The road north went past bungalows and spread-out homes. Pebble dash, cladding, painted concrete facings, and low walls. There weren’t so many trees at this end except for the thin stand of silver birch, white and skeletal, all stretched sinew and bleached out bone. They loomed tall and unexpected throughout my childhood. Watching over us. Whispering amongst themselves. Guardians amidst the brick and asphalt, a hollow way through.
Sometime, though, visiting my dad, the trees had all been felled, and he was surprised he couldn’t remember when. Some landmarks do that. So present in the memory they don’t need to be there to be cited still: left at the trees, or straight along past. Spirits of the wooden way, sentinel at the end of the road, a portal and a passageway.
My grandad was only ever elderly, as far as I knew him. A bit grumpy. Kind to me, his smallest grandchild. He was a man who felt like he’d never really done anything.
Like most of my grandparents, he was born in the 19th century. I have to stop for a moment when I write that. The 19th century. Right at the end, in 1898.
In 1918 he was sent home from the front of World War I with Spanish flu. He survived Ypres, when most of his regiment didn’t, because he was ill. His sister and my great grandmother weren’t so lucky. But this isn’t a COVID story or even a story about a pandemic. This is something else.
He worked, most of his life, as a clerk in an office. He started out low ranking and ended up there too. The absolute epitome of a white collar worker.
When I was a child there were three things I knew him to love: birdwatching; Toc H; and recorded music. We’d regularly walk together down the road from his small house into the main part of town, me to cash the 50 pence postal order he’d get for me each time we visited, him to buy a single or, more rarely, an LP.
I’ve still got many of them. Songs from the 60s and 70s, and some of the releases that featured well-known bits of classical music. He wasn’t a music snob at all, he had eclectic tastes all round. We’d sit, uncritically, in his small front room and listen together.
He’d often be rubbing at his knee. A few years before he died he finally got a replacement, and that was wonderful to him. The fourth thing he’d been passionate about as a younger man was walking. I knew him only in his waddlesome old age, but in his 20s and 30s and 40s he’d been a passionate hiker. And that is what this story is really all about.
He’d work hard throughout the week and, on one weekend a month, he’d catch a train on the Friday night and go off somewhere to walk. It was a compromise with my grandmother. Just once a month. She was working too, so, one weekend a month she had time for her own occupations. It was a surprisingly egalitarian arrangement for the times.
He had a canvas backpack, a sheet of oilcloth, and a blanket which could be reconfigured into a poncho. He and my grandmother had come up with a cunning arrangement of buttons, which I’ve used on my own bivi bag. He also had a small spirit stove and an enamel mug. Even in my childhood these were regarded as some sort of holy relics of an almost important past.
He’d spend the weekend walking, kipping down at night under a hedge, or in a haystack, or if he was lucky and the weather was inclement, he might find an open farm building, or, once or twice, an open church. I can see him now, cudgelling the horsehair kneelers into a makeshift bed. It must have been hard. But not as bone-leaching cold as a stone-flagged floor.
He’d usually make it home on the Sunday afternoon. But, just occasionally, he’d catch a post train overnight and change into his work clothes on the train or at the rail station.
Of course, he had a few run-ins. With gamekeepers. With landholders. With a few farmers too. Trespass was a serious issue and you could be in trouble if you were caught. You might be risking your job or even your home.
He was mostly a very law abiding man. He worked in a solicitor’s office, so he knew all the small things, and the big, that could go badly wrong in someone’s life. But he believed in a person’s inalienable right to be able to stand free under the sky on any piece of land.
And this brings us to the heart of this story. In his 30s he was a bit lost. He had two small children. He already knew he was destined only for small things at work. He was married. Adequately. But he was facing the reality that his would be a little life with a narrow circumference.
He kept quiet about how he found out about the walk.
Perhaps he was worried for others. It’s hard to tell. And there is no one left to ask. But, at some point towards the end of 1931, or at the start of 1932, he read, or heard, about a planned trespass on Kinder Scout. He saved his train fare. Changed the weekend of the month he’d be away and worked out his route.
He travelled up from south of London on the Friday. All the way to Manchester. And, on the Saturday, he caught a train out on the Hope Valley line to Edale. All through my childhood I wasn’t sure if it really was called that, it seemed like such a propitious name.
He spent Saturday night wrapped up in a blanket and his oilskin. Watching the distant lights of Manchester, or Sheffield. I don’t know if that’s true. How lit were those towns then? But it made for a good telling.
On the morning of the 24th April he had only the vaguest idea of where he was supposed to be. He had a map. But a map is not the territory, and Kinder Scout is big. He walked around. He could hear voices now and again, raised, angry. And sometimes, in the distance, he could see a gaggle of men. He caught up with some eventually. A few arrests had already been made; there had been a fight with some gamekeepers.
He chatted easily with the men he met and they shared a couple of bottles of beer. They were amazed that he’d come all that way. He was amazed that they were risking their livelihoods so close to home.
But they all understood both the lure and the longing of the land around them.
He’d got a bit lost on the way, he explained. Which was why he’d missed the rumpus.
I think he’d have liked to stay, up there, with these men who shared such fellow feeling. But work and his little life were calling. So he got back to Manchester. Caught a milk train south. Changed his clothes, and did up his too tight collar and tie on the train. And walked into work.
He remembered there was a lot of filing to be done that Monday, and having to listen to his boss tut over the pictures in the paper of those ruffians on the hills.
The Kinder Scout trespass on the 24th April 1932 became one of the rallying calls of the right-to-roam movement. Maybe it wasn’t as effective as some would like to think. But it provided an iconic moment.
Grandad didn’t make much of it. He said it felt like he wasn’t really there, missing all the good bits as he did. Getting lost, in effect. But it rallied him a different way. He got lost, but he found himself. He became involved in more things locally. He did more at his church. He pushed against the boundaries of his small life, like blowing into a balloon. So it reached its limit but never burst.
In his 70s he’d look at the newspaper clippings, or light the little spirit stove and make us tea. Whatever the circumstances of your birth, he’d say, under the sky? Under the sky, we are all free.
Today is 88 years since the mass trespass on Kinder Scout. It’s getting tougher for everyone in Britain to access land. The possibility of wildness is becoming smaller and simply being able to live outdoors is growing ever harder. Proposed legislation to curb movement by Roma and travellers, HS2 and its wide swathed destruction, and the threat to footpaths and rights-of-way, are all a continuing denial of our access to nature.
So, I’m grateful to those men, and to my grandad, who went out there, to remind us all to be free. Under the sky. And on the land. And to trespass if we must.
The last few days I’ve been woken by murmuring voices. At first I thought it was because we’d opened the windows a crack and there were sounds coming in off the street. The conversations were always brief, sometimes just a few words, before they were cut off. Interrupted.
Yesterday, I was woken a little earlier. There was a brief flash of laughter. Glittering. It stopped though, as suddenly as it began. I waited. But it was quiet. When I got up I looked out of the window nearest the road. It was empty. Not surprising in this time of quarantine.
This morning I was awake before anyone could hasten me from sleep, and I lay in bed, waiting. It was a burst of music. Something military. With brass. Bright. And then silent again. I got up. And though I felt hesitant on the stairs I followed them down.
Without the distant traffic of the usual mid-week bustle it was still, the quiet broken only by the liquid song of a blackbird outside. The light poured through the window. And, for the first time, I realised the sun must have hit the radio on the bookcase at the turn of the stairs.
The wind-up radio, the one with a small back-up solar panel. It’s a heavy thing, robust, from when I worked in disaster relief. When I lifted it I found it was switched on. Ready. Waiting. To use that brief burst of energy to create a little mayhem in my day.