On Sunday, I bit off more than I could chew.
It was a route I’d got my teeth into many a time, but always in the height of summer, with euphoric sunshine boosting my energy and propelling me through this epic journey around the upper dale’s watershed. It turns out in minus-8 wind chill and 9 hours of daylight, it’s quite the different kettle of fish.
Fair play, I still had the sunshine; without that the harebrained idea wouldn’t have even crossed my mind. I hadn’t been able to decide what I wanted to do most in the one day of perfect sunshine that was forecast for my week off work: the bleak and beautiful moors above the house, or the peak at the head of our valley. Then I remembered how glorious a full circuit could be, and indeed what wonderful light sunrise over the moors provided, and the plan was hatched. An early start and an 8 hour round would get me nicely home mid afternoon, with possibly even time to call in on a friend who’d invited me for coffee.
That said, I know the terrain, my limits and the risks very well, and I’m equipped with a good headtorch, spare batteries, emergency bivvy, and the crème de la crème of lightweight-yet-super-insulating down jackets… just in case.
But back to the start. It’s 7am and I am EXCITED. I haven’t been up ‘my’ moors for so long, and they are the one place on earth I know I can find absolute solitude. Not just ‘nobody in sight’, but a knowledge that only a handful of people have trodden this route ever, never mind today, this week or even this year. It’s the one place I am loathe to write about, because it’s my secret. I’ve been going there since long before CROW meant anything other than a large black bird, with the permission of the gamekeeper, who was our closest neighbour, and whose farm you have to pass through to get there. Once, I got up before dawn in slightly warmer circumstances, and ran (OK, jogged, intermittently) all the way up, the landscape transforming from deep indigo to fiery red. As the sun rose, a golden glow gradually gave in to blue skies and white fluffy clouds as daylight established itself with full force.
This time, I am armed with my ‘proper’ camera. To me, it’s hi-tech, but two photography courses and a number of magazine commissions later, I appreciate the light-capturing compromises made in favour of its super zoom. Still, there were opportunities not to be missed, so I gave it a shot, bouncing like a child in a sweet shop nonetheless.
I watched and waited as the valley behind me slowly changed from icy grey to gold, the shadow line of the moors retreating, and the local villages glinting in first light. Finally, the sun breached the horizon to my left, behind a line of grouse butts, and I soaked up those first precious rays of my own personal rocket fuel.
As my path gained height, so did the moor to my left, and the sun rose and fell on repeat. My shadow flitted beside me, echoing a Brocken Spectre that had once followed me for hours along a white-frosted ridge on another mountain range. Climbing further, every dip and shadow returned the moor to ice, and crunchy underfoot puddles became more decoratively frozen as the bitterly cold air increased its bite with altitude. Eventually, I reached the shooting hut, old and leaning, unlocked and stocked with various cans: testament to the solitude of the place that even the beaters’ sustenance was left unprotected.
Ducking inside to add a layer out of the wind, a bag of medicated grit reminds me how welcome the hard frost would be to the keepers. Red grouse are essentially wild animals, and medicated grit – which grouse swallow as a digestion aid – is one of the few interventions gamekeepers play in their welfare. The medication tackles the disease strongylosis, the grouse’s nemesis, which can decimate a season’s population with ease. The natural way of things is a heavy cold spell to kill the worm off, but with temperatures rising, keepers are able to lend a helping hand.
My thoughts return to the view from the hut window. I spot the keeper driving up in his incongruously new 4×4, and duck out to say hello, after gaining permission to access the moor the night before. Technically, permission is for access through the farm, as the moor is now open access. But, like the unlocked store of lager, another testament to these moors’ solitude is the lingering sense that it’s not usual for another human to be here, and that it’s only polite to let the keeper know he might come across me, intruding on his own personal wilderness and escape.
I explain that I might just wander to the top of the lane and back down… or if I’m feeling energetic, I might carry on around the boundary fence, if he doesn’t mind. Impressed, or incredulous – I’m not sure which – he replies “Well, that’s a fair route – good on you!” and we continue on our ways, my day’s human interaction over and done with. Somehow, in the search for solitude, this conversation doesn’t impact. Keepers live and breathe these moors and are as much a part of their identity as the heather, the grouse, and the glorious freedom.
There’s a strange feeling I get on these hills of being at the end of the world. Perhaps it’s the years I lived here without exploring enough, with the walls of moor surrounding the dale seemingly inaccessible and impenetrable. The lack of roads mean an hour’s drive to the village just beyond the hill; and even when I did start hillwalking, it took a number of attempts to reach the top due to unfitness and trepidation.
Or maybe these extreme reaches of the dale are too steeped in my own ‘hiraeth’, rendering the landscape completely different to other moors, which are known by others, and have no personal connection for me. Either way, I walk these hills not anticipating the next valley, but another, far-distant world, like standing on the moon and looking back at Earth.
I reach the brow of the track, and there, standing proud, straight ahead, is the next range of hills; yet like every other time, surrounded by early morning haze, I have to remind myself they’re real. Nowadays I know my bearings, but it still seems surreal. This isn’t a view that exists to other people. And as I make the final climb to the moor’s exposed, wind-battered top, I do a double take. A faint scene, somewhere between an alien city and a shimmering lost Atlantis, hovers on the horizon, just beyond the skyline. My camera zooms in, and there is Teesside, an industrial light year away from this remote top, with the north sea wind turbines lined up beyond. It feels impossible.
Descending to the boundary fence, I realise something has changed. There should be ditches here, and by the law of averages, I should have been in knee deep by now. Finally, I am reconnected with the real world.
In December 2015, Storm Desmond wreaked havoc, and friends of mine were uprooted for months on end. Talked swiftly turned to hills and bogs, and why moorland drainage was to blame for the sheer speed of the water rising and descending on our towns and cities. At random events I attended, speakers blamed flooding on gamekeepers and farmers, drying out the land for better grazing and shooting. A regular victim of this flooding is a city directly fed by the rains draining off my local moors. And so, the stories began to hit a nerve, because that particular story of blame is not the one I know.
The problem with moorland drainage is that it encourages water straight into free flowing watercourses, instead of being trapped in blanket bog. Running water erodes stream beds and collects silt as it goes, dumping it again when the ground levels out, with no discretion. As this run-off gains momentum, rivers rise at rates of knots, as all the fallen rain fights its way to the sea at all costs. But many of these drainage channels, reducing bog, and speeding up flow, originated from Government grants to increase agricultural productivity. An oral history project I recently came across included recordings of a farmer speaking with incredulity about the Government offering grants in the 80’s to dig ditches (‘grips’) for grouse chicks and sheep to get stuck and drown in, and which would send torrents of water flying down the hillside, only to change their minds years later after realising the farmers and keepers were right all along. While the estate owners chose to take the grant, the view clearly wasn’t shared by all those on the ground, and it speaks volumes about the misinformation bandied about by worryingly high profile names about whose decisions these actually were.
Walking this particular section of the moor had always involved much jumping of channels and trying not to land in one, and I’m glad on many levels to see the amount of grip blocking that has been carried out here. It’s genuinely impressive how little trace there now is of these deep channels, other than pools of developing bog and telltale shadows on the hillside, now reduced to a mere archaeological remnant of what went before.
After these spectral visions of far-off lands on the summit and a welcome confirmation that good things do happen on modern moorlands, I am high on life, and it’s only 10am. So I continue – the day now blinding and blue, its icy hues echoed in my numb fingers and stinging nostrils – and reach the boundary, where Home gives way to the honeypot of the National Park. Today, however, I won’t cross over until the dale’s true summit: three relentless miles of peat hag later. It’ll slow me down, sure, but how hard can three measly miles be when I’ve walked that fence so many times before?
Half an hour later, I am exhausted. Those happy summer times, bounding along with my parents’ now-elderly dog in tow, have disappeared to the other world. It’s so cold, the hags are sucking every last drop of my energy and I’m not sure I’m going to make it before dark. Should I turn back? No… it’s only 11am… and it’s two and a half miles to the top, then the hard bit’s done and I’m on the home straight, and I have my headtorch.
But it’s a really long two and a half miles, and the hags are not frozen, and there’s at least one serious foot-in-bog incident. With the weather as it is, it’s a prime day for burning heather too. I never fail to be entranced by the distant flames and post-apocalyptic smoke streams as the keepers go about clearing old heather for new shoots to come through and provide feed for the grouse. Up here, with numerous pink plumes carried on the wind, one for each gamekeeper in the dale, it hits the nostrils too.
Some time later, legs thick with fatigue and lungs heavy with muirburn, I finally make it to my favourite viewpoint. A line of weather worn, split silver crags almost fools me, as always, into thinking it’s limestone pavement; but it’s far too rough, and I know the geology of these dales too well. I pause, taking in a brand new expanse of open green hillside and sky blue reservoir. I attempt to take a rare selfie, failing to recreate an old photo of me and my best canine walking buddy, wishing he were here to pat on the head and share the moment with.
Finally, the cairn comes into view that signals the last few metres to the true summit. And there it is: the Lake District. Not just the faintest of grey hazes in the distance – which I’d seen once before – but, possibly… could that actually be Scafell Pike, and the entire line of central fells? And on the other side, Teesside, once again! I’m astounded that these two places, so removed from the impenetrable defences of this dale, are suddenly so connected. I’m not aware of any other place where this is possible.
Life has returned, and a burst of energy sees me bouncing from rock to rock, trying to capture some shots before the sun disappears behind one of the grey clouds now lurching across the summit. But it doesn’t last long… Clear day or not, the bitter wind is racing and my fingers are so numb I’m reciting the ‘umbles’ to myself – grumble, mumble, fumble, stumble, tumble; signs of hypothermia – to reassure myself the iciness hasn’t infiltrated any further than the extremities. I don’t even go as far as the summit trig; there’s no time for lingering on the views. It’s gloves on and quick away down the hill, anything for a bit of respite.
It may, however, have been respite from the weather; but not, it seems, from the battle. Initially, I’m distracted by the greenness of the ground – I’m sure these hags were much bigger and blacker before – and realise I’m walking through another restoration project; this time the re-vegetation of exposed peat hags, preventing run off, storing carbon more securely and encouraging more bog to develop. It’s great to see, but doesn’t buoy me for long, for I’d forgotten how difficult walking down peaty hillsides was. Once again, I’m completely off-path, this time with no navigational handrails other than a vague but familiar bearing, and mostly just my nose. I check the time and realise the going is so slow I’ve already missed coffee, and will be lucky if I’m home in time for tea. I decide that the only thing worse than a false summit is a false descent – I believe every brow I cross will open up the view and show the way down, but I just get more peat, more bogs and more ankle-wrenching tussocks of moor grass determined to leave me stranded here, or crawling off the hill for miles in the dark. Feeling thoroughly dejected by now, the only plus side is that I’m concentrating so hard I don’t notice the cold for once.
Finally… finally, I drop down to the reservoir, and the best thing I’ve seen all day: a path. A real live footpath, and a bridge, and then a gravel track. Salvation at last; from here, I know it’s road and lane all the way home. In fact, if I really want to, I can hitch a lift down the road from the reservoir car park, and it’s a ridiculously appealing thought. I can be there in… 4 miles, and then home in 10 minutes… But a niggle of pride kicks in, and reminds me it’s only 3 extra miles to walk, and the only climb I have left is very short. So, with seven miles left, off I go, at a bracing pace – in my head. The reality is two wet, sore feet and one extremely tight hamstring, and the next best thing I’ve seen all day is the rest hut by the stone dam.
This turn of the century construction, a real feat of engineering, has never failed to impress me before, but today I’m beyond it. I spy a couple walking towards me with a dog, but it’s my hackles that rise. Today is not for human contact. They eye the hut; I stride purposefully and try to own it… somehow it works, and on they go. I breathe, and finally eat. My water is too cold and I realise I’m shivering. It’s still light, but the hills obscure the sun. The down jacket, which rarely sees the light of day, comes out, and stays on until I get home.
I edge down the rest of the track, slowly but surely, gradually warming up. I stumble slightly, but it’s muscular, not hypothermic. Six and a half miles to go… five miles to go… and finally, three last little measly ones over the final bit of moor to home. One last push up the hill; one last view of my entire route; one last photo of the sun setting behind the moors and bringing the journey full circle.
I stare into space, defrosting in the shower, and look forward to a chilled cider and the warm glow of the telly; all to myself.