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Winter in the woods on Harrock Hill at Wrightington

The old mill on Harrock Hill. <i>(Image: Jon Flinn)</i>
The old mill on Harrock Hill. (Image: Jon Flinn)

It’s hardly rained for hours but water is still dripping from the trees and hedgerows of Wrightington after the deluges of the week.

Below the watershed of High Moor Lane and Harrock Hill, streams of rain have carved a sandy scar across a sweep of field and washed away blades of the winter crop that is still sprouting beyond.

The hedgerow from the lane is bright with haws. They’ve lost their lustre but among the red is a surprisingly fresh looking blackberry, and it’s not the only reminder of summer. Higher up the slopes a dense strip of unharvested maize rattles in the stiff breeze. Maybe it’s a covert for the pheasant chicks pecking around the feeding stations placed on the ground where the open field meets the maize.

There have been other pedestrians on my path today – their footprints sunk inches deep into the mud fringing the field. As the route heads towards Harrock Estate, there’s glimpses of silver down to the left where daylight has broken through the tree canopy of a wood and is reflecting off the small patches of a woodland pond not yet quite coated in the leaves of the surrounding beeches. As the trees lose their cover, winter will bring light as well as dark to the woods of Lancashire.

Great British Life: Maize rattles in the winter breeze. Maize rattles in the winter breeze. (Image: Jon Flinn)

An old path skirts the edge of the estate parkland, leading gently uphill through a narrow avenue of mature oaks. Between the fallen oak leaves and acorns, a small, brown edged feather has drifted on to the narrow path as it gives way to a deep and enclosed canopy of hawthorn and elder and rises gently towards the summit of the hill. It’s a passage to a secret world, a perfect tunnel through dense hedgerow marked by neat heaps of fresh earth and the new burrows of others that have sought, and found, seclusion.

Somewhere far beyond, there’s a commotion as a crow mobs a buzzard. Reaching a gate, the landscape opens out to rolling fields and there’s suddenly a different clamour, like water underground, beneath my feet. I lift my head and realise the sound is not from below but straight ahead where hundreds, probably thousands, of tiny chattering birds are out of sight in the trees of another wood.

Small groups are flying sorties to and from the tree tops down into a field of brassicas left to seed below. A single bird has separated from the crowd and flits up against the dark background of the wood to show black and white striped wings and mauve coloured chest. The wood is home to an enormous and very noisy flock of chaffinches.

By the time I reach them, the chaffinches have retreated into the wood, but not from sight. Far above head height, every twig protruding from the tree canopy is crowned by a silhouetted chaffinch, poised and now quiet, waiting for the word to go. Maybe they heard the buzzard too - though large volumes of small birds can often out-manoeuvre large and cumbersome birds of prey (peregrines are a different matter).

In Harrock Hill wood the old windmill carved into a shelf of millstone grit lies hidden until its broken walls loom through the limbs of mossy oaks and wintery bracken. It was built in 1660 but no-one seems to know quite how or why, it collapsed in the early 19th century. Even in its ruined state it is unusual, with its grand semi-subterranean archways – an incomplete building with an incomplete story.

Today, the Harrock Hill Mill has another mystery to share. At the front of the ruin, and just before the ground dramatically drops more than 100 metres down to Bispham Green and the plain below, there’s a solid looking stone post – probably an old gatepost for the mill.

Great British Life: Hazelnuts left on an old gatepost in the woods. Hazelnuts left on an old gatepost in the woods. (Image: Jon Flinn)

Sitting on top of the mossy stone, is a carefully placed handful of hazelnuts – a ready-to-go haul ripe for a winter larder. It’s briefly tempting to hide in the bracken and watch to see what appears, and when, but even in the shelter of the wood it is cold. I leave the mysteries of Harrock Hill blowing in the finger numbing breeze that is seeping through the trees.



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