A peak through clouds

Simon Calder slogs up Kinder Scout, where the ramblers' movement began

Five months in prison for looking at Manchester? That sounds a particularly cruel and unusual punishment, but it was the sentence handed out at Derby Assizes to Benny Rothman, leader of the "mass trespass" of Kinder Scout.

In 1932, the outdoors were out-of-bounds. It took the courage of about 500 people, traipsing from the (then) Lancashire mill towns to the raw heart of England, to begin to free the countryside. This spring, the footsteps left by the pioneers 65 years ago deserve to be followed.

Even for Southern softies like me, the pilgrimage is seductively easy. Take the train from Manchester out to Glossop, passing imaginatively named stations such as Flowery Field. Suddenly the suburbs are cast aside, and the railway line arcs across a deep valley along a thunderous viaduct.

Deposited at the town at the foot of the Peak District, the first inclination is to look for the Peak. Your target, according to the map, is the highest point in the middle of Britain: Kinder Scout, 2,088 feet above sea level. The summit of the Pennines straddles England's own version of a continental divide. Waters striking the west side eventually spill out into the Irish Sea; those on the east, the North Sea. Judging by the dark, satanic sky, there will be plenty of precipitation to test this theory in the next few hours - the first two of which are a thankless haul along the A57.

The 1932 trespassers enjoyed a prettier climb than mine. Attracted by the sinuous name and shape on the map, I chose the Snake Pass. Every turn yields strident views back across rambling suburbia. But because this is the highway across the moors, each is the grubby site of a modern-day cairn. Flecks of red, the most conspicuous component, signal discarded Coke cans; splashes of gold are cigarette packets, while steel-grey signifies grey steel, hub-caps that have given up the race across to Sheffield.

So when the Pennine Way is finally reached, the huffing hiker feels all the more relieved to leave the road disdainfully behind. Careful how you go, now; turn left, and you face a week of heavy trekking along Britain's first long-distance path. Instead take the right-hand track to emulate the criminal fraternity of ramblers, who strode out across this private land one working lifetime ago.

Did they know what they were starting? The lumpy treacle that comprises the peat district of the Pennine Way is scarred with flagstones approximately the colour of gloom. To call them an evil would be an exaggeration, but they are certainly necessary: the impact of a thousand heavy-booted feet as they climb to 2,000 feet has been substantial in the 32 years since the Pennine Way opened.

Soon you start to concentrate intently on keeping your footing on the open moorland instead of looking for any semblance of a peak. In a landscape ground down by the weather, making out a gradient is as difficult as discerning the slightest sign of human life. March is still the low side of season, and the only people into whom I stumbled on were Nick Revill and John Hardwick. Boots and wet-weather gear asserted that they were serious - indeed, they were training for a week of Munro-bagging in Scotland over Easter. In contrast, muddy Doc Martens announced that I was a daytripper.

Yet the equity of accessibility of the Peak District to expeditioners (like them) and excursionists (like me) is its greatest joy. We owe an equal debt to the trespassing members of the British Workers' Sports Federation. They laid the trail for the right of passage across open land. Eventually, in 1949, the Peak District became Britain's first National Park.

Today, 20 million people live within an hour's drive, making it England's easiest-to-reach wilderness - and the most at risk. When you have slid and scurried to the target on the map, the tiny triangle that meant so much to the trespassers, you end up wading in dismal quantities of mud. It is as if you have found yourself in a damp corner of a particularly unsavoury dairy field, whose bovine occupants have churned up the soil to a mucky sludge. But there are no cattle for miles. This is all the work of tourists.

Alone at the top of England, your concern at the impact on the landscape is toppled by the sheer joy of a terrain whose second cousin is surely the Moon. Casually dented boulders are strewn fitfully around a crown of granite. The wind has worn solid rock smooth, so that its whistles might be yet more shrill. From the barren peak of the Peak you get a magnificent 360-degree view. To the east, tortured valleys batter clumsily in the general direction of Yorkshire. The northern prospect puts the "wild" in wilderness. Southwards, suitably, the scenery softens. Yet it is the west that grabs your attention: what strikes you most is Manchester.

Somehow, in that narrow band between the merging clouds and leaden ground, the sun has deigned to dash light around the lowlands. Grand Victorian railway viaducts draw the eye, as effectively as any artistic device, past a trail of disused mills towards the pale tower blocks of the city. You are profoundly grateful to be here rather than there.

With no officials around to apprehend you, the hiker is free to descend to the very end of the Pennine Way. Sludge turns to sand, the path twists a little more friskily, and drystone walls begin to carve up the countryside. And winter gives way to spring. Forlorn high-altitude, low-temperature Kinder Scout has never seen a daffodil, but as you descend Jacob's Ladder spring flowers sprout up.

In a single fickle moment you conclude you were wrong about the most beautiful sight in the world. It is not the lunar summit you have just left behind, but the more forgiving contours of southern Derbyshire ahead. A gentle stone bridge invites you to cross the brook that leads into this visual definition of tranquillity.

And isn't that a pub in the distance? But when you finally reach the Rambler Inn, tired and (especially) thirsty, you find that due to it being a Wednesday or a Thursday, the place is closed. There should be a law against it.

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