On Kinder Scout

You would think that, given that water runs downhill, the tops of mountains would be drier than the valley bottom. Not in England’s peaty uplands they’re not. Somehow, I’d managed to forget this, although twenty four hours in lovely Edale soon reminded me. I’d taken the train to Sheffield, then to the Hope Valley in the Peak District. Throughout the journey the sky had remained at least partially blue. But as the train left Hope behind and chugged its way into Edale, the sky closed up completely into a heavy, dark and forbidding grey.

I had planned to use the late afternoon to take a leisurely walk along the southern ridge of the valley, to get myself in the mood for the more serious business of the following day. As I stood on the deserted platform, hurriedly pulling on my waterproofs, I started to think that may have been a misjudgement.

But I was here now, with three hours to spare until the light died. It was likely that there would be little else to do in the village and I hadn’t come all this way to spend the afternoon in the pub. So, with grim determination, I left the station and set out along the road to the west, leaving it to follow a track that veered to the right and up to the ridge. Once at the top I turned to the east and followed the path along the broad, flat back of the ridge, the view completely obscured by dense low cloud.

The rain varied from heavy to persistent. Several hundred pounds worth of Berghaus technology struggled to keep me dry. The path was a constant stream, pocked with small rust-coloured lakes that were filled by the water pouring from the cut edge of the surrounding peat. The entire mountain seemed to be a well-spring. Water seeped out of everything and was spread across every surface, flat and inclined.

But the stillness, the isolation, was glorious: I saw no other walkers on the entire route. The cloud muffled everything, and the only sounds were intensely localised: the rhythmic rustling of my waterproofs and the drumming of rain on my hood. Birds would occasionally blur across the path, suddenly deciding I had come too close, and disappeared into the grey, the sound of their flapping wings and of their spirited chirrups swallowed by the water suspended around us.

Then, shortly after passing Lord’s Seat, where the ridge was maybe five metres wide, the cloud cleared and Edale was revealed, resplendent. I could see the train station below, the vivid greens of the pasture land, and the next wave of Manchester’s excess cloud rolling over the western end of the valley. In the brief clarity, I breathed in the view: to the south, the wet road, silver under the grey sky, snaked down into the Hope Valley; Castleton’s cement works poked up behind the now-visible southern flank of Mam Tor; the summit, to which I was headed, remained cloaked.

Mam Tor from the bottom of Grindsbrook CloughMam Tor , the ‘mother hill’, is an Iron Age hill fort and the highest point on the southern ridge of Edale. From its summit, there are great views. Or so I’m told: just as I reached the trig point, the cloud closed in completely once more and I had only 360 degrees of flat greyness to contemplate. I had wanted to take some photographs of the  ancient earthworks in the evening light, but there was no evening light, and it was too wet to excavate my camera from its waterproof confinement. As striking as the ethereal mists that enveloped the ridge were, it would not sufficiently translate into pixels to make the attempt worth it. I didn’t linger, and came down the ridge to Hollins Cross, from where I took a direct path down and across farmland until I reached the road and the station. By the time I reached the welcoming Rambler Inn , my bed for the night, I was wet through and beginning to wonder if mid October was the right time for this trip.

On the ridge, I had in any case decided that, given the volume of water suspended in even the gravel of Mam Tor, I would not attempt the boggy wastes of Kinder Scout the next day. That would be a recipe for getting very wet, and probably entirely lost. Aimless wandering across a featureless, squelchy peat bog did not appeal. I realised that this made me rather less resolute than the members of British Workers’ Sport Federation, who had organised the Kinder Scout Trespass in 1932. They had had to deal not only with the terrain, but also the landowner’s men. Their determination in the face of much stiffer odds had led to the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act of 1949, to the creation of the Peak District as Britain’s first National Park in 1951, and ultimately to the ‘right to roam’ legislation at the beginning of the new century.

The morning was as grisly as the evening had been and I felt vindicated in my decision. A stubborn bank of cloud sat at about 400m, encasing the valley under its flat, grey lid, and surely making Kinder Scout unnavigable. I set off with my alternative route in mind, following the first part of the Pennine Way. I climbed slowly up the side of the valley, to Jacob’s Ladder.

The Ladder is a stiff climb up a well maintained path. I would imagine that ordinarily the views back along the valley are gorgeous, but inevitably all I had was white cloud and 20 metres of visibility. But it wasn’t raining, and it was white cloud rather than grey. It felt like an improvement. By the time I reached Edale Rocks, set in a lunar landscape of bare peat, I was rather enjoying the spectral vistas, even if they were relatively short. Then after passing the first peak, Kinder Low, the cloud broke. I had views all the way down to Kinder Reservoir and even as far as Manchester, from where the Lancashire contingent of the Kinder Trespass had set off.

At Kinder Downfall, a waterfall set in a horse-shoe cliff, I paused, debating whether to turn back or, given the improvement in the weather, to head out onto the peat and find the summit. Naturally, inspired by sunshine and history, I set off along the bed of the Kinder River in the direction of the peak.

Kinder Scout is essentially a great slab of rock topped with a stack of peat, like muddy icing. Rusty water runs everywhere across it, cutting a web of deep ravines. I was soon lost. I took a southerly bearing and tried my best to stick to it, clambering up and down peaty banks and along narrowing, deepening streams as the cloud closed in again. I had abandoned any hope of finding the trig point, focussing instead of getting back to something like a path. On the tops, among the dense heather, it was pretty easy to stick to the bearing, but every five metres or so was another stream. Peat, after that much rain, is very much like cold porridge and climbing up two or three metres of it is a mucky business. In the mist, the sudden calls of startled grouse stopped my heart on several occasions, as I grew increasingly anxious about ever finding my way off.

Then, at Crowden Clough, I joined the path at almost exactly the point I ‘should’ have. The sky had cleared again and in the sunshine, my anxiety seemed ridiculous. There were views over the edge, down into Edale, and groups of walkers paused to take them in, to chat and to check maps. The bleak isolation I had left only a few hundred metres away seemed unimaginable in so much stable conviviality. The path followed the edge eastwards to Grindsbrook Clough, down which a precipitous ‘path’ led through and beside the cascading water. As it began, so it ended, with the sound of falling water in my ears.

More photos from the trip can be seen here.

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One Response to On Kinder Scout

  1. David Ward says:

    Our school used to do a camping trip and (ever longer) walk from first to thid year, in Edale and Castleton. Purely to torture the more sensitive souls I’m certain.

    In first year I recall we had to walk over a snowy mountain (at least it seemed like a mountain to my small proportions). We came across a frozen stream running down a very steep drop at which the teacher announced we should make sure we jumped properly across so we didn’t die. True to form I landed square in the middle of the frozen stream on one foot. From some miracle however I didn’t slip and managed to leap the rest of the half onto dry land.

    In third year we had to do a huge walk we’d mapped out ourselves via some specified points in groups of three. Sadly my group totally failed the task and got lost, so we worked out roughly where we were and just walked towards Castleton, arriving several hours early. Lucily we retained the presence of mind to disappear to a local pub and lie low, returning at the appointed time to be hailed the winners of the challenge by our form tutor.

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