IT’S A MYTH THAT WALKING IS FREE. EVEN IF YOU’RE lucky enough to live in the foothills of the Cairngorms and your garden backs onto wilderness country*, your worn outdoor gear still needs replacing. Then there’s that new and fabulously techy down jacket (substitute stove/backpack/waterproof at will) that was such a bargain on eBay, not to mention all those packets of Haribo for hill fuel, and…well, you get the idea.
But those of you who live near the mountains are the lucky ones. If you’re a keen hillwalker who’s based in a city – particularly if that city happens to be south of Birmingham – then you’ve landed yourself with a seriously pricey hobby. Every time you give into the craving for space and freedom and air that hasn’t already been recycled through thousands of pairs of human lungs, you’re forced into booking the outdoors equivalent of a mini-break.
Let’s assume that you’re addicted enough to escape from the city once a month. Well then, before you know it you’ve taken more mini-breaks in the past year than Tara Palmer-Tomkinson – and you’ve got the overdraft to prove it.
Living in London and not owning a car (or at least one that can make it past Staines without conking out in the central lane of the motorway), I spend a lot of time reading route descriptions on my laptop and not nearly enough time actually walking the routes I’ve been daydreaming about. When I do get round to screwing up my bank balance and heading north, I’ll invariably end up squandering a fortune on train tickets, B&Bs and pub lunches.
Well, this has to stop. My wallet can’t take the strain anymore, and there’s no way that I’m giving up my regular outdoor adrenaline kick. There must be an alternative.
The Northern Line
It turns out that the secret is forward planning. A little research on the Megabus website reveals that it’s possible to get from London to Inverness and back in a weekend for as little as £16 each way – although that does involve travelling overnight if you want to spend at least a full day in the hills. Cheaper and significantly less stressful is the trip to Sheffield, which comes in at £12 return by bus or a slightly more princely £25 by rail. From Sheffield it’s but a few short stops on a creaky two-carriage train to the village of Edale in the heart of the Peak District, and when you walk out of Edale station the juicy expanse of the Dark Peak rolls out in front of you in a gob-stopping panorama.
Of course, there’s one problem with this forward-planning business: the weather. When you book an advanced ticket, you dip your hand into a meteorological pick-and-mix bucket and there’s no knowing what you’re going to pull out. We ended up with a mixed bag of rain, sunshine and the occasional smattering of hail – not bad for a weekend at the tail-end of October. And to be honest, I was so high at escaping from the Big Smoke that I would have taken whatever the sky chose to throw at us and been content.
“Reckon our budget can stretch to a hot breakfast?” asked Guy, looking wistfully up at the menu chalked on the wall of Edale Station’s Penny Pot Cafe. It was just past 10.30, and we’d been travelling for nearly four hours. Our last meal had been a bowl of cornflakes knocked back sometime before dawn – but there was that £50 limit to think about.
“How about a coffee?” I suggested.
“Oh come on, we’re not that tight.”
“Baked beans on toast then? It’s only £4.50.”
As we tucked into a cockle-warming plate of beans and buttered toast, we discussed our route for that day. The plan was to scale Kinder Scout via an easy ghyll scramble up Grindsbrook Clough, cut across the peaty Kinder Plateau to Kinder Gates and then descend Jacob’s Ladder to our campsite at Upper Booth Farm. It was a delicious day-walk, with everything from scrambling and stepping stones to gritstone monoliths thrown in – and it wouldn’t leave us too knackered for a longer romp the next day. The only point of debate was the central section of the Plateau, which we remembered to be boggy as hell and virtually impassable after bad weather.
“Let’s play it by ear,” said Guy. “If we get up there and it’s looking dodgy, we can take a shorter route round by the Woolpacks and get to Jacob’s Ladder that way.”
At the Old Nag’s Head in Edale we were joined by photographer Oli and his girlfriend Alice, who had cheated and come by car. We struck off uphill past the pub and were soon into the rolling belt of foothills that wrap around the Dark Peak like a green duvet. A long way from London
Now, how can I describe the beginning of that walk? If your days usually start on the Tube, with your nose shoved into the armpit of another commuter and your hands wrapped around a greasy balance rail, you really appreciate what it feels like to stroll out into the light of a mountainous morning. Dark clouds broiled in a sky free from even a hint of grey smog, and behind us the lazy contours of Mam Tor and the Great Ridge rolled across the horizon. The people we passed actually smiled at us. Some of them even said hello. That doesn’t happen very often in London, I can tell you.
The route we’d chosen meandered through a few patches of autumnal woodland and crossed two bridges before squaring its shoulders and merging with Grindsbrook Clough to head directly up the southern flank of Kinder. Purists who insist that scrambling means regular hand-on-rock contact, rather than allowing the term to be an all-encompassing crossover between walking and climbing, might not think of this gentle clough as scrambling at all. It’s actually a combination of grippy stepping stones, muddy sheep track and bouldery ascent that’s fun without being difficult and exhilarating without being dangerous.
The kind of route that brings the blood to your cheeks and leaves you grinning like a monkey with a big banana. If you’re looking for a beginner’s introduction to scrambling, with extra water thrown in for fun, then Grindsbrook Clough is it.
The weather had been soft on us during the ascent, but as soon as we topped out on the plateau it decided to make up for past weakness and began chucking down fistfuls of hail. The shelter on Kinder, unless you happen to be passing The Woolpacks or one of the other spectacular gritstone formations that litter the Plateau, is non-existent. We cowered behind a small cairn and tried to ignore the stormy grey front billowing its way towards us from the north.
“Here, these’ll cheer you up,” said Oli, proffering a small and slightly damp paper bag.
“Um…what are they?”
“My attempt to save money. I cooked all my own hill snacks instead of buying stuff from the shop. These are roasted hazelnuts. Go on, have one.” I took a handful and chewed skeptically, unprepared for the burst of Ferrero Rocher-style flavour. “Blimey, they’re incredible!”
Oli nodded smugly. “Healthy too. I just get a load of hazelnuts and bake them at 100 degrees in the oven for an hour and a half. You can mix them with raisins and stuff, and they make amazing fuel for walking. Plus, they don’t cost much at all. You should put this in your article – it’s a good tip.”
“I might just do that.”
After a few minutes the hail gave way to heavy rain and we decided to press on. The soaked ground was now as brown and yielding as a chocolate sponge cake. Every so often we had to backtrack to avoid a patch of impassable bog or to cross a stream that was threatening to burst its banks.
Blue skies are a precious rarity in the hills, but there’s something about slogging along in the small, steamy world of your own hood that gives a different kind of pleasure altogether. It gets you thinking, too. I was just pondering on how this could be construed as a symbolic location for our escape from the city – 2012 being the anniversary year of the Kinder Trespass, when 400 ramblers gathered on the hill to assert the working class’s right to roam – when we crossed paths with a bedraggled-looking ranger.
“You’d best not go back that way,” he said, shooting a thumb back over his shoulder in the direction of Kinder Gates. “The ground’s getting dangerous. I’ve had to turn back.”
After a short debate, we decided to split up. Oli and Alice, who were soaked through and beginning to feel thoroughly miserable, would head straight back down to the campsite via Crowden Clough and put the JetBoil on. Guy and I planned to skirt around the edge of the Plateau, taking in the Woolpacks and a little more of the bleak Kinder scenery before descending Jacob’s Ladder and curving back round to Upper Booth Farm. It was a shorter route than the one we’d planned originally, but the call was a good one. This spectacular square mile of Kinder has all the drama of a black-and-white photograph and is at its best in the gloom. Sunshine up here would be wrong – like watching a film noir movie in technicolour.
Carry on camping
“What was that Wainwright quote about bad weather?” shouted Guy, as the wind whistled and weaved through the deserted gritstone towers of The Woolpacks.
“There’s no such thing as bad weather – only unsuitable clothing!”
“That’s the one. Did you see that chap with a trench coat and umbrella who turned back at Grindsbrook? Obviously hasn’t read his Wainwright.”
The umbrella-touting rambler wasn’t the only one deterred from scaling Kinder by the weather. During that mile-long trudge between Crowden Clough and Jacob’s Ladder, we didn’t see one person. Nothing could have emptied the most visited national park in the UK more effectively than the dark clouds hovering ominously over Kinder. We’d left London in search of wilderness and space – and, thanks to the rain, we’d got what we wanted.
That’s not to say I was sorry when the sky began to clear and a few grudging rays of light slipped between the clouds. By the time we reached Upper Booth campsite, the ground was steaming and the soft flanks of Mam Tor across the valley glowed green in the sunlight. As campsites go, this must rank among the best – it’s a cluttered collection of ancient farm buildings, guarded by a preening cockerel and a litter of collie pups. A lady in bare feet and mismatched pyjamas took our £6, and we found a pitch well away from the facilities beneath the lengthening shadow of Kinder.
Nothing really beats snuggling up in a huge Rab jacket and having a brew with your mates under the stars. It breeds a glow of contentment that even the most luxurious five-star hotel in the world can’t replicate – and it’s the perfect balm for the soul after a week of corrosive commuting in the big city. Still better is the experience of sticking your head out of the tent flap the next morning to find a forget-me-not blue sky arcing over the hills and sunlight spilling through the trees. True, I had a case of tent-face so bad it looked like I’d come down with the mumps, but what was that in the general scheme of things?
Hey, big spender
The Peaks had already proved to us that it had a wild side - and that second day it rolled over and showed us its soft underbelly. The ramble up to Mam Tor and along the Great Ridge was a mélange of delicious patchwork views backlit by a warm sun. Yes, it was busier than Oxford Street at Christmas and if you’re a hillwalker you’ll probably prefer the spiky schizophrenia of Kinder to the gentle pleasantry of the White Peak, but after the adventure of the previous day it was exactly what was needed. We arrived back at the Old Nag’s Head in Edale two hours before our train was due to leave; sore, rosy-cheeked, and thoroughly contented.
“We kept it within budget then,” said Guy, casting a sideways look at the pub. “Just under fifty quid, with everything included.”
“Stop that,” I growled.
“Stop looking at the pub.”
He shrugged innocently. “I wasn’t. Incidentally, there’s a menu here. They do fish and chips.”
I had a short, silent struggle with my better self – and lost.
“Oh, let’s go to the pub,” I said. After all, there are some things in life worth busting the budget for.
WALK IT YOURSELF