As a rule of thumb, when there's cloud on the high moors of the Peak District, the cafés of Castleton will be full to bursting, the air full of grumbles about the uncooperative weather. The British countryside has no shortage of dreamily attractive viewpoints, but can it be just as inspiring and uplifting when the weather closes in?
For some of us, the answer emphatically is yes, and low cloud is an invitation to strike up the flanks of Kinder Scout to take in the peculiarly atmospheric moods provided by bog and fog. On this particular walk, I've just finished climbing Jacob's Ladder, the steady, flagstone plod from Edale to Kinder. I may not be able to see more than 50 yards ahead, but closer by is heather moorland and hidden ahead are strangely alien rock shapes. More of them later.
The first two miles of this walk had proved deceptively bucolic and easy going, contouring around the lower flanks of Broadlee Bank Tor before descending to Upper Booth and Lee Farm. Sheep graze quietly, while aerial drama is provided by a flock of crows mobbing a buzzard. The route is framed by thickets of birch, rowan and, down by the streams, alder and fractured, abandoned stone barns.
The climb up Jacob's Ladder has always been an important packhorse route over the high Pennine moors, with salt from Cheshire and cotton from the mills moving east, and coal and lead headed in the other direction. Just by Swine's Back, I head east along the ridgeline and enter a moonscape of isolated, freakishly curved stones, fashioned and polished by ice, water and wind over the centuries.
Huge weathered gritstone pillars appear to have simply dropped out of the sky: here one that looks like a frog, there a fossilised giant snail and an upturned tooth, its roots pointing skywards. They have intriguing names, such as the Pagoda and the Wool Packs. It's easy to see why the sculptor Henry Moore is said to have been influenced by these peculiar rock formations.
The 7,000-year-old blanket peat bog that sits on top of Kinder Scout has evolved from prehistoric river deltas and is a startling thing to behold. But it is also in trouble. Partly as a legacy of the Industrial Revolution, the moors here have been subjected to acid rain for centuries, stifling plants and drying out the peat. Wildfires, sheep grazing and yes, even walkers, have added to the problem.
Things are set to take a turn for the better. This autumn, the National Trust launched its plan for managing the High Peak Moors. Over the next 50 years, the trust wants to address major issues that are damaging the high ground of the Peak District National Park, an area that stretches from Manchester to Sheffield.
The hope is for native trees and shrubs to spread up the valleys and narrow gorges known as cloughs, providing shelter and food for wildlife and stabilising erosion. The bogs that characterise the high ground also require some TLC – much of the peat is drying out and wearing away. Restoration work aims to make these areas wetter and enable this expanse of living bog to lock carbon in the new peat.
Just after the outcrops of Crowden Tower, the path drops down to cross a ford before snaking around the back of Grindslow Knoll. The path splinters again into a mish-mash of broken stone, exposed sand and fractured rocks. Somewhere in here I find a crossroads and a path dropping steeply into Grindsbrook Clough. Until the 1990s, the way up the clough made for a harrowing introduction to the Pennine Way, with the very first steps of the 280-mile route to Kirk Yetholm as arduous as anything else that lay ahead. I walked up here in 1986, subjecting myself to the footpath equivalent of square-bashing. Just three hours after setting off on the Pennine Way, with blisters the size of oranges, I was lost on the moorland plateau. The weather's much the same today, but having in the intervening years discovered the usefulness of a compass, I'm a little more confident.
Scrambling down Grindsbrook Clough I find that not much has changed. The path gives up the ghost altogether at times and I reach down between huge boulders that fill the gully. Back in Edale, I talk to Sophie Milner, the National Trust's project manager for the High Peaks vision. She, too, is a fan of thick mists. "No two days are the same. You can be up there sitting by the heather with the bees buzzing around, or you can go up when there is a mist and it's completely atmospheric and other-worldly," she says.
Despite the planned changes, the Trust is mindful of not making the moors too manicured. "We'll take care to keep the moors wild and remote," says Sophie. "Paths, signs, steps and gates can make places look cluttered and can take away from the feeling of wilderness on the moors. We're happy for the moors to be a bit of a challenge, so we'll keep man-made features to a minimum." Keep the compass in your pocket.
Start/Finish: Edale Station
OS map: OL1 Dark Peak Area
Distance: Five miles
Time: Three hours
Visitpeakdistrict.com From Edale Station, head through the village and turn left on to the Pennine Way, opposite the Nag's Head pub, and follow the path to Upper Booth Farm and on to Jacob's Ladder. Come off the Pennine Way, taking a path to your right and skirt eastwards around Kinder plateau making for, and passing by, the gritstone rocks and tors. Continue past Crowden Tower and the follow the footpath down into Grindsbrook and back to Edale Station.
Edale Station is served by Northern Rail, with trains from Sheffield and Manchester (08457 48 49 50; nationalrail.co.uk).
Mark Rowe stayed at White Edge Lodge cottage near Hathersage (0844 800 2070; nationaltrustcottages.co.uk). Three nights' rental from £441; sleeps five.
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