“Beware the idle moments”. I think it was the Soothsayer warning Julius Caesar about his impending doom but Michael Burgess, a great Shakespeare scholar, will correct me….Anyway, the warning is good. It was in an idle moment, I think after a Peak Raid event a couple of years ago, that I found myself wondering how many peaks over 500m there were in the White Peak area. I think we had just been on Parkhouse Hill and Chrome Hill, two very spectacular features but neither over 500m in height, that got me thinking. I soon found a list. Unfortunately, I also had an appropriate map and the list was transferred to the map. Then I started to link up the tops and I found a circle could be made, well more a wobbly oval then circle, an oval with a sort of horn on the end. It looked like it would be somewhere in the region of 50 km to follow the line all the way round. A good winter’s day, I decided. Then it occurred to me that as nobody else was likely to have done it I could create an FKT. OK I know Martin Stone has told us all that we shouldn’t use this term but talk about Mountain Records but the term persists. I’ve always wanted to have an FKT to my name. Obviously I’m never going to break the Pennine Way record or anything so identifying a run that nobody else is likely to have thought of is the only way to go…More an Only Known Time perhaps than a Fastest Known Time.
I made my first attempt the day of Storm Arwen. The plan was to start and finish at the Cat and Fiddle, the iconic pub where the old Rucksack Club Tan Cat run used to finish, linking the two highest pubs in England: Tan Hill and The Cat and Fiddle. That run was about 120 miles…. Driving up from Buxton the road was covered in about a foot of snow and the drifts either side were higher than the car in places. I ended up in a convoy of 4×4 heroes and it was only when I got down to Macclesfield the other side that I realized the road was officially closed. Someone must have moved the signs in Buxton. Anyway, there was nowhere to park as everything was drifted up so I drove out of the snow, spent the rest of the night in the car and came home. Even at 6’ tall I reckoned there would a good chance of completely disappearing into a drift and not being found till Spring. There is, I suppose, a sort of melancholic romance in dying in an avalanche on Ben Nevis or the North Face of the Eiger but to die in a snow drift on Whetstone Ridge seemed pretty pointless even if I could get to Whetstone Ridge…A second attempt in January last year didn’t get beyond Northchurch due to inertia.
Third time lucky. I have actually been injured all this year but a visit to an osteopath last week seemed to sort things out. “Try a short slow run at the weekend and see how you go” was his advice. Well, I certainly wasn’t going to be running fast and what exactly is meant by short? If you are Jerome McAlister short is pretty much anything less than 100 miles so 30 should be OK? even if that was rather more than I had managed in the whole of January…
I was working on Saturday so drove up in the evening and just made the chippy in Ashbourne before it closed. I noticed the sign in the car park at Derbyshire Bridge saying ‘No Overnight Parking’ but reasoned I was only going to be there for half the night and settled down in my sleeping bag in the back of the car. You never sleep particularly well before these adventures and a near full moon shining in through the windows didn’t help. In the morning I had to scrape the frost off the inside of the windows… and then the outside of them. The morning was glorious cold but cloudlessly clear. The plan was to start at 09.00 from Errwood Dam in the Goyt Valley with an ambition of finishing in eight hours so just at dusk. A certain amount of faffing meant I didn’t actually start till 09.01.23 (Martin has told us we must record the seconds on all attempts nowadays). I had been unable to find a toilet so once started I needed to duck into a handy forest for my ablutions. That complete I remembered I had forgotten to put any preventative Compeed on my heel and I thought I could feel a nascent blister so another stop was needed before, really, I had started. Despite all this I was soon up on Cats Tor marvelling at the spectacular day. I had run part of ridge along to Shining Tor in the November Peak Raid so had some familiar territory to begin with.
I settled into the run, padding along the flagstones into the earlyish sun, trying not to slip on the ice. From Shining Tor, at 559m the highest hill of the day, I could see the Cat and Fiddle with its parked cars just a skip away. Then it was on to Whetstone Ridge an unmarked and unremarkable hill top that nobody sensible would ever bother to visit. Across the valley the next objective stood proud: The Shutlingsloe, the Matterhorn of Cheshire, if it is not too disrespectful to the Matterhorn to suggest anything in Cheshire could resemble it. It is a steep enough climb, though, as anyone who has done the Roaches Race will testify. The Roaches Race route takes a fairly direct line from here to the top of the Roaches themselves but the route crosses fields that are private and permission is only given for the race day so I had to take a longer route following proper rights of way. I was starting to have a bit of a low point here and needed to constantly remind myself that this was supposed to be a run not a walk. I was hoping to find a burger van at Roach End where I could buy some water. Unlike in proper hills where there are plenty of drinkable streams, most water courses here are either boggy dribbles or cross roads and I don’t like drinking from a stream once it has crossed a road. The Roaches were busy but there was no burger van so I made my way up to the trig just about managing to outpace the Sunday walkers and then trotted back down again. I’d have to wait till Flash where I knew there was a pub. There was a long road stretch to the village and in case you didn’t know, Flash is England’s highest village (as the sing proudly declares) so of course the long road stretch was all up hill. I bribed myself with the promise of a cup of tea at the pub and a refill of my bottle if I ran all the way. I was as good as my word only to discover the pub didn’t open till 4.00pm, two hours away yet. A kind woman working in a garden offered to fill up my bottle and I scrambled up to the top of Oliver Hill and sat down for a drink and jelly baby.
The next three hills might actually have only been two. In my list they are named Axe Edge and Cheeks Hill. Axe Edge was a blade like ridge rising above the A53, and clearly named on the map. Cheeks Hill was a nebulous tumescence about 900m away and then to the north another fine axe like ridge with a trig point on was actually the highest point around but was unnamed on the map. I suppose if I had looked up some grid references things might have been clearer but to avoid any problems I decided to visit all three tops but Cheeks Hill was really not worth the bother.
From the trig I could look across to Cats Tor and reminisce about the morning’s entertainment while trying not to look to the north east where I was heading, to reach the tip of the ‘horn’ of my oval at Black Edge. Three tops to go, each one about half an hour apart at my current pace. Some muddy paths helped me along for a while but the crux of the day was, I knew, going to be the stretch of moor between Combs Moss and Black Edge. Anything called Moss is bound to be boggy. Anything called Black is bound to be covered in thick heather. Surely the good people of Staffordshire (I think I had crossed back over the border) would like to visit two of the most prominent tops in their county? Surely there would be a good trod across the moor from one top to the other? The good people of Staffordshire obviously had much too much sense to go anywhere near that moor. It was an execrable morass of bog, heather and tussock. It was also an ecological disgrace as in places the heather had been ripped up to allow new growth to provide food for the grouse who only seem to be able to eat new heather shoots. And the grouse were only being fed to be shot. My mood was as foul as the terrain. Although the moor felt like the back end of nowhere it was not, really, very far from a road. The main roads of the White Peak are favourites of the motorcycling fraternity. I have no objection of course to anybody having a good time but all day long the whine, drone and croak of bike engines disturbed the peace of what is really gently pretty hill country. Along with the bog and tussock I found myself swearing loudly at the intrusive racket.
There was only a limited sense of satisfaction in reaching the final top as I then had to retrace my steps the 2.5km across the moor to get onto the Midshires Way track that would lead me much less painfully back down to the Errwood Dam and my car. As I turned back west, though, the sun sank below Cats Tor and the sky filled with a vast crimson wash. I found myself getting all goosebumpy despite the tribulations of the bog. The cold came on quickly and I was glad to drop down off the moor into the darkness of the valley as the last for the sunset faded and a full moon rose gloriously behind me, lighting my way over the final few metres of the dam wall. It was 17.35 and Martin could put his seconds where he liked.
On running my wheelie thing over the map I found that actually the route was more like 43 km and had about 1,655m of climb. I was a bit disappointed that it had taken me so long but I had more than doubled my mileage for the year. To paraphrase a very sexist Edwardian aphorism: it was a good day for an old git. I reckon an FKT would be under six hours.
For the record: the run was done solo, unsupported (except by the woman in Flash). There was no prior recceing apart from knowledge gained during races in the area and traditional navigation was used throughout ie map and compass. (Actually I only used the compass once and promptly ignored it as I didn’t like where it pointed me). If anybody fancies it, I’ll send you my times and the list of hills.