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.

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.

 

 

Dark Peak

 

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Alport Moor looking over to Grinah Stones

I had a day out on the high moors of the Dark Peak last Friday. The more I visit this area, the more time I want to spend here.  In large measure it is the desolation, the quietness. No paths on a map mean very few people, long windswept views and time.

Just after the trig I sat on a spot height and just looked at the landscape. Following its contours with my eyes, seeing the shapes, curves, how sensual the wind and rain have made this moor with its rises and falls, like the shape of a woman laying on her side.

Following the curves with my eyes colours started to split, it wasn’t just brown, there were greens and orange, flame reds, yellows the black oily ooze on the surface of the peat, iridescent with blues and purples. The moor is dotted now with the vivid green, almost fluorescent, shock of Sphagnum Mosses, planted to hold the water there and regenerate the peat. It really is a shocking contrast in the midst of all the earth colours. Soon white cotton grass will bud near the mosses, splashes of white, like an impressionist painting.  A double rainbow arched over Grinah stones against a deep powder blue sky, that changed with each new front of the storm, the sky shifting from blue to white to gray and then deep black.

Then the smell of the moor. The first I detected was of the peat, it was reasonably dry where I sat but the peat gave up its scent, earthy, metallic, primal. An old tree stub poked out of the peat bog grey and stark against the black peat backdrop. As I sat I became aware of another more powerful smell. Sea air, brought in off the west coast by the storm. It was heavy with sea salt and I was immediately transported back five decades to the end of the south pier at Blackpool and the smell of the green salty sea. I faced the wind and breathed deeply savouring the salty taste.