I recently spent a few days in Montreal working on a film/poetry collaboration with fellow students from Sheffield Hallam University. Each day I walked across the city choosing a single route without deviation. I had a sense of the colour red, the cold, the rich and the poor. I discerned a confidence in the place on my first day, a day of -20 degree temperatures and a clear blue sky. As the weather warmed to +4 degree on our last day I was starting to become familiar with the city, noticing how frayed at the edges it was. The warmer weather had brought the homeless and the beggars back on to the streets.
Walking down the 8 mile Rue Ontario I passed through the layers of a modern society many times as though the road was punching out the vagaries and fortunes of human life like Morse code. At times the city seemed to hesitate, unsure of what to be. The Olympic Stadium on the edge of the metropolis nudged the edgelands between Montreal and the other worlds. It felt like something the city was trying to hide as though it’s attempt on the world stage had fallen short so the inhabitants decided to hide it away like one of those kitchen appliance fads that everyone has in the back of the corner cupboard. Yet a community had grown up around the stadium and gave it a sense of belonging, as though people were saying you are ours we won’t abandon you like the rest have.
Perhaps the lesson the city wanted me to learn was the fact that everything needs to belong, to have a place.
Montreal. Sheffield Hallam University Film/Poetry 2018
Back a year ago I was volunteering as a Ranger for the Peak District National Park working out of Fairholmes in the Upper Derwent Valley. The job entailed keeping the place looking nice, I learned how to dig a post hole and put a post in that would stay upright true as a flagpole without the use of concrete. Then there was the guided walks, members of the public being shown the natural beauty of the place plus some interesting areas where, if you knew how to look, you could still see how early man had inhabited the landscape, burning platforms, rock marks, old ways. Another part was taking trainees out on patrol, I liked this bit because the newcomers were always eager to learn, until one day I met a man who’s name I now forget but I never forgot what he said.
He was a doctor from Sheffield. Due to retire at 50-ish he wanted something to fill his time and fancied himself as a Ranger. He came on a pre training day to see if he would like it before joining the official programme. As we sat in the Ranger centre waiting to be told where to go that day we talked and somehow the topic of Mountain Rescue came to the fore. The doctor says he hates them, always rattling their tins at people when everyone knew they wasted money, why only last month he’d seen around 40 people turn up on a callout just think how much that cost. I was stunned, I’d never heard anyone talk like that about MR. I explained to him how a callout works and about the fact that MR is full of volunteers, just volunteers, no one gets paid. He retorted that it was a waste of money and he wasn’t going to fund people who wanted to play hero.
I was asked to take him out on patrol and against my better judgement I did. The weather was poor, hail and snow blowing horizontally. We worked our way up to Howden Edge, him doing the nav. When we topped out he gave up and said he wanted to go down, this was no weather to be out in. What became of him I don’t know. I left shortly after that and partly because of that. If this was the kind of person the service was attracting it wasn’t for me.
This week Peak District Mountain Rescue teams received a callout to support one of the Pennine teams in the search for a man lost and injured on the Pennine moors. The operation had been going all night and it carried on into next day. A total of 100 Mountain Rescue members from teams across the north of England along with 13 search dogs and handlers, air support and police were involved in the operation. The gentleman was found safe and with only slight injuries. At the rendezvous point I surveyed the number of vehicles, listened to team members saying they had to get back to work and it was a three-hour drive back, so they best be on their way. Many had come straight from working a night shift or were heading back to do a full days work. They grabbed a cup of coffee and a biscuit and were off. None were paid; most had spent heavily to get there in lost wages, fuel and food. All for a man they had never met and probably never would. And they would do it all again because that is the kind of people they are, not heroes, just men and women who know that somewhere someone is in distress and is in need of help.
It is a couple of years now since I walked along the old way to Salter’s Brook from the Derwent Valley. The path has existed since the 13th century and closely follows the county boundary between Derbyshire and Yorkshire and before that Yorkshire and Cheshire, Salter’s Brook being the main access point into Yorshire and from there the port of Bawtry and on to Europe for the salt from the Cheshire mines.
The old way heads south from Salter’s Brook over the watershed and down into the Derwent valley where it closely follows the river’s course. At Humber Knolls the path is paved indicating it was so heavily used at some point the ground needed protection. Now the slabs are disappearing under the grass, the passage of feet is so infrequent. It is a lovely quiet spot and an unexpected one too, the Humber Knolls are a surprise when a walker first comes across them, closing in on the path as they do. They seem manmade but are merely deposits from the silt that flowed down the river millions of years before, the nearby Long Barrow in Barrow Clough is a similar deposit and not as the name suggests an ancient burial mound.
Following the path along eventually leads to the foot of Hoar Clough. Ascend this and you will meet up with the ghosts of the shepherds who met at the Shepherds Meeting Stones to exchange errant sheep, it is a wonderful place to sit and talk with friends specially in the dead of night.
These summer days have been stifling, particularly in the afternoon, so we have resorted to dog walks early and late in the day through the forest. The later walk I suspect is the most favoured by the dogs as it always involves a dip in the river and a game of sticks.
There are no other humans around that I can see this morning, but I can hear chainsaws working somewhere deep in the interior. I choose a favoured route along wide forest roads that gives long vistas down through the trees. Scout works from side to side, sniffing out the scent of numerous animals, sometimes darting into the trees and disappearing for several minutes. I listen for the rustle of the leaves and bracken, the tell tale signs he is following some scent track. Eventually he will re-appear back on the track, sometimes he comes from behind his paws cantering along like a racehorse as he blasts past.
The track takes me through plantations of pine, larch, oak and birch. In small clearings ash is also evident and in the older woodlands there is a preponderance of Holly from the days when this was a hunting forest and holly was a mainstay winter feed for cattle. We skirt the edge of grazing land; there is no stock today. I notice near the fence a charred and blackened area where fire has taken hold. It isn’t too large so must have been extinguished quickly, but maybe this is why the stock have gone.
The chainsaws are louder now so we must be near them. Turning the corner of the track we enter an area of birch and ash, lots of saplings and young trees. Piled along the side of the track is a long line of twigs, bundled together and stacked chest high. This is what the chainsaws are cutting. The twigs are all the same length as I look at the ends a breeze brings their scent to my nose. It smells of freshly brewed tea. I stand there and take it in. The aroma ranges from fresh green tea of the newly cut saplings to full on thick builders tea of the oldest stacks.
I notice Scout has gone ahead and is sniffing around a car parked at the side of the track. Then I see a man knelt on the ground filing a chainsaw. I call Scout back before he starts to make a nuisance of himself. As I get up to the man he stands and says hello. I ask about the twigs and he tells me it is brush for racecourse jumps. I see it now; it makes sense.
I have been spending a great deal of time in the last 18 months walking the footpaths across the eastern side of the White Peak area of the Peak District National Park. I am writing a new guidebook about a landscape that is rich in natural and human history. Two of the aims of a guide-book is to entertain and inform, another is to produce routes that are pleasurable to walk along. It is a major task in the White Peak for two reasons.
The first is the lack of open access. This means that you are confined to public rights of way footpaths and trails. Where there is open access land there is often no access to the land itself, thereby obliterating the need for the access land. There is also a weird setup to access monuments of local and national importance.
Look at the map above and notice the two footpaths coming south out of Cales Farm. They both end at a road. A person may expect a footpath to be at the opposite side of the road. But this is not the case. The paths just end. There is no linking up with other footpaths so that a journey can be carried onward without resorting to walking along a road. This is not walking in the countryside, its walking along a road. The second thing to notice about the map is public access to Arbor Low. There is none. In fact a donation is solicited by the landowner. And access is only at certain times of the day. There are no footpaths leading to the site and parking for only a minute number of vehicles nearby. Yet this is a national monument of significant importance, so why make it so difficult to get to.
The second reason is one that is easy to rectify, if there was a will to do so. The state of many of the stiles and access gates in the white peak area is a disgrace. A person may have expected that the dark peak area with far fewer visitors and stiles may see more of the poorly maintained infrastructure but this is clearly not the case. Note the two stiles above, a random selection of the many thousands that I have encountered. The wooden stile is falling to pieces, creaking and swaying as a person attempts to stride over. The stone stile is much cleverer because it lulls the walker into a false sense of security. Only when the walker steps down on the opposite side and the stone step swings out of the way is the walker appraised of the stiles failings. These stiles are not unusual, nor is it unusual to find access blocked by any amount of metal. Signposts missing are par for the course. Stiles hidden beneath mountains of bramble and thistle are plentiful in supply.
The question has to be who is responsible. If it is the national park authority then what have they been doing since 1951 in achieving a footpath network that is complete in all aspects with footpaths linking up to make access much easier. And what about those stiles. Is this a cutback measure, are we waiting for someone to come a cropper before a defective stile is replaced. Is that now the plan. Or is the ranger service not aware of the problem, because they have not visited the paths due to a lack of time, or funding or desire.
Whatever the reasons there is much work to be done in the white peak to open up access to the public and make it safer for walkers to enjoy the land. The national park has its work cut out, whether it is capable is another matter.
Experienced handlers say that training a dog is as much about trust as anything else.
I’ve asked Paul to walk down a footpath for 200 paces then go right into woodland for 100 paces and lay down. Scout strains at the lead, knowing that the game is on; I let him off and tell him to “go find”. He barks and does his little dance and I tell him to “get on” before he shoots off making ever-larger circles searching for the scent cone of Paul, occasionally blasting past me on his next orbit as we work our way through the woodland.
Suddenly Scout disappears into undergrowth. I stay on the path listening to his falconry bell as it jingles through the bracken. Then it stops. Silence. Eventually the jingle starts again and I see bracken moving as Scout makes his way back to me. He reaches the path and looks around, spots me and heads with purpose towards me as he gets close he barks then immediately turns around and heads back the same way. I have learned that heading back the same way means he has found a person. I follow him as the woodland engulfs him till eventually I am standing by the side of Paul. I give Paul the reward command and he pops up with Scouts toy and has a game of tug, this is Scouts reward and as he plays I tell him what a great dog he is and let Paul know where to go next.
Minutes later Scout and I are heading for a logging track that winds through the forest. Paul will be hiding at it’s top end and I want to approach from the bottom to extend the amount of time for searching. Scout is ahead and I watch him closely looking for any sign that he has found a trace of Paul. He turns sharp right into trees, when I get to the place there is no sight of him. I stand on the track and wait. Minutes pass and nothing. I have told Paul to hide on my left, but Scout is on the right. I whistle for Scout to return. A minute passes then I hear the bell and soon Scout is heading to me. But it’s with a purpose, the look on his face says he has found Paul, but that cannot be right, it’s the wrong area. He barks telling me he has found. I hedge my bets and tell him to get on and he heads straight back along the same line eventually leading me to a tree, but no Paul. There is nothing here I tell him. He looks up, so do I. Nothing. I start to move back to the track 400m away. He refuses to follow, looking at me in a serious way I have not seen before, he barks again, telling me he has found then heads back to the tree. He keeps looking up or at least I think that’s what he is doing. I look around.
There is a fallen tree nearby and a wide gully with a thin stream running down and thick bracken and the outline of the upturned roots of a tree on the opposite bank. A smooth breeze slips straight through us from across the gully. There is nothing else here so I make him reluctantly head back to the track and continue the search. We pass the point where I expect Paul to be and Scout has no interest. It dawns on me that Paul is not here and that the curve in the track I told him about is not this one but the one higher up.
We reach the right curve and head down the adjacent track. Scout runs straight to the bottom then returns and indicates, but it’s half-hearted and I suspect there is nothing there. When I reach him he is down a gully drinking from a stream and I call him out, knowing we have gone too far. I start to work back. The wind is blowing from my right heading for the direction of where Paul should be. Scout is on the wrong side of the wind so will not be able to detect Paul’s scent. Then I see Scout turn sharp left and head into the bracken; I follow him through flattened leaves realising Scout is on Paul’s ground scent. Scout comes back and indicates and in another 50m and I am there with Paul.
As they play I look around. It’s a good spot beneath a huge root ball from an upturned tree, well hidden in the bracken. Downwind is a gully with a small stream and across the gully woodland. As I am looking at this Paul tells me he thought we had him 30 minutes a go when we were the other side of the gully.
What do you mean I ask?
He tells me he heard me saying to Scout that there was nothing there and he points to a fallen tree across the gully. It’s then I realise where I am. We are across from the tree that Scout took me to earlier; it’s less than 20 meters away. It all starts to fit in to place. I realise Scout wasn’t looking up; he was pointing his nose up in the air to catch Paul’s scent. And when he went down to the stream he was picking Paul’s scent up as it drifted down on the water.
I’m stunned. Scout had Paul 30 minutes ago that’s why he would not leave the tree, he was telling me there was something there, that’s where the body was. I think about this and I know I am the weak link in the team. Trust your dog they say.
Later that evening I think about what happened. I’m amazed at Scout and how good he is and I’m disappointed in my performance how my actions let the team down. It is a massive learning experience.
I walked into Wensley Dale in the Peak District one afternoon. It had been a hot day and I was looking forward to finishing my walk. As soon as I entered it I knew I had found a special place. Its wide flat bottom rises almost imperceptibly towards the west; a dark green line of fresh grass indicating the central and lowest point. It reminded me of the keel of a boat.
Scout made for the shade of the northern slope and hugged the cool of the tree line for as long as he could. Sheep were taking rest a few meters in to the trees, and some moved out when they saw Scout but others stayed where they were, too hot and tired for a game of chase. Scout ignored them. Every now and again he would emerge to check my own position and progress then dart quickly back in to the shade.
I took my time, enjoying the gentle slope but not the heat. There were a few limestone outcrops all covered in bramble and tree, offering no shelter or comfortable seat on which to sit out the heat of the day. I could do nothing but press on. I kept to the line of the keel and perhaps this put the notion in my head of a Saxon burial, complete with boat and golden hoard.
Wensley Dale sits in an area that is rich in ancient sites, barrows, cairns and stone circles freckle the landscape. The land is also at the centre of druidic influences giving rise to a great deal of soul replenishment on midsummers day as those in concert with nature prepare for winter.
Dawn first touches the dale as it clears the rocks of Ravensnest Tor in the east, shining a beam of light directly down the length of Wensley Dale’s upper reaches that lay on an exact east-west axis. It then crosses the ancient Portway near Elton and hits the tumuli of Gratton Moor in the west. Each side of the life giving sunlight is littered with tumuli, barrows and lows, including the two most famous, Minninglow to the south and Arbor Low in the north. In the evening this process would be reversed as the light draws in and dusk falls along the dale from the east.
I could sense some strong connection with natural forces, but I was too far entwined in the modern world to be able to place a finger on its pulse.