From the house Derry Hill rises steeply out of the village of Menston, a narrow lane along which drivers race just a little too fast and unsuspecting walkers have to keep their wits about them. So it is something of a relief, about halfway up, to follow a footpath sign over a style and to head out across the fields. From this point on, during our seven mile loop that will take us south and then back round to the village, we will only ever encounter roads as we cross them… apart from a couple of farm tracks along the way, the walk will very much be across the fields, through the woods, and over the moors.
So far… so Yorkshire. This part of the world has all the things you would hope to find on a walk such as this, from the dry stone walls to picturesque villages, lonely pubs on the edge of wild moorland, and amazing views across the rolling landscape. But beyond these clichés there is something else that makes walking in West Yorkshire so fascinating, and that is the opportunity – especially once you get up high and the countryside unfolds before you – to understand not only the natural beauty of the region, but also the social history of this landscape, and the human interaction that has shaped it.
From our first vantage point, atop a ridge above the former High Royds Hall – a former psychiatric hospital transformed into a pleasant new village – we can see in all directions. Up here it is possible to see the many towns and villages nestled in the creases of the landscape, brick chimney towers reminding us that this was one of the powerhouses of the industrial revolution. Later, as the route swings round through the village of Hawksworth and then past a parade of working farms and holiday cottages, we will reach open moorland. And here, exposed to the elements even on a sunny June afternoon, there is an old abandoned rifle range where sheep pick through the fragments of expended ammunition, and reservoirs and drainage channels to remind us how the moor is far from being a purely ‘wild’ space.
Down off the moor and we pick our way along some narrow lanes and footpaths back towards Menston. As we cross the back road to Ilkley we drop down past some renovated mill buildings and reach a small patch of woodland. This collection of trees hides the remnants of the Bleach Mill. From the 1850s until 1927, this bleach works bleached yarns from local linen mills in a collection of buildings surrounding a mill pond. Local protests about the pollution in the local waterways led to the mill being closed, and eventually the pond silted up and plantlife began to take over.
Now, as we walk along the path that follows a line between a neighbouring field and the old mill pond, there are no obvious clues to the history of the site. But as we step up to the wall and peer into the gloomy interior of the wood, we can see a brick chimney, still standing despite being swallowed by the overgrowth. It is reminiscent of those structures built in the jungle by long-extinct tribes, and perhaps a foreshadow of what is to come when we are no longer here to farm the fields, cut back the trees, and tame the moors. And it is another reminder too, of a time when our view across this rolling landscape would have been obscured by the soot and the smog of the industrial revolution, and when life for many was extremely tough.
It is difficult to reconcile these thoughts with the present reality when, a few minutes later, we are sitting in the wonderfully quirky courtyard of the Bleach Mill cottage, sipping from mugs of restoring Yorkshire tea. But still, the remains of Bleach Mill, hidden from few, remind us how fragile our symbols of progress are and how quickly, in the greater scheme of things, it can all change.
Words & Pictures: Paul Scraton