Mastiles Lane, 25/03/18, 9.2km

The hills:

There are no hills on this walk, but there is some uphill. The route takes an old drover’sIMG_1939 (and Roman) road, Mastiles Lane up to around 420 metres. It’s steepish in the lane, but the going is nowhere difficult. You will encounter quite a lot of cattle, though. They presented no difficulties to us, but if you’re nervous around big ungulates, this might not be your route.

 

The walk:

Susan, Harvey-the-shorkie and I park up on the road that runs up out the back of Kilnsey – I assume it once served the quarry there. There are a couple of massive lay-bys here so parking should not be an issue.

We walk up the road from the car as the strange, skirling of a green woodpecker whoops from the woods to our left. The road soon forks and we take the sinister…um…prong? We’ve left the tarmac now, new woodland on the slope above us.  The track loops around below Cool Scar quarry before turning roughly west southwest, dropping down towards a large herd of my third favourite breed of cattle, blue greys. Not for the first time in a blog post, I feel compelled to assert that cattle are not a reliable navigational feature. You should be looking for walled lane running steeply uphill.

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The blue greys will not harm you…

Susan picks up Harvey in his harness and we skirt widely round the cattle in case he decides to offer them all outside, which would be bold and (given our location) nonsensical. We traipse through the mud and/or manure and pass through the gate without incident. Above the field to our right, lapwings dance madly in the air sounding their lilting, disyllabic call. The name lapwing comes from the Old English hleaēpwince, meaning (roughly) leap with a waiver in it, which perfectly captures their hesitant, tilting flight.

 

The lane steepens before us and the exertion combines sweatily with the spring sunshine. Not for Susan, you understand, just me. Susan doesn’t sweat. Harvey floofles. Yes, yes, floofling is a verb. We pause for coffee not far shy of the crest of the lane. A brown shape on the track above us reveals itself as a skylark when it takes to the air. It’s the first I’ve seen this spring and its trilling is surely the season turning a corner.

As we crest over the summit of the lane, we encounter around a dozen backpackers in a long strung-out line, all in their mid-40s or over. I honestly had no idea how much the DofE Award demograph had changed this much since I left school.

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Looking down Mastiles Lane, Great Whernside in the top left of the shot.

After passing through the next gate (Mastiles Gate, in fact, according to the map). We turn south southeast and handrail the wall. There is a track through this field, and there are more blue greys here. They’re not at all threatening – in fact most of them are laid down – but we give them a wide berth just to err on caution’s side. At the far end of this field, we join the tarmac of Malham Moor Lane and head (very) roughly east. Looking across to the tops, I can see a herd of my favourite breed of cattle – belted Galloways. FY information, I think my second favourite is probably English longhorn.

 

Above us, the the curlew’s liquid call bubbles into the sky. They are so distinctive in flight, bowed, pointed wings and that long drooping bill.

We follow the tarmac for just over 900 metres before turning north through a gate and onto a well-established track. There’s a massive tyre chained to the footpath sign, with white-paint instructions about keeping your dog on a lead. Harvey is on a lead, so we’re good. Yours should be too. Yes, I know he’s a good boy and always does as he’s told. You know who else said that? Everybody whose dog has ever worried a sheep.

There are significant outcrops of limestone pavement around us. They’re grazed to the living end so even in the summer there’s little of the woodland flora you should expect. We stop at one of the outcrops for lunch as lapwings tilt and shudder in the air above us.

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Harvey-the-shorkie, demonstrating how your dog should be controlled around livestock and ground nesting birds.

As we continue, the track rises and then starts to drop away. Beyond Kilnsey, Great Whernside squats on the horizon. We descend, on sheep-cropped, springy turf, toward the cows we first encountered. There’s some wriggling (metaphorically speaking) through some farm infrastructure that (I think) manages and channels cattle. We have another cautious circumnavigation of the non-threatening cows and then we simply retrace out route back to the car.

 

Kit list:

In my pack (a Macpac Amp 25): Paramo Torres belay jacket, OL Sheet 2, Silva mirror-sighting compass, Benchmade Presidio lock-knife, Highgear AltiTech 2 altimeter, iPhone, Veho Pebble phone-charger, coffee, a litre of water. I wore Paramo Velez Adventure Light smock, Paramo Velez Adventure trousers, Isobaa Merino 200 zip neck hoodie, Scarpa Rebel lite Gtx, Paramo Mountain gaiters, Rab Latok gloves (they were too hot. I am a fool).

 

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Peat surveying, 19/03/18

If you follow me on Twitter a) I’m so very sorry and b) you’ll know I started a new job at the end of January. I stepped away from 12 years with Natural England to take up a very peat focussed role (I’ll get to why peat is important soon). I’m still in communications, but now I’m a jack-of-all-comms-trades for Yorkshire Peat Partnership (new website on the way), Pennine PeatLIFE (new website under construction) and the IUCN UK Peat Programme (not started that new website yet). Gosh that’s a lot of peat. Why not take a few moments to come up with your own compeating priorities pun?

When it comes to peat habitat in the uplands, we’re talking blanket bog. Healthy blanket bog is mainly composed of bog vegetation fed by rain or snow and so is nutrient poor and acidic. As the vegetation dies, it doesn’t decompose and instead forms peat – Sphagnum mosses are the key species for this. In good condition, blanket bog:

  • filters water before it gets into our supply, reducing the cost of drinking water
  • stores carbon; despite occupying just 3% of the Earth’s land surface, peatlands are our largest carbon store on land.
  • slows the flow of rainwater across the hillsides, helping to reduce flooding
  • provides habitat for some really amazing wildlife.

In poor condition, it discolours water (meaning our drinking water costs more), releases COinto the atmosphere, does nothing to impede the flow of water and is not much to live on (if you’re a critter) or look at (if you’re a walker).

YPP and PPL are both very much about restoring degraded peat across the Yorkshire Dales, North York Moors, North Pennines and Forest of Bowland. If you’re familiar with any of these areas, you’ll know that means the uplands.

The snow across January, February and March has made the uplands pretty hard to get to and, even assuming you can get there, the blanket bog is under several feet of snow. This has set back work schedules and we need to get everything done before the bird breeding season starts. For me, this means two days helping my new colleagues survey peat bogs. As well as an opportunity to get up onto the tops, this was a chance to find out what the rest of the team does while I’m building websites.

Thus the 19th of March finds me in the back of a Toyota Hilux, Jenny and Chris in the front, winding its way up onto the fells in the Forest of Bowland. I’ve never been here before, so it’s also a chance to both see some new hills and to look at familiar hills (the Dales) from a completely new angle.

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Tools of the trade – depth poles and GPS mapper.

We park up and boot up. It’s bright, but very cold. There’s a dusting of snow on the tops and the wind has teeth. We collect our survey equipment – depth poles and handheld GPS units – and Jenny and I follow Chris to the survey site. Away to the west, Morecambe Bay glitters in the low sun. And how often do you get to describe Morecambe Bay as glittering?

Red grouse whir over the heather as we cut across the flank of one fell to drop onto a track. We gradually curve back uphill and roughly north east until I’m staring over the broad valley (Lonsdale?) that holds the A65. The southern fringe of the Yorkshire Dales, white in the distance, stares back. It’s not quite clear enough for me to work out which bit of my regular stomping ground it is. In any case, we’ve too much to do in Lancashire for me to spend much time gazing at Yorkshire.

This is a wild landscape, in as much as any landscape in England can be said to be truly wild. We are on a plateau, peat sat on what I assume to be water-impermeable bedrock geology – possibly gritstone¹. We are surrounded by heather, sphagnum and cotton grass (though heather dominates on this site). The moor is ribboned with gullies and, in places, expanses of bare peat.

Chris sets  out to survey peat on one side of a small valley and I assist Jenny on the other. We are working a series of transects – testing peat depth and surveying vegetation every 100m – and also surveying any erosion features we come across on each transect. It may not surprise you, gentle reader, to find that I am doing the donkey work. I’m measuring peat depth with a pole that screws together in sections, and Jenny is examining the flora and the erosion features.

We find our first survey spot using GPS – these units are accurate to within one metre. Now for some donkey work. I stab through the peat surface with a pole section. This is harder than it sounds – there is a thin layer of cotton grass over the peat and the peat itself is frozen at the surface. Once you’re past the surface, resistance is variable but, in places, quite substantial. The pole vanishes down to the last 10cm marker. I screw in the next section and continue. Once the pole hits mineral soil (peat is organic), it will go no further and we can thus gauge the depth of the peat. In this instance, it’s 1.6m – about 5’2″ in pounds, shillings and pence.

Right down at ground level, we (by which I mean Jenny) find Erica tetralix (cross-leaved heath), Calluna vulgaris (ling; the heather not the fish), Eriophorum vaginatum (hare’s tail cotton grass),  Eriophorum angustifolium (common cottongrass), Vaccinium myrtilus (bilberry) Empetrum nigrum (crowberry) and some Sphagnum ssp. (I can’t remember which species, I’m afraid). Fans of the National Vegetation Classification system will recognise this as the M19 community (M for mire). Jenny notes this down and we move on.

En route to our next GPS point, we cross a huge gully. The peat is stripped away right

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Peat hag, with human for scale.

down to the mineral soil – it’s around 1.5 m deep and 4m wide in places. A massive peat hag – a steep erosion feature – looms up. Around the edges, the peat is ribboned by a dendritic (branching) gully system.

 

It’s hard going, this terrain. The heather masks a multitude of sins for your feet: tussocks, gully, holes, even the gradient in places. We weave backwards and forward across the slope, from point to point and across each erosion feature. The wind continues to claw at us. It is nowhere strong enough to knock you from your feet, but it can catch you at an awkward moment – perhaps with all your weight on one leg in a clump of heather – and you’re on your backside. It’s the strongest workout my right leg has had since the accident, so that’s over 3 years now. My word, I’m out of shape. It is, frankly, a relief when we stop for lunch.

In a patch of snow, there are mustelid prints – too far apart to be a weasel, so I assume a stoat. I can’t help but wonder if it’s in its white winter coat. I’ve only ever seen one ermine before, not so very far away at Martin Mere, tearing about on a frozen pond. What a splendid beast.

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Stoat prints in the snow.

We meet up with Chris for lunch over on his side of the valley. He leads us to a comparatively sheltered spot at the bottom of a huge gully. Suddenly out of the wind, it’s almost balmy (provided you’re wearing all the clothes you own). We sit in the sunshine and eat. A raven goes overhead, low enough that  I hear its wings soughing the air, making that odd, soft klonk call. Further down the gully there’s a startled chak-chak-chak and a ring ouzel whips up and vanishes across the heather.

After lunch, we repeat the process on this side of the valley. The deepest peat I measure today is 2.4m (that’s nearly 8 feet). We find a peat pipe, which is pretty much what it says it is – pipe within the peat. I say peat in this post a lot, don’t I? There are various theories about how they form, but nobody knows for sure. Finally, we head back to the Hilux. I am knackered – this has been my hardest day out on the hills since the surgeon gave me permission. Glorious, though, and I’ve learned a lot. Returning westwards, we can see Blackpool Tower away out on Morecambe Bay. And as we drive back down to where the tarmac lurks, a flock of curlew go overhead – twenty or so. A cracking end to a cracking day.

What happens next? Well, a few days later, the site is surveyed from the air with an Unmanned Arial Vehicle and the two surveys are combined. They’re then used to create a work schedule for the site to restore it to functioning blanket bog. I’ll see if I can write a post about that in the future…

Thanks to Jenny and Chris for taking me along and sorry if I got any of this wrong.

¹I’ve just checked on the British Geological Survey app on my iPhone – it’s “Pendle Grit Member, Sandstone Interbedded. Sedimentary Bedrock formed approximately 328 to 329 million years ago in the Carboniferous Period.” It lists the superficial geology as “Peat. Superficial Deposits formed up to 3 million years ago in the Quaternary Period.” Splendid – I’ve had this app for years and only just started using it properly¹·¹.

¹·¹Other geology apps are available.

 

Wharfedale-Littondale loop, 09/12/17, 9.4km

The hills:

An easy circuit from Upper Wharfedale over to my favourite of the southern dales, Littondale, and back. Well, I say easy – it’s neither long nor navigationally challenging, but the start is really pretty steep.

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Mountain weather forecast for the Dales for 09/12/17 from met office.gov.uk

The walk:

From the western bank of the Wharfe, just above the Kettlewell bridge, Susan, Harvey and I follow the footpath due west, uphill across some rough pasture. There’s perhaps an inch of powdery snow on the ground and the turf thereunder is pretty convincingly frozen. The path cuts through a narrow band of rock – an outlier of Great Cote Scar. You’ll need your hands for a few metres, but it is not a scramble.

Above the scar, the slope slackens and steepens and slackens and steepens in a series of infuriating terraces. Harvey makes intrepid progress through the snow, which has drifted in places, and drags Susan up in his furry wake. Under the crest of the ridge, we pause to look back over Wharfedale. Immediately opposite, Great Whernside squats over Kettlewell like a brooding gritstone god. It’s quite a boggy brooding god but this would probably be the best weather in which to tackle it, its mires frozen solid.

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Great Whernside looking all brooding and such…

Turning back to heights draws us up onto the broad hump of the ridge. We use Harvey’s harness to airlift him over the first stile of the day, and it’s still funny. It will never not be. I balance on top of the stile for a view down into Littondale. It really is beautiful and it’s lack of tourist facilities make it much less crowded than Wharfedale or Ribblesdale.

Continuing due west, we head downslope. This side of the ridge is much gentler and there’s a deal more heather. Red grouse whirr hither and yon. To the north and a fair stretch above us, a kestrel hovers above the snow. Fun kestrel fact: the kestrel’s preferred prey is the field vole; field voles use habitual runs through the undergrowth; they urinate as they’re running; their urine has a signature in the ultraviolet spectrum; kestrels can see into the ultraviolet spectrum. Voles – dying for a pee. I said it was a fun fact.

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Arncliffe and Yew Coggar Scar beyond,  across the River Skirfare.

The path drops down into Byre Bank Wood. We’re out of the wind here, so we pause for lunch. Harvey has some black pudding we saved from breakfast. He really likes it. I have a pork pie and Susan has a sausage roll. We really like them. We take in the view across to Arncliffe and Yew Coggar Scar until the cold pushes us back into motion. It’s slow going through the wood. There are gnarly tree roots underfoot, the rock is polished really smooth and there is ice in places. Eventually, we drop through the wood into pasture and then onto the road.

If you were minded, you could cross the River Skirfare and take a path southeast along the river bank. We’re getting a move on, so we simply turn left onto the road and follow it down to Hawkswick. The slope above us is steep and thickly planted with new trees – it looks like a new deciduous plantation. A pair of buzzards circle over the saplings as we stride into Hawkswick. At the far end of the village, we turn uphill again through a walled lane before cutting east across the steep flank of ridge. Somewhat incongruously, there is a field of donkeys. I like donkeys. They have a mysterious smile that says they know something you don’t. And they probably do – I know I have no idea what it’s like to eat grass for 15 hours a day. As with my previous blog post, please note that livestock are not a navigational feature.

We once more find ourselves on the broad back of the ridge, albeit further down and

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Harvey “I have peed on this and now I own it all” Photo © Susan Owen

looking down now to the confluence of the Skirfare and the Wharfe. Our route turns due north from here, dropping gradually toward the southern end of Great Cote Scar. At Knipe Wood, you could handrail the top of the Scar and then return to Kettlewell via the not-scramble whence you started. We choose to wind down through Knipe Wood, a mixed not-entirely natural woodland, cloaking the slope above the Kettlwell road. In the summer, I’ve seen goldcrest in here, flitting amongst the pines. We come out onto the road and hoof down into the village (there is a track running around the road, but this is quicker and the footing more sure).

Kit list:

In my pack (a Macpac Amp 25): Paramo Torres belay jacket, Montane flux belay jacket, OL Sheet 30, Silva mirror-sighting compass, Benchmade Presidio lock-knife, Highgear AltiTech 2 altimeter, iPhone, Veho Pebble phone-charger, Petzl Tikka Plus 2 head torch, coffee, a pork pie, a sausage roll, Lowe Alpine mountain cap, Marmot XT gloves, some old pair of Lowe Alpine shell gloves (you can never have too many gloves and I’m carrying spare kit for two). I wore Scarpa Rebel Lite GTX boots, Rab Latok gloves, Paramo Velez Adventure Light smock, Paramo Velez Adventure trousers, SmartWool leggings, some old Berghaus long sleeve base layer,  a Nike vest.

Bingley Moor and Burley Moor, 06/12/17, 8.5km

The hills:

The moors are possibly a state of mind as much a geographical location. They all run into one another in the South Pennines, and it’s quite possible I crossed Hawksworth Moor rather than Bingley Moor on the way to Burley Moor. Or that I crossed both. Can’t get enough of them – they’re very moorish…

The walk:

To get to the starting point, you could get a train to Saltaire, hoof up the side of (or ride on) the Glen tramway and then to the far end of Shipley Glen. Or you could get a bus from Bingley (as I did), bail out in Eldwick near the Birches pub and scoot round the edge of the woods to the far end of Shipley Glen. However you go at it, I started out where Glen Road meets Glovershaw Lane, crossing the latter at the cattle grid and heading north. The footpath handrails the edge of Baildon golf course over some slightly muddy, unimproved pasture. Above me, a bird glides on bowed wings. It is diagonally on to me, obscuring its shape and at first I think it’s a curlew despite the time of year. It turns sideways on and then away, flashing a long, russet, forked tail. It is further away than I realised and it is, of course, a red kite.

The footpath joins what looks like a recently complete gallop – there’s quite a bit of equestrianism round here – and I am momentarily confused by the new track as it is not on the map. This is lazy map-reading – I should be focussing on contours and geography rather than this kind of manmade feature. The gallop loops up into Birch Close Lane, running northeast past some old farmhouse type buildings (you can generally rely in this kind of manmade feature) before turning due north for Weecher Reservoir (and this kind). You could follow the access road that services the reservoir and then turn east along the the road (but see later caveat) or, as I did, cut across the field. As I take a bridge over the reservoir’s overspill, I spy a herd of belted Galloways – my favourite breed of cattle – off to my right (author’s note: cattle are not a reliable navigational feature). The field is pretty wet and there’s a fair bit of skirting round mud. Eventually I emerge on Otley road and cross it the foot path on the far side. Take care with this road – it can be a bit hairy. A generous interpretation would be that the comparative wildness of the landscape has led the drivers here to the conclusion they are in Mad Max. Or perhaps they should all have set off about 15 minutes earlier and there’d be no need to drive like the world is ending.

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Baildon Hill from Bingley (or possibly Hawksworth) Moor.

Once safely onto what may be Bingley or Hawksworth Moor, a well established path leads me north northwest toward a drystone wall. It eventually starts to run parallel to that wall. Another wall runs directly across my path; I cross it and look back for views of Baildon Hill and then carry on north north west. Under a low rise, the track crosses through the wall on a stile and I pause for coffee out of the wind. Before me lies a broad flat area of bog with a track running towards a low, black oblong on the horizon. It’s definitely manmade, but a very serviceable landmark. If the horizon is a bit hazy, the path very rarely strays more than about 20 metres from the fence. If visibility is too low to see the fence, I’d probably just give this one up for the day – this is a walk for the views rather than the challenge. I yomp roughly north northeast across quite a lot of really quite wet peat. I’m not complaining – we need the peat wet – until the path starts to climb toward the low, black oblong. Grouse whirr about me in the heather, making their strange lekking noises. I climb up out of the bog to a low, very solidly built hut on a gravel track. This is the crest of Burley Moor and, I think, the watershed. Behind me, water drains into the Aire, before me, into the Wharfe. There’s a grand view across to Nidderdale AONB, the golf balls of Menwith Hill glowing white in the winter sun.

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High Lanshaw Dam from the crest of Burley Moor.

I pause here for coffee once more. Pro tip – if you want to sit up in the wind so that you have the view and the sunshine, maybe put your belay jacket on before you get up into the wind. After I have mastered my apparel and been suitably refreshed, I hoof due north and downhill, with a row of grouse butts off to the east. I think the moor is owned by Bradford council and leased for grouse shooting. Certainly, the heathers shows signs of active management – it’s been burned in places to promote new growth. The path curves around to the north west but I keep facing north and drop down across some

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Mmmmm, greasy and polished…

steeper ground to join the Dales Way. The ground here is drier and bracken stubble is poking up through the grass. Below the Way, the ground drops steeply to Hanginstone Road – I’ve driven along it many times, but never looked down upon from this angle. I follow the way to the (and I hesitate to use this adjective) iconic Cow and Calf rocks. If climbing greasy gritstone on routes polished smooth by decades of feet is your thing, this is the arena for you. From here, you can take any number of routes down into Ilkley, whence there are trains to all corners of England (well, Bradford and Leeds). I drop down through some mixed (and I’m reasonably sure planted by the Victorians) woodland, past an artificial tarn to Wells Road and thence straight downhill to the station.

Kit list:

In my pack (a Macpac Amp 25): Paramo Torres belay jacket, OL Sheet 297, Silva mirror-sighting compass, Benchmade Presidio lock-knife, Highgear AltiTech 2 altimeter, iPhone, Veho Pebble phone-charger, coffee. I wore Paramo Velez Adventure Light smock, Paramo Velez Adventure trousers, some old Berghaus long sleeve base layer, Five Ten Camp Four GTX approach shoes, Montane Vortex gaiters, Marmot XT gloves. Yes, I do seem to have gone all Paramo – I’ll see about a review soon.

Baildon Hill, 15/10/17, 7.9km

The hills:

Baildon Hill (282m) sits above the Aire valley between the town of Baildon and the village of Eldwick. I grew up in Baildon and now live in Bingley, just below Eldwick, so this is very much my home patch.

The walk:

We start from the Leeds-Liverpool canal, at Dowley Gap locks. You could get a train to either Bingley or Saltaire and hoof along the canal to get there. From the locks, we (Susan, Harvey the shorkie and I) head east along the towpath, crossing the canal over a little humpback bridge to the north bank. Where the canal crosses the River Aire, we drop down some steps to the river bank. This is Harvey’s first outing in his new Ruffwear Web Master harness. It has a handle to make it easier to lift him over obstacles. I will never stop finding this funny.

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Harvey the shorkie modelling his new harness, and managing a bit more dignity now he’s not being swung about like a handbag…

The weather is definitely turning its mind to thoughts of autumn, although it’s bright and clear. There are a couple of mallard on the river – I’ve seen dabchicks, goosander, tufted ducks and kingfishers here. We follow the river to the rowing club. The weir looks like it’s had its gradient reduced since the floods at the end of 2015. After we pass the clubhouse, we take the club’s private road north to a long, straight avenue, running east to west. We follow it west until we reach what used to be one of the gatehouses to the Titus Salt estate. From here, a path runs steeply and muddily uphill. In winter, the tall hedge on the right is babbling with long-tailed tits and goldfinch.

At the top, a curious wrought iron construction, almost like a massive kissing gate, admits us onto a cobbled, walled bridleway. We turn east and descend to a tiny little reservoir. I should know what it was for, but I don’t. My assumption is that it provided water for Salts Mill, but whether for the workforce to drink or for industrial purposes, I know not. Harvey has discovered a love of jumping on walls for a look at what’s on the other side. He quickly changes his mind with this particular view.

As we clear the reservoir, we’re into Shipley Glen woods. In the summer, they echo to the strange, ululating laugh of the green woodpecker – the yaffle. Its plumage camouflages it perfectly in tree canopy so it’s more often heard than seen. We head uphill once more and, as we hit the main track through the woods, curve eastwards up and around the slope to emerge from the trees at the Old Glen House pub. We follow the road westwards to the ice cream van and then take a way-marked public footpath around the back of some houses – Harvey’s new harness is useful for manoeuvring him over the cattle grid here.

Behind the houses, there’s a drystone wall running up the hill. We cross a stile to the western side of the wall – Harvey is once more airlifted in his new gear – and handrail the wall up

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Looking Leedswards. Other West Yorkshire cities are available. And less up themselves.

the hill. Just before we reach a caravan park, we recross the wall to some boggy ground, ascend a little more before…drrrrrrrum roll…recrossing through a rather narrow gate. A muddy footpath runs up through bracken and Himalayan balsam to emerge on the caravan park’s entrance road. We carry on straight uphill through bracken now turning seasonally brown (the bracken, I mean; we’re not turning seasonally brown). As we start to crest the top of this slope, we turn back for a view roughly Leedswards. What? Leedswards is totally a word.

We have a gentle stroll across flat ground now, skirting another caravan park to the west. Ahead of us, the summit mound of Baildon hill looms (admittedly not very loomingly, as it’s not that big). A short pull takes us onto a plateau with splendid views of West Yorkshire (if  such a thing an be said to exist). We take a pew on one of the benches near the trig point, drink coffee and admire the vista. There’s a circular display that names all the features of interest on the horizon. It’s all here – Top Withens, the Ovenden Moor wind turbines…um…Drax (the coal-fired power station, not the massive, blue guy from Guardians of the Galaxy). West Yorkshire is the best Yorkshire.

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West Yorkshire has it all…

We slip off the north edge of the summit and down to a strange geological arrangement, like a conglomeration of cinders and shale. No idea what it is – when I was a child, my dad told me it fell from outer space. I’m 47 now, and I think he may have made that up. We turn due west, skirting the northern edge of the upper caravan park before plunging downhill, back toward Shipley Glen. Crossing Glen Road, we follow the broad, obvious track down to Loadpit Beck, and cross the stream on a little, concrete foot bridge. At the far side, we turn roughly south, climbing gently back up into the woods.

The path here, hugs the top of the glen, walled pasture to west and steep, deciduous woods to the east. We arrive once more at the strange Victorian-almost-kissing-gate and turn uphill where we turned downhill before. The bridleway is skirting the edge

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There are a lot of these little lanes round here. I rather like them.

the Salt estate; soon a walled lane draws us west, down onto the carriage road that ran between Salt’s two gate houses. It’s not marked on the OS map as a public right of way, but it’s been treated as one since I was child. Just uphill from where we join the carriage road and off to the south are what I believe to be the remains of Salt’s mansion. It (or rather its various owners) suffered a series of macabre and unfortunate deaths before its demolition in the 50s. Recently, a series of hauntings were proved – by a talking dog and some kids – to be Mr McGruder trying to make off with the old Salt fortune. He’d have gotten away etc…

Emerging from the woods into Gilstead, we cross the road to turn south and downhill. Where the road turns sharply to the right, we recross and footpath takes us back to our starting point on the canal.

Kit list:

I didn’t really take any. A flask of coffee, basically. Harvey was wearing a Ruffwear Web Master harness. He looked splendid. I think he’s starting to like it. He gets excited when he sees it now.

An accretion of brutality, 12/05/17

“Came up running, maybe faster than anyone she’d ever seen run, straight out across the garage, down the long line of what they’d said was Lev’s father’s car collection. As he ran, each long arch lit up with its glow stuff, so shallow they might almost have been beams, to fade again as he passed below, and she hadn’t imagined there were so many, or how big this place was. As he ran he screamed, maybe how he hadn’t screamed when what happened to him had torn so much of his body off, but between the screams he whooped  hoarsely, she guessed out of some unbearable joy or relief, just to run that way, have fingers, and that was harder than the screams.

Then one last arch faded when he ran beneath it, and there was only darkness, and the sounds he made.”

William Gibson, The Peripheral

The first time I read this paragraph, I thought it was an extraordinary thing – beautifully and terribly human. Here, now, suddenly having my leg free of the metalwork to which I’ve been bolted for 10 months, my eyes shimmer with tears. It describes a man abruptly free of the awful physical injuries that have come to define him and perhaps seeing past the emotional trauma that was grafted on with them. His wounds are far more grievous than mine but, you know, fictional. When I look at the list of what my body has endured over the last 31 months, it’s a blankly terrifying accretion of brutality. I’m glad it was spread out. In summary:

10/11/14

Left brachial plexus neuropraxia – I stretch the nerve cluster that moves my left arm, paralysing it. As I am hanging by it at the time, I fall 5 metres, sustaining an open right tibial fracture and a fibula fracture. I bounce 30-40 metres, during which: fracture left ribs 4-10 (that’s 7 ribs in total); right clavicle fracture; fracture thoracic vertebra 6; fracture transverse processes on thoracic vertebrae 5 and 6 and on lumbar vertebrae 1 & 4; fracture spinous processes on sacral vertebrae 1 & 2. I lie on my own for somewhere between 8 and 9 hours. The sensation of one half of my tibia rubbing across the other half is genuinely the worst thing I have ever felt. I am airlifted to Newcastle Royal Victoria Infirmary.

11/11/14

Picture of surgical scar on author's spine.

Magnificent scar

An intramedullary nail (basically a titanium rod) is inserted into one half of my broken tibia and the other half is slotted over the other end and fixed with screws. A tissue graft is lifted from my right calf and slipped under the open flap of skin, which is then stitched closed. A skin graft is taken from my right thigh to cover the bare meat on my calf.

 

 

12/11/14

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No, this is a magnificent scar…

The two vertebrae on either side of my spinal fracture are stabilised with titanium Meccano. I gain a magnificent scar. It’s not as magnificent as my leg scar, but it’s pretty dapper.

I’m not sure of the date because: morphine.

At some point after leaving intensive care but before I am moved to Leeds General Infirmary, and deep in the clutches of morphine induced Bruce Willis hallucination (no, honestly), I try to manually remove my own catheter. Even through the opiate cloud, it is eye-watering. Don’t try this at home. Or in hospital. Ow.

29/06/16

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The horror, the horror, the horror…

Because my tibia was exposed for such a long time, the bone has not healed. The intramedullary nail is unscrewed and removed – I dread to imagine the mechanics of this process. The surgeons cut 3cm of dead bone from my tibia and shunt the two halves together. Then they put 12 pins through the bone and fix them externally to a series of stainless steel rings – an Ilizarov frame. Just for clarity, my right leg is now 3 cm shorter than it was, and my muscles and tendons contract to the new length.

10/08/16

So that I can stretch the missing length back in with the frame, I have a corticotomy, which is to say that they re-break my leg. With a drill. And a chisel. I Google corticotomy to find out how to spell it; the first search result is a YouTube clip of an actual corticotomy. I’m lucky that way.

18/08/16

The old break is sufficiently healed that I can start opening up the new break. I turn the nuts on four bolts 0.25mm three times a day. As the gap widens, the pins gradually stretch my flesh. It’s an extraordinary sensation. This will continue until 29/09/16.

28/10/16

I snap a pin. The torsion from widening the gap coupled with 4 months of my being possibly more active than the average patient distorts and then breaks one of the pins on the bottom ring. The pin is pulled out and then a new one is driven through my leg. Not in the old hole, no. They make a new hole. Of course. This is my third nerve block. When it wears off, oh my word.

12/01/17

At a regular x-ray, I point out that the two pin sites in the middle of my calf weep quite a bit. As the pins are supporting the old break, which has healed, and provide a potential avenue for infection, they are removed. With pliers. I get gas and air. It’s not painful exactly, but when you pull metal through skeleton, it generates friction, which generates heat. When the hot metal emerges from your skeleton into your flesh, it is quite odd. Oh, alright, yes, it is also painful. Ow. Again.

16/03/17

I snap another pin. No, I don’t understand either. It’s like they don’t make these frames for people who, I don’t know, walk about. Anyway, this time, my consultant just takes out the pin clip and puts in a longer clip that reaches in to grip the snapped end. This means I do not have to have the pin replaced. All of the hurrah. The frame tinkering transmits all the vibration directly to my skeleton. The piercing nausea is quite distracting. Also, I have an ingrowing toenail on my big toe. It’s clearly not the gravest of my woes, but straws and the camel’s back, eh?

20/04/17

My consultant tells me that if I promise not to rock climb, he will loosen off the frame and then remove it in three weeks. He takes the nuts from the supporting bolts. As they are under tension from holding up 76kg of idiot, they have seized up. Another surgeon has to hold the frame while he loosens them. Again, the vibration is transmitted directly into my hard infrastructure. It last seconds and forever. Ow. Again, again. In addition, now the that the nuts are gone, the frame can flex. When the bolt threads rub across the rings, it is a brand new crack in Hell’s paving.

11/05/17

After a further x-ray, the consultant decides that the frame can come off. The pins are all

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As good as new. Well, better than broken.

snipped through with bolt cutters. Some of them take some cutting. As the pins snap, the tension they are under is released directly into my skeleton. One of the pins at the bottom is actually really loose – I watch the nurse prod it back and forth with her finger before she plucks it free. The rest are not loose. Oh, no. They are well and truly ossified in place. Most of them are heaved free with some accompanying sacrilege on my part. (Honestly, they’re missing a trick here; if they mixed helium with the gas and air, this could be primetime viewing. The show would have it all: blood, drama, tension, human frailty, really squeaky blasphemy. I digress.) A burly male nurse is brought onto the pitch for the stubborn pins. He is able to shift all but two of them. I invent some new compound swears. My surgeon is brought in. He takes what is basically a drill chuck on a T-handle, and clamps it to the end of a pin. Two nurses hold my leg down. The surgeon heaves on the pin. The third nurse hits the pin from the other end; I have my eyes closed and have no idea with what. I inhale gas and air all the way down into my pelvic girdle. My left leg (the good one) actually goes into spasm. There’s a fair bit of blood. One more pin to go. See previous pin. Peace, the charm’s wound up. My leg is dressed and encased in a rigid protective boot and I am released into the care of a responsible adult*.

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Tibial triptych. It’s a bit more colourful than the Isenheim altarpiece, but about as grim.

12/05/17

And here I am. In actual trousers. And socks that come up over my ankles. And underpants that don’t contain Velcro. It’s been an astonishing process: humbling, painful, life-affirming, somehow simultaneously bright and befuddling. I’m sure that I have not been easy to deal with; I can only apologise. If it’s any consolation, it’s been less fun being me than being around me. To everyone who has altered clothes for me; visited me in hospital (especially if you bought coffee); done shopping for me; dropped by at home to see how I’m doing; taken me to the pub, cinema, shops or physiotherapy; done laundry for me; cooked for me; changed the bedding for me; carried stuff for me; put up with me on Twitter, the ‘phone or real life; driven me to, waited around for me at, or driven me home from the hospital; done something for me that I’ve forgotten – thank you all, I am in your debt. A special thank you to my team at work, who have been so supportive of me whilst probably dealing with me at my worst: you rock.

And just for clarity, although this post references brutality, the care I have received from all of the staff at both Newcastle Royal Victoria Infirmary and Leeds General Infirmary has been superb. I am grateful to them all and sorry that, on occasion, my circumstances have got the best of my temper.

*no, really

Aren’t you better yet? 02/03/17

“Singing six months ain’t no sentence, and one year ain’t no time”

Junco Partner, The Clash

Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been 5 months since my last confession. Where has the time gone? I am, I think, in a state of shock, so this will be a bit of a stream of consciousness as I try to put my thoughts in order. Let’s get you all up to speed, and then I can crack on with recent events.

When last seen, I was enjoying a ferociously strong gin and all of the extended cuts of The Lord of the Rings. I say enjoying – I still resent the way that Gimli was gradually turned into comic-dwarf-relief by the screenplay. Also, Strider wasn’t scary enough and his character arc was crammed into some unnecessary, producer-driven three act structure. I digress. This isn’t getting you up to speed.

Scurry forward to mid January and I am once more in orthopaedic outpatients at Leeds General Infirmary, having my lower right leg irradiated. In the subsequent x-ray, there is perhaps twice as much bone as in December, and it is much denser. The screen shot here is of the lateral x-ray. You can see the bone is filling in from the back forwards. This is because all the muscle and therefore blood supply for the tibia is at the back, in the calf.

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Lateral x-ray of my right tibia, in all its happy glory.

I point out to my consultant that two of the pins weep quite a lot when I am active. They are supporting the old break, which has now healed, and so are functionally redundant. They are removed. With pliers. I get gas and air. It’s an extraordinary sensation. Not painful as such, but the friction generated by metal pins being drawn through my skeleton is quite something. Would not recommend.

In the run-up to this x-ray, I’ve stopped using crutches indoors and, after it, I stop using them altogether. This is important because weight-bearing triggers a nerve signal to make the bone grow. The more bone is in the gap, the more I can weight-bear. The more I weight-bear, the stronger that nerve signal. The stronger the signal, the more bone grows into the gap. Repeat.

At physiotherapy, I’m now working on a lot of single-leg balance exercises and I’m moving 80kg on the leg press (I weigh about 76kg, so I’m pressing more than double bodyweight). Elsewhere, I’m getting down to the shops and back with around 4kg of shopping and without crutches (albeit incredibly slowly). I’ve very gradually phased prescription painkillers down and then out. After the end of January, I phase out over the counter painkillers too. That’s a relief, I can tell you. Not just because of the freedom from opioids, but also the lecture every time I buy cocodamol. Oh dear me, yes. “Have you taken these before?” I think you could say that we are acquainted, yes…

My February x-ray gets bumped on to the start of March. Out of interest, I get my thumbs into the gap in my tibia. It feels like it’s full of bone. There’s a little bit of a hollow, yes, but the consultant has told me that there will probably always be a concavity on the front of my shin. But am I just feeling bone because I want there to be bone and my mind is making up the difference? And, good grief, I cannot tell you how much I want to be rid of this frame. It weighs 2kg. The ends of the pins are sharp and catch on everything. You can never forget it’s there, even in bed. Actually, especially in bed. I can only shower my right leg once a week, so it’s constantly sloughing greasy, dead skin. I’ve been wearing 3/4 of a pair of jogging bottoms for months now and I’d quite like to just put on some trousers. Or jeans. Maybe even jeggings. Oh yeah, and I’ve basically got 12 knitting needles entirely through my leg and that is exactly as comfortable as it sounds.

My March appointment arrives. I have my x-ray more or less on time, but when I get back to clinic, they are running almost two hours behind. I manage to distract myself from daytime television (why, hospitals, why?) with a book. Eventually, I’m called in. There on screen is the familiar shape of my tibia, sort of full of bone on the frontal x-ray. The obliques are a bit less convincing. Ignore the breaks in the fibula, gentle reader, because #FunFibulaFact: most of the fibula is functionally redundant. The bottom fits into the ankle, and the top anchors some ligaments; the rest is ornamental. Eyes on the prize, team, back to the tibia. Is it dense enough for the frame to come off? Spoiler alert: it is not dense enough for the frame to come off. The consultant loosens the upright bars on the frame to take some of the tension out. This will allow more of my weight to go directly onto the bone – see mantra above abut weight-bearing. I will come back in 7 weeks and he will loosen it again, completely. Then, in another fortnight, he might take the frame off. I am, in the finest tradition of disqualified Masterchef contestants, gutted. (Seriously, though, Masterchefs, learn a new adjective. Also that bit where they say “It’s not gonna stop me cooking”? Just once I’d like to hear “Sod it, it’s ready-meals from now on.)

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Ignore the fibula (the one on the left). Nobody cares about the fibula. It does nothing, the slacker. I’m thinking about having it removed.

Pretty much in shock, I hobble into Leeds, get the train to Bingley, get some shopping (not the celebratory meal for which I was hoping), get through my front door, sit on the couch and cry. Not very loudly or for very long, but all on my own and with another 9 weeks in the frame looming before me. And yes, there is and end in sight. And yes, I’m lucky to be alive. And yes, it could have been worse. And yes, and yes, and yes, and yes. If all you have for me is platitudes, please hold your breath. Keep holding. Keep holding. Keep holding. Keep holding. Keep holding. Keep holding. You can do it. Keep holding. Annnnd you’re unconscious. Excellent.

So, where were we? Yes. Another 9 weeks of this. Obviously I can do it. My remarkable body and my little, thug heart will keep going because that’s what they do. My beleaguered mind – always the weak link in this chain – is right at the end of its tether. I was prepared for “we might have to leave this until April”, but May? May? That’s a whole load of plans I had for May just set on fire in a skip. Messrs Strummer and Jones are incorrect. One year is quite a lot of time, and it seems that I cannot remember my life before this cage. And I am crushed. Right, I have to go and take my mind off this, but I just needed to get it all off my chest. Thanks for listening.