I am a Free Man on Sunday, but it is on Friday when I make good my escape.
Semi-retirement sees me semi-unretired on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in a windowless, Windows driven, air-con’d and strip light lit awfulness in the Flatlands of Eastern England. Rides, mostly in to the circle of white light cast on to the farm track or B road in front of me as the nights draw in, are generally flat and, although better than nothing, could be better.
So on Thursday evenings I pack up my little van and head back to Sheffield, the land of steel, where many of the badly pot-holed roads lead out in to the Peak. On Friday I try and ride ….
I’d spotted two little squares on the map high up above the Upper Howden Reservoir. A few messages to Paul Besley (aka the oracle of all things Dark Peak, aka National Park Warden, Mountain Rescue Team member, guide book author, mature student and search dog trainer) led to some information on the squares … “the cabins you will meet are the Ronksley cabins, one for the toffs and one for the proles … you will see which is which”. So this led to me looking up the word ‘proles’ and hatching an idea to cycle up to the Ronksley Cabin.
Cold this morning. The first clear blue sky Autumn morning of the year. One of those where, for the first hour or so at least, bib shorts (vice longs), are a stupid idea. Traffic quiet as the Snake Pass is being resurfaced. Cold hands. Descent to Ladybower and turn down to Fairholmes. A large flock of sheep bimbling up the road as if going to school. Sunlight painfully bright on the water. Along Ladybower. Stop to buy a tea to fill the flask with at Fairholmes. Hold the tea with the dexterity of a crab wearing boxing gloves. Cold. Along Derwent. Through the remains of Tin Town. Past the Howden Dam. Along Hern Side to the bend, and off the road and on to the Forestry Commission land. Huge timber lorries trundling past. Sun blocked by trees. Cold.
Rush hour en route to Fairholmes.
Waved forward by a chap loading massive tree trunks on to the back of his timber lorry, I edge myself and my bike through ankle deep gloop twenty centimetres from many many tons of timber. Friendly waves. Chain saws and the noise of massive machines audible in the woods. Along to the footbridge across the Westend Beck. Out of the trees. In to the sun.
From here on in it is part ride, part hike a bike. I’ve deliberately not looked at the map this morning. The 4×4 track, I know, goes to within sight of the cabin, and I can see the track climbing and snaking across the hill side in front of me. Aeroplanes descending in to Manchester look like they’re flying in to the side of the brown hills above me. Ride a bit. Push a bit. Gate. Ride a bit. Push a bit. Gate. A few of the puddles on the North side of the track, in the shade, have the thinnest beginnings of ice on them. It’s cold now. Colder than the cold down below. Sweating with the effort. Fingers and earlobes tingling.
Out of the trees and in to the sun.
A switchback, and then grouse butt number ten. I know the cabins are for the grouse shooting industry, so I sense I must be close. Butt number nine is another hundred metres away up a rise. Eight another hundred. So on and so forth. Three. Two. One. A turning circle. Heather as far as the eye can see. A peat passage-way leading down a slope North Eastwards as far as I can see. I push the bike down. The peat on both sides is higher than me, the sun doesn’t shine in here, the temperature drops. I begin to think that these cabins might be the reserve of hardy types through the winter.
Wheels sink in to the squelch. I’m out of the passage-way. I can make out a tin roof. I make a point of whistling. Early warning.
Tin roofs ahoy!
I recall Paul’s words telling me that I’d be able to tell which of the cabins was for the ‘proles’.
The word “prole” is a shortening of the word proletarian, a term for the working class. The word was popularized by George Orwell in his 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.
The first hut has a beautiful long old nail bent in to an ‘S’ keeping the door closed. A beck gurgles noisily a few feet away. Is it normal to always make excessive noise when approaching old buildings in the middle of nowhere ? Whistling loudly I open the door. A big table, two long benches, some plastic chairs. Beautiful stonework. Spare tins of sardines and some tea candles by the window. Nails for hanging. A latch to keep the door closed from the inside. Stone floor. I imagine it full of Barbour and muddy boots. No proles here.
The other cabin is ten metres away down slope. Down the valley of the proles. No door. No window. No table. Two old plastic chairs. A stone bus shelter at 1500ft on a remote hillside. I imagine it full of woodbines and beaters and lads off the Estate. It’s cold.
The soldier in me wants to hunker down with the proles. Light the hexamine stove. Share a brew. The officer in me wants to get out of the cold in to the fug of the other hut. Take a dram. Fuss a Labrador.
I lean Geraldine (my Surly) against the wall. The light plays tricks on the stone floor. I take some images. The other hut would seat maybe fifteen around the table. I see stoves alight. Stories told. Hats pulled over cold ears. Winter observed through the window. Neither hut lends itself to a comfortable night. I pinch myself thinking of nights in sodden fox holes on MoD training areas around Britain. Shell scrapes in the desert. Bomb damaged ruins in the Balkans. To be able to choose to come to this hut with friends, share a dram, sleep on an air filled mat inside a cocoon of down would be grand. Talking. Bruichladdich from tin mugs. A star filled sky.
I finish my tea-in-a-tin-mug. Note to self to come back with a coat warmer than I think I’ll need. I trace the shadow of the ‘S’ of the door nail on the large table. The light plays games. I pack my saddle bag and walk out. I catch myself checking my fives and twenties. Presence of the abnormal. Absence of the normal. Old habits. Push the bike back up the slope. Count to thirty. Stop. Check the scene over my shoulder. Have I left anything. Rattle test the bike. Push on. Squelch. Squelch. Gloop. Squelch.
Past butt one. Past butt ten. Clip in. Remember there are three gates between here and the river. One after the steep decline. One round the bend. Tracks well maintained (by the proles) so that the grouse shooters can ascend the hillside in the Estate Landy. They make for fast descents. The eight hundred feet gravels past. I pause on the footbridge to look back up towards the huts. A forestry worker on the opposite hillside fells sixty foot pine trees at the rate of about one a minute. His collie expert at judging fall lines. Machinery decimates the ground. No timber lorries now. I freewheel through forest working mess for a mile, past hundreds of tons of stacked timber. Onwards down to the road.
Fond imaginings of an egg banjo at Fairholmes are dismissed by the hoards. A queue of people staring at the ‘please decide what you want before you get to the front of the queue’ sign, and telling the counter staff that they don’t know what they want. That they can’t quite decide.
I pedal off.
Whistling the Manchester Rambler.
Thinking ‘bout proles.
Words & pictures – Tomo Thompson