Jeremy Clarke

Low Life | 10 January 2009

Suited and booted

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It was minus four degrees, dampness hung in the air, and visibility was down to about 120 yards. As I drove up on to Dartmoor with fog lamps on, wipers going, and heater and blower at full blast, I didn’t anticipate that this year’s New Year’s Day ‘Get Fit For 2009’ guided walk on Dartmoor would be as well attended as it was. But about 30 people were milling about in the grid-referenced car park at two minutes to noon as I pulled in.

It looked like an outdoor clothing and equipment fashion show. Labels of all the major outdoor clothing fashion houses were on conspicuous display, stitched on the outside of a dazzling array of waterproof and breathable jackets and leggings — GoLite, Marmot, Haglöfs, Montane, Berghaus and The North Face at the top end; Karrimor, Regatta and Peter Storm for those with slightly shorter purse strings. Some were holding themselves up with the latest aluminium, or possibly titanium, walking poles. The combined cost of all that ‘technical’ clothing must have run into several thousand pounds. None of it looked like it had been much used. You’d have thought we were about set off on a well-funded polar expedition.

I was wearing proper walking boots, brand new, bought in a mad moment in a pre-Christmas sale, horribly uncomfortable, deeply regretted. Apart from that, I didn’t have a stitch on that had been designed for the gullible hikers’ market and been sold with a tag booklet of pseudo-technical information. Over my vest I was wearing a short-sleeved cotton polo shirt, two woolly jumpers and a tatty old button-up leather jacket. My trousers were denim. On my head I had an outsized fleece tartan hat with long floppy rabbit’s ears.

I might have been taken for a walker, however, because I was carrying a map in a clear plastic map case, with carrying strap, bought in the same sale. Annoyingly, the carrying strap was a little short. I could just about get my head and one shoulder through, which anchored the map case solidly under my right armpit. As well as a map, in the map case I also had the handy compass that fell out of my cracker on Christmas Day.

The guide was standing at the back of her Land Rover accepting five-pound notes and handing out tickets. As I held out my fiver, her practised glance travelled down and up my body, lingering briefly on the rabbit’s ears. Clearly perturbed by what she saw, she said, ‘It’s going to be very cold up there. Will you be carrying waterproofs and warm clothes?’ I replied that my leather jacket was very windproof and I had a vest on. She handed over a ticket with obvious misgivings.

Just after midday, she shut and locked the back of the Land Rover and led us out of the car park and over a cattle grid. On the far side of the cattle grid, we picked our way across hoof prints preserved in mud frozen hard as stone. Leaning comfortably against the taut top strand of barbed-wire fence, a hatless man wearing a torn, mud-stained anorak was watching us pick our way over the frozen hoof prints with keen interest. He had the air of a local, and as I went by him I wished him a good afternoon. ‘What time do the carnival start?’ he said drily.

The guide led us up a steep hill densely planted with conifers. Near the top was a bleak open space bounded by a low, circular embankment enclosing the stone remains of some Bronze Age huts. We gathered around one of these huts and examined it, and those that had them snuggled their chins deeper into their Velcro-fastened, fleece-lined collar flaps, and we marvelled why anybody, no matter how anaesthetised by a small and primitive cerebral cortex, might feel impelled to scratch a living in such an inhospitable spot.

Further up the hill we arrived at a barbed wire fence and a rather high, narrow stile to negotiate. To the consternation of several, the guide was already on the other side, willing us to join her. Not one of us was under 50 years of age — those who walk for pleasure rarely are — and some of us were not as agile as we once were. A public-spirited woman held apart the two middle strands of barbed wire and invited us to pass between them, but there were few takers from the queue for the stile. When you’ve got £150 of Gore-Tex or Pertex on your back, you don’t want to mess with barbed wire. Or thorns, either, for that matter. In fact you’d be better off staying right away from the countryside altogether.

It took several minutes for all of us to pass over this stile. Sticks were dropped. Legs strong enough for walking were found badly wanting in the leg-over manoeuvre required by stiles. It was pathetic, quite frankly. But nobody could say that we didn’t look the part.