Thursday 3 December 2015

Chinley Churn, Brown Knoll, South Head and Mount Famine

Sitting here on the sofa, all wrapped up in a fleece and nursing my man-flu while the November wind and rain batters the house from what sounds like every angle, I've decided to cheer myself up by re-visiting one of the walks I did this past summer. The hills you can see from the A6 between Chapel-en-le-Frith and Manchester had always caught my eye as we drove to and from the Peak District on days out and I decided early in June that it was about time I explored the intriguingly-named Chinley Churn and Mount Famine. The latter's more prosaic sounding companion South Head was also on the list. I'd plotted a circular route from the village of Chinley but just taking in those three summits made for a relatively short walk so I decided to extend my day to take in Brown Knoll which lies just next to the Kinder Plateau.

Leaving the lane to head up to Cracken Edge.
I arrived at Chinley railway station just before 8:00 am and it was already shaping up to be a glorious summer's day. I seem to get lost in the most unlikely places - once when I couldn't find my way out of a large empty field, for instance, or when I could see my exit from Bamford Moor ahead of me but couldn't find a way through the bogs and bracken to get to it: here it was the streets of Chinley, the railway having deposited me in a residential area. 

Usually, I'll have a gander at Google's street view so I can confidently stride to whichever gate or stile is my entrance to the countryside. On this occasion I'd forgotten to do that so I had to resort to using the GPS file on my phone to guide me through the streets. I pretended I was just intently texting and hoped I didn't look like a complete numpty as I wandered past the locals leaving their homes for work and school. 

Once at the War Memorial, I finally knew where I was and could pack my phone away. It was already quite warm, despite the early hour, and when I left the lane to head up through farmland to my first peak of the day it didn't take long for my fleece to come off. It's surprising what a spring in your step you can gain from this simple step. I'm a warm walker and seem to overheat quite quickly when ascending, which really saps my energy. The sight of a sign that stated "CAUTION  Cows with calves can be aggressive" as I entered my first field had made me think I might need that extra spring behind me too.

The sign itself was broken, as though an angry mother cow had stormed down the hillside and smashed it to emphasise the point, so I proceeded warily. Not having much faith in my ability to run fast, I noted landmarks that I could clamber over or on top of if need be, such as trees, rocks and walls. In the end there were no cattle to be seen of any age and my first encounter with cows wasn't until I reached a farm track halfway up the hillside - and these, thankfully, were staring at me from behind a fence.

I followed the track north until I came to the entrance to some farm buildings. The public footpath skirted these and led uphill to Cracken Edge, a heavily quarried ridge that runs along the eastern side of Chinley Churn. I quite like these abandoned quarries - the harsh lines and corners are quite different from the otherworldly rock forms you get on natural escarpments around the Peak District but they look no less dramatic from afar or close up. I chatted briefly with a local man who'd wandered up from the southern end of the ridge to take in the morning air and we admired the views that had now opened up: Whaley Bridge and Todbrook Reservoir could be seen to the south west and, looking south across the valley, Eccles Pike rose up in the foreground with Castle Naze and the edge of the Combs Moss plateau on the horizon. 

The beginning of the climb up Chinley Churn.
"C'mon! Give us a snog!"
Combs Moss on the horizon with Eccles Pike the hill on the right of the middle ground.
Walking below the rocks of Cracken Edge.

Chinley Churn trig column, so near and yet so far.
I said goodbye to my fellow walker and he disappeared in the direction of Hayfield. I headed up to the top of Cracken Edge in search of the Chinley Churn trig point: I could just make out the upper half of it at the top of the hill. The column lies on  private land, though, and - without scaling a drystone wall and trespassing - it was out of reach, so I contented myself with a photo. It wasn't that far away so I could probably have been there and back in five or ten minutes but it was still early in the day and I didn't fancy doing the larger part of my walk with a backside full of shotgun pellet.

I headed roughly north now, following a clear path along the edge. To the east, I could see the Kinder Plateau and the bridleway I was to follow on my way to Brown Knoll was just discernible on its slopes.The hilltop was broader now and the terrain underfoot had taken more of a heath-like character, with cotton grass dotting the landscape and the occasional muddy pool. It was a taster of what was to come later in the day but just a short-lived one, as my immediate course lay downhill and back through farmland. 

Above some of the quarry workings, looking north along Cracken Edge.
The Kinder Plateau to the east - my route lay up the right hand side of it, past Swine's Back.
A taste of the moorland walk to come later.
Looking south east to the fertile farmland between Chinley Churn and Chapel-en-le-Frith.

Heading down to Peep-O-Day Farm.
The path led me down a sheep-strewn slope to another farm track, where I headed east to Peep-O-Day Farm and Chapel Road, the busy A624. I had a short walk north along the grass verge here that wasn't very pleasant but thankfully it was over quite quickly and I soon crossed the busy carriageway to an access road. Passing a small quarry, this little lane met the Pennine Bridleway further uphill and this was to be my path for a while.

Peep-O-Day Farm lies in a valley between Chinley Churn and the short ridge, along which Mount Famine forms the high point. I was climbing again now as I followed the bridleway past the northern flank of Mount Famine and not exactly overjoyed to find I was crossing a pasture occupied by cows. Most of them were lying down and most of them turned their heads to stare inquisitively as I passed by. The path kept close to the wall, which I was grateful for, and I tried to gently pick up my pace as I approached the stile at the far side without giving the impression that I was nervous or hurrying. Over the stile - and over the ridge - there lay another valley between me and the southern slopes of Kinder.

The start of the diagonal path through the cows.
On the other side of the stile that had seemed such a welcome sight, however, was a far larger enclosure than the one I had just traversed and one with a far larger number of cows dotted around it. What's more, the steep path led diagonally across it, so I didn't have the comfort of hugging the wall as I made my way down. I don't mind confessing that I stopped a few minutes here for a quick worry. I have a strong dislike of cows and it looked like a long walk through their pasture. When I got home later on I plotted this stretch on OS Maps and it came in at half a mile.At the time, I couldn't see any feasible alternative route on the map without either abandoning the aim of my walk completely or adding a ridiculous detour to it, so I steeled myself and headed down.

Even though these cows were more active than the previous ones had been, and were wandering around and eating, it turned out that they had even less interest in me. Finally I reached another farm lane, which I followed in the direction of South Head Farm, leaving the Pennine Bridleway to weave its way north to Hayfield.

I was in the bottom of a valley now into which the River Sett first flows from its origins on Kinder. From here I looked up at Mount Famine - and South Head behind it - and wondered if I had planned well in leaving these two climbs for the end of my walk. A stone bridge got me across the gently flowing waters of the river and as I continued to look up at the hills that lay ahead of me, I heard the chug of an engine and the drum of feet as a farmer drove his flock of sheep down the lane towards me: two sheep dogs kept them in line, with the farmer on his quad bringing up the rear. It was a real joy to stand back at the side of the road and watch the dogs at work, seemingly getting on with the job without any instruction from their owner.

Mount Famine with South Head behind it.
The bridge over the River Sett.
Time to step to one side...
One of the busy sheep dogs.

I was doubling back on myself a little now as I followed the lane south but it soon swung around to the east and I found myself climbing again, alongside Coldwell Clough. There was farmland all around me and the smooth road surface eventually changed to a broad track covered in loose rock, which made for heavy going. The day had turned into quite the scorcher by now and I remember sitting on a large rock by a gate to have a breather and take a good few swigs of much-needed water. 

I was near the edge of the National Trust Kinder Estate and soon reached a crossroads of footpaths. My way ahead was clear - straight up onto Kinder following the directions to Edale. The path was cutting its way through proper moorland now, polka-dotted with cotton grass, and riven by deep cloughs. At Stony Ford, I crossed one of the rills that trickled from the Kinder watershed into Oaken Clough and down to the infant Sett. It was hard to believe this tiny stream was responsible for the large clough it flowed into as it made its way down from the plateau. 

The large gritstone outcrop of Swine's Back formed a clear waymarker for me to head towards. As I neared it I considered making a diversion to the top but with the day getting hotter I eventually decided it was one hill too many and pressed on. Rather embarrassingly, I completely forgot that the Edale Cross was around here. I suppose if I'd looked at the map it would have reminded me but the route I'd planned was so straightforward, I hadn't felt the need to get it  out of my pocket apart since baulking at the second field full of cows.

The pastoral scenes of the valley had been replaced by proper moorland now.
Cotton grass.
Looking back down to Stony Ford.
Swine's Back.

At the time I was blissfully unaware I'd missed this antiquity but there were certainly plenty of other things to see as my path neared its crossing point with the Pennine Way. From here on, the height I'd gained gave me wonderful prospects in all directions - behind me, Manchester was gleaming hazily on the horizon in the summer heat and ahead of me lay the broad, flat and decidedly peaty summit of Brown Knoll; the vista when I looked north gave me that warm fuzzy feeling you get when you see old friends - Edale Rocks, Noe Stool, Pym Chair and Crowden Tower stretched across my line of vision; turning east, I could see the whole of the Great Ridge wending its way between the the Vale of Eden and the Hope Valley.

Manchester to the north west.
Brown Knoll ahead.
Edale Rocks.
Noe Stool, Pym Chair and Crowden Tower (l to r).
The Great Ridge.

Given Brown Knoll's reputation for being one big quagmire, I was quite pleased to find a paved pathway leading from this intersection with the Pennine Way. Unsurprisingly it made for pretty good walking and when I looked at the moorland around the path, with deep groughs and pools in the peat, I was doubly grateful for the security it offered. This was going to be a doddle, it seemed to me as I pottered along.

The cotton grass was plentiful all around, catching the sunlight as it bobbed in the gentle air currents that had thankfully taken the edge off the day's heat the higher I climbed. The delicate sway of these shining bobtails was reflected in the dark, peaty pools that dotted the moor, adding another layer of light to the scene, and amidst the black groughs and coarse grass, vibrant splashes of green leapt out at me in the sunlight. Bleak and dangerous though the moors can be, there was no better evidence than that day in June for how full of life and colour they are too in the spring and summer months.

Cotton grass reflected in the dark pools on the way up to Brown Knoll.
Not the best picture to showcase the patches of bright green but it does show the contrasts up there.

The actual path to the summit.
After a short while I came to a crossing in the fence and I realised I would have to leave the paved path if I was to reach the summit of Brown Knoll. From the vantage point of the stile's steps I could see that vast stretches of soft peat I would have to negotiate to reach the trig. The thought of walking straight up to it was a non-starter: other people had clearly done that, judging by the footprints, and clearly the more of them who had done it, the bigger the quagmire had become. 

So my journey was a slow and circuitous one marked by cautious steps, intuitive leaps and investigative prods with my walking pole. The spell of dry weather we'd had at the time certainly made life easier for me - I don't think I'd recommend doing it after all the rain we've had recently, you'd probably arrive looking like a champion mud wrestler.

Obligatory selfie taken, I very vaguely retraced my steps across the peat. I was well-primed for my lunch now and once I'd climbed back over the fence I found a rock to sit on and survey my route back, which lay before me in the afternoon sun, while I ate my butties.

Brown Knoll living up to its reputation
Brown Knoll trig column.
At the trig.
Lunch with a view - South Head (l) and Mount Famine (r)

Belly full, it was time now to make for my final two hills, South Head and Mount Famine, which lay below me to the west. I'd rejoined the paved path and though the paved element of it disappeared after a while as I headed downhill, the  
Heading down to South Head.
trail was still well-established and good walking. As with Brown Knoll's summit, I could imagine it being quite a different experience after a spell of wet weather. 

As I neared South Head, I spotted a walker ahead of me. He was close to the top well before I got to the base, which was handy photographically as his figure silhouetted against the path gave a sense of scale to the hillside.

It's a steep pull up to the top of South Head, the summit of which is marked by a cairn, but in terms of distance it's a relatively short climb from the Pennine Bridleway (which runs between it and Mount Famine). And it's definitely well worth the effort for the views you get from the top. The walker who'd overtaken me was long gone so I had the place to myself apart from a skylark that fluttered and sang in the sky above me. Chinley Churn, the first hill of the day, lay across the valley; the village of Chinley, nestling below it, looked tiny and I realised I clearly had some way still to walk. I had a little rest here and some water before heading down the other side, where I would cross the bridleway to begin my climb up Mount Famine. 

Approaching South Head.
A walker nearing the summit of South Head.
My only companion at the top.
Looking over to my final hill of the day, Mount Famine.
Chinley Churn and Cracken Edge from the summit of South Head.

Both hills are somewhat elongated in shape, with ridges along their summit, though that isn't always apparent from some angles. Mount Famine is definitely the more interesting of the two, not so much for its slightly greater height but for its undulating length and the outcrops of rock that erupt from its eastern edges. I wandered to the far end of the ridge, standing above the valley where I'd encountered the sheep and looking across to Kinder, before retracing my steps back to the bridleway. I could have re-joined the bridleway by following the path down from the northern end of Mount Famine but I was conscious that it would likely mean crossing one of the fields of cows I'd encountered earlier and I didn't fancy walking through them again, whether they were lying down or not. 

A little pool at the base of Mount Famine.
Looking back across to Kinder, with Swine's Back near the centre and Brown Knoll to the right.
The ridge along the top of Mount Famine.
The diagonal path (from l to r)  I'd taken down the hillside earlier that day, leading to the River Sett.
South Head from Mount Famine.

Back down at the A624 I began another unpleasant walk along the verges of this busy road, sometimes crossing back and forth to find secure footing or stepping into the road itself to avoid overgrown bushes and tree branches. Fortuitously, just at the moment when it  
The Lamb Inn.
really started to get on my nerves, I found myself passing The Lamb Inn (here "passing" is defined as "making a beeline for", just to prevent any confusion).

Suitably refreshed by a cold pint of shandy, I carried on a little way down Chapel Road before joining a public footpath that led me west across farmland, shown on the map as Monk's Meadows Farm. There was a very real sense that my day was coming full circle now, as I soon encountered another warning sign, this time advising that there was a bull in the field I was about to enter. I wish I could say my encounters with our bovine friends so far had allayed my fear of them but it hadn't and I walked very gingerly across the edge of the field. There were cattle
on the far side but whether there was a bull among them I couldn't tell and I was in no hurry to find out. There was a path on the map, though there was nothing to see on the ground and this followed a wall. I kept to this boundary and the sight of a pair of llamas (or were they alpaca?) on the other side took my mind off the bovine threat just for a minute or two at least. 

The next field contained merely a few sheep and tufts of coarse grass. I could cope with that and the effect was actually quite picturesque, despite the sodden ground that squelched and sometimes sank alarmingly underfoot. There was no discernible path on the ground in any of the pastures I'd crossed since passing Monk's Meadows Farm and I'm guessing these rights of way aren't used that often. As I crossed this final field, though, there was a little stone bridge across Otter Brook, whether for the farmer's convenience or that of ramblers I'm not sure.

At least they look friendlier than a bull.
Nearly back at my starting point.
The bridge over Otter Brook.

Full circle.
It wasn't long before I was back on Maynestone Road and walking back into Chinley, where I was dismayed to find a dearth of pubs in the village centre. This was one of those randomly-occurring occasions where I had somehow timed my arrival perfectly to have an relaxing hour with a beer and some crisps before my next train but the nearest pub was pretty much the one I'd just come from - and I thanked my lucky stars I'd made the unprecedented decision to stop there while my walk was still ongoing.

Glumly I made my way to the train station. It was still relatively early in the afternoon and the sun was pounding down. The platforms of Chinley station sit exposed in the middle of the two railway lines, with no shade. Only an enclosed flexiglass shelter, cunningly designed to maximise the uncomfortable heat of a summer day, offers an alternative to a weary traveller with half a litre of warm water and one remaining sweaty cheese sandwich. I decided to sit it out in the open air and resolved that though I might use Chinley as a base for launching many walks, never again would I end a day's hiking in its barren, pub-free environs...

Date: June 2015

Walk length: 18.75 km

Total ascent: 829 metres



  1. Thanks for the enjoyable blog. Should you ever be in this neck of the woods again, there are two excellent pubs in Whitehough, a half-mile or so down the road from Chinley. And the Navigation at Buxworth is a great little place too, though a bit further from Chinley. I'm biased, being local, but I think these hills west of the main bulk of the Pennines are a fantastic area for walking.

  2. Cheers, Dave! And thanks for the tip on the pubs. I've been to the Navigation actually - had a pint and some chips, if I remember rightly after a walk up to Eccles Pike (we'd parked by the canal basin). I completely agree about the hills around this area, they're great for short and long walks. We'd move over that way like a shot if we could. Best wishes, Justin.