How I learned to Walk on the Wild Side

As a teenager, I was obsessed by music. I still am.  In 2013, anyone with a laptop and a wifi connection has access to virtually every piece of music ever recorded. Over twenty years ago, things were very different. My magpie mind was grabbed by many things, through random chance, and moments which shaped my musical imagination and changed the direction of my life. Here are just a few of those moments:

Hearing ‘Epic‘ by Faith No More in a car on the way back from a Christian conference called ‘Spring Harvest’. This was the first time I was absolutely blown away by rock music, pressed back in the black vinyl car seat by the power of the “You want it all but you can’t have it” chorus. Shortly after this, I realised that organised religion wasn’t for me, but rock ‘n’ roll was definitely the way forward.

Seeing a band called the Cramps on a music programme on BBC 2 called ‘SNUB TV’.  I was only thirteen, but they had a crazy looking man in makeup and PVC trousers, and a very glamourous woman playing the guitar. They were funny (ha! ha!) and also very strange, and had a song called ‘You’ve got good taste’. Later that year, a new music teacher started at our school. He was called John Gill. One of the first things he told us was that the Cramps were one of his favourite bands and lent me a tape of an album called ‘Off the Bone’. I started to learn to play the guitar. I sung their version of ‘Fever’ in front of the whole school, and it became my anthem, despite taunts from school bullies (who never dared to stand up and sing themselves!)

When I started at university, a shy young man in my lectures had “Thee Cramps” inked onto his army surplus bag. I commented on this excitedly, and we started talking. A friendship developed, forged over passionate discussions about music. Then we fell in love. We’re still arguing about music, eighteen years later.

I’m not sure when I first heard the John Peel show, late at night on Radio 1. There was too much music to absorb in one go, and it was great to lie in bed, imagining a glamorous life of record shops, gigs and late nights. Like many people, I taped as many shows as I could. One of the songs I listened to over and over again on my Tandy personal stereo was ‘Spellbound‘ by Siouxsie and the Banshees. I plugged myself into that personal stereo in the back seat of the car for every long journey with my parents, staring out of the window and drifting into day-dreams that fired my writer’s imagination.

Home taping was my lifeline.

Home taping was my lifeline.

It was the era of home taping. If you wanted a new album, you’d ask the small collection of school friends who were into music and you’d give someone a C90 cassette. Probably one that already had something taped on it. You could tape over something as much as you liked. And you’d eventually get a hissy recording of the album back. One of the best things would be that the person making the tape would often fill up any blank bits at the end of the tape with something else – which led to more wonderful music discoveries.

CDs were a luxury, and even though I had a record player, I reserved it for playing my second-hand collection from jumble sales and car boot sales. That was another way my musical tastes were growing, from old Motown classics (‘Respect’/’Sitting on the Dock of the Bay’ by Otis Reading from a Sunday morning boot-sale browse with my grandparents), psychedelic masterpieces (‘Disraeli Gears’ by Cream when I helped out at a school jumble sale), to electro (a worn-out Tubeway Army record from a flea market in Allenton).

The cover of Transformer

The cover of Transformer

I only bought new cassette albums when I had money from my birthday or after Christmas. I must have been given a Boots voucher for my birthday. In those days, Boots used to sell music and had quite a good selection of tapes. I browsed the racks of tapes and selected ‘Transformer‘ by Lou Reed. ‘Walk on the Wildside’ was famous, and the bassline had recently been sampled by hip hop band A Tribe Called Quest for ‘Can I kick it?’ I wasn’t sure if I’d even heard of the Velvet Underground at the age of fifteen. But it stood out because it looked different – the polarised picture of a face in stark black and white, the eyes so black, they looked like they were ringed in heavy eye-liner, turned away from a microphone, and a guitar which looked like it had been drawn on at the bottom. I’m pretty sure that the other tape I bought at the same time was the greatest hits of tragic jazz singer Billie Holliday. I listened to both tapes over and over again on a family holiday to France. In some ways, they went together perfectly.

The songs on ‘Transformer’ were different from anything I’d ever heard before. They told stories, in different voices. They sounded like they were being played at the end of a long night in a smoke-filled room, sung by a guy whose voice was at breaking point, who’d seen things I could never imagine, knocking back whisky. I was in Year 10, at secondary school in a small East Midlands city. I knew nothing then about debauched night clubs, transvestites (apart from my grandfather’s amateur drag-act, but that’s another story!) or pretentious artists (apart from Seymour Wright, my intellectual nemesis). I’d seen Andy Warhol’s soup tins, but I was yet to work out all the threads that pulled all these things together. All I knew was that I longed to experience this sophisticated, jaded grown-up world one day soon. I was too innocent to understand the lyrics properly yet, but I wanted to be part of that rock ‘n’ roll world. Every album I discovered; every music magazine I devoured from cover to cover brought me closer.

The Velvet Underground, Glastonbury 1993

The Velvet Underground, Glastonbury 1993

And just over a year later, as a reward for working hard on my GCSEs, I went to Glastonbury. Just me and two friends. It was a wonderful gesture of trust from my parents. Over those five baking-hot days in 1993, I experienced so many magical musical moments that my brain was overloaded for months and I couldn’t stop talking about it. I was hooked for life. One of the first bands I got to see was the Velvet Underground. We hadn’t worked out that the best way to get to the front of the crowd is to sneak down the side, and there were no big screens, so we stood at the back of the Pyramid Stage field, looking at a miniscule Lou Reed. I finally felt like I was part of the excitement.

It was a shock on Sunday, to discover that Lou Reed had died. He was still experimenting (I wasn’t too sure about his collaboration with Metallica, but I applauded his intentions). Lou Reed influenced and shaped music as we know it. He helped to define the image of “cool”, and then ignored it. He was one of the musical voices that shaped my mind, telling stories that were thousands of miles away from my own experience but still spoke to me.

Music has always inspired my writing. Lyrics jump out at me and make stories form in my head, the intensity of feeling in a song connects me with the emotions of my characters. Watching a band live can take me on an internal journey sparks the idea for a novel. I can’t help it, any more than I can help breathing.

Here’s writer Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Lou Reed from the Guardian. It seems that he was inspired in a similar way.

MAMAWE! A celebration of African Music and Dance.

Dancers Angelina and Sarah at MAMAWE! Tired but happy.

Dancers Angelina and Sarah at MAMAWE! Tired but happy.

It means “Oh my god, this is all getting too exciting!” Or “Oh my god, this is all a bit too much for me!” I’ve felt like that in both senses recently. But I’m starting to feel a sense of excitement again. Knowing that I’m part of a vibrant community of creative people in Sheffield and beyond really helps, and on Saturday, my friend and amazingly talented dancer, Angelina Abel hosted a celebration of African music, dance and food.

Angelina has been teaching dance for over five years now. She had always been a great dancer, and would always try to make me learn moves when we were out together. She dragged me to salsa classes, which I wasn’t too sure about, and to bellydance, which I came to love as much as she did. In her Angolan Portuguese family, everyone can dance, and from the start of our friendship, Angelina managed to convince me that I didn’t have two left feet. She’s turned her passion into dedication, getting on National Express coaches at stupid times in the morning to spend her weekends in dance training. And she’s also built her own dance school, Mulembas D’Africa. We’ve performed in Sheffield City centre, Bakewell, and in a gazebo in a muddy torchlit park at Sharrow Lantern Festival. 

Learning to dance has improved my fitness, helped me to make new friends, given me confidence and relieved a lot of stress.

On Saturday, we helped Angelina and to arrange chairs and hang beautiful printed African fabric on the walls of the Sharrow Old Junior School, an old school hall which is now part of a community centre. The speakers and turntables were in place and people taking part in the drumming workshop gathered together. I selected a beautiful djembe drum and managed to balance it between my knees. As a vegan, it’s a bit weird to be banging away on a goat skin drum head, but the drums look and feel beautiful. In case you were wondering, this is how a djembe is made:

Drum tutor Souleymane Compo led us in a two-hour long drum lesson. I was completely absorbed and I loved it. There were beginners and more advanced drummers in the workshop, and the class covered quite complicated rhythms to remember. I was really pleased that I managed to keep up. For the first half of the class, I concentrated intently, and then I slipped into a sort of trance, just focussing on the rhythm that we were playing. When we’d finished, I was surprised that my back was aching from bending over the drum.

More people were now gathering, for Abram Diallo’s dance class. Here he is, teaching a class in Bristol, and you can see what an amazing mover he is! Abram is from Guinea Conakry in West Africa and he’s been dancing from a very young age. Tall and wiry, he seems to have boundless energy and effortless grace, which is probably why he became a choreographer by the age of eighteen. He made us work very hard, as he says that there’s no energy and life in half-hearted movements, but he was also very entertaining. The routine he taught us, with live drummers, was based on a rhythm I’d danced to in one of Angelina’s classes, so I was familiar with the slow rhythm changing to the fast and furious. And I managed to keep up, without getting my arms and legs in a complete tangle!

Abram also told us about the meaning of the two rhythms: Yankadi is slow and laid back; a women’s dance; and Abram seemed to really enjoy dancing “like a beautiful young girl”, to show us how it was done. Macru is the fast part, where the young men join in with the dance. At the end of the session, Abram gathered us into a semi-circle around the drummers and made sure that we all took turns and did a solo dance, which was exhilarating, in such a large group with so many talented dancers.

After a cool down, I was ready for a meal from Miss Adu’s Kitchen, run by Chaz, another friend who has taken the plunge and gone freerange (literally), as she’s started an African-inspired catering company with the aim to “Entertain, Educate and Empower through everyone’s need for food and laughter”. She cooks great vegetarian food as well as some meaty delights, and I felt like I’d definitely earned my dinner!

The entertainment wasn’t over, as Angelina, dancer Bekki French and the talented Kweku, joined forces for a comedy dance routine, introduced by Angelina’s young nephew and friend. Her nephew proved that dance really does run in the family with his impromptu routine to ‘Hey Now’ by Outkast. The irrepressible Sarah Khouchane from Maskara Dance in London rounded off the dance performances with a showcase of traditional Algerian dance and electro swing, her acrobatics wowing the audience.

The performances were rounded off by some rousing Punjabi Dhol drumming from the wonderful (but shy – honest!) Tanya Stanley. Papa Al and the Globologist took over by spinning some beats from around the world. The dancefloor filled up with people trying out new moves.

It was an exhausting but exciting day, and I’m really looking forward to the next one! Angelina has worked really hard and created a network of performers and creative people from all over the world. She’s has brought people together to build a really special community here in Sheffield and I’m really proud of her.

There will be more photos linked to this post soon! I couldn’t take any of the drumming and dancing, as I was too busy actually taking part!

Wet, wonderful and downright weird!

My writing workshop at Off the Shelf!

My writing workshop at Off the Shelf!

On Saturday, I ran a writing workshop as part of Sheffield’s Off the Shelf Festival of Words – a literary festival which has now been running for 22 years. I had been worried about attracting enough people to my course, as it was on the launch day of the festival, and I was competing with lots of other events, including a writers’ group fair and humorous poet and ‘Just a Minute’ panellist Pam Ayres.

My workshop was listed in the Off the Shelf programme and I’d advertised it on Facebook, but I needed to reach the right people. So at the end of September, I decided to put in some serious graft. I didn’t think there was much point spending a lot of money on printing flyers and posters, so I ran black and white ones off myself and put them up in cafes and venues where literary-minded people might congregate. I wrote a press release and sent it to every media organisation I could think of in South Yorkshire.

My master stroke was to email every writing group I could find locally! Luckily, my local writers’ development organisation, Signposts (now Writing Yorkshire – more on that later!) has a list of writing groups to suit everyone. Within a few hours of sending my press releases to them, the bookings were rolling in. I’d made the workshop day really affordable at £10 including lunch – it helped that Sheffield City Council had contributed towards the cost of running the course too!

I’d already planned the writing exercises we’d be doing in the workshop. I called it “Open Your Memory Box”. It was designed to follow on from memoir-writing workshops I ran in May this year. Saturday’s workshop was designed to take biographical details and turn them into poetry, stories and drama. All I needed to do now was check the venue at Bank Street Arts – an arts centre and cafe dedicated to the craft of writing, and finalise the details for lunch. Everything was fine, although I was a little nervous.

Saturday dawned grey and rainy. The perfect weather for a day spent indoors, writing. Unfortunately, the participants had to travel through the rain, but everyone arrived safely, and after grabbing a coffee, we settled down for a creative day.

I had such lovely, interesting participants that the day was a dream. I’d asked everyone to bring along an object that held a memory, and I was soon sucked into fascinating stories of hair slides, old photographs, charm bracelets, money boxes, a twig naturally shaped like a wood spirit, a treasured sweet packet, a gold sovereign and gold watches lost under the ocean.

As the day progressed, we tried various writing exercises, and I was so impressed by the standard of the poems and stories that I’m going to be putting some of them on my Wild Rosemary Writing Services website.

We even had time to watch a miniature theatre performance also taking place at Bank Street Arts on Saturday, The Ice Book, a wonderful story created from projections and paper shapes on the pages of a magical book. The fairy tale theme tied in perfectly with the exercises we were doing on folk tales and archetypes.

Straight after my workshop in the cafe was the launch of Writing Yorkshire, the new name for writers’ development agency Signposts. The team are now dedicated to helping writers throughout Yorkshire. They’ve certainly helped me so far, giving me advice on setting up my courses and my editing business. Some of my workshop participants came to mingle with me. Amongst the long queue of people waiting for free coffee and cake were lots of people I know: writers from the novelists group I run, people from the Writing MA at Sheffield Hallam University, and my managers from my very first post university job, working for the theatre company which has now evolved into Point Blank Theatre who run the Riverside pub venue in Sheffield. It felt really good to talk to my old boss about my new projects.

After cake, there was a really interesting panel debate with local writers, on the theme of making a living as a writer (a subject very dear to my heart!) The panellists were Joe Kriss, who runs Wordlife performance events in Sheffield and Beverley Ward, Writing Development Manager at Writing Yorkshire, and a fellow novelist, who has given me a lot of support and guidance so far in my freelance career. There was also Daniel Blythe, a Young Adult novelist and writer of Dr Who novels, and Stephen May, the writing development officer from the Arts Council. I was really pleased that they were advocating a “portfolio” career – building up a creative career with lots of different aspects – in my case teaching, editing and at the moment, building up as much experience as possible. It certainly makes life more interesting than sitting alone all the time, trying to create a masterpiece! It would drive me mad, even though it’s worked for some people. I am spending more time on my own writing though – getting up in the dark to snatch a bit of time every morning to write my second novel.

Colm Gray at the Crookes Folk Club - sorry about the red eyes!

Colm Gray at the Crookes Folk Club – sorry about the red eyes!

Feeling tired but elated, it was on with my marathon day. I caught a bus to my old stamping ground Crookes for a gig at the Crookes Folk Club at the Princess Royal pub. The main artist was Colm Gray, a young folk singer and guitarist I’d seen at Bearded Theory in May this year. He’d managed to blag his way into busking backstage, and impressed the organisers – and the singer from the Levellers so much that he’s booked to play the main stage at Bearded Theory, and also to play the Levellers’ own festival Beautiful Days next year.

The Princess Royal is an unassuming back street pub. It’s weekly folk club has been running for several years now, with talented artists performing in the intimate upstairs room. The place was packed for Colm Gray, who was fresh from supporting Levellers singer Mark Chadwick in Derby the night before. Colm is a striking-looking young man with razor-sharp cheekbones, with an almost ethereal presence and singing voice. He played a mixture of traditional tunes and his own songs, such as Collie Dog Blues to a spell-bound audience, Originally from Kilkenny, Colm is now touring the UK, breaking into the conscience of the nation the traditional way, travelling up and down the country in a Transit van, playing folk festivals and charming his way onto festival bills. He’s well worth catching on his wanders – hopefully he’ll play Sheffield again soon.

Monday was another Off the Shelf day. The rain was heavier and the skies. At the start of the evening, I braved the wet to meet novelist Gavin Extence, author of ‘The Universe Versus Alex Woods’, a quirky yet moving book about an unlikely friendship between Alex, an isolated teenage boy and Mr Peterson, a lonely old man. Gavin was really interesting to chat to – and we had a really interesting discussion with him about the themes in his novel and his writing career so far. That’s a great story in itself – after gaining a degree in English Literature (from the University of Sheffield, just like me!), and then a PHD, he was struggling to get a job (this sounds familiar too!) Gavin’s wife suggested that he put all of his energy into writing (and presumably the household chores too!) The hard work and dedication paid off, as ‘The Universe Versus Alex Woods’ is now a best-selling novel, and certainly one of the best books I’ve read this year, funny and thought-provoking.

I had the pleasure of Gavin’s company for a bit longer as I was giving him a lift to Bank Street Arts for “Sheffield’s Got Fiction Talent”, a “fiction slam” event, where local writers competed against each other, each having a minute to pitch their novel in the first round. Gavin Extence was a judge, and I was a competitor. I was disappointed not to make it past the first round, where audience members voted for their six favourite pitchers, but the place was packed, with over twenty writers competing for six places in the second round. I put a brave face on it. The night was a great success – partly because two people from the novelists group that I run came joint second, and some very talented writers were showcased – and were critiqued by the fearsome panel (not so fearsome, it was all great constructive criticism)!

I went to bed feeling alright – pleased that I’d met some interesting writers, and only mildly disappointed. However, my mental vultures were already circling. Sometimes I can feel devastated even when I’ve got things to be happy about. it doesn’t happen often, but when the wrong circumstances combine, I feel really depressed. Minor setbacks, combined with fluctuating hormones, the way people treat me, for example, a small, easily mended tiff with the other half, leave me tearful and hopeless. A turning point came a few years ago, when I consulted a doctor and she suggested a prescription of antidepressants. I realised that this wasn’t the way to help myself. I’ve been determined to know myself; to get to the root of my problems and do something about it. I’ve been on a mission to get rid of those mental vultures, otherwise known as the “top dog” or the “shitty committee”, who tell me that I’m worthless and talented, and that everyone who sees me can look right through me and see that I’m hideous, stupid, insane and deluded. It’s pure craziness to think like this.

But every time I feel like this, the positive voices get stronger. I realise I’m no longer alone in thinking negatively about myself. My wonderful “free range” colleague Lotte Lane has written (and filmed herself) about exactly what I’m talking about. This struck such a chord with me that it brought tears to my eyes – not tears of self-pity this time, but tears of recognition and hope.

Some people would shy away from mentioning the downs in life as well as the ups. But I want to be honest. By talking about things like this, it means that we’re no longer suffering alone. I’ve recognised my feelings and now I’m on my way to bouncing back, with new ideas and a refreshed perspective. We have to work hard to maintain and create the positive, creative things in our life, but they’re worth fighting for.

The power of a solo walk – the Porter Valley

In need of fresh air and thinking time…

I’ve been feeling a little out of sorts. I think it’s the change in the seasons, and my natural anxiety in the process of  changing careers and becoming self employed. Some things have been going brilliantly well – my writing workshop for Off the Shelf has filled up, due to my own hard work, and I’m in the middle of another freelance editing project. But some things start well and then take more time than expected to get off the ground. I always think I can do more than I can in one day – and the task of writing my second novel has been languishing behind more exciting tasks such as cleaning the bathroom!

I’m making lots of links with people to build my business, developing new ideas, and learning new skills all the time. But I know I could be doing more, working harder or smarter. There are lots of “shoulds” in life, aren’t there? Sometimes these days, I surprise myself with my own confidence; sometimes I’m cursing myself for the smallest mistake. I’m aiming to be on the look out for every opportunity: concentrating on keeping my life afloat and moving forwards in the right direction.

So on Sunday, I decided to go for a walk. My other half didn’t want to come, but it was such a lovely warm day, I had to make the most of it. And if it’s a choice between doing something I really want to do on my own, or not doing it at all, I’ll go for the solo option. And a solo walk is always an adventure. When I start walking from the house and find myself in the Bolehills and the Rivelin Valley, there are so many paths to take that I just choose them on a whim, not knowing where I’m going to end up, but knowing where I am from the contours of the land, the ramshackle allotments, the incongruous tower blocks of Stannington, and the swift river flowing through the bottom of the valley. These walks can be quite magical and unpredictable.

The Queen Victoria Jubilee Monument - a good spot for reading

The Queen Victoria Jubilee Monument – a good spot for reading

This Sunday, I decided on one of the other famous valley walks in Sheffield, the Porter Valley. This walk starts in Endcliffe Park, a popular park in Hunters Bar (immortalised by the Arctic Monkeys on their first album) with a large playing field, duck ponds and a cafe abounding with “yummy mummies” of this upmarket area of Sheffield. it’s also a favourite student area, and I parked on Ranby Road, a terraced street running down to the park, where I lived in my second year at university, catching up with my reading list by Queen Victoria’s jubilee memorial.

A heron! On the busiest pond in Sheffield.

A heron! On the busiest pond in Sheffield.

The park was busy with footballers, picnickers, kids and cute dogs. As I walked past the first pond, I had my first surprise. The pond is usually a bit boring, rather silted up, with the world’s fattest mallards bobbing around on the surface, staring disdainfully at the sliced white bread being thrown at them. They prefer ciabatta, daarling. But there in the trees, in full view of everyone, was a heron. A mother and daughter pointed it out, and soon, crowds had gathered to point and take photographs. Herons are quite common, really, but there’s still something special about them, scruffily elegant and mysterious.

I moved on, enjoying the vivid autumn colours and entertained by the antics of dogs who seemed determined to jump into the stream. Taking a few quieter paths, I saw a charming little grey wagtail, catching flies and bobbing around.

Steps made out of grindstones at Shepherd Wheel

Steps made out of grindstones at Shepherd Wheel

The Shepherd Wheel Mill was working today. Each pond on the Porter Valley used to be a millpond – powering water-powered grinding wheels for sharpening cutlery and tools. Shepherd Wheel is the only grinding mill- on any of Sheffield’s rivers, in existence, and it’s been restored over the last few years, with a working water wheel and the grinder’s wheels inside. The place bores my other half rigid, but I like it. it’s an important part of Sheffield’s history, and I find the noise of the wheels turning, and the water in the wheel, quite relaxing. It’s picturesque, dating back to the 1500s. In its heyday, it would have been a noisy, dangerous, dusty place to work – the whole valley would have been very industrial.  In the restored millpond, a lady was encouraging her Labrador to swim to fetch a ball – he was having a wonderful time.

A shaft of sunlight in the woods

A shaft of sunlight in the woods

Soon after the mill, a road crosses the path, and on the other side, it’s more wooded. There were still a fair amount of people taking a Sunday stroll or bike ride, but woodland and birdsong were taking over. There are some wonderful old, gnarled trees, and it really started to smell like autumn; of damp earth and fungi. I took atmospheric photographs of sunlight through the dappled leaf canopy.

Never mind the bullocks!

Never mind the bullocks!

Eventually, I ended up at Forge Dam, with its round pond, now rather silted up, and legendary cafe, recently refurbished. I had an excellent chip butty for lunch and sat outside in the Sunshine, amused by the rather posh clientèle, and large dogs causing chaos. I was going to end my walk here, but I decided that I was up for an adventure. I fancied a walk to the llama and alpaca farm – yes, you heard correctly, in Ringinglow, After Forge Dam, the path runs through the Mayfield Valley. This is definitely the countryside, there are fields on either side of the path, picturesque farms, and the high-rise buildings of the city look very distant. I passed a field of curious bullocks.

Just around the corner, the path to the village of Ringinglow climbs steeply uphill through a field. Once I walked up here and the field was full of cows with large pointed horns, but I was lucky this time – there was just a group of children launching themselves down the hill, loving the feeling of being out of control. It was a hard slog up the hill, but the view was worth it, miles of green valley, with the landmarks of Sheffield clear but tiny on the horizon. At the top, I exchanged out of breath pleasantries with a family visiting the Alpaca farm. As I walked into the village, I could see the long-necked animals in their fields, but I didn’t feel like paying to walk around the fields on the other side of the fence – after all, I’d already seen them!

Porter Clough

Porter Clough

Instead, I walked on until I reached Porter Clough, the very top of the Porter Valley walk, on the edge of the Peak District, where the stream is little more than a trickle from the moors. The steep-sided valley is covered in ancient woodland. I managed to avoid the rain of acorns falling in the woods. Although it was still t-shirt weather, the leaves were steadily twirling down.  I took the higher paths on the way back, to vary the route, and picked up my pace, and it wasn’t long before I was on Ranby Road again.

A solo walk is a great way to clear your mind and allow your thoughts to settle. I also find it good for creativity. Walking alone always makes me want to write poetry – and occasionally, I do. That’s why a familiar route on a reliable path is good, as no map-reading is required and you’re not going to get stuck in boggy bits when you’re not concentrating! One of my other favourite solo walks in Sheffield is around Damflask reservoir, near Bradfield village. It can be managed in just over an hour and it’s good if you just want to get away from it all for a while!

Safety first though! If you are going walking on your own, you might want to stick to tried-and-tested routes at first, where there will be other walkers. If you’re using a map to plan your route, make sure it’s manageable in the time you have. Wear sensible footwear! Bring a waterproof jacket, water, an OS map if you need it, a snack, or enough money to buy one. Bring your mobile phone, although a reception isn’t always guaranteed in mountainous regions! And always tell someone where you’re going and roughly when you expect to come home (not that I do all of these things all the time!) When you do get home, you’ll definitely be feeling better than when you set off!

Oh Deer: Autumn Reality Check

On the weekend of the Autumn Equinox, we headed to the hills. There were five of us. We’d all met through Oxfam stewarding: Louise, Susie, Fraser, Clare and myself, although the friendships have blossomed and evolved over years. Our friendships have taken us through study, unemployment, creativity, the daily grind of the 9-5, travel adventures, many festivals and being generally separated by geography. But we always come back together, with the ability to turn any experience into a crazy adventure. This autumnal meet-up was in the small window of opportunity between Clare returning from back-packing in China and a long trip to Nicaragua as a volunteer leader! She was also made redundant in April, and her world knows no limits!

Louise and I drove to Edale, a remote village in the Peak District under the shadow of the mountainous moorland plateau of Kinder Scout. The village is encircled by forbidding hills, but it’s less than an hour’s drive from Sheffield, and half way to Manchester on the train. This makes it a popular destination for hikers.

We knew the cottage we’d hired, Lea House, was near the Nag’s Head, the pub in the heart of the village and the official start of the Pennine way, but when Susie appeared to guide us to our weekend home, we were astounded that it was a 17th century cottage right next to the pub. It was perfect (well, for anyone under 5ft 6): massive oak beams, an open fireplace in the living room, a cosy kitchen and the sort of chintzy furniture that makes you feel cosy. The walls are about two feet thick and the roof tiles are thick stone slates – it needs to be a solidly built house with the wild weather of the Peaks. The house is actually a Grade II listed building. We were amazed that we’d managed to hire it at the last minute. The signpost for the start of the Pennine Way is right outside the front door.

We unpacked, and were ready to heat up the veggie chilli I’d prepared the night before, and bake the garlic bread in the oven, that weirdly, is identical to my own oven at home (which is so ancient that it deserves to be Grade II listed.) We started making a fire, waited for the others to arrive. Without a mobile phone signal, staying in Edale propels you back to earlier methods of communication, like payphones and guess-work! Fraser arrived with no problems, and eventually we ate the chilli, still waiting for Clare. We’d left a message on the gatepost, illuminated by a torch (there are no streetlights in the village), and left voicemails on her mobile from the phone in the Nag’s Head. As Clare is now an international globe-trotter, we were sure she was safe, but we grew increasingly worried.

Just after 11pm, I set off on my own, armed only with a small torch and the glow from having consumed several glasses of wine. Despite the darkness and remoteness of Edale, it always seems like a safe place. The hills feel protective, and the village feels friendly, welcoming visitors all through the year. As I approached The Rambler Inn, I heard a train rumbling into the station from the Sheffield direction. That must be Clare’s train. A few people walked towards me, having disembarked. Clare wasn’t amongst them. The platform was deserted. I checked the timetable. That was the last train. No Clare. What had happened? The last thing we knew, she was heading to Edale. I walked back to the cottage and broke the news to the others. We were concerned. Twenty minutes later, there was a knock on the door. She’d made it! Despite being a Derbyshire native, she’d started walking the opposite way from the train station, and had eventually asked The Rambler Inn for directions. Relieved, we caught up with gossip, and headed to bed.

Saturday morning started foggy and drizzly. Not the best day for climbing mountains. So we headed to the Chestnut Centre: a wildlife conservation park near Chapel-en-le-Frith, famous for its otters and owls. Before we reached the main animal enclosures, we walked through the deer park and had we started nibbling on our sandwiches and crisps. A herd of fallow deer followed us, with two particularly cheeky individuals nosing our bags to sniff out food, One beautiful deer ate the worksheet we’d just picked up from the visitors’ centre!

It always seems a bit strange to see owls in daytime, and they are rarely very active, although they look beautiful. However, we were entranced by the White Faced Southern Scop Owls, who were bobbing around on their perch as if they were listening to drum ‘n’ bass on their headphones! I’ve visited the Chestnut Centre a few times before, so I knew what to expect, but the Giant South American otters captivated my friends. They were on form – swimming around, play fighting and noisily eating. They are very rare in the wild and are part of an international breeding programme. The lively, sociable Asian Short Claw Otters were also one of the highlights.

We then descended perilous Winnats Pass into Castleton for a tour around the Peak Cavern, now officially known by its old name of the Devil’s Arse – so called because of the noise made by an underground river running through the cavern in full flow. We had an entertaining young tour guide – I’ve been to the cavern about five times, but it always impresses me and fires my imagination, particularly the story of the grimy rope-makers who used to work there acting as tour-guides for Romantic-era upper class adventurers, making the tourists lie in coffin-sized boats to explore the cavern by candlelight. Thankfully, it’s a lot more comfortable to explore the cavern now!

We spent a pleasant evening, with a meal around the kitchen table, chat and a couple of pints in the Nag’s Head, before coming back to the cottage for a wood fire and attempting to tackle a jigsaw commemorating Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s engagement from 1981. We’re not Royalists! We bought the jigsaw from Oxfam for Louise’s birthday, as she has a bizarre fascination with Princess Diana. Perhaps, after spending a lot of our time together as friends raving and going to noisy gigs, we were doing the jigsaw ironically. However, it’s very pleasant to chat while gently exercising our brains trying to fit pieces together.

Sunday was a beautiful, crystal-clear day. We were up for the challenge of climbing Kinder Scout. We made our sandwiches, and set off via Grindsbrook, the valley path which started directly behind Lea House. The climb uphill was a challenge as I was coming down with a cold, but the view from the top and the fresh air was worth it and I soon felt clear-headed and full of energy. I’ve climbed Kinder Scout several times before, but never in such great weather, so I’ve never really appreciated the amazing views or beautifully bizarre millstone grit rock formations at the top, caused by thousands of years of erosion by wind and water. We had great fun clambering around and photographing them. We ate our lunch on a flat stone in the middle of a waterfall, sun-bathing. Walking with friends is always a great chance to talk – and five is a great number. As the day went on, we put the world to rights and talked about our hopes and dreams as we followed our way around the edge of the plateau. Eventually, we made our way downhill, via the steep Jacob’s Ladder Path, before rewarding ourselves with dinner in the Ramber Inn and a few pints. We spent several more hours on the jigsaw, before giving up – the piles of plain blue and black pieces were just too boring to complete!

Even before I returned home on Monday, I knew that the rest of the Autumn would have to be a time of buckling down – getting on with building my writing business and gaining more teaching experience. Fresh opportunities are just about to start – I’ve managed to get tutor jobs with Derbyshire County Council and Sheffield College and I’m just waiting for my references and checks to come through. Over the last week, I’ve spent lots of time promoting my Off the Shelf writing workshop, which is paying off with lots of bookings and I’ve started my reminiscence work with dementia patients at Newholme Hospital in Bakewell again. Yesterday I spent a rainy day pond-dipping and wildlife watching at an RSPB reserve with children from the local primary school. And last Friday, I started a teacher training course to refine my skills working with adults. I’m doing the course through Derbyshire County Council and the venue is in New Mills, so on my journey, I found myself revisiting some of the weekend’s scenes again – Castleton, Winnat’s Pass and Hope.

The process of change can sometimes be frustrating, but looking back on my achievements over the last month, I realise that I’ve transformed from a trapped soul, looking out onto a concrete car park, into a creative, confident person, with beauty and friendship all around me, especially if I look for it. As John Shuttleworth, bard of Sheffield and the Peak District says in his song ‘She Lives in Hope’: “…and when she finds herself on Lose Hill, she only needs to turn to Win Hill to recover from Defeat.”

Further reading:

The National Trust reccomended our exact Kinder Scout walk – but we didn’t know it at the time!

Kinder Scout is also a landscape that working class ramblers fought to access. Read about the 1932 Mass Trespass of Kinder Scout here.

Things this blog is about…