I’ve done this, oh it must be thirty times now, and it still scares me as much as the first. But I could do this over and over.
The steep staircase carved into the cliff face is uneven, hard going and takes ages, but the difficult climb is worth it. I love it on Blerrow Peak. The view is stunning. From up here, you can see far beyond the Daxonshire border into the surrounding counties. On a sunny day you can see the mountains to the west and at dusk, you can just about make out a glint of gold from the distant ocean as the sun continues its endless course to the west. Even electricity pylons, disappearing off into the distance like a phalanx of metal obelisks, hold an unusual beauty as the sun casts long skeletal shadows through their wire frames.
You can clearly see the old railway line which encircles all of Badgers Crossing. In the north a branch line enters the tunnel through Graveling Hill, making the whole thing look like a noose, ready to tighten around the town’s fragile neck. The track is so overgrown that at ground level you’d hardly even know it was there. It has been out of service for twenty years or more now but people still talk about it.
Everyone around here knows about the train crash back in the twenties. Thanks to a particularly thick fog the driver only saw a guard going about his duties near the tunnel mouth at the last minute. He braked too hard and too late. The train derailed and the guard was killed. At school we used to tell each other that his spirit still lingers there, ready to claim the foolish souls of anyone who dares to trespass on the tracks. A friend once told me that his cousin knew the two brothers who were hit and killed by a train but everyone knows that it was really The Conductor that got them. I’ve heard that those stories are still going around the schoolyard today.
But there hasn’t been a train come through town since the works closed down. Aside from the birdsong and the rustling of small creatures in the undergrowth, the only thing you could hear from this vantage point was the coming and going of the trains. But now it’s almost silent. No birds, no insects, nothing apart from the low, constant, almost song-like whisper of the power lines hanging like deadly webs between the pylons. I find that hum peaceful and it helps me get in the right frame of mind to jump.
I’ve jumped from cliffs, radio masts and skyscrapers all over the world. Once I even planned to do it from the Eiffel Tower but the security guards stopped me as I was strapping on my chute. That little escapade earned me a 2000₣ fine, a night in a Parisian jail cell and a lifetime ban to the tower. There are plenty of other well-known jumping hotspots I’ve yet to try, like El Capitan or Burj Khalifa, but I’m always drawn back here.
Nobody comes up here anymore. There’s a sign saying “No Base Jumping by order of the Council”. The faded blue paint is peeling away, exposing damp, rotted wood beneath. I don’t exactly remember how long it’s been here, I just remember it appearing here one day with no explanation. Folk used to ignore the sign and carry on jumping at first but the numbers dwindled away pretty soon after. I don’t really understand why – I’ve never noticed it but I’ve heard other jumpers saying something about it always being cold here now, even in the summer. I haven’t noticed it but I also don’t particularly care as I have the place to myself.
Before the sign went up people would come from all over the country to jump. It’s not as high as Cheddar Gorge, but at three hundred and fifty-nine feet it’s much taller than Malham Cove and a great little spot for experienced jumpers. The outcropping extending over near vertical cliff provides for a clean descent with no obstacles and a smooth landing is all but guaranteed by the open field surrounded by ancient, silver trees. Broccton-Under-Edge Country Park Playing Field is its official name but the locals refer to it as Willow Circle.
With my chute and helmet checked and double-checked, I turn my face to the escarpment. The gentle breeze on my cheeks tells me that wind is nothing to worry about today. I survey the outcropping for loose rocks or leaves. Nothing there to trip me on my approach. I take a few steps back, suck in a deep breath and begin my run very carefully! A slip up here could be fatal. As I near the edge I feel that familiar tremble as the adrenaline begins to course through my veins.
I push off from the edge. The adrenaline rush and my heightened senses make time seem to slow down. It only takes five seconds to fall three hundred and sixty feet and the minimum altitude to safely deploy the pilot is about one hundred and twenty feet. That’s three and a half seconds of freefall, four if I want to cut it fine – which I always do!
As I fling myself forward I begin counting and running through the checklist in my head.
One: Although Willow Circle tends to be deserted it’s good practice to stick with a predetermined landing spot so I scout the meadow for a suitable area.
One and a half: There. Perfect. That area of shorter grass, just behind the wildflowers. That’s where I’m going to land. I begin to turn my body in that direction while taking the pilot release cord in my hand. I won’t need to pull it just yet. The two seconds until I do will feel like minutes.
Two: It’s only one and a half seconds until I pull the pilot cord but I can take the time to relax a little to enjoy the uprush of wind and the sensation of speed. I take up the slack on the cord and feel the tension before it deploys.
Two and a half: Wait. What’s that? No! There’s a person down there! A girl walking across the clearing! She’s right where I’m planning to land! I need to find a new spot quick. I only have…
Three: Oh no.
How long do I have left?
Three and a half: I still haven’t located a new spot and I’ve totally lost count. I’m shouting and waving at the girl below to look out above her but it’s no good. I don’t think she can hear me. I’m pulling anyway.
Four: I tug hard on the chute and hear the whistle of the bridle as the pilot pulls tight followed by the loud flapping of fabric and the pop of the main chute filling with air. What am I at now? Three seconds? Four? I hope not. That’s probably under a hundred feet and it will be difficult to control the landing.
Four and a half: The rapid deceleration is an instant relief. I seek out the interloper and am alarmed to see that I’m still heading straight for her. she’s now hunkered down, placing something at the base of a tree. What is she doing? Never mind that! Concentrate!
Five: If this had gone to plan I would have drifted slowly down to a gentle landing on my feet but now I’m still fifteen feet or so off the ground and, due to pulling hard on the toggles, am travelling almost horizontally. It’s too fast to run when I land so I’ll have to be ready to roll. Just as I brace myself for hitting the ground the girl stands up and turns around.
Jane? What is my sister doing out here? She knows I’m jumping today so would never come out here. I’m going to hit her! I’m shouting as loud as I can but she’s oblivious. I pull the toggles again with all of my might and feel a small hint of blessed lift. I hoist my knees up to my chest, ready to roll.
Six: I’ve travelled too close to the edge of the clearing. I look forward again. The last thing I see as I sail over Jane’s head with inches to spare is the willow tree she was crouched by, welcoming me into its embrace with outstretched branches. Everything goes white.
And then black.
I can’t believe it when I open my eyes. I thought I was a goner for sure. I don’t feel any pain as I sit up. I check for broken bones and bleeding. None. I’m fine. I risk standing, which I manage with ease. Better than fine. I feel great. I thought I’d hit that tree but I must have fainted and had a very lucky landing.
Where’s Jane? I look around for her. There’s no sign but there’s something at the base of this tree she was crouched at. Yes – that’s right, she was putting something down there. I pull some overgrown weeds aside but all I can see is a bit of plastic wrapping which looks like it once held an old bunch of flowers. It’s obviously been here some time as the flowerheads have rotted away completely and the stalks are bent and broken. I pull more of the weeds away and yelp as a family of woodlice scuttle away from their disturbed hiding place.
There’s a card in here. It’s damp and mottled with black mould but I can just about make out some of the handwritten messages. “Ten years”, “never forgotten” and “Love you”.
Who is this for? I only saw her this morning and she seemed as happy as always.
Then I notice that there is something else leaning up against the other side of the trunk. I move around the tree to investigate. It’s my chute, all packed up as neat and tidy as I like it. This is weird. Did Jane do this? I’ll have to ask her about it when I get home later.
Glad to be alive, I savour the warmth on my face as I turn it upwards towards the sun. Through the branches of the willow, I see the outcropping from where I leapt and the rotting blue sign. With a smile, I pick up my chute and begin the long traipse towards the top. Blerrow Peak beckons me as it always has.
I’ve done this, oh it must be thirty times now, and it still scares me as much as the first. But I could do this over and over.
For the eagle (or badger) eyed readers, there are a few badgery easter eggs hidden in this story.
The titular Blerrow Peak takes its name from the French “blereau”, Graveling Hill originates with the Swedish word “grävling” while Daxonshire comes from the German “dachs”. All names used in those languages for our black-and-white furry chums.
Broccton-Under-Edge, a village within walking distance of Badgers Crossing, is named partly after the Old English word for a badger “Brock”. The Under-Edge suffix is traditionally given to settlements built in the lee of a cliff, gorge or steep hill. A few weeks back I decided to spend some time on a two hours journey from London to Manchester train journey doing a bit of research for names and ideas for the story. As is often the case on a Sunday, the train took a different route due to engineering works. We were travelling through an area I did not recognise so I opened up the maps app on my tablet and was surprised to see that we were currently chugging past Brocton in Staffordshire – so I promised myself to use that name somehow.
Willow Circle is a tribute to “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood which is often regarded as one of the greatest horror, or Strange Fiction, short stories of all time. I plan to use Broccton-under-Edge and Willow Circle again in future stories.
As you are probably aware, Cheddar Gorge is a real place in Somerset known not only for its magnificent cliffs (450ft at their tallest) and cave system, which are a draw to climbers, pot-holers and base jumpers, but also the world famous cheese which was traditionally matured in the caves. Malham Cove in North Yorkshire is also a known base jumping spot – although at only 260ft it’s much more dangerous! Jumpers from lower heights tend to pack their chutes different so that the pilot chute is pre-deployed and the main one opens a lot more quickly. This method was used to illegally perform the lowest recorded jump from 102ft inside the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral! A sequence was filmed for the penultimate Harry Potter film, Deathly Hallows Part 1, on the limescale pavement by Malham Cove’s cliff edge.
Other real places mentioned in the story have also seen their share of base jumping. It is illegal to jump from the Eiffel Tower without a license from the authorities, which they are usually reluctant to grant, although special permission was given to the makers of the 1985 James Bond adventure, A View To A Kill to perform a stunt for the film there. El Capitan in Yosemite National Park is regarded as the birthplace of the sport.
A word of caution: Base Jumping is EXTREMELY dangerous with no margin for error (as we learned in the story) and should only be attempted by experienced skydivers with multiple jumps under their belt – so please don’t try it at home!
The Badgers Crossing stories are as much about place as they are about character (in fact one could say that the town IS the main character). The idea of “Place” is very much a notion shared by the author David Southwell who writes The Hookland Guide, which I discovered recently following an article in Fortean Times. The description of the pylons was added in reference to that excellently creepy Twitter feed.
If you’ve read any of my other tales you will have also noticed a reference to the story The Conductor.
One last thing: I found this old copy of the OT (complete with one of its famous typos in the caption under the photograph) while having a clear out…