We’re standing in Graham’s front garden when he points out what the really mysterious thing is about snowdrops. The fog has lifted, but only slightly, and it feels like this brief fog raising of an hour or so is a harsh Peak District winter’s equivalent of what might count in many other places as proper daytime, and the snowdrops are scattered all around us, lighting up the world more than anything currently in the sky. “They’re amazing things,” says Graham. “They’ll thrive under snow and ice but if it’s warm and dry, they won’t grow. You can’t tell me that can be explained. That’s not just nature. There’s something more going on there.” As Graham says this, he sweeps with his brush at non-existent debris on his front path and a hen – the only one on his farm – pecks around him, and maybe it’s partly because of the way Graham looks, and the foggy mystery of the afternoon, and everything else that I’ve seen in the last eight miles, but my belief in what he says is unequivocal.
I ask him what his hen is called.
“Hen,” he says.
I came here, to the Manifold Valley, just over the Derbyshire border into Staffordshire, for a day of walking, searching for a little lightness, something more gentle than what I’ve been experiencing close to my house for the last few weeks, but it hadn’t quite gone as planned. The previous night I’d walked outside my front door to try to find my kitten, who was being driven repeatedly out of the house by my other female cat, and I’d felt a natural hostility to the air unlike anything I’d ever felt near any house I’d ever made my bed in. My heart turned briefly arrhythmic as I took it in. An iced terror was in the black wind, like the night had fangs. Beyond the old barns I was peering at through the gloom, hoping that my kitten would skip out from a low wall over there that she sometimes sheltered under, there were hundreds of acres of wild ground: woodland trodden only by local hunters and me, scattered with derelict buildings and walled in by dense tree magic. Beyond it: untold numbers of unmarked graves, filled with plague bones – old bones from a different universe, but bones that in fact did their growing only thirteen or fourteen generations from where we are now. Next to a small lake, the tall scarecrow skeletons of last summer’s giant hogweed stood strong, despite the snow. Snow had not been a feature of the day, making it one of only about eleven days of that kind since I arrived here in early December. A few days earlier, three taxis had refused to take me back home from Sheffield, on the grounds that in the height of winter they don’t risk coming up to the spot where my house is. “It will be nice to have an excellent city like Sheffield so close,” I thought when I first saw the house, on a pleasant autumn day. You’re in the outskirts in twenty five minutes from here, but I’ve never known a place twenty five minutes away to mentally feel as far away as it has over the last few weeks.
One sharp golden day sliced through it all and reminded me that, in other places, in other years, February has actually sometimes felt a little like spring. I walked in the Moss Valley with my friend Jim Ghedi. who writes songs entrenched in the working life and social history of the area. The first time I met Jim, he was hungover, having been drinking with at least four blacksmiths. Jim is young and tall and never-married, with long dark flowing hair, but when he opens his mouth to sing it is as if his body has been taken over by the spirit of a ninety four year-old three times-divorced miner. He has a voice that somehow manages to be rich peat and molten iron at the same time, and has the restraint and confidence in his own musicianship to only use it sparingly on his new LP, A Hymn For Ancient Land. We walked past St John’s Church in the village of Ridgeway and he noticed that the poster advertising the gig had fallen half-down. I found some Blu-Tack which, having had a long and involved relationship with Blu-Tack, I somewhat arrogantly pledged to revive and use to re-affix the poster to the notice board, but it was no use: the Blu-Tack was clearly well over a year old and could not be resuscitated. We walked down the valley to an abandoned engine room and past a ropeswing Jim had attached to a tree back when he was in his teens. Jim told me a story about the packhorse mule which would bring tools down the valley from Ridgeway to a waterwheel near here, four times a day, all on its own, from Phoenix Works, a five and a half century-old scythe and sickle manufacturer that Jim celebrates in his stirring and unforgettable song of the same name.
To get here from my house you curve around the bottom of the clock face of Greater Sheffield, from ten to eight to quarter past five. From Bramley, the highest of the villages in the Moss Valley, you can see the much higher ridge where I live, but here is totally different terrain. “Ordinary, working countryside,” as Jim describes it, omitted by most county guidebooks, closer in spirit to – albeit a fair bit prettier than – the bits of north Nottinghamshire where I grew up than to North West Derbyshire. It’s not one hundred percent mandatory that you live in the countryside to make great rurally-flavoured music but I have no doubt that what Jim creates is richer for it.
I think, because the Peak District is not “ordinary, working countryside”, I have been guilty of underestimating it. Not much, but a bit. I moved to it excited about its darkness and bleakness and history, but also, due to its National Park status perhaps viewed it marginally as an unreal, themed place, and took its Darker Side less seriously because of it. Weirdly, in nearly four years of living near the edge of Dartmoor, which also enjoys National Park status, I never underestimated it in the same way. Maybe this is because The Peak, unlike Dartmoor, is ringed by cities and packed with small foot motorways of brandwear hikers every weekend. But at its darkest, in a bad winter, The Peak has a denser, spikier darkness than Dartmoor. Maybe, in my heart of hearts, I did in fact know this to be the case, and I knew that was why I was coming here, because I am writing a dark book, and wanted landscape to shake something dark out of my writing, and I have an increasing habit of putting the wellbeing of my writing before the wellbeing of myself. Who knows? It might not make any difference to the book. But I can say that wherever I have turned here, wherever I have walked, whoever I have met, a seed of a new story for my next book has been planted in my head. And even if that doesn’t make a difference artistically, and it has just been an expensive and derailing break from where I lived before, it has still been worthwhile. Because for a year or so, as spiritually at home as I’d felt in Devon, I’d had a nagging question in my head, something to address about Derbyshire and my own roots in the Nearly North, a wondering about whether it might actually be possible to settle in a place next-door to where I am from. The answer to that came almost instantly, but I didn’t let myself hear it, as I didn’t want to be knee-jerk about the weather, wanted to give everything a chance, then when I’d stayed in denial about it for long enough, it hit me like a deferred realisation about a lost lover: Devon is the county whose arms I want around me, for the foreseeable future. I need its company: more even than that of Norfolk, my other lost lover. I visited Devon last weekend and this knowledge became consolidated along with the knowledge that the only way to fully realise it had been to leave. I wanted to be back there with all my heart and saw clearly all it had given me and I took a square look at the face of the upheaval it would necessitate, so quickly after the last lot of upheaval, to get back there, and felt accepting of it. In fact, the only thing that really worried me about moving back to Devon so quickly was the questions people would ask me about it and how exhausting it would be to explain all the nuances of my decision.
There are times when I’m driving across the Peak District – a notably high, desolate bit – in the ice and fog and snow and I look up to a ridge, about 500 feet further above that and think, “What crazy idiot would choose to live up there in winter?” Then I realise the answer is me. Spring will happen here in the Peak, perhaps some time around July, and no doubt it will be glorious, but I won’t be here to see it, and I’m ok with that. I still feel fascinated with the place but I do not want to live here at present. I definitely do not want to live here again in winter, my least favourite season.
After spring nearly happened on the day I walked with Jim, it was revoked, just as it will no doubt be revoked again, a few times, before we get there. I walked through a hailstorm from my house to a pub on marginally lower ground where, as soon as I entered, someone thrust a dead fox into my face. Back at home, I listened to weather pelt the walls of the house, where I heard furniture move upstairs in a loft where there was no furniture and no people to move it, and continued to have the nightmares that I have had almost every night since I moved in, and sit up in the early hours, thinking about the people who built the house for weather like this, building the house, in weather like this. My dad visited, and entered my living room carrying three ram skulls he had obtained from the local farmer. I drove to perform some spoken word in Liverpool in snow and drove back in more extreme snow and my car skidded off a road and I clung to the steering wheel and somehow my car managed to avoid every obstacle flashing in front of me: the car in front, the car coming the other way, a drystone wall, the small ravine to my right. Snow: weather’s answer to the person who seems pretty great at first but is actually quite a massive bellend once you’ve had to spend any lengthy amount of time with them. “It’s so pretty: you’re so lucky,” said people on Instagram, when they saw my photos of all the idyllic white flakes, clinging to the pretty trees and heather.
And they were right: I was lucky. I was not trapped in my car, down a ravine, slowly bleeding to death. I was at home, in an almost warm house, and still had chance to complete my tenth book, to dance, to swim, to laugh with friends, to – one day, in what feels like many years – experience relatively warm weather once again. Outside, the door of the barn opposite creaked in a minor gale, as if whoever governed the ambience of the locality had thought, “Ok, we’ve given the foolhardy writer dabbling with the supernatural and underestimating nature his ghost, his dead fox, his lost pet, blizzards, the near death experience, but we forgot the creaking barn door! How on earth did we forget the creaking barn door? Quick! Get on it!” After I’d stood beneath the night’s fangs and the moisture dripping off their sharp tips and found my kitten and dried the snow off her and locked her away from my other female cat and slept for a whole four hours I felt the need for a change of scene for a day. I wanted to stay in the Peak, because – despite the meteorological adversity of my time here so far – I still do not wish to chicken out from fairly forensically exploring the area, but I craved something marginally softer.
I chose a circular walk in the Manifold Valley and parked in the village of Grindon, just under an hour’s drive south west from my house. Thick upland fog. Vertiginous limestone dales. Scraggy hardcase shitcaked sheep. Viscous peat, black as night. In other words: basically a small Mediterranean resort, compared to where I live. Descending in the direction of Thor’s Cave, where Bronze Age humans fashioned amber beads and pottery and a few years later a photographer shot the cover for the The Verve’s Storm In Heaven album, I slipped on limestone and fell on top of my camera, amazingly neither breaking it nor me. White Peak limestone makes for less bleak hills than the gritstone of The Dark Peak but it always feels like it’s getting away from you underfoot. During cold weather nothing ever feels certain in life when you’re on top of it. A couple of hundred paces further on I passed through a gate, noting the top section of a freshly decapitated deer on the path in front of me: a sight that I suspect will not totally leave me for some years.
There were moments when I used to think The Peak District looked a little like Devon wearing a different overcoat but I think this less now I live here. Having come directly from Devon, you notice a rhythm to walking in the Peak: that you tend to do it on terrain that’s either a lot more controlled than any walking terrain in Devon, or a lot more wild, and almost never anything in between. Having done an example of the safe, controlled bit down by the rivers Manifold and Hamps, I climbed the valley back in the direction of Grindon, passing kingsized yob crows, and arrived at a farmyard, where I was instructed by my map to take a path running through it to the left. As I did, a man with enormous dark grey sideburns emerged from the farmhouse and barked instructions at me to take a gate on the right hand side of his garden instead. He complained about the National Park “doing me no favours” and directing walkers to the place, which was called Oldfield Farm. He introduced himself as Graham Simpson. He said there had been Simpsons at the house since the 1740s, when two of his ancestors, Jacobites on the run, had first built it. Its original outdoor privy still also remained standing. Graham talked about the winter of 1947, which was so cold that “your coat would stand up when you took it off” and a plane flying over to drop supplies to the snowbound villages in the area crashed. “I remember listening to it go over – you could hear the ice cracking in the trees,” he said. He looked good for 83 and had probably looked truly magnificent for 63, at 63.
Two things Graham said he didn’t have much time for were Romans and computers. The way he explained this suggested that Romans had come along, got a bit too arrogant, messed stuff up, then everything had been all right for a few years until computers had come along to mess everything up all over again. He told me there’s a code you can type into a computer now and see inside people’s houses, including his. “People are too far away from the real world nowadays,” he said. We talked for around three quarters of an hour and I wondered how many times he had stopped other hikers and marshalled a similar conversation: these hikers who the National Park directed across his land in a bothersome way but who he patently loved to talk to. He said he wasn’t a religious man but believed it was a terrible thing that people didn’t always get christened any more. “It’s like us tagging our cows: you have to do it so you know who they are and where they belong.” I decided not to tell him that I personally was unchristened and silently speculated as to whether this was why I’d had a little trouble deciding where I belonged lately. It was a very different life, this one of Graham’s – staying in one place for so long, just like your dad before you, and his dad, and his dad, and his dad – and not one I wanted but I could see its pluses. He contentedly posed for a photograph and I visited his 18th Century privy, though not to use it for its originally intended purpose as all it has inside it was rubble and peat, then said goodbye to him and his hen. The fog would only be raised for an hour or so longer, and the snow would be back again soon, deeper and more troublesome than before. But underneath it the snowdrops would be thriving.
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