A Moderate Moorland March

There are few things better than getting away from the desk and enjoying a ramble over the moors.

That’s what I’ve been doing this weekend. My brother Keith and I left on Friday to go for a little wander over Dartmoor, hoping that the weather would be kind to us. It certainly wasn’t last time. Then, last August, we found ourselves setting off in miserable grey, sheeting rain, and for the first time in several camping trips, it more or less remained miserable, grey and sheeting the whole damn three days we were walking.

Not so this weekend, I’m glad to say.

Why walk? There are many good reasons. To see views that people don’t normally find when they drive through the moors in a car; to find new, strange places; to get a little peace, away from the news of murder, mayhem and the lies of politicians (and the corruption of police and journalists); but also for me, personally, to get a little distance.

Last week, for instance, I had spent a lot of time listening to the excellent Eddie Mair on the BBC as he gradually forced answers from journalists, senior managers from News International, and other organs while they tried to wriggle themselves out of the hole into which The News of the World had dug them. Eddie Mair is always entertaining. He is like Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight, a dedicated, professional reporter, and the story which they were following, that of the catastrophic behaviour of Britain’s 168 year old paper, was worth following.

What have they been doing? Well, some years ago, one reporter and a private eye were sent to jail for hacking into the private telephones of members of the royal family. Can you imagine how a reporter would have been treated in America if they were found to have compromised the telephone systems of the President and first lady and their children? That’s what they did over here, and one journalist and one PI were convicted. No one else knew anything, they said.

It wasn’t true.

Over time, gradually, snippets of additional information have appeared. Early this year a number of celebrities accused the paper of hacking into their phones. Models, minor politicians, actors and actresses, all began to clamour for more facts.

They were told, rightly, that the police had investigated the possibility of offences, but that there was no evidence of more people being affected.

A senior bobby, “Yates of the Yard” went to parliament and was interviewed. He told the committee that all those affected had been told, that there were not too many people anyway, only about ten or twelve. Apparently, he already had evidence that many, many more were affected.

Now, we are learning that the police were themselves being less than honest. They knew damn well that there were many more crimes which had gone unpunished.

They knew that a police officer was being investigated and spied on by the paper because they suspected him of having an affair with a Woman PC. The paper was sort of right, too. The fruity couple probably were sleeping together. Since they had been married to each other for some years, that was scarcely surprising.

What was more important was the story that many police officers were being bribed routinely by the papers in order to guarantee the best stories getting to the papers. Probably not too surprising, although very, very illegal in Britain. Still, cops and journalists share a twilight existence where ends often justify means, I guess. But now the story appears to have broadened. It seems that there is evidence that a prolific “grass” to the papers was one of the police protection squad allocated to the Royal Family. He sold the private mobile phone numbers of members of the royal family so that reporters could hack into their phones and learn who had called whom and why.

Now, so it would seem, the last prime minister also believes his phone was hacked. The head of the group, Rebekah Brooks, let slip that she knew about the illness which the son of the PM suffered from – when only the PM, his wife, and the doctors knew. The papers must have hacked into his phone, he believes.

Let’s just think about that. In our country, the police have, allegedly, worked to cover up massive illegal phone hacking. They have derided those whose phones were broken into, suggesting the victims were paranoid, and tried to smother the facts of the case. Even when asked directly by our representatives in parliament, the chief officer involved in the case denied the allegations, preferring to suggest that only a tiny proportion of the victims had actually suffered from this massive intrusion into their privacy.

Originally it had seemed that the only people affected were the rich and famous. Well, I think that’s pretty bad, personally. Not because I am rich or famous – I’m neither – but because I think that anyone deserves to be able to hope that their phone calls are private. Call me old fashioned.

But now we’re seeing that it wasn’t just celebrities. It was members of the public: people who had lost family in terrorist attacks, family and friends of troops killed in the service of the country in Afghanistan and Iraq. Families of paedophile murder victims. What was the point of bugging or hacking into their phones? Clearly, only competitive advantage.

So the story that had enveloped the papers only is now smearing the police as well. As they say, even I couldn’t make it up.

That is one reason Keith and I try to escape at least twice a year. We run away from the news, from company politics, from sales figures, from surveying the fallow months before the next royalty payment.

Relaxing after ten miles

Oddly enough, even after knowing him for fifty years, it’s good to spend time with my brother. I’ve spent more time with him in each walk than in the thirty five years since he left home. He’s not a bad character overall, even though he is an actuary. Luckily he spent time with IBM (aka I’m Bloody Marvellous), and so had many of his rougher edges knocked off. He even has a rudimentary sense of humour (believe me, this is a big thing in an actuary).

On Friday we took a lift to Princetown in the middle of the moors, and then walked south, down to the Abbots’ Way, over to the old china clay works at Redlake Pit, along an old disused tramway, and down to Stall Moor.

A sleep down there, so Keith could enjoy his new Exped bed (he had to buy it after listening to me wax lyrical about mine for so many years) and we both enjoyed our new camping chairs, too. When you’ve walked ten miles or so with nearly twenty kilos on your back, a comfy chair counts for a lot. These things are amazing.

The view from my tent on Saturday morning

Saturday we went along to study the Erme Pits, an old mine working, and then up north, over the top of a couple of hills to Childe’s Tomb. This is a cross in the middle of a desolate part of the moors where a man died in the snow. A grim death for a man, out in the middle of nowhere. It’s said that in a desperate attempt to save himself, he killed his horse and tried to keep himself warm by wrapping himself in the horse’s skin. His frozen body was found a few days later.

From there we returned up via Bellever to Postbridge, and thence to our favourite campsite, which had been invaded by flaming foreigners. Probably came from Exeter, or even further afield. Doesn’t matter where they came from, they were trespassing on our turf. We had to go a little further to find a fresh site, grumbling all the way as middle-aged old gits will.

Which wasn’t so easy, since I’d managed to stumble earlier, and had wrenched my knee. An injury which I bore with my usual fortitude …

Yes, we got away from the news, and we saw plenty of good scenery, as well as seeing a lot of the industrial archeology of the moors.

And for me, that was a lot of the point. It was a research trip for me, reminding me how people used to travel, what the landscape was like to a medieval traveller, and giving me a new perspective for the stories I am engaged upon right now. In moments of walking, I find my mind can wander freely over several different aspects of my plots. I can revisit situations, characters, scenes, and give them a stronger kick than I would get while just sitting at my desk.

Not only that, there is no better way than walking over a medieval landscape for putting you back in the shoes of our ancestors. Only by experiencing the grim reality of the weather, the harsh landscape, let alone live on it, can a writer get to grips with the sort of people who used to live there.

So now, back at my desk, the stories are working much better already.

Actually, I wonder if it’s just because of escaping from the news and the relentless invasion of my thoughts by Eddie Mair and Radio 4.

I don’t care. Because there is one other reason for walking. My brother and I are of an age now where we probably don’t have too many more years of being able to walk for days at a time. We’re both growing long in the tooth.

So we’ll carry on for as long as we can.

6 Responses to “A Moderate Moorland March”
  1. Carole Schultz says:

    Thank you, Mike, for a wonderfully entertaining article. A great read, both for the informative news re the hacking scandal, and your walk on the moors with your brother. And not forgetting the photos, especially that of Childe’s Tomb. Thank you again.


  2. Karen Bice says:

    Great post, Mike! Can you provide a description of the encircled cross photo?


    • Hah! The joy of working with BlogPress and an iPad! There was originally a caption that said, correctly, that this little cross in the middle of nowhere was Childe’s Tomb – but somehow I’ve scrubbed the caption! Will try to fix. Thanks for pointing it out, Karen!


  3. Thanks for the blog. I fully understand the desire to break free from all communication with the modern world. Just a day or so in the countryside is all one needs to bring a fresh perspective and a realisation that there is still so much to be admired in our countryside.
    Personally I have never walked the moors. I am a Peak District man myself, but after reading this I think I may just plan a trip to the West Country.


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