It is a relatively small, but notably unique and remarkably challenging, rise in the Peak District, just outside the sleepy village of East Sterndale. The clouds were low, but they didn’t obscure the view so much as to make it all the more dramatic; crowning every hill top, farmhouse, and tumulus, in eerie grey wreaths. So far the day’s adventure had been successful, despite the typically gloomy weather. The wind was brisk and the rain came on lightly, but frequently. It was the sort of rain which wasn’t particularly challenging to my inexpensive waterproofs, but it was persistent, and had been persistent for a few days already, so the undulating earth around me was growing slippery.
It had been on the approach to Parkhouse that I first started to not find my footing.
As I followed the lightly trodden path out of East Sterndale to the craggy knifepoint of Parkhouse I stumbled and slipped and got annoyed with my decreasing levels of hardy grace. So far I had maintained the facade of a tough, weathered adventurer well enough. Previously I had diverted up the steepest face of High Wheeldon, overtaking an elderly rambler who was struggling to decide whether he wanted his umbrella up or not, and then braved the bracing winds which blustered across the peak there, sipping tea from a thermos as I caught my breath. Below, I saw a woman walking her dogs. Ten minutes later, when I was off the hill, our paths crossed and she noted how windy it must have been.
I affirmed her approximations with pride.
‘Yes, just a bit,’ I told her.
‘Exhilarating though,’ she said, as her dogs sniffed around my trail shoes.
Indeed, I thought, and that is the sort of man I am.
I then continued to lie to myself as I walked onwards. Yes, there I was, a man of exhilaration, in a pure, and particularly British way. A man who holds a stiff lip in equally stiff breezes and takes pleasure in marching up hills in the rain.
Ten further minutes later and I was falling towards Parkhouse Hill, my delusions of grandeur ebbing away as quickly as I had allowed them to come on. It was clear to me that getting up Parkhouse would be one thing, but with the rain persisting and the ground becoming ever less sure, getting down would be another entirely. I powered up anyway. I adore going uphill. Going up, I can easily slip into a kind of aerobic trance; my mouth falls slightly agape, I plant my hands on the tops of legs, bend slightly at the hips, and power up step after step after step, causing those strange chemicals of intermingling pain and joy to flood my brain. Contrarily, I do not love going downhill.
I particularly did not love going down Parkhouse Hill.
Now, there is a perfectly walkable path which leads off off the hill, but that was not going the way that I wanted to go, and god forbid I double back on myself, so I scrambled down. Now, I am no scrambler, and I did so without grace. I was no longer a strong English countryman striding across hill and dale with impunity, I was a silly little fellow slipping down a rocky slope on his backside. By the time I was able to replant my sodden feet on terra firma my lower body was covered in dark, ominous, mud. I abandoned my planned ascent of Chrome Hill and found a lovely, tarmacked road which wound around my original route, back to my comely accommodation, where I quickly showered, changed, and fortified myself with coffee and a dash of whisky – falling back into my adventurer’s fantasy as I rested for a few hours.
The reason I was in the Peak District was that I had a race the next day. Hiking 9 miles with 2000ft of elevation is probably not sensible pre-race preparation, but this was a training race for an upcoming half marathon and I did not plan on running the 10 mile event around Upper Derwent Reservoir at maximum capacity. What it was really all about though, I think, was going away, solo.
It’s a small adventure, really, walking in the Peak District. It can be challenging, but unless you head out into really stupid conditions dressed similarly stupidly, you shouldn’t have too many problems. This made it the perfect place for me to do something which I had been fantasising about for years: fucking off for a day or two into the middle of nowhere, by myself. I am a perfectly sociable person, I am close with my family, close with friends, chatty at work, but for ages I have imagined what it would be like to really carve out a few days purely solo. This little trip managed to fall between the end of my previous job, and the start of the next. It was the perfect refresher. Being alone, in the country, produced a great amount of space. Literally, of course, as there wasn’t a lot going on where I stayed, and it felt even greater because I was there alone, but also in a less tangible way; space in the space of headspace.
I seemed to appreciate things differently: silence, the lights of the road that I could see from my hut as cars cut across the hills at night, the low roar of the wind, the welcome warmth of the radio, the radiator, a whistle of a kettle boiling on a hob, tea miraculously hot within my thermos, the grandeur of great green spaces, tiny conversations with passing strangers, the exertion of a hill climb, the reward of the view, the fear of the descent. All of these things feel different, alone. And I don’t even know that I mean better, necessarily, I certainly don’t mean to suggest that a lonely life is a better life, but I think I mean to suggest that, for me at least, I like to see it from both perspectives. I like, sometimes, to go solo. Sometimes I want to stand atop a hill, alone, one which I don’t know exactly how I am going to get down off of, and work it out for myself.