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These moors are ours
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in Rambling Today, Autumn 1995
Black clouds were scudding in our direction from somewhere over Manchester way and a cold wind made it feel more like early Spring than high summer. But who cared?: there was an exhilaration in being out in open country, enjoying the views across the moorlands of the Dark Peak and savouring the subtle pleasures of the landscape.
Cath MacKay and Terry Howard from the Ramblers Association in Sheffield had arranged to take me to Broomhead Moor, only about ten miles or so from the centre of the city. Broomhead is one of their moors - not theirs in the sense of legal ownership of course, but rather through many years of discovery, exploration and enjoyment. For both of them, the moorlands which stretch down the side of the Dark Peak from Snailsden in the north to Hallam Moor and beyond in the south are much-loved friends.
We take shelter from the wind beside an outcrop of rocks known as the Hurkling Stones and look out across the heather. Cath is a photographer with a strong interest in geology and landscape formation, and she acts as an interpreter for the scene before us. "You see the valley there, where the trees are growing?" she asks. I follow her gaze. "The soil down there is very rich in minerals, which have built up in the valley bottom. The trees not only get cover from the hills, they also benefit from the best mineral conditions." We discuss the way the distinctive landscape of the millstone grit country has been pummelled into shape over the millennia.
And we move on to consider the role which humans have played in creating the landscape we see today. Terry Howard rummages in his rucksack, pulls out an old tobacco tin and from inside carefully lifts out a flint arrowhead. He lays it down on the earth at our feet. "I found this, on the ground not far from here," he explains. "Four thousand years ago, somebody who was walking here lost it. To me, this arrowhead is a token. It's sending messages to me from the people who used to live and walk here."
For those who know where to look, the moors are filled with evidence of human activity. Close by, the ditch and embankment known as Bar Dike probably date back to prehistoric times. There are the tracks of ancient roads, certainly used in mediaeval times and possibly dating back even further, crossing the land. There are standing stones and guide-posts, perhaps erected as waymarks or boundary markers, still to be found among the heather. There are causey paths (the local word for the carefully-built paved tracks used by packhorse teams), now often hidden beneath moorland vegetation. And there are other things to enjoy: the remains of New Cross, for example, is only a short distance away across the valley from the Hurkling Stones, though now reduced just to a base and stump.
"There's a lot of social history here," says Terry. He describes how he has introduced this countryside to a new generation, bringing parties of young people from the Woodcraft Folk, the progressive youth organisation which he also actively supports, up from Sheffield to walk here. "Walking these moors isn't necessarily just for personal pleasure, it can be educational, too," he says.
There is, of course, an issue in all this. Gaze from the Hurkling Stones out across the miles of moorland, and almost everything you see is privately owned and officially barred to walkers. Even the Hurkling Stones themselves are not on a right of way - technically, we should probably not have been there.
Ramblers' demands for access can sometimes seem to get bogged down in legal detail or in political pragmatism. But a walk with Terry and Cath puts the issue of access into its proper perspective. In the general history of these hills, the restrictions which walkers now face have been an issue only for the briefest moment of time. It was only after the passing of the Enclosure Acts in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that the right of ordinary people to roam over these Peak District moors began to disappear.
Terry's interest in these moors has led him to research the enclosure history of the area and to publish his findings in a new booklet, A Moorland Notebook. He builds up a convincing account, particularly from evidence of the Bradfield enclosure awards, of long-established rights gradually being lost as landowners rearranged the legal status of the countryside. As he writes in his booklet, 'My contention is that while some of the owners may have gained a substantial stretch of moorland 'legitimately' in relatively recent times, at the time of the original enclosure the land was acquired in circumstances which were highly dubious'.
His comments bring to mind the words of the old rhyme about the enclosure process: They hang the man and flog the woman Who stole the goose from off the common But let the greater criminal loose Who stole the common from the goose.
Through their campaigning in the Sheffield area both Terry and Cath have worked hard to restore the rights lost so recently. But as Cath says, it's important to keep sight of the main principle: "Whoever happens to have the legal title to this land may be responsible for the heather management, but they are not responsible for the shape of the land," she says. "It's wrong that, in order to explore the valleys, to walk along the edges to see the colour of the rocks, to search out the burial mounds, you may have to trespass." She adds that the pleasures of walking freely across open country can amount to a spiritual experience.
"It's not just the physical freedom, it's the mental freedom too. You're not constrained as you are in the rest of your life, and you can react on an emotional level to the weather, to the cold, to the view before you and indeed to the freedom you feel. It can sometimes be almost overwhelming."
Terry Howard concurs. And he makes the point in A Moorland Notebook, when he writes: 'On summer evenings warm winds drift over you, carrying the scent of heather, and grass seems to whisper to you as it bends with the wind. These experiences are not of mysticism, but a genuine feeling of peace, tranquility, exhilaration and drama.
'I often wonder why people would want to wage war on others or threaten to destroy our world. They obviously have not shared in the experiences gained from our moorland. Perhaps it would be a more understanding and tolerant world if they had.'
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