It's been two years since I walked across Europe. People have often asked me if I miss it, and I never know quite what to say. Consciously I'm not aware of missing it, but I know that on some level I do – in spite of writing a book about it, sometimes it feels I've forgotten what I learned, or even that I learned anything at all. This is my first attempt at learning it again, with the faintest stirrings of ideas for another book in mind.
The White Peak becomes the Dark Peak, limestone to gritstone, bright green fields and farms and rivers turn upwards to tors and moorland. These uplands were all forest once – old-growth arboreal miles rolling to unhuman horizons, dark and dappled under canopy and home to wolf and bear and boar. Stone-age humans cut the trees and let them rot to start the process that would make peat bogs seven thousand years later. People shape the land in their image, several millennia of sheep chewing the slopes to the barest scrub, then grouse moors cleared the land until the Kinder Scout Trespass in 1932, the beginning of a long class struggle that led me to being here.
None of this is a natural view. Looking over the empty hills I see an enormous loss. At the top of Jacob's Ladder, past the Edale Stones, the view back to the green Hope Valley unusually bright with lighter fields. This is not good writing but I'm getting back in the habit by degrees, finding my pace again. Trying to find a voice for this land that is not mine and I don't know. Around the cairn at Kinder Low a spreading of pale flat stones, strangely beached, the grass burnt off by a fire that must have blazed last year. You can see the land visibly regenerating itself – spongy brown peat exposed to the light, loose dust rising under-boot and bright white tufts of cotton-grass like scatterings of tiny flames, and foamy phlegms of cuckoo spit among the gorse and bilberries.
I don't have names for most of these things. There are minuscule white flowers like stars, very pretty, that I can almost name but can't quite catch the word for. Even the birds I hardly know, swifts and swallows still confuse me, though a month ago I learned the curlew's call and red grouse say 'go back, go back' according to a National Trust information sign. I'm sitting on a tor overlooking the unnatural design of Kinder Reservoir and the rock of the tor is layer on layer like a crumpled accordion. This is a post-agricultural landscape, and I miss the forest I never even knew. Apparently you can see Manchester on a clear day.
I hear the curlews, a lonely and mournful two-note call full of wistfulness. Then the grouse – 'go back, go back,' right before I realise I've gone the wrong way down a dried-up stream and must retrace my steps. Kinder Downfall is just a trickle of long drops pouring through stalactites of moss. The stones are dreamscape towers and turrets sticking through the turf, fungal fossilisations sparkling with mica. I'm sleeping tonight on the edge of The Edge with a view plunging hundreds of feet to Snake Pass, and the long low shelves of the peat bog on the far side of the River Ashop that runs towards Lady Clough Moor. Persecuted by midges so I sit in this eerie high above the air with my head and shoulders swathed in shirts, Yasser Arafat of the peaks. The long lines of the distant hills in shadow-blue, the ink-wash of the Pennines, the spine of our island running two hundred miles to Scotland. I would light a fire like a beacon up here but my eyes have to travel ten miles east and a long way down to even see a tree – the only wood in these high hills is seven thousand years deep in the bog.
The mouth of the tent faces east, so I wake to the full source of the sun. Last night I watched it sink, inching over the horizon in a molten ball, watched each degree of its descent until all that was left was a golden fleck balanced on the black of the hill and then it was gone, leaving only traces in the sky – the deepening depths of green and blue you find in a Caribbean sea. I've seen its full circle here, its west to easterly loop of the world, and it sets all this in place.
The brown flats of Black Ashop Moor like drifted continental plates, or half-congealed slats of a treacly rice pudding.
There are two ways of writing about these adventures. The first is when you see the landscape as a scale against which to measure yourself; you climb a mountain to make yourself feel bigger. The second is where you see the landscape as a way of understanding the world; you climb the mountain in order to know it. To hear the language it speaks.
Descending from The Edge down the left bank of Fairbrook. I'm in a forest of ferns, spreading along the slopes of the river, that reminds me of Wales and childhood. Such a lighter brighter green than the dark bruise of the moor, and then oak and ash trees crowd the stream above banks of dripping moss, a wet green cleft in the land, and clear copper-coloured water running and bubbling.
Through the pines at Lady Clough Moor and past Snake Inn at Snake Pass to Snake Path, winding up through a gulley of ferns and purple heather with the dark slabbed mass of Black Ashop Moor to my right. I meet the Pennine Way again at the northern foot of Kinder Scout, and walk up it for a few miles to feel the different land. A path of square granite stones laid flat and winding over the moor; sandy soil and bleached rocks and tough heather lying low, a high desert leading towards the dark rise of High Peak. The road to Scotland. I imagine walking on, turning my back on plans and London, ten days to the Borders. But am happy exhausting myself and turning back to the shadowed bulk of Kinder; my water is gone, and I know a trickle to fill it from on Kinder Downfall.
A circular hole in the turf reveals the wet peat beneath; the colour of rich gravy, the consistency of porridge, a sucking slop of ancient time. The soles of my feet sore with walking. Shadows move slowly over the flanks and slopes and smooth bowls, the hillsides blue to the west and black to the east. I'm writing into myself again, relearning how to do it. It takes time, but most of all it takes walking.
This morning felt like the start of the world; that canyon view so easily transposed into deserts, steppes, vast expanses of tundra, deep time, migrations, tectonic shifts. We are plateau apes, gazing down on spreading unwalked miles. Last night I practiced two forms of meditation, something that doesn't come easily to me – field-sensing with bare feet along the rough gritstone of my ledge, taking fifteen minutes to walk fifteen metres, letting peripheral vision guide me and feeling my way by the soles of my feet; for a long time I saw a luminous glow along the skirt of the land, a highlight brighter than the sky, which vanished if I looked too hard. The second form of meditation was simply turning three hundred and sixty degrees as slowly as I could, ten minutes to do a full rotation, and letting my vision slide along the rising falling, lightening darkening line of the horizon. It felt like a way of putting myself at the centre of that place, encompassing the surrounding world as far as I could see.
A grinding climb to Kinder again, having left the moors below. Back to Kinder Downfall, my water bottles empty, climbing down among the rocks to the place where water slides thickly through moss; it feels good to know where to find it, the first level of knowing a place, an animal returning to a known watering hole. Rain comes; I shelter under the overhang of the rocks, dry now in the long summer, until sunlight goldens the bluffs and all the land below. Down there somewhere is Mermaid's Pool and I know there's a legend lurking there, but can't remember what it is or even if I knew. When the Downfall's in full spate the spray can be seen for miles.
Through the rock walls of Kinder Gates and onto the weird boglands of Edale Moor – an infinitely odd place of brown-black ditches thick with peat, in some spots as loose as jelly, sucking holes crusted with dry slabs that feels like cake to walk on. The distinction between paths, riverbeds and ditches of wet peat vaguely segues into one; I head due south towards the tors – Noe Stool, Pym Chair, Wool Packs or Crowden Tower, any one will do. The blackness of the turf contrasts with pale groves of cotton-grass, flares of white like beacons at sea. Under rain, or at night, this bog would be impossible; it's only its dryness that allows me passage.
And beyond the bog, at Crowden Tower, the gentler descending humps of Brown Knoll beyond the valley; Jacob's Ladder snaking up its hill; the soft slopes folding into one another; and at their foot, the green floor of the Vale of Edale. Sight of home.
Last night camping between layered rocks. Curlews and plover make wheeling calls. The hillsides look like melted wax, the soft slumped shapes of them. Higher tors silhouetted in stark fantastic groves against the sky. The sky is still too light for stars, and the only direct sunlight left is on the moon. The wind travels the land in great whips of noise. The land looks green and grey and still, fading away perceptibly, but everything is moving: the grasses, the air, the atoms of the rocks, the Earth, the stars twinkling and dying, there is nothing still in the universe. And this goes on forever.
Waking with volumes of space below me, volumes above me. The tall sheafed grass-heads vibrating in the light, the careful pleats of the slopes, the blue beyond, the grey beyond that. Everything feels soft – the air, the wind, the grass, my bed, the light, the sun, the mountains. I slept with difficult dreams and a body full of aches. On top of the rock is carved a smooth eroded bowl full of water, I splash my face, stretch in the sun, wake my skin. Watch the valley. I have to stop looking at this soon – but I can't fit it all in my eyes. I will have to leave it here. There are questions here about us and the world, about us and beauty. Do people destroy nature in order to possess it? I can almost understand that. I want to eat this landscape, to fit it inside myself. Or stay here forever, being part of it. And neither of those things I can do. All I can do is write some words, take a deep view, and hope that it's enough.