Since the creation of bikes and bird hides last year, Immy has been a big old supporter and now even co-hosts the monthly Bikes and Bird Hides Culture Club, so it seems only right that she shares her beautifully penned love letter to her local spot, Snidley Moor, on the blog!
There is a small spit of woodland near my house. You access it by a tiny dirt track alongside a static caravan park; in the summer it becomes a tangled knot of vines. If you don’t know it exists, it doesn’t exist. A few meters ahead and on the right is a path to the sandstone trail, so most people don’t notice this tiny little entrance. Their eyes slide from the horses in the paddock, to the caravan park, and back to the cut stone steps to the trail. You can slip undetected into a shaded dappled path and out of sight.
The woodland here is ancient. There’s oak, beech and hawthorn, but it is mostly dominated by silver birch now, which has been coppiced for the past century. In the winter, the flexible poles creak and sway in the wind, and the whole place becomes ghostly. You can cycle if you are careful and keep to the bridleway. Mountain-bikers, drawn here by the steep root-bound descents, have caused a lot of damage to the ground flora over the years, and so cyclists are treated with suspicion.
It’s strange how the birds react when you visit. The little song thrush that sits at the mouth of the wood is more concerned with being louder than you are; the crows call angrily at their sanctum defiled by humanity, but mostly it goes silent as soon as you enter. It is very obvious you are being watched.
The gravel track is rutted and grooved deeply from small rivulets in clayey soils that have worn away over the years. Blackbirds, wrens and little dunnocks will follow you, flitting between the bracken on your left for a short while, but will leave you as the sandstone walls rise up. On your right is a gnarled and twisted silver birch – one of the oldest in the UK. In its trunk is a small brown notebook in a plastic bag, and people have been writing messages in it since the 1920s. Children leave toys and food for the birds. It is quite normal in this area for people to leave gifts at the base of trees. Further on is a tree where all manner of things are left: One week I saw a mug with a bear in it, and another time a small tin watering can. Other trees have people leaving small piles of sticks in trunk hollows, or dried flower bundles at the roots. I wonder what private traditions these are, and what draws them to specific trees or spots. I can’t find anything on the internet about them, so assume they are personal rituals held tightly in people’s fists and pocketed.
Whichever way you walk, you are met with steep vertical inclines to the top. From here you can see all the way to North Wales and if you fancy it, Liverpool. Beneath you is a severe cliff face, carpeted in the summer by bright blustery rhododendron. I know they are considered to many a pest, but this smudged ribbon of purple, thumb-smeared roughly across the cliff face always cheers me up. It cheers the birds up too. The chaffinches, goldfinches, coal tits and various other warblers make ample use of the thickets and, mostly undisturbed by humans (so few know about this place and even less can be bothered with the climb), jabber away a sparkling cacophony of little voices regardless of the season. Once, I heard what I think was a black cap. It sounded like two marbles being clacked together sharply, and I enjoyed listening to it. I saw a Jay too, planting acorns, and heard the distant high whistled ‘pheee-yew’ of a buzzard. We first learnt to identify buzzards as children with my dad, who would lazily point to the daub of hovering black in the summer, and say ‘look, buzzard’. As an adult, I realised that beside the robin and the blackbird, the buzzard was the only bird he really recognised. He still spots them first though, from miles off, and gestures with the same mild indifference that only dads possess. I listen out for them now, and hear the whistle weave in and out of range.
There is a wooden bench, and I like sitting here. Time doesn’t really exist in this woodland. I could sit for 5 seconds, 5 minutes, or more than an hour: It doesn’t matter – I know I am always late home if I sit.
There is something magical about this woodland. Just two miles down track are thick ridges of sandstone, so in the summer the soil becomes blood-red and glows in the late evening sun. In winter, ice laces the littered blocks of stone (felled from years of quarrying and erosion) in thin egg-shell crusts that crunch very softly when you tread on them. They glitter like quartz, and one year I remember walking when it began to snow. A sudden hush came over the woods, and the silence pressed heavily before the whole forest exhaled. Nothing stirred, and within minutes a white sheet had carpeted the trail. The sandstone cliffs in the hollow – deep auburn and decidedly saharan- appeared unnervingly at odds with snow. It was like the two scenes had been clumsily photoshopped together.
Carved into the sandstone walls are initials of those from 1668, 1917, 1942, 1986 and 2011. Some have left softly warped shapes and pictures alongside the dates and initials; moss and lichen have rooted into the grooves, and as I trace the lines with my fingers I consider that the significance of these stick-scratches has died alongside their authors. Their motive, energy, thoughts, worries, enjoyments have all dissolved back into the earth, and we know nothing of ‘AF’, ‘SY’ or ’T.C.’.
Beyond, you can still see the ramparts (the outer defensive wall) of the iron age fort that once dominated this woodland. I had my sandwiches on it once, completely unknowingly seated on bits of stone laid by men and women around 1,300 years ago. A mile onwards is Jacob’s Ladder, precarious steps cut into the rock face in the mid 19th century. There is a famous picture of two young girls in white dresses and wide hats and leather boots sat unsmilingly on the steps that I have seen in our local Morrisons. I always think of that picture when I climb them, and I wonder how many times they climbed.
That’s what is magical about the woodland. There is so much human history here, warped and twisted alongside the ancient rocks and roots. The sandstone cliffs here are about 30 million years old, and I take great delight in telling people that humans have only been in existence for about 1.6% of their lifetime. The stone hasn’t even noticed us yet.
But as you walk, the left disintegrates into tangled cliff faces, and the right is tightly separated by three lines of barbed wire. There is a golf course here, and the tidy lawns stop sharply at the wire, and seem utterly incongruous with the gnarled and ancient ridge-line. This is humanity. I once saw fox pick it’s way lightly across the green and it seemed absurd. The birds quieten here, and even the wren – the most obnoxious of all the small birds – knows it is not its place to speak, and it shuts up. The further you trek, the neater the edges, the softer the stone, the louder the unending drone of the distant motorway. You’ll reach a very straight edge of tarmac that butts sharply against the sandstone track. The two meet, but they do not mix. This is Carriage Drive and this is the end.