The Roches

I think one of the reasons that I developed a love of nature and nature writing is that I was fortune enough, despite growing up in the city, to have spent a lot of time as a child in the countryside. And in particular, as a family – at least in my memory, it was probably less frequent than I think – we often spent weekends out in the Peak District, climbing and picnicking. A few days ago I went outdoor climbing for the first time in years. I finished work at five, changed into my climbing gear and drove off to The Roches with my stepdad. The Roches are a long ridge of rock faces in Staffordshire that are popular with climbers. I remembered the name from my childhood and I had vague memories of hot days spent climbing, scrambling on the rocks and running back to the picnic blanket for food and sweets. As we drove out of the city and into green fields I thought of Blake – England’s green and pleasant lands. I think of that line often as I’m passing through English countryside.

We arrived before the other climbing group members and decided to find a spot to camp. On the way up from the car park we passed an old stone house built in to the rock face. I asked about it and my stepdad told me the story of Dougie, who used to live their.

“He had a hard life, there was no water up there. One winter him and his wife had to rip up the floor boards to stay warm. But he loved it here. He used to come and talk to all the climbers and tell them stories of when he used to climb on The Roches. There was a big campaign locally to get him rehoused, because of how hard it was for him. He eventually got moved to social housing. He only lived a year after that, he just couldn’t cope with it.”

My stepdad pointed to a large boulder with little steps cut in to the side. “Rumour has it Dougie cut those steps.”

I imagined a whittled old man climbing up those steps and sitting on the top of the boulder with a cup of tea, enjoying the peace and quiet of the morning view. I was a little saddened by the story. I can imagine it would have been hard living up there without running water or electricity. But Dougie clearly loved the place, loved it so much it killed him to leave it, and with the late afternoon sun shining down on the valley below it was so easy to see why. I can imagine living up their with no one but the sheep, and the climbers and picnickers in the summer. I thought of him sat in his social housing, dreaming of The Roches, dreaming of rocks he could climb blindfolded.

We found a nice spot to set up camp and ate a picnic of chicken wings and oat cakes before putting on our boots and doing a spot of bouldering. I soon got back in to the swing of things and I remembered why I used to love going climbing as a kid. I started to feel like a kid again, no longer afraid of falling. After a short while our climbing companions arrived and we decided to do a climb called Maud’s Garden. At times I didn’t trust my hands or feet or even the rope to hold me up, but I kept going and it was a great feeling to get to the top.

I lay down on my belly at the edge of the climb and enjoyed the view as the other two climbed up. The hills faded off in to the distance in varying shades of green and blue, that got lighter as they approached the horizon. My favourite line of any nature writing book ever went through my head – leicestershires of swift green light. It was certainly apt at that moment. A seemingly perfect round orb of orange sun was slowly making its way towards the horizon and the wind was colder up at the top, but I didn’t care about that as I lay there watching those leicestershires of swift green light approaching dusk.

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