Twenty years ago this month I became chief executive of the Dartmoor Preservation Association. And I did the sensible thing and immediately went off to the Lakes and Scotland for a month’s hillwalking.
Good idea, for a month in the wilds helped me to reflect on the tasks ahead, protecting Dartmoor from so many threats.
But that’s by the way, for I want to think back to that month of hillwalking, rather than the contentious battles on Dartmoor – where you tend to spend more time fighting the people who’re supposed to be on your side than any single enemy.
A few days before setting off to the wilds, I was crossing a very low hedge near Buckfast, when I fell, my chest crashing into a tree root. I cracked a couple of ribs. In agony then, every breath sending in waves of pain – and trying not to breathe very much for that reason.
Now, sensible individuals would take to their beds, or at least sit quietly in a darkened room. I’m neither, so headed north as planned. I hadn’t been to the Lakes or Scotland since I was about twelve, and was anxious to climb some of the mountains that had intrigued me then.
Four days after cracking my ribs I found myself atop Coniston Old Man, then doing that lovely circuit of Brim Fell, Swirl Howe, Grey Carrs and Wetherlam. And pretty good I felt too, at a peak of fitness, the breathing pains ignored. A beautiful day too. I can still feel the warmth of that ancient sunlight.
A day or two later I was in Argyll, climbing the two great peaks of Ben Cruachan and the rounding ridge beyond. A good clear day until the last couple of hundred feet, when I found myself up in the cloud. A lost little world of grey on the narrow summit. Then wanderings around Glencoe, as well as discovering the pleasant hills around the back of Oban, with the old Connel Coach Road and the Black Lochs of Kilvaree.
Then to Perthshire: Ribs forgotten, to the lovely top of Ben Vrackie and the hills of the Atholl deer forest, and long rambles out from Inverness, before returning for another week in the Lakes. Mountains that are now so familiar to me explored for the first time. Evenings in cottages and bed and breakfasts reading Andrew Greig for the first time every evening before the pleasant tiredness that comes after hard exercise overtook me.
A magical time, which set the pattern for the years to come. Each June, Dartmoor had to do without me while I spent the month climbing top after top in the Lake District and the Highlands. Eventually, I extended my range to include the beautiful little hills of the Scottish borders – the countryside of John Buchan.
Some of these adventures I wrote up in my book Wayfarer’s Dole. More just live in ancient sunlight and my memories.
Twenty years have flown by, but the thoughts of those mountains and moorlands live on in my mind. I can’t believe that the years have sped by so swiftly.