I started my day at a ridiculously early hour for me. I clambered out of my extremely warm and comfortable bed at half past six, cursing myself every moment. I don’t do mornings. But I needed to pack everything together, get myself sorted out, ready to head off up into the hills.
And so I found myself on the 7:40 to Manchester, the train I used to have to get every single day to spend my time in an office. I stood - the train was as over-crowded as usual - and couldn’t help but feel momentarily smug, as everyone else had to go to work, and I was escaping. After a brief pause in Manchester Piccadilly, not cursing at Tories, I was on the train again.
My destination was Edale. It’s not exactly the biggest place in the world, but walkers (Fine, ‘hikers’, ‘ramblers’. Whatever.) all over the UK know its name well. Its popularity as a destination began thanks to being conveniently located on the railway line between Manchester and Sheffield, meaning the factory workers of these twin engines of the industrial revolution could escape there easily. But Edale gained its place in walking folklore when the Pennine Way was created.
Edale is the start of the Pennine Way. Well, the southern end - but as everyone knows, you should walk south to north. So do that. In typically British fashion, the official start of the walk is a pub. So, for that matter, is the end.
The Pennine Way was inspired by the Appalachian Trail, though it is much, much shorter. Because the Appalachian Trail is roughly three times the length, by road, of the UK. It took thirty years from the proposal for the Pennine Way to become a reality, spanning a period of social upheaval in the UK, a time when the rights we enjoy now started to be formed.
But it isn’t the Pennine Way that brings me to Edale today. While I do hope to one day walk its 267 miles, today most definitely is not the time to start. For a start, the forecast is for rain tomorrow. And it’d probably take me at least a couple of days.
No, today I head north out of the village, and straight up The Nab, where I took a photo to send to twitter. Because I’m kind like that, and wanted to show everyone how my Monday was going.
But it was upwards from there, pushing myself up a slope that seemed increasingly steep, before I could see what I had come for. Because the whole plateau that you finally reach, a desolate, forbidding place, is called Kinder Scout, and is far more important to walkers than many know.
Kinder Scout is a battlefield, you see. Well, a scuffle-field. It is the scene for a story of a country riven by class divisions, of political movements become vital and urgent, of a fight for freedom.
In 1932, a Communist influenced society organised a large group of working class people to walk up to Kinder Scout. All of Kinder Scout was private land, in the hands of the Duke of Devonshire, on which grouse were kept for shooting, which happened about 10 days every year. The rest of the time, the hills were deserted, quiet, empty - and off-limits.
Was this struggle all about class? No. But it sure as hell was mostly about class. You need to understand the geography of England to see this. Manchester and Sheffield are both nestled against the Pennines, the long range of mountains that runs from the Midlands right to the Scottish Borders and beyond. They are not giants of mountains. Many people think of them only as desolate moorland, covered in thick, cloying peat bogs. But what they had, what the men and women who worked in the factories of Sheffield and the mills of Manchester wanted, was space - miles and miles of open space.
And that was exactly what I was after too. The plateau of Kinder Scout definitely gives you that feeling. On one side of me the heather covered moor gently rolled off into the distance. On the other, crags jutted up, and clambering onto them revealed all of the valley below, and views across to the ridge to the south, and beyond.
Places like this give me an almost spiritual experience. I feel the worries, the stresses and the strains of everyday life drifting away. They’re not solved, but suddenly they seem to matter so much less. Anti-social animal that I am, I crave the quiet, the silence, the loneliness. These moorlands don’t seem desolate to me; they seem peaceful.
I skirted round the edge of the ridge, keeping the amazing views on my left as I worked my way west. Because I was on my own, because I was up on the ridge fairly early, I had it to myself, and the wildlife hadn’t vanished. I could hear the grouse all around me, and at one point one ambled across the path in front of me - ambled until it turned and noticed me, anyway.
The grouse reminded me of that trespass. The line of walkers edged up the steep slopes, and were met by a much smaller number of game-keepers, men hired by their lord and master to keep the moors free of everyone else. I already knew that, being as unfit as I am, my legs were going to feel like they had been beaten the next day, stiffening up through the shock of use.
But the men I owed my ability to roam on this land to risked truly being beaten. The game-keepers were armed with hefty sticks, and they certainly used them. But there were simply too few of them - eight or so against forty walkers. And so the walkers got past them, and carried on to meet up with another contingent from Sheffield.
And then, because it’s generally the best thing to do after you’ve reached the top, they went back down again. Trespass wasn’t, and still isn’t, a criminal offence in England. But even so, when they got down, some of them were arrested. Eventually, five of them were convicted of breach of the peace and unlawful assembly. They were sentenced to between two and six months in prison.
My aching legs seem small price to pay for the freedom to roam compared to that.
And it really is thanks to those men I can do it. The harsh sentences finally united the various strands of the ramblers’ movement in England, and, eventually, the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act was passed in 1949. (The minor interruption of WW2 had slowed things somewhat.) And the very first National Park created was the Peak District - including Kinder Scout.
So I make my way down from the plateau, using the ridiculously steep Jacob’s Ladder. I am carrying with me my unused waterproofs, half of my lunch rendered inedible after it was crushed in my backpack, what feels like a ton of heavy peat mud after stumbling into a knee high peat bog, and a sense of peace I can’t find anywhere else.
After the long walk back to the village (at least, it feels long at the end of the day), I soothe my aches with a quick pint, before heading off for my train. My journey home means I hit Manchester Piccadilly at rush hour. And so, for the second time today, I am jammed into an over-crowded train with commuters. The slight look of disgust as they examine my mud-covered and sweaty clothing only serves to make me happier.
But I tell you, that last short walk from the local station to my flat almost killed me.
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