Wednesday 22 June 2016

Here Be Dragons: Chrome Hill and Parkhouse Hill

"Chattering Charteris"
Sadly none of the Ordnance Survey maps for the upper Dove Valley bear the legend "Hic sunt dracones" but you could be forgiven for thinking you've stumbled across a pair of sleeping dragons when you first see the distinctive knobbly ridges of Chrome Hill and its companion, Parkhouse Hill, in the distance. These hills nestle in the shadow of Axe Edge Moor, just south of Buxton, and while they might be relatively small prominences compared to the moorland heights of the Dark Peak, they still provide challenges of their own to the walker, with narrow summit paths and steep sides you certainly wouldn't want to take a tumble down. Parkhouse Hill in particular, whichever end you approach it from, has precipitous slopes that test both your knees and your balance.

Our walk started from the small village of Earl Sterndale, most notable for its curiously-named pub, The Quiet Woman. The unfortunate woman in question (who appears on the pub sign, minus her head but still admirably devoted to her job) was allegedly the overly-talkative wife of a former innkeeper, "Chattering" Charteris. When she took to nagging him in her sleep as well as their waking hours, he lopped off her head. The story doesn't say what happened to the innkeeper in the end but in the short term the villagers had a whip round to help him buy a headstone for his wife's grave -  an uplifting story of how small communities can pull together in times of unexpected financial need from one perspective, I suppose, though I doubt poor Chattering Charteris would have seen it that way.

Friday 17 June 2016

Muncaster Fell

Once my knee seemed to be in fairly decent condition again, I was eager to head back out into the hills, especially as I had spent my downtime plotting and saving numerous walks on OS maps. One of the first ones we wanted to do was Muncaster Fell: I was attracted by the fact that the south western fells of the Lake District tend to be less busy at the weekend than the more famous hills to their north; Rich was persuaded by the fact that I had tied in a ride on a heritage railway - the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway -  as part of our trip.

So it was, in early March,  we found ourselves heading for Ravenglass, the small coastal village by the castle at the southern end of Muncaster Fell. It was a beautiful morning as we made our way from the M6 towards the Irish Sea and snow-dusted hills rarely look so fine as they do in gleaming contrast with a bright blue sky. I had plotted what I thought would be the most picturesque route - over Thwaites Fell. The sat-nav backed me up on this being the shortest journey to Ravenglass too. And it was indeed a beautiful panorama that spread out all around us, albeit one that was difficult to fully appreciate during our nerve-wracking, slow progress along the wet and icy, one-vehicle-wide road across this wintry high ground. 

Crossing Thwaites Fell.

Wednesday 8 June 2016

Bleaklow to Crook Hill

Joining the Pennine Way at Snake Pass summit.
Incidental footpaths that wander off from the side of my route always fascinate me and one that I noticed on my trip up onto Bleaklow last December had played on my mind since. I had been walking north on the Pennine Way and crossing the head of Hern Clough when I noticed a narrow trail - really barely more than a sheep trod in places - winding its way east, above the course of the stream. I wanted to explore but I was conscious that I had already extended my planned route to take in Bleaklow Head so I stuck to my course and made a mental note to look it up on the map later.

Tuesday 7 June 2016

A Hope Valley Ramble - Windy Knoll, Peveril Castle, Castleton and Winnats Pass

A knee injury in December meant that I was unable to get any decent walking in for the last couple of weeks of 2015 and most of January 2016. Towards the end of January, however, I tested my knee out on a couple of short, flattish walks without any problems and so I decided early in February to give my legs a bit of a proper work out to see how the troublesome joint would bear up. I plotted a route around the Hope Valley and a somewhat convoluted one it turned out to be too, as I tried to squeeze various landmarks I hadn't before visited all in the one day. The weather forecast wasn't great but it did at least promise to be dry during daylight hours and, after a month or so of only being able to look at other people's photos of the hills, I didn't need much encouragement to head out.

Mam Tor, with a very British queue forming on its lower slopes.
We parked at the National Trust car park by Mam Tor, which was - to our surprise - not particularly busy. It was blustery out but the skies were mostly blue, broken up by scudding clouds from the west, and we'd supposed that spaces would be at a premium given the run of poor weather we'd had over recent weekends. The Great Ridge and Mam Tor particularly can be a bit of a conveyor belt most dry weekends (and many wet ones too), so we walked down the lane a little before crossing over and following a footpath onto Windy Knoll that would take us in the opposite direction. 

I'd seen a curiously sculpted outcrop here from the road on previous visits to the area and wondered about its origins were - a glance at the map showed it to be a disused quarry, though now reclaimed by nature and overgrown with turf. I couldn't resist leaving the path to investigate the shallow depression this past industry had left and once there I found an amphitheatre-like space that afforded fine views back to Mam Tor and along the ridge to Win Hill; beyond that distinctive prominence, Bamford Edge and Stanage Edge loured over the valley on the horizon.

The old quarry workings at Windy Knoll.
Inside the "amphitheatre" with the distinctive summit of Winhill Pike to the north east.
The Great Ridge from Windy Knoll.
Win Hill again from further up, with Bamford and Stanage Edges to its right.
Rushup Edge, Mam Tor and the Great Ridge, and Win Hill

Despite the lack of cars in the car park, Mam Tor proved to be as crowded as usual when we looked back at it and we were relieved to have headed off the beaten track.

A close up of Mam Tor summit behind us.

The dimpled remains of Slitherstone Mines.
Leaving the old quarry behind, we continued to head south, climbing steadily as we passed over pasture land dotted with sheep. Windy Knoll certainly lived up to its name and the wind was fairly roaring up towards us from the upper Blackbrook Valley all the time we headed uphill. It was to be a near constant companion for most of the day. Combined with the slippery mud underfoot, which made each step slide backwards an inch or so, this made the fairly gentle slope something of an unexpected slog. It probably didn't help that we were out of condition too, following our enforced break and all the belly-busting temptations of Christmas and New Year.

Eventually - huffing and puffing as though we were scaling Kilimanjaro - we passed Oxlow House and came to a strange-looking area that was pockmarked by a series of dimples in the ground: these, it turned out, form part of the extensive remains of Slitherstone Mine, where lead ore was extracted from the late seventeenth century at the least and possibly earlier. Such remains, it seems, are now quite rare on this scale and the site is a scheduled historic monument. It certainly makes a striking impression as you walk past it and it set the tone for what was to be a day steeped in history.

Rich leads the way.
When we reached the corner of this enclosure, we turned our back on the tempting-looking summit of Eldon Hill, another site of special interest for both natural and historical reasons, and marked it out for exploration at at later date. We had time to spare but - contrary to the weather forecasts - there were occasional drops of rain blowing around and the skies to the west were beginning to look a little ominous. Signs of the generous soaking the hills had received over previous weeks were all around and the enclosed track we were on was completely flooded in places, leaving us with the quandary of whether edging along the base of the fence on one side or the base of the wall on the other would expose us to less of a soaking. Although we never really watched the TV series, we were both well aware of the oft-shown puddle clip from 'The Vicar of Dibley'. Eventually, we reached the other side without getting our feet wet and carried on our way across the farmland.

Our heading changed from east to north east once we met the Limestone Way and there were noticeably more people around, taking advantage of the break in the wet weather that the day had promised. Hurd Low rose up ahead of us across the waterlogged pastures but we carried on our bearing and followed the path down into a fold in the landscape until we reached a small gate. I was going to say that negotiating the well-trodden, watery pool of mud surrounding the gate required further nimble footwork on our part but that makes our efforts sound far more graceful than they were - we made it relatively unscathed at any rate and if the sheep were laughing at our laboured progress they were polite enough to hide it.

Hurd Low ahead of us.
Following the Limestone Way down towards Cave Dale.
The sheep hid their laughter politely as we negotiated the mire around this gate.

Cave Dale.
Here began our descent towards Cave Dale, now thankfully on firmer ground and a maintained path. As the banks of the dale began to rise up on either side of us, outcrops of limestone broke through the grass-lined slopes, reminding us that we were on the borderland between the White Peak and Dark Peak areas of the national park. The skies above us were ominously dark above us, although now and then a burst of sunlight illuminated our surroundings to magical effect. The occasional drops of rain we had felt were becoming more frequent as we reached the gate at the top of Cave Dale. Ahead of us, the path - now a riverbed with the stream of water that was flowing down it from the hill tops - dropped more steeply than it had done and the smooth stones that formed it were treacherous underfoot, with the water and mosses combining to make them extremely slippery underfoot. Our walking poles came out, less for support and more for security, and mine saved me from a tumble a couple of times.

The gorge itself is beautiful, even on the increasingly damp day we were experiencing - the steep sides, dramatically studded with limestone, frame forward views of Lose Hill while in the near view, the ruins of Peveril Castle loom over the western flank of the dale, looking as Romantic and atmospheric as any scene painted by a Walter Scott novel.

Our first glimpse of Peveril Castle, with Lose Hill behind.
The further we descend into the dale, the steeper the dramatic sides rise up above us.
Peveril Castle.

By the humming cave.
We passed a cave about halfway down and left the path - or stream, as it was today - to take a closer look. A heavy, metal grille blocked access to its black interior, from which a deep humming could be heard; presumably this was simply more rainwater from the uplands, coursing through the limestone cave systems around and below us, but it was quite an eerie sound nonetheless, like the buzzing of a giant wasps' nest and not a happy one at that.

As we regained the trail the heavens opened and the wind suddenly took on a new lease of life, seemingly funnelled downwards by the sides of the dale. There was no more lingering to admire the views now, fascinating though the steep slopes around us were and we pressed on to Castleton, passing several hardy souls whose eyes peeped out from waterproof gear into the driving rain as they headed up to the hills we'd just left behind.

An impromptu stop was called for in light of the weather and we settled on The Castle Inn. Cold and wet, I made the almost unheard of decision in a pub to forego a beer and have a hot drink instead; there was a "meal deal" on, so coffee and a toasted tea cake it was. I have to admit the earlier-than-forecast return of the wet weather had made me a bit grumpy, as I'd been looking forward to this walk for so long, but this interlude perked me up again (as food and drink invariably does) and when we ventured back outside again, I was a little more philosophical about the situation.

Medieval village defences.
The rain had eased off by the time we came out of the pub and we had a wander around the picturesque village for a while before returning to our route, passing Town Ditch Field where the lay of the land shows evidence of the protective ditch that had surrounded this community in the eleventh century. To the west, Mam Tor loomed over the village and our route now lay in that direction.

We followed the road out of the village, before taking a sharp turn down a narrow ginnel to join a public footpath across farmland. Next on our convoluted journey were the lower slopes on the eastern side of Mam Tor. The path were taking was clearly well-trodden, though we only passed a couple of people that afternoon, and we squelched our way across it and past Knowlegates Farm to reach open access land. Over the boundary stile, we found we were on a steep and very muddy incline; there were no bootprints here - but there was plenty of evidence of walkers' boots slipping under them. It was a short haul up to more level ground but it took a surprisingly long time to get there without going flat on our faces or sliding back down, Snakes and Ladders style, to the fence. Walking poles were more in the way than anything else but I made use of every branch or sturdy-looking clump of grass to hold myself steady.

Leaving the village - single file traffic only.
Mam Tor's eastern flank is next in our sights.
On open access land.

The terrain had become heath, with the coarse grasses of typical of the moors replacing the pasture we had just traversed on the outskirts of Castleton. It was much easier going underfoot too and the incline less severe, which meant the walk up to and past Mam Farm wasn't particularly challenging. Spells of drizzle had made an occasional appearance since we left the village but a glance backwards showed we had timed our walk better than we thought, as the valley behind us and Castleton itself were shrouded in mist blowing down from the tops.

A glance back down to Castleton.

It didn't take long to reach the Mam Tor Road, which had first been built in 1819  by the Sheffield Turnpike Company to bypass the older but steeper and narrower route into the valley at Winnats Pass.  Mam Tor is also known as the Shivering Mountain locally due to the instability of its eastern face, the site of an ongoing rotational landslide that has caused damage to the Mam Tor Road several times since it was built almost two hundred years ago. In 1979 the fight to maintain the road was abandoned and the buckled and shattered tarmac makes for a striking sight when you come upon it. We picked our way across this strange landscape, feeling like we were extras in a 1970s disaster movie, and then began to follow the undamaged section of the road downhill. 

The collapsed Mam Tor Road.
The collapsed Mam Tor Road.

Before long we came to Odin Mine, where lead ore was extracted going back as far as 1260 in the historical records, though of course people could well have been mining there for centuries before that. The entrance to the mine itself lay down a narrow gorge which we didn't explore but there was a cave just above the start of the gorge which we did crawl into for a look around. Across from the mine is a crushing circle from 1823, which we assumed had been for agricultural use, but it turns out it the grit millstone was for crushing the ore that came from the mine.

At Odin Mine.
The narrow gorge that leads to the mine entrance.
The cave to the left of the gorge.
The crushing circle.

At the bottom of Winnats Pass
There was one last objective on my list of places to visit on this walk and that was Winnats Pass, one of my favourite sites in the Peak District and one which never fails to make me catch my breath. It's a stunning location, overlooked by limestone towers that were once coral reefs some 300 million years ago - a mind-boggling thought that also makes me catch my breath. A few weeks prior to this walk we had been driving this route and I suddenly realised that although I'd travelled through the pass many times it had always been in a car, travelling too fast to soak up the stunning views.

We carried on down the Mam Tor Road before taking a brief shortcut across a field on a footpath to Speedwell Cavern (itself worth a visit if you are in the area) and then began the steady climb up the pass itself. It was a slow climb too, as the ground underfoot was incredibly muddy and I was loath to walk beside the trail for fear of causing further erosion: at one point my feet began sliding backwards to the point where there was no recovery and I slowly and inexorably found myself in an arched position with both my hands and my feet in the mud. It must have made entertaining viewing for the cars that were going past but I was just relieved that I had stopped myself from lying in the mud flat on my face. The slow progress did enable us to make the most of our visit, though, and climbed up the side occasionally to peer into a cave or look - in vain - for fossils in the limestone.

Some of the fascinating limestone outcrops in Winnats Pass.
Winnats Pass.
Looking back down Winnats Pass.

Commemorative plaque, Winnats Pass.
There was decorative plaque by the side of the road too, something you don't notice from the car, to commemorate all the ramblers who took part in the campaign for national parks and public access to the moorland and mountains. 

I've tried to find out if there is any significance in this location, as with the Kinder Mass Trespass plaque at Bowden Bridge, but so far haven't found anything to explain why it has been placed here specifically. If anyone reading this knows, I'd love to hear the story behind it.

Once at the top of Winnats Pass, we were not far from our starting point and it was just short hop past Winnats Head Farm and then north-west below Windy Knoll before we got back to the car. We hadn't found anywhere dry enough or sheltered enough to sit and eat the soup and and sandwiches we'd brought so - colder and damper than we expected to be - we tucked into those once we were in the car. The weather had been a bit disappointing but it had felt great to be back out walking full stop, particularly when the route had provided so much of historical interest, both geological and human.

Date: February 2016

Walk length: 11 km

Total ascent: 440 metres