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.
January 2013 has brought a welcome change in the weather, no more rain day after day, but clear blue skies and higher temperatures. It has made for some good walking and we have enjoyed several fantastic days out. The ground is completely saturated after the almost constant downpours and water sits on the surface in large languid pools. Moorland is particularly testing to navigate through, with the peat groughs the consistency of a semi liquid, once you accidentally step in to a bog there is only one way your foot and leg are going and that’s downwards. Best to make sure you have one foot at least on dry firm land so that you can extricate yourself from the quagmire. In no way is it elegant but at least you will be able to save yourself from the humiliation of being pulled out, sans boots and socks. The other day I went in with both feet, sinking in to my thighs. I had to throw myself forward on to my chest and basically swim across the surface, grunting with effort and a little fear. Anyone looking on would think I was some strange sportsman possibly from Lincolnshire.
They say bad weather is on its way with everyone on Twitter and Facebook who has any interest in the Peak District posting up words of excitement at the thought. We’ve missed out on the snow and have only been able to look longingly at all the photos of the Lake District and Scotland covered in white powdery snow, that have been posted on any number of sites. For some reason we all seem to love walking in the stuff. I think for me the changes that the landscape goes through after a good snowfall is one of the things I like. There is a purity about all that snow with all those curves as it falls across moor and rock like a huge white cotton sheet. There is the quiet as though for a time snow has removed all sound from the world. The only sound that can be heard close by is the crunch squeak of boots moving across the surface. For the first time last year I wore crampons and this gives an amazing feeling of confidence. No longer did I have to walk with a swing of the pelvis and a twist of the foot to gain traction forward. Falling snow is nice to walk in too. But snow driven at high velocity directly in to your face is another challenge altogether. Walking in blizzard conditions, trying to stay upright, trying to navigate and stay on the right track is one which requires skill and a certain mindset, especially if visibility and daylight are almost non-existent.
Of course walking on fresh snow means you are the first human to do so. No one has come this way before you, its Shackleton’s expedition being the first people to see James Caird Island. You are alone and before you, a smooth pristine carpet of white, untouched by human feet, the sense of exploration being heightened by the odd set of prints from some unknown as yet undiscovered animal. The cold, if very cold, burns the cheeks and snow stings when it hits the face. The best days are the ones where the sky is a deep blue and the air positively cracks with the cold. You can see for miles on such days and the quiet just adds to the ethereal sense the world has taken as its mantle. This is the best winter walking, moving along warm but not wet inside, the crampons helping forward motion and the air still, clear and biting.
The other day I sought a few hours solitude out on the moors near to where I live. Within 20 minutes I was setting off on the faint track that leads up on to Rud Hill, a place few people will know of but many have walked across and passed by on their way up to Stanage Pole and the edge.
The last few weeks have seen even more rain fall on already sodden ground and this was very much in evidence on the moor. Surface water lay in great pools across the peaty landscape. Much of the moorland grass bordering the track had been worn away by countless boots in an attempt to avoid the peat bogs that had developed as a result of the moor being unable to absorb anymore rain. In places the ground was so sodden it was near impossible to avoid being sucked down in to the peat and in fact on two occasions I experienced just that. The second was more comical and a little bruising to the ego as I sank up to my thighs into the bog and could only release myself by laying myself face forward across the bog and pulling myself out. The sight of a 50 year old man floundering on the moorland surface would have been a joy to watch, fortunately there were no spectators around to appreciate the spectacle.
I wanted to find a small pool marked on the OS map, just as an exercise in navigating by contours. Unfortunately this proved a fruitless endeavour, not because the pool could not be found, that wasn’t the problem. The difficulty lay in the number of pools around the location, there were at least a dozen, all formed by recent rains and all of some depth. I eventually chose a pool that both matched the co-ordinates and had signs of being established for some considerable time, it having a depth that was deeper than others and signs of lichen and moss growing around the edges.
As I was searching for the pool the cloud came in and enveloped me without my realising it was happening and I found myself on a moor with limited visibility and a worsening aspect all round. No need for compass, navigation was simple by following the track, but it did make me realise it would not be difficult to become disoriented in such conditions even on a moor within sight of Sheffield and only a few hundred meters from a roadway. Checking my map for directions I realised the fence shown on the OS map was not the same length as the one on the ground. The real fence had been extended recently and the new shiny wire was a clear indicator of this. Another reason why navigation by contour and not just features is a good idea.
I eventually worked my way back to the car which was sat in clear skies, just a few hundred meters from the cloud covered moorland. Covered in peat I must have looked quite a spectacle to the dog walkers.
The first fall of snow in the Peak District National Park found us at the National Trusts Longshaw Estate car park just past the Fox House Inn preparing for a walk up the Burbage valley below Burbage Edge and taking in Higger Tor and Carl Wark. Christmas trees were on sale but sadly there was no discount on the parking for a day at a rate of £4.00. Is that expensive? it sounds expensive for a car park with very few cars in on a winters weekday, but then £4 doesn’t sound a lot. Maybe the spirit of christmas scrooge has become part of me. It was snowing a little as we started to get ready and there was a bit of a cold breeze. I was wearing some new gear so was interested in how it would perform. The Scarpa SL Activ boots which I talked about in the latest gear review. After a session on lacing with Lee at Foothills I was hoping that the boots would have now settled in to my foot shape and I need not worry anymore about heel lift with my left foot. I was also trying my new pair of Paramo Gaiters, along with winter Craghopper trousers, Paramo shirt, Odlo Base layer, Paramo top, Berghaus Windstopper gloves and Marks and Spencer thermal long johns.
I was joined by Alison Counsell from Wapentac and her two Bedlington / Lakeland Cross Terriers, Monty (brown) and Olly (black), who had never seen snow before and were clearly excited at this new environment. After a little struggle getting all the clothes ready, running round the car park after the parking ticket which had blown out of the car, we were ready for the off. It was clear and the snow was holding off as we walked out of the car park and onto the drive that leads away from Longshaw Lodge to the Grindleford Road.
Walking down the drive you look across a pasture, part of the Longshaw Estate, which is separated from the house by a Ha Ha, a victorian landscaping device formed by digging a trench so as to allow an uniterrupted view from one side whilst placing a livestock barrier between the house and pasture. A favourite of su ch landsape designers such as Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown the Ha Ha is quite common in Victorian landscapes and parks. The pasture is also significant in that it is the home to the Longshaw Sheepdog Trials which take place each year. Founded in 1898 the trials are the oldest in the country and there is no nbetter way of spending a relaxing day watching the competitors coaxing the dogs to round up the sheep.If you can also at the same time work out what is happening then you have become, in my mind an expert, as I have yet to understand the marking system or what the different whistles mean. Soon another road is met, this one needing care to cross as this is the main road to Hathersage and the crossing point is not far from a bad left hand 90 degree bend. Take care!! You then find yourself with two options, the high route along the top of Burbage Edge or the low route walking on a well made track below the edge. As the wind was quite strong, there had been gales in Scotland and Northern England that last few days, with much damage and even one death and the skies were looking somewhat ominous I chose the lower route which offered some protection. It also meant that Monty and Olly could be let off the lead without fear of being blown off the edge by a gust of wind and they could explore the new environment and this white stuff that coated everything in safety. The track winds its way up the valley between Burbage Brook and Edge and offers fine views of Carl Wark and Higger Tor to the west. The valley itself is managed by the National Trust and has a covering of heather in which the occasional sheep can be found as well as the grouse. Several paths lead across west but we take the track heading north up the valley.
You are walking in Dark Peak or Gritstone country, you take your pick on the names. The land is identified by hard gritstone rock, peat moorland, heather grouse shoots, bog, groughs and cloughs in permanent shade. Gritstone country is wild and at times dangerous and attracts those who are enlivened by such environments. The gritstone itself dates back to the carboniferous period when the valley formed a basin in a tropical climate. Seas and rivers flowed in to the basin depositing sand and sediment which formed the millstone grit rock we see today. To think that 300+ million years ago we would have been in a tropical setting takes some believing when today it is zero degree temperatures and starting to snow.
It was starting to snow now, with dark clouds hanging low over the landscape. The dogs were enjoying running around the rocks and diving in to snow clad heather, their coats collecting powdery snow which collected in long lines along their backs. Olly the black coat would disappear from view in to the heather then re-appear like a shadow in some horror movie, moving across the heather under the black sky. The walking was easy and we talked about Alisons recent developments with Wapentac. Alison Counsell is a metalsmith of world renowned, how many people do you know who are on permanent exhibit in the Victoria and Albert Museum, one of the top five design museums in the world. A few years back Alison had produced a body of work for an exhibition which included a stainless steel three dimensianal sculpture of an Ordnance Survey map complete with rivers, valleys and contours. This led to a smaller version based on National Parks produced as gifts, they are known as Wapenmaps and a fledgling business was born. The range has expanded now to include maps, lights and botanical sculptures and is being sold in high end shops as well as online. It is nice to be involved with such a business, even on a superficial basis.
The snow was now coming in blustery gusts, interspersed by bright sunshine then moving on to wind, darkening skies and more snow. Passing Burbage Edge I pointed out different climbs and the sometimes anarchic names given to them. The edge is one of the major climbing areas in Britain and is often used for training. On weekends the edge is to found bedecked in colour from ropes, helmets and bodies crawling over every centimeter of it’s surface. Hands and fingers jamming in to crevices, limbs being coaxed and forced in to positions humans were not meant to be got into. Burbage Edge provides climbs for all skills from the easy Byrne’s Crack to hard Equilibrium. The edge is split into areas with names such as Nosferatu, Pebble Mill and the descriptive but innocuous Left End. There are over 600 climbing routes on the edge, enough for anyone and everyone. Today there were no takers, rock and snow and wet not being of particular attractive appeal. Bouldering is also a major pastime in the area and there is bountiful opportunities strewn all across the valley and up towards Higger Tor and Carl Wark. Our track had now led us to the head of the valley, a road blocking the tracks northwards march gave us the chance to try a little danger. So we crossed Burbage Brook tributaries twice to gain the western side of the valley. This was a good test for the Scarpa SL Active boot soles and their adhesion to wet rock. They passed with flying colours and I remained dry, with dignity intact. The Paramo gainters were also performing well and I could detect no build up of heat and moisture so evident in my old less technical gaiters. The dogs were a little reticent at first in crossing the rivers which were in spate, albeit a little one. Eventually they worked out what to do and after the first stream crossing the second was achieved with an air of ease, as though they had been doing it for years and nothing phased them. They have such characters.
We stopped for rest and coffee, taking in the scenery. On the road a man with two youths was pointing to a map and then the landscape. It transpired the youths were to be sent off on an exercise in navigation possibly. They did not look happy. Hands in pockets and heads down they looked as though this was some penance they were having to perform. A sad view, especially from the advantage of age. Cloud was starting to descend now, making visibility poor so we packed up and headed for the summit of Higger Tor. There is a clear path in good visibility that was now shrouded in cloud so we hugged the edge, keeping a few meters inland as it were. The snow was falling harder now, but the ground was still soft so you had to be careful where you put your feet or you could find yourself up to your knees in peat bog. A man we spoke to on the track told us how he had lost his boot by doing just such a thing on the ascent of Higger Tor. We managed to avoid such disasters and soon found ourselves on the summit plateau.
So here is some navigation advice, take it or leave it, to be used in very poor visibility in driving snow. First thing is don’t walk with your head down, trying to avoid the snow. This means you are focussed on your feet and not on what is around you, especially obstacles or worse, nothing at all!! Second, don’t just follow a path, in snow it may not be the path you want or a path at all. Third, keep walking legs short. Stop frequently and study map and compass and uses these to establish your position. Then calculate the next leg. Use pacing to establish how far to walk, compass to establish distance and eyes to discern any identifiable features you can use as handrails and attack points. Fourthly, take your time and do not panic. Stop if you need to and confer with other party members. Fifth and last. Do not attempt short cuts, if you become lost, try and work backwards to a known point or identify a major feature such as a road that you can get access to. Never split the party up. Stay together and stay safe. If visibility is zero and you do not feel confident in navigating find shelter and stay where you are until conditions improve. Do not go beyond your own or the parties limits.
Having said all that, because we were talking I missed our path towards Carl Wark and had to back track when I took my compass out to take a bearing only to realise we were heading north instead of south. I didn’t quite believe it, but chose to put trust in my compass and low and behold it delivered us with pinpoint accuracy combined with some good pacing. Moral. Have faith in your map and compass.
We were now in a whiteout, having to use map and compass to navigate from Higger Tor to Carl Wark a distance of no more than 400m. To anyone who knows the area and I include myself in that group, it seems ridiculous to suggest you would need navigation to walk such a short distance. A few miles from Sheffield, within sight and sound of a road and yet dis-orientation occurred before we knew it and then we were off course. I guess that’s why Mountain Rescue Teams get called out in such circumstances and the person or persons being rescued cannot quite believe they have managed to get themselves into such a situation. All in all a good lesson and I was glad that my map and compass work combined with accurate pacing worked just as they should.
Having reached Carl Wark we lunched whilst watching the whiteout clear and then descend again. Carl Wark is a Iron Age hill fort on a millstone grit outcrop amongst the moorland of the Burbage valley. A sign erected there tells us that the fort was built around 2500BC. That’s some time ago and there is still a wall there built out of gritstone blocks the size of a small garden shed. It’s not certain whether or not people lived here or were stationed here in times of trouble. Inside the wall is a an area strewn with boulders so living quarters would have been haphazard to say the least. It does have commanding views, when there is no whiteout, across the valley and down towards Grindleford. Any enemy approaching the fort would have been seen long before they arrived, which must have made attack difficult.
We descended from the fort and worked our way back over to the track we first walked up in the morning. Along the way we crossed back over Burbage Brook, Monty making it whilst Olly took an early bath, which to his credit he took in his stride. The snow was closing in now and traffic was having trouble getting up a moderate hill past Fox House Inn towards Sheffield. Once over the brow of the hill Sheffield came in to view. There was no snow on the road, no abandoned vehicles, no sliding cars. Such is the vagries of the weather in the Peak District.
Here is the thing that astonishes me. People were here in 2500BC that’s 4500 years ago and they have left an imprint on the landscape that we see today. I have walked where Iron Age man has walked, fought, eaten, slept. Based on four score years and ten, i.e seventy years of life and I know we are told that iron age man did not live to that ripe old age, then there are just 64 generations between me and the people who built this fort. There are five generations in my family now. That is the amazing thing about walking through this landscape we call Britain. We walk where others have and will walk. We are merely a spec of time upon time.
When I was fourteen years old a class mate and I decided we would go hiking in Derbyshire. I have no idea where the thought came from or who first had it, but one saturday morning I finished my paper round and dashed home to get ready for hiking. I had a pair of boots, the soles heavily re-inforced with segs, ( metal studs that were purchased from a cobblers shop near Robert Jenkins Company boiler shop and then hammered in to the soles). Segs made you feel more genuine and also warned anyone within a mile that you were coming due to the noise all this metal made on metalled roads. I also had an ex army surplus gas mask bag or havesack as they were known. This was quite a bag to sling over your shoulder as it contained a myriad of pockets that you could while away hours trying to work out what they were for. Into mine went sandwiches, a bottle of pop and a guide book detailing our route. I also had a kagoule, a wooly jumper and some money. You didn’t need much money as it only cost ten pence to travel anywhere in South Yorkshire back then, thanks to the innovative bus policy the local county council had. My mate and I got the bus to Sheffields Pond Street Station and then caught the bus to our destination. There were lots of walkers on the bus and we felt part of something, even though we were trying not to get noticed. We had chosen a route which seemed a good challenge. From Crowden we would walk across Kinder Scout to Edale and get the train back to Sheffield. What could possibly go wrong. The bus journey to Crowden Youth Hostel does not inspire confidence if you are two young walkers with absolutely no experience of the outdoors. The bus travels along the Woodhead road, a desolate and forbidding strip of tarmac that was, back then, still one of the main trans pennine routes for heavy frieght lorries. It is a black line surrounded by black peat and brown moors and dirt. Lots of dirt from the thousands of vehicles that pound the road every day. It also rains, a lot. Not the kind of start to a walking career you would choose, but that’s what you get for not knowing what you are doing. We arrived at Crowden expecting to find a small town of shops and houses. Nothing, there was just nothing, except a long low row of stone cottages and a phone box, and the roar of the lorries thundering by. We studied the guide book and tried to work out how to get to the start of the walk, which was situated in a village called Charlesworth. We managed to work out that following the Woodhead Road would take us to a junction where we turned off and then walked into the village. So we set off walking down the Woodhead towards Glossop. I would not attempt this walk now. The folly of youth blinded us to the risks inherent with walking along a major transport route with lots of blind bends and no footpath to walk on. But our confidence had been encouraged by the success of working out which direction we had to walk in. We simply followed the sight of the dissappearing bus over the horizon to Glossop. We were stupid!
Walking along the Woodhead is a surefire way to get killed and some people manage that every year, but it was a less frightenening prospect than walking away from the road, i.e, moorland, which looked forbidding, desolate and had no signs of life. Bearing in mind we were going to cross Kinder, this attitude towards the moors did not bode well, but protected by the veil of blissful youth, we did not know this at the time. At some point we saw civilisation in the form of Tintwistle. A small gathering of buildings that formed a village that to us looked like a metropolis in the midst of the moorlands looming over us. In the sunlight we walked in to the village and began the search for the road to Charlesworth, our starting point. We must have been given directions by someone as we were soon turning south to pass through a series of industrial era villages, the houses characterised by stone blackened through the years of heavy industrial acivity in an area known for dyeing, smelting and textiles. We were still walking along roads, albeit now on pavements. Our spirits had been lifted in the small victory we had achieved navigating our way from Rotherham, to Sheffield then Tintwistle and finally Charlesworth, the start of our expedition across the moors.
Entering Charlesworth we looked around for the sign post to Edale. There was none. The guide book gave very little detail about the start, except a drawn map which we could not relate to the land our feet stood upon. I have a recollection of walking back and forth along streets, with no real idea what we were looking for. Eventually we decided on asking for directions to Edale. The person we chose was a newsagent, probably on the basis that they delivered newspapers to houses and therefore should know where places were. In hindsight this was a wrong move, but we were’nt to know that then. “Excuse me. Could you tell me how to get to Edale?” “Edale. You want to go to Edale?” “Yes” “You’ve no chance of reaching Edale today from here. It’s too late. Where have you come from?” “Sheffield” “It would be quicker and easier to walk back to Sheffield. You don’t want to be setting off to Edale now.” “Oh. Right. Back to Sheffield you say.” “Much easier and quicker” So that was it. This font of all navigation matters had spoken. He was an adult and a shopkeeper, which in our young eyes meant he knew more than we did. Which in retrospect he probably did. After some deliberation, a packet of crsips and a bottle of orangeade we decided to take the adults advice and walk back to Sheffield. It was coming up to midday so we thought we had plenty of time. We chose to return via the route we had arrived and follow the Woodhead Road all the way back in to Sheffield. The distance would be 28 miles!!
Only the naivety of youth would attempt such a walk and we fitted that description perfectly. All was well at first. We retraced our route with a slight feeling of failure but also one of relief. We were in new surroundings so it didn’t seem too bad, even if we had never so much as stepped one foot on to grass, let alone moorland. It was when we started to walk back along the Woodhead road that things started to go wrong. Anyone who knows the Pennines will know it has a high rainfall. This is not the same for Rotherham where we lived, so it was one heck of a surprise when the heavens opened and God threw buckets of water down upon us. It was also very dark and very windy. To two young boys, (note we are young boys now and not intrepid adventurers!), unprepared for such weather it was a frightening experience. At one point we became so scared, what with the rain soaking us through, the wind howling around us, the skies as black as night and the lorries thundering past us, we attempted to seek refuge in a lonely house situated at the side of the Woodhead road. We banged on the door and when opened by a man shouted to be let in out of the storm. The door was slammed firmly shut leaving us outside dejected and forlorn. If ever that house owner needed help I hope he received the same response he gave to two young boys seeking protection in a storm. Even today when I pass the house I think it was, I feel a sense of loss in the human spirit at that mans actions. We had no option but to keep on walking back to Sheffield. We trudged in horrendous weather back along the road, fearing being hit by either vehicle or lightning, heads down, unresponsive we moved along through the storm which seemed to stay with us every step of the way.
Suddenley we came upon a phone box, the red standing out against the blue black of the storm clouds. Behind the phone box was a building. Refuge. It was the Crowden Youth Hostel and we weren’t members. For no reason I can explain today we decided not to go into the YH but instead packed ourselves into the phone box to seek protection from the storm. My friend phoned his dad and pleaded to be picked up. From listening to my friends side of the conversation his dad was not a happy bunny to be called out on a Saturday afternoon to rescue two halfwit boys who had got themselves lost. But he agreed to come and pick us up, what else would a father do.
We waited in the phone box, hoping no one would want to make a call. At some point the rain stopped and then we experienced one of those glorious special days when the rain clears, the sun comes out and heats the land so quickly steam rises from the sodden roads and also drenched boys. We sat outside, still not daring to enter the YH and waited for my friends father, basking in the bright 70’s style colours that are only available after a storm has passed.
He arrived in a great woosh, his large car turning round in the layby. As soon as he got out the tirade started. What did we think we were doing, how stupid could we both be, etc, etc. Bundled into the back of the car we were driven home whilst receiving lectures on various points of being responsible, not being idiots and not calling a dad out during the Saturday afternoon footie. We were relieved and dejected. A sense of adventure and of failure all in one.
I cannot remember what my parents said, not much probably as they had no connection with the outdoors and no inclination the danger their son had actually been in. I didn’t at the time, but looking back I can see how lucky we were. Amazingly, a few weeks after, we went for another walk, this time on a more gentler route, within easy reach of public transport and with lots of people around. It was a success and led on to a lifetime of walking.
I look back now on that day and fancy I see the gates to a future which I could not discern as a boy back then. We were coming to the end of our school days. My friend would go onto college, university and a distinguished career as a scientist. I would enter the steelworks as an apprentice, fed into the steel mills like thousands of others before me. I often think, what would have happened to me if we would have walked in to Crowden Youth Hostel. Would I have met someone who would fan the frail embers of outdoors interest into a career outdoors or a more adventurous life, rather than one of steel mills, pubs, unwanted marriage, mortgages, careers and responsibilities. I type this as a fifty two year old man, thrown on the scrap heap by bankers greed, trying to make sense of this new world and how I can fit into it. Maybe I am trying to reach backwards to that boy and to tell him there is another way of life, it isn’t money you need to concern yourself with its doing something you enjoy, something you want to do.