The Hike Society: City to SummitFrom The Field
Sheffield to Mam Tor with Monique Christian
Written by Megan Brownrigg // Photography by Johny Cook
Produced in partnership with Columbia
Loss. It wasn’t how she’d pictured starting the hike. Certainly not getting the news by text in a group of strangers. But walking 19 miles with these people proved a fitting way for Monique Christian to say goodbye to the woman who taught her to forage for fruit. Toeing the timeless spaces between Sheffield’s city centre and the Peak District’s Mam Tor, she had room to remember Joan – the great-gran who originally matchmade her with the wild.
In a snatched dawn, Sheffield feels vulnerable, its air weightless, unbloated by traffic smog. Monique enjoys this slowness as she necks a coffee to wake her blood, conscious that she has 19 miles to cover.
‘It’s one of the few times of day that Sheffield gives off the same unrushed energy as the open lands of the Peak District,’ she says. ‘It can be easy to forget that the city centre was once countryside too. But at this time, it resonates with something of its old self.’
Wrapped in Columbia Sportswear for the task, Monique is preparing to hike to Mam Tor with five fellow walkers – none of whom she’s met before. She’s still connected to her urban surrounds when her phone buzzes, and she glances at the screen. The news is a shock – her great-gran has died. Joan, 96, was the woman who introduced Monique to nature.
As Sheffield’s Brutalist infrastructure thins, and the group’s voices ride and wrestle with the wind, Monique mentions what has happened to the others. For most, route-planning in a huddle of people they don’t know would be a surreal spot to start grieving. ‘Traumatic experiences bring people together, don’t they?’ Monique shrugs philosophically about her decision to share this information with her hiking partners. Hitting such deep notes of conversation with strangers is unusual, but Monique knows we give more of ourselves when we walk. Walking isn’t flitting between people at parties, or skating across silences with small talk, but committing to miles together.
‘We ended up discussing everything from our childhoods to spirituality that day,’ she says later. ‘There’s something about the mix of endorphins from the exercise, and the grounding power of landscapes, which creates a sense of willing vulnerability in us.’
Monique credits her openness to nature. She grew up in Chester with North Wales and the Peak District on her doorstep, and remembers walking the sandstone trails with her great-grandparents. They’d pick raspberries, blackberries, gooseberries – and her great-nan was the person who taught her about wild flowers. Ancient natural landscapes are places where Monique is free. To be. To share. To feel exposed. ‘The wild holds no biases,’ she says.
Nudging towards Sheffield’s outer skin, the hikers reach two standalone boulders. They clamber over them like children before picking up the threads of their conversations. They’ve already passed through villages, which blend the countryside and city like time capsules. Cottages, farmland, and distant outlines of cement factories meld in these spaces. But in the background, Mam Tor sits as its always been. Immune from time. The scope of it all calms Monique. But woodland is where her sense of perspective feels sharpest. For 10 short minutes on the hike, she’s granted amnesty from the world.
‘When I’m in a forest I get the same sense of peace as when I’m in a cemetery. In a powerful woodland everything feels cyclical, and makes me feel a calmness about death and our ultimate insignificance. The hike felt symbolic of how much my great-nan loved walking and being in the outdoors. Looking at how big this all is, and how long it’s all been here for, made me realise that things are OK.’
In the woods, where the group stops for water and to adjust shoes and socks, the sun dapples the rocks in flecks of heather and moss. Ferns touch Monique’s shoulders, enveloping her in purple-green and reminding her of her smallness in the world. This feeling grounds her rather than intimidates her. She finds catharsis in the constant of nature. Which makes sense, given the fierce fluidity with which she lives life in the city.
A music producer, model, and sports researcher for a running collective, Monique is always moving between worlds. She admits to having a love/hate relationship with London, where she currently lives. ‘In a city, in order for things to change you have to build them. Nature grows and dies because it’s alive. But cities aren’t alive – they’re just full of people who are,’ Monique explains. She’s currently working to foster more communities similar to the one hiking to Mam Tor. As a woman of colour who grew up in a white area, she’s all too aware of the boundaries around certain hiking groups.
‘I was lucky that my family nurtured my relationship with nature, but I didn’t see enough people who looked like me exploring. Even in London, I’m a member of the amazing Ultra Black Running collective and there are places where people will stop and stare simply because none of us is white. I also have friends who have never seen fields or cows because those things don’t feel accessible to them.’
Stigmas of hiking being a privileged sport requiring pricey kit and endless leisure time are things that she and co-founder Saoirise Nì Scanlàin want to quash, through their community initiative in South London. Almost Wild UK will be a space for inclusive exploration, where people can share adventures by learning the skills they need do it boldly, safely, and on their own terms.
‘Shelter building, knot tying, and map reading – those skills don’t have to cost anything but they will save your life if you need them. An open and safe space to learn them and feel comfortable is so important,’ Monique says about the excursions and workshops they’re planning.
Asked why this access to natural spaces is so vital, Monique comes back to a feeling of claustrophobia in cities. ‘Without outdoor spaces I’d feel really trapped within society. In a city centre, you can’t walk in the middle of the road or go up an escalator the wrong way. But in outdoor spaces you can climb a rock or a tree if you do it with respect. The outdoors brings out this playfulness in us which I think really counteracts the rise in mental-health struggles and anxiety we’ve seen in the last ten years, especially amongst young people. In today’s society we don’t give enough credit to how long humans had to be at one with the land in order to survive. It’s why my great-gran taught me to forage. Having a sense of community in an outdoor space is so good for us, it’s part of us, but in cities we can forget we need it.’
Back in the Peak District, it’s this sense of community that carries Monique and her peers up the final throes of Mam Tor. By now they’ve traversed the gritstone of Stanage Edge and climbed above Sheffield’s surrounding moors. Their feet are tired as the sky growls a heavy navy above. Monique studies the steps to the summit, and notices the chalices set into the stone. She’s reminded again of how many generations this tor has carried. How many eras it’s witnessed.
Fifteen minutes later, it’s twilight. Six people are standing at the top of Mam Tor, in the middle of the wild, having walked from the city that morning. They shiver with ecstasy in a rainstorm before heading down to their minibus, and transitioning back from rural to urban, village to city. But this time, Sheffield is not as Monique left it. Instead, it’s alive. Alive with the buzz of her early morning alarm, the buzz of a day spent with people in nature. Walking from Sheffield to Mam Tor, Monique was reminded that the outdoors doesn’t just make you at one with yourself, but with others, too. People you’ve met that day. People you’ve lost that day.
‘When you’re going through each mile you don’t really think of how far you’ve come, which is symbolic of life really. That day we went from fast minds and pent-up energies to relaxed and happy individuals, moving together as a collective. This experience, travelling on foot from the city to the summit, is something I’d advise everyone to try.’