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A couple of years ago I read that statement and felt sure that it was true. I was sad that the books that had given me so much fun as a child would soon be no more.My special favourite was an old battered copy of The Wind in the Willows.It was handed down to me and had passed through the grubby hands of many children before I came to it.At first my father would read me these stories as I lay in bed and I would drift off to sleep as Ratty, bobbing in his little boat, as he rowed down the river.
When I could read myself, I would follow Toad’s adventures with a secret glee, always anxious that poor short-sighted Mole would stumble into some awful trap and be set upon by the creatures of the wild wood.My favourite character of all was Badger. Remember that scene when Ratty and Mole, lost in the dead of night in the wild wood, beset by snow drifts and pursued be weasels, trip over the boot scrapper outside Badger’s house.In minutes, they are beside a roaring fire and eating hot toast and drinking tea.
Now available from Bookends Cumbria
I would imagine myself, sitting beside that same fire with the kindly old badger, wrapped in his tweed jacket, toes warming in his slippers.There was something magical about that battered old book, with its wrinkled cover and yellowing pages.I can remember its smell, like it was old and mouldy and had sat too long on the window ledge when the rain got in.
I’m glad to say that the truth is that traditional paper books are far from dead.The e-book is here to stay but the paper book is still alive and well.For the first time this year paperbacks outsold e-books.Hopefully the two technologies, the old and the new, can happily co-exist.After all, you can’t wrap up an e-book in paper, peppered with sleigh bells and chubby Santas, and sit it beneath the Christmas tree.
As the paperback lives on so, I hope, its natural home, the bookshop, will prosper.There is a great joy in discovering a little bookshop, tucked away in a village square, where you can wander amongst shelves crammed with romance, adventure. Books full of pirates, jostle with vampires and hard-bitten detectives, all trying to get you attention.All hoping you will pick up their book, open their pages and, for just a few solitary hours, let them live again in your imagination. In bookshops, empires fall only to rise again from the dust, here you can watch a Martian Sunrise or ride with the Mongol Hordes across the plains of Asia.
Now, as writer myself, it’s immensely satisfying to see my book sitting amongst its brothers on the shelves of my local bookshop.You never know who will pick it up and follow the adventures inside. I write a great deal in digital media and love the freedom it gives me but there is something very ethereal about the Internet writing, it lacks the permanence of the real thing, the paper book.
Bookends of Cumbria are now carrying stocks of The Last Hillwalker. Pop in and have a browse. There might even be coffee and cake.What better way to spend an hour.
The Victorian’s were very fond of big pointy things. So fond, in fact, that they have littered the English countryside with them. Not content with the hills around them the Victorians made many of them higher by sticking a pointy thing on top of them. Often they made them memorials to some war or other but that’s not the real reason they are there. The Victorians built them just because they could. Often it was the landed gentry who put them there. Mainly so that, after dinner during brandy and cigars, they could gesture across the landscape and explain that they were responsible for pointy thing on the horizon.
The Stoodly Pike pointy thing
My legs are startled. They have just walked two, consecutive long days, and fancy a lie in and a read of the papers. Unfortunately, that’s not what they get, they are woken, rather rudely, and forced into boots again. Soon they are climbing the little path that leads out of the village of Mankinholes and up to Stoodly Pike where Martin and I staggered from the Pennine way late last night. The path up from the valley is quite unlike anything I’ve seen before. It is paved and the paving stones gently curve into each other so they have a kind of natural fit. It’s almost pleasant to walk on and doesn’t jar with the landscape as so many paved paths do.
A handy folly
As Martin and I crest the ridge the wind meets us head on. It’s been waiting for us all night and now tries, with all its vigour, to push us back to Edale. Soon we are sheltering in one of the little alcoves in the memorial at the top of Stoodly Pike. The memorial is one of the pointy things I mentioned before. It is possible to climb the steps inside it and gain an even higher elevation but neither Martin nor I feel like adding unnecessary ascent as we already have a great deal of climbing ahead of us. The memorial was built in 1814 by public subscription. About thirty years later wind, rain and a fair clout of lightening demolished it. The Victorian’s, nothing if not determined, built it back up again only this time they had the bright idea of putting a lightening conductor in it and so it stands here today.
From there we trek across the paved moorland as the wind whips the rolling grass into a frenzy. We are lucky with the weather. The wind is tiring and a nuisance, but it is no more that. Both Martin and I know from bitter experience how wet this place can be and we are both grateful that we are not having to force our way through clouds of rain. As we descend towards the small bridge in the hamlet of Callis, near Hebden Bridge, I begin to be aware of a painful rubbing sensation at the back of my heels.
By the time we stop beside the little canal it’s clear I am developing the scourge of all long disctance walkers, blisters. I’m a regular walker and have been for years and I haven’t experienced these annoyingly painful injuries for many years. There must be something in the walking we are doing that is different from the Highland hill walking I’m used to.#
Martin hiding from the wind eating one of his inexhaustible supply of pilchard sandwiches.
The path leaving the canal bridge is closer to a rock climb than a walk and both Martin and I can feel the ache in our legs as we wind our way up through picturesque stone cottages that seem to grow out of the hillside. Eventually the climb subsides and we emerge on to farmland, at an easier gradient.
Farm land near Aladdin’s cave shop
‘There’s a shop just here,’ Martin announces.
At first I think he’s imagining things as all I can see is rolling fields but soon a sign appears to a shop oddly called Aladdin’s Cave
This little oasis offers us pies, tea and ice cream and an opportunity to cool off my feet and try and ward off the inevitable bleeding feet.
After this little respite we head over moorland as the farmland gives way to the moorland which is typical of the country covered by the way. We cross miles of flagged path ways, circumvent a reservoir and eventually find ourselves at Top Withens.
This is a ruin situated high on the exposed moorlands. It’s a windy place, where a few stone walls still stand against the pitiless weather, made famous by the fact that it is allegedly the inspiration for the Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. I had a quick look around but Heathcliff wasn’t in, all though he must be a hardy soul if he can stand to live in this place. Perhaps he’d just popped out to the shops which would take a little while from here. I doubt if Tesco would deliver.
Eventually we pass over yet another hill and descend towards the tiny village of Cowling where we will camp for the night. There is a friendly campsite there, Squirrel Wood.
By this time my heels have disintegrated and my ability to walk further on the Pennine Way is in doubt. All I can do is limp to my tent, curl up in my sleeping bag and see if my heels can stand another day.
Then: Forty years ago we descended late, it was after 9.00 pm before we had our make-shift tent erected in a farmer’s field. Martin, whose has an ability to sniff out a café in the most unlikely places, spotted a sign at the farm house. It read ‘Evening Meals.’ and drew him to it like a magnet. A little later we are sitting in the farm kitchen, the farmer sleeping at the fire, his dog at his feet, as his wife cooked us sausage and chips. In a scene from the Famous Five Go Mad on the Pennine Way, she brought us endless plates of jam sandwiches which we devoured gratefully.
Endless Health and Safety regulations would have prevented such reckless behaviour today. The very thought of cooking a meal with a dog asleep in the kitchen would be enough to send the men from the Ministry into apoplexy. That evening it was sent by god and it was one of the few days when we managed to get an evening meal.
The route of this section passes close to the village of Hebden Bridge which is a useful stopping off place for people who want http://www.hebdenbridge.co.uk/
I have been walking for a long, long time. The past life I have has faded into oblivion. I have become a simple organism. All I do is walk. I no longer think, thought has become an inconvenience. I just move my legs and strike the ground with my trekking poles in a perpetual rhythm that drives me ever onwards. Martin and I have been walking for almost twelve hours now. Twenty miles lay behind us now since we set off just after 8.00 am from the paradise of our campsite in Crowden. Maybe this walk will never end. Perhaps, like some cursed ghost walkers, we are condemned to roam the Pennine moorland for ever.
Gritstone, the bones of the Peak District.
That morning had been pleasant enough as we climbed up the path that winds its way gently out of Crowden. The breeze had been gentle and the sun warming as we left the little wooded valley behind us and headed out on to the rolling moorland. My legs were sleepy at first. They remembered our walk the previous day from Edale and had decided that they would just have a lay in and spend the day bumbling about and resting, like I usually do after a long walk. Today, however, there is to be no rest and it takes my legs a couple of miles to lose the ache of the previous day and realise they are supposed to keep moving.
At first we climb gently, through the heather and the sheep pastures, until the path begins to steepen and we head upwards towards Laddow Rocks. The rocks are really a short cliff perhaps a mile in length. The cliffs were popular amongst rock climbers in the early years of the sport but now stand deserted as we pass above them. Here the wind picks up and, as the mass of air is driven against the cliff wall it funnels up towards the path making it difficult to stand and, at times, threatening to hurl us over the precipice.
The paved paradise. Summit of Blackhill
Then: It’s forty since Martin and I walked up past Laddow rocks and on towards the summit of Black Hill. Then we walked through a mist of rain and sank over and over again in saturated black oozing peat. Black Hill may be the least imaginative name give to any hill but it is, no doubt the most accurate. In 1974 the summit was a dreadful place. At just over 1,900 ft, in old money, it got the worst of the weather and the triangulation post, which marked the top, was defended on all sides by the blackest bog either of had ever seen. If our feet had not already become saturated the ordeal of reaching this high point would have been unbearable. As we were already wet we simply shrugged and headed away into the swirling mist hoping that, at some point, the ordeal of the peat would end.
Now: Martin and I walk to the top of the hill without even getting mud on our boots. By some Herculean feat a slabbed walk way has been built right across the bog and no one need suffer the indignity of wet feet on Black Hill again.
We head on across the vast empty moorlands crossing with relative ease the dreaded Whitemoss and Blackmoss, both of which featureless bogs have been tamed by paved paths rendering these beasts of the moors mere gentle lambs.
M62 back to reality
Then: From somewhere out in the mist we hear a voice calling. Neither of us can make out what is being said, the cries don’t sound like English, but they are clearly calls for help. We soon find their origin. A man is stuck in the peat. The bog has him up to his thighs and we watched, horrified as he slowly begins to sink. His companion stands a few yards away, watching helplessly. He is German or Dutch but his nationality does not matter, he is being devoured by the bog monster.
I try to get to him, but each time I approach the bog tries to suck me in too. Looking around I find a plank, it’s the remains of an old sign that once stood vertically but that has long since given up hope and resigned itself to the Black Death.
I stand on the sign, grab the unfortunate man by the armpits, and haul him unceremoniously from the jaws of the monster. Once out he complains I have stretched his back.
Now: Beyond Blackmoss we arrive at the house that was once a pub known as The Floating Light. 40 years ago, Martin and I had speculated that the name must come from the fact that, at night, with no other lights around in this lonely place, the lights of the pub must have appeared to float above the bog. Plausible as this explanation is it is in fact, totally inaccurate. The old pub was situated on Saddleworth Moor beneath which there was a canal tunnel. During construction of the tunnel, workmen would like their labours by floating a light on a small boat. Hence the origin of the name floating light.
The Pennines are cut by roads running from East to West in a number of places but no such crossing is as spectacular and surreal as the crossing of the M62 motorway which meets the Pennine Way at a remote junction. The Way crosses the Motorway on a thin pedestrian bridge. You walk across mile after mile of remote moorland where the only sounds are the singing of birds and the wind bustling through the heather. Places where the hand of man seems almost absent. Suddenly, great articulated lorries roar 30 metres beneath your feet, as the bridge swings alarmingly beneath you. The motorway is a disconcerting reminder that, for all the apparent remoteness of the moorland route of the Way, the bustle of modern life is never far away.
Bridge to no where M62
After climbing along the broken line of rocks that is Blackstone Edge which forms the boundary between west Yorkshire and Greater Manchester and offers commanding views over the patchwork of farmland below.
‘The next Five miles are the easiest on the Pennine Way,’ Martin had prophesied earlier. Now, as we limp past The Whitehouse pub on the windy edge of the moors it’s hard to conceive that any 5 miles could be easy.
The constant wind blows against us and the wide expanses of the three reservoirs, who’s dams we must cross, offer no resistance to the ceaseless east wind as it pushes against our every step. We have walked 19 miles across the high moorland and the remaining 5 bring aching knees as the wind blasts our faces. A little before 8.00 pm, after 12 hours of walking, we finally descend towards the village of Mankinholes. That night, sitting in the pub, sipping a well-earned pint I can only think of how far there is to go, and wonder how, 40 years ago, we fought our way through the rain and the bog to this very spot against odds that now seem impossible.
More information on Mankinholes village pub and hostel
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?
1974 me getting off the train
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.
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 Pink Floyd 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.
Martin in the jaws of a grough
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.
The Beast of Bleaklow, miles of black semi-liquid peat in 1974
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 PassInn 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.
Bleaklow top today, notice the trig point has it’s own plinth without which it would have been swallowed by the 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 splitting. 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.
The gates of Kinder a rare landmark on the moorland.
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.
Click here to listen to me reading an extract from The Last Hillwalker that covers part of our Pennine way walk and the delights of 70s Youth Hostels. xxx
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.
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 long 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.