The climb up from Cragg Vale had been long and hard, the path mostly exposed in the intense sunshine so rare in these parts. I’d passed the Victorian church so aptly named St John’s in the Wilderness, and since that point I had climbed into a stark wilderness, devoid of trees, rejoicing in its sharks’ teeth of broken walls, fields yellow with buttercups and the air rejoicing in the baas from the spring lambs. As I crested the hill Withens reservoir stretched out before me, a silent crystal of lapis lazuli nestling in the lap of the moors.
Above me a few wispy translucent clouds had been joined by a con-trail, a rare site in this period of lockdown. I could see for miles as I recalled my first visit to this spot almost three years ago when Sarah and I hiked up to Stoodley Pike from here. I stopped and remembered the ruined farms we’d passed, the steepness of the climb and the joy of reaching our goal that day. Now I was alone, with not another person in sight, and I revelled in that.
I was crossing the dam, looking forward to my first walk around the reservoir when I saw them – a couple on the left bank, behaving rather oddly. They were both bending over and the man had in his hand something long and narrow that he was jiggling up and down. I stopped, unsure of whether to proceed, since my path, the only path, would bring me to them. I had no alternative. The path was on a narrow raised bank between the shore of the reservoir which fell away steeply to my right, while on my left was a ditch, about 10 ft deep and 5 ft wide which encircles the entire south side of the lake.
As I neared the couple I could make out that the long thin object in the man’s hands was a fishing rod. Ah, I thought with some relief. But then I thought a little more. I didn’t know you could fish in a reservoir. Suddenly the woman knelt down and the man launched his fishing line – into the culvert! “Grand day for it,” I greeted them.
“You’re probably wondering what we’re doin’” she offered. I smiled encouragingly. “Ah were walkin’ ‘ere last Wednesdy when me ‘at blew off intert ditch, so we’ve cum back wi’ th’ fishin’ rod to catch it.” I peered into the depths of the culvert. Sure enough something wet and bright blue was lurking there in the depths. At that very moment the man managed to embed the hook into the hat and it took flight onto the path. I couldn’t resist capturing this on camera and I asked if it was ok to take a photo. “Yer can purrit on Facebook if yer like an’ all” he laughed.
Once landed the hat was hastily bagged into a plastic container obviously brought especially for the occasion. “Yer not from round ‘ere. Yer from America?” “Ee, no,” I chirped back. “I’m from Bolton,” but I could see from the expression on their faces that more explanation was expected – even anticipated. So after the usual explanation (which, by the way, I should record and play back on demand since I have to tell the same story to everyone I speak to) she followed up with, “So what yer doin’ ‘ere this mornin’?”
I explained that I’m trying to visit as many houses where my ancestors lived as possible during the lockdown and so far I’ve walked to 82. “Last night I found that one of my ancestors, a Greenwood, had lived at Withens.” At first I’d thought it might be near Haworth since Top Withins is thought by some to be the prototype of Wuthering Heights but from the 1851 census I could see that ‘my’ Withens was somewhere on the moors above Cragg Vale. “Did you put a posting on Cragg vale history page on Facebook last night?” the woman asked. “Errrr, yes!” I hesitated. This is crazy. I’d put a posting on Facebook asking for information about Withins and today I meet someone who had read that posting. Someone had responded to my posting saying contact Roger Halliwell. I’d written back saying “How?” since he didn’t appear to have been a member of the page. I didn’t receive a response but the responder should have said ‘Go to Withens reservoir tomorrow morning at 11 a.m. Look for was man trying to catch a hat with a fishing line. That’ll be Roger.’ It’s these coincidences that make me feel connected to the place, to this landscape. They invited me to their home when lockdown is over and they obviously have a good knowledge of the history of the area and are keen to share it with others. It turned out that Roger has Greenwoods in his ancestry too. We might be related!
As I continued on my way I could see the silhouette of one ruined farmhouse on the horizon reminding me of my hike with Sarah where we had passed many sheep pens. An information board at the dam told me that 17 households formed the hamlet of Withens that is now beneath the water. Other farms on the watershed had been compulsorily purchase by the water board to prevent either human or animal contamination of the water supply. Also on the information board is a haiku about the place – written by someone who is in a creative writing group that I attend – and she was also the head of English in my high school in Bolton!
Heading back down into the valley I passed the piglets again. On my way up this morning I’d smiled when I saw them. When I’d caught the bus to Cragg Vale the two ladies boarding before me had both paid with ten pound notes. Since all the shops now aks for payment by contactless cards only it’s virtually impossible to get change for bus fares. “Are you going to give me a tenner too?” the driver had said. “No, I raided my piggy bank this morning,” I replied.
And now here I was face to face with six little piggies, all spotlessly clean and rollicking in the morning sunshine. As I though about the coincidences of the day I passed a parked car with ‘California’ emblazoned on its rear. I smiled again. Ah well, only another 4 ½ miles home.