Monday, 9 September 2013

Trek Report

26 to 28 August 2013

“There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more.”

- Lord Byron

So, my trip: it appears to have been planned in advance by unseen forces, with all the assistance I needed. I’ve written this ‘report’ because I wanted to record some of the lessons I learned for future reference. It was over a week ago now though so I may have overlooked a few things.
Day 1

It took much longer to get my kit together and pack the rucksack. Several hours, in fact. So it was not until just after 2.30 in the afternoon that I finally set off on my trek. Thinking I was being smart, I took a very light stick I found in the woods with me. I found it very helpful, relieving my hip of the weight. However, it snapped in two upon being tapped on the stone bridleway (Mary Townley Loop) after the umpteenth step but when I was only half way to Gaddins Dam where I intended to pick up the Pennine Way (this place, on the tops, is one of the starting points). So I had to say goodbye to that idea. It was quite a hot day and I was really feeling it, carrying all that weight and walking up hill. Just as I reached the steps leading up to the dam two mountain bike cyclists, a guy and a girl in their mid-to-late twenties perhaps, rode up alongside me. They both had Camelback water bladders and, since I was having difficulty using mine (I bought a cheap one from China on Ebay!), I enquired as to how to use it for greater efficiency. It turns out one is indeed required to bite near the rim of the soft rubber mouthpiece to open the slit. I was reluctant to do that because I did not want to risk damaging it. But, there you go, I was alright after that. Had I not met those people I may never have sussed it out because that was the last place where I was likely to meet anyone cycling around with a water bladder tube dangling out of their rucksack! Phew!

As I climbed to the top of the steps I found, being Bank Holiday Monday, a thriving seaside crowd of sunbathers, swimmers and, er, one nudist (well, ‘skinnydipper’ but in front of all those people I would label him an exhibitionist)! There is a tiny little beach in one corner from where the sandstone has crumbled over time. I asked a couple walking their dog if they knew whereabouts the Pennine Way actually started and walked with them along the side of the dam to the track. They told me that, ever since it had been stated in a local rag that Gaddins Dam has an actual ‘beach’ people have been using it as such on hot days. So it would seem that nobody had gone so far as to call it that before. It was quite a spectacle, I found. Not to mention being a delightful surprise to see people from Todmorden enjoying themselves. The skinnydipper was sitting on the raised bank of the dam, naked save for his trousers which were down at his ankles. I think perhaps that he was preparing to surprise everybody – sorry, I mean, enter the water and go for a swim – but I could not be sure if he had already been in for a dip. The dog went up to him and was soon called back. The man looked up at us and gave us a broad smile. He was probably about 70, perhaps a bit older. After parting company with the couple at the end of a stone path through a boggy area, I gave a sigh of relief that I was now walking on flat ground and had finally managed to head off on my trek to Marsden. Being glorious weather, I suddenly felt relaxed and started to enjoy the journey as I walked alongside the very long nearby Warland Reservoir. Luckily, I found a clean blue jiffy cloth that had blown down the hill where I went for a pee. It was perfect for mopping up sweat form my brow and I plan to keep it for this purpose during future treks.

The rucksack was preposterously heavy! I should really have just taken the Tatonka meths burner and not both that and a hobo stove for which I also needed to take the hunting knife to cut wood. And I definitely should not have put such a heavy thing in the rucksack. I ought to have worn a leather belt and carried it in its sheath on that. But the belt itself seemed excessively heavy and I did not think I needed it, not as a strop anyway, since the knife is too blunt to bother with that refining stage!). Another mistake I made, I suppose, was to take too much water with me. I conserved water when I could have drunk more and, basically, within a day one is always going to find at least one stream or something and be able to boil some water to carry in a bottle or bladder. Having never been trekking over the Pennines on my own like this I just did not know what to expect. I had been told that the terrain is ‘bleak.’ I could see on the map that there are streams here and there but, even so, I did not know if I would find any. This first time was an experiment so I do not regret taking the hobo stove. I found it interesting that it didn’t even occur to me to use the meths burner. Making a fire and using actual wood is so satisfying and feels natural, plus I did not take to the idea of carrying any remaining meths in the burner afterwards. So, perhaps I just need to start using it locally to get used to it. For trekking over long distances, however, one really does need to take the lightest of everything. And preferably, I ought to try and buy a folding Opiniel knife somewhere because that will be much lighter to carry. I did take the Swiss Army knife but it’s too small to be of any use, at least for cutting/chopping wood.

Um, so I walked and got into my stride and enjoyed it. I passed some rocks on my left at some point. At first, I thought people were practising rock climbing but then I noticed that they were young people and were not doing any climbing. Beside the rock formation were scattered several age white things, too big and bright to be sheep. I could not think what they could be. My best suggestion was that they were tents but then why would a group each have a white tent? Flumoxed! A little way past the rocks I saw someone walking towards me on the path. I stopped to talk to her, surprised to see anyone walking there in the middle of nowhere without any backpack or companions. She spoke in a drugged slur and told me that  she had left her husband there and was going to fetch him. Where? At the rocks I presume. But, more baffling, where had she walked from? Again, my best shot: she had walked half a mile just to go for a wee and afford herself the luxury of guaranteed total privacy. Maybe they were all aliens practising their ‘humanness’!

On and on I hiked until, finally, the Sun started going down. I spent at least half-an-hour looking for an ideal spot to pitch the tent (somewhere nice and flat obviously). Eventually, I passed a cairn and reached a stream and figured it would be ideal to fid a place close to it. I walked along the stream but found that the whole area was just one big bog. It was getting dark so I climbed up the hill to see if I could find a flat place up there. I did. I lid some ferns down and pitched the tent which was a struggle in the strong winds. The result was a contorted and extremely taut pole. I only just succeeded in slotting it through the ring at the end.

I really wanted a hot drink but it was very, very windy and I couldn’t fact trying to get either the stove or burner going which also meant that I could not cook the evening meal I had been eagerly awaiting either. I had some salad with me so I ate that. I think it was 10.40pm or something when I lied down to get some kip. The wind was ravaging the tent, particularly in one corner. I actually got out at one point to check that the tent peg was still in the ground which it was. Anyway, I did manage to fall asleep eventually (never an easy feat for me when sleeping away from my comfy bed!).

One thing I did not realise at the time was that, being so high up with wind for company, I had been saved from being attacked by midges. Definitely the better of two evils! August was such a rainy, dreary month, contrasting with a wondrous July. I was not able to go in July however because it took me weeks to get the kit together (courtesy of Ebay) and prepare. Then, by the time I was ready, the weather had nose-dived and I had to sit it out. In fact, I knuckled down to work, completing the essays on both ETs and DNA/Indigos. I could not set off during the previous week because the weather forecast had predicted rain whereas the week I headed off was meant to be mild with only risk of the occasional shower.

I had bumped into RB and S and their partners outside the Blue Pig one day when they were holding a weekend beer festival, after a short hike through Hardcastle Crags with a friend. S explained that, during his younger years, he had spent much of his time cycling around Spain whereas RB it turns out, has walked just about everywhere up here and knows his way around. He is the one who told me the southward Pennine Way is a bit bleak and then the terrain becomes more, interesting but also rugged, as one reaches the Peak District, after about 25 miles he said, although I would think it is more than that. He said it’s much more interesting heading up northwards towards the Dales but I’d have to catch a bus or train for a few miles before starting the journey (although Squid said the Pennine Way starts again in Eastwood near to where he used to work, from which ‘You could hear the sound of Goretex rubbing,’ he told me). On second thought, said Rob, there would be lots of ramblers and backpackers up there and I’d probably have more fun heading south so I decided to take his advice and stick to the original plan. I met Rob again when I finally made it round to pay S and his family a visit before they moved away. I mentioned that I pretty much hoped to walk as the crow flies to Marsden. How na├»ve is that? So he put me straight and explained that the path, the Pennine Way, veers away from Marsden at first and then curls around towards it later. He said he wouldn’t want to get lost up there. Well, yeah, now I’ve been there I can see why! Plus, the Pennine Way does not go up and down nearly as much as just walking over the hills willy-nilly would entail. I had not even considered the need for paths. Haha. I’m a bit like that with one-day hikes though. I only realise when I get there. And even then I am quite happy to veer off the beaten track which is rarely a good idea because one tends to come a cropper eventually!

Day 2

In the morning, with the wind having subsided, I found it most enlivening to get out of the tent and relax on that hill overlooking what turns out to have been Littleborough, with a spectacular view of Hollingworth Lake! I stood o the grass with bare feet and greeted Mother Earth. I believe that is an excellent idea during a trek when one could use the guidance and support of our Earth Mother more than ever! I used the hobo stove (I took with me the lighter version, mkII) without much trouble. I could not find the lighter, however! Luckily, I had decided to take a box of matches as a backup and I relied on those throughout my trip, having forgotten that the lighter fitted neatly into the pouch containing the pipe I took with me as a midge deterrent (replete with herbal smoking mixture). The knife was not much good but it was OK for chopping wood using a baton. The beauty of my first ever site for the one-man was that close to the tent was a flat rock. Can you believe that? It was the perfect size, shape and position for my stove. The chances of that happening are extremely slim and you could walk for days without even consciously finding anything like that. It really helped me to explore the stove for the first time.

Oh yeah, at Blackstone Edge, over the road from the White House pub, I had found a flat space by a stream, enclosed by a crag (or disused quarry?), in which to do tai chi. It was quite midgey but I persisted. The area was a mess, having been used both as a dumping ground and campsite!  I found a steel tent peg there which I took with me to use as a spare and also some small bits of wood and bark which were ideal for my hobo stove. That was most fortuitous since I soon discovered that there is no wood on the Pennine Way! I did not find anymore until I reached Marsden, in fact. Too much to carry, but this was my first time and I needed to get acquainted with the stove. For breakfast I had he crunchy oat stuff and raw oats and hot water plus a cup of caro. It couldn’t have been more perfect! I think I did tai chi up there but I’m not totally sure. Anyway, I stayed up on the hill for about four hours, from 8 or 8.30 till midday. Sort of pottering about and realising that everything takes so long, like pitching and taking down a tent, cooking and going to the toilet. That was a bit of a palaver. By George, the water, salad and day’s walking had nigh turned the contents of my stomach into a pile resembling quicksand! I had not remembered to dig a hole beforehand and then found that my folding shovel was so badly made that it kept folding when I tried to use it. Only one side of the handle slots through the clamp so it’s pretty useless. A new one is certainly on my shopping list for next year’s expedition!

I managed to bury the toilet paper roughly and then just laid a big pile of ferns on top of the lot, hoping that the wind would not blow it away. I suppose it must have done but it was out of harm’s way and the flies would break it down in no time.

It was a bit of a climb down to the stream so I thought it best to wait and head off again before availing myself of the water. The only bit of water that could be accessed was next to the path (the stream flowered beautifully over the path). I simply filled up the red bowl that came with the biscuit barrel I have turned into a hobo stove with water to clean it and to have a wash, discarding the dirty water away from the stream. Not totally sure how hygienic it is to use the same bowl for eating and washing but I don’t believe there’s a problem if it is washed shortly after use. As I walked down to the stream I noticed that just down from there on the other side of the path is a large pond. And, on the other side, as I went on my way, I found the remains of a fire. Had I walked just a little further, then, I would have simply camped there. I was seconds away from an ideal spot! However, I enjoyed being up on the hill too and there were only a few bits of wood left, nothing with which to get a fire going. One was the remains of a blue plank. This is the main problem with the Pennines, at least where I went: no trees! People end up using bits of old fence, and that’s if they’re lucky!

I picked up lots of litter after that as I carried on with my trek: things like the cover of an Ordnance Survey map, paper and chocolate and health bar/high energy food wrappers, half of them in foreign languages! It was not long before I reached the motorway though. I had been told I would need to cross the motorway and assumed this was the correct place. This was the first time I got the map out and what I found was that there ought to have been a path perpendicular to the motorway, leading straight ahead. There wasn’t! Oh oh! A big sign to my right warned not to stop driving if lest one be attacked by vicious guard dogs. So I opted to the path leading down from the left.

I noticed a man walking down a hill on the other side and was thinking how marvellous it would be if I could ask him for directions but he was too far away. I asked my guides if they could find a way for me to talk to him and at some point, after he had reached the bottom, he suddenly stopped. So I made my way towards him and found that he had received a phone call. There were several black cows, including calves, between him and me and I hesitated but the man, who was in his 70s, gestured for me to walk through them. It turned out that he was not the farmer but lived in the idyllic house I had just passed, with its beautiful garden and vegetable plots. It turned out that I was lost, having somehow mysteriously veered off the Pennine Way at some point even though, as far as I’m concerned, I had only found one continuous path and had stayed on it! The man was very helpful, showed me where I was on the map and the best way to get back on the path. I needed to go up the hill he had just come down, moving further away but then walking back in the direction of the Pennine Way crossing further along the motorway. It was going to take me a good hour he said.

About a third of the way along I found a flat piece of land and decided to sit down on the stone wall, eat some salad and Bombay mix and then practise tai chi. I had already been passed by a couple of mountain bike enthusiasts and now it was the turn of retired hikers. Starting with a couple, both of whom had fancy black hiking poles to take the strain off their knees. 30% apparently (the man corrected his partner). He had a map hanging round his neck plus three digital navigational gadgets clipped to his clothing. Totally OTT! One of them, which cost ‘under £200’ he said, tells him verbally when he has strayed form the path! More money than sense. Anyway, dad a! He knew how to READ a map! So I found out that the other route to my destination looked more promising, partly because it passed through some reservoirs and did not run parallel with the motorway and partly because a pub was situated a third of the way along it. I was just about to do tai chi when a group of retired ramblers also came through the gate near me. The leader took one look at me and then told everyone to sit and eat their lunch on the wall. So I had to postpone tai chi until I found another flat spot.

The walk through the reservoirs was quite charming and I enjoyed it. Finally, I reached the pub which was on another main road. Alas, it was closed that day owing to it being the day after a Bank Holiday Monday! I had to walk a little way along the main road to reach the Pennine Way as I had reached the end of the Pennine Bridleway. Just before I left the Bridleway I crouched down to look at a beautiful furry black caterpillar with vivid yellow streaks spaced wide apart. Then, about the same distance on the other side of the road, but along it, I found a dead butterfly that had been driven over. It was lying there in the side of the road. I was already thinking about the song I had just finished writing, called ‘Chrysalis.’ And, like, I was thinking how, instead of dying, the caterpillar enters a period of darkness as though destroying or relinquishing the ego to be transformed into a winged creature of multidimensional beauty. Not far along the Pennine Way I found a flat grassy inlet which was ideal for practising tai chi. It was a sweet, tranquil little sot, almost like a world in itself. I found about ten magic mushrooms there so I ate those and ended up staying there for a couple of hours! I did tai chi, meditated, sitting on a little mound which was also ideal, and lied in the sun for a while. I suppose I was coming up fully on the shrooms when I set off again. They certainly brought the place to life for me and made the journey much more alive and magical. I felt inspired to record some notes for a talk I am giving at the end of September so that was very helpful. The path I took towards Marsden included large flat stone slabs through every inch of boggy marshland which became more continuous. It was just so sweet and enchanting.

There was nowhere there to pitch a tent because it was too boggy so I had to wait. Finally, I arrived at a river and carried on walking until I found a flat, raised hill situated beside a stream that continued up the yonder hill. I put my backpack on the ground and started to get the tent out. However, I was seriously ambushed by midges and couldn’t even open my eyes to see what I was doing. I tried using Skin So Soft but it had no effect. I even ate a spoonful of marmite but that and garlic probably need to be in one’s system for a few weeks prior to such an adventure. I was seriously running out of daylight fast so had to think quick. The only thing for it was to carry on walking until I found somewhere to make a fire.

As ‘luck’ would have it, it was not long before I found a camp fire that was already established on a bank on the other side of the river. There was no wood around however. Having no choice, I just had to climb up and down a couple of hills and rummage around beneath the few trees there were in the area. I gather just about enough fallen wood and a dead stump, carried it in a few goes, bit-by-bit, and eventually lobbed it over the gate. It took me ages to get a fire going for some reason. I had sufficient tinder and resorted to covering the wood with meths a few times but all to no avail. I succeeded in the end and felt such relief when the midges suddenly vanished and I was left in peace. I could sit there and relax, figure things out, undisturbed. It was bliss! I didn’t have much light left so once I realised that pitching the tent was urgent I suddenly sprang to my feet and got to work. The solar lamp I had taken had lit up so that was a result. I had bought it for the aluminium pipe that served as its stem but decided it could double for both purposes: as a lantern and as a blow pipe for the hobo stove. It doesn’t really illumine the area though so it’s really just a marker or quirky little fairy light.

Pitching the tent was easy and quite quick so that was great. I then got the hobo stove out and boiled some water from the river. I cooked a meal comprising two portions of egg noodles and mushroom soup powder was which was delicious, in fact! I used the cosy for the first time. I made a double one, a small cosy that fits inside a larger one, because I had forgotten to make a flap in order to close it. Washed it down with a long overdue cup of caro. Yum! I went to bed exhausted but happy. The only bit of wood remaining was the stump which refused to burn. Oh and a couple of thicker, damp bits. I hid them under a rock.

Day 3

In the morning, I found that there were still countless midges around so I sat and tried to meditate in my tent. At some point a man walking his dog arrived on the scene. He sat down on a rock opposite and surveyed my little campsite in between playing with his dog. Eventually, he noticed that I was sitting there watching him through the mesh panel in the doorway of the tent. I was partially hidden by the porch which I had unzipped but not opened properly. After that he decided to make his way back the way he had come. His dog had other ideas and started barking outside the tent. I was a bit worried but the dog eventually listened to its master and left me in peace.  I decided to be a daredevil and walk into the cold water in the nude. I was determined to do it as though it was an essential part of the adventure and I would regret it later if I chickened out. I waded in and while the water was up to my knees it didn’t feel so bad. However, as my thighs got wet it was feeling scarily cold! I squatted to plunge the lower half of my body into the icy water and shrieked repeatedly. It was hard to bear so I just splashed the water over my upper body, continuing to shriek over and over again! I did not use soap in or out of the water partly to avoid polluting the environment and partly because it felt like the pure water would suffice. I cleaned the fireplace up and hid the remaining wood under a rock located nearby. I wondered if it will still be there if I return next year!

I sat down by the river to boil some water from a waterfall in my hobo stove. The flat rocks there by the bank made for an ideal seat and cooking surface.  I had muesli and oats for breakfast again, with a nice hot cup of caro. I also boiled a second pot of water to take with me to replace some of the drinking water I had drunk after allowing it to cool down. Again, I was a few hours before I got going: about midday if I remember correctly. The walk to Marsden was quite long and it put me off doing the return journey. I realised that I was actually exhausted and my aches and pains were only going to get worse carrying that heavy backpack around for a further couple of days. I collected some small pieces of wood on a path that are ideal for my hobo stove so I was all fixed for the return journey. However, when I reached the town itself I seemed to exit the bubble in which I felt bonded to nature. More importantly, I did not fancy my chances of surviving another night of midge hell, unless I happened to find a windy hill again, which I probably would have, but one never knows. I paid a visit to the local Information Centre in the library and then wandered around, talked to a few locals and lied in the sun briefly. It was a relief to rest my aching body and get some well-earned rest. I got home around 6pm and I was so tired, in fact, that I was in bed by 7.30pm.

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