Netherne to Saint Pancras
It was Christmas in the latter part of the twentieth century. Snow lay across most of England.
Having packed a small rucksack with a few clothes and a couple of sandwiches, I set off through the snow-encrusted lanes in bright sunlight to the station, where I found that trains were delayed by the weather, and, where I had allowed plenty of time, suddenly time became a concern. I had to decide whether to risk waiting for the next train or trying to catch a bus or taxi, but one glance at the surrounding traffic told me that travelling by road was going to be just as risky as waiting. As it turned out, the train turned up sooner than expected, and I made it to Saint Pancras through an unusually almost deserted London, only to find in turn that the timetabled train to Sheffield had been cancelled and that the best advice I could get was to wait and try to get on the next one.
Saint Pancras to Sheffield
The journey all the way from London to Sheffield was snow-filled -every field and tree covered in snow from Middlesex to Yorkshire. The countryside changed slowly from flat or gently rolling fields to steeper hills and denser woods, broken now and again by partially or fully frozen stretches of water. We were delayed at Derby by a late driver, and by the time we got moving it was getting dark. As we pulled into Sheffield, it was black. I found the way to the nearest large hotel and got a room -a standard, anonymous hotel room.
Sheffield to Stocksbridge
Getting up early, I caught the bus to Stocksbridge. The first part of the journey is always dull, as Sheffield is in parts not really that attractive, and the main road is traced by the usual commercial shop-fronts with their brash signs and dirty windows, cluttered with various featureless items. But once out beyond Hillsborough having passed a few Supertrams, the country starts to open up and we thundered past steep tree-covered banks all dusted with snow, and into much more interesting places like Oughtibridge and Wharncliffe Side -moving so fast that I reached Deepcar very quickly. Then the bus turned off the main road and up Carr Road, labouring on the steep bits before it turned off again into ordinary streets (St. Margaret Avenue, the suburb of Royd), houses white and windows cluttered with Christmas decorations. Children with their fathers dragged small sledges along with them; for some of them this would be their first real experience of snow.
Stocksbridge to Bolsterstone
The bus curved around, through more suburban streets to the top of Stocksbridge, along Hollin Busk Lane and Coal Pit Lane before turning into Cedar Road, steeply dropping down past the Junior School to the top of Shay House Lane, descending further and further (it’s remarkable how steep these places are!) and not skidding or slipping once on the treated roads. I got off, careful not to slip on the steep, ice- covered footpath.
Once the bus had gone, the first thing that struck me was the quietness. Everything seemed very still, and also very clear -whether due to the snow or to some other quality in the light, the walls and trees and houses all around me seemed in sharp focus. I climbed the little bit of road to the corner of Linden Crescent and looked on the old house again, its front wall gone and replaced with a row of small hedge trees. I turned into Linden Crescent and crossed to look back. The garden seemed smaller than I remembered, as it always does. The two trees at the back that used to squeak together in the wind, and the old trunk that we used to bounce up and down on were all gone: a couple of small conifers were growing there now.
The house itself looked small. Next door looked exactly the same as I remembered it -no movement, no one about, perhaps only one car had gone by. I walked down Linden Crescent, crunching in the snow, not noticing a thousand details but drinking in the general scene and looking often out to the other side of the valley, and came soon to the end of the street, crossing over to Pine Road past the Infants’ School, now opposite a retirement home, down to Pot House Wood.
The wood itself was like something out of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe -ice- bound, quite thick snow, rumpled hillocks. Some distance away I could hear running water. I made towards it carefully along a slippery path, following the trail of someone else’s footsteps, and cautiously making my way down to the simple wooden bridge over the rushing stream, water gurgling over black rocks. Then I made my way up the other side, winding in and out of small trees, eventually emerging onto Whitwell Lane, as a rubbish lorry emptied bins nearby. I climbed up this hillside as the sun began to rise above the bank of cloud to the east, onto Stone Moor Road. As I emerged from the newish houses, a beam of sunlight glanced through an unseen window on my left and struck a bluish-grey wallpaper in a room I could see; just beyond that a crow hovered over a back garden and the sound of what I thought was a hosepipe spraying caught my attention -as I drew nearer it resolved into the wind blowing through the few remaining leaves of a hedge on my right, the twisted leaves looking like frozen sparrows.
Across the far horizon to the east, sharp and thin against the growing light, stood a bank of leafless trees; down the long valley towards Sheffield the tracery of stone-lined fields looked as though it had been painted in by a fine artist’s brush, but its main beauty lay in its remoteness.
I made my way up the gently rising hill to Bolsterstone, where I wandered into the churchyard where I would like one day to be buried, looking as it does down onto the wide landscape of the valley both ways. I noticed some of the gravestones, some new, some recently refurbished -wives buried half a century or more later next to their husbands. In the corner of the house that intrudes into the graveyard, a tiny window cluttered with Christmas cards looked into a living room -living in more than one sense.
Bolsterstone to Bradfield
Down the very steep valley into Ewden, the panoply of snow-coated fields looked very different to the last time I was there. Then, glowering clouds had smothered the hilltops and dimmed the light so that the whole scene had a grandeur and a haziness which made it seem like a mountain landscape. Now the bright sun glinted off white snow and tree branches stood out sharply, each twig shining; water ran in channels hidden under the snow; stone walls gleamed with traceries of frost. Distances opened out, and rather than grand the landscape seemed dwarfed by the cloudless sky.
I reached the bottom of the valley where a sign stating 'Ewden Village' revealed no village at all. Walking over a bridge I looked back at the cascade of water down the steps of the water treatment works and then headed off up the other side of the valley, past a solitary house with car covered in snow, and up into a muddy lane which gave me a choice of a public footpath leading into the dark pine forest on my left or a steep climb alongside a rushing brook to the top of the valley. I chose the latter, which was a hard and long climb, getting hot before I reached the top -and the top never seemed to want to be reached but always seemed to be above me, either steeply or gently sloping away to a blank white horizon. I came first to a junction signposted 'Bradfield' with a giant white stone, and headed off that way past an isolated farm and through blank, white country, always sloping upwards or curving around a rolling moor so that the view never quite opened up.
A sanding lorry roared past, the driver acknowledging my presence with the smallest nod of his head, and then I rounded a curve and came out into broad sunlight and could look down at last on the country around Bradfield.
It was as though someone had casually strewn a rough white tablecloth flatly along the landscape -wrinkles of shallow, shadowed valleys were sprinkled with tiny forests, and in the deeper folds dark waters reflected them. Away on the farthest horizons, outcroppings of rock stood out, looming small because of their distance but imposing in their remote greyness. Over all of this the bright sun shone down from a now-cloudless sky.
I walked down the hill, passing two farmers coming the other way who were deep in an animated discussion about, of all things, the pattern of the pyramids and the implications for space travel. I soon reached Bradfield which surprised me by being really beautiful, full of detailed old buildings of grey-green stone. The first street I came to on my right was Jane Street. I turned down that and, careful not to slip on the icy footpath, found myself at the bottom looking at the beautiful church there. The pub to my right was closed; I found out that it wouldn’t open for an hour so I paused to admire the scenery and went on down the hill to Low Bradfield, a cluster of cottage around a rushing river. I looked for a pub or somewhere to rest and have something to eat, but settled on a snow-covered bench when I found none and had a sandwich. Resigning myself to walking on without a proper rest, I had walked only about fifty paces when I came to The Plough, and walked up the steps just as the landlord was unbolting the door. It was a perfect rest: an open fire, by which I quickly grew too warm, and a hot beef sandwich with a rich onion gravy. I got directions from the landlord’s wife and prepared to go on.
Bradfield to Strines
Winding up through icy trees on my right and a rushing steam hidden in a valley on my left, I made my slow way up and up again to a wide scenic road that looked lengthways down a sunny valley, at the end of which loomed a black, alien-looking tower against the sun. A bedraggled sheep had found itself on the wrong side of a wall and in the middle of the road, and, seeing me coming, ran on falteringly until it turned off towards a farm. I decided to head upwards again rather than following a footpath along the bottom of a pine forest, and found that I had soon emerged onto a fairly main road leading through a very silent and imposing private forest, which seemed to stretch on for a long way, with signs every few hundred yards stating 'Private: Kenilworth Estates'.
By now, a combination of the sameness of the scenery and the distance I had walked was beginning to make my feet feel weary, so I was glad to come out of the forest to find myself looking at the alien tower side-on: it wasn’t some horrible twentieth century monstrosity as I had imagined, but a Victorian stone folly like a keep -it had looked so black and forbidding only because it had been silhouetted so strongly against the sun. Beneath it, a large Elizabethan-looking house snuggled into fold in the valley above a deep reservoir.
From here the road partly curved back on itself into a narrow ravine and around the slippery edges, grey with shadow, to slowly wind back up the hillsides where I expected, and by this time very much hoped, to find a village marked on the map as Strines -but I found instead only a single inn. Having met no one on the road, and seen less than a dozen cars, I was surprised to open the door on a densely crowded set of hot rooms with no space spare. Reluctant to enter a large group, but with tired feet and cold fingers, I turned back to the road, closed the door and headed off again.
With the darkly-named Foulstone Moor on my right and the shallow valley overlooked by the single tower on my left, this was the loneliest and slowest to change section of the journey -though there were more cars on this section of road, the motorists speeding by uncaringly served only to accentuate the sense of being on one’s own. Eventually I had trudged the necessary distance and reached the junction which was the farthest point of my walk. The sun glared down on a white and empty landscape. Just before I reached the turn, as though to reward the weary traveller, the high ridge of land that formed the edge of Strines Moor sloped away and the even-vaster distances opened out: Whinstone Lee Tor on the horizon, the Hurkling Stones, Crow Chin, all dominated the landscape and made the main road leading down below to the Derwent Valley seem like a small and insignificant latecomer into the country which they had overseen for millennia.
Now I turned from this long road and towards Ughill, where I really hoped to find some sustenance and rest. The road curved and winded along the other side of the reservoirs I’d circumscribed and one of the satisfying feelings I had at this stage was looking back at the enormous length of road on the other side of the valley down which I’d made my way, step by step. I passed the gates of two manor houses and looked down on them, like miniature Christmas card settings in the snow, then turned around the side of a hill and the distant horizon and the promise of the wild Derwent Valley was gone from sight as I headed back towards Sheffield and into the twilight.
At this stage it seemed that, no matter how many steps I took or how long I plodded, the next corner or the wood at the top of the bend or the next item on the map got no nearer. Eventually, as the sun began to seriously disappear, I came to Ughill to find only two or three houses -splendid houses of grey-green stone, windows trimmed for Christmas, but no sign of life other than a small black cat slinking away and a few dogs barking. So after a pause sitting on a cold stone and peering at the map in the gathering gloom, as though by staring at it I would bring the next town nearer, I set off on the further trek to Dungworth.
Ughill to Dungworth and back to Sheffield
At this final stage, the only way to keep going is by overriding the body’s demand to stop, which it is inclined to do at the slightest opportunity -a small stone in the road, a tree branch sticking out, the light on a distant hill, all act to stop the body from moving for a moment before you insist that it keep walking.
The sun, having momentarily fringed the hilltops ahead of me with gold, then topped them with a kind of creamy strawberry pink, then did the same to the clouds that hung low in the east and north, turning white to pink, then tingeing the edge of blue with pink, then finally giving up and letting them go dark blue. There was a moment when, crossing a little stone bridge, I stopped to look over the parapet and into the small gorge full of rushing water and noise, and saw, under the overhanging bank, thousands of yard-long icicles hanging there like transparent swords.
Somehow I finally reached Dungworth, which, funnily enough, actually smelt of dung. There were a few houses -modern houses not charming country cottages- and a bus stop. I’d come to the end of the actual National Park and felt as though I’d formally re-entered the twentieth century. To confirm this, I pulled out my mobile phone and called the number given on the bus stop to check that buses were running, and sat on a nearby wall to wait.
Cold had not been a problem -on several occasions I had been too hot and had had to remove gloves and hat- but now, standing still and waiting, I felt the painful chill in my toes and fingers and began to get seriously worried. To distract me from this, the new moon came out in a purple sky, and alongside it, the bright star of Venus, which was so bright, and so alone in the sky apart from the moon, that at first I thought it must be the lights of a plane and waited for it to move or turn -but no, it was actually Venus. Also, another lost sheep wandered into the road, roaming up and down and baa-ing madly, before finding its way into someone’s garden.
The bus appeared. My fingers were so frozen that I fumbled the change and held up the driver, but eventually I got to a seat and had to endure a very fast and bumpy ride back to Sheffield, the landscape a blur except for Christmas lights in trees in the middle of nowhere near Bradfield.
And that was the end of my outer adventures, but the beginning of my adventures into the world behind the world of fiction. It was on the way back to London on the train that the details of the material behind the books available through this website, and much more, literally flooded into my mind. So many strands and hints and shadowy clues and half-formed thoughts coalesced, as I sank physically exhausted into my seat, that before I had reached King’s Cross an entire notebook was full to overflowing with the beginnings of many books.
The outer world had prompted a journey of similar magnitude into the inner wilderness. What had been pathless for years opened up before my inner eye like a landscape just waiting to be mapped. Almost by accident, this day-long journey had contributed to a twenty-year investigation to determine the answer to the question 'Why do we read fiction?'
And a lot more.
For much more about fiction and how it works -as well as a bit more about Yorkshire- visit Clarendon House Publications here.