Country diary: round the rugged rocks of an ancient place


The stones seem to hum in the heat. There’s something about this sweep of grass, boulder, beech and self-seeding oak that makes it seem a little closer to the sun than the places around it. Perhaps it’s to do with being at eye level with the treetops: beyond the outcropping boulders on the south shoulder of the hill, the land falls so steeply down towards Loadpit Beck that the topmost leaves of the tall beeches on the slope flicker in the wind no more than 20 yards from where we stand. A chiffchaff high in the rigging sings its needling seesaw song. I feel as if I could reach across and take it in my hand.

Just across the road to the north is the hump of moorland that keeps apart the dales of the Aire and the Wharfe – an ancient place. Ancient in the way that all rock is ancient (Carboniferous sandstone and mudstone, seamed with coal, laid down around 310 million years ago), and ancient in terms of its human occupancy, the human traces: the resilient heather here hides bronze age settlements and rocks marked with the “cup and ring” art of the late Palaeolithic.

We walk between the slope and the moor through an intermittent fizz of leaping insect life. Many of the thicker stems of grass carry a conspicuous gob of cuckoo spit, like a bead threaded on string (each hides a tiny and painfully vulnerable baby froghopper). The boulders here lie flat, and are good for climbing on, if you’re two – I swing my daughter down from one by her wrists. They’re made from coarse sandstone, what geologists prosaically call “rough rock”.

I pick a beetle off my daughter’s arm. A leaf beetle, I think, metallic, with dull gold shoulders. It stamps its feet, annoyed by sun cream. In a clearing between young oaks we come upon a blackbird sunbathing. Lots of birds do this. It helps the preen oils they produce to permeate their plumage. This blackbird, a male, is pegged out on the grass, wings spread low, back arched, head up, bill gasping open – I feel obscurely embarrassed, as if we had intruded upon a nudist.


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