Wednesday, 4 May 2016

A Gentle Stroll

I have been adventuring!  Two friends from my church group announced that they were planning a two day hike-slash-camp in the Peak District and my ears pricked up.  I've walked with a full overnight bag before, and I'd done the suggested distances before, but never both at the same time.  However after a little of my usual fretting I decided to go for it - you don't know if you don't try.  Phil was expedition leader, with Harry, Manny, myself, and Hendrix the dog along for the adventure.

The walk we ended up doing was great, but also slightly more of an expedition that we'd been banking on!

Most of these photos are mine, but some are by Manny.  The nice thing about adventuring with other people is that you actually appear in the photographs, and he has kindly permitted me to take advantage of this.

Fearless Leader Phil began by handing out our ration packs for the weekend.  Nothing had been left unthought of.  We had coffee and hot chocolate, dried ramen for lunch, many many snacks, and some large sachets of dehydrated meals that were intriguingly labelled 'Adventure Food'.  We split the two tents between the four of us, and of course we were carrying all our bedding, clothes and water for the next two days.  We had chlorine tablets in case of being caught away from piped water, but each of us started out with 2 litres of our own that we'd refill whenever we passed through civilisation.  As usual I felt I'd over-packed, but for me the rule is that If You Don't Bring It, You'll Want It, so it's better to bring it and not want it.  I wasn't sure just how much of a challenge this walk was going to be, but I was determined to shoulder my own weight.

We left the car at Stanage Edge, just outside Hathersage, and followed the iconic crags east towards Sheffield.  This was a 4 mile leg all on it's own and had some fantastic views of the surrounding moors that were going to be our home for the next two days.  The sun was out, the breeze was up, it was a great start.

Stanage Edge from below

The view towards Ladybower from Stanage Edge.

The end of the Edge skirts the borders of Sheffield, but we were heading back off into the fields, through a farm, past a rather nice stately home with the trail running through their front drive, and then through the tiniest and most awkward kissing gate I think any of us had squeezed through.  Not an easy task with a fully loaded rucksack on!  Please enjoy this photo of Harry trying to escape from it, and me laughing at him and not helping him at all.

After extricating ourselves from this tiniest of obstructions we found ourselves in some fields just south of Strines Reservoir, which has it's very own tower - Boots Folly.  We stopped here for lunch and Phil whipped out a pretty impressive little stove.  Since all our food was dried all we had to do was boil up the water, which happened faster than I'd expected, and mix it in.  It was really effective stove despite packing away to the size of a soup bowl.

We probably did stay here a bit too long, enjoying the weather and a pretty relaxed lunch, but this came back to bite us as we tried to get round the reservoir.  There is a crossing but it was surprisingly fiddly to get down to, and I'm not the fastest when going downhill on wet ground.  Eventually we made it, came up the other side of the valley and stopped in at the Strines Inn for a snack and a last top-up of water before heading out onto Broggin Moor.  Some bikers were quizzing us about our plans and seemed very impressed, especially since we were planning to camp out.  For some reason this brief diversion to the pub seemed to me like the hardest bit of the walk so far.  We were back on hard tarmac, and after the open spaces of Stanage Edge the tight winding roads with their steep banks and incline felt oppressive and blinkering.

The moor was a completely different experience.  A long view with hardly any foliage higher than our knees, and no signs of civilisation apart from the path and the occasional bag of stones left for the path maintenance crews.  There are tracks here but without the draw for day-trippers that a place like Stannage Edge naturally has, and it being later in the day too, they were not being so well used.  We saw perhaps three people, and they were all leaving the moor.  We were heading up onto it!  To add to the atmosphere of the place, the weather was rolling in.  It began to spit, then drizzle, and we could see the grey diagonal smears of cloudbursts marching towards us.  It was bleak, exposed, and utterly empty, and I mean that in every possible positive way.

There is something satisfying in a place that feels so large and lonely, and puts you in a place of vulnerability.  Some people find it scary, and rightly so, but that fear can also be a comforting thing in itself.  I get it sometimes when I'm star-gazing, or looking at the sea, or sitting in the woods.  An indifferent landscape that cares nothing about you, and therefore demands your respect.  To be afraid, yet still be there and be open, because you have no other option.  There is no house.  There is no government.  There is no bus stop.  It's just you and the ground you stand on.  You see yourself as something part of the landscape as you pass through it, part of creation, a sibling.  A dweller on the mighty skin of the world rather than someone who shields themselves from it in boxes of their own making.  The peripheral things fall away, and are revealed in their unimportance.  To experience it at all is humbling.  This wasn't a particular remote or inaccessible moor, but as we found out later, it wasn't to be taken lightly.

There was other life about though, mostly in the form of the occasional sheep, and lots of grouse.  These are chubby little birds about the size of a large Christmas Pudding, and a similar appearance thanks to their red crop and comb.  And yes, I'll admit that I only recognised the first one I saw thanks to the whiskey brand.  They like to hide in the ruddiness of the heather, ferns and long grass until you're too close for them to stand the tension any longer, at which point they explode up into the air like a Bouncing Betty, clucking all the while.  At the top of this leap they turn and glide away from you, chuckling mockingly as if they got one over on you.  One of the boys nearly trod on one, not even seeing it despite being less than a metre away.

The rain was falling more steadily by now, we were donning our waterproof gear, and some members of the group were tiring in the wet and the cold.  Our original plan had been to get over the moor, descend to Ladybower Reservoir, and find a camping spot there, but it had passed 5pm and we decided that if we found a suitable spot to pitch camp for the night on the moor, it would be better to do it while we still had some energy and warmth left in us.  Plus, Harry really really wanted to camp in a wood, and it just so happened that were we passing what is now referred to as Camp Three Trees.  Three tiny tree symbols on our map turned out to be a copse of pines that were a little way down the slope, not too boggy, and close to a stream we could use to refill our canteens in the morning.

We pitched up, Manny went to dry off Hendrix the dog, who had been walking without the benefit of rain gear and so was more at risk from getting the shivers.  The boys and Hendrix would be sleeping in the 3-man tent while I, as the only female on the trip, had Phil's 2-man to myself.  I would have called dibs on the dog, but apparently he ended up walking on everyone anyway, so it's probably good that I didn't.

Being the only female in the group has other considerations as well, and we may as well talk about them.  Mainly: Where are you going to go to the toilet?  I'm fairly pragmatic about these things, and fortunately the Peak District is full of drystone walls you can duck behind, so I can simply make a general announcement that I am going to pee over there, and walk off to do so.  Of course I can't just face a tree and undo my fly.  I put it to you that there's something of life you haven't experienced until you find yourself squatting with your trousers down on an exposed moor, wind whipping between your ankles, while watching a massive red sun set slow and hazy over the horizon, and then realising that the ground is steaming where you've peed because of the temperature difference.  No doubt there is some deep and profound comment to be made on the dichotomy between our banal human flesh and the magnificent natural world of which is is nonetheless part.
In other news, I think I now know why women in Olden Times used to wear a long skirt.  It was clearly a moveable toilet cubicle.  Sit on the floor, do what you need to do, stand up again, nobody is the wiser.

Camp Three Trees
The other consideration is also: Where are you going to go to the toilet?  We had with us, The Trowel.  If you can't work out why we had The Trowel, give it a minute.  It'll come to you.  One of my funnier moments was on the second day when I had to ask where The Trowel was, and Harry gave me the best look.  Aghast is probably the word for it.
"What are you going to do?" he said.  I didn't understand what he meant at all, so he elaborated.  "We're on a completely open moor.  Anyone could come past!"  The implication being that they'd see me doing my business.  This was very thoughtful of him, but it did make me laugh because a) it was 8pm and only crazy campers like us would be up on the moor already anyway  b) I'd be able to see anyone coming that might see me back and  c) I have no idea what he thought I'd been doing for the past 24 hours on my non-trowled toilet stops!

As soon as the tent was up I crawled in and changed my clothes.  My waterproofs were obviously wet but I was more concerned about eliminating any risk of my sweat cooling off now that we'd stopped moving.  When I emerged again I was wearing thermals under my trousers and waterproof trousers, two fresh base layers, a fleece, and another fleece liner under my waterproof jacket.  Overkill, you may say, but no, no, I disagree with you, because as I stood stirring my rehydrated Adventure Food and waited for it to become chicken curry, it began to snow.

To Snow.


This is the face I made.

Disbelief mainly.  Also enjoying the bizarre novelty of it all.  I kept exclaiming things like "What The!"  and "I can't even!" for a good fifteen minutes.

In the process of boiling water for dinner, Phil's little gas canister frosted over and stuck to the ground, it was so cold.  I was suddenly glad of my stubborn over-packing, let me tell you.  I hate sleeping cold, and had been deliberating back and forth over which layers to bring, even borrowing a sleeping bag liner from my friend.  When it got dark we all got in the bigger tent together to play card games and drink Baileys, and heated the place up wonderfully, but eventually the time came for me to stumble the three metres over to my tent and bunk down for the night.

The temperature dropped to -2c.

I wasn't cold.  I came close a couple of times but I had the opening in my mummy sleeping bag down to a mere breathing hole, started layering my coats and other clothes under myself to insulate me from the ground, and I had a couple of the stick-on heat pads that people normally use for back pain but that I was using for hot water bottles!  I remember being annoyed with my inability to get to sleep, but that wasn't because of the cold.  It was because of The Fox That Wouldn't Shut Up.
It must have had a den in the copse, and I could hear it running around the campsite, yipping and occasionally howling, and disturbing Hendrix a few times.  What it mainly did though was get in arguments with the grouse.  The fox would yip, and grouse would... well... grouse back at it, and the fox would yip some more, and so on and so on...  It was really peculiar to think that there was just a thin layer of tent between me and any animal that wanted to wander over.  Listening to all the rustlings and moving abouts made it hard to settle and I don't remember falling properly asleep, but I felt fine the next day so I assume I must have just slept light and woken up a lot.

What we woke up to was this.

The sky was crisp and blue, with all the clouds low and misting up the valleys below us.  Every puddle I saw was frozen over, there was ground frost, and steam lifted off the grass and heather as the morning began to warm up.  We ate breakfast standing, in hats and gloves.

The bigger tent was slower to break down, and we tried to collect water from the beck (upstream of the rabbit carcass I found) before discovering that the chlorine tablets has gone wandering so we couldn't drink it anyway, but eventually we were underway again, heading down off Broggin Moor to Derwent Reservoir, the upper portion of Ladybower.  As we headed downhill, sometimes more steeply than others (not bothering Harry at all.  He just sort of jogged down the last few steep banks), the sun continued to shine and it looked to be turning into another excellent wallking day.

As we headed towards the reservoir I saw something I'd never seen before.  Not in real life.  A small non-descript bird popped out of the heather and began to rise straight up into the air.  Nothing so unusual about that, but I'd never heard a bird sing like that before.  I hear songbirds all the time around my house, but this one really did make my breath stop a bit.  It kept going up and up until it disappeared into the blue sky, signing all the while.  I'm not a twitcher, but it was like something I read read in a poem once.  I checked with the others to make sure it really was what I thought it was, and they all agreed: a lark.  My first lark.

Careful, Manny!
I hadn't realised we'd be trekking into the back end of an actual forest park, and for some reason felt very pleased that we'd snuck in the back for free, unlike all the other visitors who'd driven in and paid to park.  We were able to top up our water at the visitors centre, took a quick stock check of our aches and pains, and read some signs on the aircraft exercises that had been done over the reservoir during WW2.  Manny took issue with some missing steps on the information board about water filtration.
We also passed the reservoir dam, which seemed huge and very neat after a day and a half of dirt tracks being the most manmade thing around.  It's an impressive structure, and so loud!  Quite glad we didn't camp next to it in the end.  That really would have kept us up all night.

Approaching Derwent Reservoir

Very steep downhill!

The dam at Derwent Reservoir

We decided to head away front he reservoir and onto Derwent Moor moor, going steeply up one side and gently down the other.  This would drop us off at the eastern end of Stanage Edge again and we could follow it back to the car.  As we started to pull away from Ladybower the inclines grew steeper, and we found ourselves sharing the path with a gaggle of mountain bikers, pushing their bicycles to the top so that they could come haring back down again.  Once we'd got over that initial climb it got easier, but I was feeling it in my feet more than the day before.  A long walk with a heavy pack does carry over, and despite the wide waist strap on the rucksack my pack had been digging into my hips a little.  I had to keep shifting the bag to find a comfortable spot for it.  From the top of Bamford Moor we could see our way home; back through the farm, along the Edge, and even where Hathersage and our car would be.

I always have the same thought pattern on long walks, which I never seem to get over.  You stand there, looking at the route you're about to take, inwardly groaning that it looks such a long way and it's going to take aaaaaages (not that you're really intending to bail.  The idea had never occurred to you, but bigging up the difficulty of the walk makes you feel better about it when you complete it).  And then you start walking, and start thinking about something else and forget about what you were saying before, and suddenly you turn around on a whim and find that in fact you're there, and the place where you started is now just as far away.  I always go through the same wonder; "I was over there, and then I walked, and now I'm over here!"  A testament to the benefits of just trudging on, perhaps.  I'm certainly a trudger!

Bamford Moor from Stanage Edge
The wind picked up as we got onto Stanage Edge and we had to shelter under some rocks to eat our lunch.  It was whipping across from the south, so fast and so cold that we all put our coats and hats back on.  I came out of it with a lovely wind burn across my cheeks and nose.  The last little leg was, naturally, the most awkward.  The trail at the start of Stanage Edge is mainly large boulders, which you can either skirt around one at a time, or hop between.  Hopping was faster, and the longer-legged Harry and Phil were hopping, so Manny and I went for that too.  On tired feet and ankles, and with full rucksacks this was a bit of a trial, and in fact I landed on one a bit funny and strained a muscle a bit, but we made it in the end.  After rooting out my car keys I sat in my own boot munching on the last of our snacks.

And there was even time for a celebratory drink on the way home, and a well earned pub meal back in Loughborough!

Phil did the maths later that night and in total we covered 22 miles, which he reckons is very respectable given the bogginess of some of the trails.  All in all it was a great weekend.  We were promised a challenge and an adventure, and we certainly got both of those.  I'm genuinely proud of what we achieved over a short weekend.  It was so good to get Out for such a long time, and with such good company.  Nature fix achieved!

"Think of something clever" Manny said, raising the camera.
"All my thoughts are clever," I jokingly replied.
"Even that one..."
"Yeah.  Even that one."

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