Winter Spell: A walk through Heptonstall

Elsewhere: A Journal of Place, 2 February, 2021

These grasses of light
Which think they are alone in the world
These stones of darkness
Which have a world to themselves
– Ted Hughes

In my hand a shard of ice. I trace the shape of its perimeter. A prism hastily frozen and troubled by wind and rain, trapping air and all the falling elements of the earth below. It has a solidity, a texture that hints at the colours of the land beyond its edges, of green and brown, opaque, and patterned. The mesmerizing quality of looking through where the rain froze into earth in crystals of reflected light. On its surface bright scatters of light like carvings, as though initialed or drawn in delicate lines of white silver.

It is cold when we walk here. The spell of winter freezes over ponds and parts of rivers. The ground is held silent, the saddened grass still, nothing moves. In the winter when the light is always fading. The icy cold brings respite from the valleys running down with rain, from eroded riverbanks, the wind that batters fragile skeleton trees. Each frozen puddle lies in trails from rising rivers. The muddy ground is packed in tightly, ready to move again.

From this ground to the dark stone of houses. A steep hill leading upwards to the village perched on a hill, notable for the preservation of its narrow lanes and cobbled streets, windswept and shaken by the elements. Walking through the lanes past stone cottages with slate roofs and chimneys, stable doors of different colours. In the centre of a little square of cobblestones and paving stands a tree with lights and decorations. The village inns are lantern-lit, inviting.

In these quiet times there are words and pictures to bring it closer. Instead of going there, I am picturing the journey to Heptonstall along the road that travels from Mytholmroyd to Todmorden. The familiar stone of the houses and winter trees, the shadows of the hills, seem to blend one into the other.

The poet found in this landscape a mythology of stone and water; the words to write about a time already vanishing, the remains of Elmet. The haze that hangs across the valleys, the mist of rain. In the smoke from the mills and chimneys of factories, the ceaseless damp that made its way into the stone, to turn it black. In the weavers cottages are the histories of the lives that passed through; the blackened walls that absorbed their voices. We walk along to the old church its ancient frames laid open, exposed against the sky, underfoot uneven tombstones. You wrote of the ruined frame of the old church as the ancient bones of a giant bird that landed.

In the graveyard, we find the headstone marking barely thirty years in letters plain and black. Contested little stone that makes its claim to the land, far from home or fanfare. On a hilltop resting place exposed, with its pantheon of wind and rain and harsh elements, among stones you walked. In the poet’s eye only stone remains, moving outwards, ever outwards from the stone of a grave. A singular line to the empty moors and dark skies, forlorn, firm, and resolute. Marking a life turned inwards. You picture dark swans, wings beating, take flight across the valley; not one but many now, their wings spread wide in shelter, over hills and beyond to the crest of an ocean. 

High crags and lines of trees look down to the emptiness of hills, bleak and featureless. The grass seems hardened and scrubbed, it waves and ripples in the wind, unyielding, made to survive the elements. Sometimes you perceive the landscape as nothingness, where everything feels unfixed and even the land is temporary, drowned out by wind.

Drawn in lines the brooding sky, the hanging cloud, the dark constant of the horizon. The moorland furrowed dark and light with grass and rock. Then the line of the crag, a crater curves through and cuts into the landscape precipitous. The dry-stone wall piled up as if taken from the side of the valley and abandoned here. 

In the shelter of the moors, in the winter spell, the light is always fading. Narrow roads lead upwards, disappearing suddenly up impossible ascents, to the villages and farmhouse on the hills; the drear sweep of cloud, or mist: of still. The cycle of rain to river to clouds to hills. Weavers cottages stand tall at the side of the valley and low dark terraces in rows. In the still of winter it is almost possible to sense the residual smoke hanging across the valleys from abandoned chimneys and textile mills. A place caught in time and held by its lines of canals, the stone that trickles down from hill into valley. 

Even a fragment of ice has an accidental quality. As I hold it in my hand attempting to give it a significance, it has begun to melt very slowly. Tiny amounts of water receding from its edges; the shape it has become already changing. I lay it down once more on the cold and frozen soil, already less than whole, so it can continue its existence with every other part of earth and water that lies along the ground I walk. From its edges, moving outwards. 

The landscape leaves its marks, draws its way through my veins, like the road running through tree-lined stretches, where trees tunnel over us. This is how I remember it, etched in, and layered with buildings. The dark river, which is high at this time of year, winds through Hebden Bridge. The town is lit by lights, winter blue. In my hand a shard of ice. 


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