In the long ago before time, the woods where I take Ruby for her walk every day were tangled scrub and thickets of alder and birch, with an undomesticated river flowing and flooding down from the high moors and black peat bogs of the Pennines.
Not many people would have ever wandered here. It was much too wet, and they would have stayed on the drier ridges.
But it has not always been woodland. In the nineteenth century it was a temporary home for hundreds of navvies, digging the canal tunnel through the hills, and later the adjacent three railway tunnels. Each tunnel was three miles long, dug by hand and explosives through solid rock. The canal tunnel was opened in 1811, and the railway tunnel opened in 1894.
In 1894, the wood was a railway siding, so I think I can be fairly sure that none of the trees in it are older than 120 years old. If I
look at the main path I can see how flat it is, and, because I get down on my hands and knees a lot to experience the smells and textures of the woodland floor, I find remains of old railway sleepers, smooth in the grass.
At one end of the path, just before the land tumbles down to the millpond, there is the remnant of buffers and the unmistakeable regularity of abandoned track ballast. The line must have finished here, and now, there is a tangle of rottenwood, earth and ballast stone that sometimes feels like the “Marie Celeste”. I expect almost to see a group of navvies round a smoking fire and drinking strong sweet tea from billy cans.
I scrub about in this bit of ruin, and touch the cold ironwork that marks the remaining debris of a great undertaking.
Further into the wood there is a cutting where nothing grows. I’ve been told this is where explosives were kept. The banks ofearth would help to absorb the shock waves of an accidental explosion
And we have a photograph of the first locomotive that came through the new tunnel that day in 1894. It is, my wife discovered after long hours of research on the internet-thing, a Kirtley engine of the old Midland Railway. One still exists in a museum near Derby. We shall visit it. The engine in the photo was called “New Delight”, and New Delight was what our little group of houses was known as through most of the twentieth century.
All of this links so directly to me. To walk every day over the past, and over distant lives, somehow makes me more aware of the miracle of the stiff catkin, the sharp spear of the snowdrop shoot, or the breathless rush of the dunnock’s song. For a moment I have an awareness of time like a dog’s awareness of scent.
It is a strange feeling of everything that has ever happened is happening now and here.