ME AND THE LADS I guess I never told you about me and the lads, did I? Well, I mean, it was all so long ago — back in the fifties, like, when we thought the world was young, and really it was only us.... What? Oh, me and the lads . . . no, we weren't a club really. We just used to go out in the hills together at weekends, y'know, and meet most nights at Sullivan's Cafe. Out on the Bolton Road . . . what? No, they pulled it down years ago... . There was the four of us went round together, like. Me, Big Harry, Sorrowful Jones and Toddy. He were the quiet one, Toddy, but Big Harry — well, he was big and blonde and noisy, with a bushy beard like Father Neptune. It was him as picked me up on the Preston by-pass, as then was, did I tell you? Well, maybe I will some day. Got me started climbing, did Big Harry. Sorrowful Jones? Ah, now there was one of the lads, if ever there was one. Small and scruffy,
We sat at our usual table in Sullivan's Cafe, idly eating lumps of sugar from the bowl, and ignoring the malevolent glances of Sullivan. He was a bit put out because his wife had returned unexpectedly from London one evening a week back and had caught Fanny Cranshaw doing overtime. She cut up dead rough about it, too, by all accounts; but she always did strike me as a narrow minded bint, and anyhow, as we pointed out to Sullivan, who was to say what she herself had been up to in the gay Metropolis? He asked us not to mention it. The last lump of sugar had gone and Big Harry was just about to lean over to the next table for another bowl, when the swing door opened to admit two of the roughest characters in the business — any business — Louis the Bum, and his dark familiar, The Bat. In the normal way of things, I am the last person to criticise the failings of my fellow men, but I have to admit that Louis and The Bat were a couple of uncouth sods. For a start, they looked uncouth: small with dark greasy hair which tumbled about their ears and ferret like faces which even a magistrate wouldn't trust. They looked like brothers, terrible twins, for they dressed alike in black leather jackets decorated with brass studs, and black jeans of an outrageous slimness, in the pockets of which they invariably hooked their thumbs.
In point of fact they were in no way related, except in spirit, although they had shared many vicissitudes and several mistresses together. A gentler age would have called them louts, and I always felt that had they lived in medieval times they would have been the boon companions of Richard Crookback, and had a hand in clobbering those kids in the Tower. They were not prepossessing and young coppers were known to avoid them. Yet Louis and The Bat had their shiny side like most human beings: joined together by a nylon rope, they were one of the finest rock-climbing teams in the country. Because of this they were tolerated, and their opinions carried great force. "What you been doin', then, Louis?" Asked Harry. Meaning we hadn't seen them around for a while. "Me an' the Bat 'ere, we been walkin' these last few weekends. S'right, ain't it, Bat?" "S'right," confirmed his shadow. Harry looked shocked, as did we all. "You don't mean walkin' — on foot as it were?" He demanded incredulously.
Walt Unsworth: Image Cicerone
"Yeah, well. This bloke reckoned proper walkin' were very important; an he 'ad a lot o' little pictures showin"ow it should be done, like." "An we was doin' it all wrong," said The Bat. "Funny ain't it? I been walkin' ever since I were a kid, an' then after all these years I find I been doin' it all wrong." Louis gave The Bat a withering look and asked who was telling the tale? The Bat said Louis was, so Louis requested permission to continue, and added that if he had any further interruptions he would place a well aimed boot in The Bat's groin. The Bat, who valued that part of his anatomy, fell silent. "There's just as much skill in walkin' as there is in climbin'," Louis the Bum continued. "Only it's different, o' course. It's a question of , rhythmical balance an' conservation of energy, an all that balls. Once yer gets the 'ang of it, yer can do bloody long walks an' set up records an' things." "'Ow many records 'ave you set up then, Louis?" Asked Sorrowful Jones, tongue in cheek. "Well, we ain't set up any as yet," admitted Louis, "'cos we only been at it a few times, see? An' anyhow, its the technique I'm interested in, mate, not bloody records."
Sorrowful nodded in mock sympathy. "Competition don't do nobody any good, mate," he said. Personally I thought Sorrowful was asking for trouble, taking the mickey out of Louis the Bum like that, but Sorrowful knew his man. Louis never rumbled. The Bat pointed out the time on Sullivan's plastic clock. "What about them two judies, then, Louis?" He asked. Louis looked at his own watch and nodded." We're off," he announced. "Gotta see a coupla tarts. See yer." "See yer." we replied in chorus. "Did you ever 'ear such a load o' bull in all your life?" demanded Toddy, when they had gone. Big Harry looked thoughtful and stroked his voluminous yellow beard. "I dunno," he said slowly. "I reckon there's summat in this walkin' racket."
"Come off it! It's a load o' balls. Who can't walk up to a crag an' back? Apart from which, who wants to walk at all?" Toddy looked disgusted at the thought. Big Harry shifted his bulk back on his chair so that the legs creaked ominously. Like Sullivan said: he wished Harry would sit some-where else for a change because no one chair was designed to take such a constant hammering, but Harry pointed out that he couldn't move because Sorrowful Jones and Toddy had a side bet of five bob as to when the chair would collapse. Big Harry said, "I been thinkin' about this for some time: Louis the Bum has just brought to a head the whole problem, as yer might say." "An' what problem is that?" asked Sorrowful Jones, who was something of an expert on problems, being one himself. "Our attitude, that's what mate; our attitude. We reckon we're mountaineers, but we're nothin' of the sort — just bloody rock technicians. We do buggar all but climb rocks an' even then its rocks what are near a road like Borrowdale or Llanberis. I tell you this, mates: we've been turnin' the cathedrals of the earth into soaped poles!" "You read that somewhere," accused Sorrowful Jones. "So what? It's true ain't it 'Ow often do we pause to consider the beauty of our surroundings? Never, mate! We get stuck on some bit o' rock an' all we sees is dirty cracks an' grooves, lengths o' rope an' metal pegs. Do we ever think o' the Eternal Hills? Do we faggin' hell! "All we thinks of is how the next pitch is a layback an' we wish we'd never started the bloody climb in the first place. "So we end up as bloody good rock-climbers, maybe, but somewhere along the road we lose our real purpose." Harry's outburst shook us rigid.
Sorrowful Jones said," You gone all philosophical, ain't you mate? Been watchin' B.B.C. telly, or summat?" "Then there's the other side of it," continued Harry, ignoring him. "What about when we go to Skye? Walkin' an' route findin' become major problems in a wild place like Skye." If Big Harry's professed love of natural beauty cut no ice with the lads, his last remarks went home. The fact was, we had all agreed to take a few days off work at Whitsun, and by combining them with the Bank Holiday, arrange to have a full week in the Cuillins; that northern mecca of British climbers. None of us had ever visited the misty Hebridean island and it was an omission which was keenly felt; partly because of the reputation of the place but mostly, I think, because of Piss Eyed Pete. Pete had been there— once — and he never missed an opportunity of telling us so, since modesty is not Pete's dominant characteristic. We had only to mention some obscure crag or mountain for him to say, "Well, it's alright I suppose, but it don't compare with the Cuillin o' Skye. You lot ain't never been to the Cuillin, 'ave yer? Believe me, mate, the Cuillin are the only real mountains in Britain." The inference being, of course, that anyone who hadn't been there could in no way be regarded as a real mountaineer.
So what with the visit to Skye on our minds and everything, Big Harry's point was well taken. "You may be right an' all," Sorrowful Jones conceded. "The Cuillins is a pretty rough place. I remember Paddy the Wop once come down on the wrong side o' the main ridge in a mist, an' e 'ad to walk over twenty miles back to 'is tent. 'E were bloody 'ungry an all by the time he got back, seein' as 'ow 'e dropped 'is butties down the Cioch Slab in the mornin'." Harry welcomed the support. "Well there it is, ain't it?" he demanded. "I reckon we ought to practise this walkin' caper."
Between you and me, there are walks and there are walks, when it comes to a question as to whether one is a good walker or not. Like Toddy said, anyone can toddle up to the foot of a crag and back, if it isn't too far and the weather is right, and nearly everyone can reach the top of a hill without undue peril. I base these surmises on the yobs one encounters from time to time in such elevated positions as the summit of Ben Nevis and the Snowdon Hotel. But not everyone can do a walk. Walks, in these present times, have become things of contest between man and mountain, and man and time. It is no longer sufficient to stroll around the hills: today a walk —a proper walk— is a challenge as stern in its own way as the stiffest rock climb. There was a time, and not so very long ago either, when the admission of inadequacy in the mountains was contained in the phrase, "I'm only a walker", meaning that the speaker felt himself unable to comment on the mad rich world of the mountains in the same way that the more romantic rock-climbers did. Rock-climbers tended to look down on walkers (although they would never admit it) and say, "Well, each to his own pleasure old chap," when what they really meant was "The poor sod. The poor inferior sod." But times change.
The bloke who goes clanking up Borrowdale with a hundred krabs dangling from his waist and two miles of rope round his shoulders is probably a novice out to climb Brown Slabs, whilst the youngster in training shoes, who looks as though he hasn't yet begun to shave, is like as not the newest hard man. You just can't tell. So when a bloke today says modestly, "I'm only a walker," you look at him sideways, because his idea of a quiet weekend is likely to be a double traverse of the Welsh Three Thousand Footers or a quick run along the main ridge of the Cuillins. There are more walkers today than climbers, it seems to me, and you meet them everywhere — on top of Napes Needle, for example. They are a remarkable breed these modern walkers, with adhesive feet and the stamina of a yak. Never under any circumstances offer to go for a walk with one, or you are likely to be convalescent for the following two weeks. They concentrate on accepted routes done within acceptable times, the records for which make you feel slightly sick.
We decided to make our first serious attempt at walking one cold February day, when there was a sprinkling of snow on the Pennine moors and the clouds drooped like veils of lead. Big Harry knew a bloke who did a lot of walking — a little chap called Amen Smith, who was as bandy as a cowboy and looked as though he couldn't walk across the road, let alone the hills, although in fact he could move like a chamois with a thunderflash up its arse. He had told Harry that one of the best walks was over the moors between Marsden in Yorkshire and Edale in Derbyshire. It was on Amen's recommendation, therefore, that we rolled into Marsden at 8 a.m., cold and sleepy, with Sorrowful Jones moaning away and a whole hunk of wild moor between us and our ultimate destination. There is something about the hills of Wales or the Lakes which makes them seem friendly to man, so long as he doesn't try to mess them about. Even in Scotland, where things are on an altogether bigger scale, there exists an atmosphere of muted challenge, as though the hills knew that man wanted to play on them and were not altogether adverse to the idea. But in the Pennines; in the bleak, wind swept, grough riven peat hags of the Pennines, man is an intruder. These are hills without emotion, without compassion. They have neither form nor beauty and they don't give a damn.
Their sombre grit begrimed faces betray no trace of the eternal challenge between man and mountains and yet you get the message alright: their vastness mocks and says Put one step wrong here, mate, and we'll kill you. And they would, too. Our own route for the day ahead lay over three identifiable lumps of moor: Black Hill, Bleaklow, and Kinder Scout, separated by deep valleys. At one time, there existed four pubs, equidistant along the line of march, and some do say that it is for this reason that the walk was originated. That the whole thing was nothing more nor less than a sophisticated pub crawl. Such is progress, however, that the first two pubs have been pulled down; not surprising really, when you learn that they were owned by the local water board and therefore in direct competition, as it were. The first few miles from Marsden lay along a good cart track by the side of reservoirs and we made very rapid progress. Even Sorrowful Jones ceased to complain; the air was crisp, the incline gentle, and we exerted ourselves just sufficiently to keep warm. It was a piece of cake, we said, and we liked walking, we said. Then we hit Black Hill. The track vanished and there was nothing but the white, snow speckled acres of moor rising to an indefinite summit.
The going was rough and boggy, and we were bothered by the deep groughs where surface streams had cut into the peat. Our speed slackened, and we cursed as we stumbled forwards and up. The summit never seemed to get any nearer, and to cap our misfortune, the leaden sky turned a deep violet. "I don't like it, 'Arry," gasped Sorrowful Jones, crawling out of a grough. "It's gonna snow." And for once he was dead right. Hardly had he spoken when the first fine flurry of white needles came swirling down and within minutes we were trapped in a white-out. I don't think any of us had ever been in a white-out before, and the experience is not one to bolster self-confidence, especially if, like us, you haven't got much idea of your exact position. The world as we knew it simply vanished. Land and sky blended into a diaphanous whole so that you could not tell where the one ended and the other began, and we stepped forward into a never ending wall of vapour. It was a dream-world, a nightmare, where there was no future and no past, where the only substance was self and the rest was the white dawn of nothing.
We stopped, huddling together into a tight group, the snow falling with sinister gentleness all round. " 'Ere's a fine how dye do," complained Big Harry, blowing into his gloved hands. "What the faggin' Hell do we do now?" "We get off these faggin'moors a bit sharp-ish," replied Sorrowful in a gloomy voice, "before we all dies of exposure. Where the hell are we, anyhow?" That, of course, was the nub of the matter. We had concentrated on picking our tortuous way through the peat hags towards the summit of the hill, and we had never thought of checking our location on the map. Apart from the knowledge that we were somewhere in the vicinity of Black Hill, we were lost. Big Harry pulled out a map from his anorak pocket and Toddy surprised us all by contributing a compass which he had pinched for the day from his kid brother who was in the Cubs, and we tried to combine the two with our inadequate knowledge of navigation. But without landmarks to guide our futile efforts it was hopeless from the start. We gave Toddy back his compass, telling him what his kid brother could do with it, and Harry put back his map, all soggy and wet with snow. We had been standing still for five minutes and our feet had begun to freeze. We decided to press on, regardless. For ages we trod the Slough of Despond which is the summit of Black Hill. It is aptly named: black ooze, positively primeval in concept, squelched over our boot-tops at every step until in the end we didn't care anymore.
Then, joyously, the land began to descend. For better or worse we seemed to be entering some kind of upland valley; whether or not it lay in the right direction we neither knew nor cared. All we wished for at that moment was escape from the cursed moors and the white-out. I think we panicked. Soon we were walking along an ill defined sheep track in a narrow defile. The white-out vanished as we descended, although it still continued to snow, and even though our vision was limited to a few yards it restored our self confidence to be able to see again and regain contact with reality. The track improved at every yard, and a quick check with the compass showed us that it did indeed run in the right general direction, which was a piece of good luck. "If only the snow would stop, we could see where we was," Harry shouted over his shoulder at us. "I reckon we must be in one o' them side valleys near Holme Moss." Toddy agreed. "The compass sez we're headin' south" he affirmed, "so I reckon you're right, mate. This track should lead us down into Crowden." "The compass don't mean nothin'," said Sorrowful Jones gloomily. "This valley could bend in the next half mile, an' then where are we?" "Up the creek without a paddle, mate," replied Harry, effectively ending the conversation. The valley began to widen until we could no longer see the opposite bank because of the snowflakes which were still swirling down. It was obvious, though, that it was a vale of some size, for it boasted stone walls and fields. It had about it a faintly familiar air. "I gotta feelin' I been 'ere before." Big Harry commented, with a puzzled air on his face.
"Ello, then. What's this?" Through the snow-mist there had loomed up before our path a mound of earth some six feet high and stretching away into the dim distance. It was bordered by a trench as deep as the mound was high, and containing some rusted wood and iron contraptions. It was not the sort of thing one expects to find on the Derbyshire moors, or anywhere else, in our experience. "Maybe it's for catchin'rabbits wholesale," suggested Sorrowful Jones, pondering the enigma. "One thing's for sure though —some poor bastard will fall into that trench one day and break 'is bloody neck." We walked along the side of the trench and entered upon a country straight out of Alice in Wonderland. All about us, for as far as the snow would allow us to see there were more of these strange constructions, arranged in roughly parallel lines. The valley looked as though it had just witnessed a convention of mad archaeologists. Then the snow stopped, suddenly and without warning, as snow does in mountains. We stopped too, in amazement. Bang! Bang! Ping! Its a funny thing, you know, but even if you've never heard the sound of small-arms fire in your life before, you still know when some buggar is firing at you. And somebody was firing at us.
Simultaneously, we all four dived into the nearest trench and lay there quaking. "The bloody rifle range!" exploded Harry, when we eventually picked up enough courage to sit up. "You know — the one in the valley that leads up to Laddow Rocks. The Army uses it every Sunday; an' we've walked right into the bastard!" "No wonder the valley looked familiar," said Toddy. "We must 'aye passed the Range a 'undred times on our way to the rocks." A sudden thought struck him and he grinned. "Anyhow, the old compass was right lads: this valley leads straight to Crowden." "If we ever get out alive," added Sorrowful Jones. After the first, frightening fusillade, the firing stopped, although none of us volunteered to peer over the edge of the trench to see why. Instead, we sat tight and began to prepare some Nescafe. The idea of looking for a better hole did not appeal to us, one bit, and anyway, our hole was comfortable enough as these things go. In fact, we were just beginning to feel at home when the officer in charge of the shooting party arrived. Apparently he had spotted us through his field glasses; too late to prevent the first burst of fire by his trigger happy platoon, but not too late to give us a bollacking. He was very annoyed, you could see that at a glance, but he was wasting his breath on the lads. He was a young twat of about twenty with a little moustache and a Sam Browne belt you could have seen to shave in. He stood on the edge of the trench looking down on us and he had a little cane which he flicked angrily in his leather gloved hands, for all the world like a schoolmaster who has discovered some juniors smoking in the toilets.
"What do you people think you are doing down there?" he demanded aggresively, in that peculiar accent which seems to afflict all regular army officers. "Shelterin' from you lot," replied Big Harry. "Don't be impertinent! I want to know what you are playing at." His cane flicked violently in tune with his temper. Big Harry stood up and eyed him severely. "We're not playin' at anythin', mate," he replied. "It's you lot what are playin' soldiers. Is there a war on or summat?" The subaltern went livid. "Get out of there!" he stormed. "This is War Office Property, and you are trespassing. Get out ! D'ye hear?!" "Keep yer shirt on," Harry said quietly, packing away the petrol stove. "We're goin'." We scrambled out of the trench. Big Harry towered above the officer and smiled down at him sweetly. "There's just one thing, mate ..." he asked. "And what's that?" "Which side is winnin'?" The subaltern lost all control over his emotions. Waving his stick around like a demented bell-boy he let fly a string of oaths which even Sorrowful Jones thought was first class. "Get the faggin' hell out of here or I'll report you to the Major!" He ended. "And I'll tell the vicar," added Harry.
We ambled away, with his curses still ringing in our ears. "He's only a young bloke, ain't 'e? But 'e ain't 'alf got a marvellous command of English," commented Sorrowful Jones, wistfully. "I wonder what 'e is?" "That mate," explained Big Harry, "is an officer an' a gentleman." We walked down into the Longendale valley, where the huge reservoirs flashed in the new found sunlight. Our misadventures on Black Hill and the rifle-range had cost us remarkably little in the way of time, and although we were well behind our original over optimistic schedule, we felt confident of success. Black Hill lay behind us: all we had to do now was cross Bleaklow and Kinder, and with the weather markedly on the mend, we felt that the job was as good as accomplished. At Crowden railway station we paused to eat our sandwiches and make our postponed brew of Nescafe. Before us, Bleaklow rose in one great two thousand foot sweep of heather, with the sun glinting on the wet rocks of the numerous gritstone tors which are such a feature of the hill.
Away on our right, a fine ridge of grit was etched against the winter sky and pointed the way to the top. After the ordeals we had suffered that day, the ridge came as blessed relief. Here was something which we understood — rock —and although it wasn't steep enough to be called climbing in the proper sense, after the miry wastes of Black Hill it was a sheer delight. It could have gone on forever, that ridge, but it didn't; within half an hour it debouched us onto the summit plateau of Bleaklow. "Hell fire!" ejaculated Sorrowful Jones, meaning who would have thought that there could be a place so vast and utterly barren as that which stretched ahead? As far as the eye could see there was nothing but miles of undulating moors rising to a whaleback of a skyline. No hummock of curious shape, no startling tors of gritstone, nothing to break the awful monotony of the great plateau. It was truly the most God forsaken piece of country we had ever seen. "Well, it's flat, at any rate," said Big Harry. "We should zoom across this lot." But it wasn't and we didn't. What from a distance looked all smooth and level turned out in reality to be as rugged an area as you could find in the whole of Britain. The entire plateau was as riven with groughs as a gorgonzola cheese is with blue veins.
Some of these ditches were large, some were small, but all contorted and twisted like a million snakes, crossing and recrossing each other every few yards. There was nothing for it but to push forwards, in and out, up and down, like poor bloody infantry of the First World War scrambling to the attack across the shell holes of No Man's Land. Time and our energies wasted together, yet the skyline seemed to grow no closer. As we advanced the groughs seemed to get bigger. There were some. I recall vividly which seemed thirty feet deep: great canyons of peat, the crossing of which was extremely laborious. In the end, we abandoned all pretence of method; simply falling down one side of the grough and scrambling as best we could up the other. Conversation was at a discount, but we all had a feeling of panic; a feeling that we were trapped on that labyrinthine moor. The walk we were supposed to be tackling was utterly forgotten; degenerated into a frantic struggle to escape from Bleaklow, lest we leave our exhausted bodies forever in some unknown grough.
The short day of winter began to draw to a close and as the light faded the air grew cold. The peat, once soft and cushion like, started to crackle beneath our steps as it was gripped by the night frosts. In desperation we quickened our pace — if pace it could be called —although each and every one of us was dead tired. How long had we been on that cursed moor — two hours, three? It seemed a lifetime. Then the groughs ceased, suddenly, and we knew we had at last breasted the crest of the hill. As the final rose tints of the sun died on the skyline we struck across a narrow, deep valley, and inside a quarter of an hour we were free of Bleaklow, standing on a metalled road. We leant against a small stone bridge, buggered. "Well, we made it lads." gasped Harry. "This 'ere's the Snake Pass." "All we gotta do now is cross Kinder Scout," said Sorrowful Jones gloomily. He got no reply. When at last we were sufficiently rested we set off down the pass towards the point where a small track leads off it over the great massif of Kinder. We were now hours behind schedule and dog-tired. Nobody spoke, all our thoughts being concentrated on the agony ahead.
We had gone rather more than a mile along the road when we saw a blaze of lights in the trees which fringed the left hand side of the road. It turned out to be an attractively lit white building with big lattice windows through which we could discern luxury, warmth and the magnetic clink of ale glasses. We had reached the Snake Inn. Big Harry halted. We all halted. "It's another four or five mile over Kinder ..." Big Harry began, his voice uncertain. "We'll never do it in the dark," added Sorrowful. Big Harry sighed as he pushed open the door to the Bar. "They didn't ought to put a pub in a place like this," he said savagely,"it weakens a bloke's resolution." We sank into luxurious chairs, pints in our hands, and just let the ache drain out of our tired bodies. For five whole minutes we just sprawled there, eyes closed in sheer bliss, and then we took good long draughts of the excellent ale. "Why do we do it?" asked Toddy, stretching his legs against cramp. "Why do we bloody well do it?" "Because we're faggin' stupid, mate, that's why," replied Big Harry. "But it don't 'alf make the ale taste good, don't it?"
Walt Unsworth 1978. Illustrations Ivor Cumberpatch.
First published in Climber and Rambler November 1978.
Remembering Walt Unsworth
Remembering Walt Unsworth