Demob Happy

Crowden Youth Hostel provides a temporary home for only five other guests this evening. Three have just completed their first day on the Pennine Way. They have found it hard in the hot weather, and from their conversation it is clear they are carrying far more kit than they will need. Their mental state can best be described in terms of relief, bemusement, and a sense of feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of their audacious enterprise.

That is as much as they can hope for until they reach Thornton in Craven. Thereafter they should begin to experience satisfaction, confidence, and optimism. At some point they’ll send some of their kit home, or they might abandon the project altogether. An injury will cancel all bets, but that’s the luck of the draw; anyone can pick a bad card.

My own mood is akin to demob-happiness. I know I am wearing a big smile as I brew copious volumes of tea and chat with the others while they eat dinner. When they find out what I’ve been doing, their faces are a picture.

They struggle to comprehend my southbound journey. I’m not surprised; during the weeks of planning and anticipation, they have focused on its exact opposite. I assure them I won’t pour out details of what to do and what not to do, but I encourage them to believe their next day to Standedge will be easier - not only will it be shorter, but also they should find a tea bar before the Wessenden reservoirs.

To escape the midges, I go to bed before the twilight fades from Bleaklow. I don’t sleep well; traffic roars by all night, but that isn’t the problem. I am within a few hours of finishing the Pennine Way, and my mind is buzzing. I feel no regrets that the adventure is coming to an end, and I have no wish to turn round at Edale and start again northbound. I’ve done better than I expected, and I am nearly home.

Breakfast is the best I can remember in recent visits to youth hostels, but I wish they still cooked a big pan of porridge to provide extra helpings for gannets like me who can eat for three when facing a hard day. The northbound folk seem to be in no rush, but as soon as I’ve phoned National Rail Enquiries I am keen to get going. The 3.30pm train from Edale seems a good target, and that gives me six and a half hours to traverse Bleaklow and Kinder Scout.

I set off slowly across the Longdendale Valley, thinking how magnificent it must have looked before the coming of reservoirs, railway, trunk road and electricity pylons. The climb from Reaps Farm provides a tough start to my final day, much harder than the northbound ascent out of Byrness. Across the narrow gorge of Torside Clough, a shepherd drives sheep down the steep flank of Bleaklow, a traditional scene reminding me that normal lives have continued while I have been engaged on my personal adventure.

The trail to Bleaklow Head proves fittingly strenuous but thankfully distinct. Its natural unevenness reminds me that paving has made the business of striding out much easier. To those who complain the Pennine Way has been tamed, it’s worth pointing out that footpath restoration has happened only where essential. I realise the original concept excluded paving, and I recall the anguished debate that preceded repairs. We can regret what happened in the past, and certainly we should seek better solutions to the problem of erosion. Meanwhile, since we cannot turn the clock back, we should accept with good grace that the Way has changed. At the same time let’s acknowledge that it still provides a splendid experience, and other unspoiled places remain for those who seek the purest form of communion with Britain’s wildest country.

After two hours I near the top of my first two-thousand-footer since Fountains Fell. Stopping to look back, I am amazed by the clarity of the midsummer air. Manchester and its surrounding towns sprawl their limbs and thrust up their phallic towers, but my eyes are drawn north to the miniaturised yet distinctive shapes of Ingleborough and Penyghent, the guardians of Ribblesdale. So the previous Saturday on Cam High Road, making for Horton, I might have been looking at the top of horrible old Bleaklow, a thought that in the immediate aftermath of 1963 would have filled me with apprehension.

I reach the summit cairn and set off immediately for Hern Clough. In my haste to finish, I misread my route card and find myself crossing the grain of the groughs. In an inspiring reminder of my distant youth, I charge up and down the crumbling brown peat and along the vegetated divides, seeking out the best winding route towards my next objective, the Yellow Brick Road of the paved Pennine Way on Alport Low. Grough-running proves to be fun as a short-lived exercise, and I give it my all like an enthusiastic sixteen-year-old until, thankfully, I get back on track.

I sit beside the stream to catch my breath and eat my sandwiches. With thousands of acres spare, it’s hard to imagine two people needing to share one tussock of grass, but I soon have company. My uninvited companion is of my age group, male, thin, long-limbed, taciturn. He sits beside me like Miss Muffet’s spider, opens his lunch box, bites into a sandwich, and pours a cup of coffee.

‘Funny place, Bleaklow,’ he says. ‘You think you’ll get it to yourself, then you find somebody else sitting just where you always have your lunch.’

He is talking about me. Am I about to become involved in a Way-Rage incident? I decide it might be safest to converse politely until I finish eating, after which I’ll leave him in peace in his special place.

‘I had a similar experience yesterday,’ I say between bites. ‘Had to wait at a gate for two people to get through.’
‘Bloody nuisance, other folk.’

Encouraged, I chance my arm again.

‘Then when I wanted a crap in the middle of nowhere, there were people all over the damn place.’

He brightens visibly.

‘I’ve had that problem,’ he says. ‘Just over there. It was foggy as hell. You couldn’t see your hand in front of you. I walked up that grough, dropped my pants and squatted down, then suddenly the mist lifted and all these folk came walking by from left to right. I pulled my rucksack in front of me and pretended to be looking for summat inside. And this lot, being sociable, couldn’t pretend they hadn’t seen me. They all looked across, and every one of ‘em shouted ‘Good morning’. There must have been forty of ‘em. From Sheffield, I reckon. The last bloke at least had the decency to apologise. My legs were trembling with squatting by the time they’d gone by. I could hardly stand up or wipe my backside.’

Honoured though I feel that he should share so precious a memory, I pack my bag and pace smartly along Devil’s Dike towards the A57 Snake Pass. This road summit is a notorious tease to the northbound hiker. Parked vehicles visible from Mill Hill look like tea vans or ice cream vendors. But always they are white minibuses. Always. Unless they are white box vans.

Across the highway I establish a brisk rhythm over the slabs of Featherbed Moss. In the seventies and eighties, this part of the Pennine Way became badly damaged, and I remember meeting three men there, two of them convulsed in laughter, the third lathered in wet peat.

I stopped and asked what was going on.

The mucky one told me that the other two bastards had refused to help him out of the bog. The bastards, between sobs of laughter, admitted they’d have acted sooner if only he’d thrown them the camera.

I’ve also seen a sheep completely bogged down and no longer struggling; I assume it still had its camera. Alternatively, its friends had run away once they’d got hold of the goods. Death, and physical damage as evidenced by limping lambs, are never far away on the high Pennines.

I exchange ‘Good mornings’ with two pairs of day-walkers before being stopped by the strangest person I have ever met on the hills. He is clutching a sleeping bag under one arm and carrying a small sack over the other shoulder.

‘Hi-i-i-i-i,’ he drawls. ‘Do you know if I’ll be able to get food at the highway up ahead?’

I look at him closely. The voice sounds like the geeky Ross Geller from the American TV sit-com ‘Friends’, but slower. The face and hair remind me of Bill Gates.

‘You’ll have to either drop right to the Snake Inn or left to Glossop,’ I reply.
‘O-o-o-o-h, right,’ he says. ‘M-m-m-m. Is the trail easy to follow beyond the road?’
‘Harder than this,’ I tell him, tapping the paving slabs and thinking of the navigational hazards around Bleaklow Head. ‘How far are you thinking of going?’
‘O-o-o-o-h, I don’t know,’ comes the answer from deep inside his dream world. ‘As far as the trail stays good, I guess.’

What can I say? Here is an accident waiting to happen. He is ill equipped and inexperienced, and I am the archetypal been-there-done-it-know-all from an older generation. If we talk for a hundred years we will never bridge that gap. I start hoping he’ll choose Glossop, so he can get a ride back to wherever he left the rest of his possessions. I mutter something about Glossop being a really excellent place and reputedly much nicer than Kirk Yetholm.

Next he asks if there is any food at the road crossing after the A57.

‘No,’ I say truthfully and then, before I can stop myself, in a fit of misplaced helpfulness I blurt out, ‘But there’s a youth hostel.’
‘O-o-o-o-h, cool,’ he says, brightening up. ‘So they’d feed me. How long will it take me to get there?’
‘It’s taken me three-and-a-half hours, so I don’t think you’d do it any quicker. You could think about that after you’ve eaten at Glossop.’
‘M-m-m-m, c-o-o-o-l’ he says, and bestows a big daft smile on me.

I am losing patience, and I feel uncomfortable in the role of My Brother’s Keeper. I leave him to his decisions, restart my engine, and engage the gears for the grind up Mill Hill. Just before the final short but steep ascent to the Kinder plateau, I say my silent thanks to the men and women of the Mass Trespass and to Tom Stephenson for his vision of the Pennine Way, then I eat a Chunky KitKat and slowly haul myself towards the top.

Ahead are three mountain bikers, pushing or carrying their steeds. In front of them are a couple of strollers, and beyond that a party of three hikers. The place is getting crowded. I fear I might have to resort to the Francis Chichester rebuke of ‘Sunday drivers!’ as I carry my Victor Meldrew-like irascibility on the final push along the edge.

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