A mention recently about the difficulty of walking across heather moors in the Peak District at this time of year prompted me to dig out a photo of a typical moorland scene.
Common heather is the most widespread in the Dark Peak and has four stages of growth, pioneer, building, mature, and degenerate. Most moors are a patchwork of all four making a walk a bit of a logistical challenge. The easiest is pioneer, short in height its great for cleaning boots, see how polished they are when you have walked across a patch. Building heather is relatively easy but you need to start watching where you put your feet as the ground is starting to get covered and difficult to see. Mature is the hardest, thigh high, thick and with little movement, this is tiring walking. The ground has now disappeared so the chance of a twisted or broken ankle has increased dramatically. Degenerate is much the same but the height is getting lower as the weight of the plant is dragging it down.
If you look at building and mature heather there are fissures in the cover, these make for wonderful pathways and make it easy to walk across. A walk across a moor should not be a straight line, but rather a meander trying to keep to the low heather patches and the burnt areas, this makes it less tiring and lowers the opportunity for a Mountain Rescue callout.
Take time and enjoy the scenery as you zig zag your way down. Having tight laces, with the heel held well reduces the chance of a painful ankle twist. Watch out for holes too. The worst are where the peat has been eroded and a deep hole has formed, generally known as leg breakers. Keeping your pace slow and choosing where to place feet can avoid this. The golden rule is, if you cannot see where your foot is going to land, do not put it there. Occasionally you will Step on a grouse hidden in the heather, this is one of the true heart stopping experiences of the Dark Peak.
Boulder fields covered in heather and bracken are a nightmare and best avoided. They sap the energy increase the risk of injury and are basically unpleasant.
Walking across moors develops new skills. Picking a line across a heather moor to the objective without the walk sapping energy, breaking a leg, twisting an ankle and not gaining or losing height unnecessarily is a skill well worth developing. It is part of hill craft and the more experience gained leads to greater adventures.
I have been spending a lot of time in the Dark Peak these last few months. It’s a place I feel more drawn to each year, the more I see the more I want to understand.
It is grit-stone country, high moorland, peat groughs, small deep sided cloughs and long narrow valleys. Being on top of the southern end of the Pennines it is blessed with wind and rain at most times of year, as the weather rolls in from the west over Manchester and then has to climb to gain access to Yorkshire. This makes for, what some may call, grand days out, on desolate, windswept and rain-sodden featureless moorland. The, grand part, meaning no one else was insane enough to venture up on to the tops and you have the place to yourself.
The moors, weather permitting, give un-broken vistas across the Peak District into several other counties and Wales as well if you really scrunch your eyes up and believe.. Moorland colour is brown, from the grass, as there is no bracken above a certain point, I must make an effort to find out what the bracken line is, perhaps it is just like the tree line in mountain ranges? Brown is broken up by clumps of heather a dark racing car green which sprouts purple-pink heads in summer.
Heather is deceptively difficult for walking across, it is ankle breaking thigh burning terrain that quickly saps the energy of any walker. It comes in different heights, depending on age. The lowest is the freshly burnt patches the quilt the moorland, burnt not as an act of vandalism, but to generate new growth, this is the easiest to walk across, you can see the holes in the ground. The highest, used to provide cover for the oldest birds, entails having to either force a way through with stiff legs, not pleasant in shorts, or lift the leg high to keep striding over the clumps. A good thigh workout, better than any gym and a lot less expensive.
The browns and green are interlaced with a dark black ribbon, glossy at most times of the year, with pools of oily water sitting on the surface. This is the peat that swallows legs whole and is the repository of many an expensive walking boot. The surface threads are the most pleasant to walk along. You can see where you are going for one thing and avoid the soft quagmire of peat and water. The worst part of the moor and this is an integral part of the peat and come to think of it moorland walking are the infamous peat groughs. The groughs are where peat has been eroded away through, wind and rain and left a steep sided deep gulch, with soft deep peat at the sides and bottom. Some can be 20 to 30 feet deep, which makes for interesting navigation tests, the map being completely useless if you cannot see where you are going. Entering a grough is easy, you just step off the firm moor and slide your way down the grough side until you reach the bottom. With skill you can achieve this whilst remaining upright, but it may take practice and a lot of peat in your boots before you become proficient. Gaiters are a must!
The bottom of a grough may be firm with signs of the bedrock which the peat is built upon, or it may be a deep soft mass of thick black ooze that will not support the weight of a child, let a lone a fifty something mildly overweight (ok, overweight), man carrying enough gear in his backpack that people may think he was a mobile outdoor shop. The bottom is not your major problem. The problem has not yet been encountered and the inexperienced will be blissfully unaware what has yet to come. A good navigation test is to try and get to a known point whilst remaining deep in the network of inter connecting groughs. It can be done, I am told, with excellent pacing and the use of compass, I have not tried this yet, but one day I will.
It is once you come to exit a grough that your manliness will be called in to question, this is the problem. Exit may be immediate if you are traversing across a moor and have many groughs to cross, or could be after some time when you have reached a destination or, more probably, panic that you may never get out of the grough has now firmly planted itself in your increasingly frazzled mind. Only when you decide to climb up the 20 foot wall of peat, angled at approximately 80 degrees do you discover just what you have cornered yourself into. The peat is no respecter of experience and cares little for how much you have spent on gear. You immediately find that soft squashy peat on a near vertical surface does not support the weight of a Sparrow. Kicking steps into the peat only produces a greater amount to slide down with. After 10 minutes of trying panic is starting to rise and from the back of the mind comes some real or imagined story of a man found face down in a peat grough, dead from exhaustion and with his fingers covered in peat from trying to climb out. Decorum at some stage will leave, replaced by a panic stricken flailing and grunting up the side until fingers manage to touch a grass tussock and, no matter if it will take the weight, it is a life line which only the desperate will grab hold of with full confidence.
Many a time I have walked across the moors and seen men, it usually is men, appear from some unseen entrance to hell. First a very red head is seen, this is covered in sweat and peat and has the countenance of real fear. The hands reach forward and amid much noise reaches forward grabbing anything that seems solid, the arms pulling behind a body, the legs of which are flailing in mid air trying to gain purchase. Eventually the body lays prone on the brown grass, the side of the face flat against the grass. There is slimy peat thick and gooey covering most of the legs, when the body turns over a wide strip of peat runs down the front of the body.
There is no way back to manliness from this ignominy, the grough has won, it wasn’t a contest really. The best you can do is try and pretend that everything that did happen was supposed and you were in control the whole of the time. You can also walk away as quickly as you can, rebuffing all attempts at eye contact or worse, conversation. Nothing need be said and you can sneak you peat encrusted gear back in to the house when no one is watching.
Such are the joys of walking on the high moors in the Peak District.