Saturday 19 December 2015

Bleaklow via the Higher Shelf Stones

Here's another walk that didn't quite go to plan, though this time in a good way. My original idea was to do this as a half-day outing up to the Higher Shelf Stones and back, all in all around eight and half miles, but I'd started out early and had made pretty good time when I got there so I decided to extend my route to take in Bleaklow Head as well.

Glossop Station was the start point and I had to make my way through the town centre to Old Glossop first and then past a small industrial area on Shepley Street, before I reached farmland. I'd begun a previous walk along the same initial route so I knew my way and I hoped this section would give my legs a bit of a warm up before I had to begin my ascent onto the moors. Shelf Moor and Coldharbour Moor were directly in front of me and together formed a forbidding landmass on the horizon that dwarfed the small area of pasture below their dark and sometimes craggy slopes.

Shelf Moor (l) and Coldharbour Moor (r) in the distance.

Lightside - the path followed the wall uphill.
At the south eastern corner of Edge Plantation I reached a gate and a stile - through the gate the Doctor's Gate Path (marked on the OS map as a Roman Road) leads up to the Pennine Way and the summit of Snake Pass but today I was to head north east, over the stile and up a hill called Lightside. There is a narrow and steep enclosed path across the stile, fence on one side and dry stone wall on the other. A few rocks gave occasional purchase underfoot but mostly this section was like trying to climb a slide made of mud and my boots were slipping in all directions during this laborious ascent to the access land above.  

It was relief to finally reach solid ground as I crossed another stile onto the upper slopes of Lightside. There are no paths showing on the OS map here but the way ahead was clear to see. It's a short pull up from the stile to the top of Lightside and, once I crossed a further fence there, I was on moorland proper. Heather stretched out across the hillside around me and the muddy path looked peatier and darker in hue. It was almost as though the flimsy fence formed a barrier to the moorland weather too, because it felt like I was assailed by a freezing wind the instant I climbed down on the other side of it. This icy blast was to be a near constant companion until I disappeared into the relative shelter of Bleaklow's groughs later that day.

The change to moorland.
Looking over the wooded Shire Hill towards Hayfield - to the left of Shire Hill,
Snake Pass begins its winding journey over the Pennines.

Looking back along Yellow Slacks.
The path followed the Yellow Slacks ridge, although at the time I was walking along it I wasn't really aware of how drastically the land was falling away to my right. Lightside's southern flank had hidden this escarpment as I approached and it was only when I got much further on and looked back that I could see the extent of the ridge. It was not on the scale of the ridges of Kinder or those to Kinder's east to be sure but it was an impressive sight nonetheless. 

The moorland began to rise up to my left here with large rocks littering its sides and I took advantage of having something dry and solid to sit on to put on another pair of socks. It was the first time I'd worn my heavier boots since the end of last winter and I'd forgotten that they were a looser fit, so my feet were moving around uncomfortably inside them. Fortunately, I always carry a couple of spare pairs of socks in my backpack so I added an extra layer to my feet and I was soon snug and toasty again.

The landscape as I approached Dowstone Clough was rugged now, classic Dark Peak territory with its exposed gritstone and the dramatic cliffs of Shelf Benches looked particularly impressive - and worth exploring on a future walk. Beyond Coldharbour Moor, to the south east, the sun weakly tried to break through the prevailing cloud cover, though for now it managed to be only a smear of pale light in the sheet of grey overhead

Dowstone Clough (l) and Shelf Benches (r).
The head of the clough - the path follows the ridge around.
Exposed gritstone on the flank of Dowstone Clough.

When I reached the head of the clough the peat hags were notably larger in size and walking soon became a more conscious process with each step considered and sometimes tested before putting my full weight down.

Looking down Dowstone Clough.
A runner and his husky had passed me just before Dog Rock and I met him again now on his way back from the Higher Shelf Stones. It doesn't faze me any longer that everyone I meet is faster than me, even just walkers, but it does still surprise me how securely runners and walkers cross treacherous ground seemingly without a care in  the world or without going arse-over-elbow. I suppose it's a matter of confidence as well as experience. We had said hello in passing earlier but now we stopped to exchange a few words before he disappeared back down the ridge impressively fast and I continued to gingerly slide through the peat and puddles. 

Curiously, given the amount of rain we've had recently, the rock bed of Yellowslacks Brook was quite dry in places up here - certainly drier than much of the path I was walking! - and I clambered down into it to look along its course.

Crossing Shelf Moor
I had to go south east now across Shelf Moor to get to the Higher Shelf Stones. The path soon became fainter and eventually disappeared as I made my way across the open moor; the hags were fairly well connected here and not too high so it wasn't to difficult to climb up and use them as an lookout post or even walk along the top of them for a decent stretch. Every now and then, a strip of worn grass or a couple of boot prints would indicate that others had passed this way, though I hit those mostly by chance as I wended my way through this boggy but tussocked landscape.

Ahead of me at one point I could see something white against one of the hags and I wondered if it was something do with the moorland restoration. It looked much smaller than the usual bags of seed and moss that you sometimes find dotted around. I was heading towards it when it suddenly leapt down and ran off along one of the channels in the peat. Cursing at not being more observant, I realised I'd encountered a mountain hare in its winter coat, something I'd never yet seen in all the times I'd been walking in the uplands. I thought I'd missed the opportunity to observe it properly but, as I followed the grough around, I saw it again about 30 feet away. To say I was happy is an understatement. This time I froze on the spot and raised my camera as slowly as I could and managed to get a couple of decent pictures It was a magical encounter for me and really made my day.

Mountain hare.
The Higher Shelf Stone finally come into sight.
I had a renewed spring in my step now and the bog-trotting to the Higher Shelf Stones became much more enjoyable. I had a veritable sea of exposed peat to cross to finally get to them though - how I did it without ending flat on my back or front, I have no idea but I did and I paused here a while to take in the views. The weather had brightened a fair amount, though the wind was still cruelly cold and undiminished in strength. I was hungry but struggled to find shelter behind any of the rocks. It was as if it was blowing at me from every direction or being channelled around the outcrops. I found one spot that seemed slightly more protected from the elements and ate just one of my sandwiches before my hands became too cold to carry on. The butties went back in the backpack and the gloves went back on.

The Higher Shelf Stones.
The Lower Shelf Stones (r).
Graffiti carved into the Higher Shelf Stones.
Looking south across Coldharbour Moor, with Kinder on the horizon.

Just to the north east of the trig point is one of several plane crash sites on Bleaklow, and probably the most famous one, the Boeing B29 Superfortress. I'd never been here before and climbed to the top of a hag to take a look. It's a sobering and poignant experience looking down at the wreckage, so much of it and strewn over such a large area. There is apparently a memorial to the young servicemen who tragically died here but I didn't really feel like going down into the grough to wander around the remains of the aircraft and so I mentally paid my respects where I stood.

Dead ahead - my planned route to meet the Pennine Way.
It was still only something past 11:00 now and I had been out about three and half hours. It was far too early to go home and I'd already pondered the idea of crossing Bleaklow while on the train to Glossop earlier on. 

Eventually I decided it would be a waste of effort to climb up the side of Bleaklow without paying a visit to the plateau itself. I had enough time to get across to Bleaklow Head on the Pennine Way and descend to Hadfield, where I could pick up my return train journey to Manchester. Now all I needed to do was get to the Pennine Way.

From the vantage point of the Shelf Stones I could see a clear cut in the moor beyond Crooked Clough that seemed to run in pretty much a straight line to the east. I figured it would be useful handrail to follow to get me to the trail. There was a semblance of a path meandering across the moorland here, presumably from people crossing from the Pennine Way to see the plane wreckage or visit the trig column, and I followed this downhill towards Crooked Clough.  It followed a streamlet that fed into the clough and sometimes only the stream itself stood out from the grass around; every now and then, however, a boot print reassured me that the course I'd plotted wasn't entirely virgin territory. And, indeed, when it came time to cross Crooked Clough and carry on beyond it, the trail became readily identifiable. Soft, deep peat was the order of the day here and I sank above my ankle on several occasions, retrieving my lower limbs with a satisfying squelch but a worrying tug on my boot from below.

Typical Bleaklow terrain at Alport Low.
Looking down Crooked Clough.
Looking back along the "path" to the summit of Shelf Moor.

The Grinah Stones?
It probably took me about 45 minutes to get across to the Pennine Way and I was mightily pleased to arrive on a flagged section when I got there. It was a straightforward walk for a while now - and that was the case even when the flag stones intermittently disappeared, because the ground in the groughs was gritty and relatively dry. 

Contrary to Bleaklow's fearsome reputation, this section became a pleasant stroll that enabled me to make up some more time. The sides of the groughs weren't yet so high that I couldn't see above them so I also got expansive views across the plateau, including one across to some intriguing-looking rocks in to the north east. Looking at the map, I hazarded a guess that these were the Grinah Stones but I'm not sure.

Hern Clough
It wasn't long before I came to Hern Clough, following the trail north west to ford it at its head. The stream here, which eventually becomes the River Alport, was swollen and I had to take a jump to get across. This was to be recurring feature of the path ahead. I noticed as I passed along the clough that there was a clear path on the opposite side, heading east from the ford in the direction of The Swamp and Grains in the Water; I made a note of this for future reference as I want to plot a circular walk that takes in Alport Dale.

As I carried on north east along the Pennine Way the sides of the groughs began to tower over me and I could understand how people become disorientated in poor weather conditions. It was clear here that the recent storms had saturated Bleaklow's blanket of peat - the sound of trickling water formed a constant backdrop to the tread of my feet and the path was flooded at a number of points as I went along. One one occasion I had to climb up the side of a peat hag and edge myself along until the stream was shallow enough to step into. I passed the Hern Stones here, about a hundred yards away or more. I couldn't see any clear path leading off from the Pennine Way, though I'm sure many people head up to them, so I decided to stick to the trail and take a picture from where I was.

Looking south at Kinder on the horizon.
One of several flooded sections on the Pennine Way.
The Hern Stones.

Bleaklow Head
As I gradually gained some height the path began to broaden and dry out again, as the deep groughs and tall peat hags fell away behind me. The massive cairn and stake that mark Bleaklow Head were clearly visible across the rather flat, featureless terrain, as were the Wain Stones to the west of it. I made an easy diversion to them, across ground that was made up of exposed rock and springy heather and caught a view of Manchester in the distance, gleaming in the winter sun, before proceeding to the cairn. 

I took a brief video with my phone from here but truth to tell the views weren't spectacular in the foreground - I find the desolate appearance of the moors quite exhilarating, especially when there's no-one else in sight, but they don't always make for an interesting video or photograph I have to admit. If nothing else, the audio provides a good idea of how windy it was up there that day! 

Turning myself around a couple of times at the top of the cairn must have disorientated me because I then set off back along the route I'd just walked. It was only after a few minutes, when Winhill Pike came into view, that I realised I was heading in the opposite direction to where I wanted to go. This time, when I returned to the cairn, I checked map and GPS rather than relying on my clearly dodgy innate skills and set a course along the Pennine Way for Longdendale and all points north! 

The initial descent from Bleaklow Head wasn't particularly engaging, the path often-flooded and muddy, the terrain around me somehow duller and more ragged-looking than the hags and groughs I'd bog-hopped earlier. The moors on the other side of Longdendale were glowing in the sunlight and looked far more inviting, at least with the benefit of distance.

Sunlight favouring the northern side of Longdendale.
Crossing the ford where Wildboar Grain flows into the clough
Things improved however as I started to approach the top of Torside Clough, my route back to civilisation. I had to climb down to ford the streams that flowed into the clough before a short, sharp ascent to follow the path along Clough Edge on the western flank. I'd seen Torside Clough from the Longdendale Trail on a previous walk and looked at it on the map, of course, but neither prepared me for the grandeur of it - the path along the edge traces an uneven course over two miles, with 400 plus feet of descent, although I didn't much feel as if I was going downhill much until relatively near the end. 

Following the Pennine Way along Clough Edge.
Looking over the edge.
Torside Reservoir below, where I was to join the Longdendale Trail.

Below me, the stream fed by Torside Grain and Wildboar Grain (plus any number of smaller, unnamed rills) tumbled down to Torside Reservoir; the sides of the clough twisted and turned in a manner you get no sense of from the trail below and along them, where Bleaklow had shrugged off its peaty coat, massive outcrops of gritstone formed cliffs and those familiar weathered sculptures that make the Dark Peak so interesting to walk. 

A watchful hippo.

The hippo outline my mind saw.
One particular outcrop below reminded me of a giant hippopotamus overlooking the gorge (no, I hadn't picked and eaten any mushrooms on my travels) though when I pointed it out to Rich back in Manchester later, he only "saw" it after I'd traced an outline with my finger.

At the bottom of the clough it was simply a matter of a couple of miles walk into Hadfield, following the Longdendale Trail. I'd extended my walk by five miles or so and I was so glad in retrospect that I did so as I found the walk through the groughs to Bleaklow Head a fascinating experience and Torside Clough was just beautiful. It's really fired me up to explore Bleaklow more and I'm looking forward to doing so in 2016.

Date: December 2015

Walk length: 21 km

Total ascent: 776 metres


  1. I suppose your imagination runs wild whilst up there in them hills. I wouldn't have seen the hippo without you drawing it 😀

  2. The stone around the Dark Peak forms all sorts of weird and wonderful shapes so it's a bit like cloud-watching - everyone sees different things in their outlines. :-)