Walking Myth into Place: Virgo, as the Crone

Our series of self-guided walks continues with the earth-sign of Virgo (Aug. 22-Sept. 21 approx.)
You will need the Ordnance Survey 1:25000 South Pennines map. Please note that routes and their condition were accurate at their time of survey, 2017-2020; updates may be made at later dates.
Please be alert to any other quasi-affirmations and correspondences of Virgo as you walk!


In any zodiac, Virgo is, naturally, a female figure, but she may appear as young or old – as far as can be told from a ‘sketch’ in landscape features. Above Hebden Bridge, she appears as a classic ‘crone’ figure, slightly bent-backed, broad around the hips and clad in a shapeless shift that appears a little bedraggled at its skirt hems. Her feet, standing on the damp moor edges, are thickly booted – with good reason, as we’ll see.

Her hands come together, as described in the Leo walk, at Hirst Bridge in Nutclough, forming a V that mirrors a lip in the stonework under the bridge, over which the waters of the stream pour into the narrow clough that pushes down into Hebden Bridge. This was described in the Leo walk as Virgo’s gift to the town, transmuted by the dynamic energies of Leo and expressed in the town’s vigorous industrial and social development.

So this is the appropriate place to start the Virgo walk. To get there, from the White Lion, walk up the Keighley Road to the pedestrian crossing; cross the road and take the track into the woods below the Nutclough Tavern (which isn’t, any more). Follow the track to the old millpond, and take the left fork up some steps above the pondside track. A few hundred yards up this little steep-sided clough you’ll reach Hirst Bridge. Depending on the volume of water in the stream, you will be able to see more or less of the ‘pourer’ lip underneath. In the centre of the bridge, above the lip, you stand where the hands of Virgo meet. Notice the different landscapes of the valley above and below the bridge; the Leo side downstream is deep, steep, and energetic, with waterfalls and the sounds of rushing water. Above, the upstream Virgoan valley approaches the bridge relatively level, and has a sense of calm compared to the downstream clough. Pause here before setting off on the other side of the bridge, towards the white house visible up the track, but before you reach that, a path branches off into the wood to the left – take that up to the road, and across the road you will see another path heading up the hill.

The colours of Virgo are generally the muted colours of late summer – yellow-green, grey, beigey-brown – and they show up well along this path, especially if you walk towards the latter half of Virgo, with the wayside plants fading away. Nuts and berries, too, are associates of Virgo, and as you walk, you’ll find plenty of them.

Some of the detail in this figure is supplied by field boundaries rather than paths and tracks, and as we will see some of the paths nowadays call for levels of determination and wellington boots that I personally would not recommend. As you climb this path, you are walking towards the cowled head of Virgo, but the wall on the far side of the field to the left marks her arm. At the second gate along this path, turn right at a gatepost, past silver birches, until you reach a tarmac road on the Dodnaze housing estate; you are now entering Virgo’s cowled head.

There are two possible variants for the head – one is squarish, and was delineated by paths and field boundaries on the OS map on which the zodiac was first traced in the late 1970s; curiously, the estate, though built from the 1950s, was not included on that map, and when it finally appeared had obliterated some of the first outline. However, it also indicated an extension by which Virgo acquires a rather elongated head, rather in the manner of an officiant wearing a head-dress, perhaps; but this means that her head is now appropriately represented in the landscape by a tree-fringed fielded hillock at the end of the plateau on which the estate – the Dod Naze is literally a headland looking down over Hebden Bridge, as if to show Virgo overseeing what the town is making of her gift.

When you reach the estate, then, turn right, and follow the road around to the other side of the estate. You can walk to the end of the headland and back, or walk out of the estate on to the main Wadsworth Banks road, turn left, and follow it uphill. Above the estate, the road double-jinks; note the old guidepost at the junction with Burlees Lane. Further along the road on the left is Manor House, birthplace of the essayist John Foster (1770-XXXX) – his career ties in with Virgo’s correspondence with the planet Mercury and its characteristic of introspective intellectualism. Further on is Nell Carr – an appropriate female name – and further up on the right is Higher Needless. A plaque on the side of the building reveals that this was the original meeting place of the Birchcliffe Baptists in 1770; Baptist practice intuitively recalls Virgo’s gift of pure water. It’s said that the meeting rooms were gender-divided, men on the first floor and women downstairs; a trapdoor on the first floor gave on to a kind of ‘mezzanine platform’ by which the preacher could address both rooms at the same time, which if true is a curious resolution of a problem both of numbers and gender attitudes! A datestone on this building announces the name of Harwood as original owner in 1752, above a rough sketch of a human face – a common practice locally that is tied up with notions of house protection (see Leo???). The house adjoining behind the meeting house is 17th-century.

Further up the road are Saughes Cottages, In one of which were found in the early 2000s an old pair of child’s clogs walled up behind wainscoting next to the front door, another house protection tradition. Unfortunately when the owner moved he took the clogs away with him as trophies. Above these cottages and daisy Bank was, until the 1970s, a mink farm, from which animals certainly escaped, and their likely descendants are still reported locally on occasion. Beyond there is a house known now as St Ambrose Well – a classic case of modifying a name to give a better impression of a thing or place; the original name of the farm was Ambry Well, as the two spring water sources in the yard were both enclosed in small cupboard-like enclosures, and ambries, as any furniture enthusiast will affirm, is a type of cupboard. All along the road from Dodnaze we have been following the line of Virgo’s bent back, and at one time a footpath behind Ambry Well clearly carried on her outline; now, however, although the footpath remains, itis hard to follow, and it is easier and less intrusive to go round the bend and take a track that branches back.

Follow this track as it marks the small of Virgo’s back on past Snow (or Snay) Booth, scene of a celebrated murder in 1933 committed by a wife on her violent and abusive husband; the local community supported the wife’s act, which can be seen as a manifestation of crone Virgo’s stricter side. Looking down over the fields to the left, you are looking over Virgo’s body down towards its head-land. In front of you is the gently V-shaped cleft in the hillside as it collects water from the hilltops, and this is where Virgo’s feet stand. In this sweep of Virgo’s body, various types of livestock are typically grazing – horses, cattle and sheep.

Where the path debouches on to the road, the line is continued on the other side, steeply up into a patch of rough heather beside a field wall. If you prefer an easier gradient, turn right along the road and take the braod track that branches to the left opposite a lay-by. Follow whichever track as they join – and here, be warned, as from here on, you are likely to encounter muddy and marshy ground. You are entering the ur-source of Virgo’s gift of water, and the land up to the gate on to the moor at Faugh Well makes that very plain. You can understand why the Virgo figure’s feet are thickly booted. Through the gate, keep straight on, with the wall to your left.

The Ordnance Survey divides the map of the UK into 1 sq. km. grid squares, and the grid that covers the Old Town/Chisley area contains more public rights of way than any other in the country. That sounds good, but in practice a number have been so little walked that they no longer really exist in practical terms – ramblers have been remiss. What affects our walk more, however, is that as this patch of land is a natural drainage area for the moor above. As the old field drains have been neglected over the three or four centuries since they were dug and installed, much of the downflow of water has now adopted the old paths and tracks, and some are impassable, or very nearly so. In this walk, therefore, and in this area particularly, I have avoided completism as regards following the Virgo outline, for two reasons: one, because the difficulty of some paths might take one’s concentration off the Virgoan intention, as well as off the pleasure of walking; and two, more conceptually, because of our Virgo’s core feature of the gift of water. Down at Hirst Bridge, the water is focussed into a stream; but it all comes from up here at the head of the valley. Water trickles in from all over this part of Wadsworth Moor, and across and through much of the land on your left as you follow the path between the wall and the open moor, all heading for Virgo’s handy bridge a mile below. The moorside walk, encompassing rather then treading on Virgo’s bedraggled-looking skirts, is to my mind a better way of tuning into Virgo’s gift and character.

If you do want to be completist, however, you could take the second footpath you come to through the field wall. It will take you down the side of two fields, then you take a right-hand path towards Claytons; you follow the path through the property and down towards a crossroads of tracks below Keelam. Here, you will have been walking the hem of her skirts, and at Clayton one of Virgo’s legs drops up into the fields beyond the house. The other leg follows the track up to Keelam, up towards the moor, and takes a left turn towards Commons to draw the foot; the toe end of the foot is marked by the path to Commons, but the shape is completed by field boundaries, so it would be better to turn left when the path from Keelam reaches a broad drove road, Commons Lane, and follow it downhill – though as it’s quite waterlogged, care should be taken and at the lower end a diversion into the adjoining field is necessary. If you do choose this route, however, I would recommend that you carry an up-to-date OS map with you, and your best diplomatic skills, in case you meet any problems on these very little-used routes.

If you don’t take this option, continue along by the wall as it bears left. Near a hut on the moor edge, a stile crosses a fence and takes a path downhill, into the wide drove road mentioned in the previous paragraph. Though heavily waterlogged in places, and the path surface eroded in others, it is passable with care and the diversion into the fields towards its lower end. If you take this path, you will be walking through the forward leg of Virgo. I would recommend this route, as the water making its way through the marsh in the centre of Commons Lane is the main source of the water flowing into Nutclough.

However, if that route doesn’t appeal to you, you can continue along the moor edge, past the hut, to the gate above Latham Farm, drop down the track to the farm, and then follow the tarmacked lane downhill, reliably dry-shod. At the track to Little Rundell Farm, a.k.a. Dick Ing, you could assay the footpath that marks the further hem of Virgo’s skirt and then drops back down towards the site of Acre Mill near Old Town School; but I wouldn’t bother, the tarmac lane is a better way to meet Virgo. You will pass the bottom of Commons Lane on your left, and just past it the crossroads where the paths from Keelam and Claytons meet. Bear right here, downhill towards the village. The moor run-off towards Nutclough joins you along this track, burbling away in a deep ditch to the left, until you come to the 18th-century inn of the Hare and Hounds. Should you not stop in there, turn right along Billy Lane, through the dip of Clough Hole, and up towards all that remains of old Acre Mill, its canteen, now turned into housing. Acre Mill itself stood on the other side of the road.

This Virgo figure has two sides, of life and death (as we saw at Snay Booth). The life-affirming Virgo nature has been with us throughout the walk, expressed as water – from the well troughs beside the road up to St Ambrose Well to the bogs of the moor to the springs and streams running down the hillside. But a darker side (implied in the crone-like body shape and the cowled head, as well as the murder at Snay Booth) is also in the figure. One aspect of this is in the form of floods – the shape of the landscape makes flash floods a real possibility in times of extreme rain, and when the moors overflow. They did just that in 2012 and 2015, washing away roads and tracks and flooding people’s houses across this hillside. Even darker, however, is the history of Acre Mill, which stood breaching the skirts of the Virgo figure at crotch level – it is perhaps intuitively unsurprising in our context that the history of the mill turned dark. Originally established as a cotton mill in 1859, after the Second World War it was taken over by Cape Asbestos Ltd. The dangers of asbestos were not adequately recognised at the time. Over its 31 years of production it was Old Town’s major employer; of the estimated 2200 workers employed, around 12% contracted asbestos-related diseases. Families were affected too – the wives who washed the workers’ clothes, the children who came into close contact with workers’ clothes, and anybody who came in too regular contact with the ventilation systems were all at risk. It has been estimated that altogether deaths attributable in some way to Acre Mill’s asbestos production fell between 500-750. Asbestos also found its way into the soil, and any building plan in this vicinity still requires soil testing for asbestos traces, and remedial action taken if found. Cape left the mill in 1970; it was used by other companies until a massive fire broke out in 1976. The remnants of the factory remained until demolition in 1988, and the bare site we see now was cleansed and landscaped in 1989. Now the old canteen building is all that remains of the lethal mill – ironically, being that part which offered sustenance rather than disease. It is as if Virgo’s characteristic of positive health has countermanded the darker side of the crone.

Take the driveway at the old canteen, and walk towards Top o’th’Croft on the far side, and follow the track downhill towards a terrace of houses – you are following the front of Virgo’s dress. Shorts are also inadvisable along this next stretch, thanks to brambles and nettles that are thick in Virgo’s season. Just before the terrace, some steps lead up to a path which runs behind the house gardens, marking the line of Virgo’s arm. At the end of this path, turn left and through a narrow gate. Take care here, because once again you will hear the sound of running water, and right beside the narrow path is a deep drain usually –as we will surely be expecting by now – full of rushing water. A few yards on, the open drain is covered, but still to the right of the path there is a dry ditch that can twist an unwary ankle. The path comes out at a cross-paths just above a pair of semi-detached houses; go straight across on to a path to the left of the stone wall and the edge of woodland – home to a mixed colony of rooks and jackdaws whose twilight gatherings at this time of year are both raucous and spectacular.

On the other side of the houses, the moor run-off which we have been shadowing comes to a picturesque waterfall above Martin Mill – even more picturesque in Victorian and Edwardian times, when it was a popular picnic site. In 1839 it was the scene of an event counterpointing the Baptist meeting house on the other side of Virgo; 200 people watched  the Rev. John Kershaw baptise seven people at the foot of the waterfall. A direct outcome of this public ritual was the founding of Hope Baptist Chapel in Hebden Bridge – so once again Virgo’s gift of water inspired focussed activity in the town below.

Following the path by the wall, turn right when it reaches the road, uphill past Ibbot Royd. You are still following the line of Virgo’s arm, but just above Ibbotroyd House, where a footpath should take the line across the field to the left, the entrance to the path firstly has been squeezed to an impassable width for adults, and secondly beyond that has been blocked by a wooden fence. If you’re fine with climbing, please do so – across the gate and then across the fence, after which the path runs alongside the wall to a stile on the far side.

If you’re not up for climbing, continue along the road, past the converted Methodist chapel, to Club Houses – an example of co-operative building schemes which aimed to provide houses for lower-income families who paid into ‘the club’. It was to Club Houses that Rev. John Kershaw’s group repaired after the public baptism. Take the path in front of Club Houses, which turns into a track as far as a gate, which is where you rejoin the Virgo outline as the path from Ibbotroyd comes in over a stile. Beyond the gate is the sound of running water again – another stream feeds into Nutclough down the edge of the field. The line of the path is visible diagonally downhill, and as you look around you from this field path, you can somehow feel Virgo gathering herself and her gift from all across her body down into the valley you are approaching. In front of you, her domed head is visible at Dodnaze. You come to a stile in the corner of the field; cross it and take the less visible of the two paths that go downhill, the one to the left. It brings you out beside Nutclough, above the bridge, and as you approach the bridge, you approach your completion of the Virgoan circumnavigation.

You can return to Hebden Bridge quickest by going back down Nutclough the way you came; or if you don’t feel like the Leo energy after your Virgoan excursion, walk to the white house from the left side of the bridge, and join the tarmac road back into Birchcliffe and the town.

   Graffiti at Nutclough Bridge in 2012