16th March 2007
I‘ve just walked to the top of the hill, to admire and sketch the view and to think again about how I came to be here.
It was a damp, misty November afternoon three and a half years ago. We had driven up into the hills from the flatness of the Cheshire plains. Down there the lank grey blanket was soul-crushing while up here, where at every twist of the road sheep loomed murkily out of the grassy bogs, it was mysteriously poetic. Here there was a sense of place my southern eyes thought no longer existed and a timelessness which remained with me long after our return to London. We drove over hill and dale, through attractive villages of grey stone houses – less dark and brooding than Cornwall or Yorkshire – until we reached the one that was to become our home. I will never forget driving down the lane that leads from the main road: golf course on the left, reservoir on the right, small fields with the ubiquitous sheep, then just before the stone railway bridge a small white sign with a rather grand emblem of two prancing stags welcoming us to this particular little village in the High Peak. Even to this day, whenever we pass it, that sign reminds us of that brief, but key, moment when we wondered whether our lives were indeed going to move in this unexpected direction. I wanted to like what we had come to see – and the signs were good so far – but at the same time I feared the implications. All that upheaval. Starting again.
We drove on into the village, past an attractive looking pub, right in the centre where three lanes meet. We took a guess as to which lane we were meant to be taking. Winding our way up the hill, with all the trepidation you have when you’ve come a long way to look at a prospective house, we soon found ourselves swinging into the courtyard of a handsome old stone house. I was immediately overwhelmed by a feeling that I was coming home despite the fact that I was actually so far from everything that was familiar to me. The feeling pervaded throughout that visit. Despite not having a stick of furniture in it, this stern old maiden of a building had a gentle, welcoming spirit which belied its austere facades. It was generous in its proportions yet still embraced you warmly. The garden was beautiful – three soft mossy lawns stretching in tiers up the hillside, narrowing at the top into an area of longer grass and fruit trees. Here too a neglected vegetable patch, a greenhouse and a small wooden gate into the field above. A spring popped out of the ground and babbled and gossiped its watery way down through a wooded dell which edged the more formal garden. I was told there were snowdrops in Winter, bluebells in Spring. There was ivy, holly, elder, oak, sycamore, laurel, copper beech, and tall scots pines – not indigenous, but nonetheless doing a good job of protecting the garden from the prevailing winds. A huge metal bell dating from 1912 (one of my favourite periods) hung on the wall outside the potting shed. A stone trough collected and re-distributed water from another hidden spring. The dry stone walls wore jackets of green moss, over which, in one direction, the reservoir could be glimpsed beyond assorted trees and descending fields where hens pecked amongst the sheep and cows; in the other direction was the drama of the escarpment which encloses the valley in a bear-like hug. I was hooked. It was magical and such was it’s atmosphere that it was no surprise to learn that there had been some form of dwelling on this sight since the 13th century, possibly a hermitage.
And so it was that we found the High Peak. But now a sharp breeze has whipped itself up and I realise, here on my hilltop, that I am very cold. I take in one last sweep of the green folds and ridges, the spots of sunlight sweeping across a field below, illuminating pockets of creamy white sheep in it path. Chapel-en-le-Frith lies in the distance, beyond the village, its newly built secondary school standing starkly out amongst the older grey stone terraces. The upper moorlands of the Dark Peak lie broodingly behind. Blue skies have turned to grey and there is a hint of rain in the air. Time to get back to the warm embrace of the home I love so much.