March 23, 2012 9:09 pm

A walk with the FT: The ‘Dark Peak ’ route, Derbyshire

The novelist Marina Lewycka returns to the Peak District, where she has conjured many a best-selling character

Stanage Edge and Hathersage, north Derbyshire

There was a time when Marina Lewycka walked in the Peak District every weekend. But then success intervened. In 2005 her first published novel, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, came out and, at 58, the Sheffield Hallam University lecturer became a million-selling novelist. Two Caravans, We Are All Made of Glue, and now Various Pets Alive and Dead followed. But so have publicity tours, literary festivals, and less walking time.

A walk with the FT The Dark Peak route

A walk with the FT The Dark Peak route

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IN Pursuits

We rendezvous in the car park from which our walk will start – but first Lewycka needs sustenance. She offers me half her prawn sandwich while she explains the difference between this, north Derbyshire’s Dark Peak, and the White Peak, a few miles to the south. “Up here it’s millstone grit, it is dark and sinister; down there it’s chalk, limestone, like white bones in the earth.”

We leave on a sandy track to begin one of her favourite walks: from the moorland of Stanage Edge to the valley village of Hathersage, taking in an 18th-century packhorse trail, North Lees Hall (Charlotte Brontë’s inspiration for the Thornfield Hall of Jane Eyre), the grave of Little John, he of Robin Hood’s Merry Men, and afternoon tea.

Walking helps Lewycka’s writing, even if she cannot walk as often as she would like. “It’s time to mull things over in my head or try out conversations and bring disconnected bits of plot together.”

It is warm, and 4x4 tracks mark the ground. “You come for a day of soul-building, and they are in a convoy, lumbering around,” Lewycka grumbles. “Sometimes I shout at them. They treat me as a mad woman, best ignored.”

We crest the Edge and absorb the view south to Hathersage – although the valley has filled with mist so only the church spire is visible – and west to Winhill Pike (we decide after wind-battered map reading). The Packhorse Trail takes us down to a lunch break by a birch wood.

Marina Lewycka©Robert Moore

Marina Lewycka

What is it about this part of the country that builds her soul? “The grandness of the landscapes, the– ” She is interrupted by a walker’s hard-eyed bull terrier, which wants her sandwich. She gives it a cheery pat and genial “Off you go” before picking up her train of thought.

“When you worry about reviews or publications, whether you’ve said the right thing, you come here and everything seems insignificant. It’s almost like a meditation to sit still and go through your senses.” Metal clinks from climbers on the cliffs. “The texture of the rock and the air. How shadows are picked out.”

The trail leads us down the valley. Hedges replace drystone walls; grass replaces heather. North Lees Hall, built in the grey millstone grit of the Edge, emerges square from trees, a blunt tower on top. It was built in the late 16th century by Catholic landowners, the Jessops; later tenants were the Eyre family. We approach the heavy wooden door of the Hall, now a holiday let. “If you wanted to be brave you could stand on a chair and peer through a window,” she whispers. Wobbling on a garden chair, I see comfy fittings – no Jane, Rochester or mad first wife. Lewycka contemplates the tower, and Brontë’s mind. “Imagine seeing that and thinking, ‘Ahh – mad woman, locked up, sets the whole place on fire.’”

The very English-looking valley closes in towards Hathersage. Does Lewycka, born to Ukrainian refugees in a German resettlement camp, value life here perhaps more than others? “It’s true, you look at things and you look for things. Being an immigrant, you want to learn to fit in, so it makes you very observant.”

In the graveyard of Hathersage church we stop to visit the reputed site of Little John’s grave, whose headstone states that he died in a cottage nearby. “I’m sure it’s mainly here for the tourists,” says Lewycka.

Heading for tea and talking religion, we pass the vicarage where Charlotte Brontë stayed (between inspiring walks). “If I was anything, I’d be a Quaker. When you are in a landscape like this it does make me think of the Quaker saying, ‘There is that of God in everyone and also that of God in everything’.”

Like the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins?

“I adore Hopkins. But do you know the mystic Henry Vaughan? ‘I saw Eternity the other night / Like a Great Ring of pure and endless light …’” Energised, her slight Yorkshire accent strengthens: “Like a vast shadow moved; in which the world/ And all her train were hurled.’”

In the garden of Cintra’s Tea Room, she says how the success of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian surprised her. “I’d more or less given up and giving up took the anxiety out of it. I wrote a more lighthearted book than before. I no longer had this idea of being an author with a capital A.”

As we take Baulk Lane back up the valley and birdsong replaces traffic, she tells me that literary life has drawbacks: A Short History’s portrayal of two sisters increased the distance between Lewycka and hers. “It’s very difficult,” she says of the rift. “It’s a terrible curse being a friend or family member of an author because inevitably you draw on your own life, even without realising you are doing it.”

The sun is low as we enter The Warren wood, the air cool. We take stepping stones wide as kitchen tables across Hood Brook. “This is almost my favourite part of the walk. This and up here, these industrial remains.” She leads up stone steps to a long dark pond hemmed in by trees. “This is a magical spot. See how still it is. How it was used in industrial life I have no idea. I’m not sure anyone does.” Industrial decline haunts Lewycka’s new book too, but of a contemporary kind: “It’s gone, but in a much uglier way.”

Stanage Edge©Robert Moore

Stanage Edge, the gritstone ridge that forms the southern border of the Dark Peak

On we press, drystone walls once more replacing hedges. Stanage Edge looms ahead, still in sunshine. We climb the final stile.

“Nothing much else matters here. It’s those lovely lines of Wordsworth, ‘Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course / With rocks, and stones, and trees.’ That’s a good way to finish.”

‘Various Pets Alive and Dead’ is published by Fig Tree (£12.99)

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A walk with the FT No. 3: The ‘Dark Peak ’ route

Circular walk: 6 ½ miles

Grade: Medium

Main stages:

From Dennis Knoll car park, follow the track up Stanage Edge, fork right at the ‘Access Land’ sign and take the Packhorse Trail dogleg downhill. Continue through the woods.

Fork left before the car park, cross the lane to the footpath by the lavatories and follow it to North Lees Hall. Leave the Hall via driveway.

Cross Birley Lane and follow the footpath to Hathersage church. Leave through the graveyard, turn left on to Baulk Lane and into Hathersage (for refreshments).

To continue, take Baulk Lane (which becomes a footpath) back up the valley. Fork left by a tree stump, follow the footpath, cross Birley Lane and enter The Warren wood.

At footbridge, follow the Stanage sign. At the pillar with yellow arrows, turn left, cross the brook and pass the mill pond. Leave the wood, follow the footpath uphill, pass between two houses, turn right just past the right-hand house.

Keep uphill towards Dennis Knoll woods. Reaching them, take the gate then turn left for the car park.

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