‘A borderline religious experience’ – Nat, Edale.
I’m still unsure what compelled this journey of mine, or what is keeping me bound to the landscape. There’s no professionalism or pride involved here. England or Britain to me isn’t anywhere. It’s an imaginary concept that gets used typically for a bigoted political view that preserves the established order, rich against poor, poor against poor. Low-paid white British and Asian British workers blaming travellers, East Europeans, whoever, for common issues of unemployment, insufficient housing and low pay.
My hunch is that there are many different societies and landscapes that have other stories that have been ignored or erased. This is keeping me on this unknown path, to an unfamiliar place to sleep each night. But it’s not been easy so far. My bicycle was always going to be totally inadequate for the roads I’d need to cross.
I am by no means athletic either, and fatigue is blighting my body and brain. Apart from a brief youth footballing career where, as defender for Fenton Rovers, we won the prestigious Dulwich Hamlet under-13s youth championship, I’ve been more into pub sports than anything else. My dreams are more intense and strange than I’ve ever experienced, and are frequently lucid or filled with night terrors. At times I’ve hallucinated on the road, seen and heard things that are not present, and struggled to separate dream from waking life, particularly in the evenings. I am becoming quite the madman.
The journey is of course mad too. What was my life before? I read the news, spend my waking hours reading about political philosophy and working for a funded PhD, and in the evenings, when I wasn’t at home with my partner, who I miss more than both my arms, drinking with the same group of friends I’ve known for some years while playing in bands. It was a very easy life. In the space of little over two weeks that all feels deeply alien. I have no idea what the day is, or what’s happening in the news, and it doesn’t bother me. Will my ranty opinion change things? The only music I listen to is in pubs and caffs, Top 40 hits that roll around my thoughts, and I love these songs, there’s no place I’d rather be.
Books are worthless now. I now depend on people for all my information. I’ve started talking to passers-by in the street, interviewing them and asking them questions, finding out what they think, without my short-sighted London angry lefty agenda. I used to always distrust people and suspect their motives. Never in London would I think of initiating a conversation with a stranger.
The me I was is disappearing. My PhD and academic activity feels as relevant to the people or landscapes around me as a late medieval metallurgy technique. And the landscapes that I come across, particularly today, are so achingly beautiful and stirring that I won’t forget them. So let me try and bring them to life.
I awake in Matlock at Paul and Jamie’s. Jamie quotes me something that stays in my dreams:
‘The creation of concepts in itself calls for a future form, for a new earth and people that do not yet exist’.
The previous evening we stayed up late talking about desire and politics, about the environment and the future. They are both two very wise, kind and wonderful people, and they shared a good deal with me that I’ve found inspiring and provoking. Jamie (Heckert) has a thesis on queer sexuality and anarchism that makes a truly unique argument, and I urge any reader interested in power, identity, and the everyday choices we think we make to look his work up. It is extraordinary in its analysis and I hope a progressive publisher will help him present these new ideas to the public. The above quote is from Deleuze and Guattari, but in Jamie’s conceptual worldview takes on a whole new power.
I am sorry to leave them and their pretty cliff-top Matlock cottage, particularly as it is raining hard, but the road compels me, and I have no front brake on my bike. I gingerly scoot down the steep hill til I get to Stanley Fearn bikes, where Rob takes a look at my knackered mode of transport. The prognosis is pretty bad: the chain is the most worn he has ever seen, and he is quite amazed the bicycle even rides. The front brake is so badly damaged that the front fork (which holds the wheel) will probably need replacing, unless some esoteric magick can repair it in mysterious ways. I leave the bike with them and find a caff in Matlock where I nurse a milky tea and write up the previous day’s misadventures.
It around 2pm that I get the call back.
Unlike many south London bike shops, there are some rare geniuses in these country parts. I don’t mean to dismiss the well-meaning shops of Camberwell, but I had my bike serviced a couple of weeks before I left and no mention was made of the extremely worn chain or broken front brakes, yet somehow a three figure bill was presented. If anyone’s thinking of having a bike serviced at Edward’s, please bear in mind my experience. At Stanley Fearns though there was no fork, no means of repairing the bike. My only fate would be to remain here some days til they arrived by post. It’s looking bad.
Through some alchemy, they’ve fixed the old thing and adjusted a number of other irritating tics on the bike too. I have a new front brake and a £40 bill. Relieved, I put on my bin-liner poncho and stride out, ready to face the menacing hills and kneecapping heights of the Peak District. The landscapes is extraordinarily beautiful and peaceful. Gazing out at the distant peaks, one feels so far removed from the transient concerns of the news and the world, and the transitory anxieties of one’s own life. I ask people what they make of the spectacular view and I’m told that they often sit out and gaze for hours at the distant fields and sheep, entirely oblivious of the passage of time.
The Derbyshire dales are by far the most beautiful countryside I have ever seen.
It’s around 3pm and the rain is falling heavily in the Peak District. I ride through Darley Bridge and pretty Rowsley, past thick old Victorian cottages built out of a characteristic large yellow-brown stone. As it’s late I miss out on a location that I would recommend to anyone passing through these pretty parts. At nearby Birchover, up a steep hill, is a Druid’s Cave with ancient etchings into the stones. It is up an unsigned trail unsuitable for bikes, but I am told it is extraordinary.
Chatsworth however can be reached, and it is well worth the troubles of the steep hills. Most visitors come here for the huge stately home, a juggernaut of aristocratic affluence that scars the rolling landscape with its haughty arrogance. One passes countless fields of sheep and lamb to get near, but what’s worth seeing is the tiny village of Edensor (pronounced Enzor), where there is the most remarkable small church. Built by George Gilbert Scott in 1870 (architect of the grand hotel that fronts St. Pancras, London), it is a Gothic Revival place of worship built for the Cavendishes, the local aristocrats. Inside the Church are some quite strange monuments, including a large family tomb complete with a full-size skeleton statue and sculptures of pagan elements like the owl of Minerva, and the head of Medusa. Over-the-top classic paganism combines with late Victorian pretentiousness into a hilariously melancholic meditation on death. Nearby I’m told that JFK’s sister is buried in the graveyard, but I struggle to find any sign, and find myself wandering around the silent Swiss chalets and empty tea-rooms that characterise this odd little place.
The hills are wearing me out.
I struggle up to Bakewell, following another local scoop about the pretty and strange town here. It’s a cute little place just on the River Wye, and this poky little town has given us the Bakewell tart, a welcome staple of any kid’s birthday party. I huff up the hills and find a very pretty church, where in the south porch are cast about ancient stones and ruins, peculiarly flung about alongside old coffins pre-sized for decomposed bodies. I see the molten faces of gargoyles, and signs of keys and swirls, images that make little sense to us but were produced in an Anglo-Danish style, a fusion of Dane ‘viking’ and Anglo-Saxon. I am told that they were part of a wider set of images that contrasted the cosmology of the Vikings, nine world centred around a Tree of the World, Yggdrasil, and the Sparrow and the hawk which communicated knowledge from the worlds to the Gods, with the redemptive story of Jesus Christ. The imagery seeks to persuade local Danes that Christianity is not only compliant with Danish ideas, but is superior to them.
It is a remarkable indicator of the diversity of this area. Whilst Danes settled in the mountains to the east, Welsh migrants followed up the River Derwent, creating a unique fusion of local names and cultures which today takes the form of a wonderful friendliness among the local people to outsiders. I am often greeted and people start conversations with me, taking the pressure of a bit and filling my head with a mine of local stories.
From Bakewell I pedal back to Hassop, where once a private station existed to serve the local Earl of Devonshire. Today there is a bike hire shop and a café which, on a rainy day like this, is entirely deserted. I’m here to follow the Monsal Trail, a flat bike route which follows an old railway line which linked Bakewell to Wye Dale. It’s a perfect route. A little over seven miles, it passes through old tunnels and over viaducts with extraordinary views of the rising dales. Pretty finches and wagtails flit before me as I follow the flat route, weaving among staggering views and the very occasional dog-walker. There are layers of limestone here over 33 million years old, ancient landscapes formed when the area was as hot as the Bahamas. It’s a joyous route and my spirits are high. The rain becomes lighter, and I feel a little more hopeful.
The route ends and I follow the A6 again towards Buxton, a strange road that seems to continually snake round and round in a circular fashion. I wonder for some time if I’m just going in a circle, as the road flanks steep cliffs and railway bridges. By the time I arrive I am quite tired, and I rest in front of a supermarket in the town and watch a local man argue with an ex-partner and their children by an Iceland supermarket.
At first Buxton feels underwhelming, an industrial interruption in the delightful Derbyshire dales. I’m inclined to write it off, but I ask a couple of people that stroll by me what they think of the place. I meet one local man, Andy, who is a mine of information. As he chuckles nervously between each perceptive observation, he rolls out the character of the place.
‘Nowt round here except quarrying and eel farming!’
He tells me that ‘it’s not bad round here, it’s alright’, and gives me an overview of the place. Buxton was once a pretty Georgian spa town but, unlike Leamington, has fallen on hard times of late. The Georgian baths are boarded up and an English Heritage project to renovate them seems abandoned. Most of the pedestrianized high street is packed up with standard issue British Town Centre shops. But there are some treats here too, curious cafes and local antique stores, adding a little character to the place. Andy tells me how Mary Queen of Scots was allowed out of prison to take the waters here, how Romans once came for the local springs.
His conversation reminds me of the lack of fresh public water today. People often absent-mindedly complain about the over-consumption of bottled water today. Is it not the real issue the removal of public water fountains, alongside public toilets and, more recently, public libraries? Access to fresh tap water should be a free right and a feature of any town centre.
He has a lot of fun telling me how radioactive the place is too. Buxton water, a staple in most newsagents alongside Volvic and Evian, was originally marketed as ‘the radioactive water’ in the 1920s. Andy tells me about an old postcard he has at home retaining this now most unfortunate of misnomers. ‘All water is radioactive mind, it comes from the rocks’. He tells me about the nearby Poole’s cavern, where in winter radon gas bursts out of the rocks. Local guides are no longer allowed to do tours there for parts of the year.
It reminds me of the extraordinary ecological diversity by places near to nuclear testing, like Chernobyl, or in the Pacific atolls. Other natural creatures seem far more readily adaptable to these strange bursts of energy. Just by St. Ann’s terrace and close to the pretty opera house here is the original spring, where one can fill up a bottle of the surprisingly warm spring water.
There’s a queue of local people with old Lucozade bottles when I arrive. The water is delicious and I sup greedily. Today Buxton water company takes water from the spring and pipes it up to their nearby Fairfield factory close to the station. Andy explains that the water is a unique feature of the place, bursting in the fissure between white and dark rock. Just as geology changes, accents do too. No longer are there thick Derbyshire oatcakes or subtle accents. I come across a richer and more lilting voice, a fusion of Manc and Yorks, polyphonic and without drone, gentle in its patter. Aside from this, there’s little to the town. It’s a pretty place like Matlock, perfect for a few days repose from urban angst, and cheap enough. There are lots of young people here, and the University of Derby has a campus nearby. I’m told that Vera Brittain is the only well-known person from here, and in Testament of Youth, a great memoir of British society during the 1910s, bloody loathed the place! Local people I bump into are self-deprecating and charming in their manner.
It’s time to move on. I follow a steeper road through Doveholes, past pretty lambs and crumbling walls, flanked by steep dales. I reach Chapel-en-le-Frith, an improbably Norman name, and stop by for a bag of chips in a local kebab shop. My hands are freezing and the continual rain has soaked me through, bringing my body temperature right down.
The takeaway is an unlikely fusion of everything, of a kind I’ve rarely seen in London but is fairly common in these small towns. It does kebabs, chicken, pizza, salad, fish and chips, you name it. If it arrives frozen in a plastic bag and can be put in a deep-fryer, they will serve it you. I get a small chips from here which tastes like the same chips I’ve eaten all over the east and midlands so far. Who makes these chips? They always sell for £1.30 and are largely unsuitable for human consumption.
There’s a TV on in the place and I realise how long it’s been since I last watched it. England are playing Ecuador in a World Cup warm-up. I watch the match alongside a local feller with his daughter, and quickly become captivated by the foot-play. I’d become bored with football some time ago but, without my personal baggage and my mind fresh, the game became fascinating. It reminded me how so many sports had been popularised, formalised and then globalised. As Ecuador snuck in a cheeky header with the most piss-poor of defences, it also reminded me of how often the English completely suck today at the innovations they once introduced. Behind the counter and in a back-room, I hear the same match with thick Turkish commentary, about three-seconds behind the English version. ‘Fat Rooney!’ shouts the Turkish owner whilst, nearby, a northern English guy laughs and says ‘he’s not as good looking as me’.
As I leave, I hear a fair verdict on the English team led by Roy Hodgeson. ‘He’s got loads of good lads, but they need to gel together as a team’. It feels like a lasting verdict on the atomisation of today’s young players with their superstar wages and narcissistic expectations against the nobbley-headed amateurishness of England sides some decades ago which won cups and tough games with no other incentive other than solidarity and cooperation as a team, and a love of the game. England eventually end up with a mediocre 2-all draw.
I leave Chapel at around 8.30 pm, and cycle up to my next destination, Hayfield, right on the far-west of the Peak District. The road takes me up the steepest hill I have ever encountered, and my body starts to break down on the grey and rainy road. I have to stop so often. I curse and shout at myself, and a profound misery begins to set in. I’m not able to get up this hill. Everything is heavy, everything hurts. It takes some time before I finally make it over the brow of the hill, past knackered walls and bleating lambs, and thunder down to the other side.
Hayfield has been my destination of the day. It’s a small village at the bottom of a steep dale, but it was here on 24 April 1932 that the ethos of my journey realised itself. It will seem remote now, but access to countryside was considered a right of industrial workers during the early 20th century. They provided fresh air and opportunities for relaxation and self-improvement. Rambling and climbing began as very left-wing, Marxist interests. A mountain-climbing group called ‘Red Rope’, largely based in Manchester, demanded the right to climb and use private land around Kinder Scout. This had once been common land but was now enclosed by private landowners and denied to the public.
The Mass Trespass of Kinder Scout was a coordinated direct action protest by working-class hikers and climbers to re-commandeer this public land. They met at Bowden Bridge, nearby to Hayfield and, managing to escape from roaming police, they wandered into private land, where they brawled with local gamekeepers for the rights of you and I to wander through the fields and paths of Britain. The Communist-inspired British Workers’ Sports Federation demanded the right to roam the land. Many of the leaders were thrown in prison. Their courageous actions led to a movement to create national parks and public byways, things that seem almost quaint and conservative today. Let’s not forget that violent direct action made these public rights possible. No public right was won just peacefully, from a minimum wage or workers’ rights to the NHS or mass literacy.
I was feeling inspired by the Kinder Trespass, and I spot a nearby camping site that tempts me to stay. But I am quick screwed. I made a mistake earlier of booking a hostel at Edale, over an hour away, thinking that the bike repair would take little time. As I leave Hayfield it is getting very dark, and I have to return up the steep hill I have just come from.
My body is breaking down, and I have misjudged everything. It will take over an hour to get to Edale from Hayfield, but I have only 45 minutes before the hostel shuts. Every part of me hurts immensely.
Slowly I pedal up the 45 degree hill. I sing into the darkening sky, weaving past speeding landrovers, until my hope breaks and I am left with mere shrieking. I pray to whatever god will listen for a little strength just to get a bit further. The land is too steep to wild-camp. I run through every scenario, anxiety creeping in. I try to shout to myself to have courage, but I am too breathless to express more than a whimper.
I eventually make it back to Chapel, but what faces me next is an immensely huge hill to Blue John Cavern and Edale. There is no realistic way I will reach my isolated mountain hostel in time. I climb up the hill, screeching at the gods, desperate and broken. I give up for a moment, and try to hitch-hike up the mountain, thinking to lock up my bike by a fence. Three vehicles pass me by and ignore me. It is the worst experience of the journey so far, and were I less in love with my journey so far, sufficient evidence to abandon any expectation of political change in the peoples of this island. I feel like I have been broken over the butterfly wheel, but now I am trapped.
As I get to the top of the first hill, the road is so elevated that I am face to face with the clouds, and a night-time mist sits heavily on the unlit road. I see in the distance landrovers appear before me, announced by thick cones of light that fail to pierce the thick corridors of fog. The rain is heavy and the mist soaks my skin, and I can’t see beyond a couple of metres. Badgers run in front of the bicycle, and thick moths terrify me as I pace up the steep and winding road.
I eventually reach the steep road up to Edale, passing through black forests and strange animal sounds. Fear is soaking through me, but I have no other option but to continue on. I am too wet to stop, and there is nowhere to camp. I collapse or I pace on in vain. It is in such terror and fear that an inner strength forces itself into being. I start pedalling on my bike’s highest gear up steep hills, which eventually give way to a rapid series of dangerous drops entirely unsuitable for a road bike. In the dark and unlit night I pick up speeds of 30 or 40 miles per hour down steep and snaking hills, narrowly avoiding potholes and cliff drops. I am terrified but determined. The speed I pick up whizzes me through Edale and out, and eventually I find a distant high road up to the isolated hostel. I have about two minutes left. I break every sinew pedalling up that bastard hill.
Improbably, I arrive just as the venue is about to lock up. I order a couple of beers and manage to avoid fainting. I feast on a hero’s dinner of fajitas, grated cheese and a can of beans which I manage to open with a pair of scissors. As I catch my breath in the lounge, I overhear conversations from others here, in this most isolated of spots. Two retired firemen or soldiers talk about rescuing a dead woman, skin coming off, whilst a group of young playschool leaders complain about the demands of their roles.
This life! I expect there must be a vicarious pleasure in reading this, in experiencing the adventures without the broken brakes or backs, without the misery of spirit that days like this induce? This day has killed me, but I am elated and ecstatic. From a moment of total abandonment, hitch-hiking to a remote hostel, cycling up dark and misty hills where for moments I expected to be hit by a truck, to survival and freedom, there is an extraordinary and revelatory pleasure in the eventual conquest of fear. There is nothing quite like it.
Only one writer approaches pleasures like these. Flann O’Brien was a Dublin writer and a worthy equal to someone like James Joyce or Samuel Beckett, except that his works share a genuinely rambunctious humour that lifts them beyond academic waffle and into the everyday lives of Irish people. His superb novel The Third Policemen describes a painful afterlife-scenario of repeated suffering and a mystery whose meaning can never be accessing, despite the great striving of the main protagonist. What I love about this book is its descriptions of cycling. Bicycles become one of their characters, and become extensions of their material body. They reproduce the user’s characteristics and quirks.
Just as my bike is breaking down, so is my body. Yet they’re holding it together, just about. Cycling is a philosophical activity: just as it disciplines the body, it trains the mind to discover its inner strengths and break through the pre-fabricated walls of fear and doubt. As Einstein, perhaps the best philosopher of cycling, has said, ‘Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.’
So the journey continues.