The Long Causeway on Stanage

Wild Ash trees in Bole Hill Quarry
Wild Ash trees in Bole Hill Quarry

I took a walk along Stanage Edge the other day.  A friend, Mark Richards and I set off from Grindleford station, bypassing the bacon butties and pints of tea and climbed up the old rail incline to reach Bolehill quarry.  It’s a strange looking place as you view the quarry through the vertical blinds of wild ash trees that have colonised the area since working ceased.  It makes for wonderful views and eerie monochromatic photography art galleries in London would probably pay handsomely for.   Light showers had put paid to most climbers attempts on the quarry face, but there were a couple working their way up towards the top.  On fine weekends it is just like a school yard, with lots of people milling around, climbing, trying new techniques, taking instruction, a hive of activity that is nice to sit and watch. 

We moved on past the abandoned millstones, these always make me wonder if the people who ordered them are still waiting for delivery, and crossed over to skirt the bottom if Millstone edge before claiming the top and a fine view down the Hope Valley, with the ribbon of the Sheffield to Manchester Rail line taking the eye on to Mam Tor and Kinder.  Another group of kids tried some bouldering on Owler Tor and as we passed them I pointed out a superb bivvy spot for future reference.  I know that wild camping and bivvying is illegal in England and Wales, but if it leaves no trace then I cannot see the harm.  I accept there are those who trash a place, there will always be thus, but the vast majority of people do it so that they can enjoy the seclusion and majesty of a night spent out on the hills and a welcoming sunrise to enjoy.

The rain had stopped by the time we reached Stanage, a few people were around, none climbing so we pretty much had the place to ourselves.  It’s a wonderful edge walk, with fine views down the Hope Valley, and across to Kinder.  Descending The Long Causeway we could see recent damage caused by motorised vehicles, I guess 4×4 or trail bikes or maybe a granny in a Toyota Yaris!!  Huge great gouges in what is left of the surface with clear scraping marks on the rocks.  This is not responsible use of a green way, how can this destruction be seen as right.  Then again on Stanage we had walked across man made stone pathways placed there to alleviate the erosion caused by thousands of pairs of feet, so what’s the difference between tyre and boot??  Been up Black Hill lately of Torside Clough and seen what happens and what needs to be done to arrest erosion caused by our own need to demonstrate our legal right by walking where we want when we want and never mind the consequences.  A few days after our walk along the ancient pack-horse route a decision by the Peak District National Park was taken to close the route to all motorised vehicles.  The blue touch paper has been lit, it now remains to be seen how quickly the rocket goes off. 

We dropped down into Hathersage, narrowly missing tea at the café in Outside and caught the train back to Grindleford to pick up the car.  It was a nice days walk and a good way to explore the grit-stone corridor that abounds the rail line.  Leaving the car at Grindleford and returning by rail meant we could allow our route to unfold, taking direction as the will took us, with no worry about how to get back to our vehicles.    

Odd isn’t it that we used public transport to access wonderful countryside whilst at the very same time vehicular access was being removed to protect a ancient way.   

Maybe that’s how it should be.

Dark Peak Moorland

Peat Grough, Ronksley Moor, Upper Derwent Vally, Peak District National Park
Peat Grough, Ronksley Moor, Upper Derwent Vally, Peak District National Park

I have been spending a lot of time in the Dark Peak these last few months.  It’s a place I feel more drawn to each year, the more I see the more I want to understand.

It is grit-stone country, high moorland, peat groughs, small deep sided cloughs and long narrow valleys. Being on top of the southern end of the Pennines it is blessed with wind and rain at most times of year, as the weather rolls in from the west over Manchester and then has to climb to gain access to Yorkshire.  This makes for, what some may call, grand days out, on desolate, windswept and rain-sodden featureless moorland.  The, grand part, meaning no one else was insane enough to venture up on to the tops and you have the place to yourself.

The moors, weather permitting, give un-broken vistas across the Peak District into several other counties and Wales as well if you really scrunch your eyes up and believe..  Moorland colour is brown, from the grass, as there is no bracken above a certain point, I must make an effort to find out what the bracken line is, perhaps it is just like the tree line in mountain ranges?  Brown is broken up by clumps of heather a dark racing car green which sprouts purple-pink heads in summer.

Heather is deceptively difficult for walking across, it is ankle breaking thigh burning terrain that quickly saps the energy of any walker.  It comes in different heights, depending on age.  The lowest is the freshly burnt patches the quilt the moorland, burnt not as an act of vandalism, but to generate new growth, this is the easiest to walk across, you can see the holes in the ground.  The highest, used to provide cover for the oldest birds, entails having to either force a way through with stiff legs, not pleasant in shorts, or lift the leg high to keep striding over the clumps.  A good thigh workout, better than any gym and a lot less expensive.

The browns and green are interlaced with a dark black ribbon, glossy at most times of the year, with pools of oily water sitting on the surface.  This is the peat that swallows legs whole and is the repository of many an expensive walking boot.  The surface threads are the most pleasant to walk along.  You can see where you are going for one thing and avoid the soft quagmire of peat and water.  The worst part of the moor and this is an integral part of the peat and come to think of it moorland walking are the infamous peat groughs.  The groughs are where peat has been eroded away through, wind and rain and left a steep sided deep gulch, with soft deep peat at the sides and bottom.  Some can be 20 to 30 feet deep, which makes for interesting navigation tests, the map being completely useless if you cannot see where you are going.  Entering a grough is easy, you just step off the firm moor and slide your way down the grough side until you reach the bottom.  With skill you can achieve this whilst remaining upright, but it may take practice and a lot of peat in your boots before you become proficient.  Gaiters are a must!

The bottom of a grough may be firm with signs of the bedrock which the peat is built upon, or it may be a deep soft mass of thick black ooze that will not support the weight of a child, let a lone a fifty something mildly overweight (ok, overweight), man carrying enough gear in his backpack that people may think he was  a mobile outdoor shop.  The bottom is not your major problem.  The problem has not yet been encountered and the inexperienced will be blissfully unaware what has yet to come.  A good navigation test is to try and get to a known point whilst remaining deep in the network of inter connecting groughs.  It can be done, I am told, with excellent pacing and the use of compass, I have not tried this yet, but one day I will.

It is once you come to exit a grough that your manliness will be called in to question, this is the problem.  Exit may be immediate if you are traversing across a moor and have many groughs to cross, or could be after some time when you have reached  a destination or, more probably, panic that you may never get out of the grough has now firmly planted itself in your increasingly frazzled mind.  Only when you decide to climb up the 20 foot wall of peat, angled at approximately 80 degrees do you discover just what you have cornered yourself into.  The peat is no respecter of experience and cares little for how much you have spent on gear.  You immediately find that soft squashy peat on a near vertical surface does not support the weight of a Sparrow.  Kicking steps into the peat only produces a greater amount to slide down with.  After 10 minutes of trying panic is starting to rise and from the back of the mind comes some real or imagined story of a man found face down in a peat grough, dead from exhaustion and with his fingers covered in peat from trying to climb out.  Decorum at some stage will leave, replaced by a panic stricken flailing and grunting up the side until fingers manage to touch a grass tussock and, no matter if it will take the weight, it is a life line which only the desperate will grab hold of with full confidence.

Many a time I have walked across the moors and seen men, it usually is men, appear from some unseen entrance to hell.  First a very red head is seen, this is covered in sweat and peat and has the countenance of real fear.  The hands reach forward and amid much noise reaches forward grabbing anything that seems solid, the arms pulling behind a body, the legs of which are flailing in mid air trying to gain purchase.  Eventually the body lays prone on the brown grass, the side of the face flat against the grass.  There is slimy peat thick and gooey covering most of the legs, when the body turns over a wide strip of peat runs down the front of the body.

There is no way back to manliness from this ignominy, the grough has won, it wasn’t a contest really.  The best you can do is try and pretend that everything that did happen was supposed and you were in control the whole of the time.  You can also walk away as quickly as you can, rebuffing all attempts at eye contact or worse, conversation.  Nothing need be said and you can sneak you peat encrusted gear back in to the house when no one is watching.

Such are the joys of walking on the high moors in the Peak District.

Bradford Dale and Lathkill Dale

River Lathkill Weir 4

The first time I came across Bradford Dale it was a revelation. I hadn’t expected the view that met me as I walked along the route of the Limestone Way. Descending from the road I saw before a vista of the true English countryside, a clear gentle river threaded its way through a limestone gorge, trout jumped out of the water to secure a tasty morsel, dippers weaved up and down as the proceeded along the river gathering food and coots sat nesting awaiting a new brood.

The path down winds its way past a series of pools flanked by limestone outcrops and tree lined slopes. This is a highly managed environment, it doesn’t look like this by a fate of nature. The river is renowned for its trout fishing hence the pools which create a calm water for the fish to lay i wait for any dinner that floats by. The pools are connected by sluice gates and weirs, this regulates the flow and also introduces faster flowing water rich in oxygen.

2012 saw the complete disappearance of the water due to drought conditions and a fly fisher friend tells me the trout would have migrated down stream following the water. Lack of water is a common sight in the limestone rivers, many have seriously porous beds and a drop in flow due to drought conditions means the water finds and easier course underground, often absenting itself several miles away from where it re-emerges.

Take binoculars with you on this walk and be prepared to stop frequently and look at the play nature is laying on. Birds are in abundance as are dragonflies, newts, toads, fish, wildflowers appear in abundance. As the path and river wind their way down the dale all of this is on display.

At the bottom of the dale the landscape opens out and crossing an old stone footbridge it is possible to rise up into Youlgrave and explore the village which has lots of interest for the historian. Continuing down the dale eventually brings the walker to the village of Alport with its neat limestone houses topped with elaborate chimney pots set on a hill above a flood plain and a limestone gorge.

Lathkill Dale has an inauspicious start from its confluence with the river Bradford, you don’t realise that you have started following the Lathkill until you enter the dale further upstream.  We walked across fields from the village of Alport then struck up hill to meet an unmarked lane which led us to Conksbury Village a medieval site now long deserted, you need to look hard for signs of human habitation but they are there.  Further on we came to a strange set of farm buildings.  Strange because they were so large, with a big farm house and had in the past obviously been a major site of farming activity.  This is Meadow Place Grange, the Grange an indication of its past and for all I know present owners.  Abbey’s were major land owners in the area and used the dales and pastures for extensive sheep grazing for the wool that they became justly famous for.

Dropping down into Lathkill Dale  we meet one of the clearest rivers in the country.  The River Lathkill is the only river in the Peak District which rises and flows entirely through limestone and as a consequence is filtered to crystal clear clarity.  The river and dale is a national nature reserve, site of special scientific interest and has wildlife in abundance, this is home to some rare plants such as Jacobs Ladder, which needs special conditions to continue growing and these are only found in the dale. There are 3 major caves associated with the dale all situated slightly off the main tracks but well worth a visit.

Exiting the dale we made for Monyash, now mainly a commuter village but with a good pub and facilities, sadly the church was closed, this being a Sunday!! so we could not explore the interior nor leave a donation!!  Picking up the Limestone Way we started back to the beginning of our walk and passed through One Ash Grange Farm which is a must if just for a view of the most perfect set of medieval pig sties in existence.  They are exquisite, if a pig sty can be such a thing and once again the “Grange” tells us we are in the presence of an old farming operation of the Abbey’s.

This is a really good walk with lots of interest for everyone and one that requires further explorations.

Lathkill Dale

Hidden Valley

Towards Whinstone Lee Tor and the Derwent Edge
Towards Whinstone Lee Tor and Bamford Edge

Just off a vehicle track in the DerwentValley is a rotting finger post pointing up a grassy incline that disappears into some trees, if you’re not paying attention as you pass it by then you wouldn’t even notice it, few do, not even National Parks maintenance teams, hence the rotting finger post.

If you do stop and wonder where the finger points to and decide to follow its direction you are in for a real treat for this is one of the valleys hidden secrets, rarely visited by walkers and of course almost never visited by the thousands that park at the visitor centre about a mile away.  So you have the place to yourself, go and enjoy it!

Follow the incline upwards, working your way along a tree lined, and grass covered farm track.  Coming to an old abandoned farm that once formed just one of the many that tended these hillsides through beautiful spring and summer and into horrendous winters when the valley could be cut off from civilisation for months, the track veers left and narrows into an ascending path, enclosed by dry stone walls erected hundreds of years ago.  At the top you come to a farm, which seems odd as there is no way you could get farm machinery up the path, but the farms access lays north of the buildings and unseen by the walker.  As you pass the farm stop awhile and take in the first of the expansive views of the Derwent Edge.  South lays Whinstone Lee Tor, a nob of a hill that sits as a gatekeeper, with Crookhill on the other side of the UpperDerwentValley.  The Tor offers fine views across the valley, with Bleaklow, Kinder and Mam Tor forming the western skyline.  Below you is a solitary barn set in lush green pasture, this is a good place to stand and stare a little, watching the buzzards soaring above the gritstone edge, whilst below, stoats work their way through the stone wall labyrinth.  If you look closely at the fields in front you can detect boundaries and footpaths long gone now save for a depression in the ground and the odd marker tree showing the line.  Centuries old these remnants remind us that man leaves his footprints where ever he goes.

Take the shooting track that heads towards the skyline and works its way round the hillside in front of you, descending in to a seemingly lost valley complete with stream and cloughs. The stream has to be crossed without the aid of a bridge and is no real obstacle.  It is a quiet place, rarely frequented and has the beauty of the rugged Peak District moorland, without the windswept desolation or indeed the destruction caused by man. Having crossed the stream take the feint path left that works its way up through the bracken, in summer this is hard to see and you have to look for a break line in the thick bracken to ascertain its course.  It is a narrow path until near the top where it meets a boulder field and then opens up making the final few meters easy.

You pop out and that is the most descriptive word I think fits the situation, on to a flat seemingly featureless moorland sitting directly below a Gritstone edge, to the right on the horizon is the Salt Cellar a prominent gritstone feature, useful for navigation.  This is where the fun starts for the way forward lies across the bog soaked moor with the attack point being a rectangular walled enclosure marked on the map that hardly exists on the ground.  Take a bearing from where the path brings you on to the flat part of the moorland, this is a highly subjective starting point and good map work is required which means it is the perfect practice area for navigation exercises.  Aim for the centre of one side of the rectangle and calculate the paces needed to reach it, and then start to walk on the bearing.  This is where the funny walk starts as you try to keep on the bearing, keep an even pace for counting and avoid bog, tussock and peat holes.  Soon you will have reached you number of paces meaning you should have reached the wall, but none is to be found.  You stand on a flat ish plain with no wall in sight, looking around you can detect nothing.  Spotting a small rise in the land near to you, you decide to use this as a vantage point to locate the now offending enclosure. None can be seen and it gradually dawns on you that the small rise you are stood on is in a very straight line and seems to extend to right angled corners at each end.  As your eyes follow the rise you realise, a little sheepishly that you are in fact stood on top of the enclosure wall which over the years as now being reclaimed by nature and forms part of the moorland land mass.  There is a mixture of joy at having found it and depression at realising the navigation skills still need some work.

From here the way is easy. Straight up to the edge and on to the top, you can choose to do a little light scrambling to ascend the edge which adds a frisson of adventure.  Once there it is a matter of following your nose, left or right and just enjoying the views.  On a clear blue sky day the views are extensive and magnificent, stretching in to several counties at all points of the compass.

A beautiful little walk best kept a secret.

Hidden Valleys

Upper Derwent Valley
Upper Derwent Valley

I find myself in the Upper Derwent Valley most weeks of the year, it helps being a Ranger in that area for the Peak District National Park, which gives me a reason to be there, other than loving the beauty of the place.  I first came across the area back in the 70’s when Mick Dyson and I cycled from his home at the side of Tinsley viaduct to the summit of the Snake Pass.  Some feat for a couple of kids and even bigger feat for me, Mick had a 10 speed bike with go faster handle bars, I had a cast off sit up and beg Raleigh with no gears and a saddle that cut you in half.  We cycled up the A57 stopping off at Philips little garden shed where he sold bacon butties and mugs of tea at the side of the road.  We didn’t know it then but we were in the presence of a legend, the hut being Philips precursor to his cafe at Grindleford station.  I don’t recall any scrawled signs giving strict instruction not to ask for mushrooms, because he doesn’t do them and how many more times do people need telling that, but there probably were some.  Dropping down from Moscar Top and crossing the Ashopton Viaduct with the road entrance into the valley on the right I was awestruck by what I saw.  I had never imagined there could be such a wild place, the moors seemed brooding, oppressive and menacing, especially to a skinny lad from Rotherham who had only ever seen the woods at the bottom of the street and, once a year, Blackpool Tower.  It would be a long time before I ever ventured up that road but when I did eventually drive up to the Ranger centre I was captivated by what I saw and experienced.  The first impression of that drive was one of grandeur, majestic trees and towering ridges.  It was, for me, an epiphany, I had come home.

The valley is conjoined by a series of cloughs, miniature secluded valleys, the joy of which is their isolation from the outside world.  You never know quite what you will find or indeed if you will ever emerge once you have stepped down from the rim off the moorland that sits above the clough.  This action is often the first part of the adventure for there is rarely a path down and you have to find the best way, often a scramble over greasy, moss encrusted gritstone.  A frisson of fear shivers through the body as you hold on as tight as can be done with cold fingers and an unsure step.  Grabbing at clumps of grass and fern probably isn’t the most sensible way to achieve descent but then who ever said walking had to be sensible?  Reaching ground a decision has to be made where to go for there are no human signs to guide you.  The clough is thick with bracken, waist high and smelling fresh and green.  It makes walking difficult, your feet cannot be seen so you trust in touch, judgement and luck and the bracken wraps around your feet so every so often you need to stop and force your legs through the tangle.  Working along the sides I start to gradually descend until my eye is caught with some feature that looks interesting.

Best are the old quarry workings now engulfed by nature they fascinate me.  Man was here before I was and he wasn’t having fun he was hewing stone from these ancient rocks.  How did he arrive in this isolated place, did he walk, was there a form of transport.  In winter was he drenched in sweat and rain or snow, cold hands working colder tools to break rock and for what, what was so special about this place that it needed to become an industrial site, where did the rock go to, what was it used for.

You can stop and sit here for hours; no one will disturb you it’s yours for as long as you want.  Find a rock or a grassy shelf and just take it in.  Once the clough has got used to you being here it goes back to its normal life.  Birds flit about eating, collecting, and the odd rustle in the bracken indicates some creature going about its business.  At times I think I can here voices and steel hitting gritstone and fancy I see men working away whilst in the background a stream bubbles away running along the floor.

One day for whatever reason the men left and no longer was the stone required.  Why is lost now, no one thought to document these places and so they slipped back to nature who re-claimed them and continued on the process of millions of years.

Let it snow.

Olly and Monty two Beddlington / Lakeland dogs who just love to be outdoors.
Olly and Monty two Beddlington / Lakeland dogs who just love to be outdoors. Here they are below Higger Tor in the Peak District National Park

January 2013 has brought a welcome change in the weather, no more rain day after day, but clear blue skies and higher temperatures. It has made for some good walking and we have enjoyed several fantastic days out. The ground is completely saturated after the almost constant downpours and water sits on the surface in large languid pools. Moorland is particularly testing to navigate through, with the peat groughs the consistency of a semi liquid, once you accidentally step in to a bog there is only one way your foot and leg are going and that’s downwards. Best to make sure you have one foot at least on dry firm land so that you can extricate yourself from the quagmire. In no way is it elegant but at least you will be able to save yourself from the humiliation of being pulled out, sans boots and socks. The other day I went in with both feet, sinking in to my thighs. I had to throw myself forward on to my chest and basically swim across the surface, grunting with effort and a little fear. Anyone looking on would think I was some strange sportsman possibly from Lincolnshire.

They say bad weather is on its way with everyone on Twitter and Facebook who has any interest in the Peak District posting up words of excitement at the thought. We’ve missed out on the snow and have only been able to look longingly at all the photos of the Lake District and Scotland covered in white powdery snow, that have been posted on any number of sites. For some reason we all seem to love walking in the stuff. I think for me the changes that the landscape goes through after a good snowfall is one of the things I like. There is a purity about all that snow with all those curves as it falls across moor and rock like a huge white cotton sheet. There is the quiet as though for a time snow has removed all sound from the world. The only sound that can be heard close by is the crunch squeak of boots moving across the surface. For the first time last year I wore crampons and this gives an amazing feeling of confidence. No longer did I have to walk with a swing of the pelvis and a twist of the foot to gain traction forward. Falling snow is nice to walk in too. But snow driven at high velocity directly in to your face is another challenge altogether. Walking in blizzard conditions, trying to stay upright, trying to navigate and stay on the right track is one which requires skill and a certain mindset, especially if visibility and daylight are almost non-existent.

Of course walking on fresh snow means you are the first human to do so. No one has come this way before you, its Shackleton’s expedition being the first people to see James Caird Island. You are alone and before you, a smooth pristine carpet of white, untouched by human feet, the sense of exploration being heightened by the odd set of prints from some unknown as yet undiscovered animal.  The cold, if very cold, burns the cheeks and snow stings when it hits the face.  The best days are the ones where the sky is a deep blue and the air positively cracks with the cold.  You can see for miles on such days and the quiet just adds to the ethereal sense the world has taken as its mantle.  This is the best winter walking, moving along warm but not wet inside, the crampons helping forward motion and the air still, clear and biting.

Rockandfell Guided Walking

Gourmet Walks

Rud Hill Moor

The other day I sought a few hours solitude out on the moors near to where I live. Within 20 minutes I was setting off on the faint track that leads up on to Rud Hill, a place few people will know of but many have walked across and passed by on their way up to Stanage Pole and the edge.

The last few weeks have seen even more rain fall on already sodden ground and this was very much in evidence on the moor. Surface water lay in great pools across the peaty landscape. Much of the moorland grass bordering the track had been worn away by countless boots in an attempt to avoid the peat bogs that had developed as a result of the moor being unable to absorb anymore rain. In places the ground was so sodden it was near impossible to avoid being sucked down in to the peat and in fact on two occasions I experienced just that. The second was more comical and a little bruising to the ego as I sank up to my thighs into the bog and could only release myself by laying myself face forward across the bog and pulling myself out. The sight of a 50 year old man floundering on the moorland surface would have been a joy to watch, fortunately there were no spectators around to appreciate the spectacle.

I wanted to find a small pool marked on the OS map, just as an exercise in navigating by contours. Unfortunately this proved a fruitless endeavour, not because the pool could not be found, that wasn’t the problem. The difficulty lay in the number of pools around the location, there were at least a dozen, all formed by recent rains and all of some depth. I eventually chose a pool that both matched the co-ordinates and had signs of being established for some considerable time, it having a depth that was deeper than others and signs of lichen and moss growing around the edges.

As I was searching for the pool the cloud came in and enveloped me without my realising it was happening and I found myself on a moor with limited visibility and a worsening aspect all round. No need for compass, navigation was simple by following the track, but it did make me realise it would not be difficult to become disoriented in such conditions even on a moor within sight of Sheffield and only a few hundred meters from a roadway. Checking my map for directions I realised the fence shown on the OS map was not the same length as the one on the ground. The real fence had been extended recently and the new shiny wire was a clear indicator of this. Another reason why navigation by contour and not just features is a good idea.

I eventually worked my way back to the car which was sat in clear skies, just a few hundred meters from the cloud covered moorland. Covered in peat I must have looked quite a spectacle to the dog walkers.