The Covid Spring
I’m writing today after seven weeks of lockdown, on a day when we can look forward to our collective leashes being a bit looser. The immediate crisis phase of the Covid pandemic seems to be passing, and as the country starts to learn to live with this new disease, I decided to look back on a unique Spring season.
Back in March, we were told to stay home. Daily life changed across the country. Travel drastically reduced. People were furloughed or working from home. The roads were quiet and the sky empty of contrails. In cities it must have been very different but living on the edge of a small Pennine town it was quite refreshing.
Work in the NHS on the community frontline rather surprisingly became much quieter too. Some things did change for the worse – team sport had to stop, so the rugby season was curtailed early, and training for Mountain Rescue also had to stop due to the ban on large groups meeting up. Paddling, climbing and most other forms of outdoor recreation were also put on hold. So, with my time no longer taken up with these activities, I started to explore my local footpaths, places I had known but forgotten. Initially I just documented these trips with my iPhone, but before long the DSLR came along too.
One of the great joys I have found this Spring has been following the day-by-day changes as the season progresses. A new plant or tree would come into bud, and a few days later on passing the same place, the flowers would be out and pristine. A week or two later, and it would be another’s turn in the limelight.
At the start of lockdown, Spring was just getting started. The snowdrops had been and gone, and wood anemones taken their place. This flowers early in the season, before the leaf canopy closes, and is a marker of undisturbed woodland. It tends to spread slowly through its rhizomic root system rather than by seed. It also goes by the name of thimbleweed, but I love another alias, windflower, which evokes its constant movement in the breeze.
The last week of March was still quite wintery at times, and snow showers would often blow through. Walking along High Bank above the upper Don valley is a bit like flying, especially so when the wind picks up and the weather closes in.
There is an ancient boundary stone on the Bank, cross-marked and pigmented. Every time I pass it by, I pause there and wonder about its message.
The trees were still bare of bud or leaf, but on the banks of a local reservoir, the goat willow started to put out its catkins. The male flowers start out small and silver-haired, maturing with bright yellow pollen held in the wind. The female flowers by contrast as a pale green and are found on separate trees. Willow bark contains salicin, related to aspirin, and has been used as a treatment for pain and fever as recommended by Hippocrates in the 5th century BC.
Up on the sides of the valley, winter twigs were still the rule and the high moors of Dead Edge and Black Hill had not yet lost the brown hues of old heather.
The last day of March saw the first display of primroses, pale yellow against the bed of last year’s leaves in the beech wood. Both the flowers and leaves of this plant can be used in salads, and in the past the root was used as an expectorant to treat coughs and colds.
The seasons change at different times and different speeds depending on both latitude and altitude, and this is quite obvious in my area on the flanks of the Pennines. Our local high point, Hartcliff Hill, was still looking very wintery while down in the valley Spring was taking hold.
New grass was sprouting in the fields above Thurlstone, and lapwing and curlews wheeled over the fields while skylarks sang overhead. Cotton wool clouds gave big skies over South Yorkshire. Penistone, marked by its viaduct, nestled into the Don Valley below.
Walking by Thurlstone Quarry, my eye was caught by the cloudscape echoing the curves of heather, wall and track on the ground.
Down in the hedgerows, new colours were appearing at pace. Coltsfoot spread under still dormant hawthorn by Royd Moor reservoir. This is another plant with medicinal heritage being a traditional remedy for coughs, colds and flu.
Forget-me-not and lesser celandine brightened the underlayer in the wooded edges of my local park. Lesser celandine also goes by the name of pilewort and was used as a treatment for haemorrhoids. The medieval doctrine of signatures held that if a plant resembled a body part, it could treat ailments related to it. Supposedly, the tubers of lesser celandine look like piles. There may be some scientific basis in this though, as while the raw plant is toxic, when dried or heated the toxins convert to anemonin which may have analgesic and antispasmodic properties.
As April entered its second week, blossom appeared in the hedgerows, first wild cherry, quickly followed by blackthorn. I passed one particular cherry tree, on the banks of the River Don, on almost every walk, and delighted in the way the afternoon sun backlit the flowers against the shadows of the far bank.
Down by Scout Dyke reservoir, the goat willow was passed its peak now, the blackthorn bushes growing higher up the banks picking up the baton.
In the autumn, traditionally after the first frost, the fruit of these shrubs, sloes, can be picked for culinary use. It was a family tradition in my childhood to gather them to make sloe gin for the following New year.
On the same day as the blackthorn bloomed, I spotted the first bluebells coming into flower. These are another indicator plant for ancient woodland. Bluebell woods are still relatively common in the UK, where the plant enjoys legal protection, but perhaps half of the world’s bluebell woods are found in Britain, so every such site is important. I love the colour and shape of these flowers, but they are notoriously difficult to get correctly coloured on camera
This week seemed to mark a real acceleration in Spring’s progression, and by the middle of the month, broom was showing the first yellow blooms, and stitchwort and cranesbill also came into flower.
More trees came into bud, and the woods and hedgerows started to green.
On the reservoir, the great crested grebes were busy around the nest.
Towards the end of April, down by the river near home, the sycamores were putting out fresh foliage, bright green against the sky, though the newest of leaves showed red and orange as they emerged from the bud.
The whole of April had been marked by settled, dry weather. High pressure over the UK had kept this pattern going, but there was quite a lot of haze in the atmosphere until some overnight showers washed the dust clear. The following few days were stunning. Wanting to get further afield, I serviced my venerable MTB and swapped boot for bike.
Along with the River Don, the Trans-Pennine Trial runs close to my house, giving easy access to miles of traffic-free cycling. It runs west along the old Woodhead railway line to Manchester through cuttings and along the valley side, and I made several loops out this way in the last week of April, varying the route to include the woods by Langsett Reservoir and a climb of Hartcliff Hill.
Heading towards Carlecotes, high in the Don valley, the river curves through a landscape of pastures. From the height of the old railway, I could look over the trees clear across the valley, the new growth showing from above.
From near Carlecotes, a bridleway heads south towards Flouch and the valley of the River Porter. Suddenly it feels like you are much higher up the Pennines as you cross rough sheep pastures with the Langsett Moors ahead of you.
Young lambs played and lounged in the sun.
Over the preceding fortnight the moorland birds had disappeared from the lower fields around Thurlstone, but I found them again here.
I love the way lapwings dip and swerve when they display in flight, and their characteristic call.
Skylarks abounded, rocketing out of the grass to shout their claims. I managed to catch one on camera as it perched on the field wall.
I was lucky enough to get close enough to a hare to frame that in the lens as well. Not something I have ever managed before, even though I see them fairly frequently in the Spring.
On the climb from the Flouch grows one of my favourite trees. A lonely hawthorn, there’s just something about its shape and situation that appeals to me.
Before the summit, a bridleway leaves the road to skirt the summit of Hartcliff. I was glad to take it, as there is still a steep climb to the top on the road. The trees here were a little behind those in more sheltered spots, only just coming into bud.
Once round the hill, the view opens out to the north and east over the Don valley.
A fast descent down a rocky, water-eroded track leads back towards the Trans-Pennine Trail, and from there I detoured towards Penistone to take a look at another of my favourite trees which shades the bridleway heading down to the town.
Paths skirt the edge of the houses, and following these, I enjoyed the pattern of walls across the fields.
The last few days of the month saw beautiful Spring days, blue skies with cotton wool clouds, and distant views sharp in the clear air. I can’t recall such clarity in the twenty or more years I’ve lived here. What a difference the lack of road traffic made!
Walking up Royd Moor the skycaps were huge.
Descending back down High Bank the views westward to the Pennine watershed and east homewards demanded I pause.
Down by the river things continued to change apace. Violets put in an appearance in sheltered banks, while bird cherry started to flower in the hedges. The Woodland Trust describes this tree as a real show-stopper, and they are right. In full bloom it is spectacular. It is a native, but looks like its should have come from some elegant Japanese garden. Over a week or so the local trees slowly put out their flowers.
Down by the river the cherry tree was still in full flower.
Wild garlic added its pungent scent to the warm late afternoon air, and sunlight slanted through the sycamores to colour the river green.
In the damp shade at the top of the park, the bluebells were still going strong, lasting longer this year than they sometimes do. They were joined now by archangel and great banks of hedge garlic.
Hedge garlic, or garlic mustard as it is also known, can be used as a salad green, or to make a sauce for lamb. I’ve never tried it, but given how abundant it is this year, I may have to harvest some.
More blossom appeared now, marking hidden apple trees. They were joined by rowan, attracting the ever more numerous hoverflies and bees.
Later in the year, rowan berries can be used to flavour game dishes and in jam. Th tree itself has a folklore tradition of magical properties, and was thought to guard against witches.
The flower meadow next to the river hadn’t made much showing this year. It didn’t get cut last autumn because the ground was too soft to get a tractor to it, and that has reduced the number and variety of early spring flowers there. But in the fields adjacent, which are grazed by horses, lady’s smock, also called the cuckoo flower, started to come through. I love the delicate flowers of this plant, pale mauve against the fresh green of Spring grass. Apparently it was sacred to fairies. Certainly there is a large fairy ring in the grass of one of the fields…
As April moved into May, very aptly the hawthorn began to bloom. This tree is sometimes called the Mayflower because of the timing of its flowering, and is another plant strongly associated with the fay folk. Disturbing a tree could bring the wrath of the fairies down on you.
Along the river bank, tall grasses were beginning to put out their pollen, and a wych elm showed a profuse display of its pale green flowers, while in the beech wood up the hill, this years canopy was spreading.
We are now in the second week of May, and new colours are appearing in the verges and along the tracks. Red campion and ragged robin are taking over from the whites and blues of early Spring.
Tomorrow we are allowed back onto the water as the lockdown starts to lift. After seven weeks of walking or riding, I am looking forward to once more being a photographer afloat, but I have enjoyed seeing the progression of the season in my local area.