Becoming a writer

 

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Image courtesy of Mark Richards. By permission

I am moving to the point of becoming a full-time writer, currently I have a small part-time job which pays for a few things, but it isn’t a job that is satisfying. Having just delivered my first manuscript to the publisher, the sense of fulfilment this has given me has pointed the way forward. Walden said, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation”, very true.

The book was commissioned by Cicerone November 2015 and had to be delivered by 30th June 2017 so quite a long project. I got the commission by one of those acts of fate. Sometime back I thought it would be good to take people out on a walk and then have an evening meal and a guest speaker. It didn’t come off, but in approaching a speaker I struck up a friendship with guide-book author Mark Richards.

It was Marks wonderful book of the High Peak that I had picked up in 1988. I loved the hand drawn pictures and the hand written text. So Mark was a natural choice to ask as guest speaker. As I say the event didn’t take place, but Mark wanted to explore the Peak District again and asked if I would like to accompany him. We had a few days out, a memorable one on Bamford Moor where I dragged Mark through chest high bracken to have lunch on a stone, whilst all the time hoping he didn’t realise that I had lost the path.

One day Mark broached the subject of me doing the new book. I couldn’t believe it but grabbed the chance. A walk and a meeting with the publisher and then a contract landed on the doorstep and I was off a running.

Lots had changed since Mark wrote High Peak. CROW for one had opened up many new areas, including Bamford Moor. Environmentally the moors were changing too. Now it wasn’t about draining them and denuding the land. Today it is about regeneration, seeding, natural species, wildlife. So lots to do.

I deliberately did not read Marks High Peak book or any other on the subject. I wanted this to be a personal view. Hopefully that is what I have achieved.

The image above is from Marks book and shows a volunteer Ranger stood by the Ashway Cross above Dove Stones. I remembered the image and thought it would be nice to recreate it as I am a Ranger too. So I hung around until three old boys came along and agreed to take the photo.

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Me by the Ashway Cross. It didn’t look safe enough to lean on!

Weirdly, one of the old boys said, “There is an image in my guide-book like that”, and out he got Marks book, the only guide he needed. The image in the book is the one at the top of this page. The photo below shows the man holding his treasured possession, Marks High Peak Walks.

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So there you have it. The whole thing comes full circle. I cannot thank Mark enough for launching my writing career, having faith in me and most importantly penning those beautiful books that started it all off.

If you want to view Marks work, visit his website here

Summer on the moors

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The Pennine Way across Dean Clough and on to Black Hill

I think they predicted a wet June which so far has been spot on. I’ve been tying up some loose ends for the book Dark Peak Walks and the weather has not been helping. The main objective was to try to get some nice moorland pictures with blue skies and lots of colour. It’s mainly been grey skies and dull colours, perhaps that’s how it should be.

I do like a bit of theatre above, dark brooding skies threatening some cataclysmic event. I haven’t been caught out in anything like a good storm which is a pity. Its been more like boil in the bag walking, hot and wet and sticky. Not my favourite type of weather, I’m more a cold and dry walker.

This weather has had some beneficial effect on the plants though, especially the Cottongrass which has been resplendent in western parts of the Dark Peak and positively regressive everywhere else. Certainly around Chew Valley the Cottongrass is superb. Great carpets of white bobbing heads sweeping across the moor. I have seen Common Mouse-Ear a delicate small flower, Heath Bedstraw, lots of Sedges, Cloudberry and Bilberry. Birds are in abundance especially Curlew, Lapwing, Snipe and Golden Plover. I have heard the Skylark but never been able to see it as it has blended in against the grey sky.

One thing that I have noticed is that I have not gone knee deep into too many peat bogs. Maybe I have my eye in now and can spot and navigate my way around them easily, except when I do go in of course, then its full-blown 1970’s bog hell.

So few real standout landscape pictures to be had. the last two walks have been in the Goyt Valley and the views from the tops have been very disappointing. I was hoping for a glimpse of Snowdonia but no such look and Jodrell Bank was visible but not the sharpest of views.

Still I can’t complain, days out on the moors. Lots of memories and the hope that the sun will shine.

 

Cotton Grass

 

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Hare’s-tail Cottongrass on the Cotton Famine Road

Someone mentioned the other day that they thought that Cottongrass was more prevalent over in the far north of the National Park than anywhere else. I had just finished two walks across Saddleworth Moor and South Clough Moss, both in the far north and a third along Derwent Edge in the centre so could make a reasonable judgement if indeed there was more Cottongrass in the north. I think there is.

Moors For The Future have been hard at work for a few years now, changing the moorland landscape from one of desperate black oozing peat to one of soft grass and a wealth of fauna and flora. It is, I think, one of the reasons why the moors of the north have such an abundance of Cottongrass. Unlike the moors in the central Peak area where management of the moor to provide a tightly controlled environment for grouse shooting seems to have resulted in less Cottongrass and also fewer numbers of other species too.

The photo above was taken, rather ironically, on the Cotton Famine Road heading out to Broadstone Moss from the A 635 over Saddleworth. The whole area is awash in Cottongrass and this is a direct result of the work MFTF have been carrying out. The moor itself is becoming less bumpy too, witness the two photos of groughs after a dam has been inserted.

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See how the peat builds up against the dam and then the grasses take over, smoothing the levels out. That is actually watching the landscape change over time, pretty rare experience for mere mortals, usually it take millions of years for the land to morph into something different. Out on the moors now its taking just a few years.

It’s a simple process, backed no doubt by clever minds. Block up a grough, let it fill with water add sphagnum moss, introduce natural plant species and hey presto new peat, new moor,new landscape, new experience.

Walking across these moors is no longer a process of grit and determination, a load of gear to hose peat out of when you got home. It is a walk of wonderment, pleasure, joy.

 

The colour of peat

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Peat got me thinking the other day and then a post on Facebook about a dog disappearing down a sinkhole on Kinder got me thinking more. I guess it all has to do with the guidebook now it is nearing completion. Wanting people to get some pleasure out of a walk, one that they are doing because I have written about it, puts questions in a writers head. The main question on Saturday was how do you teach someone about peat and all its devilish incarnations.

I was walking from Crowden to Chew and back, a nice walk across moorland. How I thought do you explain what peat to walk on and what not. The grough in the picture above is a nice example of one to walk on. Milk chocolate brown, dry and a bit of springiness too. No problems getting out of that grough.  The slick oily black peat often found at the bottom of deep groughs is the stuff to watch out for. Its deep and has terrific suction, once in you are not going anywhere too quickly. That’s the two ends of the spectrum I guess.

I like the dark brown, bordering black peat that looks like one of those puddings with the melting centers. It has a consistency of a sponge pudding with lashings of chocolate custard, little lumps and a glistening surface. Getting down into a grough when this is on the sides is easy once you know how. Basically, you allow the peat to ease away from under your boots as you descend. It is remarkably stable. Getting out requires a different plan. You have to take a run and do not under any circumstances stop. Bit like a motor hill climb even except no one is bouncing on your back. Hands quite often come in to use, desperately clutching on to a piece of heather. Go for the stalks not the leaves. Failing the availability of heather it is often jabbing fingers into the soft gooey peat and clawing your way out.

Then there is the peat slick. As flat as a snooker table and completely smooth. It looks beautiful. But it is the wild mistress of peat. You can tip toe across it sometimes and others you are going in. The only indication which way it will treat you is the presence of foot marks. Surface ones and its fine. Deep churned up footprints and its a bunny boiler. Keep out.

Peat with water on top. Stick to the tufts of grass. Step on these and you can skip across. I always find its best to hold my breath as well, just to reduce the overall weight pressing down on the delicate platform.No grass, then its trouble. A long walk around or a gazillion to one chance that it isn’t knee deep. You take your pick.

But the worst is the stuff that looks ok. Years of walking in the Dark Peak have honed your ability to spot a trap from 50m. You pick your way across the moor in a weird little bee dance, connecting minute islands of firm ground into a trail. You scout for any footprints that might lead the way and it works, until you come to that last grough. congratulating yourself before getting over this last obstacle is the fatal error. You have to stride, just a little too far and the peat has you. One leg sinks in up to your thigh, whilst the other remains behind you on the surface.

The peat once again is victorious.

Moors For The Future

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Moors For The Future Apps

Yesterday I went over to see Moors For The Future, the partnership organisation that is transforming much of the Dark Peak through a huge project of restoration and renewal. I wanted to talk to them to get some background information about their work for the Dark Peak book and Debra Wilson the communications manager had very kindly agreed to give me some of her time and expertise.

Moors For The Future are tasked with restoring the moors from centuries of damage brought on by the industrial revolution and all that Manchester, Sheffield and elsewhere could throw at the moors. You might think that the moors are supposed to look like a giant black peat quagmire, capable of disposing of a boot and more in deep groughs that once you were in was never going to be an exercise in elegance getting out.

Over the last 13 or so years billions, the number was so big I couldn’t even work it out, mosses and grasses and plants have been spread over the peat to begin the restoration. Each year the moors can lose peat to the tune of 25mm in depth. It regenerates it at a rate of around 1-2mm per year. Thats a big discrepancy. Carry on at the rate and all that will be left will be rock. Debra told me about Soldiers Lump the trig pillar on Black Hill. The base of the pillar used to be level with the ground, now it stands several feet above the level of the peat, which is a vivid illustration of how mans activities impacts on the environment.

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Evidence of peat erosion on Black Hill

Walk on the moors where work has been carried out and you can already see the effects of the work. I walked around Bleaklow one night in summer and the tall grasses were an absolute joy to walk through. Yes it is getting wetter, but its also getting more interesting. Cotton Grass, cloudberries, lizards, mountain hares, Ring Ouzel, all these I have sat looked at over the last few years. There is more colour too. Not just black.  Bright greens of the mosses, reds and browns of the grasses, the winter coat of the Mountain Hare, dots of vivd red of the berries.

A thought occurred to me one day on Holme Moss. I am so privileged to be around to see this enormous change in an environment. Not often do you get to see a landscape restored to its natural beauty, too often what we see is destruction.

Have a look at the Moors For The Future website via the link above and add some new knowledge to your next walk in the Dark Peak.

High Moorland

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Years ago I was afraid of the high moorlands, they struck me as places to be avoided lest I got lost, there being no markers and few landmarks around.  It isn’t like that now.

I spent a day on a moor a week before last, a whole day just looking, exploring, experiencing something of the nature that makes a seemingly featureless place abound with possibilities. Taste, touch, smell, see.

You can still find the odd Crowberry tiny little ampules of juice that sit low to the ground. I once ran out of water on a moor and these saved me until I could reach a stream and recharge. In winter they shine out against the white snow as dots of colour against the white and green backdrop.

Scrambling to get out of a peat bog is one of the more challenging past time for moorland walking. Peat has a consistency of one of those chocolate puddings with the gooey centres. As soon as you start to try and climb out, whilst berating yourself for being such an idiot in getting in to the grough in the first place, your feet start to slide down and the peat bank dissolves in to a shiny black sludge. You jab fingers in to the bank, trying for purchase, boots kicking steps as if on snow. It is not elegant. The peat smells of mustiness, rotted vegetation and has a slight chemical smell like a disinfectant. Of course this matters little whilst you are desperately trying to reach the top.

I sat on the moor after a storm had passed over the country, we seem to have more and more of these now. The tail end of the storm was still travelling across the moor and I suddenly became aware that I could smell the sea. The wind came from the west so the sea was probably the Irish sea. It was heavily ladened with salt, so much so that I could taste it on my lips. It was wonderful. I stood still, my face held in to the wind with my nose high to get as much of the sea air in to my lungs as possible. The odd thing was, I became transported back to my childhood, summer holidays on Blackpool central pier and the green sea and the salt.

There is a large channel on the moor, noted on the OS map as a drain. A pool stands at its head, the pool much larger now since the Moors for the Future project has stopped up a lot of the groughs and made the moor much wetter. a narrow ribbon of water works its way down the channel and soaks away in to the moor at the bottom. I am unconvinced it is a drain. There is evidence it may have been caused by peat cutting and if you stand on the opposite side of the valley you can detect sledways working up the valley side all leading to the channel. This would seem a more plausible reason for the channel. The channel has vertical cut sides and is not consistent in width, the top end being wider and also having access to vehicle tracks back down the hillside. I like to imagine people cutting peat and stacking it for drying, a hard days work in desolate land. My mind always says it is winter for some reason when the peat cutting is done, but this cannot be right, surely you would cut in summer and autumn to help drying.

 

 

Deep Walking

thumb_P1000634_1024Back some years ago I wandered through some woodland, crossed a stream and entered into a clough I had never visited before. It was narrow, with steep sides covered in bracken in summer. No path led through its length nor one shown on a map. But there were signs of footfall, a trod maybe from sheep or some nocturnal thoroughfare for unseen wildlife.

The clough was wide at the bottom, with the remains of stone walls dissecting the flat land near to the stream. As I walked into its length I had to scramble up shale and gritstone, only a few metres, but enough to give a change of viewpoint.

To my right I entered a small amphitheatre, a quarry face and the moorland forming the balcony and circle and a large flat open area below forming the stalls and the stage. It was unexpected and enticing. I sat on a boulder, one clearly from the quarry face and studied the area. After a while I could see the remains of a building, perhaps the office, bracken covered ramps leading in to the stalls area. There were places that were clearly used for working on the stone and parts that were used for loading and transporting.

I moved on from the quarry, upwards into the narrowing clough and came across ramps zig zagging up the hillside, each turn signified by a small stone seat arrangement, obviously man made. Passing on I continued up to the sharp point the clough made and walked out on to a wide moorland giving views across the Dark Peak.

I have never forgotten that first visit. I have been back many times since and discovered more about the place. For some reason it draws me, it isn’t my favourite spot in the Dark Peak, but having never ever seen anyone there it feels like mine.