Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Peak District

Grindsbrook Clough
Cambridge was feeling claustrophobic, so I got on the train last week-end to head up to the Peak District, Britain’s first National Park, which lies along the Hope Valley railway line between Manchester and Sheffield.  English trains, if you’ve never been on one, tend to be deathly quiet, and the passengers on this one were grumpy since most of us had our departure delayed by an hour courtesy of Cross Country.

But the sour demeanours on the train vanished at the sound of a clatter at the end of the car.  “The tea trolley”, grinned an elderly woman (who moments before looked like she would have taken the leg off of anyone who dared disturb her peace), and everyone began fussing and rubbing their hands together in childlike anticipation.  Not a one of them bought anything—the idea of refreshment was apparently quite enough.

The pastoral landscape near Jacob's Ladder embodies a tradition of multi-use parks
At Leicester I boarded a train for Sheffield, and from there took the train to Manchester that runs through the Hope Valley.  It went into a tunnel, and emerged into a much different world, with hills (something sadly nonexistent in Cambridge), fields, fells and fresh air.  I spent the afternoon and evening wandering the ridge across the valley from the hostel outside of Edale. 

Returning from the beautiful walk, I opened the door of the hostel and was literally hit by a wall of noise.  The source?  Sixty-five 7-8-year-olds.  Dinner, needless to say, was a less-than-peaceful affair, until the head teacher stood and bawled out some command like a drill sergeant.  The little noise-making machines formed ranks and ran howling from the room, off to their night hike.  Undoubtedly their teachers were hoping that a few of them would take an untimely tumble off the ridge.  The resulting silence was only momentary.  One of the staff, inexplicably, began singing Christmas carols.
Nonetheless, the Peak District retains the element of solitude associated with nature
The next morning, armed against the inclement weather that never materialised, I set off up the slopes for Kinder Scout itself.

The path wound through increasingly steep moorland, over which ran a crystal clear stream.  The arm of the valley narrowed and pushed upwards until at last it flattened out, on top of the world, dark, open moor stretching away to either side.  This was the site, from my perspective, of one of the most important battles of the twentieth century, fought in 1932 when rebellious ramblers stormed Kinder Scout in the face of stiff resistance from armed gamekeepers.  Their persistence marked a critical moment in the struggle for the Right to Roam, which now permits us little people to access the moors, mountains and meadows across Britain.
...and even feels remote

British National Parks are very different from their North American counterparts, and reflect not only a very different historical and social experience (most land is in private hands and is being utilised for cultivation or stock ranging), but a tradition of multi-use (which has been both negotiated during the second half of the twentieth-century while also pre-dating the enclosure trend during the early modern period).  So you are never as isolated as when in the heart of one of the large National or State Parks of the U.S. (though atop Kinder Scout, no village or human structure in sight, the solitude is real), and there is no functioning concept of wilderness.

Or eerie, as around the Wool Packs on Kinder Scout
I was fortunate in my weather, and in the emptiness of the paths that led across the high peak, past strange rocky outcroppings and around mirror-like tarns.

Suddenly, a few hundred yards ahead, I saw another hiker pinned against a rock by a small bird that was circling him intently.  I descended into a gully, and when I came up, man and bird were gone.  “Curious”, I thought.  Then, suddenly, the bird exploded from the heather and dashed out into the path emitting an awful squawking sound—which could be roughly translated from Grouse-ese as “You shall not pass!”  Running towards me, the bird seemed to grow with each step until it was as large as an ostrich.  This was getting too much like a Monty Python skit for my liking, so I took to my heels.   But because my knee was acting up, I couldn’t run, and instead performed some unsightly manoeuvre whereby I hurled myself forward on my right leg while swinging my left leg furiously to avoid catching it on anything that would impede my humiliating flight.  I lurched along for 40 yards and looked back to see that the Red Grouse had given up the chase.  Thankfully no one had been around to see my rout.

This wasn’t my only brush with the dangerous fauna of the British countryside.  On my way up to Hollins Cross I found my way barred by a massive bull, which eyed me contemptuously.  I crept as unobtrusively as I could manage around him, and found myself ankle deep in mud.  As though sensing that I was at a disadvantage, the brute lunged towards me, and I threw myself to higher ground, which involved landing in the remains of his dinner from the night before, and went on my undignified way.  And then there was the horse in Winnats Pass that tried to eat my arm...
This, on OS Map OL 1...

...turns into this, the Vale of Edale...
Of course, it would be almost impossible to traverse these areas without the aid of the beautiful Ordnance Survey Maps (the Explorer Map, at 1:25 000 scale, is perfect for the Peak District, the northern half of which can be found on the OL 1).  As Rachel Hewitt points out in her recent book on the Ordnance Survey (Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey, Granta Books 2010), the series was first developed to allow the British military to find its way through the Scottish Highlands in the wake of the early-eighteenth century Jacobite Risings. 
...and this...
...into this, Kinder Scout
I’m always eager (yes, I’m a nerd) to plot a potential hike on an OS map and then see what the landscape, illustrated by contours, symbols and lines on the map, looks like as it is transformed by the breath of the wind, the hint of rain, the smells of plants and animals and the almost inevitably beautiful vistas. However much character the maps embody (and Hewitt's account of their creation gives you real appreciation for the labours that went into their making, over a period of decades and even centuries), they are only fully fleshed out when rested against a cairn atop a hill, when you're able to see the countryside they represent spread out before you.


As with many landscapes in Britain’s countryside, that of the Peak District is one that has been profoundly shaped by human hands and which, nonetheless, retains areas (like those on Kinder Scout, or on the edges of the Vale of Edale) which feel deeply quiet, rural and peaceful.  

More peaceful, that is, than my last night in the hostel, which was periodically interrupted as the guy in the bunk above mine lurched upright and shouted, "I told you!"  "I've got it!" and various other phrases which were rather less germane outside of his dreams than within them.

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