It must have been in the late 1950s when I was first taken to what we called Bardsey Woods. My younger brother wasn’t born when we first went and it has always been one of my special places. At these times there were few cars so anywhere that was slightly off the beaten track was difficult to get to. As a result, there were few visitors and you tended to have some of the places to yourselves. Certainly when we first went you were lucky to see another car parked in the space just off the road and the sign telling you there was a footpath was difficult to see. The pathway leading up the slope to the railway lines was quite steep and I found it a bit of a trudge, but then you appeared next to the railway line. At this time there were still tracks, but I don’t ever remember seeing a train. Now the tracks have gone and the line makes a great walkway and can be quite busy on a good summer day.
We crossed the tracks and before us was a wood that had a mixture of trees. There was holly, but most of the trees were tall, well established pines. The wood here was dark, mysterious and worthy of a bit of exploring. I remember well, visiting after a strong storm and quite a few of the pines were toppled. I don’t think they have ever been removed and the roots were exposed and made great climbing frames. Just before Christmas my father would take my brothers and me hunting for holly to decorate our house for Christmas. If you picked the right time many of the holly trees were covered in the red berries and we would prune a few sprigs to take home to decorate the round mirror that was above the fireplace.
The path through the first wood was clear and bordered the railway track, but there was a small wheat field separating them. After a short walk we reached a stile and after the excitement and challenge of clambering over, there was a vast field of wheat. The fields stretched up a rolling hill and disappeared from view and depending when in the year you visited, you could be faced with bare stubble waiting for the plough, newly turned soil that looked for all things like chocolate cake, fresh, rich and producing a smell of fertility and earth. Short days afterwards, the field was bright green with spikes of corn reaching upwards in a sudden burst as the weather brought spring, and life was vigorous and new. A few weeks later the wheat was waist high and I loved to watch it move in the warm breezes and I imagined it a sea of green, deep and mysterious. Late summer saw another change and the field was yellowing and soon the harvesters would be out, throwing dust up as the harvest was brought in, leaving the shaved stubble like an old man’s face. Every visit would see the fields change and I have always thought how wonderful it would be to be a farmer, watch your life march by in the seasons, rather than the hurly-burly of city life.
Just to the right of the field the track edged along an old dam. The beck still flowed into it, but the dam wall was breached, but we used to explore along it. The old mechanism for a sluice gate was still there, but no handle, and the water level was low and overgrown with bulrushes. When the rushes were in flower the spikes were magnificent, like velvet covered sausages, skewered and waving encouragingly you to. I remember sometimes collecting some of the rushes and my mum used them in the flower arranging classes she was doing at the time. Along the footpath that ran along the field there were thick growths of wild grasses and flowers and the one we loved the best was the Himalayan Balsam. The balsam had bright pink flowers and this made it attractive to Victorian flower hunters who brought it and other exotic and beautiful plants back for their gardens. The seed pods are green and have bands moving from the stem to their tips. They are water drop shaped and we loved them because when they were ripe if you gently squeezed them they sprung apart with surprising force and shot their seeds long distances, leaving the pods as coiled springs. Left to their own, the wind or animals would trigger the pods and unfortunately they have been so successful that they have spread along Britain’s waterways causing great ecological damage.
Unfortunately we had no idea and loved to trigger the pods. The plants also had a strong, very pleasant aromatic scent and mixed with the lovely flowers would have attracted people to plant them. I guess this was just another example of human intervention messing things up. Another example, I remember well. We were walking along the trail a little further past the dam and on the side of the trail by the beck was a rabbit. It was quite a large one, but it clearly wasn’t well as it didn’t hop away when we approached. There used to be a lot of rabbits about and it was evident by their scooped out divots and droppings that they were everywhere. After harvesting they were clearly visible, seemingly playing on the stubble fields, apparently oblivious as the kestrels circled, waiting to pick their afternoon lunch.
This rabbit had watering eyes and it was foaming at the mouth. My grandfather on my Scottish side, had been a gamekeeper and my father had been brought up near Oban in the cottage, so he knew what was the matter. He kept us away and we walked on and, luckily, we met a farmer walking the other way with his dog. My dad explained to him what we had seen and he thanked us and said that he would take care of it. We watched the elderly, cap wearing gentleman stride down the track, accompanied by his Border Collie and I saw him reach the spot where the rabbit was. He stopped, climbed over the wire fence and then he raised his walking stick and struck downwards forcefully several times. My mum and dad explained to us that he was putting the rabbit out of its misery. There was a horrid disease that was introduced to kill of the rabbit population, called Mixomatosis.
Beyond this we entered the Hetchell Reserve itself. This is a wonderful area and rising to the left as we walked was a strange arrangement of hazel trees. They were strange because they had been coppiced. The tops were cut down and new growth had sprouted from the base in numerous poles. These poles would have been harvested in the past for firewood and other purposes. It creates a wood where more light reaches ground level and this encourages wild plants and grasses to cover the floor in a rich carpet. We saw hazel nuts in winter, but they never appeared to reach edible sizes. As we walked past this the, area to the left rose steeply and amongst the beech trees great rocks appeared. Hetchell Crag is not as magnificent as the Cow and Calf, or Armscliffe Crag, but it has its own beauty. In many ways it is a microcosm of what makes the Yorkshire countryside so magnificent. It is varied, always waiting to show you something new, and endures some harsh weather that shapes the land and all that live there. My older brother and I would play around the crag and, apart from the odd warning not to fall and to keep away from the edge, we were left to play and explore whilst mum and dad sat, had a rest and opened a flask of tea.
Usually that would be the limit of our walks and we would return the way we came to the car, but as we got older we went further and visited Pompocali. I didn’t know it was called that until recently. It just looked like a series of strange mounds and we would climb and explore them. It is thought that they were Roman Fort remains, but apparently it is now suggested they are spoil heaps from Roman quarrying at Hetchell Crag.
When I was a teenager, probably lower sixth at Roundhay School, I brought a friend of mine, Chris M to have a go at abseiling on the crag. The maximum height would only have been about thirty feet and so I thought it would be a good place to start. Three of us came, but I can’t remember who the other boy was, but he and I climbed quite a bit. We did the walk to the crag, carrying the rope, and other equipment. We climbed up the side of the crag, found a good place to fix the rope to, a solid tree with roots that were clinging for dear life into the millstone grit. We set up and in those days I used a waistband of thin climbing rope wrapped around several times, rather than the more common harness used nowadays, a screw-gate carabineer and a metal figure of eight to wrap the rope around and then you were ready to start. The art was to hold the rope above the carabineer, whilst you held the loose rope with the other hand and by moving it closer and further away from your body it would act as a brake to slow your descent.
Now my friend who I usually climbed with and I had a go and showed Chris how to do it. The main rope was gauge 4 and it used to stretch as you first leaned backwards off the rock. This was disconcerting and made you think it was snapping or something as you suddenly moved six inches backwards. We were used to this and so didn’t worry. After we had done it, Chris had his turn. We set him up and he walked backwards to the cliff edge. He was quite nervous at this point, but to give him his credit he did it all as we had instructed. We laughed a bit and ribbed him, but he stood, heels over the precipice and began to let out a bit of rope and leaned back. Ideally you need to reach almost at 90 degrees to the rock face and then you can push off and allow the rope to run free and slide down in impressive SAS style, apart from the fact they face outwards.
Chris leaned back and the rope suddenly stretched and he thought he was falling and edged sideways, but he controlled it well. Unfortunately the rope tied to the tree as a belay pulled tight and trapped his foot between the rope and the rock edge. He didn’t realise and pulled his free arm in, releasing the rope and he slid backwards further, but couldn’t move his foot. The result of this was that he was almost upside down with his foot caught under the rope. We shouted for him to pull his arm out and stop the rope running, which he did and he was safely held upside down, foot trapped and I couldn’t help laughing. My climbing friend and I thought it was hilarious. Chris, I must say, didn’t. Today, our phones would be out and his humiliation would have been on social media in seconds. In those days, you escaped global ridicule, until almost fifty years later someone tells the tale! After our period of mirth, we gave assistance. We both pulled the rope that was trapping his foot. With this released he was back on track and did an admirable job at completing the abseil with aplomb. As anyone who falls off a horse should do, as soon as he had reached the ground, got his breath back, thumped us both a few times, he went back up and did it again, with no complications at all. Chris was never short of courage and he showed his mettle that day. I don’t suppose he told his mother his exploits, but he lived to tell another tale.
The last time I returned to Hetchell Woods was only a few years ago and it is still the same wonderful place. The problem now is that many more people want to share the experience and so I don’t think you will find it deserted as we so often did. The woods are near Bardsey and East Keswick on the Weatherby Road, heading towards Weatherby. It is a short drive from the Ring Road at Wellington Hill, past Red Hall and is easy to find. See if you can follow my childhood trail.