Slow travel through our dales

Derbyshire Life - - Photograph­y - WORDS AND PHO­TOS: Helen Moat

How lock­down helped bring what’s on our doorstep into sharper fo­cus

From the Silk Road in Uzbek­istan to the me­dieval tower houses of Svaneti in Ge­or­gia - places I’d vis­ited just months pre­vi­ously as a travel writer - my world had shrunk to a few square miles sur­round­ing my home­town of Mat­lock. I was in lock­down.

At first I felt hemmed in, but slowly I dis­cov­ered an un­ex­pected free­dom in emp­ty­ing my di­ary, see­ing no-one, go­ing nowhere and savour­ing each out­door mo­ment in the gen­tlest of springs.

As au­thor of Slow Travel The Peak District, I’d ap­pre­ci­ated the joy of walk­ing and cy­cling lo­cally. Re­search­ing the book, I’d spent months ex­plor­ing the Peak District’s hid­den cor­ners and unsung her­itage. But lock­down was forc­ing me to travel even more slowly, even more lo­cally. I started to comb path­ways within walk­ing dis­tance of my front door. I shared pho­to­graphs of my dis­cov­er­ies on so­cial me­dia. Some Mat­lock friends were in­spired to fol­low in my foot­steps - or share de­tails of places I’d missed.

Grad­u­ally, I re­alised I didn’t need to travel to ex­otic places: I’d found ad­ven­ture on my doorstep. Lock­down was giv­ing me the free­dom to me­an­der, to dream, to stop and breathe. I could lie down on a grassy slope (there was no hurry), close my eyes, lis­ten to bird­song and al­low time - or at least my foot­steps - to stand still.

I tuned into the land­scape sur­round­ing me as never be­fore. I paid more at­ten­tion to the to­pog­ra­phy of my lo­cal area: how dale con­nects to dale; wood­land to hill­top; ridge to field. I lis­tened more care­fully to the songs of the sky; ob­served more closely the flora at my feet. I started to ap­pre­ci­ate how land­scapes change, not just from sea­son to sea­son, but from day to day.

The 1,109-foot high Mas­son

Hill fills the front win­dow of my home. From the arm­chair, I can fol­low the line of ridge across the sky from the Heights of Abra­ham tower to a fairy­tale-rounded clump of trees. From there, the sum­mit opens up to meadow be­fore drop­ping down to Sal­ters Lane. I’d never stood on the high­est point of the ridge, much less ex­plored the cu­ri­ous tuft of wood­land.

For the first time, I ven­tured to the high point of Mas­son Hill. My son and I sat on the ridge top, the land fall­ing away to a Mat­lock in minia­ture; the moor­lands rip­pling out to the Dark Peak. It was enough. It was more than enough. And some­where on the hill a wil­low war­bler filled the air with sweet cas­cad­ing notes, while a sand martin wheeled across the sky be­fore drop­ping to a quarry hid­den from view.

‘Did you go into the walled wood­land on the top?’ a friend asked. ‘You’ll find a cir­cle of daf­fodils at this time of year.’

We climbed the hill again and found the wood­land. At the heart of the copse, a per­fect cir­cle of daf­fodils echoed the curve of the dry­s­tone wall en­clos­ing it. Who had planted the flow­ers? I was un­able to find out, but I didn’t mind - I liked the mys­tery of this cu­ri­ous place.

My son and I con­tin­ued to ex­plore Mas­son Hill. When we started out on our lock­down

walks, the path­sides were scat­tered with mod­est clumps of prim­rose, celandine and wood anemone. Soon, the blues and pur­ples of blue­bells, speed­well and for­get-me-nots were re­colour­ing the spring land­scape. Bird­song that had be­gun with a sin­gle, hes­i­tant voice, be­came a trio, quar­tet and quin­tet, then a heady sym­phony.

We dis­cov­ered a lit­ter­ing of in­dus­trial her­itage on Mas­son Hill - dis­used mines, air shafts and Q-pits on kiln sites. We found a capped ver­ti­cal shaft (there are many on Mas­son Hill) with a winch and rust­ing trac­tor en­gine. We stum­bled on a ruin with thick walls and dec­o­ra­tive castel­la­tions, re­turn­ing to na­ture in the un­der­growth, pos­si­bly an en­gine house.

Next, we ex­plored the other

one evening as the sky drained of light. The black­bird and song thrush echoed through the conifers but there was no sign of the noc­tur­nal bird. We skirted the new plan­ta­tion, then heard a short, low-level whirring sound, so brief and sub­dued we were not sure if we had imag­ined it. Then, as dark­ness de­scended, a clear, sus­tained sound rum­bled across the saplings like a clock­work toy. There was no doubt - it was the

‘Lock­down was forc­ing me to travel

even more slowly’.

unique sound of the night­jar.

I con­tin­ued to post pic­tures of my ‘lock­down walks’ on so­cial me­dia, as did oth­ers. It was clear that the na­tion was learn­ing to ap­pre­ci­ate the trea­sure on their doorstep - we just needed to look more care­fully. An­other friend asked if I knew of Bai­ley’s Tump, a World War II air de­fence site on the cor­ner of Asker Lane and Bull Lane in Mat­lock. I didn’t. An­other walk, an­other piece of lo­cal his­tory slot­ted into place. We mar­velled at the raised cir­cu­lar en­clo­sures, ram­parts cre­ated to pro­tect equip­ment and sol­diers and to bring down en­emy air­craft that threat­ened Sh­effield and its im­por­tant wartime steel in­dus­try.

This small but cru­cial site con­tained ev­ery­thing from a Stan­ton shel­ter to a sound lo­ca­tor and pow­er­ful search­light. In the win­ter of 1940, it man­aged to bring down an at­tack­ing Dornier bomber, crash­ing close to Great Long­stone, ten miles away.

As our lock­down walks con­tin­ued, spring gave way to early sum­mer and fading blue­bells yielded to creamy sprays of hawthorn and cow pars­ley. By the mid­dle of May, lock­down was eased and we could travel as far as we wanted within a day. But I wasn’t sure there was more to dis­cover on my own patch. Much more.

Helen Moat is a free­lance travel writer and au­thor of ‘A Time of Birds’, pub­lished by Sara­band

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