by John Morrison


72: Fools on the Hills

When town-dwellers find the prospect of ploughing through the pile of Sunday papers just too intimidating, and thoughts turn instead to a day in the country, the cry of "Let's mosey on down to Milltown" seems to have the required alliterative allure to propel couch potatoes off their sofas and into their cars. On sunny weekends the traffic snakes sedately towards Milltown. Visitors are an uncomplaining lot: an hour spent in a traffic jam - with radiators, frazzled parents and fidgety kids all ready to explode - seems to be an essential ingredient of a good day out.

It's one of life's minor mysteries why 'pay & display' car-parks are such an irresistible draw to jaded townies. They want to get away to the country - and Milltown is surrounded by some of the finest countryside in the South Pennines - yet no sooner have they reached a 'pay & display' car-park than their courage seems to fail them. Suddenly they become acutely aware of the umbilical cord that binds them, albeit invisibly, to their cars. Perhaps this is what makes people descend on Milltown in such numbers: whatever we've got by way of tourist attractions can be viewed without breaking sweat, or straying far from the comforting presence of the car.

For a lot of visitors to Milltown - raised on the free-market notion that 'you get what you pay for' - the success of a day out can be reckoned by totting up what they've spent. It's a simple calculation. Their pockets are empty by the time they head for home... ergo, they must have had a good time.

It's a feeling that our tourism officer is happy to foster. He's also doing his best to attract visitors out of season, and this year's theme is walking. Seasoned hikers need no persuading that Milltown is the ideal base from which to explore the South Pennine hills. But, almost by definition, they tend to be a self-reliant bunch. Instead of throwing their money about in Milltown, they come prepared for every eventuality - with rucksacks full of waterproofs, maps, blister cream, sandwiches and flasks of tea. Within ten minutes of arriving in Milltown, they are just specks disappearing over the first horizon.

For every accomplished hiker, however, there are dozens of people whose walking experience extends no further than a brief expedition down to the corner shop to buy a paper and twenty Bensons. People who have never knowingly crossed a contour line. And these are the very people who are currently being wooed by our tourism officer. It's a tactic fraught with pitfalls, as he is just beginning to appreciate.

They come ill-prepared for a change in the weather, or the ravages of hunger and thirst - assuming, unwisely, that there'll be a take-away over the crest of every hill. The only thing they carry is a little brochure about the newly inaugurated Milltown Way: a splendid ramble that includes some of the area's loveliest landscapes. The proud handiwork of our tourism officer, the brochure offers - in theory, at least - an easily-followed route.

So much for theory. A few disgruntled farmers have tossed the newly-erected waymarking signs over the nearest dry stone wall or - more sneakily - rotated the finger-posts through ninety degrees. The result is a lot of disorientated walkers staring uncomprehendingly at their brochures, holding them first one way and then the other. The only thing they are sure of is that they are hopelessly lost.

This is the moment that panic sets in. The hills that looked so inviting through the windscreen of a speeding car now seem gloomily oppressive. The trees creak and bend alarmingly in a stiffening wind. Storm clouds gather. Grouse take off with heart-stopping suddenness, their call a mocking "Go back, go back".

Groups of terrified walkers are emptying out their pockets. Some, fearing the worst, are scribbling notes to their loved ones: heartfelt things they wish they had said much earlier. Others are pooling their meagre resources, wondering how long they might survive by sharing a packet of Cheesy Wotsits and a can of Tizer. One or two are thinking the unthinkable: if the worst came to the worst, who would they eat first? And then someone cuts through the rising hysteria, says "would this be any use?", and produces a mobile phone. Any use? It's a life-saver...

Milltown's hill rescue service is manned by a dedicated crew of men who would give Chris Bonnington a run for his money in a Chris Bonnington look-alike contest. In the past they've mustered every few weeks to bring an injured walker down from the tops. But now the fells are full of nincompoops with mobile phones, who seem to regard the rescuers as a convenient extension of room service. They have only the vaguest notion of what constitutes an emergency, which is why the rescuers are taking an increasing number of calls requesting they deliver "a new pair of boot-laces" or "some milk for the tea, we forgot to bring any". Some callers don't have a clue where they are: "If we knew where we were, we wouldn't be ringing you, would we? We're lost, for God's sake. Send a helicopter; it's starting to rain..."

Now it's the turn of Milltown's tourism officer to get a phone-call - from the leader of the hill rescue service. Since our tourism officer doesn't drink in the Grievous Bodily Arms, he's not used to hearing the kind of language that's surging down the phone-line in a torrent of abuse. When he's able to get a word in edgeways he makes a solemn promise: there'll be no more brochures inviting ill-equipped townies to explore the landscapes around Milltown.

He's true to his word. From now on, the visitors to Milltown will be encouraged to resume more familar pursuits. Like browsing around every single craft-shop before acute tannin deprivation sets in. Then resting their weary legs in one of Milltown's tea-rooms. Anybody too knackered to lift a cup of tea to parched lips can have it intravenously. After a few platefuls of pikelets, tea-cakes, fruit-scones and - sensibly - some low-calorie cola to wash it all down with, our less adventurous visitors can justifiably feel they've enjoyed everything that Milltown has to offer.

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