“We’re going to the pub!” Mr Jones stated with unusual vehemence, standing outside the tent on the small Highland campsite. “Oh yes,” I replied casually,” I’ll just un pack my sleeping bag.”
“No,” he responded sternly, “We’re going to the pub NOW!” I realised suddenly that he wasn’t making a suggestion or even a request – this was an order. It was at this moment that something bit me on the back of the neck then, seconds later, three or four other tiny sets of jaws removed small sections of my person. Suddenly I understood the problem. Mr Jones was surrounded by a cloud of Midges, the curse of the Highland camper, and he had lost all sense of reason. We went to the pub.
I don’t know how it happened, one minute he and I were enjoying a moment of midge free relaxation in the Inn at Sheil Bridge, the next we’d made a decision. I blame the drink personally, or at least I can’t think of any other explanation. We were reminiscing about our completion of the Pennine Way some thirty years ago when it happened. The words just popped out and once I’d said them I couldn’t unsay them…”Let’s do it again.” This is all the more remarkable when you read my account of the first couple of days of our Pennine Way expedition which is part of my mountain memoirs. I read them now with dread and remember with growing unease that my legs are thirty years older and the Pennine Way will not have forgotten us.
And now back to the 70s…
In those days the Pennine Way crossed the “summit” of Kinder Scout heading on towards the valley of Snake Pass. Now, very wisely, the path skirts around the edge of the summit plateau of kinder Scout in a very astute move to avoid the worst of Kinder’s peat bogs. I use the word summit here in its broadest meaning. The word conjures up visions of sharp shining peaks pointing majestically towards the sky, Kinder Scout has nothing like that. It is best described as an elevated boggy plateau. I’m sure that there technically is a summit but you would be hard pressed to find it. Progress across Kinder Scout was nightmarishly slow, the plateau was shrouded in wet drizzle and visibility was down to a few feet. Carrying the unfamiliar weight of our rucksacks we staggered along the way towards Snake Pass lurching from one bog to another and cursing as we sank knee deep in the treacly peat at every other step. We had set off late, that and my hangover, coupled with the weather meant we were quickly exhausted. Our original intention had been to cross Kinder Scout and then carry on to camp at Crowden, but this was rapidly appearing way beyond our abilities. Soaked and leg weary we finally conceded defeat and left the Pennine way to camp beside the Snake Pass Inn. That night as we sipped our cider our mood was low. Our first day had been a disaster. We had only completed half the distance we intended and we were already soaked and despondent. Perhaps we weren’t ready for the Pennine way, perhaps our horizontal Everest was beyond our reach after all.
The next day began dry but as soon as we gained even a little altitude on the route to the small village of Crowden the rain clouds swallowed us and we were once again surrounded by drizzle and a mist that blotted out any views. Between us and Crowden stood the dreaded Bleaklow, a wasteland of peat regarded with disgust by even the most romantic of walkers. Even Wainwright himself, a man whose love of the hills is legendary, had little time for the place.
“Nobody loves Bleaklow,” he wrote, “All who get on it are glad to get off it. This section is commonly considered the toughest part of the Pennine Way. It is certainly mucky, too often belaboured by rain and wind and frightening in mist.”
With Wainwright’s words echoing in our heads we plodded higher up the hillside, our heavy packs creaking on our backs and the drizzle increasing to a downpour. Once high on Bleaklow’s plateau, with water dripping off us and everything about us, and visibility down to three or four yards, our quest for the end of the way at Kirk Yetholm seemed further off than ever. I had read that the peat on the hill’s summit has twice the lead levels of the surrounding land and its pools and puddles, of which there are many, have the PH levels of battery acid. As I surveyed the black wasteland that surrounded us I could believe both of those things and imagine far worse. Look up the words “God forsaken place” in the dictionary and you will find a picture of Bleaklow. Every few yards Martin and I would stop and pour over our increasingly soggy map, trying to get the squiggly lines on the paper to bear some resemblance to the morass of peat we were standing in. Our navigation was at best rudimentary, although Martin had more experience than me and I left it to him most of the time, reasoning that if he could follow a railway timetable he might also be able to read a map. I think there might be a flaw in that logic somewhere. Usually we would end up following the line of boot prints that went roughly in the right direction. Occasionally a sign would emerge out of the mist, usually leaning at an angle, like a drunk at a bus stop, as the peat that supported it gradually turned to liquid. The sign would hang forlornly before us, oozing rain as it slowly sank into the peat, pleading for us to take it with us. After an hour or so in thick, saturating mist, we were lost. Having no other alternatives we headed north and began to descend towards the cluster of houses that called itself Crowden or at least we hoped we were. As we emerged from the mist it became clear that we were off course. The route of the Pennine Way was about two miles away, we had come down Wildboar Clough. A clough, in Derbyshire, is a steep sided river valley of which there are thousands that cut through the peat of the of the boggy plateaus that characterise this area of upland. I’m not sure where the word comes from but I like to think it comes from the sound of a boot splashing into a peat bog. As in, “As Arkwright stepped forward his foot landed in a bog and with a loud clough he sank to his waist.”
At least once we plodded up the road to Crowden there was a hostel where we could get some respite from the incessant drizzle although, much to our chagrin, there was no pub. This was the only stage on the whole 270 miles where we would be forced to spend the night without the comforts of a local hostelry to ease away the struggles of our days march. By now pretty well everything we had was soaked and we rushed to the little drying room of the hostel where we could at least attempt to dry some of our clothes of the black peat ridden liquid that passed for water in these parts. Martin and I sat in the steamy little kitchen of the hostel assessing our situation. Neither of us could deny that our attempt on the Way was beginning to look more of a forlorn hope than an ambition. It had taken us two days to complete what we should have done in one and we were soaked and exhausted. Perhaps our horizontal Everest was too much of a challenge for us after all. It was clear that if we were to get to Kirk Yetholm we would have to improve our performance. Despite our growing doubts about our ability to complete the route we resolved to get up early the following morning and give it our best shot. It was time, as they are fond of saying in the Bible, to gird our loins. I don’t know what loins are or how to gird them but in Biblical times when they wanted to get a move on that’s what they did so we had better give it a shot.
The following day dawned bright and our spirits soared with the sun…Sorry, I’ll have to stop you there. That’s how this paragraph would start if this were fiction and I was trying to write about the idyll to be found in the British countryside. I am afraid the next paragraph actually starts like this.
Martin and I rose early and managed to set off around 8.00 am for the next section of the Way which, if we managed to complete it, would get us to the village of Mankinholes. That morning the sky was gun metal grey and the clouds were resting on the roof tops. As soon as we began climbing out of the small valley that enclosed the dry hostel of Crowden we realised that we had been mistaken when we thought it had been raining over the last two days. The mists and fine rain that had saturated us had merely been a practise by the weather, a kind of warm up. Today, our third on the Way, the very heavens opened and the path, such as it was, turned into a stream bed.
Hoping to get my book published next year, that’s if Mr Jones and I survive Bleaklow!