Well hasn’t this been a fine summer so far. Blue skies, warm sun and dry as anything.
In truth this is pretty typical Dark Peak weather, probably typical British summer weather although I am sure come winter the weather men will be telling us what a dry year it was with below average rain fall and above average temperatures. The heating came on last night of its own accord, but I may have got the thermostat set a little high.
Wet weather in the Peak District National Park just means two things really, fewer pictures and muckier boots. Dark Peak and White Peak offer up different aspects of the muddy boots. In Dark Peak its peat, liquid now with all the rain, so it’s up to your thighs in the stuff. It takes some getting out of too, all that water creates a suction effect. There is no getting around it in times like these. The path across Howden Moor on PB Walk 16 in Dark Peak Walks will be an absolute delight now. You are not going along that without falling flat on your face in a peat bog and coming out looking like a character from a 60’s horror movie.
I once got stuck in a grough. I was an idiot for going down into it in the first place and remember thinking as much as I slithered down its banking, the peat folding like wet chocolate cake beneath my feet. At the bottom which had a surface as slick and shiny as gloss black paint my boots went into the peat and just carried on going down further and further until I was in up to my, well it would not have done to unzip my flies!
I was stuck and with nothing to claw at the only way out was a sort of rocking to and from, each rocking motion accompanied with a slight raising of a leg. Then, prostrating myself across the surface I peat swam out, rising panic, flailing arms, slightly hysterical squealing.
But I was not finished. I still had to get out of the grough. The only way I could do it was to kick steps as in winter mountain walking and jab my fingers into the grough wall. It was like ice climbing in a way, maybe I had invented a new sport. Grough climbing. Near the top my peaty fingers grabbed the flimsiest piece of heather and pulled. It’s strong stuff heather and can hold a huge amount of weight. Only this time it didn’t and I flew backwards, smacking straight into the liquid peat at the bottom with a satisfying slap.
I think I may have cried at that point, not sure really, but it is probable. Long story short, it took me the best part of 30 minutes to get out.
It was not elegant. But it is a good story to tell. Dark Peak gives you that.
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.
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.