I sometimes like to imagine the valley as it was before human habitation. Without buildings, roads, t.v. masts, mobile phone masts, monuments, or field walls. A swampy primeval wilderness. Sometimes I even imagine the ice sheet, over a mile deep, pressing down on the earth, and then rivers cutting fiercely down as the land warmed up and rose again.
This can be quite hard to do. There’s a Bronze Age barrow on a nearby hillside. A few local place names appear in the 1086 Domesday Book (Langefelt, and Stanesfelt). Other place names reflect Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian settlement, and some, such as Walsden, refer to the ‘Welsh’, or native British. In 1819 the largest cotton mill in the world was built just down the road. I remember watching the huge chimney being demolished. There’s a supermarket there now. Fay Godwin’s monochrome photos of post-industrial gloom, taken in 1979, accompany Ted Hughes’ Remains of Elmet.(2) I’ve lived for most of my adult life in one of those photos, so to speak, so feel very close to that book. Fay Godwin is one of my favourite photographers, but I feel ambivalent about the bleakness of those images. They may evoke a historical truth, but the valley itself is a beautiful place of many moods and colours. The river Calder, one of the few surviving British names, is said to mean ‘violent stream'(1), which brings me to why I’m feeling a bit jangly at the moment.
Last Monday the sky darkened. There was impressive thunder, and lightning. Then it rained, and hailed, harder than most people can remember. The small streams that drain the surrounding moorland became roaring torrents. White water appeared (once again) on the hillside opposite us, where normally there isn’t even a a stream. Water raged down the little Clough (a wooded side valley), past the expensive new flood defences that held the Walsden Water in check this time, and into local streets. Fortunately, we’re on the hillside and weren’t directly affected, though the path leading down into the field in front of us became a raging stream. Down in the valley bottom, streets became rivers.
Although these are small events compared to floods in other parts of the world, their intensity is still quite shocking, not least since this happened three times, in various parts of the valley, last year too. Some people have had their houses flooded four or five times.
I’ve been reading about Lugh, as a storm god, with his lightning spear, breaking the grip of summer heat. Well yes. But things have got out of balance. Our Victorian drains and culverts simply can’t cope with the intensity of the rainfall we’re getting nowadays. Arguments rage about flood prevention measures. Some people seem to want to hack all overhanging branches from the river Calder, who – is it so unreasonable to personify a river?- has long been constrained between stone or concrete walls on her way through towns built mostly on her flood plane. If I were the river, I think I’d get angry from time to time. We, as a human community, need to take a deep breath, and think very carefully about sustainable ways of living in this wonderful valley.
Ted Hughes Remains of Elmet, with photographs by Fay Godwin, Faber and Faber 1979. or Elmet, ditto, 1994, in which the photographs are much clearer.
Bernard Jennings, Pennine Valley, A History of Upper Calderdale, Smith Settle, 1992.