Ed Douglas & John Beatty
Vertebrate Publishing £19.95 182 pp
It was one summer Saturday morning when Ed Douglas picked up his rucksack, walked the twenty miles to the summit of the Peak District and camped beside the gritstone buttresses known as Kinder Gates. It is through this portal that the author continued his journey, first traversing Mill Hill to inspect the crash site of a B-24 Liberator bomber then down an imaginary zip-wire deep into the heart of Manchester to finally land in a lecture hall in the centre of the city. In his shadow walked John Beatty, camera in hand, who, like some latter-day Boswell, would record on film the things Douglas not only saw but also the thoughts those sights inspired.
The subject of both Douglas’s text and Beatty’s photographs is Kinder Scout. Not the most obvious of Britain’s peaks to demand a book of its own. Traditionally it has had a bad press, Daniel Defoe thought it to be “a houling wilderness” and Alfred Wainwright when researching his Pennine Way Companion thought nothing “less like a peak could be imagined”. The present authors, however, more than redress the balance and show, when it comes to mountains and what mountains stand for, Kinder Scout is, in many ways in the very centre of things.
For a start, it stands at the heart of Northern England, flanked by the cities of Manchester and Sheffield and no real distance from Leeds and Birmingham and is the parent hill for such satellites as Bleaklow, Mill Hill, Mam Tor and Marjory Hill that collectively form the first National Park. But the importance of Kinder is more than topographical, for this is a book about people as well as about place. Douglas explores the lives and achievements of those who have been intimately connected with the area. Among the Great and the Good are social reformers like Robert Roberts, author of one of the greatest working-class memoirs, A Ragged Schooling and Hannah Mitchell, a fierce advocate for women’s rights. Other notables included inspirational rock-climbers like Siegfried Herford and John Laycock and such marathon bog-trotters as “Colonel” Cecil Dawson, the Manchester cotton merchant who instigated the Marsden – Edale, and G. H. B. Ward of the Sheffield Clarion Ramblers whose motto was “The man who never was lost, never went very far”.
The author also shows us the not so Great and the Good. In the eyes of some these were the landowners who first cleared the people for sheep, then the nouveau riche who cleared the sheep pasture for grouse to impress their aristocratic acquaintances - the likes of the self-made Sir James Watts and family who bought chunks of Kinder and employed belligerent keepers to keep the general public at bay. In the eyes of others, it was Benny Rothman and friends who persuaded large sections of the said general public to rebel against such selfishness. The recounting of the KInder Mass Trespass and subsequent arrests with the rigged jury and the judge making pointed remarks covers well-trodden ground, but Douglas makes an additional and important point. Whereas previous protests had been aimed at re-establishing traditional rights of way such as William Clough and Abbey Brook, Rothman and Ward were after something different. They wanted the right to roam – to go where you will – and it is the consequence of such vision that the current Access legislation came into being.
The lecture at the end of the zipwire was delivered by ecologist Richard Lindsay. His subject was the importance of peat. The mantle that covers such places as Kinder Scout can and should hold three times as much carbon as Amazonian rain forests. Now a combination of acid rain, overgrazing, burning to facilitate grouse number and erosion caused by human feet means Kinder in the words of John Hillaby is “a land at the end of its tether.” The absence of sphagnum moss means carbon, once safely trapped, is now oxidised “to join the other greenhouses gases we are busily pumping into the skies”. This is the other side of the access question - how much should the right to roam be tempered to sustain the right balance between use and regeneration? It was farming practice to allow fields to lie fallow in rotation. Perhaps it is time for our open country, section by section, to be given a similar respite.
There will always be a debate as to how many words a picture is worth, but one thing this book shows is that the right combination of the two can be better than either alone. And this is the right combination. John Beatty’s images not only range from the obvious rugged drama of Kinder Downfall to the delicate irony of wisps of sheep’s wool caught on barbed wire but also act as a counterpoint to the text, catching the moment and underlining the point. The exact way in which this works will vary from reader to reader but, for this reviewer, the point where text and image best meet would, for all the glorious sunsets and wintry moonscapes, be the writer’s account of his meeting with a mountain hare coupled with the portrait of the solitary walker poised on an eroded prow of a gritstone edge. Both text and image seem to me to sum up the precarious position of man, beast and even the land itself as we edge ever closer to ecological destruction. But perhaps it’s special pleading on my part as I have also heard a hare scream and been threatened by a man with a gun while climbing on Bamford Edge.
The beauty of the book is it will strike different chords with different people in different ways. Like all books, once read, it will sit on the shelf, but like the best of books will not gather dust but be taken down so we can read once more about Louis Jennings’ nineteenth century encounter with the Fair Brook gypsies or, as fingers flick through the pages, linger over the afternoon mist sinking into the Edale valley.