Julia and I met on our first day at Nottingham University in 1983. It was Julia who convinced me that Marmite was better than Bovril, tea was better without sugar and U2 were a band worth investigating. I soon discovered that as well as being a fantastic friend with a penchant for James Dean posters, she had the added bonus of being good at practical things like wiring plugs, which came in very useful during our various flat-shares. Several weddings and babies later, it was harder to stay in touch but we’ve tried to meet up once a year or so. Julia loves outdoorsy things and so it was not surprising that she decided to celebrate her 50th birthday by inviting a group of friends to go walking with her in the Peak District.
(At this point, I would love to insert an 80s photo of the pair of us but I honestly can’t find a single one that I could bear to publish on the internet. It was, indeed, a decade of shameful clothes and hair).
I arrived at the Snake Pass Inn on Friday afternoon. This little pub nestles between a number of ridges and valleys in the “Dark Peaks” area of Derbyshire. It all sounded so Lord of the Rings that I wouldn’t have been surprised if Gandalf had put in an appearance. In fact, on arriving I was warned that we would soon be joined by 80 of the Devil’s Disciples – but no, this was nothing to do with Sauron or Mordor. It was the name of a bikers club who would be holding a convention at the inn on Saturday night. Gulp.
I had been a little apprehensive before arriving, wondering how our group would get along. Of the nine people, I knew just one besides Julia: Sue, a fellow Nottinghamite, whom I had last seen 17 years ago. The others were friends Julia had met along the way – one through work, two through her husband and three from local schools. Fortunately, we all hit it off. Walking and talking is a natural combination, so many happy hours were spent swapping details of our inspirations and passions, including gardens, dogs, hill-walking, cakes, mental health and travels to India, China and beyond. It helped that we were much the same age and thus could mutually appreciate the impossibility of reading small print on menus, the challenges of parenting teenagers and the dilemmas of whether to bronze-and-wrinkle or to slap on the Factor 50.
On Friday afternoon, the early arrivers walked for 3 ½ hours in a circuit from the Inn. It was a glorious June day with blue cloudless skies. The route took us through pine woods and then up a steep hill to a rocky outcrop. From there we walked along a ridge above green slopes dotted with pink foxgloves, then descended alongside a stream. There were a few swimming enthusiasts in the group and so the stream was scrutinised for potential pools. We found a perfect one and were just about to venture in when someone spotted a rotting sheep carcass at the water’s edge. No-one felt like swimming after that but we still had a bit of a paddle. It was icy.
Friday night passed in a blur of food, wine and more talking. On Saturday, after an extensive breakfast, we set off on a 7 hour circular trail. The start was flattish and soggy and, like the previous day, we were the only walkers to be seen. This changed as we got closer to an intersection with the Pennine Way, where we encountered groups of teenagers doing their D of E expeditions and no end of hardy folk with fluttering maps, serious expressions and walking poles. We joined them in the short, sharp ascent to Kinder Downfall, an impressive look-out point named after the waterfall flowing from the hilltop. Unfortunately, the waterfall was a lot less impressive than the scenery but nonetheless, it was the perfect lunch venue. Well, that’s what the local sheep thought.
Leaving Kinder Downfall we deviated from the main path, using map and compass to guide us across the peat bogs to a route back home. If you have ever walked across peat bogs you will know that it isn’t easy. Around 20 years ago I had gone walking with Paul just a few miles away but in very different weather conditions. We had battled wind and rain while falling down and stumbling through boggy pits and troughs and the whole thing was utterly miserable: the very definition of bleak. But now, in the warmth and dryness of summer, it was a different story. There were clouds of cotton grass, carpets of bilberry shoots and trenches of brown springy-spongey-peat. We felt as though we were walking on chocolate brownies (not that we had ever done so). On we went, bouncing along merrily like astronauts on the moon, plunging down into mini-crevasses and rebounding up the other side as if weightless, occasionally stopping to ponder the map or to watch curlews in flight.
Eventually we reached the end of the bogs and from then it was a steep, rocky descent back to the Snake Pass Inn for birthday cake, baths and beverages. And bikers. Yes, the roaring of engines signalled the gradual arrival of the Devil’s Disciples. Would it be a night of blaring Heavy Metal? Would we get our dinner before they started ordering theirs? Would we get any sleep?
In the end they were as good as gold. I slept like a baby and didn’t hear a single thing. This should have resulted in a cheerful Sunday morning: breakfast of bacon and eggs and then a final hike along the Ladybower reservoir. Unfortunately it was not to be. At 5 a.m. I was woken by the corkscrew-behind-the-eye sensation of a migraine. The pain drilled on and on, leading to extensive vomiting. I couldn’t even keep down water, let alone Zomig, my faithful anti-migraine medication. Moving was agony. Thinking was agony. Breathing was agony. The roar of departing bike engines was doubleplus agony. There was nothing anyone could do other than to find me a bin to be sick in and to arrange with the pub that I could stay as long as would be needed. Then, reluctantly, the group left without me and I was alone. As there is no mobile coverage in Snake Pass, I couldn’t communicate with anyone, even if I’d had the mental ability to do so. I had no idea how long this was going to last and resigned myself to a 24 hour stint, from previous experience, wondering how I would manage to cancel my Monday morning patients. Still, if you are ever confined to your bed by a migraine, I can tell you that room 12 of the Snake Pass Inn is as good as they come, mainly because there is no window and therefore NO LIGHT AT ALL. A consolation of sorts. Fortunately, there came a point when I was able to swallow and retain a precious Zomig tablet and after a mere 6 hours of pain a switch was flipped: I could live again! I stumbled out of bed, dressed, packed, drank tea, ate a banana and started a slightly groggy but very careful drive home. I was so sad to have missed the chance to say goodbye to the group but even this sorry end didn’t take away from all the great stuff beforehand.
I can’t finish this post without saying something about the amazing hospitality from the two young men in charge of the Snake Pass Inn. They helped plan walking routes, took lengthy and detailed food orders without raising an eyebrow, cut extra keys on request and were very helpful when it came to my gluten-free issues. They were up all night with the bike convention and were still both cheerful and concerned about my well-being in the morning. Thanks guys – and thanks Julia for a fantastic weekend!