..in which I’m irrationally miffed by clean trousers, I get one up on an eminent poet and my knee only just holds out.
Bleaklow to Edale, 12 miles.
Absolutely none until Edale, where I stayed at the lovely Ollerbrook Barn BnB, which I highly recommend. Very reasonably priced, a proper bath, lovely people and the breakfast was magnificent. I had supper at The Old Nag’s Head which is a nice pub with friendly staff and good beer, and where else are you going to finish a Pennine Way? My meal here wasn’t quite so recommendable, I may have just made an unlucky choice on an atypical and out of season evening.
I thought I’d cracked Kinder but it had one more trick up its sleeve. As everyone knows, from Kinder Downfall you simply contour south-southwest along the edge, diverting slightly across Red Brook. I made the mistake of following this line too far. You need to change direction at about 078 875 (NTG p. 32) to slightly east of south, in order to then pass east (to the left, if southbound) of Edale Rocks.
If you contour along the top of the edge too far, it’s all too easy to pick up another flagstoned path which, confusingly, is not the Pennine Way. This takes you to some rocks, for sure, but they look worryingly unlike Edale Rocks. At this point I consulted OS Locate. Oops. If you find yourself passing a small and mysterious fenced-off tumulus on your right you’ve taken this wrong track. You must either take a gamble on finding the path back east via Edale Cross down in the saddle (which I didn’t fancy as I’d strayed way off the map) or turn back. Otherwise you’ll come down in completely the wrong valley, much too far west, and face an interminable walk back to Edale along the road.
The Way passes over the east (left if southbound) shoulder of the Swine’s Back, then turns left down in the saddle towards Jacob’s Ladder. There’s a fingerpost at the junction where the path back from Edale Cross joins from the right but, as shown on the NTG map, a short cut actually turns off left slightly before this.
I woke before dawn, the inner tent was pouring with condensation as usual and all my stuff was in dirty, damp disarray. My hands were filthy too from trying to get the tent pegs to hold in the peat. I nosed out of the flysheet, the darkness was profound and infinite all around me but the air was bizarrely still and it wasn’t raining. Although I was lying in a bog the atmosphere was dry and light, like laughing gas. All my animal senses, or at least all those that had been re-awakened by two weeks’ sleeping in the hills, spoke to me of a change in the weather. All I had to do was stuff everything randomly in my pack. None of it would need airing, in fact none of it mattered any more, for tonight I’d be in a hot bath and then in a dry bed, under a solid roof. It would be exaggerating to say I leapt from the tent and jogged up Bleaklow, but I definitely didn’t hang around. It was my last day on The Way and I was demob-happy.
At the top of Wildboar Grain the sun rose, illuminating several much more sustainable campsites of firm grass just below the summit plateau, which itself is flat and extensive although stony and completely exposed. In summer you could not so much camp as have a small festival up there, if it wasn’t for the Peak Park Rangers quite rightly throwing you off this sensitive landscape. They don’t seem to be around in October though, I had the place to myself as the fog started to lift. This was the first time I’ve ever passed by Bleaklow’s cairn without meeting another person. Unusually, I felt no need to hang around – I’d been this Way before.
Somewhere inside my rank, soggy carcase a strange metamorphosis was stirring, like an axolotl on a hormone shot. Were the sun to come out, I felt as if my carapace of claggy down and peat-encrusted Goretex might well split open, liberating a shiny, dry creature of supernatural powers – living in a house and driving a car, maybe. The sun peeped out obligingly and I splashed onwards down Hern Clough, which resembled a small river after the previous day’s downfall. My feet were getting soaked, but I didn’t need to care. At Doctor’s Gate a pair of Peregrines sliced through the clearing air, the big Falcon leading her tiny Tiercel a merry chase down Urchin Clough and off towards Glossop. Peregrines! Was I about to emerge from the blasted upland wilderness of poisons, traps and guns into a healthy, unabused countryside with actual wildlife? Well, no, I was about to cross the A57 and stomp across the interminable flagstones of Featherbed Moss.
The clouds cleared and it turned into a beautiful morning; people started to appear. I was on the last day of the Perverse Pennine Way and I fear people could tell. It may have been my somewhat wild and deranged mien. It may have been the smell, and not necessarily in the way you’re assuming. To lift my spirits during my dark night of the soul on Bleaklow, I’d broken out my desert island luxury – a tiny free sample of perfume (Creed Arventus, darlings) that I’d scrounged from John Lewis, figuring it might in extremis redeem the damp down of my sleeping bag from stinking like a midden full of chickens. It was a bit less tiny than I’d thought, and I was now starting to warm up. At Mill Hill I sat on the cairn, contemplating both the panorama and the infinite through a surprisingly dense cloud of exotic fragrance.
A perky white-haired chap in suspiciously clean trousers caught me up. He seemed very animated and pleased with himself and had clearly settled on my stationary silhouette as a target upon which to unburden himself of some extraordinary information. He had the manner of the man in the pub who, after a few minutes of normality, starts to tell you Lord Rothschild produces the X-Factor, the judges on Strictly are all Illuminati and did I know the Moomins are real and work for Mossad?
‘Today I’m going to complete the Pennine Way!’ he announced. ‘I see’, I said. What I thought was: ‘If you’ve just crossed Bleaklow overnight as well, how come you’re not covered in filth and in an altered state of mind, like me?’ His wife, he explained, had just dropped him off on Snake Pass from their camper van, in which he’d spent the night. It had taken him several years to complete The Way, in sections, trailed, fed, sheltered and kitted out with clean trousers en route by his vantastic spouse.
‘I’m really looking forward to celebrating in the Nag’s Head’, he cried, adding ‘it’s where everybody who walks the Pennine Way celebrates, you know.’ ‘I see’, I said. To cap it all, his parting shot was ‘of course, I had the day off yesterday, because it was much too wet for walking’. My flashbacks of Torside Clough and John Track Well in the hoolie and the horizontal rain were too painful for me to say anything, and off he went, whistling, bless him. I ate the last of the unprepossessing cashews and a lone fluffy butterscotch I’d prised out of a dirty sock. There’s only one Pennine Way, and that’s your own.
In case you think my contributions to this exchange had been unnecessarily parsimonious, I was distracted in fact by contemplation of the last ascent up onto the Kinder plateau. In Walking Home this last climb is the last straw for Simon Armitage, it beats him. I’d deliberately rested, conserving and refocusing my remaining energy, at Mill Hill lest this fate befall me too. Not that I had any alternative to fall back on, whereas Armitage had a car back in Longdendale. However once I’d started the climb, I couldn’t in all truth understand what had possessed him to retreat and walk back all that way. It seemed pretty straightforward, the sun was warm, and the views were amazing all around. Kinder is a fabulous place.
At the Downfall I merged my last two packets of Superfragments and cooked them in the stream water, which had the advantage of being already gravy-coloured. In May I’d been completely alone here on a Bank Holiday Saturday; on an October Wednesday it was like Piccadilly Circus. Endless daywalkers popped out of the rocks with their hydration systems, GPS pouches, map cases, actually matching Goretex tops and trousers – one couple had actually matching his’n’hers Goretex tops and trousers, how is that even possible?
I gently poked fun at one chap’s excessive technology and he informed me, hoity-toitily, that some DofE kids ‘had had to call out mountain rescue up here only yesterday’. It seemed ridiculously unlikely in the bright sunshine that was illuminating the entire massif like a vast stage set but then, at the south end of the edge, I got what I deserved, which was quite inexplicably and thoroughly to get lost. I had to eat my words and call upon OS Locate, which told me I’d strayed not just a few yards but right off the map. How embarrassing!
I bog-hopped back to The Way and it was like the M1, people everywhere, I thought I’d got my days of the week wrong. ‘Retired’, said one chap a little younger than me. Another quite a lot younger explained ‘saw the great forecast, so I just called in sick’. ‘Aha’, I said. Modern life, eh?
At the top of Jacob’s Ladder I felt a bit strange, almost overwhelmed. Twice I’d clambered up here on lonely, cold dawns, starting out on big adventures. Now the Ladder was not the start of something great, but the end of something perverse, something that had mixed up my head, turned The Way upside down. Everything felt all wrong.
I haven’t wanted to harp on about the challenges of this walk as that would be boring, and in truth it wasn’t that difficult physically. Nonetheless with the long, dark nights alone in the hills it had been a strange and solitary exploit. As I gazed down towards normality from the top of the Ladder, it seemed highly likely to have done me some kind of permanent emotional damage. Also my knee was starting to hurt.
I’d expected to trot or even canter the last flat path into Edale but in fact, with perfect timing for which I’ll be forever grateful, my left knee had only just held out. For the last mile I had to rest every few hundred yards, the pain was exquisite. I broke out the Co-codamol I’d carried for 266 miles.
It seemed impossible to believe that the legendary metropolis of Edale was so well hidden just ahead in those suburban-looking trees, tucked into that bosky dell. There’ll be a massive carved gate, trumpets, heralds leading me to their beautiful elfin queen, horns of fairy mead…
I stumbled into the Nag’s Head and slumped onto the nearest stool. ‘You look like you need a pint’ said the young, friendly barman. ‘Thank you, yes please’, I murmured with quiet sincerity, like a prayer, ‘I’ve just walked the Pennine Way’. With an effort, I looked up from my peat-stained fingers to check out his impressed expression. He was serving someone else.
The Perverse Pennine Way, October 2016.