This week I am walking in the Peak District, it being half-term and me being, in spite of appearances, a young father. We are staying at a Youth Hostel Association hostel in Edale in High Peak. It has an outdoor activity centre with caving, climbing, canoeing, fell walking; and generally enjoying the stunning surrounds and of scattered farmsteads (or ‘booths’) of the Edale valley.
We have been here three times as a family. Before that, I hadn’t stayed at the Rowland Cote hostel, on the slopes of Kinder Scout, for about 50 years. The Peak District, carefully placed between Manchester and Sheffield, those titans of heavy industry in the 19th and early 20th century, was a place of escape for the millions of workers from the ‘satanic mills’ of industrial capitalism.
To my generation, you cannot mention the Peak District without remembering the ‘Mass Trespass’ in April 1932 when thousands of ramblers and members of the Young Communist League wilfully trespassed on the private lands of the Peak, with Kinder Scout the main source of this mass social action. Of course, the property owners wanted to protect their rights to keep the public off of their moorlands. But socialists, communists, liberals and unpolitical hikers wanted to get their walks in. And surrounded by the poverty of industrial life, it became a big health and political issue that was successfully brought to a positive conclusion: the people could roam to their heart’s content.
The Peak District became the first national park in April 1951. And it led the way to many others, where nature was seen as the obliging ingredient that made life fuller and healthier for many of us caught in an urban vice.
Caving is one of the most exciting events we do. Taking my young children down, fully clothed for water and the cold, helmeted and rigged up with a head lamp, is one of the most joyous experiences I have had at Edale. Down there, among an earlier world that hasn’t changed in millions of years, is a vital escape. There is no Brexit down there. Just dripping caverns and lots of mud and rock.
My first trip to Edale to stay at YHA Rowland Cote was in the summer of 1962. Being a bad boy, I was being retrained in life through Her Majesty’s correctional custodial system. And one of the joys of being banged up as a teenager was the vast range of things you got to do that weren’t available if you were a well-behaving proletarian of the inner city.