A return to last year and our return to Sheffield (via Northumberland) in November 2019.
Northumberland is one of my favourite places: open countryside for miles, historic towns – Alnwick, a charming old market town, grey-stoned, with its huge castle dominating – and a wild coast that varies between wide sandy beaches and rocky outcrops. We walk a causeway to a rocky island and a lighthouse, where we watch seals being washed off slippery rocks by rough waves, then tread the firm sand of a wide beach to a white-domed pavilion, the sort that used to be prominent in British seaside towns, falling into disrepair and ruin as fashions changed.
This one has been restored to former glory, a café/bar and restaurant busy under the high dome. A newly laid promenade provides a path back to the car now the tide has covered the beach. It’s the sort of place I could imagine living and we leave reluctantly, wishing we had more time. Our list for our next trip is already long.
The road to Sheffield is wet, and parts of the city are flooded, but we make it without incident to the farm that will be our home for the next ten days. It’s my first northern hemisphere birthday in nearly two decades and we’d thought to make the most of it with a long walk in my favourite countryside, but the weather has other ideas, with low cloud, squally showers and a wind that would make a kite wish it was indoors. Instead we head into the city.
My first visit to Weston Park Museum when I was seven is a vivid memory, my sister ill in the children’s hospital across the road and my grandparents taking me out of the way whilst Mum and Dad were with her. I stood in awe in front of the stuffed polar bear and, a few weeks later, excitedly showed him to Kathryn. I’m surprised to find that Snowy still lives here, albeit currently away for cleaning and restoration. The art gallery has a Joe Scarborough retrospective and I spend a wonderful hour amongst his colourful, bright paintings of Sheffield life. It’s as though he has entered my head and painted my childhood memories of the city. To a non-native they are not as interesting and Neil is patient as I point out landmarks that no longer exist, and places he would recognise today but not as they are portrayed here.
Rain still dictates our plans. We manage one day out in the National Park, walking beneath Derwent Edge rather than on it, the wind likely to blow us off if we venture higher. It’s no surprise that both dams are in full overflow, the water a solid white wall, the colours of autumn glowing around them. Otherwise we confine our walks to the woodlands and by the rivers within the city boundary. The Rivelin valley was the playground of my young life, a place of family picnics and games of cricket. We would jump across stepping-stones and venture onto the slippery top of the weir when parents weren’t looking – a move that generally resulted in a soaking and grazed knees and ankles, not to mention a telling off. The gentle race, diverted from the weir to power a wheel in Sheffield’s industrial past, was the place for small children to paddle, ankle-deep and slow moving.
The decades have wrought change, the woods encroaching on the grassy space, the undergrowth thicker and more tangled than it was when we hunted lost balls in there. The river is also changed, but this is due to the persistent rain rather than time. I stand and stare at it in amazement, a racing frothing torrent that has flooded banks and buried stepping-stones. The weir which would trap the ball when Dad batted it into the river is almost invisible, water that normally trips and stumbles over the cobbled surface now barely noting its existence. The race lives up to its name, the current strong enough to knock over anyone, let alone a child. A woman joins me and we chat – she walks here regularly (of which I’m envious) and we agree that this is the highest we have ever seen this river.
The Porter valley is similarly wet, the stream that normally bubbles away quietly boiling after so much rain. The mill ponds, by contrast, are still and silent, leaves floating undisturbed, skeleton trees reflected against the grey sky.
Colours glow in the muted light and shiny conkers scatter the ground, their polished surface gleaming in the damp. I miss walking the wooded valleys of Sheffield, kicking through the leaves and hunting conkers in autumn, gazing at the carpet of bluebells in the spring.
There is no prospect of kicking through the leaves today. They stick, rotting and slippery, to the path, the grass, the banks of the river, making the slightest slope treacherous to negotiate and steps akin to adventure travel. Farther upriver, in the Mayfield Valley, small white waterfalls tumble down the dark steep sides, draining flooded fields above. Eventually this path leads right out to the Peak District. I itch to follow it all the way but the rain is coming back and will make walking on the open moors miserable so we stop at Ringinglow, sitting on a damp bench for our picnic. The cold creeps into our layers of clothing within minutes and we eat quickly before retracing our steps along the sodden path, slipping and sliding down the valley. At Forge Dam café we are disappointed – there is no parkin. ‘We’ll have some at the weekend,’ the smiling girl behind the counter tells us. I thank her, ignoring the pain that slices through me, not bothering to tell her that is too late – by the weekend we will have gone.