John Maynard Keynes predicted machines would liberate us from the need to work. So much for that. How we use what ‘free’ time we have left to us matters. I’ve been piously quoting to overworked friends, whose jobs without purpose are theoretically compensated by their pay, the words of Dolly Parton: “Never get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life”.
A Saturday walk seemed a wise way to try to make a life, before the cycle of festive drink and hangovers. My venture north to the Peak District for just a day from London could be judged impetuous. Yet I reasoned my thoughts and attention on such an excursion would be more fruitful than another typical weekend.
I headed north on a train up to Sheffield, studiously focused on reading. We’re in an attention economy. The premise of social media corporations is to take over as much of your time for profit as possible. Attention equals belief, said the Victorian psychologist William James. So how far do you want your weekend to be expended mindlessly scrolling social media on a hangover, lining the pockets of some untaxed Silicon Valley maniac, versus a mind liberated by a book and fresh air?
Raindrops glided across the train window as I pulled into Sheffield. I was to catch a heavily delayed TransPennine service between here and Manchester, getting off a few stops in at the village of Hathersage. Huddled among northerners beneath the drizzle at one end of the platform — the train was tiny despite it going between two major cities — I kept silent so as to not reveal my out of touch metropolitan elite credentials. There was a certain comradery to it, and it was assuring to experience first-hand that it’s not just southerners who have to endure rubbish local services of South-Take Your Pick.
I arrived at Hathersage, keen to press on after the delays. I assumed a local jaunt would gladly let me leave one of my rucksacks with them. I was mistaken. At a pub, the barman said with a feigned wince “sorry mate, no space behind the bar”, as I looked at the various spaces staring at me behind the bar. A hostel had no one to serve me. Two hotels cited security concerns for not taking the bag. It felt like unimaginative English pettiness of the kind I haven’t experienced abroad. Because it’s not regular to host a rucksack for a couple of hours, the kneejerk response is no.
With my profile, I’m not used to be described as a security concern. Walkers from the eighteenth century, before walking was a popular past time, were viewed as suspicious wanderers, even vagabonds. Now apparently, we’re terrorists. Thankfully, it fell to an independent spirited owner of a small BnB to see that a rucksack in her front room was manageable.
I set out on a gentle incline, heading towards Stanage Edge, a famous feature of the Peak District due to its panorama. Isolated spindly trees are more striking in the quiet mist that was covering the green slopes. A menacing quiet was all around. My walking book notified about the seven Mountain Rescue operations around the peak.
I saw a large house, Brookfield Manor, was getting on with its Saturday. It had pristine laws, with steps to the valley river below. I passed the front entrance and gazed longingly at the comforting yellowy-brown brick house before pressing up higher, towards declining visibility.
Senses other than sight became more refined. I could hear a plane somewhere up above. The Peak District has experienced an unexpectedly high number of air accidents due to navigational instruments getting confused by the flat nature of the high moorlands. Most infamously in 1948 a US B29 bomber and all thirteen passengers crashed. In such mist, features become silhouettes, taking on different forms to their daylight state. Conifers become a swaying monster.
Into fields of red weeds. There was a great boulder, called the Buck Stone, in a clearing. Packhorses and their human leader would stop here in transit in pre-Industrial England.
I got to the Stanage Edge. The panorama was not there of course. I eased to the cliff edge, getting closer than perhaps I should have, and peered into a pit of bottomless grey. It was left to the imagination to work out what lay below.
I’d kept to my walking book route all day, but in this morass of the wind whipping, and cloud moving with apace, I lost my route. Unsettlement was replaced with feeling liberated from a routine; the norm of the working week. I was all alone, and galloped gaily along the edge for a kilometre or so in vaguely the right direction.
I almost missed a turning, and then got off the edge, having a huddled, hurried sandwich on a rock in a field. I was aware of catching my train back.
The descent continued with a spring and warmth coming back. The evening was closing in. On the edge of the wood was a farm with a bubbling brook. The lights were off in the farmhouse. The front door led to a two-metre drop. Maybe the inhabitants were trapped in there. I cantered through the muddy wood and reached town.
On return to the BnB I effusively thanked the owner. The walk would have been far less pleasant with the rucksack. In the hallway was a picture of Stanage Edge on a clear day with a view. I was satisfied with my surreal, isolated experience of it.
At Hathersage station platform there were some villagers merry after the pub and heading into Sheffield for a night on the razzle. I was fine with keeping the alcohol at bay for the time being, feeling quite smug with what the fruits of my attention had borne: calm, contentment, perspective.