Conies Dale, Derbyshire: Ravens are often cautious birds, but they don’t seem to regard me as a threat, and carry on for several minutes with their dazzling courtship
The southern slope of Eldon Hill is remote country, curving up from Perry Dale and the tiny hamlet of Old Dam. Gaining height, the White Peak unfolds at my back, thin grey skies pierced in places by sunlight, and to the southwest, beyond Buxton, the Staffordshire moors adding a rusty horizon to complement the emerald green of Derbyshire.
Eldon Hill itself does not look quite so alluring. The pastures are closely cropped after the summer’s grazing and, in the late December gale tearing up the slope, the day has a bleak, even desolate mood.
Hereabouts are tumbled heaps of spoil, left centuries ago by lead miners working the rakes of ore. Like a veteran fighter, the scars and nicks of this long campaign have created a face only its mother could love.
The names of mines stud the map like windows on the past but it’s sometimes risky to have complete faith in the Ordnance Survey. Slitherstones mine, for example, seems right on a damp morning, but its first use comes on a map and not in the records.
The ominous-sounding Starvehouse mine, on Cop Rake, had an earlier and more optimistic title – New York. Our confabulations about places often drift towards the negative, even the malign. The same can also be true of creatures.
Above the walled pastures, the ground becomes wilder and I enter the dry defile of Conies Dale. At its base, low limestone crags block my route and I pause to take shelter from the wind. Above my head, on the crest of Jewelknoll, is a plantation of beech and a lone oak, black against the silver clouds.
Looking up I see one, two and then three pairs of ravens, holding themselves against the breeze and then swooping and gliding away. Ravens are often cautious birds, and have excellent eyesight, but tucked inside my shelter they don’t seem to regard me as a threat, and carry on for several minutes with their dazzling courtship.
One couple in particular seem to have total mastery of the sky, flying for a moment wingtip to wingtip, silent, focused, before the male flips onto its back and cruises easily through the air upside down, its feet extended up towards his mate, before flipping just as easily the right way up.
Then, for a few seconds, these three pairs meld together, flexed against the wind, and where before there were couples now there is a small society, despite their reputation for solitude, and I struggle to maintain a clear view of which birds belong together.
Abruptly, a large group of jackdaws clears the crest of the hill and I can now see the large size of the ravens in context, evens as these interlopers break up the party.