In which The Jon M leaves town, goes up in the world and arrives back with a different perspective
You find me now sitting at a desk with a photocopy of an OS map, a highlighter pen and a sense of foreboding. The reasons for which will become clear later.
I am not fond of students. Yes, I was one, and with hindsight, looking back at drinks I shouldn’t have drunk, stages I shouldn’t have crashed, lectures I should have gone to and girls I should have, well, you know, I probably was quite an arse. It took me a year to find out that Manchester City Centre extended beyond the Arndale Shopping Centre. Still I think I did explore a bit. I tried to find out a bit about this city, unaware that it would be my home for another decade. With aged eyes, I do despair at the current student population of the Rainy City.
A few weeks ago, I saw District 9, a film set in South Africa where a city has to suddenly cope with a mass influx of clue-less, ugly, oddly dressed creatures that have a fondness for eating rubbish and canned foods and vomit and fight in the street. A week later, 2009-2010 university year started.
Why come here? Well, we have one of the best universities in the world. We have one of most famous music scenes in the country. We have an active nightlife. There is great shopping. We are only two hours from London and a long way from Hull. Great reasons to come here, but I am not sure if more than 5% are aware of one of the best reasons: The Great Outdoors.
From any reasonable height, you can see the hills and mountains that look over the city. To the east and south-east lies the Peak District, the southern end of the Pennine range. Even in South Manchester, you can see the wind turbines gracefully generating electricity on the Pennines beyond Rochdale. Past Bolton, to the north, the lone shape of Winter Hill dominates the skyline.
For many, the idea of a difficult walk is Saturday morning, avoiding last night’s vomit and kebabs on the pavement and trying to barge through the dozen promo monkeys who block the entrance to the supermarket handing out flyers. In February this year, I was set a task: I was invited to walk up a ‘mountain’ in Cumbria. Fine, I said. It was for charity and it would be in June. I then summoned the spirit of Jeremy Clarkson and wondered, ‘How Hard Could It Be?’
I’d only started hill walking last autumn. Me and a friend took the train to Stalybridge, on the edge of Manchester, and looked around, pointed at the biggest hill and said, let’s climb that. It wasn’t too bad. The weather was sunny, we wandered around some farm tracks and stuff then headed up the hill. It took us a fair while, 30 minutes or so, with some stops. We did find it very annoying when a post retirement fell runner overtook us near the top, only five minutes after he appeared at the bottom. But we had a great sense of achievement as we greeted the top and surveyed the landscape beyond. A woman walking her dog then told us that this in fact wasn’t a hill, it was a bank. Dammit.
Anyway, we sat on the top and looked down over the city laid out in front of us. The wind was fresh, the views were amazing. It was a fantastic place to be.
So, anyway, it was now March, and I had read about the Cumbrian Mountain in question, it was called Helvellyn . I now renamed it Cumbrian Death Mountain on accounts of the stories I had seen. Our task was to play a song, with instruments at the top. It was around this point that I persuaded the organiser that it would be impractical for him to bring a guitar. I opted for a mouth organ. Still, how hard could it be? After all, I’d clambered up Wild Bank, it wasn’t that hard. And Helvellyn is more popular, so can’t be more difficult. It’ll just take longer. This is England, we don’t have tricky mountains here, we leave them for the Scottish and the Welsh. Plus, we were English men, if we set our sights on something, no matter how ill prepared we are, we achieve it.
And I was ill equipped. I had trainers, not boots. Okay, they were supposedly more suited to hill walking than your average £90 trainers, because they came with a free compass. My rucksack was getting on for twenty years old. And I’d only climbed one hill.
On to Buxton this time. However we got bored with the train journey and just got off the train a few stops early. In Chapel-en-le-Frith. Actually, the station was about a mile above the town, up an unlit road. This made our trip back from the pub rather fun. Anyway, me and the same friend as before climbed the biggest hill we could find, and again were staggered by the wilderness at the top. Confronted with a valley and town at the bottom, I invented a new game. Yell silly obscenities from the top of hills. Again, this wasn’t a hill. It was an Edge. Foiled again.
Into the swing of it now, we took on a proper hill. Win Hill, near Hope in the heart of the Peak District. Our journey there brought us far too close to one of the dangers of this pastime, The Folk Train. The Folk Train is run on occasional weekends on various routes out of Manchester and Sheffield. Basically, a bloke with an accordion gets on to a normal train and plays his version of old English folk tunes until he runs out of songs. Then he and the Folk Train devotees get off at some village where they decamp to a pub and he plays all his songs again. Here we were blessed that the 1980s clanky Pacer trains were so noisy that, once underway, you could not hear him in the other carriage, despite there not being a doorway. This of course meant that our carriage was full and the other was virtually empty. This, in turn, bemused the woman who was running the Folk Train outing, who pointed out to everybody standing up that there were plenty of seats. They remained unclaimed by the time we clambered off at Hope Station, which was basically two platforms and a bridge in the middle of nowhere.
According to legend, in the 7th century, two Saxon armies fought a battle on Win Hill. The Kings of Wessex and Merica camped it up on neighbouring Lose Hill, while the Northumbians based themselves on Win Hill. The Lose Hill mob then went on the offensive, marching down Lose Hill, over the river and railway, then up Win Hill. Meanwhile the Northumbrians were rolling rocks and sheeps down on them. Needless to say, the Northumbrians won and so, the hills were named. It was a steep start, but eased up a bit, a pretty good workout by the time we reached the top, only impeded a few times by militant sheep. As we gazed over the vista before us, forests, reservoirs and moorland plateaus, we pondered the sheep. It was spring time, so the fields were split between lambs, all innocent bunches of bouncing joy, and sheep, brooding evil fluff balls plotting the downfall of humanity. There must be a point where lambs become evil, and therefore they should be eaten just before they reach this stage, The Mutton Point. Eventually, we were joined by a few families and various mountain bikers, however the real killer in terms of not being away from civilization was when I received a phone call on my mobile.
So, that was a proper hill. Great. However at 462 meters high, Win Hill topped out at pretty much half the height of Cumbrian Death Mountain. More importantly, Hope was 150 odd meters higher than our starting point for CDM, Patterdale.
It was now that I started asking about. I was told that CDM was fine as long as you had a rope! Or that experienced hill walkers thought we were mad to attempt it. I read up on various other web sites and became truly aware of Striding Edge. This is a mile long ridge of rocks with falls on either side. However, the photos showed paths on it and the guides all said that it was doable, with just a bit of a scramble. I was later to discover that you should never trust these books as what these climbing experts describe as moderately challenging is beyond the comprehension of mere mortals.
I came on a new plan; discourage the Team Leader from taking on CDM. So I joined up with him for a walk near Macclesfield. The walk was a two piece affair, a quick climb in Staffordshire to find Lud’s Church, a cavern that supposedly featured in the climax of Sir Galwain and the Green Knight, then we were going to drive to the next valley and to take on Shutlingsloe, the 'Matterhorn of Cheshire’, and loop through Macclesfield Forest, to get a bit of distance in our legs.
This wasn’t a great success. I had been designated map reader of the CDM crew, and my skills were not at their best when I couldn’t find Lud’s Church at all, so after falling into a river, I suggested we take on the primary objective. Now the rains came. We battled cold and wet to reach the top and this time, there was nobody around. I didn’t blame them at all. Sadly, this didn’t discourage our leader. After all, this was April, and we’d be taking on CDM in June. Moreover, I learnt more about his reasons for doing it, working with teenagers with learning difficulties, most of his colleges are rather intimidating women who look down on the male gender, so he had to prove his manliness by conquering the Death Mountain.
A few weeks later, we all finally met. The CDM team, minus one absentee, congregated in a bar in Manchester to plot. Looking back at it now, I think I should have been worried that we spent more time on choosing what songs to play and discussing who would supply lyric sheets and who would do the arrangements, than we did on discussing the route or equipment.
The next week, a few of us met back in Hope. Thankfully, this time the Folk Train had a dividing door! The route I had chosen this time was longer than our CDM route, to make up for the relative lack of climbing. Under glorious blue skies, to the calls of sinister sheep, we made for Lose Hill. This was actually harder than I’d anticipated. Not the climb, that was a pretty fun, but trying to keep our directionally challenged ‘leader’ heading to the correct hill. Even after pointing out the damn thing four times, he kept veering off towards the more distant, and smaller, Win Hill.
From the top of Lose Hill we took a ridge along another few hills and Tors before the climb of Mam Tor. After I’d reached the top of Lose Hill first, we came to develop a pattern on this walk. Me and my girlfriend (who being female wasn’t invited to CDM, and being sane, didn’t want to go) would walk a steady pace, and out Team Leader and the other member of the CDM fellowship would walk on much faster, then rest, then head off again.
At the last low before the climb up to the 517m Mam Tor, Hollins Cross, we encountered another of the countryside evils, Fell Runners. Two had just run up a fairly steep path from Edale Station and the woman was complaining about being slightly fatigued. No Kidding, you’ve just run up a mountain! That didn’t stop them running up Mam Tor while we plotted fun ways that they could fall off. Walking back to Hope, we managed to get full use out of the ‘we are now beyond Hope’ joke.
Now it was Early May. CDM was looming close. Time flies when you have an appointment with Death. Still a month away, I had to explain why the BBC can’t give us a detailed weather summery for June 6th.
One last challenge, the biggest I could find, Kinder Scout. The weather was fantastic, all the team turned up, and here we were at Hayfield, ready to walk. One week from the main event, I realised that my personal fitness regime had failed me as I was probably two stones heavier than I had been at the turn of the year. Still, not to worry. The route I’d plotted was to the 633m point of Kinder Low, on the Kinder Scout massive. We were going to cross the Kinder Downfall, one of the largest waterfalls on the North West and a spectacular sight. Again, I’d made the route a few miles longer than CDM, to make up for the smaller climbs.
A few problems cropped up. Being short and fat meant that when the paths turned upwards, I tended to drop off the back of the fellowship. This probably wasn’t helped by my insistance on taking a few hundred photos along the route! Kinder Downfall wasn't much of a sight, the dryish summer meant that instead of a torrent being blasted back by the wind, there was a trickle over some rocks. Although I was the map reader, because I was off the back for much of the walk, I didn’t notice that we’d taken the wrong fork, and had missed Kinder Low and were now heading back to town along a shorter route.
Along with Lud’s church, Kinder Scout was now in my ‘I’ll be back’ file.
Now checking on the weather, a few days away, it wasn’t looking as great, looking more overcast. Eventually, Saturday came, and it was a stinker. I left my flat at 8 and walked a mile to the pick-up point, in the rain. Having grown up in the flat tarmac glory of an Essex new town, I’ve never really learnt just how slippery cobbles can be after 2 weeks of sun followed by a downpour. 10 feet from my friend’s door, I almost went over backwards on the ice rink of a cobbled alleyway. In retrospect, I should have just gone over and put myself out of action. It would have been kinder in the long run.
Still, we set off. Our leader, driving the other car up from Cheshire, reasoned that we could do this, after all, Chris Moyles, the Saviour of Radio 1, had climbed Kilimanjaro. Fair enough, but, as I reasoned, Chris Moyles had a personal trainer, lots of training, a team of expert helpers. I had a compass that came with some trainers, a photocopy of an OS map and a malt loaf. We arrived in Patterdale first, and parked in a puddle. As the puddle grew over the next half hour, bravely attempting to get itself named as a new lake, we pondered where the other car was. Eventually, they arrived from the north, apparently Google thinks that a 20 mile diversion and tour of the Lake District is the best way to approach from the south.
Having had the radio on as they travelled up, they had discovered that there was a severe weather warning in operation for CDM, where temperatures had dropped below freezing. People were being advised not to climb. You think at this point, we would turn back. But no, we’d carry on. You’ve got to imagine that Mountain Rescue was meant for idiots like us.
Aside from missing our turning, and the next path to CDM being blocked off, our first 30 minutes were uneventful. The first group of people we encountered helpfully directed us to the wrong mountain. The next group looked at us in disbelief that we were going to try CDM in this weather. Well, one of us was in shorts! Eventually, we got onto the right mountain and onto the long slog up.
Although our aim was not to leave anybody behind, it wasn’t that unusual for me to fall a few hundred meters behind, giving everybody a chance to rest, while I caught up, then we all set off again. The weather showed no sign of clearing up and soon became a running joke. A wind that rated somewhere past strong breeze and well on the way to gale whipped us. Even with wintery weather and temperatures, my choice of clothing was just too warm. I was only wearing a t-shirt and a cheap ski jacket, but if I did the jacket up, I boiled over in minutes. If it was undone, I was an easy victim for the wind.
Eventually, we caught sight of a dry stone wall miraculously built up the side of the hill. This must, I figured, lead up to Hole-in-the-Wall, where we can finally see CDM in all its glory. Now everything levelled out. Before us we could see CDM and the two edges coming down from either side, encompassing Red Tarn, a small lake. The view was only fleeting as a cloud swallowed up CDM. Great. Time for lunch.
We had originally planned on taking Striding Edge there and Swirral Edge back. On the walk up, we changed the plan to agreeing to make a decision at Hole in the Wall. After malt loaf and energy drink, I stood up to take some pictures of CDM and the approaches. Though the zoom, you could easily see patches of snow. Not as easy to capture was the speed of the clouds that would descend on one of the edges in moments. Then my backpack was handed to me. Our leader had decided that so that nobody needed to make a decision that they could be blamed for later, we’d take on Striding Edge. I’m not sure how the logic of that worked, but we headed off.
If they ever dragged Ricky Tomlinson or his alter ego, Jim Royal, up this climb, then I would assume that he would roar something like ‘Light scramble, my arse’. Eventually, after the mountains, ridge, rocks and sheep had vanished and I’d won my first ever June snowball fight, we decided to turn back and take on the other edge.
The rain had stopped now, only the wind had picked up. Like in the film, the fellowship was developing cracks. It became clear that three of us were do or die about CDM and not prepared to go back without topping it. I think it was at this join, I realised that I wouldn’t make it up. We trekked across to the other edge, then climbed up to where the rocky edge really began. This time, I managed to get at least half way along before the wind and heights got the better of me and I couldn’t force myself on. A passing experienced climber couldn’t believe that I was going to attempt CDM, and I assured her that now I was this close, I had no intention of going any further. Ahead of me, two of the others decided that discretion was the better part of stupidity and turned back around, joining me on the long decent back to Red Tarn. All three of us were agreed that attempting what looked like a rock climb in this wind was not what we signed up for. I was much relived when it turned out that we also had one set of the car keys just in case an accident happened.
For me, this was the best part of the trip. Sitting, sheltered from the wind by a rock, watching the scenery in a peaceful place away from almost all traces of humanity was great. When our colleagues, fresh from their song and dance act, came down the hill, we could hear them from a mile away.
The views from the top supposedly stretch to both Scotland and Wales on a good day. Today, we couldn’t see the top from a mile away.
I have no doubts that I could have made it up there. I have doubts that I would have made it up there! So, Helvellyn is added to my list of places to return to. Maybe next time, I’ll take a crack at coming at it from a different way, so I can catch it unawares. Maybe it’ll be dry and sunny in January.
I still feel lucky to have made it back. I feel lucky that I knew when common sense and self preservation should overtake bravado. I made it within 50m of the summit. That’ll do me. No regrets on missing it on a day we were advised not to attempt it. I do regret not trying to take on the climb of Catstycam on the way back, which is just steep, not rocky with scary falls, still, at least I can try again on day.
As we walked back, the weather did finally clear, just a few hours too late and we could finally see for miles across the lakes. As we listened to the news on the way home, the rescue services were picking off dozens of climbers and walkers from Snowdon.
So, how hard could it be? Just a bit harder than I imagined. But in the true tradition of Top Gear, we were ambitious, but at least in my case, rubbish!
Now, I am sitting here at my desk planning my return to the hills of the Peaks and feeling smug. Unlike most of the population of this city, academic or otherwise, I have seen the Rainy City from another angle. I’ve climbed up and looked down on the towers rising from the haze. I’ve challenged myself and found that I am not infallible, I am not invincible like I believed I was back in university.
This weekend I am heading off to find Lud’s Church, and probably fall into a river. Two weeks ago, the Tory Party were in town. Streets were blocked and champagne was stolen. This weekend, the English Defence League were in town causing riots and abusing Muslims. I’m actually not too sure if they have formed the EDL just in case Scotland and Wales invade. Part of the reason I’m taking to the hills on Saturday is in case the Klan decided to call in to Manchester this weekend, just to join in the right wing fun. Thinking about these hate groups who claim to love this country, just how many have actually attempted to see more of this country than just a few city centres and a pub? I invite them to come to Win Hill, and I will be standing at the top, rolling sheep down on them!!
Till next time,
Love, Peace and The BluesMancunian Blues Archive
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