Thursday, February 16, 2006

When is a peak not a peak? 

If you’re used to the idea that peaks are tall, jagged, pointy things, then a visit to the Peak District in Derbyshire, England, might cause some puzzlement. The name conjures up a vision of classic triangular profiles, lofty spires and exposed rock summits, yet you’d struggle to find much remotely peak-like, at least by that definition. You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d mis-heard the name – maybe it was the peat district? With one or two exceptions, these “peaks” are flat-topped moors, covered by thick, black, often waterlogged peat.

Paradoxically, the summits are often the wettest, boggiest places – rain falling on these giant sponges (which it does often) has a hard task of finding a way downhill; it soaks into the peat, sits in pools (like the frozen one below), and when it eventually finds a way off the plateau, it carves a deep mini-valley in the soft peat, known locally as a grough.

Crossing this landscape can be hard work – in the less frequented areas there are often no paths as such, as any that form through the passage of many pairs of boots soon become an impassable bog and so are abandoned in favour of virgin heather. However, that heather can be deep and forces feet to be lifted high over its tops; it covers hidden hollows and embryonic watercourses that will greedily swallow a carelessly placed boot, sending its owner unexpectedly sprawling across the ground. Negotiating a grough entails a drop of maybe a metre into the muddy stream bed, a jump across the stream at its narrowest point, hopefully selecting a landing point capable of supporting your weight without sinking ankle-deep in soft muddy black peat, then scrambling up the slippery opposite bank, aided by pulling on handfuls of heather.

We were fortunate – the ground was frozen hard, disarming the bogs of most of their treachery, so we were able to stride across with impunity. Most of the time, that is; occasionally we’d hear the ice cracking and creaking and feel movement underfoot, and realise we were walking on a frozen crust maybe a couple of inches thick, below which lay several inches of unfrozen bog, anxious to make our acquaintance should we be careless.

Although these less-frequented areas made for a welcome feeling of isolation, they also made for slow progress. Given our schedule, it was just as well that some of the most popular parts of the route have been paved in stone. It’s curious though, how the knowledge that you’re walking on a surface placed by man can put you one step removed from the landscape. We were in exactly the same spatial relationship to the surrounding landscape as we would have been without the path, yet the presence of those square-cut stone slabs somehow separated us from it, almost as if we were walking through a glass tunnel.

There may not have been any peaks surrounding us, but the landscape isn’t without its rock features. For one thing, the moors are often edged by gritstone crags, such as Stanage Edge. Stanage is Mecca for many UK rock climbers – at another time of year, we’d probably have gone no further but spent the weekend on its crags.

As well as the crags, the gritstone forms impressive Tors:

– on the exposed moors these provide excellent shelter for a lunch stop. And yes, that white stuff is snow. Perhaps not quite as much as Fred and Doug have been having, but the real McCoy, nonetheless. And although it may have been small in scale, ours was no softly falling blanket, but was being propelled horizontally across our path by a powerful wind.

Thankfully though our micro-blizzard was short lived, and by mid afternoon we were treated to blue skies and dazzling sun - by happy coincidence, just at the time we were at the most scenic part of the route.

I was hoping to carry on the story a little further here, but tonight's blogging time has run out.

To be continued...

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