Country diary: a small wild place by the side of the canal

Airedale, West Yorkshire: This tiny community patch hosts damselflies and swallows, mallards and moorhens

There’s a hole in the wall. We hope they never get round to fixing it. The wall is the retaining stonework of the canal bywash, a bent offshoot down which tumbles overspill from the lock pound. The hole opens on to a French drain that runs down through a tangle of undergrowth to a pond. There is a duck house in the pond.

This sloped rectangle of wetland and bright greenery beside the stately old Leeds-Liverpool canal is Hirst Wood, our newest nature reserve, a community patch with barely the footprint of a couple of semi-detached houses, hewn and shaped from unpromising scrub by hours of volunteer labour. The pond is at its heart. No: the pond is its heart, its life source. As we slosh through a wet summer it’s good to spend a little time reflecting on water as a vibrant and vivifying thing (even as we wring it from our socks and curse our canvas trainers).

Back up at the canal, the old timber of the lock gates is hung with drenched and glossy plant life, as if for a festival. I’ve watched a frog bask in the shallow-running water of the bywash, an infinitesimal warp in the ripples. Then down the water goes, through that lucky flaw in the Georgian stone, over the soaked roots of elder and hawthorn and sycamore, to feed the pond – and here are damselflies and swallows, mallards and moorhens, pondskaters dancing on the surface tension, sparrows scrambling like reed warblers among the bold yellow iris flowers. The local tabby cat stalks a toddler in pink wellies. A man in a cap and waterproof jacket takes a breather on a bench beside the soft, nodding heads of wild geranium.

There’s nothing here, today or most days, to make me grab for my field guide. It’s sometimes a calling point for the kingfishers that work these intercutting waterways. I can be sure of robin and wren song, of the laboured flight of jays overhead, the song thrush invisibly wailing its mad jazz solo in an overhanging beech. It’s just a small wild place, between the canal and the cricket field, the railway line and the old bakery. Small, and wild, and wet, and leapingly alive.


Richard Smyth

The GuardianTramp

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