Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Creeping civilisation 

There’s a custom among walkers in Britain’s hills – and, for all I know, the world over – to exchange a word or two of greeting as you pass each other. Typically, a brief “Morning”, or “Hi there!” or “Beautiful day” – the latter words used whatever the weather, in a tone ranging from sincerity to sarcasm as appropriate. On a tough ascent, the words might be mouthed, but the only sound that comes out is an incoherent grunt as you struggle up a steep rocky staircase. In general, both parties are too intent on their forward progress in opposite directions for much more than this, although on occasion there’s some undefined flash of recognition that prompts a longer exchange; these are moments to savour – even though the words are superficial, so often you know that you’ve encountered a kindred spirit.

Like I said, it’s a custom among walkers in the hills. On the second day of our recent hike over the moors of the Derbyshire Peak District, we decided to descend out of the hills sooner than I’d originally planned. The tops were shrouded in mist and rain and looked likely to remain so all day (as indeed they did) – navigation would be much harder and progress consequently much slower, moreover P. had woken up with a cold, so we changed plan and took a more direct, lower level route back, walking alongside the River Derwent and then beside the series of three reservoirs, created in the middle of the last century by damming the river.

You could estimate with some accuracy how far we were from “civilisation” (read: places accessible by a car) by the number of people we passed who shared a greeting in this way. For the first few miles we met no-one, since only those camping out would be this far into the wilds this early on a Sunday morning. But before long we began to encounter others –to begin with, mostly mud-bespattered mountain bikers – who, without exception, were clearly initiates to this custom. Then came the Sunday morning strollers; these fell into two distinct camps. Those dressed in what you might call serious outdoor gear, even if they didn’t speak, at least gave a smile of recognition – our packs must have identified us as kindred spirits – but the fluffy pink anorak and trainers brigade (whom one must at least salute for getting quite a long way out there in frankly rather unpleasant weather) behaved exactly like anyone else you’d pass in a city street – which is to say they remained apparently oblivious to anyone else’s presence.

The encounter that struck me most though was one from the previous day. I wonder if there’s any significance in the fact that, high on the ridge in wind and sleet where only dedicated outdoors types venture, the one hiker who failed to return our greeting was also the one with a bright yellow GPS navigation device hung around her neck? “Civilisation” creeps ever further into the wilds…

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