Main photo: Tony Evans
I’m on a hill, hands map-free, blissfully unsure of where we’re going. I have a map with me, of course, deep inside a rucksack pocket. It’s cheerfully vintage, having belonged to my lovely late father-in-law, who adored this spot and planned to come back but never got his chance. I figure the vintage map deserves a return trip; plus £8.99 for a new one seems a little wasteful for one weekend, and surely the contours haven’t changed much since the ‘90s.
I’m in the Peak District and in the hands of friends with updated maps and full knowledge of where we’re headed. Friends are the family we choose for ourselves, says a magnet on my fridge; a magnet that has travelled with me through five kitchens, three fridges and a collection of friends that has thankfully blossomed as my pool of relatives shrinks. I meet some of the friends just an hour earlier, thanks to the ‘social’ part of that social media allegedly doing us all so much harm. There are three dogs in our Insta-meet, Bertie, Milo and Pup, all gorgeous, effortless hikers and gracefully capable of scaling stiles. I think of Lionel, snoozing on the dog-sitters’ bed. I hope he has a blanket and a nice soft toy.
This is Day Two of my Peak District adventure, Day One having been spent on Kinder Scout with my oldest hiking bestie. I’ve known Jane forever – since last September, to be precise, when we met up, also off of Instagram, wearing exactly the same kit and with a string of bizarre similarities to uncover all the way up Tryfan. We hooted our way to the top then, and we do the same now up Jacob’s Ladder. I’m midway through telling Jane something completely inappropriate on the top of the Kinder plateau when we’re passed by two ladies, heads down and scowling slightly instead of smiling the customary hello. Jane creases in half laughing as I realise just how loudly I’m being completely inappropriate. A few miles on, I carefully navigate the steepness of Grindsbrook Clough, only to accomplish my usual trick of falling straight over on the nearest flat bit. Jane creases into quarters and I hope to never need her for proper first aid.
Day Two brings a change of pace, new friends and a biting wind to justify packing the Christmas hat in the middle of spring. We head up the back of Lose Hill and onto the Great Ridge, patchwork tors fanning endlessly away, not as big as the Beacons but without doubt as beautiful. Mam Tor’s the Pen y Fan of the Peak District, jam-packed and nice to hop onto, but better viewed from the other side of the valley, which we do as we descend into Winnats Pass, by now with the mischievous, easy chatter of old friends of four hours’ standing.
It’s wonderful not to be thinking ahead, with Tony showing the way and giving out little treasures of knowledge about Blue John stone and the collapsed road under the shivering mass of Mam Tor. Before we meet, Tony and I talk about ‘hiking with people’ which he doesn’t do. We’re both wary of groups, happy on solo hikes in the company of our own thoughts. And here he is, smile as wide as Winnats and chatting away like a tour guide.
Over a series of tea stops, fortified by fabulous flapjacks made by Bertie’s lovely owner Deb, we snatch half-finished conversations about sibling loss in all its forms; of much-missed sisters and brothers no longer here and of those who are but choose not to have us in their lives. I stare down the gully to Peveril Castle and think, not for the first time, that hiking’s just 10% about the glorious views. The rest is pure, free therapy, whether walking alone or in the best kind of company.
I make the long, tiring drive down a Monday M6, my heart full of new friendships, glorious views and the feeling I’ve left something behind on a freezing, windswept ridge. I’m Wales-bound but, for once, the hiraeth is firmly in my rear view mirror.