Terry O'Connor

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On Rombalds Moor

It has been too long since I took a day’s leave with no more intent than to do as I please. On the station footbridge, I hear that the next train is heading into Bradford and sensibly decide on a different destination, ambling up Moor Lane towards Rombalds Moor. A few joggers pass, the occasional cyclist and the odd car. Nobody much seems to be about on this Friday in mid-March. At the old school-house, the moor edge comes down to meet the road, and a notice on the gate reminds us that grouse and other ground-nesting birds should not be disturbed between now and September. The concern is touching, given that the grouse will face disturbance by gunfire at other times of year.

Stepping rhythmically up the steep hillside, I reflect that I used to run up this path, and preoccupy myself trying to work out how long ago that was. Suddenly, with startling clarity, I recall a Sunday morning run, not quite twenty years ago. John and I had jogged uphill through deepening snow and into low cloud, where we carried on in a pale grey world reduced to a few yards’ radius. On reflection, it was inadvisable, but we knew the moor and soon enough arrived at our intended landmark, a low sandstone outcrop where several paths meet. Ice feathered the hair on my shins, and toes were numb in soaked running shoes. No matter: we both knew that this would be a Sunday to remember, and so it is as aching knees carry me on to the top. A cold wind is pouring across the hill, giving the lie to the bright March sunshine. Overnight rain has cleared the air and all the shades of brown are sharply delineated. It is a day to admire the view then quickly move on before the wind can find its way down your neck.

Across the moor top, the path towards and beyond a lonely triangulation point has been paved with flagstones. The reasons are not hard to see. Level and peaty, this bleak plateau attracts the rain and holds onto it jealously, amassing a wealth of brown-stained water in great pools and patches of soggy terrain. Now the many braided paths through puddle and rush are replaced by a hard single carriageway, easily walked and running ahead like an eager labrador. The slabs are in various stones, not all of them local, and some have mortices and other signs of fixtures and fittings. They are the floors of disused and repurposed mills and factories, lifted after a century or more of service and put out to grass. Once they reflected the clatter of clogs and machinery, the beating hearts of industrial Yorkshire. Now they serve the congested and unhealthy hearts of Yorkshire folk, tempting them to walk another mile or two, mitigating the stress and poor diet of the lives that have replaced the mills. The stone flags make me think: they have been turned loose on the moor to see out their days. Is that what will happen to me? Another half-mile, and the slabs remind me of Heptonstall churchyard, its 18th and 19th century gravestones laid flat, edge to edge, around the ruins of its church. The mill floors became paving slabs, the gravestones of lives that have passed away, now making life a little easier as I stroll across this high place.

The slabs lead to a busy dip in the hill, whence a more or less tarmaced roadway leads southwards into Airedale and the unappealing clutter of Keighley. With the day’s second good decision, I turn north towards Ilkley, along a broad track of subsoil and rubble. My father-in-law, long since deceased, recalled driving up this track with his father in the years just after the War. Either their car was exceptional or the track has disintegrated in 60 years, as the potholes and abrupt steps would defeat all but a small tank or a self-destructive mountain biker. But it is a pleasant meander down towards Ilkley, the distant view occupied by a succession of hills, and the heather progressively interspersed with larger bushes and the occasional small tree. Soon the gorse and hawthorn will be noisily alive with gentleman chaffinches out on the pull, metrically punctuated by invisible chiffchaffs. But today only a blackbird and one querulous robin claim the attention.

Reluctant to leave the Moor, I take every lane and snicket that traces a path down grassy banks, bypassing driveways and gardens. Eventually, though, the tall trees give way to the Victorian gables of Parish Ghyll Road and muddy grass to asphalt. Ahead lie the twin temptations of Morten’s, where flat-capped men silently ogle enticing displays of lawnmowers and wrenches, and Bart’at, where my walk finds a welcome pint-of-bitter end.

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