THORNHILL EDGE is only a mile or two from home but until today I’d never walked the full length of the footpath that runs along the top of the ridge, overlooking the Smithy Brook Valley. This morning I’m following the Kirklees Way, from Thornhill to Denby Dale.
After writing half a dozen walks booklets, it’s a change to follow someone else’s route. The Kirklees Way is a 72 mile circular walk around Huddersfield, so it curves away through the countryside along paths that it would never occur to me to follow, even though they’re so close to home.
Small Copper butterflies are perfect miniatures. I count 5 of them on the sunny south-facing fault scarp of Thornhill Edge. That’s probably more Small Coppers than I’ve seen over the past two or three years.
It’s clear day with row after row of fair weather cumulus lined up across a blue sky. When I get up to The Rough, 195 metres (640 ft) above sea level, on the watershed between Smithy Brook (which flows into the Calder) and Mill Beck (which flows into the Dearne) I can see not only the cooling towers of Ferrybridge, Drax and Eggborough, but also hills beyond. By putting a ruler on the map to trace my line of sight, I can tell that the distant blue hills in my photograph (above), way beyond the flats and cathedral spire of Wakefield, are the Yorkshire Wolds.
The highest point to the left of the spire must be Warter Wold , 44 miles to the north-east, which rises to about 194 m (636 ft). There were more hills beyond the blocks of flats of Seacroft, on the east side of Leeds and these must have been the North Yorks Moors, also 40-odd miles away. I even suspected that I could see a white spot; the White Horse of Kilburn?
I thought that I’d be in Denby Dale in time for lunch but it was 3 p.m. before I reached the Denby Dale Pie Hall. I didn’t stop to draw on this walk so it gives me a chance to work out my average walking speed; 2.6 miles per hour, including a few short breaks. But fourteen miles in one go was quite enough for me! So why walk to Dimpledale when I’ve got the the woods of Coxley Valley in my backyard; why swelter all that way to sample the delights of Denby Dale when I could have strolled up the hill to Horbury?
One reason is that I find that walking can be an alternative to drawing; I can follow a line and explore the world around me. It gives me a sense of freedom and puts things in perspective. There’s so much countryside out there beyond my home patch.
Walking is recognised as being good physical exercise but there is new evidence that exploring a variety of environments is as good for your brain as it is for your body. Professor Fred Gage of the Salk Institute in San Diego has observed that laboratory mice kept in stimulating environments show a 15% increase in brain activity compared with genetically identical mice kept in run-of-the-mill cages.
My generation was brought up with the ‘truism’ that from the age of about 20 your brain cells start to gradually die off. Gage’s study showed that the mice in stimulating environments were generating new brain cells in the hippocampus. It seems like a big leap to extrapolate from laboratory mice to humans but similar brain activity – an increased blood flow in that part of the brain – has been observed. It’s said that London taxi drivers who learn ‘the knowledge’ – acquiring a detailed mental map of the streets of the metropolis – develop an enlarged hippocampus.
If this is true – and it seems quite likely to me – then my 14 mile slog today will have been better exercise for my brain than walking the same distance on a treadmill in a health and fitness club. Who’d want to be indoors on a day like today anyway?