RED flags flying along the B6276 between Brough and Middleton-in-Teesdale. Heavy rattle of gunfire from somewhere behind Helbeck Fell. And it’s not the pop-pop of a shooting party. It’s proper gunfire. Machine-guns. Heavy machine-guns.
Thudda-thudda-thudda-thudda. Thudda-thud. Thudda-thudda-thudda.
Across the fells, amid the bogs and the heather of the Warcop range, young feet that have never worn anything tougher than trainers are crunching through peat mires in stout boots. Boys from the backstreets of Middlesbough, the estates of East Kilbride, the suburbs of Birmingham and the countless crescents, closes and cul-de-sacs of Britain are training to fight in Afghanistan. I can’t see them but I can hear them. The incessant cracking of automatic weapons. The sporadic thudda-thudda-thud of the heavy machine-guns.
Some of those lads might, under different circumstances, have gone to university or found a job in Morrisons. But they chose instead to fight for something in which they believe. And they’re up there now, in the wide and pitiless wastes of the northern Pennines with the September sun beating down on their necks, waiting for Johnny Taliban to leap out from behind a lump of carboniferous limestone and charge at them through the hare’s tail cotton grass.
Thudda-thudda-thudda-thud. Crack. Crack. Thudda-thudda-thudda . . .
I’m running along the track to Close House Mine, where barytes has been extracted from a whopping great opencast in the side of Mickle Fell. After a couple of miles I come to a gate across the track and lots of notices advising me not to proceed further. So I veer to the left and head instead for the upper slopes of Mickle Fell Brocks along one of those newly-bulldozed estate tracks – which I thought had been banned under recent legislation. Must have misread that article.
Struggling, sweating, panting, aching, I stand to the side of the track after another mile or so while a convoy of off-road vehicles rattles down from the heights. It’s not the Army, although a glance at the chunky 4x4s and military-style wagons crunching past might have led a casual observer to arrive at that conclusion. It’s a grouse-shooting party. Growling trucks full of beaters and laughing lads hanging off the back; shiny Japanese behemoths comfortably laden with happy men wearing ties and subtle tweeds.
I stand there smiling in the dust their chunky tyres grind into the pure Pennine air, and give each vehicle a wave as it passes. And they all wave back. Every one of them. The drivers; the young beaters clinging to the wagons; the stout chaps with their polished guns. They all wave. Some cheerily, some just merely acknowledging my gesture.
I slog on, my golden shoes biting the track, and arrive at the trig point on Mickle Fell – height 758 metres (2,486ft) – thinking about those rich blokes shooting grouse in the safety of their native land, and the young soldiers across the fell who know – only too well – that soon they’ll be shooting at something that shoots back.
Thudda-thudda-thud. Thudda-thud. Crack. Thud. Thud.
And I think about a Royal Marine I met in hospital in Northallerton a couple of years ago when I was having an operation on my shins. We were the only two people on the ward. The one thing we had in common was running. So that’s all we talked about – running, running, running. Then at about 8pm they wheeled him out to another ward, leaving me alone. As his bed glided past mine, he raised himself up on an elbow and saluted me.
You. You reading these words on your computer screen. Have you any idea what it feels like to be saluted by a Royal Marine? It was one of the most humbling moments of my life. Those few seconds will live with me for ever.
And far, far below me, the grouse shooters are returning to their comfortable retreats for a comfortable dinner. Leave your guns by the door, chaps, and pass the port. No roadside bombs in Teesdale, thank God. No suicide bombers. But plenty of everything, and lots of whisky to wash it down.
And thud-thudda-thud – the machine-guns continue as the September sun warms the moorland air. Beyond the horizon, there are young men prepared to give their lives for you – and for me. They are prepared to die to protect our way of life. They are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for the rich men in tweeds; the single mothers with their happy children; the politicians, the ill and the unemployed; the strangers they pass in the street; the fortunate and the unfortunate; the fit, the dying, the couldn’t-care–less; the babies yet to be born and the old men who have been there themselves and wear their medals with pride.
I stand on the summit of Mickle Fell beneath the widest of skies and give them an unheard round of applause. I give them an unseen salute and I shed a secret tear.