The Peak District was Britains first national park. The Dark Peak is formed from the gritstone and peat landscapes of areas such Kinder Scout and Bleaklow. The White Peak is formed from limestone with deep gorges such as Dovedale.
I visited my dad’s grave today, to place flowers and show some respect. He died almost forty years ago, riddled with cancer and pain and the worry of when he would be able to get back to work, because what would become of us. He was never going back to work; he never knew he had cancer. My mother forbade us to talk about it lest what would the neighbours say. Mum and I looked after him for the most of his last days.
My lasting image is of returning from work one day to find dad in the sitting room worrying about work and money. Suddenly he broke down and I held him in my arms while he wept. I am weeping now while I type those words, a thing like that never leaves you, nor should it.
It has taken me almost forty years to begin to understand my dad and finally I am starting to see what he gave for us and how much of a price he paid.
I hadn’t expected to feel such an impact of place on my psyche as happened when we visited Gardom’s Edge the other evening. Maybe it was the quiet, or the cool of the evening. Or the advancing ink black clouds of the storm rolling in from the west. Watching the dogs twist and turn there was certainly some sort of charge in the air. Or maybe they sensed something else.
We sat by the ring and cup stone that lay along a line stretching form the Menhir to the Three Old Men of Gardom Cairns. This was a good place to live back then. Flat, protected by gritstone edges to the east and west with a long flat plain in between giving good line of sight. My mind conjured up a clearing in the trees, the round house to the south with an entrance in the north from Leash Fen. And, a young man or woman carving out the delicate intricate shapes on the rock.
I fancied they did this not for art or ceremony but to leave something of themselves. Make a mark; speak down the ages to the young man or woman today. Did they have that sense of their place in time?
Something thick and heavy muffling out all other senses. I had gone through weeks of emotional extremes and that had opened a door in to a long passageway to the past. I leaned back against ancient gritstone and settled for the first time in many a day.
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.
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.
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.
I spent time walking up and down a 580m length of the Long Causeway last week. I wanted to get a feel for the old packhorse route, to see if today there was any resonance of the past, any connection that placed me in the same sense of being there as someone two hundred years ago.
The section between Stanage Pole and the junction with the bridleway from Stanage Plantation is still beautifully paved with the original stone setts. The setts have a concave surface, worn by hundreds of years of cartwheels as they trundled between Sheffield and Hathersage. The causeway is a strong feature in the landscape, a line placed by human hand but perhaps following thousands of feet before.
Stanage pole bears the mark of the Virgin Mary, VM, a signifier of a place of worship by the Roman Catholic community who in the time of the reformation sought out of the way places to practice their faith. Three and a half miles directly south as the crow flies sits Padley Chapel where priests were found celebrating mass. For their pains, they were hanged, drawn and quartered at Derby. Directly north of Stanage Pole is said to be the place where the Catholics worshipped, a rock. It has yet to be found. So there is much that resonates in the surroundings.
The line of the causeway must have been surveyed for
the setts form perfect lines running slightly off an east-west axis away from the boundary of Yorkshire and Derbyshire, Mercia and Northumbria. The same boundary exists today, has existed for hundreds if not thousands of years and much nearer to our own time. A little further along Stanage Edge is a stone bearing the markings, CP96, a boundary stone that had to be beaten during the annual perambulation by the great and good of the Lordship of Hallamshire accompanied by members of the church. They would have first called at Stanage Pole, beaten the rock with their sticks, said prayers then moved on along the line of the Long Causeway to the rock sits near High Neb. It is a route thousands of people walk today, perhaps we never walk anywhere new, but are guided by unseen ancient hands.
So as I stand there thinking all this and looking, walking back and forth along the stone way I wonder if people back then thought someone in the future would be trying to touch their existence. I wonder if in two thousand years time someone will try and touch my thoughts and feelings that day. I headed back east towards the pole and my eye was caught by a small homemade plaque screwed to a fence post. It was beautiful in its simplicity. A memorial to John Hartle facing south-west over Stanage Edge. A modern-day signifier of who had gone before me. I wondered who he was, a runner perhaps, maybe a walker. Why in this age of data and information do we know so much about the past yet so little about today?
Is this an indication of our disconnect with the landscape or our relationship with it that defines it as an amenity to be used and enjoyed at our will. Did the Mercians, Catholic, burghers of Hallamshire view it in much the same way? Is this the connection I have been looking for or have I missed the one I truly wanted, not the people who used the Long Causeway but those who made it?