We were up on Cartworth Moor before dawn looking down on a street lit grey Holmfirth. The Met Office were confidently predicting a zero per cent chance of precipitation during daylight hours which would be a novel experience so far this winter. A steady pull along unmade lanes as daylight seeped in almost unnoticed led us up onto Bare Bones Road where the Southerly wind greeted us with a slap in the face. It was cold for that direction and kept us company for the next 25 miles or so. But for a brief and shy flirtation above Dunford Bridge the sun kept out of the way.
I wanted to get 15 miles in so chose a reasonably straight forward route mostly on good ground and avoiding the Bleaklow area. The first 5 miles were knocked off in an hour and forty five minutes which ain’t bad for me these days. Beyond Dunford Bridge we walked the old railway line before slipping off on the lovely moorland path over to the Flouch. Lapwings were back on the moorland edge and in good song.
Down by the Little Don a leisurely morning coffee and biscuits were enjoyed before that wind nudged us onwards to the Cut Gate Path and the peaty badlands beyond. Despite the monotone greyness it was a good day to be out. The wind kept our pace up and the flat light meant no distractions with the camera. Even the haul up to Howden Edge passed without a moan or constant time checks. Howden Edge was no place to hang around. Exposed to the full force of the wind we bent into it and dropped as quickly as possible into the steep Gravy Clough where we came across a squat stone fold by a crisp little beck. The perfect spot for afternoon tea and an hour out the breeze soaking up the hills. The best bit of walking is often the stopping I reckon.
This would have made a good place to put the tent up but I needed another mile to break the 15 mile hurdle so carried on down into Howden Dean. I noticed Abbey Brooke appeared somewhat more formidable than the slim blue line on my map and took time to pick a likely jumping spot from above. The width between bank and boulder in the middle of the brooke was just outside my comfort zone but I chucked the dog onto it and eventually took a scrabbling leap of faith onto it myself. I’m not the champion beck jumper I was back in 1972 that’s for sure!
I love this time of day out in the hills. That last hour of a walk as the daylight ebbs and finding somewhere to pitch the tent is the only thought. I’d never been in this clough before but sure enough around about the right time a lovely spot appeared tucked amongst some rocks by the beck. Tent up and brew on.
All credit to the Met Office. Daylight hours were dry and even the rain forecast came in bang on time around 7 o’clock along with more wind to rattle at the tent.
It was a cold old night. The rain cleared by 6 in the morning and by 7 we were squelching through bogs to catch dawn up on Lad Tor. The sky warmed up nicely before a blanket of grey damp cloud dropped down on the tops. We picked up the icy flagged path onto Back Tor and Derwent Edge. It was grim in a February way so we put some quick steps in past misty grit stone formations with occasional glimpses of the Derwent Valley below before dropping off to Monscar.
Stanage Edge began to clear off as we walked towards it and by the time we got up there you could see for miles to the North whilst misty weather hung on to the South. This is a popular part of the Peak Park but we had it mostly to ourselves and as the light improved spent a good few hours on the edges 4 mile length enjoying views and taking photos.
Coming off the edge our way took us below Burbage Rocks and down into Padley Gorge. There was plenty of water about in the gorge and I could have spent hours amongst the waterfalls taking photos but we had to catch the 15:44 to Sheffield !
Last May I walked with a mate and the little dog from Inverie to Strathcarron on Scotland’s West coast. A winding trail through hills and by loch shores in some empty country. Mostly we pitched the tent towards the days end when running out of steam but a spell of wintry weather was a chance for a couple of bothy nights too.
Normal rules of engagement with our weather seem to have been suspended this past few weeks. The ebb and flow of isobars from the Atlantic has become a one way street of bad tempered,relentless wind and rain. I’ve caught only the briefest respites. On a calm predawn walk up West Nab things were still enough for a hoar frost on grit stone boulders and mist in the cloughs. The moon though waning lit up the sky and filled moorland pools with cheesy brightness. It’s right to want a bit of wintry cold in December and this particular morning was the real thing. Even crisp morning sunshine could not chase the cold air off the moors.
My other moment of meteorological stillness was found on the Menai Straits where the sounds of dawn are the summer calls of Curlew,Oyster Catcher and Golden Plover on the moors here. The mainland hills were lost in blotting paper clouds as the tide at my feet swept and pulled through sand and stone like fingers in holding hands.
Beyond these moments at times it has felt like the roof would come off here and at one point a big ash tree out the back came down taking an electricity line with it. To be honest candle light and quiet were as good as frost and tide outside.
Up on Howden Edge a wind threw punches and shoved me over twice. Kinder and Bleaklow, the dark twins of the Dark Peak, cowered beneath a heavy sky and rain came up from the Derwent Valley to scratch like finger nails at my face. The day ended walking off the soaking peat heavy moors by moonlight and then torch light following the little dogs white arse through dark Langsett woods.
I thought more than twice about the turning back before leaving the woods in Ramsden Clough but went on in side ways sleet to catch a rainbow at the top of this deep, hidden clough. So unfriendly was the afternoon here even the game keeper ignored my dog in his rush to get fireside of the hills.
A fair forecast tempted us up Holme Moss before dawn. Yet somehow an uninvited wind pushed long fingers of frigid mist about the peaty wastes. As a lovely early golden light began to fill valley folds the black moorland mists turned to a sky full of snow which rattled around us stealing both view and warmth. So we sat up there hunched amongst a bank of bilberry and heather with a brew, a bit of shelter and our small part of this world right at our feet.
Sunday 10th November dawned cold bright and blue. We headed up for Issue Edge and Black Hill looking for snow. Sure enough icy roads and frozen puddles in the valley meant a dusting of sleety snow starting around Wrigley’s Cabin and covering Black Hill and Holme Moss. I got quite excited up there in the cold wind with a view across the mongrel South Pennines to the lofty Northern aristocrats of Pen Y Gent, Ingleborough and Whernside. We made a video on the phone !
The last of a full moon filled peaty puddles with creamy light which rippled to our passing steps. Stars shone above in the flat half light of nights clocking off. Below the urban tide would soon commute across these hills yet for the moment everything seemed paused between fading night and a new day.
On West Nabs grit stone summit the wind raked uncomfortably across the moors. It teased us onto the far side of the hill where we looked out across a blanket of mist steaming over Marsden Moor and Pule Hill.
Buckstones headlights flashed a misunderstood misty Morse code towards us as cars dipped in and out of the cloud and first daylight singed moorland and mists a momentary raw red like a gravel rashed childhood knee.
Dawn seems a half hearted affair at the years back end and the sun seemed less than enthusiastic in it’s struggle over the horizon. There’s no chorus up here now to sing in a new day.Only the daft cackling of grouse panicking at nothing breaks the moorland stillness.
There was a time when my son would happily walk into the wilds with me through bogs to bothys, over fell tops and across dales and into darkness on the promise of a packet of fruit pastels and some pop at the pub if and when we passed one. Lovely innocent days before his age had teen tagged onto it.
I pretty much used up my last handful of parental influence in persuading him to join me on this walk from Holmfirth to Edale via the bogs of Bleaklow and Kinder. He reluctantly agreed to keep me company with the proviso that he didn’t have to walk through Holmfirth with me incase someone he knew saw him. “It’s crap having Ray Mears as a Dad” is how he put it. So we were spirited off up to Hade Edge by Mum and I was tempted to suggest he travel in the boot as an extra security measure but thought better of it.
The car rolled to a momentary halt high on Bare Bones Road and we slipped out and off into the heather beyond the eyes of other teenagers for the next 25 miles or so. We headed for Dunford Bridge and Windleden Reservoir before climbing up to cross the Woodhead road at a sprint. Beyond the empty bogland of Bleaklow waited in black peaty silence.
R had taken a vow of silence on leaving home which he broke with a single yes when asked if he would like some sweets. His dedication to ignoring me was pretty impressive and lasted the full 8 miles to Bleaklow Stones where he couldn’t help but break into conversation whilst watching the swirling “Moors for the Future” chopper pepper the peat with lime and fertiliser.
We were right in the grid it was treating yet the pilot managed to miss us completely as he swept low and loud around us as we were putting up the tent. It was a stunning evening and a summery silence settled in as the chopper left for the day. We camped at the edge of the Stones with a view across to Kinder. A tide of low light came in from the West warming up moorland ridges and sweeping away a line of bruised blue black clouds.
R was glad to stop I think and became his usual charming self for the evening. He’s skilled at camping, a handy lad to have around ,good company and a laugh too. I love having him with me on walks and my master plan has been that as I decline he reaches a physical peak and can look after me in the hills! Just got to get through these rocky teenage years then. He retired after tea with the dog for company and I took a wee miniature of 18 year old Glenfiddich to sit atop one of the gritty Stones for sunset.
Dawn came quietly with a soft breeze to keep the midges off and a hint of mist in the Derwent Valley. Our walk across the peaty plateau was a talkative one but by Bleaklow Head when R realised how far it was to Edale he renewed his vows and we left the bleak summit once again in silence. I looked upon it it as a character building side of walking I just hadn’t thought of.
The lad is a fine strong walker when he wants to be. I have Jack Russell legs and huff and puff along whereas he has the grace and build of a greyhound and can glide across the miles with ease. We stopped in hot sun at Kinder Downfall to paddle in the peaty water and rest a while. R looked at the map to work out a distance to Edale and decided we’d go across the plateau as this was the shortest route. From here on in he perked up and the walk across Kinder was a real pleasure. We went slightly wrong coming out at Crowden Tower instead of Grindsbrook but it’s not the kind of thing to bother about on such a lovely afternoon.
Crowden Clough drops like a stone from Kinder and is not kind on knees. The brook cool and clear invites a paddle at the bottom and we took no persuading. Feet refreshed it was one last push on to the Nag’s Head for pints and J20′s.
There wasn’t much room between sky and swallows up on Back Lane. Headroom lowered as the evening progressed and not a splash of September sunlight touched the ground all evening. Had it done so the landscape would have have ignited in ripe purples, grassy yellows and the mature intensity of summer’s back end.
Instead it was twine on gateposts, rusty tin sheets and the smaller man made details which punctuate the South Pennines that seemed to stand out. Agricultural detritus such as long unused East European tractors, yellow dumpers and old bath tubs as water troughs are never far away in this corner of Yorkshire. Such rustic untidiness is as part of the landscape here as sweeping sour moorlands and grit stone crags.
From a low stone wall by Carter Plantation a silent Little owl sprinted away from us on short wings. Followed by a laid back brown hare avoiding us out of habit. In a field nearby a lone tree’s growth imitates the wind and the Pennine Fox Hound’s deep barks followed us long after we’d passed the overgrown path by their kennels.
Harden Hill Road is the top of a snake and we slide it’s hard won contours down to Hebble Lane. Here Swallows swept towards us at knee level before banking sharply and twittering to us as they swerved sideways and upwards towards the low sky. You couldn’t move for them on Royd Lane and the endless chattering near misses were a delight. Purple heather lined the lane side bright against a dark sky and a fringe of mist fell across West Nab.
At Sun Royd Farm we picked up the water conduit which would take a long a curving contour to Deer Hill. Walking by I remembered the old farmer here threatening to knock my head against my mates for walking up there just after Foot and Mouth. We must have been 30 years younger than him and I smiled at the time and again this evening. He must have been fierce in his younger days!
Dusk dropped like a drizzle of pixels across the moors. I snook some brown peaty water from Deer Hill Reservoir before heading up towards Shooters Nab where a fresh breeze back combed the moors crew cut of vegetation. Not fancying a rattling night on top of the Nab I tucked the tent behind half a contour at the crags foot . Bells pealed in Marsden long after dark. Trans Pennine trains rattled through quickly whilst the stopper grumbled about stopping at Marsden and Slaithwaite. As ever a farm dog somewhere barked behind it’s barn door and car headlights were swallowed by dips on hillside lanes. It was a good place to be.
We emerged from the mornings grey sky at about the same height as a Marsden chimney pot which meant breakfast wasn’t far away. A double egg butty for me and a tricky still hot jumbo sausage roll for the dog. Coffee was good here too. In fact Marsden is always good, it’s that kind of place. Held in a deep cupped heathery hand among fingery cloughs and craggy, scabby knuckles of grit stone it retains an understated South Pennine character worth getting to know. It’s laid back ewes munch at pavement planters and congregate like super market youths on the green in a woolly attempt at intimidation. An expensive campaign of fences and cattle grids to keep them out has been quietly dropped as the canny ewes adapted to find new ways under, through or around such obstacles. Many learnt to roll,walk and jump over the grids which now merely rattle warnings of approaching cars rather than fulfill their stock proofing claims.
An unstated aim on this walk was to avoid the Pennine Way between here and Hebden Bridge. To stitch together familiar and unwalked paths along the Eastern side of the Pennines only meeting the well trod way around Stoodley Pike. A roller coaster ride through deep valleys where height would be gained and spent in a snakes and ladders way throughout the day.
Spring Lane out of Marsden is one of those long ladders where you’d be pleased to land a childhood tiddly wink and sweep upwards with a smile. Walking up the lane is more of a character building experience but height is gained with every plodding step and breath. Huck Hill Lane eases things and leads out onto the fine open country of Slaithwaite Moor and the “secret seaside” of Cupwith Reservoir. The little sandy beach here is well visited by toddlers, ducks and walkers too yet this man made delight is set to be drained and turned into a grim peaty pool by the estates lack of regular maintenance. There is however a strong local campaign from Cupwith lovers to save this simple Pennine jewel for all to enjoy in the future.
Sometimes, in fact most times, it’s best just to get out to these places and be. So we savoured each moment amongst quacking shoreline ducks in warm September sunshine. Content at the top of a long ladder and with a few level squares ahead before the next slithering hillside snake down to Deanhead.
Waterman’s House is almost invisible amongst a galaxy of sheds and agricultural detritus which expand ever outwards from the small stone farmhouse at it’s centre. It could be billions of years old for all I know. It’s outer edges only visible as barely detectable shimmers of light in the lens of some Hubble type telescope. Having visited many such places over the years I’ve become something of a connoisseur. Every rusty item here tells a story of this place and human existence on the sour moorland fringe. A lone chained collie stood on it’s kennel roof to bark and rattle as we passed. There was no other sign of life.
A patchwork of close cut nitrate green silage fields caught a spotlight sun and the rumble of M62 traffic grew louder as we climbed upwards through the ruins of Deanhead. A short but steep ladder which meets the tip of a long winding snake whose tail twitches unseen in the woods of Booth Dean Clough far below.
Most of us have driven by Scott Hall Farm which sits funny peculiar in the middle of the M62 as it climbs to the low Pennine crest just beyond. Now we stood on the lovely path directly above as a wave of sound broke around us. Lumbering trucks and flighty cars formed an intermittent chain of colour and noise each side of the farm. Whilst just off the carriageway silage bales waited to be collected and ewes grazed with end of summer sized lambs. What strikes me about the place is how tidy it is. Unusually well kept for this part of the world.
The human stories around building the M62 through here are fascinating and I’ve spoke to a few people who were on this section. One old lad who could tell a story dug from here to Hull putting in drains. Many of his colleagues seemed to end up buried alive or stuck under heavy objects and he was one of those people who always seem to be there when these tragic events happen. It seemed as if he dug out half the workforce at some point or other.
Beneath the motorway sheep feed and fence posts were stacked neatly and the area is obviously used as two big sheds through the winter. Once out of the under passes normal countryside is resumed and the path drops steeply on down the snakes tail to the quiet woods of Brook Dean Clough.
A few rungs up our next ladder a topless pot bellied bloke hailed us from the back of a junk filled barn and we passed the time of day beneath a phone wire full of waiting swallows. He told me it would be to warm for walking soon before disappearing back into the shadowy barn. About a mile or so further on his words rang true and we took a half hour out back resting on a gritty boulder by the Blackwood Edge Road path.
Above us the empty expanse of Dog Hill and Rishworth Moor sat like a suet pudding on the Pennine plate. We had to climb the short easy ladder up it but the rungs were rough, wide and surprisingly rickety or was the heat of the afternoon just taking it’s toll? Picking up another conduit path we snaked through heather and bog towards the Roman and Rochdale Roads. The moory end of the Ryburn Valley here has a dark cheese slicer line of pylons cutting a gash through the wild skyline which will never heal. Despite this there’s no getting away from a sense of wildness seeping from every peat hagg. The wilderness experience was undoubtedly enhanced by the 99 I bought from the ice cream van on Rochdale Road. The van was parked up on the 380 m contour and we now followed this slithering brown line on the map for a long old way as it dipped in and out of every nook and cranny along the moorland edge. Never losing height and never heading directly for Stoodley Pike which marked the nose of our last long snake into Hebden Bridge.
Our own personnel Mountain Rescue was working in Halifax and advised in a text we’d be picked up at 5.30 in Hebden Bridge which to me meant 6 miles in 2 hours. Ought to have said we’ll get the train but the thought of a lift was too appealing. So we put some quick steps in along the snaking contouring path but I’m getting slower with age, the views were wonderfully distracting and by the time we reached the slopes of Stoodley Pike the light was lovely and the camera was out.
Last time we were on Stoodley Pike I knelt by a Swallow in the yellow grass and watched it open an arc of wing to take off effortlessly leaving me static and leaden on the ground. This evening above the steep green fields of Calderdale a bloke with an American accent had his own wing and stepped into the air to spiral upwards and sweep across the escarpment in sharp twists and turns.
Calderdale’s cloughs and contours are always appealing. So much of everything crammed into so small a cupboard the door barely shuts. Coming down from the Pike onto Pinnacle Lane we walked through an unspoilt walled field system and watched a farmer bale hay with a New Holland baler from back in my childhood. The sounds, scent and dusty haze were a true blast from the past. Hay bales are much heavier than straw I recalled from the many I stacked in my agricultural days. They wear your trouser knees out quickly, are tied with “charlie band” and kept in Dutch barns. Today a real hay bale is a rare thing even around here. To my Dad who ploughed with a horse and stacked hay in Stoops a New Holland baler in the sixties was the cutting edge of farm machinery.
The baling sounds slowly faded as we continued along the well kept lane high above Hebden Bridge. Past a blue shed on wheels, a vegetable plot where spuds were being lifted, handmade signs about Sat Navs and a view across the valley to Heptonstall church. After a long day the last descent is always uncomfortable and going down through Crow Nest Wood on the final move in todays snakes ‘n’ ladders felt like someone slapping my feet with a paddle.
Outside the Shoulder of Mutton our own personal Mountain Rescue had been waiting for an hour and a half and may just have been thinking of calling out the real thing.
I’d sort of said my goodbyes to snow and frost. Winter was safely bolted and contained behind the Equinox and thoughts of first Swallows and Digley Cuckoos seemed more apt. Although the Mets perfect storm of continental air and weather was very well forecast that 2 1/2 days of heavy driving snow which brought the Holme Valley to a wintry standstill and stopped daffodils in their tracks still came as a shock. Not just the amount of snow but the way it stuck before being driven by a mean old Easterly into mountainous drifts of snow which choked the valleys roads and footpaths. I’m writing this 3 weeks later and only now has a thorough thaw of these drifts taken place. The Holme Moss Road was only reopened 2 days ago and not because the snowdrifts up there had thawed but because they’d been removed by machines hacking through their 12 foot depths.
A lull in the wind and some bright but bitter days gave the chance for a walk across the hills from Dunford Bridge through to Edale. I picked the shortest route available and headed off down the Trans Pennine Trail with my wandering motto “When the going gets tough- the daft get going” ringing in cold ears.
Deep corrugated tractor ruts eased our steps along the Trans Pennine Trail. In shadowy cuttings cold air nipped at fingers like a dogs puppy teeth. Silver birches bowed towards each other beneath a blue March sky as we walked towards Cote Bank Bridge and a right hand turn into wilder walking beyond.
The path over Reddisher Knowl was buried beneath a mile long drift which crested a stone wall in a wave of silent white winter surf. There were ewes about and there must be a few under there I thought. Twenty metres off the wall bare frozen ground could be walked over at a brisk warming pace which was good as the long drift was knee deep powder on top and impossible to walk on.
Eventually a second wall is met which formed an enclosed lane choked with snow from copes to copes. I floundered knee deep and cursing. No chance of 2 days walking through anything like this! Be glad to get to the Flouch and beg a lift home.
We found a yellow new born lamb in a field corner. It was full of last leg distraught calls to its absent mother. Awful sound. I was for once at a loss as to how to help. Clearly its mother had either abandoned it or come to a wintry end herself and in the biting cold with no food or shelter this sad creature would not be around in another half hour or so either.
I walked away hoping the cluster of buildings at the end of the lane may hold some chance of a rescue. Getting hold of someone who knew who’s sheep they were would be good enough but the first person I saw and called too was a leathery looking character in an agricultural boiler suit. “Yes” they were his sheep but was I sure “t’ mother want there?” he said to me in a way I felt he must speak to all daft townies who come his way. “Look mate go get the poor thing in now while it’s still alive” I said. He took me seriously and after I described where it was headed off back up the snowy lane to fetch it.
We carried on by Swindon Farm ruins where more sheltered ewes munched silage in the sun and eventually we stopped ourselves for a brew up by the Little Don amongst Scots Pines and snowy heather. It was a stunning wintry afternoon but the going was a little challenging at times especially when drifts could not be avoided. Above us the on the open moor snow seemed more or less to have drifted in the right direction and I took this as an invitation to carry on over the Cut Gate path towards the Derwent Valley.
The path of course was buried beneath another drift of snow. A long arc of cornice maybe 20 metres wide and 3 to 4 metres deep in places covered the Cut Gate path. However it was hard packed and frozen solid this time and so able to take my weight. We crunched up it into familiar ground given a new identity by winters plastic surgery. Gone were the oozing peat bogs and wrinkled heather. Instead high cheek boned hillsides and clean taught skin disguised the weather worn Derwent Moors.
There were a few walkers about but as we got higher boot prints thinned out until we walked on untouched snow across the watershed to dip into the Derwent Valley. The occasional Mountain Hare flit sharply from the snow weaving away in tight arcs to a more comfortable distance. Most Grouse seemed to have gone lower to the moorland edge to be surer of survival. But for the swish of snow on the wind all was quiet.
Bull Crag was our destination. A high location but giving some shelter from the East wind. On arrival the sheltered area below the crag was buried in snow and it took some time to kick out a platform big enough to get the tent on. Warming work. Around us every drift was patterned with the random trails of Mountain Hares stitching out a record of their movements. Every now and then one wandered past close to us but comfortable so long as we sat still.
The days last sun caught our camp splashing golden light on snow. Warm to look at but having no effect on dusk’s ebbing temperature. Mutley had already retired to the warmth of my sleeping bag but the view and conditions were too good to close the eyes on and I sat out well past dark soaking it all up.
I’m not someone taken in by the commercialisation of walking. Most of us are born with all the equipment we need to put one foot before the other. My new tent and sleeping bag are now 10 years old and everything else is much older. The everything else is very little beyond stove,sleeping mat and clothing. I did however pick up a second hand down jacket in February and by 5 am had to put it on inside the sleeping bag such was the reach of the cold outside.
Being late March the sun was up and shining by 6 am but we were trapped in Bull Crag’s cold shadow now the earth had spun on.I got up,brewed and walked away from the tent to sit in sunny snow and gawp at a perfect morning. Around me like sentries Mountain Hares sat seemingly doing the same. Yesterdays snowy walking seemed to have set off my bad back somewhat but it was Edale here we come now albeit by the shortest route possible from here to there!
The moorland morning was bitterly cold. The walking floundering in nature but to be up here in such conditions felt like winning life’s lottery and we had it all to ourselves too. The Derwent Valley side of the hill was drifted even deeper in great overhanging cornices of snow obliterating our path and in several places being too steep or overhanging to negotiate without an ice axe! So the line down to Slippery Stones was a longer one than usual and felt like new ground in the conditions.
Fancying a pint at the Nag’s Head before catching our train required a certain pace to be kept up throughout the day but it would be worth it when stood at the bar of probably my favourite boozer. I nearly always walk there which usually ensures a good pint tastes even better.
Larch trees and crags were reflected in the Derwent reservoir and it’s woodland trail gave some easy walking through this lovely though often busy valley. We dog legged and weaved around wooded inlets until reaching Ouzleden Clough and a path up and out of the Valley. These woods were grim. Cold and shadowy with waves of deep sharp drifts across our path. Each one was ploughed through. Each taking a little bit more out of me until a rest was taken only half way up the hill. Setting off I yanked my rucksack up from the ground like I was 20 years old and felt the old back go like the old one it is.And it really did rip.
Not a lot you can do really but warm up the damaged muscle and keep going before you stiffen up and it becomes too painful to move at all.I didn’t take the rucksack off again until reaching the Nag’s Head! Despite my self inflicted injury the walking was a delight once these snow filled woods were cleared. Several steep dips and climbs by the River Alsop and onto Jaggers Clough led us in a round about way to Edale where valley views, snow drifted walls and Curlews wheeling and calling provided a fine afternoons walking to the Nag’s Head.
Greg’s Hut doesn’t do pasties! It’s an old lead miners “shop” where men would live for weeks at a time whilst working on the slopes of Cross Fell mining seams of rock containing lead. Nothing more than a 2 room stone hut with a flagged floor and fireplace. Hard to imagine it as home to cold,wet and tired miners. Must have been grim to say the least. Today it serves as lofty bothy accommodation for the hardy,foolhardy or the plain lost. A wintry place to visit in February even with the Mountain Bothy Association improvements of stove and sleeping platform and I hoped it wouldn’t be considered too rough by the kids!
We set off from Kirkland in 8 degrees of Spring sunshine over fields thick with ewes and a wet winters mud. Somewhere in my rucksack a bag of house coal collected gravity like an affluent shopper bags air miles. Rucksacks were further swelled by molting fleecy layers which seemed useless down here beneath our snowy mountain.
Each step took us closer to winter above. Through hairpin bridleway bends drifted thick with hard packed snow which barely crunched underfoot. Upwards towards a cold clear sky where Cross Fell produced fingers of racing cloud. Yet out of the Easterly breeze and bathed in sun the acclimatisation seemed gentle enough. Behind our backs across a misty Eden Valley the Lakes hills seemed to float on a shimmering horizon.
Icy becks were burgled for water with crow bar boots and we sat on snow drifts drinking as sweat cooled on our bodies prompting us on in minutes. Dusk was creeping up and caught us higher by the old stone shelter as 2,000 feet of contours ease and February’s snow line is met. The sun’s arcing path headed rapidly for our Western horizon whilst at the same time the temperature did a Tom Daley, diving gracefully towards a negative value and creating ripples in pools of ice grey mists in the empty valleys below.
Moving on into the dusk we walked across a pathless moor crunching over sheets of ice and snow which had been molded by an Easterly wind like an incoming tide sweeps the sand before it. I love this time of day in this kind of place and at this time of year. We had no alternative accommodation but for the knowledge of this cold stone miners shop somewhere in the next mile or so of nothing. Oddly we met a group of three walkers who headed towards us as soon as they spotted us above them. They had a question “Where are we?”. Fortunately for them I could give a pretty precise answer yet like many people who get lost they took some convincing.
The Eastern sky turned a misty pink and all those layers shed earlier were put back on for even though the air was still we were now on the cold side of the hill and felt it keenly. The long snow chocked track from Garrigill curves along the North side of Cross Fell to an unassuming spoil heap which marks the location of Greg’s Hut. We headed down past deep snow filled shake holes and frozen becks only siting the hut at the last moment as the spoil heap is passed.
Inside the first room was full of snow and although I expected it my heart sank slightly as I told the kids not to worry. The second room was clear but very cold and of course the stove was full of ash and unburnt coal which took some clearing out. Once the stove began drawing and it’s warm flames cracked and lit up the walls things seemed much more habitable. Candles were lit and food prepared. Water was a problem as the bothy supply outside had to be dug out of a drift which soon froze up again. But we were here and it felt good.
By the time the stove was properly roaring, food eaten and kit organised a moonless night covered the hills and it was time for whiskey to warm the inner man.
Somewhere on the heathery slopes of Ringing Rodger above Edale I could hear the agricultural tones of The Archers drifting downhill towards me. Only when I came upon a bloke chipping away at stone for footpath repairs with an industrial sized radio by his side did it make sense. We exchanged smiles as the dog and then me plodded past upwards into the thickening snow. Despite the Peak District being one of our most popular National Parks we stepped into an empty winter afternoon with barely a footprint in the snow for company let alone another person once we’d passed the Radio 4 listening worker. As the afternoon matured winter light ripened, growing richer with every degree we spun away from the sun towards the coming February night. It’s richness deepened and absorbed my attention step by step as we climbed onto the snowy crust of Kinder Scout where we picked a route through tottering boulders and inconvenient cloughs.
When moving through the hills time seems to stand still or can be observed like an ebbing tide or a harsh decision. Each moment, step, breath or splash of light upon the land holds an intensity of it’s own barely noticed in everyday life. This , I think , is what draws me back again and again for it is a chance to just be - one simple step at a time. A chance to appreciate the cold or warmth, your strength or weakness , thirst or hunger , to look after yourself properly and come back down better than when you set off .
Along the craggy edge of Grindsbrook warm golden light spilled onto crisp convex snow slopes as the sun wrestled away cloud to throw a last handful of light towards us. It seemed to skim off rock and snow like a flat stone on still water, ricocheting between light and shadow towards the horizon. Such moments although fleeting hold a depth and quality beyond the every day and yet up here they are the every day.
As the sun dipped beyond our horizon I noticed a sharpness in the North wind more. It blew through white peat haggs drifting snow into beautiful sharp curves. It touched the skin with brittle fingers turning my face like the snow drifts Southwards. It wasn’t a strong wind, just enough to move lying snow and let you know it was there. We camped half out of it. Leveling snow on the side of a peat hagg to pitch and digging a big bucket seat in a drift where I could sit completely sheltered to brew up. Once the tent’s up the little dog heads straight to bed and won’t move again until turfed out at dawn. I like to cook and eat outside while the stars come out and night creeps slowly in. The snowdrift seat was very comfy and I wore my 30 year old “Field&Trek” duvet jacket which keeps the heat in nicely. It’s not one of these trendy short Rab things you see everywhere but a long one which keeps vitals back and front warm and being synthetic will take a bit of wet too.
The wind’s brittle hand shook our fly sheet for half the night. As it left a softer sound and a noticeable rise in temperature came with the arrival of thick snow flakes falling gently out of the night sky. It had indeed been “too cold to snow” earlier but a half heated weather front brought a little cloud, a few meager degrees of warmth and the soft sound of snow on flysheet. As the cackle of grouse brought in the dawn another inch or two of snow had fallen sweeping away our foot and paw prints outside.
There was no movement to be heard or seen beyond my well practiced morning brewing. The air and sky were sculpture still and I moved in a pencil sketch world. Rounded grit stone boulders on the edge of Grindsbrook were flecked with night snow. The crags here swept away in eroded waves, grey upon grey beneath a slate grey sky to the distant fine black necklace of Stanage where land and sky met.
In the snow on Grindsbrook Knoll grouse, hare and foxes trails traced out patterns of activity . The fox in particular had covered much ground in an unsuccessful nose through the breakfast menu. Below in Edale grey mists seemed lost on the valley floor. First edging slowly away from the village only to drift back unsure of the way moments later. Two walkers hands on hips stood half way up the Knoll. Their upright lines a short bar code in the snow.
Later sat on a boulder in the snow (having a brew) I watched a Mountain Hare sat amongst black fingers of heather pointing from the snow. A knot of boxing glove limbs. It’s mottled grey white coat hid its presence until a blink and nose twitch gave it away. For ten minutes I watched it , content in its wildness and still in the snowy sun until an inadvertent movement on my part announced my presence too . It’s ears came to an alert V and it glided across the snow with minimum effort to sit just a little further away.