A Walk Along The Canal

The Peak Forest Canal at Marple

As I’ve written before, when my parents first decided that we would henceforth spend our Lake District holidays in walking, I wasn’t the most receptive of children. My boots were too tight, too heavy, it was too far, too steep, I didn’t like it, and the fact that my younger sister seemed perfectly happy wasn’t helping any.

I got over that stage when we set out to climb Sty Head out of Wasdale Head. I had a purpose, a cause: ever since I had learned of its existence, I wanted to see Green Gable. Everybody could see Great Gable, but its slighter, hidden cousin fascinated me, and Sty Head was going to be my first chance.

And my enthusiasm was confirmed when we reached the point where the path slid across the great scree fanning down from the distant Napes Ridges, and my mother took one look and decreed that my sister would go no further, not across that. They would retreat to the beck, paddle their feet, whilst Dad and I would go on alone, the men of the party.

I have far too few memories of being around my Dad alone: father and son together without interruptions. I wanted to see Green Gable, I was trusted to go ahead with him, I wanted to live up to his expectations, I wanted to be the son we all want ourselves to be at that age, and so we went on, and I didn’t grumble, moan or complain, and we came out onto the top of the pass, saw Sty Head Tarn, ahead and below, saw a sliver of green slope out beyond the curve of Great Gable’s breast that meant I’d fulfilled my aim, and then we set off back, to get our share of paddling.

That didn’t mean I was cured. There was a visit to Mill Gill, an attempt of Harrison Stickle via Pike How, on a day that began with blazing skies before transmuting into low cloud that imprisoned us perhaps no more than a hundred feet below the summit until we gave in. That early part of the day was scorching, the fellside unbelievably steep, my whole body unwilling to proceed. Doubtless I whined again.

The pains in Dad’s shoulder, that would eventually lead to a diagnosis of terminal cancer, kept us away from the Lakes for almost eighteen months. After he died, the end to weeks and months of strain as his body failed, an impromptu holiday was set up, a week away that involving taking we children out of school, no objections raised. It wasn’t a success, we chose a poor week for weather, I’d gotten hooked on pop music by then and Medium Wave reception in the Lakes was pants.

But holidays continued as they always had, just without Dad. We chose self-catering cottages, got away twice a year, went walking. It was still the same.

In 1972, in pursuit of fundraising for something of which I have no memory, Burnage High School held a sponsored walk. It was on a Tuesday, and the School would be closed for the day and everyone would participate. It wasn’t compulsory: those who didn’t want to walk, or couldn’t, could withdraw, but that amounted to maybe three boys out of a School of 700.

We would walk the length of the Peak Forest Canal, from Denton in Manchester to its terminus at Whaley Bridge, in north Derbyshire, a long way down the A6, sheltered under the moors that protected Buxton. It was an awkward, uneven length that, for official purposes, was designated to be 20km. We were issued with sponsorship forms and duplicated diagrams, breaking down the route.

I looked forward to it. I was sixteen, young and fit, and I was already a walker. True, this was not walking as I knew it, 99% flat (there was a section, approximately midway, where the canal ran through a long tunnel, either in too poor a state to negotiate, or else deemed too long to risk boys not falling in, which was by-passed by a brief diversion off-route, steeply uphill for maybe 150′, and just as steeply down again). But I had a bit of a rivalry going on with my mate Brian, aka Zack, one of only two boys whose nicknames pursued them into the Sixth Form, where we started using first names for the first time, who was loudly boasting of how he’d walk my legs off and finish miles ahead of me.

We had to turn up at School at more or less the usual time, then mill around until the coaches shuttled us off to Denton and the start. Zack and I ended up on different coaches – we were in different forms – and I was five minutes ahead of him when we were discharged on this back street in Denton, racing down to the towpath and turning left for Whaley Bridge.

I had my boots, and walking socks on, a good thick pullover, and my anorak in my rucksack. I set off with a will and didn’t stop. It was the first time I’d been let off the leash, allowed to walk at whatever pace suited me, and I took full advantage.

For a flat canal, it was an interesting and varied walk in the morning hours. We passed through tunnels where once bargemen would have walked their craft along, their feet to the tunnel roof. We crossed a high brick aqueduct, one of us quite gingerly. It rained two or three times. None of it stopped me. I pulled my anorak on and off on the march, ate my sandwiches whilst stomping along. Some of it was the desire not to have Zack catch me up and overtake it, but most of it was the sheer freedom to do so. I didn’t stop because I didn’t have to, I didn’t have to wait for anyone else, or gear myself to their frailties. I was sixteen and I walked on because I could, and I liked knowing that.

When I reached the lunch place, hundreds of boys lazing around, I didn’t stop. I wasn’t tired (besides, I’d already eaten all the butties) and it was back to the towpath and through New Mills, passing the backs of factories, having missed the women coming out to eat their lunch snap in the open air. Then a short rise to cross the main road, and all the towns were behind us.

The latter half of the walk was a bit more tedious. The weather had settled, grown warm, enough to be just slightly stuffy. My legs were beginning to ache. And we were out into the country now, following the curve of a long, slow, green valley. It ought to have been more my style but it wasn’t. Nothing changed. I stared at the same wooded hillsides, with nothing new entering the view.

The last diversion was to cross a road, join the final stretch of the Canal along what seemed like a spur, into the barge-filled basin that marked the end, beyond which sweaty boys of all ages set up a barrage of chatter. A check of my watch, four hours, almost to the very minute, twenty kilometres in four hours, non-stop. I settled to wait for Zack, already smug.

It was a long wait, forty-five minutes before he rolled into sight. Deduct the five minutes between coaches at the School, I had been forty minutes faster than him. Which, by the strangest of coincidences, was exactly as long as he’d spent at the lunch-place, or so he said. I had little enough chances for superiority back then, I wasn’t going to accept that.

It had been a great day. Unfortunately, it was to do me no good at all when it came to holidays in the Lakes. Nothing had changed, except me. I had had my eyes open as to what I was capable of doing, and having that limited to the slow progression and frequent halts of the elders chafed. I wanted to get off ahead, see the next horizon, and the one beyond it as well, not spend all day in the same valley. I wanted summits, and once I reached one (which was usually our limit in a seven day holiday) I saw no reason not to go on to the next one, instead of returning by the identical route we’d used to ascend.

I was at University now, eighteen and older, but still I counted for nothing, was a child to be told what I would do and where I would go, and that wasn’t going to change. There were other things that frustrated me: the day over, the evening meal consumed, the pots washed, I would persist in asking where would be going tomorrow, despite the answer being some minor variation on ‘you haven’t finished with today yet’.

Yes, the mere idea of thinking ahead, of setting a destination for the next day (if the weather’s decent, we might go down Eskdale and walk to Throstlegarth), seemed to be an anathema. In my mother it was a complete  difference of personality: she could never understand me working out what walks I wanted to do on a week away, didn’t know why I bothered walking them if I’d already worked out where I was going, couldn’t understand the joy of planning, anticipation, the satisfaction of a plan working coupled with the complete freedom to do something totally different if I felt like it, or the weather changed.

It wouldn’t have mattered as much if they hadn’t been so bloody slow in the morning about deciding where to go. Breakfast, and pots, cups of tea, making butties and an absolute refusal to consider where they might take us until they were ready to get into the car, and even then it would take ages to make a decision. As the next couple of years progressed, it got so slow that it would usually be 11.30am before we even left the cottage, hours of good walking time wasted and me bored skullless, waiting for something to happen.

I may be projecting what I want to think on my absent Dad, but to me he was the driving force. He’d wanted to go fell-walking, he was thrilled by the Wainwrights, he looked ahead. He only ever reached three summits, Middle Fell and Lingmell in Wasdale, and Haystacks, and I credit him for the fact that we actually climbed a fell outside of that quarter from Wasdale round to Langdale. My mother even said that she was only interested in that part of the Lakes, a claim I still cannot comprehend. How can you love the Lakes and not want all of it? Not want to gulp all of it down and see all the beauty it can offer? I believe my Dad felt that, that he wanted to see new things, not only the same old places over and again, that he was only waiting for my sister and I go be old enough…

There was one more thing on top. My Uncle developed some kind of stomach condition, I know not what, that meant that once he had eaten, further uphill progression became painful. He’d go on as long as he could, but eventually he’d have to eat… One more governor, one further limitation.

Somehow, I have no idea how or why, I got my own way for once. In August 1975, we foresook South West Lakeland for the North East. A cottage in Stainton, a base for Ullswater, the long awaited chance to go and see Haweswater, now it wasn’t ‘too far to drive’. August 1975, a prelude to the following year’s Drought Summer. I wanted to revel in it, in all these new views around me, but I had made another mistake.

You see, I’d just been away on holiday. With the lads. A week in Blackpool, six days at home, a week in the Lakes. I’d had a week of doing things for myself, taking responsibility. One of four, like in the Lakes, but one with a voice, a say, an equal share in what we chose to do. Saturday to Saturday, then, a Saturday later it’s off to the Lakes, nineteen years old, staring down the barrel of my third and final year at University, but still a kid, still nothing, still to be told what to do and where to do. Even when we were on the holiday that was chosen for me.

It was ironic that, by early-evening on the Sunday, I was telling my mother that this was the last family holiday I was coming on. And it was.

As I’ve already said, the week endied in an appropriately symbolic fashion. We set off to climb Helvellyn, significantly higher than anything we’d ever climbed before, and by Striding Edge. We got to the far end of the Edge, the bit where you have to climb down a ten foot rock chimney, and just as on Sty Head, almost a decade before, my mother took one look and decreed that my sister wasn’t going down that.

It was the ultimate frustration. I was furious, though I knew better than to let any of it slip. But Mam surprised me. We never talked about it, but I think it was because this was my last day with them. It was a gesture, or apology, or understanding, of release, but she stunned everyone by saying there was no reason I couldn’t go on on my own, reach the summit, meet them back at the Hole in the Wall.

Of course I had to be roped up to be let down the chimney (there were always strings attached, literally in this case) but after that I was on my own, trusted. I forgot all of them. I was so adrenalised by my freedom that I shot up the screes from Striding edge to the summit plateau in ten glorious, furious minutes of scrambling. Look what I can do!

The next year, and the years that followed, they went away and I stayed home, enjoying a week of freedom. Without a car, or the money to own and run one, the Lakes were out of reach for years. My next visit was the only other time I went to the Lakes again with my family: a Bank Holiday Monday day-out with my sister’s boyfriend and future husband making up the party. We went to Wasdale Head: it was baking hot, the lake shone like a silver coin, we had nothing to do and Department S’s “Is Vic There?” was playing on the radio.

Two months later, I bought my first car, to get to the Roses Match at Headingley. In October, I went up to the Lakes to practice driving round narrow, winding roads. The next time I went there, again on my own, encumbered by no-one, I took my boots. I put them on for Helm Crag. A lot followed.

2 thoughts on “A Walk Along The Canal

  1. We walk a lot if we get away on holiday, we went to the Lakes once and spent most time on our bikes. I’m happy you beat Zack by a long way 😊 I enjoyed your reminiscing. Best wishes Charlotte 😊

  2. Hi Charlotte

    Next time you’re in the Lakes, I urge you to get off your bike and pull on a decent pair of walking boots. There are so many beautiful and dramatic sights to see that you can’t get to otherwise, and you don’t necessarily have to go too much uphill to find them. Latrigg from the roadhead, on a sunny afternoon, using the path that meanders round the fell on the western flank, can be done in trainers. Mind you, don’t expect much solitude and silence on that one…

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