Peak Christmas

‘This is just fucking amazing,’ said my sister Puffin, brandishing a tin mug of whisky. ‘I’m sitting against a beautifully made dry stone wall and there’s an oak tree over there with some leaves on it in December and I’m happy and really warm.’ She grinned. I wrote that down, then poured another whisky.

That morning we’d stepped out of the house, turned left up the hill and spent the day wandering the hills and dales and caves of the very southern tip of the Peak District. Amid the tight-packed contour lines and little trees on the map we saw Thor’s Cave written in tiny gothic letters, so we set out to see if Thor was in. He wasn’t, but his cave was pretty badass.

We walked 14 miles in clear sunlight that day. We saw a field full of fieldfares. We followed the old routes through dales, along dry stone walls — the whole landscape a human achievement of many thousands of years of cultivation, it seemed. We even saw an oxbow lake — and after many, many hours of learning about them in geography at school, the surprise and glee of actually finding one in the wild was exceptional. But it doesn’t make for a very good photo.

We got back to the house at dusk — and spent the evening with mum. We almost cancelled our plans for bivvying and stayed in the warmth and comfort of a fire and bed. But this was the only night with a clear forecast. If we were ever going to go, we needed to go then.

So off we went. Up the hill, behind the wall. The wind brushed through the trees, and far over head the clouds rushed across the sky. ‘It’s a gale out there,’ said mum. ‘Don’t go.’ But we did — feeling exceptionally adventurous. We set up a crude shelter, just in case. We lit a fire, poured the whisky and settled in. The moon was nearly full, and there were brief partings in the clouds — enough to light up the nearest oak tree for a moment, enough for the briefest look at the stars, then the clouds rushed on, the woodsmoke changed direction, pressed into our eyes and everything was wrapped in shadow once more.

‘It’s fucking amazing,’ said Puffin, again. ‘What a brilliant thing to do.’ Here she is, having a brilliant time:

I fell asleep too close to the dying fire, with a restless bit of my brain worrying about the smoke in my nose, my lungs. And in my stomach the whisky churned. But I was swaddled and warm and sheltered by the wall.

I woke up with Puffin towering above me. ‘I’m cold,’ she said. ‘I woke up and every bit of me was shivering. I’m going home. I’m so sorry.’ I told her to go immediately — the restless bit of my brain now chatting away about hypothermia and mountain rescue and pneumonia and how it’s best always to do star jumps before bed. Then I rolled over and fell asleep. The last cowboy, sticking it out. The hardy one.

An hour later, I felt drips in my ear. Rain on my face. I sat up in a howling wind full of rain whipped sideways, falling heavy in all directions. The bivvy bag was slick wet. A bit of rain won’t hurt, I thought, so wriggled under our tarpaulin shelter. I lay there half-covered, listening. Maybe this is what a clear forecast in the Peak District is, I thought.

Then I heard a thunk and a thunk and the wet tarp dropped on my face. That was the stones that held it up falling to the ground next to my head. I thought of home — not in the hopeless longing of a hardy cowboy, but in the practical sense of it being 200 metres away. And I thought of how ridiculous this all was. How it would be Christmas in the morning, and I would have pneumonia and consumption and hypothermia and smoke in my lungs and maybe tuberculosis. How I was lucky not to have a bit of beautifully made dry stone wall in my head. So wriggled free of the bag, replaced the stones, dumped everything in the tarpaulin and dragged it all down the hill.

I didn’t completely abandon the microadventure though. I took my sleeping bag upstairs and laid it out on the bed. I wriggled in, snuggled down, and woke up on Christmas Day like a very silly sausage.