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.

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