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.

Spring

Towards Whinstone Lee Tor and the Derwent Edge
Towards Whinstone Lee Tor and the Derwent Edge

I attended my first Peak District National Park Ranger day since Christmas recently.  It was an easy day with some maintenance work in the morning, scraping leaves off double yellow lines on the approach roads up the Derwent Valley.  It felt good to be back with the shift.  I’ve missed the lads, the work and the camaraderie.

After lunch we all went out on individual patrols.  I like this part of being a Ranger the best.  Talking to the public, helping them, educating them on what the landscape is doing this time of year in the valley.  It was a nice day and I wanted to visit a small secluded valley, not often frequented as it is off the main trails.  Walking down the old Derwent Valley road to what is now left of the village the sun warmed me up, the first time this year that has happened.

I reached my turn off and heading up a vehicle track, stopping off to view an old barn, now used for storage, that sits opposite a derelict farm-house.  What life was like here I don’t know but I managed to conjour up an image in my mind of shepherds working with their flocks.

I continued up an old holloway, the ground still a bit muddy from all the rain we have had.  About halfway up there is an old oak tree, all knarled curling branches.  It sits on top of the holloway banking and looks out over a small dale.  Clambering up I was pleased to see the roots formed a natural seat with the trunk forming a  back rest.  I took out my map and leaning back into the tree settled in to look at the landscape.

There were old lines where once field boundaries had been, these were long removed to facilitate larger fields.  Some had the odd tree still standing in line with its neighbours, and looking at these markers in the land I could reconstruct the way the land used to be.  How long back I could go I guess would have been a hundred years or more.  The farm above is well over 300 years old and judging by some of the field boundaries I would say the landscape was at least 7 – 800 years old.

I sat there for an hour or more, taking in the sun and the landscape.  It is one of the nicest hours I have spent this year.

Dark Peak Moorland

Peat Grough, Ronksley Moor, Upper Derwent Vally, Peak District National Park
Peat Grough, Ronksley Moor, Upper Derwent Vally, Peak District National Park

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.

Rud Hill Moor

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.