Where can you find wild-ness? Not wilderness, that untouched, uninhabited land that is almost impossible to find in Britain, but wildness, the places where nature is allowed to run unchecked. I woke up one Sunday with the need to be somewhere else, to distract me from my day to day concerns, somewhere wild to take me out of myself. But where do you go to find it? Not the town with its building, roads and industry stamping a heavy man-made footprint, but not the countryside either. Managed green field of grass munching sheep contained by angular walls are just another kind of industry and barely more natural than a car park.
I had been inspired reading Common Ground, by Rob Cowen, one man’s exploration of a small triangle of neglected land on the edge of his town. On the urban fringe between housing development and open fields, he discovers another distinct world rich with wildlife: fox, owl and hare, existing unnoticed under the radar of human interference. He describes places like this as the ‘edge-lands’, the transitional places between urban and rural where through lack of interest or neglect, man has resisted ‘the urge to control nature and allowed it to find its own way.’ So I decided for my October Microadventure to walk the entire edge of my town and seek out its edge-lands.
I live in a village so to reach the edge of town I walk on footpaths across the fields. There is a bland unnatural uniformity to square after square of monocrop nibbled short by horses and sheep. But as soon as I step into a wood the atmosphere changes. The sharp line of sky and land is broken by variety which envelops you, drawing your attention to the close at hand; water dripping from a leaf, a quiver of branch as a bird hops further into the bushes. Too steep to build on the wood has been left undeveloped and semi-wild, standing guard along the top of the valley that edges this side of town. On its upper side there are sometimes patches of moor, pock marked with the hollows of long-abandoned quarries, now filled with bilberry, bramble and birth, reclaiming it for the wild.
In a housing estate on the top of the hill residents’ abrupt signs warn me to stick to the path and I head down the hill to cross to the other side of town. At the by-pass cars roar past in a hurry to reach Bradford or Skipton. I slip down the banking to a tiny triangle of wasteland bordered by two of the exit roads from the roundabout. Inside I feel the thrill of being hidden from the noisy world: no one knows I am here. Outside are cars, lorries, gasometers and industrial units, but within nature has taken hold. Plants at every level intertwine to become an almost impenetrable mass. Rubbish thrown from cars is decaying back to the soil. A traffic cone is becoming tightly wrapped in ivy, disguising it alarm red identity and soon is will be indistinguishable from the green growth around it.
I walk on to the bridge where lorries thunder over, probably oblivious to the river Aire beneath. The path, which had been overgrown in the summer, is now cut back so I am able to walk along the town’s riverbank, but never meet another soul. On one level I can hear the rumble of traffic and on another the quiet rhythm of the river. On one side are high brick walls, barbed wire fences and lorry parks, on the other cows in fields of yellowing grass drink lazily from the river, a clear demarcation of town and country.
At an open field I lose the path so head towards a line of hawthorns. But it’s not one, but two rows of gnarly old trees, their overhead branches knitting together to form a tunnel, a secret passageway for lost walkers. Could this be a holloway, an old single lane track from the days before motor vehicles? It leads me to the by-pass. For the first time I check the map but it confirms the path crosses the dual carriageway so I climb its wooded banking. I am surprised to find a gap in the crash barriers on either side of the road; a token nod towards the legal rights of way as set down in the Ordnance Survey. Does anyone still walk this path? Traffic is hurtling by in both directions but I stake my claim and cross over, pushing through brambles and bits of jettisoned car parts on the other banking. What looked like the body of a small child thankfully is just the rotting carcass of a stuffed Santa, perhaps worked loose from the front of a lorry last Christmas. The glint of water I have often glimpsed from the road turns out to be a calm fishing lake though we are warned not to swim in its reed choked waters and I press on.
From here I head up the hill to the top of the next valley. The grander houses of the Victorian middles classes give way to a twentieth century housing estate. But there is no wild-ness in either; all land has been parcelled up in contained pieces of house, garden and road. The edge of the town is sprawling outwards with new housing pushing the boundaries up higher towards the moors. I had become lost in urban-ness and checked the map again to find a way back to the edge-lands. The blue line of a beck offered promise so I slip behind some houses and half slide, half stumble down a steep slope to find an overgrown small valley where invasive brambles, Himalayan balsam and Japanese knotweed try to cover over the traces of abandoned allotments and long gone mills. Over the beck in a wooded thicket well worn muddy tracks lead to the charcoal remains of old campfires, discarded beer cans and rusting bikes; the desire lines of undesirable behaviour or proof that young people are not all glued to technology and can still connect with the wild places?
I am tiring now and can see my house on the other side of the final valley. I am unfamiliar with this part of own and criss-cross terraced streets and cobbled back alleys to find my way home. Near the secondary school a path heads straight through the garden of an eighteen century weavers cottage incongruously surrounded by modern semis. The householder is clearing autumn leaves and greets me warmly so we had a brief chat, my only human contact of the walk. I am hungry and ready for home. Through the estate a hidden high-walled pathway hung with autumn berries leads down to the railway line, from where I brace myself for the climb back to my village. My legs burned up the cobbled hill and in the wood, the first street lights are coming on, emphasising the encroaching gloom. Stiff legged and glowing cheeked I arrive back to warm lights and domesticity, knowing I have been to the edges and come home.