the canal, where the Hawthorn berries are still abundant, there are good numbers of Redwings and Fieldfares – far outnumbering the resident Blackbirds, Song and Mistle Thrushes. The flocks rise up, churring, and wheel off across the valley, leaving a few Blackbirds to alarm call from the bushes. The white flashing rump of a Jay disappears into the trees.
Wednesday 17th November – Willowbank – A completely contrasting day to the previous few, bright sunshine, a few whispy cirrus clouds, a vicious north wind and it is bitterly cold. Frost lingers on the path in sheltered spots. Birds are keeping their heads down, just a few Magpies being blown around as they cross between clumps of Hawthorn and Elder scrub. The Highways Department yard in the valley is shadowed by a towering mountain of rock salt, ready to salt the roads when the icy nights set in. It is unfortunate that the English seem to need every road to be ice-free twenty four hours a day, as his results in tonnes and tonnes of salt being spread with the obvious consequences of pollution.
Home – Sadly, as seems usual in England, cloud obscured the promised “light-show of the century” – the Leonid meteor showers.
Saturday 20th November – Wombwell Ings – A sharp frost bites my ears and I wonder why I left my hat in the car. Canada Geese can be heard yelping on the Ings from some distance. A flock of Black-headed Gulls and Lapwings circles the Ings and then individuals head off in different directions. The geese leave in varying sized parties, making a loud din as they lift off. A dozen Dunlin feed, totally unconcerned about the noise around them. Most of the Wigeon seem content to sleep through this cacophony, although a few start whistling. The Canada Geese positively shine in the golden beams of the rising sun. Pochard and Goosander dive for food. The awakening Wigeon, scratch, preen a little and drift to the edge of the Ings to graze on the grass. A pair of Mistle Thrushes rasp and joust in the air, before settling at the top of a Sycamore. A flock of Fieldfares arrive and locate at the top of another tree.
Sunday 21st November – Pugney’s Country Park – I stop off at some local woods to gather a bagful of dead twigs and branches for kindling. The woods are silent. There is a little more sound at Pugney’s – a Canada Goose cries out; one or two of the numerous Blackbirds along the ditch mutter at Dill the Dog’s approach and a Robin lets out a short burst of song. Dill the Dog rolls leaving a bright green smear in the pale frosty grass. The motte and bailey of Sandal Castle overlook the lake from the hill. Sandal Castle has a story of great history, for Richard, Duke of York, fell in battle near here. In December 1460 Richard had come north from London in opposition to the queen, Margaret of Anjou. (Arthur Norway tells the tale in his “Highways & Byways of Yorkshire”; Pub: MacMillan 1899.) Her husband, Henry VI was suffering mental illness and Margaret was effectively regent. England was in turmoil. The House of Lancaster – the Red Rose, held sway in the North. Following Richard’s party was a larger host led by the Earl of March. Richard rode into Sandal Castle on Christmas Eve. Margaret was only thirty miles away in Pontefract and – “Havying in her companye, the Prince, her sonne, the Dukes of Excestre and Somerset, the Erle of Devonshire, the Lorde Clifforde, the Lord Rosse, and in effect all the lordes of the northe parte with eightene thousande men, or as some write, twentie and two thousande.” Sir Davy Hall, York’s trusted friend, advised caution and await March’s party. York cried, “A Davy, Davy, hast thou loved me so long, and now wouldest have me dishonoured? Thou never sawest me kepe fortres when I was Regent in Normandie, when the Dolphin himself with his puissance came to beseige me, but like a man and not like a bird included in a cage I issued and fought with mine enemies, to their losse ever – I thanke God – and to my honour... And sureley my mind is rather to die with honour than to live with shame, for of honour cometh fame, and of dishonour riseth infamy.... Therefore avance my banner, in the name of God and Sainct George, for surely I will fight with them, though I should fight alone.” So Richard sallied forth with only a few thousand men against Lancaster’s twenty thousand. Lord Clifford, who gained the surname Butcher from this day, severed the head of Richard and decked it with a paper crown and sent it to York to be spiked over the Micklegate Bar gate. Richard’s body was interred at Pontefract. A new cross by the children’s playground stands to show where Richard had fallen, replacing the original cross set up by Richard’s son, Edward IV.
Teal and Mallard on the fishing lake are resplendent in their new plumage. A Great Crested Grebe, on the other hand, is drab without its spring finery. A Grey Heron stands silently next to the reed bed. More duck glide around the sandpit, Mallard, Shoveler, Tufted Duck and more Great Crested Grebes. There is much movement overhead – a noisy flock of corvids breaks up and disperses; gulls, Black–headed, Great and Lesser Black–backed, Herring and Common, leave the roost and a lone Cormorant passes by. A coal train rumbles by. A gull with a lump of bread is harried mercilessly by eight others over and around the gravel workings’ machinery. It eventually drops it and a Herring Gull dives and twists and snatches the morsel out of the air. The pond by the sheeting bay is frozen over. Black-headed Gulls stand silently.
Monday 22nd Nov – Thorne Park – Wakefield – Grey, dull morning but warmer than the last few days. A classic Victorian park – widely spaced trees with a Holly and Fir coppice ringing the summit of the hill. The path is strewn with black-spotted dead Sycamore leaves. A Carrion Crow calls harshly from the top of one of these trees. From the hill, modern, functional blocks of flats surround the spire of Wakefield Cathedral. The great tower of the Town Hall also features boldly above the clustering city buildings. A London bound express winds up its diesel engines as it crosses a long viaduct out of the city. A high, thickly overgrown castle mound surmounts the summit of hill. By the road a mock timber-framed bandstand is locked and deserted.
Tuesday 23rd November – Wombwell Ings – Vapour trails in the sky shine like burnished copper in the rising sun. Untidy flocks of Fieldfares descend onto Hawthorns. Three Mute Swans shine white against a steely northern sky. The absence of the Canada Goose flock means the Ings is relatively quiet, just an occasional quack from a Mallard and a whistle from a Wigeon. The majority of the latter at the north end of the Ings are still asleep, heads on their backs. The Wigeon at the south end, well over one hundred, are grazing the waterside grasses. A flock of over forty Greylag Geese are near them. Shoveler, Teal and a pair of Redshank sift the mud in the shallows. A couple of female Goosander swim with their heads under water. The Greylags take off and head towards Broomhill, their wings shining like tin.
Friday 26th November – Barnsley Canal – A nasal nee nee nee of a Willow Tit greets me at the entrance of a muddy tow-path. Overhead gulls, Starlings and Fieldfares cross a troubled grey sky. A noisy flock of Rooks, several hundred strong, circles the harrowed field across the river. Many rise high in an untidy swirl and start departing south-westwards. Others return raucously to the ground. My passage along the path flushes out dozens of angrily chattering Fieldfares. Redwings arrow along the edge of the hedge.
Saturday 27th November – Wombwell Ings – A bright day following yesterday’s high winds and torrential downpours. There are Fieldfares everywhere – feeding on the mown grass of Broomhill Park, watching from the Hawthorn hedges, flying around generally. Large flocks of Lapwings fly up off the Ings, flashing white in the sunlight. Nine Grey Herons hunch around the edge of the water. A large flock of Wigeon glides and whistles. A Kestrel rises from the coarse grassland and glides across the meadow.
Sunday 28th November – Pugney’s Country Park – A strong gale blasts across the sandpit lake. Great Crested Grebes, Coots, Wigeon and Mallard all keep close to the bank. A noisy yelping to the west as a skein of Canada Geese, with a single feral white goose, comes in. Lapwings rise and scatter like quiet folk avoiding a bunch of hooligans. Black-headed Gulls and a couple of Common Gulls stand hunched and motionless on a shingle spit. More gulls twist, float and glide in the agitated air above.
Leeds – Along the canal, the new Leeds rises, confident in its outlook. Just one of the old granary stores from the early 19th Century, Victoria Mills, a linseed mill built in 1836, remains and has been refurbished into modern offices and apartments. But the new complexes that have been built echo the theme. In the mid 1980s the Albion Wharf was a wasteland. Now offices have been built and the area in a thriving commercial centre. It is not complete, a patch of waste ground with a ruined archway declares itself as No. 10 and an old sign on the Red Lion tells us that this street to nowhere is Water Lane. This leads onto Bridge End, the south side of Leeds Bridge. An unprepossessing building has two plaques on it. One declares that in 1847, at a meeting on these premises, the “Band of Hope” movement was formed, its title being suggested by the Rev Jabez Tunnicliffe, prominent Leeds temperance worker. The other, a Blue Plaque, records that Louis Le Prince came here in 1866 and experimented with cinematography. In 1888 he patented a one-lens camera with which he filmed the Leeds Bridge from this building. These were probably the world’s first successful moving pictures. Bridge House is a wonderful wedge of a building like a chunk out of a red cheese trundle. Next comes Brewery Wharf, home of Tetley’s Brewery, which issues a strong smell of malt and hops. Before the late 18th century, this was Kirk Ings, open meadows. Then it filled with wharves, warehouses and mills. Again, by the mid 20th century it was in serious decline, but has now been rebuilt. Pied Wagtails fit along the path. The Leeds and Liverpool Canal becomes the Aire & Calder Navigation. At Clarence Dock the massive, grey modern edifice of the Royal Armouries keeps guard over the waters. I turn back. To the rear of Langtons Wharf, which is opposite the brewery, the bells of the Parish Church of St Peter at Kirkgate start to ring.