Monday, February 18, 2008

Walk Of The Month: Derbyshire

I've lifted the enclosed in its entirety from this weekend's Daily Telegraph, because that's the view I have driving Merci Beaucoup Enfant Deux to school over the mountains. Although obviously, I don't actually climb Stanage Edge...

"Christopher Somerville feels the weight of history in Derbyshire as he follows in the giant footsteps of Little John and Charlotte Brontë.

"It was a red dawn and a murky sunrise as I drove north into Derbyshire. But when I swung over Bradwell Edge and looked down into the lush farmland of the Hope Valley, the snake of mist that traced the curves of the River Derwent was already shredding away. By the time I got to Hathersage, the gritstone houses and road walls were sparkling under a pale sun.
On a pub sign I spotted a likeness of Little John, Hathersage's most famous son. The fierce but genial giant who once tumbled Robin Hood into a stream stood depicted in tunic of untraditional blue, his nickname abbreviated to a curt, if trendy "LJ". Up in the churchyard of St Michael and All Angels I found his grave, long enough for two ordinary mortals.
Those who opened the grave in 1784 reported finding an immense thighbone nearly three feet long. Little John's mighty bow and cap of Lincoln green hung in St Michael's Church for hundreds of years; his cottage near the churchyard stood until it was demolished in the 19th century. Whatever the facts about Robin Hood's right-hand man, Hathersage continues to bask in the reflected glory of the Big Man of Sherwood Forest.
I pondered his provenance as I climbed the frost-whitened field paths north of the valley. In the 12th century the Hope Valley lay within the northern bounds of Sherwood Forest. Could bold Robin and brave John have lain among the ancestors of these oaks and beeches, the grey goose-feather flights pulled tight beside their ears, a fine fallow hart in their sights?
The handsome Tudor house of North Lees Hall stands close under Stanage Edge. Its tower spawned a tale in the mind of a 19th-century governess, a fable that has earned an immortality to equal that of Robin and his Merrie Men. Charlotte Brontë first caught sight of the pale stone tower in 1845 when she came for a three-week stay in Hathersage with her friend Ellen Nussey, sister of the village vicar.
The local surname of Eyre caught Charlotte's inner ear, too. Soon Jane Eyre would apprehensively approach the dark tower of Thornfield Hall, lair of the saturnine Mr Rochester: "It was three storeys high, of proportions not vast, though considerable: a gentleman's manor-house, not a nobleman's seat: battlements round the top gave it a picturesque look."
Those battlements were the setting for one of the most dramatic scenes in literature, as poor mad Mrs Rochester made her final bid for freedom from a terrible fire she had started: "...she was on the roof, where she was standing, waving her arms above the battlements, and shouting out till they could hear her a mile off... She...had long black hair; we could see it streaming against the flames as...Mr Rochester ascended through the skylight...we saw him approach her; and then, ma'am, she yelled and gave a spring, and the next minute she lay smashed on the pavement."
For five minutes I stood at the gate, staring up at the tower, struck still and dumb by the power of that tremendous moment. I had walked on through the bare trees and up the ancient packhorse road to the summit of Stanage Edge before the picture faded and was overlaid by more immediate images - helmeted rock climbers festooned with rope, walkers filing up the rocky path of Jacob's Ladder, and, soaring above all, the rainbow arc of a paraglider's sail.
Stanage Edge, the rocky rim of what was once a gigantic dome of millstone grit, is a climbers' and boulderers' heaven. The grey adhesive rock, fractured into steps, cracks and layers, offers challenges to test tyro and expert alike. Famous names from that introverted, macho and phenomenally athletic world, the hardest of the "hard man" school - Don Whillans, Nat Allen, Joe Brown - cut their teeth along these modest-looking crags.
They and their successors dubbed every climbable crack and interstice with names superbly curt and clipped: Goliath's Groove, Agony Crack, The Unconquerables, The Vice, Blockhead Direct, Queersville, Eliminator.
I strode the flat, tricky gritstone pavement along the Edge, face to the wind, in a kind of high-level ecstasy. Climbers crouched and sprawled in impossibly heroic poses on every crag. Beyond them, a most enormous view opened to the south and west across the frosted fields and shadowy moors and edges of the Dark Peak. To the left ran cream and purple moors, the wind streaming their pale grasses so that the whole wide upland appeared to be in motion, racing north into Yorkshire.
Quitting Stanage Edge at last did not mean quitting these wonderful heights. Higger Tor and Carl Wark lay ahead, flat-topped tors like castles. I stormed their walls in an outpouring of supercharged energy.
Then, breathless and buffeted by the cold and wind, I dropped down through tumbled meadows around Mitchell Field Farm and the mock-baronial miniature fortress of Scraperlow House; down towards Hathersage, the warmth and light of the Scotsmans Pack inn, and the grey church spire that marks where Little John lies sleeping until Robin's horn wakes him for one last chase through the glades of the eternal Forest."