Last night, after some appetizing pub grub at The Peel’s Arms in nearby Padfield, we laughed that our routine in a Bed and Breakfast was not like that of most B&B visitors. Most B&B guests read, eat and sip tea(1) and otherwise enjoy slow-moving days. Not us. We hang our dirty socks out to dry; we shower in our clothes; we drape our tent over the curtain rod; we blow-dry wet clothes and our wet boots; we restock our toilet paper reserves. And that’s not even the half of it.
Chores are a big part of thru-hiking. The main task is of course walking, and it dominates the day. But there’s also the need to eat, poop, brush teeth, comb through the knots in your hair, navigate, pop blisters, tidy up yourself at every given chance, and so on. At the Old House B&B, we did all that and then some.
It is algid and damp in England. The sky is often just a body of water. So too is the ground. So, when you get the opportunity to out-think Mother Nature and all her pissing and moaning, you take it. I turned each of our radiators in our room to ‘5’ last night, the highest they’d go. (There was no ‘11,’ alas.) I left the blow-dryer on for hours, after propping it up so it didn’t create an inferno (this, despite it being Bonfire Night). I even soaked my poor old feet in the bathroom sink, in the hottest water my toes could stomach(2).
Upon waking this morning I showered yet again, unsure when the next one was to come. Or the next warm one, anyway. One look outside told us we’d be showering all day. The newspaper in The Peel’s Arms last night said it might just storm indefinitely, though I had a tough time getting past the page with the boobies...
Our walk began slowly, our bodies seemingly on strike. The effects of the first few days had caught up with us. When Ruth slipped and fell in a mossy tunnel beneath an old abandoned railway and the Trans-Pennine Recreational Trail, we knew we needed to watch our step more closely, all of them.
Her boot soles seemed to have her more at risk on hard surfaces, while mine had me slipping on softer ones: grass, mud, my backside. A check of our soles showed why. Hers were aggressive---full of ridges and knobbies---while mine were flatter and more suited to, say, bowling. I’d purchased the footwear only a few weeks prior to our hike and already they were worn thin. Such is the effect of the Pennine Way. It makes a mockery of shoes.
Near Torside Reservoir’s southwest corner, we crossed a gate with a warning sign…
IS AN OFFENCE,
DRAWING AND QUARTERING
Okay, I made the ‘drawing and quartering’ part up but indeed the sign told us not to worry sheep. It wasn’t just intended for foreigners hiking the Pennine Way, of course. We knew this because smaller print below the warning mentioned, “dogs caught offending will be shot.” Now, I don’t really know much about canines, but somehow I doubt they could’ve read the sign. It had been placed way too high.
Up atop the reservoir’s dam, we got a better feel for what we’d be facing all day. Though that particular sense dominated, it wasn’t just feel we experienced; the dam was exposed and allowed us to see what the trees had smothered to that point. The whole area appeared to be on the brink of a winter-long coma, though I got the feeling the coma was a permanent thing here.
The reservoir is part of the Longdendale chain of reservoirs supplying water from the River Etherow to greater Manchester, if Manchester can be considered greater than anywhere else. (Remember, these are the same folks who humbly call it Great Britain.) There are no less than four dams within spitting distance of the Torside one, each trapping a comparable amount of spit. The dam took about a minute to walk over and by the time we’d done so we were soaked.
Too stubborn to know any better, we persevered and carried on carrying on to greener pastures. Wetter, greener pastures. If summer in England can be considered wet---and believe me, it can…and should---then November is downright underwater. The spit becomes rain and the rain becomes a steady stream of water flowing from the sky. It was as though we were walking beneath a faucet. Or a fire hose. Maybe it was Ma Nature’s way of putting out all the bonfires.
The water found its way into just about everything we carried, but we were smart enough beforehand to envelop all our belongings in plastic garbage bags. This served dual purposes. One, it would keep all our possessions securely dry. And two, since all our belongings were already in garbage bags, it would be that much easier for us to throw them all away if the thought came to us.
The thought came to us, all right. Each of our packs weighs way too much. Mine hovers around forty pounds, or roughly twenty-five percent of the rest of me, whilst Ruth’s tips the scales at about thirty pounds. We’re not sure what these figures means in stones, just that both packs feel like they’re laden with stones.
Schlepping everything you need to survive crappy weather for weeks on end is not simple. Well, it’s simple…it’s just not easy. And the task is made that much more difficult when the ground upon which you walk more closely resembles an obstacle course than it does a path. The Pennine Way is not the Easy Way, that’s for sure. It is the path of most resistance.
Leaving the Longdendale Valley it was actually tolerable. Pavement led us up to gentle farmland, before the vindictiveness of Laddow Rocks kicked in. There, Ruth really began to struggle. The path was muddy as per normal, but it was its gradient that was doing her in. I began to suffer too, not because she was whining---she wasn’t and she doesn’t---but because I had to wait for her every few minutes. Cold set into my core and my digits lost all dexterity. Had a piano and a gunman suddenly appeared, and he forced me to play said piano, I’d have had to play it with fists. Thankfully, that did not happen.
Laddow Rocks might have been lovely, but we couldn’t see them. This disturbing trend was already quite common along The Way and I dreaded the thought that I might have to hike it again one day, just to spot a few things en route. We knew the rocks were below us, and that the trail was clinging precariously close to their abrupt edge, but the nearest we got to glimpsing them was when we looked at their image in our guidebook. They looked nice.
Rock climbers frequently use Laddow Rocks to hone their skills, the guidebook revealed, but none could be seen today. Again, they may have been there; we just couldn’t see them. It’s unlikely we would’ve even heard them, as thick as the atmosphere felt. Water, after all, is a thousand times denser than air.
Not quite as dense, I decided that, since I had to wait for Ruth, I’d do some push-ups, to help keep warm. One usually does the trick, as I don’t possess much upper-body fitness; the effort generates enough strain, which in turn creates energy in the form of heat. Truth is, I cannot do any more than one. Ultimately, I decided to skip doing even that. The ground was much too messy for the task.
Instead, I partook in a little deep-knee-bend routine. This was more to my (body’s) liking, and it began to carry out its intended goal; I even began sweating. The problem though was my hands. No matter how much heat I produced, my hands still remained ice picks. But I expected as much; I suffer from an ailment called Raynaud’s Disease, an exaggeration of vasomotor responses to cold stress. Basically, my brain decides to redirect blood from the extremities to my body’s core, to help keep it warm. I guess it saves me from hypothermia, but frostbite always seems to be nibbling at me.
It’s gotten to the point where at social gatherings I’m fearful of shaking hands, self- conscious I might come across as a girlyman. So now I go to parties wearing boxing gloves, so no one thinks I’m a wimp. I’m also a severe germaphobe and the boxing gloves prevent me from having to come into contact with anyone, so that’s good. Plus, if a fight ever breaks out, I’ll be prepared.
Interestingly, my feet never get cold when walking. The work creates more than enough heat for them, I guess. It’s always just the hands. My note-taking often reflects their plight. This very journal entry was scribbled in haste in my own adaptation of shorthand, and this is how it originally read…
…midmorning start, mourning ab0ut weather
…weather = shit. Rain.
…Ruth falls in tuNnel
… Sheeep worry1ng
…Tor$ide dam, Laddow unseen
…Hanbs R scRewed
It’s the stuff of a Pulitzer-winning author, I tell you.
Not every entry is so curt of course, usually only those taking place on cold days. When my digits do their job I always end up writing more, often times filling in the blank spots from a previous day’s hike or scribbling grandiose ideas for my future world domination.
When we topped out above Laddow Rocks and onto a misty moor called Black Hill, visibility was at an all-time low. We could each see our feet and, more importantly, where we’d place them, but beyond that, not much. It seemed Black Hill was aptly named. The wind threw its usual fits of fury while giant flakes of snow were starting to fall (horizontally) and stick to us. We didn’t stick around long.
The descent from Black Hill was demanding and dangerous, but with each downward step we began to flee the ferocity of the wind. Slabs helped us find our way in the misty conditions, a beacon of eventual breakdown but hailed here.
All afternoon we’d hike head down. This is the worst kind of hiking, but sometimes necessary. We weren’t hiking for hiking’s sake, but to get somewhere else, anywhere else. When the fog would recede, long stretches of slab would make itself known. It was nice knowing we weren’t going to get lost but equally as depressing seeing just how far we had to go, just to reach an empty horizon. When we’d reach that horizon more of the same would spill out before us. It was as much an emotional struggle as it was physical, but all we could do was battle on. Despite the barrenness, there was nowhere to camp.
Like the moisture, night fell swiftly and heavily. If our visibility was limited when it was light out, it was now altogether nonexistent...lights out. Earlier on we’d passed a reindeer farm at the Wessenden Lodge, which wasn’t a lodge at all but someone’s private residence(3), and I joked how nice it would have been to have them leading the way now, but with the storm, Ruth couldn’t hear me. Or maybe she chose not to.
This was our first real foray into the dark. We’d skirt a number of reservoirs and empty hillocks as we went, but there was nothing to see, alas. To combat the fog, we held our headlamps down low, rather than wear them around our noggins. I worried Ruth might get mad because of the absurdity of what we were doing but she was an absolute trooper. We decided we’d hike until we reached a roof we could sleep under, no matter its state. Ideally it would have a bed beneath it, but we weren’t about to get picky.
It was bordering on 6pm, almost two full hours past sunset, when we stumbled into Standedge, which was less of a town and more of an area, if even that. Standedge marks the north end of the Peak District National Park and the Peak District itself. It also demarcates the location of the Standedge Canal Tunnel, a three-mile-long tunnel snaking its way about four hundred feet beneath where we stood shivering. I wondered if it was warmer down there than it was where we were.
Perhaps a little too hastily, we plodded on and crossed the A62 Highway with no real plan. We just wanted to be dry and warm and off our feet. Hiking hard took care of the warm part; standing around did nothing. But because of our haste we would end up making a series of not-so-comical blunders that had us wandering around in the rainy night for nearly two more hours. Eventually, we came to our senses, numb though they were, and found a roof at the New Barn B&B in a uniquely named settlement called Diggle. An older couple ran the place and was none too happy we didn’t make our arrangements earlier (they’re big into arrangements and schedules in England and the older someone is, the more imperative they become), but we pulled out our best Dumb American accents and earned their pity. I didn’t want to test our luck but for a second I pondered inquiring about their weekly rates.
“Why don’t you hand us your wet clothes,” the old lady suggested, before we tainted the place.
“All of them?” Ruth asked.
Had we done that we might have been arrested for indecent exposure, so instead we just removed our jackets and boots and made our way upstairs to our room, where we’d each take turns showering with the rest of our clothes on.
“Thirteen miles,” I yelled to Ruth from the shower, removing my balaclava. “That’s a half-marathon.”
I was pretty damn proud of her.
(Footnote #1 of the Day: In England, tea can mean dinner or the drink. Yes, they’re weird here.)
(Footnote #2 of the Day: Most people aren’t aware that toes have stomachs, even some respected doctors.)
(Footnote #3 of the Day: Houses in the UK are often named and not just numbered. Often times they’re named for what they are or were or for what look like or possess or simply wish they were. We’d already passed an Old House [last night’s B&B in fact], a Rose Cottage, a Rusted Barn Door House, a Dead Mouse Chalet, a New Barn B&B, and so forth. Our house, I decided, would be called 'Tent.')