Where the Ground Can Swallow You Whole

Where the Ground Can Swallow You Whole October 14, 2017

Draw a high diagonal across Britain from Cardiff on the Welsh coast up to the Yorkshire coast in the east and you’ve defined two very different zones of Britain: mild, fertile lowlands to the south and east, rugged highlands to the north and west.

Like all generalizations, these two zones include no exceptions whatsoever. Every square inch of the land east and south of that line is milkmaids and maypoles, khaki-colored ale in well-lighted pubs. Roughly 94% of the population are Hugh Grant. To the west and north, every inch of ground is pinnacle or chasm, sparsely populated by angry, uncontrollable Groundskeeper Willies and the sheep who love them. The beer is black, the paths three-dimensional. South is soft. North is hard.

Own research.

It was easy to forget about death on the warm, rolling Cotswold Way. Head north, as I did for the Coast to Coast Walk, and death starts clearing its throat.

Not that it’s obvious. The Coast to Coast is this stunning 12-day hike through some of the most jaw-dropping landscapes in Britain. And although this was the hike in which I flirted most directly with getting myself killed — we’ll get there — death on the Coast to Coast mostly shows itself in the color of the soil.

At one point on the Walk I came to a muddy pass between two stone outcroppings. The pass was covered in two strips of mud, side by side, like carpet swatches, milk chocolate and fudge. With stone walls on either side, I would have to cross on one strip or the other. The milk chocolate side looked a little wet, so I stepped on the dry-looking fudge — and promptly lost sight of my boot.

It was a peat hole.

Peat is a kind of death concentrate, an acidy soil made of decomposed organic matter. It’s all over northern England and Scotland. You can cut it, dry it, and burn it for fuel. Or if you’re unlucky, it can swallow you whole.

This little spot wasn’t going to do me in, but I was interested in my boot and all the things it had promised to do for me between here and Patterdale. As I struggled to free myself, two nimble little shites approached from behind, all Lycra and hiking poles, gave me not so much as a “moh-ning,” and speedwalked straight through the light-colored mud with neither pause nor problem.


With difficulty and a loud shhhhhhTHHHKWOP, I managed to pull foot and boot out of the peat hole as one, which is the trick. Looking up the path, I realized that the owners of those receding Lycra cheeks had known instantly that the lighter-colored mud was passable. Sure, I’d eliminated the other option for them, but they hadn’t even paused before the milk chocolate side, while I had paused, then rejected it in favor of quicksand.

I had to master this. In that moment, the Suck Factor was born.

The Suck Factor measures the soundness of a stepping surface on a scale of zero to 100. The Queen experiences a Suck Factor of zero each morning when she steps out of bed onto marble, while 100 describes the experience of any non-Messiah trying to sprint across the Channel. The milk-chocolate mud I had shunned was actually about SF20 – you could stomp on it, really – while the dark bog that had looked like a dance floor to me was SF60.

The path dipped onto the grassy slope of the vale itself, an area replete with huge peat scars, wide wounds of black in the red and green heather where gravity had rent the soil apart, revealing the acidy bog below. At one point the trail came to a vein of peat a good fifty feet across, then appeared again on the other side.

Time to assign a Suck Factor.

Tollund Man, a 'bog body' found in what is now Denmark
Tollund Man, a preserved ‘bog body’ found in what is now Denmark, dated to the 4th c. BCE.

Clearly everyone before me had crossed it, since there was no easy way around. I toe-tested the first foot or two, got a reading of about SF15, and put my weight on it. It held firm. Observation, hypothesis, testing, conclusion. Another step…still okay. I would science my way across.

Halfway in, the value rose to SF35, which gets you counting your shoes, let me tell you. Lindow Man (not his real name) attempted to cross a peat bog 70 miles from here without science and ended up preserved by the humic acids in the bog for 2,000 years, only to get whacked in half by a peat-cutting machine. Step in a suck factor of 70 and, I don’t care what your name is, you’re Pete Moss.

I came through that vein intact and crossed a slight crest. A hundred feet ahead was a proper English couple, he in tweed cap and suspendies. They descended behind another small crest in the path. I could hear that they’d stopped right on the other side to assess a dodgy-looking peat crossing. I stopped short of the crest and eavesdropped on a conversation that could have been lifted from Pride and Prejudice:

He: A bit marshy, this.

She: Quite so. What do you suggest?

He: There don’t seem to be any exceptional options.

She: Perhaps not exceptional. What do you think best, then?

He: Not sure there appears to be a best. [Pause.] Nor a worst, come to that.

She: Into the breach then, is it?

He: So it appears. Right then, on we go!

By the time I was over the crest myself, there was nothing visible but their caps, which provided a nice SF10 support for my crossing.


Map and gradient images fair use via parody and transformation.
Image of Tollund Man by Sven Rosborn – Public Domain.

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