Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Ryburn Ramblings

Often it is the beauty on our own doorsteps that we forget about or overlook, and only in the last few weeks have I been retracing my steps through the lush labyrinth of the Ryburn Valley, a valley within a valley, the area I lived in when I first moved to the Calder Valley, and still only a stone's throw from my present home.In doing so, I have been reminded of three poems I wrote in 2013, all related to the Ryburn Valley, and which I would like to share here, after a brief look at how the area came to be significant for me.


I lived in the Ryburn Valley for three years, during which time I first ventured into the arts and literary scene of the Calder Valley, criss-crossing between different jobs, and gradually undergoing significant life changes.  In April 2013 I published my debut poetry collection Little Creatures (Poems of Insects, Small Mammals and Micro-organisms). Later that month, already familiar with the River Ryburn's source just west of the Ryburn Reservoir, and its presence in my town of Sowerby Bridge, I decided to walk its entire course to where it flows into the Calder.  Somehow, more than four years had elapsed before I took another wander to the river's origins, and in today's autumnal glow, the reservoir looked majestic.

There are definitely quite noticeable, dramatic differences in the geography and contours of the Calderdale area, from the wooded hills outside Halifax and Sowerby Bridge, towns which bear the gritty evidence of recent industry, to the primeval landscapes outside Hebden Bridge and Todmorden, whose industrial pasts are rooted further back, and the understated hamlets, villages, canals and meandering streams segueing in between, such as the civil parish of Ripponden, where I worked as a teaching assistant at the local primary school, the role which brought me to the Ryburn, and by association the Calder, Valleys.

From the summer of 2013, to March 2015 when I moved along the Calder Valley to the Bolton Brow area of Sowerby Bridge, I maintained a blog - Ryburn Ramblings - https://sites.google.com/site/ryburnramblings/home - celebrating the history, wildlife and literature of the district, and in the final post, I described my earliest experiences of the Ryburn Valley, when I would arrive on autumnal Tuesday mornings, to undertake voluntary duties at the school where I would later work :

As the bus from Halifax rolled through Sowerby Bridge and through the Ryburn Valley, I loved to see the sandy-coloured Yorkshire stone of the cottages and farms, and even the rows of shops and houses, which all seemed friendlier than the city buildings I had grown so used to.  Passing fields of cows at Triangle, and complicated several-storied houses which line up as you pass by the Post Office and cricket club without ever seeming squashed or awkward, I would alight at the terminus where one road leads into the fields of Kebroyd, another to the sunlit fringe of Hirstwood and the hills that peel away to Barkisland and the distant moors.


 Moving to the area in the ensuing hard winter of 2012, I would struggle to find my feet, juggling two jobs, and awed by the sheer vastness of the surrounding area - ironically, having migrated from the city, I found myself overwhelmed at the many miles of land in all directions, stretching in watery woodlands and hills climbing towards the peripheral moors.  2012 came and went in a wet, dark blur, and the winter of 2013 was almost hibernatory, but that spring I began to develop some sort of contextual appreciation for the place where I was living.  My poem Spring Time in the Ryburn Valley was written at around this time. Implicit in the poem is a focus on the science of flowering plants - I had just finished my second course of study in Horticulture - and an appreciation of the minutiae of the Valley's natural life. 

The gorse is leaking into life, a yellow moor's mane,
tiny pea-flowers crowded on each spiny stem,
inundated with bees.

Old standing stones are leprous with lichen,
quarried soils heather-shawled, as swallows
torpedo through the evening air;

more insect-like than bird, it seems, as they skim
the telegraph wires in swift descents of inky black,
trios splitting like divided cells.

Their twittery-twizzle muffling the motorway's faint hiss,
they float on breezes wind-whistling in uneven lines
diminishing like outdated ideologies

until they are barely discernible,
soot-specks above the moonlit moor.

And was followed by reflections on the previous autumn, in a sister poem - Autumn Morning, Ryburn Valley. This poem is less place-focused, and owes more, I think, to my mental state during those early Ryburn Valley days. What is sobering is the nihilistic tone; the daily news of warfare which has come to characterize our times, disrupts the attempt at domestic peace amid a splendid landscape.  My frustrations at the drill-like successions of traffic which would mount up outside the place I was living at the time is implied as early as the second verse, though those who know me (or, more importantly, my poetry) will know that a comparison with cockroaches is not necessarily a criticism.  There is a feeling of a year turning sour, or of idealized dreams dulled by cynical realizations, and the ending - which I had forgotten until re-reading the poem this evening - is truly morbid.


Morning opens on a frost-pored valley,
unaskingly resplendent , whose slopes impose
infinities of contours.

At ten or fifteen minute intervals
cars slide by like cockroaches down walls
as distant kitchens sparkle in electric light,

pylons gradually assume their shapes
lie bones on grainy x-rays;
a foal skips by a stable

weak sunlight's a reminder
of mortality as the radio crackles into life
and the roads start clogging up.

News of bombings, murders,
cut-price carpets,
hours blur by like buses

conveying us to workplaces, court-rooms
or doctors' surgeries. By ten there's rain
slanting down in waves like napalm.

My time in the Ryburn Valley was one of unpredictability, periods of personal and professional unhappiness, but also one of rediscovery, and a second swipe at being young. I had spent much of my twenties lonely and bogged down in jobs I did not like, losing touch with the artistic world. In the Ryburn Valley I would find myself neighboured by a fellow writer and his flamboyant boyfriend.  At odds politically, the writer being something of a fanatical, self-avowed Communist, our worlds nevertheless converged for brief periods, and their bohemian abode became a sort of second home, a 24 hour party zone, decked in African statues, exotic decorations, and, incongruously, a glitterball which would glow above us like a kitsch-kindled moon as we danced to disco in the early hours, a colourful assortment of friends and foes spinning around the living room in a haze of smoke. Our paths intertwined also thanks to the local arts organization which was gearing up at that time, and in which I became centrally involved.  Beginning as a happy band of volunteers who simply wished to enhance the cultural diversity of our town, and to share in the symbiosis of collaborative arts, this group would dominate my life, at first positively, a channel through which to experiment with my own writings and performances, but more to promote the talents of others, an avenue which came to assume the central purpose of my life. In time, the organization crumbled due to egos, the founder members turning proprietorial and paranoid, seeking only their own gratifications and profits from a previously egalitarian endeavour, and using this showcase of community arts as a means of platforming their beliefs, while stifling those of others, the final straw coming for me with a very public demonstration of bias relating to an international conflict, followed by a swift rebuttal of my own request to devise a cultural event aimed at promoting peace between the two communities concerned - provisionally granted on the understanding that its language and terminology be acutely censored, which I refused.  Shortly afterwards, I vacated the Valley.

Since leaving, I have continued to live within walking distance, but visited the river's outer fringes less, until, that is, of late. Rediscovering the nooks and crannies of the Valley, delving among its dells and woodland waterways, and its ice-like reservoirs gleaming in the autumn sun, I'm reminded of those early wanderings, my thrill at first encountering the cottongrass and unusual fungi which spring up among the billowy grasses and moorland stones, not to mention the abundant wildlife.

 I'm reminded of how perhaps its most well known local attraction is one I notice every day on passing through, the Sowerby Bridge Geese, who not only congregate on the Calder and the Ryburn, but stop the traffic sauntering over roads, marching along pathways and gaggling en-masse on the pavements outside the superstore and swimming baths.

And as I walk the selfsame pavements, kicking up tufts of bronze leaves and rubbing my hands in the chill of an October wind sharpened by the precipitous, rain-and-river climate of the Ryburn Valley, I'm reminded of how special it is, that quietly grand corner of Calderdale, with its Yorkshire stone cottages and lop-sided terraced, its expansive fields splaying out towards the tributaries of the Calder, and the confluence of that muscular bloodstream of a river with its slighter, gentler cousin, the Ryburn, trickling politely through rocky woods and ochre blazes of autumnal gorse.  Reading through my other writings, I am reassured to find that the third of my Ryburn Valley trio of poems is not driven by anxiety or underscored with imagery of wars, but is in fact an affectionate daydream on the Valley's delights, something I wrote in the hope of conveying the tranquility of the area to those outside, and to demonstrate its value not only as a place for human peace and contemplation, but as a haven for varied and beautiful natural life.


Goldfinches stud bushes,
bulbous nuggets bouncing
bough to bough 

while up in branched complexities
blue-tits flit like pebbles
bobbing on a shore 

tree-top canopies
crackle with fiery
chattering; a jay pops out. 

Further down the hillside
where the hedgerow's feet
are tickled by the trickling 

of a stream beginning its snaky
circumnavigation of the valley,
wrens come and go, mice skirt kerbs 

and a myriad of insects
populate the branches, worlds
tucked under rocks and stones. 

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