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Foraging for Watty Bank

Emily Oldfield


Some place names seem to assemble themselves underfoot then in the mind, even before a map is met. This is the dropped dialect of the outdoors – locations experienced and carried in memory, coated in our own terms-of-reference. For me, Watty Bank is one such place. Arching towards the border-town of Todmorden, at the base of Bacup Road; half the year it seems crouched, dark – and yet tensed with life, like a creature poised to pounce. The other months seem to merge into gluts of bloom, gushing over summit and down the sides. A foam of foliage, a flourishing. 

And yet Watty Bank brings back little recognition when scouring the maps. Even a plucky entrance into the search engines yields very little. I sit and wonder  – is this a place name of own invention, construction? The more I reflect on it, the cobbling together of Watty Lane – the lush strip of road that works its way over the hill – along with the gritstone-studded grass mound above, seems to coax Watty Bank forward like a conjuring. For months I have been exploring the area by that name, mulling over it in thought, even referring it to friends.

Climb. It is when hitting this hill from Bacup Road that the left eye reaches towards the trappings of Todmorden in the valley basin, whilst the right eye still flexes back to the village of Walsden. Here, the alms-bowl of the valley is open and hashed with hills, clouds clotting summits in inevitable procession. Watty Bank becomes border, edgeland, observer.

And invented. For do I now consider that Watty Bank may be more a blossoming of desire – a dredging of the landscape for language, known by the self then shared – than any formal reckoning? 

Or perhaps other mouths did move over the words. I think to the workers of the former Watty Mill, hunched under the hillock on a hasty break, chewing cheese sandwiches seasoned with sorrel leaves and gauging the grass for traces of rain. Would Watty Bank have come to them too? The well-worn weather gauge gloaming on the edge of West Yorkshire and Lancashire – then, at the time of the mill, a mound that was markedly Lancashire. 

Watty Mill and its surrounds, known as Watty-Place, were built just under the hill by Edward Dearden – ‘Old Dearden’ – before the turn of the 19th century. It was a site primarily responsible for the milling of corn, and suffered an infamous fire rather early in its history. I imagine the scene; tongues of trailing orange lashing into buckling wood, the air simmering with the scent of cooking maize – savoury and swirling. An additional ache, too, for those in the locale… not only losing potential work and money, but its absence flavoured by the thickening scent of food that would pass no mouth. Straining stomachs curdling under cold sheets. 

Now Watty Bank brings back – in a sense –  a still stinging flavour, a fragrance… a procession of life in all its agonies and ecstasies flaming through the track that cuts down from the hilltop to the railway line. Here foliage furls and seems to drip at impossible angles; the air almost heavy with offrush, the perfumery of plants. Over this year I have seen rasps of wild garlic give way to bluebells – the purpling core of the latter flower amplified by the buttery sheen of unfurling gorse coming close. Rhododendrons rise-up next, exclamative in their flower-thick mouths, and all-the-while the trees’ trellises of vines and leaves loose themselves from their winter sheaths and reach out towards the sun. Nettles weave and wave at intervals, mandala-like leaves spiky in their potential for sensation: pleasure, pain. On recent mornings, I have noticed the ferns seeming particularly eager; all fronds of lime and light – weaving under the beguiling, beautiful bells of a plant that seems to hold even the most hurried walker to attention – the foxglove.

 It is whilst losing my sight, my self, in the nightshade chambers of the flower, that I wonder too of the tides to come – the hot hands of Himalayan Balsam, the rush of summer grasses glowering into the burn of the heather and  blistering, full-to-burst autumn fruits, brambles. And then, of course, will come the season of secrets, of longing – of spores and liquors, heady and lovebitten, where we turn over new terminology in our mouths; Watty Bank as ripe as anything else – and we forage for mushrooms. 

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