Changing landscapes

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Derwent Village, Upper Derwent Valley, Peak District National Park

A changing landscape has always fascinated me. I think the interest comes when I find out things are there that I never even knew about. I have a boyish attraction to the man made artefacts that were once of use and even important but now are long forgotten.

Benchmarks are a particular delight when I find one. A friend and fellow Ranger sent me a picture of one this week and it prompted me to look for more, so I got out my old maps and started to look.

The map above is from a survey in 1880 and it shows the now submerged village of Derwent. You can still walk around the village when the waters or low, discerning streets and boundary walls. Some of the village still exists, the school for instance, the one at the top, not in the village, I had not realised there were two. The gates to the Vicarage can be seen but the building along with Derwent Hall and the church have long gone. Grindle Barn is still there although the path up now sets off from a different place.

What is interesting are the OS benchmarks. There is one by the road between the upper school building and Wellhead at a height of 712 feet and 4 inches. Something to go and seek out next time I am there.

 

The Common

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Puffball on the floor of oak woodland

Nearby we have a common, one hundred acres of enclosed land split in two by a gritstone escarpment that runs east to west along its entire length.

In the seventeenth century oak and birch were planted to the south of the gritstone to supply the growing local population with timber for building and fuel. Today you can still see pollarded trees that produced long straight poles, perfect for the hand tool industry that had grown up in Sheffield.

North of the gritstone edge the land was enclosed for grazing and now stands as heath land with heather and silver birch. A large open space in the middle enclosed by stone walls was used for grazing of herds sheep, protected from the wind which can whip across the common by the oak woodland that surrounds it.

The common is full of flora and fauna. Greenfinch, woodpecker and warblers can all be seen amongst the seventy plus birds that frequent the area. It is rich in food for these and small mammals. In summer the common has huge quantities of bilberry amongst the heather and come autumn fungi abounds both on the heath and in the woodlands.

I find myself spending more time there, becoming more inquisitive about its history and the hand that man has played in shaping the land. One hundred acres with so much diversity and history, it is the perfect study of Dark Peak development.

Autumn

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The East Track approaching Derwent Dam, Peak District

The September Equinox and Solstice will soon be upon us, my favourite time of year. The photo is of the East Track along Derwent Reservoir in the Upper Derwent Valley last year. Nature put on a wonderful display before its winter slumber.

I am often to be found in woods in autumn, especially beech and oak. I like the smell as the trees release their fragrance out into the air, earthy and rich in truth. After a dry summer the woodland floor will be dry, the leaves creating deep carpets of orange and gold, the colours of the earth starting to rest.

It has already started to get dark earlier now, 7:30pm and the sun is going down. A well-timed walk in late afternoon rewards with deepening shadows as the sun heads for the horizon a blazing golden ball, so bright nothing else can be discerned. It is a wonderful spectacle.

Out in the Peak District you can find ancient woodlands, woods of oak and beech, intermingled with the gritstone, warmed by the autumn sun. Some of the woodland is hundreds of years old, some a mere few decades.

Back in 2014 I helped school children plant a new wood in the Woodlands Valley. Two thousand native beech trees, planted by the hand of a future generation. When they reach my age they can take their grandchildren into the wood they planted and sit and watch the autumn sun setting and the shadows stretching out towards them. Now isn’t that something.

 

Becoming a writer

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Image courtesy of Mark Richards. By permission

I am moving to the point of becoming a full-time writer, currently I have a small part-time job which pays for a few things, but it isn’t a job that is satisfying. Having just delivered my first manuscript to the publisher, the sense of fulfilment this has given me has pointed the way forward. Walden said, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation”, very true.

The book was commissioned by Cicerone November 2015 and had to be delivered by 30th June 2017 so quite a long project. I got the commission by one of those acts of fate. Sometime back I thought it would be good to take people out on a walk and then have an evening meal and a guest speaker. It didn’t come off, but in approaching a speaker I struck up a friendship with guide-book author Mark Richards.

It was Marks wonderful book of the High Peak that I had picked up in 1988. I loved the hand drawn pictures and the hand written text. So Mark was a natural choice to ask as guest speaker. As I say the event didn’t take place, but Mark wanted to explore the Peak District again and asked if I would like to accompany him. We had a few days out, a memorable one on Bamford Moor where I dragged Mark through chest high bracken to have lunch on a stone, whilst all the time hoping he didn’t realise that I had lost the path.

One day Mark broached the subject of me doing the new book. I couldn’t believe it but grabbed the chance. A walk and a meeting with the publisher and then a contract landed on the doorstep and I was off a running.

Lots had changed since Mark wrote High Peak. CROW for one had opened up many new areas, including Bamford Moor. Environmentally the moors were changing too. Now it wasn’t about draining them and denuding the land. Today it is about regeneration, seeding, natural species, wildlife. So lots to do.

I deliberately did not read Marks High Peak book or any other on the subject. I wanted this to be a personal view. Hopefully that is what I have achieved.

The image above is from Marks book and shows a volunteer Ranger stood by the Ashway Cross above Dove Stones. I remembered the image and thought it would be nice to recreate it as I am a Ranger too. So I hung around until three old boys came along and agreed to take the photo.

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Me by the Ashway Cross. It didn’t look safe enough to lean on!

Weirdly, one of the old boys said, “There is an image in my guide-book like that”, and out he got Marks book, the only guide he needed. The image in the book is the one at the top of this page. The photo below shows the man holding his treasured possession, Marks High Peak Walks.

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So there you have it. The whole thing comes full circle. I cannot thank Mark enough for launching my writing career, having faith in me and most importantly penning those beautiful books that started it all off.

If you want to view Marks work, visit his website here

Summer on the moors

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The Pennine Way across Dean Clough and on to Black Hill

I think they predicted a wet June which so far has been spot on. I’ve been tying up some loose ends for the book Dark Peak Walks and the weather has not been helping. The main objective was to try to get some nice moorland pictures with blue skies and lots of colour. It’s mainly been grey skies and dull colours, perhaps that’s how it should be.

I do like a bit of theatre above, dark brooding skies threatening some cataclysmic event. I haven’t been caught out in anything like a good storm which is a pity. Its been more like boil in the bag walking, hot and wet and sticky. Not my favourite type of weather, I’m more a cold and dry walker.

This weather has had some beneficial effect on the plants though, especially the Cottongrass which has been resplendent in western parts of the Dark Peak and positively regressive everywhere else. Certainly around Chew Valley the Cottongrass is superb. Great carpets of white bobbing heads sweeping across the moor. I have seen Common Mouse-Ear a delicate small flower, Heath Bedstraw, lots of Sedges, Cloudberry and Bilberry. Birds are in abundance especially Curlew, Lapwing, Snipe and Golden Plover. I have heard the Skylark but never been able to see it as it has blended in against the grey sky.

One thing that I have noticed is that I have not gone knee deep into too many peat bogs. Maybe I have my eye in now and can spot and navigate my way around them easily, except when I do go in of course, then its full-blown 1970’s bog hell.

So few real standout landscape pictures to be had. the last two walks have been in the Goyt Valley and the views from the tops have been very disappointing. I was hoping for a glimpse of Snowdonia but no such look and Jodrell Bank was visible but not the sharpest of views.

Still I can’t complain, days out on the moors. Lots of memories and the hope that the sun will shine.

 

Scouts first month report.

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Scout has been with us one month now and has settled in really well. The other two dogs Monty and Olly are gradually accepting him although Olly still remains to be convinced Scout is a keeper. But this does not seem to phase Scout in the slightest. He has a firm personality and a strong character, he refuses to be bullied by the other dogs and is gradually ingratiating himself with them. He is happy to be part of their gang or spend time on his own.

Scout has gradually increased his levels of activity and interest. At first he showed no real interest in toys but now is gathering quite a collection. Still the best toys seem to be toilet rolls and egg boxes, oh and soil, he likes soil. He sleeps through now and is on the way to being house trained, but more work needed on that.

This coming month is a big one for Scout. Tomorrow he will be able to go out for the first time and walk around. So far he has had car journeys and visits to shops and offices and people, all good for him, sights and sounds, smells and touch. He has coped really well and shown no signs of distress. Tomorrow morning he goes for his first walk around the common. Lots of trees and grass and smells. Lots of other dogs too so he can start to join a wider community. Only 15 minutes of walking for him, twice a day to make sure he does not strain his limbs.

Next weekend he attends his first SARDA training camp up in the North Yorkshire Moors. He will attend puppy class, learing obedience, getting ready for his first tests. Walking to heel, staying put and the biggy passing a stock test where he has to ignore a flock of sheep.

Later in the month he takes on his first fund-raising work for his team Woodhead Mountain Rescue. He will be at Sheffield Train Station collecting for team funds. Then a few weeks later he is at Scholes Gala helping raise more funds. A busy time.

Cottongrass

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Hare’s-tail Cottongrass on the Cotton Famine Road

Someone mentioned the other day that they thought that Cottongrass was more prevalent over in the far north of the National Park than anywhere else. I had just finished two walks across Saddleworth Moor and South Clough Moss, both in the far north and a third along Derwent Edge in the centre so could make a reasonable judgement if indeed there was more Cottongrass in the north. I think there is.

Moors For The Future have been hard at work for a few years now, changing the moorland landscape from one of desperate black oozing peat to one of soft grass and a wealth of fauna and flora. It is, I think, one of the reasons why the moors of the north have such an abundance of Cottongrass. Unlike the moors in the central Peak area where management of the moor to provide a tightly controlled environment for grouse shooting seems to have resulted in less Cottongrass and also fewer numbers of other species too.

The photo above was taken, rather ironically, on the Cotton Famine Road heading out to Broadstone Moss from the A 635 over Saddleworth. The whole area is awash in Cottongrass and this is a direct result of the work MFTF have been carrying out. The moor itself is becoming less bumpy too, witness the two photos of groughs after a dam has been inserted.

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See how the peat builds up against the dam and then the grasses take over, smoothing the levels out. That is actually watching the landscape change over time, pretty rare experience for mere mortals, usually it take millions of years for the land to morph into something different. Out on the moors now its taking just a few years.

It’s a simple process, backed no doubt by clever minds. Block up a grough, let it fill with water add sphagnum moss, introduce natural plant species and hey presto new peat, new moor,new landscape, new experience.

Walking across these moors is no longer a process of grit and determination, a load of gear to hose peat out of when you got home. It is a walk of wonderment, pleasure, joy.

 

Churches

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St James Church Woodhead

 

I am starting to get a little enamoured by old churches that are still in use but seem to be abandoned. There is one on the Snake just before Alport Bridge. A plain church building with no adornment. The reason why it was plain is because it is on the protestant side of the Derwent Valley and therefore on Chatsworth Land, and the Duke of Devonshire wouldn’t put his hand in his pocket to build a church for his tenants so they had to pay for it themselves.

I recently visited St James Church in the village of Woodhead. If you didn’t know there was a village then its just past the Crowden car park as you are heading east over the A 628. Don’t pay attention and you can miss it, up that little lane that’s a bit of a dance with traffic death to get out of.

It’s a nice church from the outside, do not know about the insides as it was locked and had no door handle to even rattle.

The graveyards are always the best. Lots of graves with just initials on a sandstone headstone, probably poor people, of whom there were a great many. Some rich as well, people from Crowden Hall, several times in fact. Some one from Woodhead Station too.

Some graves were tended, which seemed a bit odd, most were well overgrown. I spent a good hour there mooching around, rattling the church door and looking at the land behind the church where navvies who died of cholera whilst building the tunnels are buried. Their graves are unmarked, lending a hierarchy to the graveyard. immigrant workers no head stone, poor plain headstone, rich ornate.  Nothing much is new I guess.

 

 

The Grand Hotel

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Mixed weather last week meant walking in sunshine or low cloud if you picked your days right. I picked both, sun along the Chew Valley edges and low cloud along Stanage Edge. I could have done with sun on Stanage but who am I to argue.

I like Stanage Edge especially the Plantation and the Popular End. Lots going on with climbers on any day and at any time crawling all over the set menu. Climbers always seem to have that little bit extra fun over walkers, as though they have unlocked the secret of the land whereas walkers are merely bystanders looking on wistfully. The verticality of a climbers walk is the thing I guess. It just requires a bit more skill than walking, even though it’s still one foot in front of the other, and you have to use your hands, which you don’t have to in walking. Climbers go where walkers cannot and that makes them a little more special. Of course once you have climbed to the top, especially on Stanage, then all you can do is going back down and climb up again, sort of Groundhog Day repetition, with walking the scenery keeps moving past you on a conveyor bringing you new delights all the way through.

I invariably stop off at Robin Hoods Cave as I work my way across the edge. I am still amazed people do not know about this place. It’s on the map. Dropping down from the path and working across to that great slab still brings excitement, particularly on a day with good weather, dark clouds or bright, it’s all good. Always a relief to get inside and find no one has used it as a toilet, there is usually the odd can or two to clear up before settling down with a brew and gaze out of that window. It really is magical. Read enough climbing history and you can place the people at the side of you, have a meeting if you like, discuss the finer points of how to name a route, Christmas Crack is still my favourite here, but best of all time has to be Ed Drummonds, A Dream of White Horses. (Between the sea and sky, a white sheet. Ed Drummond). But that’s in Wales by the sea, which Stanage definitely is not these days.

They called it The Grand Hotel in the 60’s, all those names that became icons. It’s a good and fitting name. Smacks of sticking a finger up to the establishment whilst at the same time accurately describing the lodgings for a nights bivvy. Its a shame the sun doesn’t rise through the balcony, you have to be content with seeing the valley reveal itself in the dawn. Worse ways to wake up of course. It has a sandy floor which comes as a surprise and with the balcony has the effect of being on a beach looking out to see over a sandcastle wall. On the walls if you look carefully you can see the calling cards  of many who have booked bed and breakfast here over the years, climbers, perhaps lovers even, achieving ecstasy in the moonlight, with a view.

The colour of peat

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Peat got me thinking the other day and then a post on Facebook about a dog disappearing down a sinkhole on Kinder got me thinking more. I guess it all has to do with the guidebook now it is nearing completion. Wanting people to get some pleasure out of a walk, one that they are doing because I have written about it, puts questions in a writers head. The main question on Saturday was how do you teach someone about peat and all its devilish incarnations.

I was walking from Crowden to Chew and back, a nice walk across moorland. How I thought do you explain what peat to walk on and what not. The grough in the picture above is a nice example of one to walk on. Milk chocolate brown, dry and a bit of springiness too. No problems getting out of that grough.  The slick oily black peat often found at the bottom of deep groughs is the stuff to watch out for. Its deep and has terrific suction, once in you are not going anywhere too quickly. That’s the two ends of the spectrum I guess.

I like the dark brown, bordering black peat that looks like one of those puddings with the melting centers. It has a consistency of a sponge pudding with lashings of chocolate custard, little lumps and a glistening surface. Getting down into a grough when this is on the sides is easy once you know how. Basically, you allow the peat to ease away from under your boots as you descend. It is remarkably stable. Getting out requires a different plan. You have to take a run and do not under any circumstances stop. Bit like a motor hill climb even except no one is bouncing on your back. Hands quite often come in to use, desperately clutching on to a piece of heather. Go for the stalks not the leaves. Failing the availability of heather it is often jabbing fingers into the soft gooey peat and clawing your way out.

Then there is the peat slick. As flat as a snooker table and completely smooth. It looks beautiful. But it is the wild mistress of peat. You can tip toe across it sometimes and others you are going in. The only indication which way it will treat you is the presence of foot marks. Surface ones and its fine. Deep churned up footprints and its a bunny boiler. Keep out.

Peat with water on top. Stick to the tufts of grass. Step on these and you can skip across. I always find its best to hold my breath as well, just to reduce the overall weight pressing down on the delicate platform.No grass, then its trouble. A long walk around or a gazillion to one chance that it isn’t knee deep. You take your pick.

But the worst is the stuff that looks ok. Years of walking in the Dark Peak have honed your ability to spot a trap from 50m. You pick your way across the moor in a weird little bee dance, connecting minute islands of firm ground into a trail. You scout for any footprints that might lead the way and it works, until you come to that last grough. congratulating yourself before getting over this last obstacle is the fatal error. You have to stride, just a little too far and the peat has you. One leg sinks in up to your thigh, whilst the other remains behind you on the surface.

The peat once again is victorious.