It was my Uncle Bobby who took me out walking first. I must have been nine or 10 years old, and the walks weren’t anything very adventurous: just short rambles round Holcombe Brook, Rivington Pike, Prestwich Clough and many of the country lanes and bridleways that still existed around Manchester before the M62 and industrial estates and retail parks claimed all that lovely land. If I owe my love of walking to anybody it is to that gentle Manchester tailor who took me out for my first adventures in open country. I’ve been going out into the hills ever since, and those first few rambles in Lancashire led me on into the Yorkshire Dales, the Lake District, the west of Ireland and then further still into the mountains of Appalachia and the Himalayas; and I think that hillwalking in many ways has enriched my life immeasurably.
“Getting away from it all” isn’t a cliché, it’s a self-evident truth. When you’re high in the hills away from the noise and clamour of the cities you find a kind of peace that you will never find anywhere else. And I think that this is something deep-rooted in all of us; when you think about it, it was only the Enclosure Acts and the Industrial Revolution that forced our ancestors off the land and into the cities to work. Go back three or four generations and most people in these islands would have been country born and bred.
And that is why, I think, so many people have traditionally gone from our northern cities out into the hills, whether for simple day rambles or for longer hikes, camping out or hostelling along the way. In the 1920s and 1930s Rambling was probably the most common of all outdoor activities and the rail and bus companies laid on Ramblers’ Specials to get walkers out into the hills.
It wasn’t always easy though, large swathes of the uplands belonged to landowners who closed the mountains down to walkers and it was only the determined work of the Ramblers Association and other bodies that finally got the mountains opened up for us all. But that wasn’t until five men arrested for walking on Kinder Scout had been sentenced to six months in prison. Next year sees the 80th anniversary of the Kinder Mass Trespass.
We are blessed, of course, in the North, because we have, on our doorsteps the Yorkshire Dales and Wolds, the whole of the Pennines and the Lake District to walk over and there’s never been a time when there were so many bed and breakfast places and cafés and shops looking after the hillwalker’s many and various needs.
Hillwalking must be one of the cheapest hobbies you can have. A decent pair of boots aren’t expensive and will last for years, you can get good waterproofs, thick socks and fibre pile jackets on the market for not a lot of bobs and a half decent rucksack won’t cost you an arm and a leg.
Also – so far – the Government hasn’t found a way of charging us for walking in the mountains and hasn’t put turnstiles and paybooths on the hills (though I suspect it may only be a matter of time). But certainly for now, hillwalking is free, simple and pretty safe.
It does help if you can read a map and use a compass, but anybody can learn to map read, and all you have to do is use the compass to get the map the right way round, sort out where you are and where you want to be and set off – at least in your early days.
But, and it’s a big “but”, there are things you should be aware of if you’re new to the game. Firstly, hills by their very nature often have sharp or lumpy or pointy bits and your aim should be not to fall off those bits. It might be only the last inch of the fall that hurts – but it could hurt you enough to make you slightly dead.
Secondly, no matter how warm it is sitting outside the village pub down in the valley, it can be a heck of a sight colder on the tops, and if there’s a strong wind blowing it can chill you to the bone, even on a summer’s day.
So be prepared and always have waterproofs and warmer layers with you in your sack and don’t be surprised if you find a family of Esquimaux on the summit.
Thirdly, make sure you can use a map and compass and as you become more adventurous become proficient in this. GPS devices are fine until the batteries run out or you drop them down a gully then they’re as much use as underpants on a goldfish.
Fourthly, take food with you. High-energy bars, bananas, apples, cheese, Kendal Mint Cake etc are all good stuff, and take plenty. If the fog comes down and you have to take shelter and wait for the Mountain Rescue gang you’ll want something to keep your energy levels up till they come. And take plenty of water, you’d be surprised how much you sweat – even posh ladies have been known to come out in a lather in the hills.
When you sweat you lose salts from your body and you can get cramp – bananas contain sodium and potassium salts and are really good against cramp. As a general rule, we old Himalayan hands always say that your pee should be copious and clear
All of the above makes hillwalking sound like something only the SAS should do. It isn’t. I’ve been taking my two grandsons, Toby and Felix, walking in the hills since they were small; both of them climbed Penyghent and Whernside before they were six and loved every minute of it. Children do love walking. They’ll moan about it of course, but only in the “are we nearly there yet?” sense.
I once did the Three Peaks with a load of children and all the way off Ingleborough heading for Horton in Ribblesdale they moaned about how exhausted they were and how painful their legs were and how they were dying. We got to the Crown pub and the adults sat in the sun with a pint while all the exhausted children ran round like lunatics playing football.
So ignore them when they moan, they don’t mean it, and anyway at least they are not sat there goggle-eyed playing with their Nintendos.
No, hillwalking is just about the best and cheapest sport there is: for all ages, all classes and you can do it pretty much any time of the year at any level you wish.
I must however mention one thing. Midges. When God made the world She looked at it on the Saturday night and saw that it was good. “Sunday off,” She thought. “Do the crossword, cup of coffee, maybe a bit of a walk, pub lunch…”
Then she noticed a bit of black stuff still in the bottom of the box. “Damn,” she said to herself. “Got to do something with that.” So with half of it she made some bankers and with the rest of it she made some midges and both of them have been the scourges of the world ever since.
It is said that if you walk at 2.5 miles an hour you will outrun them (the midges, not the bankers) – but who wants to spend all day walking? We want to sit and enjoy the views and our butties and tea. No, midges are the walkers’ and campers’ curse and, like bankers, they suck your blood, never apologise and there doesn’t seem to be anything we can do that gets rid of them.
In tomorrow’s Yorkshire Post, wardrobe assistant at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Helen Macdonald, reveals her passion for Roller Derby.