It’s hot for May. On the small station platform at Edale, the air is filled with bird song and the scent of flowers from the surrounding meadows. Walkers, dressed in shorts and tee-shirts, chat happily, about the journeys they are about to undertake. Why is it, in this idyllic setting I feel a sense of foreboding and have an overpowering urge to climb on the next train and head home?
I stood on this same platform over forty years ago. Then I felt differently. I was excited, elated, about what was to come. I was filled with the boundless energy and optimism of youth. I didn’t know what I was about to face although, at 19, I was sure whatever was ahead of us we could defeat. Now, all these years later, I know what is to ahead and the prospect fills me with dread. I know now what I did not know then – we are about to meet a monster.
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The Pennine Way begins in Edale and is the Big Daddy of long distance walking routes. Back in 1974, when I walked the route with a school friend, Martin, it had only been open a handful of years and stood alone as the longest, toughest walk in the UK. Now there is a plethora of coastal paths, Trails and Ways. Some are wild and remote like the Cape Wrath Trail others longer, but broken into many short, sections such as the Cornish Coast Path. None, however, can claim the status of the Pennine Way. Covering around 270 miles and running up the spine of Britain, it took an act of Parliament to create as it forced its way north, often against the opposition of land owners.
Then: It’s raining as we climb towards the plateau of Kinder Scout on the first leg of our walk. It rained a lot in 1974. The path up Grinds Brook is easy at first and climbs gently until the valley narrows and the path finally makes a steep rocky exit onto the flat summit of Kinder Scout. It’s then that we encounter the peat. I take a step, the black ooze swallows my leg, gulping it down tom the knee. The weight of my pack caries me forward and I topple, face down, into the black slim. I can only get up by wriggling out of my pack and fighting to find something substantial enough to stand on. Martin, my school friend, a gangly youth with a passion for music and trains, laughs when I first fall in. An hour later we are still high on the mist swathed moorland, we are soaked by the rain and both of us have collapsed into the jaws of the peat monster countless times. Now neither of us is laughing.
Now: Heading up on towards the top of Kinder Scout, if it has a top, it’s steeper than I remember. At sixty-two, most paths are steeper than I remember. On some routes, I cantered happily along when I was young, whole hills have sprung up that were not there thirty or forty years ago. The gentle strolls of my youth bring me to a grinding stop, gasping for breath and dripping with sweat. By the time we reach the black bog of my youthful adventures I am convinced that this whole trip is folly. It had all seemed such a good idea, sitting beside the fire of a Scottish bothy, dram in hand. Someone had suggested we repeat our trip of over forty years ago. I don’t remember which of us was foolish enough to conjure up the idea in the grip of that whisky fuelled nostalgia attack. I should have rejected the idea instantly but there is, as they say, no fool like an old fool.
Years ago, someone cut the top off Kinder Scout and made off with it, leaving a stump of a hill topped, not by a graceful summit, but by a peat infested plateau. Today the route of the Pennine Way keeps to the edge of the flat peat bog where it is possible to know where you are and you get the occasional view. Martin, my long-time friend, insists we follow the original route which crosses the bog. Trudging through the peat hags of the moorland, my feet squelch deeper into the black ooze, draining my energy. As I follow Martin into the maze of groughs my mood grows darker with each step and I regret leaving the dry path of Way’s modern route. Here, it occurs to me, in this featureless morass of decaying vegetation, a man might murder his walking companion and leave his body buried where it might lay undiscovered for decades. The thought cheers me a little.
No one could argue that Kinder Scout is one of Britain’s most handsome hills yet it can lay claim to being one of the most significant. It was here, in 1932, the greatest battle in the history of hillwalking took place. Between the world wars, working men and women began to find a freedom they had never before experienced. Legislation gave them holidays and the new rail networks brought freedom from the drudgery of the factories and mills and allowed them to travel on their days of off. Most headed for the seaside and resorts like Blackpool exploded into candy floss havens where you could don a Kiss-Me-Quick and ride off into the sunset on a donkey. Many, though, headed for the hills where they met opposition from the landed gentry who, for hundreds of years, had regarded the wilder parts of Britain as their exclusive play-ground.
A young Manchester worker, Benny Rothman, grew tired of being turned back from the hills by game keepers as he walked the hills of Derbyshire and led a mass trespass up on to Kinder Scout. Over three hundred walkers took part, there were Mill girls, labourers from the steel works of Sheffield and the bicycle manufacturing centres in Manchester. When the march was confronted by a group of thugs, hired by the Duke of Devonshire, a scuffle broke out and, after overcoming the game keepers, Benny and his friends marched on to the top of the hill.
Benny was arrested and spent six months in prison. The cause of public access to the land had been ignited by the trespass and campaigns in parliament and the press ultimately led to the freedom to wander we enjoy today. Even when the Pennine Way was brought into being in 1965 it took an act of parliament to overcome the remaining resistance public access. The fact that Martin and I were able to walk freely on these moors in 1974 was the result of a long campaign that began in this wild place all those years ago.
Then: After hours of floundering in the evil black soup that threatened to drag the unwary into a dark, saturated grave, Martin and I emerged on to the far side of the Kinder plateau. We were saturated from above by the rain pouring down upon us and from below by the black peat that coated us to the waist. Having only experienced the dry, rocky paths of the Lake District previously, our encounter with the bog left us exhausted, traumatised and despondent. Ahead of us stretched over 250 miles of the Pennine Way which perhaps held deeper and darker bogs than we had so far encountered. Kirk Yetholm, where the Way ends, was beginning to feel like an impossible goal. We were tired and wet and still only half way there, our gaol of Crowden Youth hostel, some eight miles distant felt impossible. Admitting defeat we descended to the Snake Pass in were we camped in a field opposite the pub. I think they charged us 34p for the privilege. ‘Mind you, that was a lot…’ no don’t say it, for god’s sake, don’t say it.
Now: The bog we met descending from Kinder summit has been replaced by flag stones. If the stones had not been laid forty years-worth of walkers would have turned this section of the Way into a thirty mile, forty-foot-deep, groove in the peat by now. Here we met our old mate Joe in his newly acquired shiny camper van and had the incredible luxury of a cup of tea. Sipping my mug I thanked the almighty that I as only carrying my little day pack, that the weather was dry and that slabs had replaced the endless peat.
I tried to push the fact that we have only completed half of the first day’s walk and that, this afternoon, we will have to conquer yet another peat monster, the mighty Bleaklow. I just sip my tea and look back at the way we have come hoping the next hill will go away. If only we could stop now it would have been a grand walk but between us and the haven that is the tiny hamlet of Crowden is seven miles of bog that is Bleaklow.
Then: After a night of cider in the Snake Pass Inn Martin and I wake to a soggy dawn. Our tent, which is best described as two bed sheets supported by wooden poles, drips rainwater on to us with depressing regularity. We are both dejected after being defeated on only our first day. The joy of putting on wet jeans and squeezing my feet into saturated boots does little to raise my spirits. Bleaklow lives up to its name. The Moorland is shrouded in mist and it’s impossible to see more than a few yards. We follow a black path, created by the feet of other lost souls who have churned the peat into a dark treacly liquid. You can’t really get lost on this motorway of slime which is just as well as our navigational skills are rudimentary.
The rain intensifies. We haven’t got much in the way of waterproofs. I have a rudimentary pair of nylon over trousers, two days in and the seams are already spliting. My jacket is a packamac, a sort of PVC pretend jacket that is designed for tourists to wear if it drizzles for ten minutes. Now, in the onslaught of a Pennine deluge, it too it threatening to disintegrate. Martin, glories in a bright yellow bicycle cape and a sou’wester hat. His hat is the sort of thing you might wear while strapped to the wheel of a whaling boat attempting round Cape Horn. Thankfully both of us have long since ceased to care about our appearance.
Some-how we are going to have to make it across the moor. Both of us know that this is going to be a long day.
Now: The sea of peat has been replaced by flag stones and the route is easy to follow. Here the wind begins to pick up and we find ourselves battling against a cold wind that, no matter which way we go, is always blowing directly into our faces.
If you look up ‘God forsaken Place’ in the dictionary, there is a photograph of Bleaklow. It’s endless rolling bogs have pools of still, dark water, whose acidity is as corrosive as battery acid. Bleaklow also has a number of aircraft crash sites on its flanks which can be visited by those of a ghoulish disposition.
Find more about Bleaklow here. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bleaklow
At last Martin and I descend on tired legs to the hamlet of Crowden where Joe awaits in his blue camper van and we can bath our sorrows in red wine and chicken curry. Leaving the summit of Bleaklow I make a mental note never again to return here as I live. Reality has overcome nostalgia.
Tomorrow is another day and another long walk.
Find out what happens on our next day on the Pennine way in my weekly blog. Please follow and share this blog.
There is a great campsite at Crowden. It has a shop and clean newly built showers. Find out more here
If you’ve walked the Pennine Way tell us about your experiences. How did you find the walk over Kinder Scout and Bleaklow? Can you claim to have completed the walk more than 42 years ago?
Let me know about your experinces, I’d love to hear from you.