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Paying respects to Churn Milk Joan
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in The Independent, 1993
There was an object to my walk: to pay my respects to Churn Milk Joan, a singular lady residing alone on the Pennine hilltops high above the Calder valley in west Yorkshire. I checked my pockets before starting off. When you visit Churn Milk Joan it's usual to ensure that you are carrying a coin or two with you.
The route I'd chosen was a roundabout one, however. I started from the National Trust car park at Hardcastle Crags, a mile or so north of Hebden Bridge. Hardcastle Crags has been popular with visitors for generations. Long before the NT came along and erected its signs, Victorian cast-iron finger posts pointed the way there.
Hardcastle Crags' name, which comes from an outcrop of rocks nearby, is misleading: most of the area is pleasant woodland beside the fast-flowing Hebden Water. It's ideal strolling countryside, and Hardcastle Crags' only problem can be the number of people it attracts. Not so many, however, explore the smaller tributary valley of Crimsworth Dean.
This was my route. Leaving behind the National Trust tarmac I headed down through more woodland to the bank of Crimsworth Beck. I was looking for red squirrels which can still sometimes be seen in these woods, but I was disappointed. A glimpse of a dipper, the small chocolate-and-white bird of upland streams, was a consolation. Dippers live up to their name, bobbing and flitting from stone to stone in search of food.
After about half an hour I reached Lumb Hole waterfalls. The falls are modest but perfectly in keeping with the scale of the Crimsworth Dean landscape. It was a good place to take a break, watching the water tumbling down to the round basin of the stream below.
After Lumb Hole I turned east, climbing up from the valley bottom through sheep pastures to cross the main road from Keighley to Hebden Bridge road at the edge of open moorland. From here an old bridleway heads up the hillside. Its name, Limers Gate, gives away its likely history. Many of the tracks across the bleak moor tops originally formed part of an extensive transport network for the pack-horse trains at a time when the wet valley bottoms were even less attractive for travellers. A glance at the South Pennines Ordnance Survey map shows that this is not the only Limers Gate in the area; 'gate' is the north English word for road or path, whilst the lime was - and is - important for improving the poor Pennine soil.
The triangulation stone at High Brown Knoll marked the highest point on the walk, at about 1350 feet. It was time to take in the view: south across the deep cut of the Calder valley to the obelisk at Stoodley Pike, erected to commemorate the end of the Napoleonic Wars and now a familiar landmark to Pennine Way walkers. Beyond Stoodley, the hills continued southwards: Rishworth Moor, Saddleworth Moor and ultimately Holme Moss and the start of the Peak District.
Over to the east, however, was a much more recent landmark than Stoodley Pike. The windfarm at Ovenden Moor near Halifax was put up last year , and adds a surreal touch to the landscape. Windfarms are coming to the South Pennines partly because the area has no national park nor area of outstanding natural beauty classification, and the issue is becoming controversial. Earlier this year plans for a new 44-turbine site close to High Brown Knoll were unveiled, and other nearby sites are also under consideration. Ovenden windfarm has already become an accepted part of the landscape; many more would dominate and transform it.
From High Brown Knoll I skipped and jumped the bogs following the path to the edge of the Luddenden valley until finally, after another stretch of moorland, Churn Milk Joan loomed into view.
Churn Milk Joan is about seven feet high and impressive, a single standing stone erected at the moorland edge. Ted Hughes, who grew up down the hill in Mytholmroyd, describes it in a poem as "A lonely stone/Afloat in the stone heavings of emptiness.." and goes on to recount the local tradition of leaving a coin in the hollow at the top of the stone.
Hughes suggests that the stone once marked the point where farmers left milk for local villagers, who'd put money in exchange in Churn Milk Joan's hollow. Of course, if you prefer a more romantically pagan origin for your folk traditions - and particularly if the weather's bad - it's easy to imagine the coins as an appeasement to the spirit of the moors.
The actual history of the stone is more prosaic: it was probably put up about 1600 to help resolve a boundary dispute, while its name seems to have been given to it in the last two hundred years. Nevertheless, I reached up on tiptoe and slipped a penny on to the stone.
It was money well spent. I'd had a good walk.