Walking the forest path: part four.

Crossing the busy A6, we head into Monsal Dale for the final stretch.

“So, talk me through the stand-by pasta recipe, then.”

When we get back to the cottage, I shall be giving the cooking another shot; under close supervision, as ever. (Health and safety, you know how it is these days.) For the past two Sundays, K has been drilling me to produce steak and chips. The steak, the chips and the accompanying vegetables have been perfect each time, matching K’s exacting standards to a tee – but somehow, we’ve been missing the point of the exercise. Namely, that I should be working towards producing unsupervised meals: a challenge which calls for a simpler recipe.

(Yes, even steak and chips is a bit advanced for someone like me, with minimal basic knowledge on which to build. Hell, it’s been a while since I even peeled a spud.)

K’s “stand-by pasta” is the simplest meal that we can think of. Pasta, tuna, tomatoes, olives, garlic, chillis. What could be more straightforward than that?

We stop to snap a small clump of steers, peacefully munching in the late afternoon light, in the gap between the stream and the hillside. As K composes his shot, the steers at the front of the clump obligingly arrange themselves into a neat line, fanning out from the centre with pleasing symmetry.

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Just ahead of us, a lone walker in a bright red anorak is crouching in the undergrowth, by the right hand path which runs off into the bushes. Opting instead for the left hand path, we stride briskly by, not looking sideways.

A few minutes later, just after the paths have re-converged, we pause again to sample the view. K attempts another shot with his phone, but the light isn’t good enough. As he fiddles with the settings, the walker re-emerges. He is still a good few yards behind us, safely out of earshot for now.

“Come on, let’s move. She’ll think we’re waiting for her.”

“Who, her in the red?”

“Yes, her. Miss Scarlet…”

“The Scarlet Pumpernickel…”

“Scarlet O’ Hard On…”

“HAHAHAHAHA.”

“Shhh!”


Monsal Weir looks especially beautiful this afternoon, in its secluded clearing at the foot of the wooded slope. Mist is already beginning to form in the rapidly cooling air at the bottom, whilst sheltered patches at the top are still frozen from the night before. This place must look wonderful at daybreak, we agree. Perhaps we could come out for an early morning winter walk, some time next month?

This thought lasts for all of five seconds, before we concede that it will never happen. Besides, when would we find the time? It’s not as if I’ll be here over the Christmas holiday, after all. Perhaps K could make the trip without me, with friends from the village who keep earlier hours?

“I’m having a twinge.”

“What sort of twinge?”

“Oh, you know: wishing I was going to be here, rather than working out in China. Typical contrarianism, basically. You’re a Gemini, you should know all about that.”

K bats me a knowing smile.

“You are going to be OK without me, aren’t you? I know we’ve talked this through, but I still have to check.”

“Of course I will. Anyway, you know what I think about bloody Christmas. I’ll probably go and see my family on the day. It would be a good opportunity this year, especially with… you know. It’s a shame that I couldn’t arrange to be out there with you – after all, Ningbo’s practically up the road from Hangzhou – but it’s just not the right time, what with everything that’s scheduled for January.”

“I know. It’s going to be such an experience, though. I can’t wait to get over there. All that interviewing will be a challenge – imagine having to decide whether you’re going to employ someone, when you’re so unfamiliar with their whole culture and background – but I feel so ready for it. Especially with JP posting daily reports from the office in Hangzhou – I’m hanging on every word. Perfect timing in many ways, even if it is over Christmas and New Year. Anyway, what’s three weeks? We can save up the holidays and go somewhere nice in the spring.”

“And you’ll have time to do some writing.”

“Exactly – see whether I’m up to it, whether it’s any good or not, whether I can knuckle down to it. That middle week is going to be so quiet, on my own in the company apartment with the laptop. Perfect opportunity. Eyup, she’s coming. Onwards and upwards!”

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By the time we emerge at Monsal Head, the sky has turned a glorious red, with dark clouds forming mountain ranges beyond the furthest hills. While K lines up some shots, I get myself an award-winning “99” from the Fredericks of Chesterfield ice cream van.

“I bet that’s delicious. Damn that dairy intolerance.”

“Poor you. I bet that’s torture. Go on, a couple of mouthfuls can’t do you any harm.”

“I guess not. OH GOD that’s wonderful.”

“Wow, look at that vapour trail, coming over to the left. It looks on fire, like a comet.”

“…”

“Cobwebs gone?”

“Absolutely.”

We leave the empty car park and walk the short distance back to Little Longstone, pausing every now and again to gaze back in awe at the dying glow of the sunset. When we get back to the car, I’ll put the first half of the Madonna album on. The beatier, dancier half. Works best in the dark. He’ll be able to cope with it now.

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Walking the forest path: part three.

“Come on then, you devious bastard. Next stop, Sheldon.”

It is a truth universally acknowledged that no group of two or more gay men may walk through the village of Sheldon without passing comment on the name of its public house. This is not a convention which K and I are about to flout.

“What’s the name of this place? The Cock and something?”

“The Cock in Hand?”

“No, that’s not it. But I’m pretty sure it’s got Cock in it somewhere.”

Ah, here we are…

“HAHAHAHAHA!”

“HAHAHAHAHA!”


As we start the long descent into Deep Dale, I catch the disused lead mine out of the corner of my eye, about half a mile away to the left. Oh, was that part of the same walk? Although I recognise everywhere we have been, my memory has been as a series of disconnected fragments, which I am having to stitch together from source all over again.

Over the summer, we had bickered our way down this hill, arguing the toss with every fresh field. This time – certain of our way, hitting our stride, fully up to speed – our conversation swerves off into an animated impromptu plot conference. By vocalising my sketchy ideas for the first time, I can feel flesh starting to draw over bones. Thought leads to thought; chance suggestions are toyed with and acted upon; new characters emerge from the ether; existing characters take on names, faces, back stories. We’re buzzing, on a roll, eager imaginations churning and melding.

I had forgotten what an effective sounding board K can be, particularly when it comes to his favourite area: plot. (I tease him over it, positioning myself as if on a higher literary plane – but we both know that’s bullshit. Anyway, complementary skills and all that.) It’s like the planning stages of Chapter Three of The Naked Novel all over again – only bigger, broader, freer.

Somehow, we’ve avoided the wrong turning: the one which I harped about incessantly last time (after K had insisted and I had yielded), and which had added a pointless half a mile to our route. Reprised as caricature, my extended “told you so” nag rings in our ears once more. Chuckling, we veer rightwards into Deep Dale.


Striding through the wildlife sanctuary, still dotted with seasonally redundant little marker boards, pointing out rare – and now vanished – wild flora on the hillside, I coax K into delivering a brief company report, strictly in layman’s terms. (Proteomics? The very word makes my head spin.) Caught in the middle of all the little day-to-day dramas and stresses, it’s easy for me to lose track of the wider picture. Consequently, I hadn’t quite realised what a key stage this is for him – indeed, for all of them. Viewed from a certain angle, I guess we’re both poised on our respective brinks.

Having left the binoculars at home this time, there is little to detain us here. Before we know it, we’re at the car park by the A6, where the last of the Bright And Early Brigade are busily de-booting themselves before the four o’clock lock-up. Just outside the toilets, someone has dumped an old PC monitor: damp, useless, too big for the bin. We tut.

Now we’re at the actual spot, K can’t resist teasing me about the bird-watching for the umpteenth time. When we were last here, I had amused myself with the binoculars while he went for a pee.

“Shh!”, I had cautioned, as he emerged from the toilet block. “There’s something in the trees over there. I’ve been tracking them. They’ll probably emerge in a minute… ah, there they are. The two black and white birds with the long tails. Any idea what they are?”

“Mike, they’re magpies. Haven’t you ever seen a magpie before?”

“What, are they quite common?”

“You could say that.”

“….”

“HAHAHAHAHA! Ooh, ooh, keep still, I’ve just seen a very rare magpie. HAHAHAHAHA!”

Yeah, yeah, yeah. We can’t all be Children of Nature. I mug obligingly, riding out the storm, until K’s attention is caught by a tree over to our left.

“Good grief, look over there: the catkins are coming out.”

“So they are. Er, that’s supposed to happen in spring, right? Oh, don’t start all that again. Anyway, what about those daffodil shoots coming up in the cottage garden? It’s all so wrong!

“Doomed… we’re all doomed…”

“I blame the government.”

“I blame Thatcher.”

Crossing the busy A6, we head into Monsal Dale for the final stretch.

Walking the forest path: part two.

Now for the Big Climb.

The last time we scaled the incline on the south side of Ashford, it was high summer, and we were sweltering and struggling. It’s a long ascent, whose true length only gradually reveals itself over time – but the diligent climber is amply rewarded by stunning views back over Ashford, and the fields, hills and dales beyond.

A couple of hundred yards short of the summit, we settle ourselves on the sloping grass and have our packed lunch. Whilst munching, we amuse ourselves by spotting the aeroplanes coming in and out of Manchester airport, another thirty miles or so beyond the horizon, over to the far left of our field of vision. With the clear, cloudless skies and the particular quality of the autumn afternoon sunlight, each vapour trail is unusually easy to spot. At one point, we can count a full ten planes ahead of us – and that’s not counting the ever-widening vapour trails left by earlier flights, criss-crossing the sky in spectacular fashion.

Falling into an awe-struck reverie – punctuated only by occasional murmurs of “wow”, and “so beautiful” – my gaze falls upon a group of three birds, flying around in the near-side fissure with the A6 at its base. Mesmerised, I continue to trace their path as they swoop up, down, and off above the high ground over my shoulder. By now, my neck is craned right round to the left – and as I keep gazing, my eyes meet those of an elderly lady, beginning her descent on the path which we have just climbed.

As I am smiling, and as I am turned awkwardly in her direction, she takes this as a form of greeting, and approaches us. Her smallish, friendly-looking dog trots ahead of her, making straight for K.

“Can Charlie come and say Hello?”, she inquires. “He seems to prefer men. I don’t know why.”

By now, Charlie is all over K, and K is all over Charlie.

Charlie doesn’t give me a second look. Clearly, he is well acquainted with the difference between friend and foe.

We chat briefly about the lovely weather, before the old lady calls Charlie to heel and sets off again down the hill. Charlie keeps gazing fondly back at K, who is returning his gazes with equal fondness.

Two or three minutes later, another dog appears to our right, on the upward path. This one is of an indeterminate breed, with a demeanour which suggests a bright friendliness, and an alert perceptiveness. Once again, it makes straight for K’s lap, walking straight past me without so much as an acknowledgment.

The dog’s owner comes into view, head stooped, climbing up the hill. Another elderly lady, again with something of a “county” air about her. She smiles over at us, every bit as genial as her predecessor. K calls over to her.

“We were just wondering what breed of dog he is?”

“No idea, I’m afraid! I was rather hoping you’d tell me!”

“He looks a bit like a German Shepherd, doesn’t he?”

“Yes, a lot of people have said that. I think there must be some German Shepherd in him somewhere. Glorious afternoon, isn’t it? You’ve picked a lovely spot for lunch…”

Her cheeks are flushed with enormous patches of vivid crimson: either a result of her sustained uphill exertions, or of a stiff gin-and-dubonnet after the morning service. Or maybe a bit of both.

“He’s from Animal Rescue! Third one I’ve had! I went to Bakewell Market to buy a cabbage, and came back with a dog in a cardboard box! Oh well!”

As the two of them disappear off to the left, I hiss seditiously at a still beaming K.

“What’s going on here, then? Is this another one of your carefully staged I-want-a-dog ploys? I’m going to have Sharp Words with the script-writer, I’m telling you…”

He beams back at me, in that particular bare-gummed way of his which I always take to signal smug triumphalism.

“Come on then, you devious bastard. Next stop, Sheldon.”

To be continued.

Walking the forest path: part one.

I want to walk the forest path. And then – if it’s within my range – I want you to walk it with me.” (Peter @ Naked Blog, August 2002.)

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As we leave the cottage, I craftily start the Madonna album at Track 6: just where the pace calms down a bit, after the opening salvo of gay-as-f*ck thumpers. Perhaps that way, I could ease K into the album gradually.

Ten minutes down the road, and still no reaction. I try the conversational approach.

It’s fascinating: while the album was being recorded, the producer – who’s a club DJ in his own right – would take demos of the backing tracks out with him, to incorporate them into his DJ sets. That way, he could precisely gauge the dancefloor reaction to each track, and then go back and make tweaks to the… you’re not remotely interested in any of this, are you?”

“Not even remotely.”

“I could tell by that stony-faced expression. Puh. Thanks for taking a f**king interest. I mean, you could have pretended. Remind me to do the same thing back, next time you start blathering on about bloody proteomics…”

He doesn’t take the bait. I fall silent. God, I need this walk. Clear away a few cobwebs.

As we turn a corner, the music softens to a light trotting pulse, overlain with sweet, simple melodic phrases. Right on cue, a group of horse riders come into view, causing K to slow the car down to a quiet crawl. The up-and-down movement of the horses and riders synchs in perfectly with the tempo of the track. Clip-clop, clip-clop.

“Actually, this is a good one.”

He’s smiling. We’re getting there.


With the large car park at Monsal Head already filled up by the Bright And Early/Can’t Park Efficiently For Shit brigade, we find one last roadside space down at Little Longstone. Which is actually more convenient, now that we think about it. As we change into our walking boots, the CD switches back to the beginning – thus ensuring that “Hung Up” will stay looping round and round my head for the next however many hours. Extended remix, and then some.

It’s only the second time I’ve worn gaiters, and I’m having a hard time working out how to put them on. K assists, but I’m in a brittle mood. Why can’t I do anything practical? Also, the straps are too long: flapping out either side of each boot, dangling in the mud, swishing annoyingly against the side of my trousers with every footstep. I try to tuck them in, but the gaiters aren’t designed that way and so they keep popping out again.

“God, I hate these gaiters. What’s the point of them anyway?”

“Look: as soon as we get to Ashford-in-the-Water, we’ll stop at the shop and buy a pair of scissors. Then I can cut the straps down for you.”

Patience of a saint. But I’m still stomping through the thick mud, failing to fall into an easy step, making heavy weather of it all.

“My f**king boots look like f**king Cornish pasties! How can I walk in these!”

K looks down at my clag-caked soles, and giggles. I giggle back, the drama-queeniness softening just a touch.

To be honest, I’m still upset with myself over last night. I should have left the unwrapping of the ceramic bobble-fruit-and-pillows to him, like I usually do. You know, get a grown-up to do it for me. But instead, I only had to Challenge the Assumption of Incompetence, didn’t I? Stepping Outside The Comfort Zone, like I’m supposed to be doing, on a day-by-day basis.

Which would have been fine, until the moment that I lowered the bobble-fruit into the special dimple on the top pillow. Well, how was I to know that it would only fit one way? Stupid bloody thing.

And now there are two fragments of green china frond sitting in the top drawer of the sideboard, waiting until we get some glue, which we’ll NEVER DO, because we ALWAYS FORGET that sort of thing, and it will be MONTHS before we even, in fact we’ll probably NEVER, and it’s all my fault because I’ve DESTROYED A MASTERPIECE, and I DON’T DESERVE NICE THINGS, and now I’m over-reacting because I CAN’T COPE, I mean f**k’s sakes nobody’s DIED, and…

Time goes by / so slowly / time goes by / so slowly…


In no time at all, we’re in Ashford. It’s a neat, well-heeled place, with a character all of its own: quite at odds with the surrounding villages, with its smart Georgian sandstone facades and its almost Cotswolds-like feel. All of which is marred by the constant roar of traffic from the busy A6 at the bottom of the village. Perhaps they all learn to tune it out. Handy for commuters, though: Bakewell, Sheffield, Derby. And you can sense there’s old money here.

The village store is quaint, but crowded and claustrophobic. I wait outside while K queues, kicking my muddy heels against the kerb, dodging the passers-by on the narrow pavement, feeling in the way no matter where I place myself.

The store owner has kindly lent K his own pair of scissors. The straps are snipped, the scissors returned, the walk resumed, a new spring in my step.

Now for the Big Climb.

The long rambling post about our walk in the Peak District will be along shortly.

(But first, this.)

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It is the first time that K and I have taken Mrs “Bob” out shopping for Lovely Things For The Home. Looking at her now, trapped motionless in front of the exquisitely turned chinaware, I realise that Mrs “Bob” may never have had Gentleman Friends Who Shop quite like us before. Perhaps it is all rather a lot to take in for one afternoon.

She was absolutely fine in the Gorgeous Kitchenware Shop at Hathersage (whose other branch is in Sloane Square, don’t you know), coming away with a nice little raft of kitchenalia. (Meawhile, I bought a beautifully turned birch tray – along with a Swedish milk jug, co-designed by a professor of ceramics and no less than five of her students.) However, now that we have unexpectedly fetched up in the Gorgeous Ceramics Gallery at Rowsley, I sense that a certain trepidation may be threatening to cloud her enthusiasm.

Her eye has fallen upon a trio of tiny little china receptacles, in a sort of grey-green. Supportively, I draw myself towards her. This is no time to be faint-hearted.

“Nice, aren’t they?”

“They’re gorgeous. But Mike, what are you supposed to do with them?”

“Oh, you just have to love them.”

“That’s all?”

“That’s all.”

“Good answer. I’m going to remember that.”

She’s looking thoughtful. I smile to myself. Already, I sense that she has commenced her journey towards becoming a fully-fledged snapper-upper of the Beautiful But Useless. This is what we do to for people. It is a noble calling.

In the centre of the gallery, facing you as you walk in, some exciting new work from a promising young ceramicist is prominently displayed. It’s surreal, vibrantly coloured stuff. Bold, witty, more than a touch whimsical. To the left, a battered pink sofa perches on top of a desert island, complete with palm tree. To the right, a “bobbly fruit”, rather resembling a pineapple, squats on top of three pinky-blue pillows. As K points out, there are strong similarities with the work of the celebrated (and highly collectable) Kate Malone – but at a tiny fraction of the cost. Frankly, this stuff’s a steal. We’d be daft not to.

Fetching the gallery owner over to the display, I point decisively towards the bobbly fruit/pinky-blue pillows composition.

“That one’s our favourite. In fact, all three of us independently came to the same decision”, I explain – beaming with pride at our connoisseurial unanimity, gaily unaware of any troubling subtext.

The gallery owner is too much of a professional to betray his feelings – but as he reaches for the selected objet, I sense the merest flicker of confusion dancing across his fractionally creasing brow.

A-hum. Well, he’s not been there long. His colleague has been selling to us for years. She’ll put him straight. Perhaps I need to work in a few more loud remarks to Mrs “Bob”. “Look, over here! Your HUSBAND would LOVE THESE!”

After a few more conspiratorial circuits of the gallery space (“Tell Bob about the coffee spoons, boys!”), we drain our wine glasses, pick up our goods, and head for the door.

Back over at the till, the gallery owner can contain himself no longer. As the door opens, he calls over to us.

“So, er, who is the bobbly fruit for exactly?”

“Oh, it’s for us”, I beam, wiggling my index finger back and forth between myself and K. “Thank you so much!”

As the last of the sun sets beneath the blood red sky, the three of us giggle all the way through to the B5056.

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