For a year, maybe longer, I saw a tower in my dreams, again and again, looming over a giant rock face, in the mist. I'd seen it many times in reality too but it wasn't until I went walking in Derbyshire with my parents back in March that I realised what it was: Crich Memorial Tower, better known to locals as Crich Stand, built in 1923 in remembrance of members of the Sherwood Foresters regiment who died in WWI on the site of at least two other previous towers, which were allegedly even more ominous, although that hardly seems impossible. It hovers above the three or four valleys around, like a vision from the climax of the most darkly brilliant fantasy novel you've never read. It has a way of keeping the atmosphere eerie at the foot of the Peak District, even on the most touristy and balmy of early autumn days, which today definitely is. How could my comatose self have not recognised it? I lived here as a child.
Crich and the area to its immediate North West wasn't actually where I lived; it just felt like it sometimes. My parents couldn't have afforded a house in this area during my childhood, but they did their best to transpose our lives here, making the short drive over for picnics and walks and camping weekends. Our actual house was only a few valleys away, over in flatter, grittier DH Lawrence country: a place of spoil heaps and plentiful pebbledash where there always seemed to be - and still seems to be, when I drive through it today - a cement mixer in every other garden. There are hills in this landscape too but most of them are man made from waste rock. On my way through Codnor, the town that signals the return to "my" area, I notice that Codnor Pets And Aquatics, where I bought my first pet fish, is still there, but now also sells air rifles, pistols, crossbows and knives. I can't imagine many situations when I'd want to buy a gun and some fish at the same time. If they sold barrels too it might at least make a bit more sense.
It is important not to write an area like this off, though. It has always had its magic, although it tends to keep it well hidden. Later, under the shadow of a spoil heap, across the road from a formidable stack of tyres in the often feared town of Langley Mill, I have my most satisfying record shopping experience of the year in a second vinyl warehouse that feels almost as dreamlike as Crich Stand itself. It is not the fault of Eastwood and Langley Mill and Alfreton that they got the tyre stacks, endless chippies and bleak-looking pubs. Tyre stacks, chippies and bleak-looking pubs have to go somewhere and surely not even the most marauding environmental charlatan would want to scatter them over the other side of the Crich divide: it would be like fly tipping in Middle Earth.
I would far rather be stranded near Cromford or Matlock or Crich alone on a dark night than Eastwood or Brinsley or Langley Mill any day, but it is the former area that provides the most haunting images from my past: the Stand, the piranhas I used to go and see at Tansley Garden Centre with my dad - zombie fish from another planet - and the dark broken towers of Wingfield Manor, which still allegedly serves as a handy weekend place for Ann Boleyn's ghost. I must have pressed my love for this area down deep inside me, as a moaning teenager, still being made to walk around it when all he actually wanted to was play sport, any sport, do anything energetic apart from this tedious, aimless, nonsensical walking, then pressed harder later, driving through it on the way to gigs in Manchester and Sheffield. I know that, underneath my brief outward belief as a twenty year-old that all interesting life was to be found in cities, I was still enraptured by the craggy banked Via Gellia as it chicaned its way up towards Buxton, with its out of service garden cable cars and take-no-shit sheep.
This landscape is probably partly responsible for my love of my current home area, in the Deep South West, since in so many ways it's just Devon in a different jacket. It smells different to Devon, though: more of old coal and smelting, a different kind of stone ambience. Also, on a sunny Saturday the sunken green lanes here are much busier than those on the fringes of Dartmoor: motorways for feet. How could it not be busy? If The Peak District is a mounted painting, the cities are situated like hastily placed drawing pins at the edges of the mount. It is Middle Britain's most convenient means of rural escape. Best not to complain about the occasionally claustrophobic nature of its footpaths. Best to instead celebrate how beautiful the place remains, despite our more cramped, mobile way of life. After all, people making claims that the Derwent Valley has lost its tranquility is nothing new. In JB Firth's Highways And Byways book on Derbyshire from 1905, he laments the vulgarisation of the area around Matlock Bath: its litter, and its transformation into a "tripper's Paradise" populated by descending hordes of "callous rowdies" from the conurbations that ring it.
If you're coming from a south easterly direction, as I almost always was, the really beautiful stretch starts at Ambergate: the walled A6 snakes alongside the Derwent and soon, as you pass Matlock and Darley Dale, you're given the slight impression that Real Derbyshire is just a long strip of stone dwellings and shops heading north. Those hills look like fairly straightforward walls of green from the road but get right up in their folds and you could keep finding hidden treasures for days. Examples of a few I find in under three hours on my circular walk from Cromford include:
A fresh windfall of apples from an overhanging tree on a quiet mossy lane
The Crich Tramway Museum
A cat sitting in a parking space marked "PRIVATE", looking unimpeachably smug about it
The Black Rocks and the astonishing views from them
The most pristine and sociable horse I have met since 2007
My walk ends at Scarthin Books, where I buy a bag full of local history books I probably will never find time to read. Yesterday, on a misty drive to play golf near Buxton with my friend Seventies Pat, I'd crested the hill near Tansley and sun had burst through the mist in the valley ahead in a way I doubt I will ever forget. It seemed less like the light was coming from above and more than it was pulsating from something powerful at the valley's centre, possibly in the exact spot where Scarthin is located. You certainly wouldn't put it past the shop to give off such a powerful glow, such is its status as a cultural beacon. I remember Scarthin from my childhood as a magical warren of literature a person could lose an entire day in but so often magical things from your childhood that you return to are either smaller than you remember or corrupted by progress. Today, Scarthin is neither. Never have I seen books sectioned and shelved with more love, care and imagination outside someone's actual house. Never have I heard staff at a cafe discussing their own homemade soup with more genuine excitement, let alone in a cafe inside a frigging bookshop.
Read my new book.
Drop Scarthin Books a line via their website if you'd like to reserve a ticket for my talk there on November 18th (starts 7pm).