Sidney Jackson, rambling

Sidney Jackson was a remarkable man.  He was an enthusiast, largely self-taught, whose knowledge of natural history, archaeology and geology was remarkable, and who left behind a fascinating assortment of writing such as newspaper and journal articles, as well as drawings and artefacts.  He is still remembered not only for his time spent working at Cartwright Hall and other Bradford Museums, but for his active role in groups which he himself often initiated, such as the Bradford Archaeology Group, Bradford Naturalists, and others.  

He was born in Eccleshill in 1902, and spent most of his life in Bradford; it was through his articles and drawings in the Archaeology Group Bulletins that I first became aware of the numerous finds and observations that had come to light in Thackley as a result of the many walks and visits by the Archaeology Group.  But having access to Sidney Jackson’s book Nature Rambles in Mid-Airedale, published in 1952, made me aware of how alert he was to the world about him, as he mingled nature, history ancient and modern, and general knowledge on the routes he followed.  Seventy years later much that he saw and commented on has disappeared, but it is intriguing to note what still survives – even some of the trees.

Sidney Jackson’s accurate and detailed hand-drawn map of Ramble 3.

Jackson’s Ramble No. 3 in his book is around Thackley, Buck Wood and Buck Mill. After a paragraph of precise advice about trolley-bus routes to Thackley Corner, and the walk from there down to the end of Thackley Road, which was enhanced by the view of “the higher slopes of Baildon Moor, rich in prehistoric remains.” I hope Jackson would have been impressed by the discovery of the prehistoric site in Buck Wood over sixty years later, which also had a distant view across to Baildon Moors!

Continuing into the Wood, “Look out for the two Thackley-Esholt railway tunnel ventilators on your right … clouds of steam arise from these after a train has passed beneath.  Both ventilators stand on large mounds of soil dug out when the tunnel was made.  Where the path goes between the two mounds covered with yellow-flowered, prickly gorse, the flagstones are worn hollow with use.  We are now in the south-western end of Buck Wood.  Trees that formerly grew here were felled twenty years ago, and have been replaced by many self-sown silver birches, the haunt of willow warblers and yellowhammers.  The greater part of Buck Wood, the property of the Bradford Corporation, lies over to the right, and is planted mainly with conifers.”

Buck Mill Lane paved with stones from the Mill

At this point the distant view is of Wrose Hill, where Jackson mentions that numerous Roman coins were found which “suggest that the Romans once had an outpost there.”  He continues to where “twenty-four concrete steps, each too long to take in one stride, end this part of the path, and you come to a wider path paved with large stones that came from the ruins of Buck Mill when the buildings were finally demolished in the 1920’s.  This paving continues below the canal bridge.  Up to 25 years ago drovers brought cattle and sheep this way from Otley market.  The sheep invariably refused to set foot on the canal bridge until the drover had carried over one of their number, when the remainder would follow – in short, just like a flock of sheep!  Cattle were similarly reluctant to cross, and I have seen them swim the canal rather than set foot on something they considered insecure.”

His next remark is accurate today, as he observes that there is a small blackthorn bush at the side of the bridge where the swing mechanism operates; the blackthorn is still there, though unlikely to be the original; maybe an offshoot from the one that Sidney Jackson saw.  His remark that “blackthorn is scarce hereabouts” is also still true.

He crosses the canal bridge and looking forward “Buck Mill chimney stands below you to the right.  The former textile factory here was built for the sake of the water power, and the mill-wheel channels, now overgrown with vegetation, can still be seen.  When a steam engine was installed a dam was made to conserve water for the boiler.  This is now empty, though still marshy, and common newts can be found in it.” Much of this description is little changed, although the mill chimney was demolished in the 1960s, and most of the site is overwhelmed by brambles and Himalayan balsam, and the river banks by wild garlic.  Sidney Jackson lists other plants: “White deadnettle, stinging nettle, lesser celandine, Jack-by-the-hedge,” [the latter a variety of wild mustard], and remarks that the seeds of wild plants are deposited there by the river, which accounts for their diversity.  Now, sadly, although many wild flowers do grow there, they are over-run by the seriously invasive Balsam plants with their powerfully explosive seed heads.

Crossing the footbridge over what was then “the dirty River Aire”, Jackson points out that “you can see the remains of the old weir upstream, and downstream the paved ford which was once the only means of crossing.”  Fortunately the Aire is cleaner now.  The  remains can still be seen,  but now there are resident herons and kingfishers benefitting from the healthier state of the river.  And the trees are largely the same: “The trees that line each bank are  alders, the timber of which was formerly used for clog soles, and a number of crack willows, easily recognised by their long, lance-shaped leaves …” although now they are old and battered, suffering from the heavy rains and winds of winter storms.

As he walks up Buck Lane towards the main road to Otley and the bus routes, Jackson again notes it as a path “rich in wild plants.  Meadow cranesbill, ground ivy, dog’s mercury, bluebell, garlic, sweet cicely and wild arum are all common.  Near Ford Houses [sic; now Ford House Farm] hedgerow maple replaces hawthorn in the hedge.” He remarks that “the ‘creaking gate’ call of the common partridge can sometimes be heard coming from the adjacent fields,” and indeed that unmistakable call can still be heard from the riverside fields.

The map for Ramble 10

Another Ramble, No. 10, also starts at Thackley, then goes along the full length of Ainsbury Avenue with Buck Wood on the left.  Where Ainsbury Avenue terminates at Esholt, Jackson’s route turns left along the canal towpath back towards Thackley.  The canal forms the boundary of Buck Wood, and the walk eventually returns to the main Leeds Road at Thackley Corner where the bus stops are. Again it is Sidney Jackson’s eye for detail throughout which makes the ramble interesting.

Wise tree planting 40 years ago has produced one of Bradford’s loveliest country walks“, he begins, and even after a further 70 years the same may still be said of Ainsbury Avenue, although it can be busy with traffic bringing dogs and owners for walks in Buck Wood, and riders to the busy farm liveries.  It also has a slightly neglected air which is typical of any town or city with an impoverished council.  But local people care, and plant bulbs and pick up litter zealously, and try their best to keep up appearances. 

Most of the “wise tree planting” has survived, and the assortment which Jackson lists – including variegated sycamores, whitebeams, beeches, and others – is largely intact except for the occasional gap where trees have become unsafe or died through disease or age.  He mentions specifically a false acacia, an unusual exotic addition to the native mix, but which died several years ago, although another was still thriving further down the avenue, until it was cut down for no known reason.

The late Robinia or False Acacia

“Rounding a small conifer plantation … you come in full view of Esholt Sewage Works, Bradford’s most prosperous municipal undertaking.” But, justifiably more significant to the writer is the embankment of gorse and ragwort “on which the yellow and black striped caterpillars of the cinnabar moth may be found.  This moth has become common at Esholt only in recent years.” Sadly, this beautiful and colourful day-flying moth is no longer common in this area.  Continuing his walk, Jackson turns on to the canal towpath, still remarking on trees and flowers; he notes that Buck Wood slopes up on the other side of the canal, remarking that it was “originally oak, beech and birch, felled in 1936, and now planted mainly with conifers.”  He gives the impression that the felling of native trees and replacing them with a cash-crop of conifers was undesirable, and to the detriment of existing woodlands.  The bleak plantations which were planted throughout the country at that time changed the environment and wildlife in ways which were not anticipated, and naturalists like Sidney Jackson were rightly disparaging about the results.  Fortunately Buck Wood was spared total replanting following protests by local people,  and the conifers were intermingled with beeches, and in places the smaller oaks and other trees which were cut down have regrown as if deliberately coppiced.  Hence all was not lost, and by default Buck Wood has developed into an attractively mixed woodland.

It is gratifying to see that some things are exactly as he described them.  He writes that “At the site of a former swivel bridge over the canal, where the towpath bulges, look over the fence to the right to see an ash tree with a freak trunk, the base swollen like a huge bulb.”  And it is there still, exactly as described, and as drawn on his map accompanying the route. 

Sidney Jackson’s oddly shaped ash tree

After finding this curious mis-shaped veteran tree, it’s difficult not to continue looking at the trees around, noticing the curious way many have grown , and speculating how or why it happened.  And so Jackson continues along the towpath, remarking that “This stretch of towpath is rich in wild flowers from spring to autumn,”  before turning up Buck Mill Lane at the next swing bridge, and again climbing those awkwardly spaced 24 steps before making the “stiff climb” up to Thackley Corner and the bus home.

From the noisy, smoky steam trains in the tunnels to the massive rebuilding taking place at Esholt Sewage Works, much has changed  since 1952.  Around Thackley itself the growth of housing estates has probably hidden forever the buried ancient artefacts that Sidney Jackson and his fellow antiquarians found.  The distant views he remarked on have also gone, or become scarred with industrial developments.  Much of the natural history and environment has altered, but there have been gains as well as losses.  In my imagination I have a picture of Sidney Jackson pausing to look at the ancient weirdly shaped tree beside the canal towpath, whilst hearing buzzards calling overhead, and watching them wheeling above the trees in the sunshine of a spring morning.  And if the occasional red kite or two also circled overhead that would be an extra surprise for him!

Dr Hester Marvell

A short biography of Sidney Jackson and his work can be found at the website ‘Bradford unconsidered trifles’ (amongst many other unconsidered but also fascinating trifles)

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