Trilobite Ice Cream
In the Peak District Visitor’s Centre, at the foot of Kinder Scout with its flannel of runtish rock across its brow, there is a moulded plastic map, the shale, tracks, scarps and peaks coloured in such dingey hues that it looks as if the victim of a steam-rolling has been lain out on a table built expressly for their shape.
It has the texture of traumatised skin, and colours that might once have been siloed blood and jaundice and minor moles of a white body. There are greens in the cracks and seams where elbows and armpits have been mangled. It looks disgusting.
But then you peer in closer, you prise out the names. Tigwizzle. Mam Tor. Castleton and Edale and Hope, and from there tiny signposts to Manchester, Sheffield and Derby. On the road atlas which we brought with us, this area of England is satisfyingly free of roads. You imagine that it is a portion of the land which has not been corsetted yet, and from every cave and crack will come a resounding, grunting pleasure, like a tight pair of trousers being unzipped, ever so slightly, under the table.
But then, you come actually here, and you see the warnings that are not contained on that horrible map.
And right at the foot of this victim of machinery and lottery money is a crusty little divot, a crack that has not been quite ironed out, and which provides the egress for all the leaking fluids of Britain’s first National Park. That spigot is Dovedale, and when you drive here over the kahuna fields, it is far more beautiful than the stained crevice that represents it.
If you drive north from Birmingham or London, Dovedale, and the nearby village of Ilam, are some of the first reassurances that things will become a little more interesting, geographically. The grass is always lush when it does not have altitude to contend with, and Ilam is the last homely house of domestic angles and easy slopes. The village is one of the younger attractions of the area, having only been laid down in Saxon times, and the church, which we did not visit, is rumoured (because to me it is only a rumour) of a acid-nibbled font necklaced with men and wyrms, ragnaroking in its darkness. The rest of the village is one of these wonderful lightning-utopias erected with one man’s bizarre vision, all Swiss-style chalets and tight gardens. The man’s palace is now a youth hostel.
The Dove lives quite happily in a gully next to the village; this area is limestone, of course, a rock we are blessed with in abundance. The land in which we bicker about the sun and our feet was once a tropical reef at the bed of a sea a few thousand feet deep. Unlike up on Kinder Scout, where the stone only tolerates the water by the subclause gravity imposes upon it, here there is a deep unzipping. If you let me, and accept that water is wily, then you can accept that limestone is stupid, and believes what water says about love, and lets it into its delicate, complicated clothing.
And the hooks and eyeholes and clasps and zips do not do up again so easily. The limestone is riven open for all of us.
As you walk upriver, closer to the last skimpy layer of earth, you come across a hill. It is called Thorpe Cloud, after the nearby Viking exclave of Thorpe, and its name is truer than you think. Cloud comes from clud, meaning hill, and that heavy umph that it implies is truer, and I prefer it. I can never imagine this hill floating away, full of water. It will sit here forever, I think.
If you walk up its slopes, coiffured into matts by sheep, at the summit there is a little depression, just big enough for two or three people to lie down. You can see Ilam in the distance, and the frustrating ratios of people hanggliding versus people dragging hangliders back up to the tops of the nearby peaks. You could eat leftover curry there, like we did, and spoil a Gothic moment for an older man.
At some point you would look down. The river draws the eye, like something glazed.
At the foot of Thorpe Cloud the Dove enters the dale. There are a set of stepping stones here, where like me you might fall in, your jacket puffing up like a spatchcocked cat, and you might start to worry about how quickly you can get your drowned phone into a bowl of rice.
It is a long walk down from Thorpe Cloud to the river, and as you go there is more and more poverty to the vegetation; the heather grows less thickly, its suburbs relegated to plants such as lily-of-the-valley, saxifrage, helleborine and mountain everlasting. Once you reach the flat and the riverbank the path goes flat and broad, transfixed through England’s pelvis. As you wander there are rock formations that have the same names such things have everywhere; Dovedale Castle, Lover’s Leap. The trees clinging to their sides are trimmed back by the National Trust every year, to keep the shafts proud. Precious dribbles slalom the slopes, feeding into the main flow, and here and there are caverns where the sand boils and the water seems sugar-seasoned.
When water smarmed its way in here, it also convinced the land to get its ears pierced, and how those holes have stretched. We climbed up a transmogrified waterfall of boulders to reach the Dove Holes, through a victory arch the precipitation left. In the past they were inhabited by paleolithic scientists and Roman shepherds, but now just birds, angry and laxative. The water stagnates and atrophies, wincing at every little drop from the ceiling above. Somebody had lit fires there.
I have been to Dovedale several times, but never at the height of summer, and so I will always remember the water as, to put it mildly, bastard-cold. I have never seen the ash trees that now coral the slopes, full of those creatures that once sieved this path for phytoplankton, in anything other than a steely baldness. And given the baldness of that map so far north, shorn of all its reference, I think that this is how it should be. We sat on the riverbank by the car and ate ice cream, and as it sparked inside my teeth I extrapolated it up and up, into the sky, making it three miles thick and advancing south.
This is the gate to the interesting, and it is so much better seen from the very pit of it.
My teeth stopped hurting after a while, and we drove south again, into a boredom.