Friday, 26 June 2009

Kinder Scout

A friend once complained to me that all her friends wanted to do when they visited Derbyshire was climb Kinder Scout. This patch of bleak moorland seems an odd choice of destination considering all the joys that the Peak District has to offer; the stunning Limestone valleys of the south, and the gritstone edges on the east and west. However, it is only odd to those who have never been there.

Kinder Scout is a magical place. Yet it is hardly a mountain - its highest point is only 2,088 feet high, and its flatness makes it resemble an irregular-shaped table rather than anything a child would draw as a mountain. It is more akin an ironing board than an Alp. Yet despite having climbed many hills and mountains in the UK, it is the one that my heart most yearns for. If in idle moments my mind casts back onto the hills, it is almost invariably Kinder Scout that it wanders to. Why should this be? What magic does it hold over me?

My first memories of Kinder are of one of many school trips, climbing up one of the steep sided cloughs to reach the top. This trip was to test our navigation, and navigation on Kinder is difficult at the best of times. Although from a distance the plateau is flat, with scarcely a hundred feet elevation across it, the reality close-up is very different. The surface of the peat is riven with large steep-sided, snaking drainage channels - some up to ten feet deep - called groughs, and these make navigation perilous at best. You can be standing on the surface and set your compass on some distant rocks. Yet in the way are a couple of these groughs, so you slip and slither your way down and pull your way back up to the top on the other side, only to find yourself pointing in totally the wrong direction. In low visibility the task can quickly become hopeless. The only alternative to going around in circles is to follow the drainage channel downhill until you meet the path that circuits the edge of the plateau.

Descend down one of the steep-sided groughs and your feet will make marks in the peat, contributing to the slow denudation of the hillside. Standing at the bottom, the view is a distorted thirds-rule. At the bottom, the cold, black peat, essentially lifeless; and at the top, the sky, sometimes blue, but more often white. Sandwiched between the two is a thin layer of life, the sparse greenery that manages to subsist in this harsh world. Under your feet there will be grey rock and black peat, sometimes with brown, peat-laden water swirling past.

It is an undeniably hard place. In summer, people climb up in trainers and sandals, only to find the weather close in on them. Edale can be in sun, whilst the tops are firmly embedded in a layer of cloud that is invisible from the village. People occasionally die on Kinder and the surrounding hills, and it is only thanks to the volunteer mountain rescue organisations that many more do not. There is something elemental about being in the mist on Kinder Scout that rarely occurs on other mountains, a feeling that somewhere ahead of you the ground could - and will - swallow you up.

And the hill has been the graveyard of machines as well. Kinder Scout and all the surrounding high ground have seen numerous air wrecks over the years. Once, when walking over the eastern edges near Margery Hill, I came across an ammunition shell just lying on the ground. Was this from a crashed plane, or was it left over from when the moor was used as an artillery range during the war? The heavily-corroded metal seemed strangely at one with the moor, as though it was trying to camouflage itself against the vegetation.

Nestled in a 'V' on the western edge of the plateau is Kinder's infamous tourist trap, Kinder Downfall. The name 'downfall', like many of the other place names in the area (for instance Black Hill and Bleaklow), is suitably dour. At times it is also highly inaccurate. The Downfall is a waterfall that takes the tiny River Kinder over the edge of the plateau. The brown, peat-filled water pours over the edge and, if the wind is westerly, blows straight back up onto the hill. If the wind is from the right direction and the river is in spate, it is possible to stand above the waterfall and get soaked by spray. It feels as though the water yearns to return to its mossy bed.

The water in the moors of the northern Peak District are the lifeblood of northern industry - the reservoirs on the eastern side of the plateau - including Ladybower - provided the Sheffield heavy industries with water, and those on the west provided the mills of Manchester. Kinder and the surrounding hills are like giant sponges, soaking up the water and gently releasing it over time. To a certain extent, this wild landscape powered the industrial revolution.

The edges of the plateau are covered with wind- sculpted rocks that stand proud of the surface like grey sentinels. The twisted, malformed shapes of these give power to the imagination as can be seen by their names - Pym Chair, Noe Stool, the Woolpacks, Seal Stones and my favourite, the Madwoman's Stones. Some of these massive structures look as though giants could use them as a seat for a quiet rest, whilst others have large coverstones balancing precariously on much smaller basestones. They look scarcely capable of staying in position for a day, yet alone the hundred or thousands of years that they must have remained poised, seemingly defying gravity. In misty, cloudy weather, these grey shapes will loom out like monsters ready to devour the unwary. The stones often serve as impromptu windbreaks for walkers in poor weather, and you will often see groups huddled beside them, in the lee of the wind like sheep.

Edale, below the southern edge of the plateau, marks the start of the Pennine Way, the 250-mile trail through the spine of England to the Scottish border. Look on a map and you will see two routes across Kinder; one, the main route, picks its way across farmland before ascending the western edge of the plateau and heading past Kinder Downfall. The other dislikes farmland, and instead climbs straight up Grindsbrook Clough - an ever-narrowing, steep-sided valley, and then cuts across the plateau. This is the original route of the Pennine Way, and it is hard to think of a more difficult start to a National Trail. In recent years, however, the western route - originally only a bad-weather alternative - has become the official main route. In essence, the Pennine Way has been neutered.

There were good reasons for the change. Not only is the western route via Jacob's Ladder easier, but it also avoids going over the roughest terrain. Long sections of stone slabs (ex floor slabs from the northern mills) have been laid down over the boggiest stretches, taming the hill and making it more akin to a motorway. Yet such work (which many see as vandalism) has advantages; it keeps the ill-prepared on the route to Kinder Downfall, and leaves the interior to the more intrepid.

In summer the ground is relatively dry. After prolonged wet weather, however, it takes on a very different nature. One minute your feet are on firm ground, the next you are up to your knees or waist in a thick, foul-smelling concoction of peat and water. There is often no warning, and once you are in extrication can be difficult. Yet, as many bog-trotters will tell you, that is half the fun.

My grandfather - once a great cyclist - told me of an attempt he and a friend made to get a tandem bike up the hillside. They set off from Derby one morning in the late '30s, and rode along the then-quiet A6 into the Peak District. The ascent was by Jacob's Ladder, before it had been tamed with the irregular stone steps that are so hated by 'proper' walkers. His description of getting the bike through the deep mud on the ascent - two steps forward, one step back - detailed their determination to experience the hill.

Perhaps there is a murky place in my DNA, a solitary piece of my genetic code, that makes me want to climb Kinder too.

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