Caught by the River

Pleasures of…June

Ben Myers | 4th July 2014

IMG_3133Photo: Nick Small

Ben Myers embraces the warmer nights and longer days as he looks back over the joys of a June spent ambling through West Yorkshire:

In spring and summer a desire to be outdoors reaches near-uncontrollable levels. It takes precedence over work, over everything – always. Because when the winter comes in and the valley narrows and darkens and chokes the last lingering rays of summer sun held deep inside its residents and the clouds creep in low off the moors I need to throw another chopped block of wind-fallen wood on the fire knowing that I made the best of the long, light days.

Because walking has become an obsession. A necessity. It is meditation. To walk without a plan or a map is one of the greatest pleasures in life. “I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit,” wrote Thoreau in his essay Walking. Elsewhere he also noted “all good things are wild and free”. Certainly walking has got me through times of no money better than money has got me through times of no walking.

I need few excuses to get out there in the Pennines. Dog walking. Logging. Bat- watching. Deer-spotting. Fox-following. Swimming up at the reservoir. Nettle picking to brew tea – though the first batch of the summer gave me such bad stomach cramps I’ve not been able to touch it since. Or simply “for writing purposes”. Because writing prose is inextricably tied up with walking; the best stuff written in invisible lines by my feet as I trudge across hill-sides and through moor-top marshes. Some of it, like the cloying alkaline mud, sticks. It gets remembered and written down upon my return, though I’m aware that the best of it is left out there, lost to the breeze like dispersed dandelion heads.

My usual morning walk involves exploring The Rock, a jagged cliff face out the back of my house, which ends the moors in dramatic style before plunging near-vertically into a wooded area that was once the town tip and where broken bottles and ceramic shards from the 1950s still poke through the topsoil. The Rock is an imposing presence, like a morbid curtain closed to the sun in the darker months. Day to day it wears a different mask. As a child Ted Hughes grew up across the “shadow trap” valley from The Rock and wrote a fantastic piece of the same name in which he described “that blackish hogback mass riding directly overhead”. He wrote of a sleeping tramp being mistakenly shot by a farmer there, of suicides, of people stumbling off the cliff edge, of hidden treasures. It is a place cloaked in a dark mythology that means no locals dare enter these woods – though that may be do with the asbestos that was once dumped there.

Here in June though it is a beautiful jungle overgrown by balsam and ragwort and nettles that stretch to seven feet tall, a landscape now recovered from man’s pollutants. There are no paths here, only animals tracks and a morass of fallen moss-covered boulders to pick your way through.

During these warm nights I walk up in there, often taking a roasted chicken carcass as an offering to the creatures on whose terrain I am a trespasser. Occasionally I find a new way up. Up the back slopes and over the rocks. Higher still, through the heather. Above the trees now. Keep going. Hand over hand, clinging to rocks and fistfuls of bracken, finally emerging breathless at the top of the valley, Calderdale below me, The Rock either side of me, bats bristling my hair, a cold metal disc of sweat on my back. The swollen sun setting low over Heptonstall church. The last melody of birdsong. Summer as it should be.

Ben Myers latest book, Beastings, is out now and can be bought from the Caught by the River shop, priced £8.99