With all the snow and ice in The Peak District last winter, and the extreme elevation of the house I was renting, there were few occasions when I could get my car up the rutted track leading to the lane down to the nearest village. Going further afield always felt like a major risk. Would my very ordinary, quite old, 125,000-plus-mile- on-the-clock, definitely-not-four-wheel-drive car make it back up the mountainside? If I came off the bendy, tight road over the precipice, would anyone find my half-broken body in the dark, before I froze to death? Nonetheless, on the few days when the weather was kind, in the limited daylight, I actually managed to do a lot of exploring. On perhaps the brightest, clearest day of the whole winter, I drove thirty five minutes west to Edale, and climbed the Kinder Scout plateau: the highest point in the whole of The Peak. The climb itself didn’t feel all that severe, but that was probably due to how accustomed I’d got already to the climb back to my kitchen – only a few hundred feet lower than Kinder – from my local branch of Spar. The views back towards Mam Tor were spectacular on the way up, as the ice skin on the puddles got thicker, but when I got over the ridge and the ground levelled out, I noticed thick fog billowing towards me from the north. People had warned me about Kinder as a kid: that it wasn’t like other high spots in Derbyshire. I remember my dad telling me that being up there is like “WALKING ON THE SURFACE OF THE MOON.” I broke my route, unable to resist investigating what I’d seen marked on the map as ‘Madwoman’s Stones’. I felt briefly trapped by unmarked rivers and ditches in the half-iced peat, and when I found the path again I broke into a quarter run, feeling that the fog was chasing me down the eastern side of the plateau, and was lined with something black and cursed. My mind quickened in tandem with my pace with thoughts about the new book of fiction – my first ever – that I was working on: less ideas than flavours and feelings that I wanted to trap. I broke through a stile onto more clement moorland and took a photo of two sycamore trees ahead of me, slightly fused together, starkly alone. It was only about two hours later, at home, when I looked at the photo that I realised that the trees, together, from this angle, resembled a scarecrowish man with branch hands, raging at an unjust world. The photo came at a time when my publishers and I were starting to think about the cover of this new book of fiction I was writing, and which I had decided – without any particularly conscious decision-making – to call Help The Witch. My previous book, 21st Century Yokel, had featured a wonderful cover by the artist and printmaker Clare Melinsky, so the bar was high. The cover needed to be something wintry, something that suggested earth magic, ghosts, the eerie power of landscape. I sent the photo of the sycamores to my editor, Simon Spanton. In what seemed like very little time at all – I don’t remember the exact time scale but it can’t have been more than a month – an image arrived in my inbox, by an artist called Joe McLaren: the trees, rendered as a black and white linoprint. It was everything I’d wanted it to be: the perfect accompaniment to the flavour of what I was writing. As I wrote the last half of the book, I noticed a whole new sensation: the quality of the art was so high, it was making me more determined to write as well as possible. It was something I felt I needed to live up to, a good kind of pressure. The jacket went through a couple of incarnations – we decided against an extra figure on the front and an alternate green version, and a perfect hare, for this book where hares often lurk, was added to the back – and then it was there: the most wonderful, magical cover I’ve ever had on one of my books. Simple, powerful, all with a slight feeling of predestiny about it. Thank you, Kinder Scout. And thank you Joe, for somehow putting what I had in my head on canvas, in a way that I would never have had the talent or vision to do.
Prints of my Double Sycamore Tree Man photo are now available with a pledge for my new fiction book, Ring The Hill, which is now funding for autumn 2019 publication.
You can order the hardback of my latest book, Help The Witch, here.
I don’t write for any mainstream media publications and chose to put my writing on this site instead: around 200,000 words of it so far. It’s all free, but if you feel like donating a small monthly amount to help me keep going, you can do so either by paypal or GoCardless.