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.

When I did so, the pathless moorland on the OS map hardly sounded promising: the clough led down to an flat expanse marked out by names such as The Swamp and Grains in the Water, and neither of those seemed to promise easy or dry walking. I was still intrigued though, in fact all the more so because from the far side of this seemingly bog-ridden valley, sunken into Bleaklow's vast plateau, the River Alport begins its journey down to the River Ashop. I had stood at Alport Castles and traced the course of the Alport back up the valley until it disappeared from sight, curious to know where it had come from and now I had the opportunity to connect these two intriguing lines.

Cuckoo Flower, also known as Lady's-smock.
So it was I found myself at the summit of Snake Pass a few weeks ago, where Rich had dropped me off at the ever-popular lay-by on his way to Bamford. There were several empty cars parked up but not a soul was to be seen across the wild moorland landscape of Featherbed Moss behind me or Bleaklow in front. And that is exactly how I like my moorland excursions if at all possible. As I set off along the Pennine Way northwards I was far from alone, however, as the heather and grassland all around me was ringing with birdsong more varied and more plentiful than I had ever heard up here before. I am used to the occasional call of the skylark and seeing them overhead as I tramp along but this was something else; it made for an uplifting start to the morning and I hoped that it wasn't my presence that was causing them to be so vocal, especially given it was late spring and prime breeding season.

Keeping an eye on me.
Despite the lack of sunshine, the weather was pretty good for walking - the overcast skies weren't so heavy as to cast a pall over the hills, visibility was pretty good and there was a breeze just strong enough to stop me feeling over-warm. The weather had been relatively dry the week before and the going underfoot was easy so that I made pretty good time along the Pennine Way and soon bade farewell to the Higher Shelf Stones on my left as I headed into the increasingly tall peat hags. The chorus of birds had faded now and only the sound of my own feet kept me company, though at one point a grouse did pop his head up to check what I was doing. He was unfazed when I pointed my camera at him - I hope for his sake that he becomes more worldly-wise before the Glorious Twelfth!

The Higher Shelf Stones to the west of the Pennine Way.
The peat hags on either side of the path begin to grow taller.
A look back at where I'd come from - beyond that, Kinder Scout is on the horizon to the left.
Bleaklow at its most characteristic.

I arrived at Hern Clough in short time and followed the Pennine Way westwards to its head, whence I made a sharp turn eastwards, leaving the trail to follow the narrow path I had seen last December. Bleaklow has a well-deserved reputation for being a navigational black spot in poor weather conditions - indeed some of the faint paths around Bleaklow Head can be confusing on a fair day - but today my route was fairly clear in front of me; beyond Alport Clough, Derwent Moor and Derwent Edge dominated the horizon.

Looking north east across Bleaklow towards Bleaklow Stones.
Approaching the head of Hern Clough.
My target lies dead ahead, the fold in the moorland in the distance; my path goes down the clough on the left of the stream.

Looking back up Hern Clough.
Accompanied by the garrulous trickle and splash of the brook as it made its way down the clough, forming cascades and pools as it went, I took it fairly steady as I too headed downhill. Now and then the path I was following broadened out (relatively at least!) but a lot of the time, particularly on the higher ground near the top of the clough, it was very narrow and muddy - you'd be extremely unlucky to meet your maker if you left it inadvertently but a tumble down the rock-strewn sides could easily twist an ankle or break an arm and I wasn't taking any chances.

Gradually the gradient became more and more gentle and the ground levelled out, providing me with a full view of this shallow valley tucked away deep in the heart of Bleaklow. Aside from an interesting outcrop of stones higher up on its northern side, I suppose it was rather featureless spot. To me at the time, however, the bleak, muted colours - pale greens and browns, brightened in spots by the slightly-grubby cream of a grazing sheep - and sense of wilderness were potently atmospheric; it felt like I had journeyed many more miles from civilisation that I actually had and I revelled in it.

Looking across The Swamp and Grains in the Water.
Looking north east.
Should I make a detour to this?

The occasional bog provided added bright green to the moor's muted palette.
The warm, rain-free spell we'd had just prior to my walk had dried out the ground underfoot to a surprising degree and neither The Swamp nor Grains in the Water lived up to their evocative names; there was an occasional bog, close to the many becks that flowed down from the sides of the valley, which provided a welcome splash of bright green when you hit upon them, but it looked to be a pleasant and springy walk ahead of me. So much so in fact that I toyed with the idea of a diversion to the rocks at the northern end of the valley; I rested a while and had a swig or two of water while I contemplated this - there were no paths heading that way that I could see and while they didn't look as though they would involve a particularly steep climb I knew from experience how deceptively gentle the rolling moorland landscape can appear. I decided to leave them for another trip and pressed on, not without a regretful look back though.

The infant River Alport begins its journey downhill from Bleaklow.
Pretty soon, as I drew near to the head of Alport Clough, all my attention was diverted to the way forward. The infant River Alport had looked like a stream I could simply step across when it first came into view but as I got to its banks it became clear that I'd need much longer legs than I've so far grown to manage that. I wandered back and forth for a while, looking for a narrower spot or perhaps a substantial stone to help me on my way; I could see the path on the hillside beyond the river and I could see evidence at various spots that the far river bank had been eroded by the tread of previous visitors (some of whom, it appeared, had slid backwards into the water). The only rocks I could find looked treacherously slippery so I decided I would have to jump it. I picked what seemed the narrowest point with the least trodden down bank on the other side, took a run and hoped for the best. When my feet hit the opposite bank, for a split second things could have gone either way but thankfully the fact I'd picked a spot that wasn't eroded gave me the opportunity to get some purchase and I threw myself forward. I landed flat on my face on the ground, not a very graceful landing either, but thankfully dry and in good humour at the adventure.

The narrow path on the side of Alport Clough
The path now clung to the hillside and wended its way into Alport Dale. Like that in Hern Clough, it was a narrow, mud track and one that I proceeded along at a fairly decent pace but with due care - the river and bottom of the clough was dropping away to my right now and the sides of the clough were far steeper and taller than I had walked earlier in the day, and would rise up to several hundred feet above the river bed eventually. Waterfalls fed the river from Alport Moor, some of these tumbling over rock outcrops into the valley below. It was an impressive view down the clough, testament to the power of weather and water over seemingly immutable landscapes. 

I left the path to peer down into the twisting ravine below and by a stroke of luck found a flat rock sticking out like a chair above the most picturesque spot. Having worked up quite an appetite, I needed no second bidding to take a pew and get out the coffee and sandwiches.

Suitably refreshed, I carried on along the trail. I had marked out a route that left this path halfway along the clough as I wanted to visit the trig column above me on Westend Moor, figuring it would offer me some good views - and having spent more than half of my walk so far on low ground enclosed by higher moorland, I was glad I had made that decision. Grindlesgrain Tor, an gritstone scar high up on the western side of Alport Clough was my cue to climb and when it came into view I looked up.

A seat with a view made for a good lunch spot.
Exposed rock on the far side of Alport Clough.
One of the waterfalls below Alport Moor.
Grindlesgrain Tor.
Time for a climb.
Looking across to Alport Moor when I reached the top of the clough.

The slope was steep, though not precipitously so, and I was already walking about a third of the way up the side of the clough. It was probably a couple of hundred feet or so from where I was to the top. I took a deep breath and headed upwards. It was hard work, I have to admit, especially with my backpack on, and I had to use my hands almost as much as my feet for most of it. I'd picked a route with decent size rocks sticking out, which aided in heaving myself up, and I was pleased to find a field of stones near the top which meant I could stand and walk the last few metres instead of climbing them. I surprised myself by how quickly I managed to get up to the top and turned with some satisfaction to survey Alport Moor, with which I was now on a level.

Heading for the trig.
Heather, hags and tussocks were the order of the day now and - for obvious reasons, having appeared on the moor from nowhere as it were - I found there were no paths on the ground. I wasn't far from the trig column, though, and I knew in which direction it lay, so I set a course and bounced across the dry and springy peat towards it.

Eventually the column came into view and I was there before I knew it. I took the obligatory selfie, of course, and a panoramic shot of the surrounding moors, only to find at home that evening that my thumb contrived to find its way in front of the lens in the latter. 

Shortly after this, as I set off from the trig point for Alport Castles, a bird began making an agitated piping noise. Eventually, I spotted it when it suddenly flew further away from the path to what it considered a safer distance. This time I was in no doubt that I had caused the bird's distress and clearly, although I hadn't stepped from the well-walked path, I was too close to its ground nest for comfort. It was quite far from me now and I had to extend my zoom to its fullest but I managed to get a couple of clear enough shots to identify it later as a golden plover, a bird I've not seen before.

Westend Moor trig column.
The golden plover.
The golden plover.

I was heading south east now and the path from the summit of Westend Moor ran along the edge of Alport Dale, into which Alport Clough had broadened out. The river curled its way through farmland below me now, with cattle grazing in some of the pasture by its side and the slopes on the far side of the valley were lined by a plantation of conifers. The route I was following was a broad, well-trodden one and it was nice not to have to worry about steep drops as I ambled along in a relaxed frame of mind, particularly as a crumbling dry stone wall separated me from the edge above the dale.

Alport Dale opens out below me.
The dry stone wall provides a useful handrail if heading from Westend Moor trig to Alport Castles.

Bird hide at Alport Castles.
I was surprised to find a small hut when I got to Alport Castles, which turned out to be a bird hide. I'm guessing this temporary fixture is because there are peregrine falcons nesting in the majestic cliffs here; wary of disturbing anyone I crept past and aimed for a spot further along where I could sit with a coffee and look down on The Tower. It was at this point that I saw the first other walkers of the day; following in my footsteps from Birchin Hat, I assumed they had come up the intersecting footpath from Howden Reservoir (the route I had taken down when I first visited Alport Castles). I only saw them briefly though and I presume they went inside the hide to watch for the falcons, as when I glanced back from the superb views below me they had disappeared.

It was hard to tear myself away from Alport Castles, which I think is one of the most stunning and fascinating locations in the Peak District, but I had been dawdling a little since I climbed up to Westend Moor, complacent because I had made good time earlier on in the day. Once on my way, I paused to take in the curious land formations around Little Moor, before carrying on to Rowlee Pasture.

The Tower at Alport Castles and the cliffs where the falcons nest.
Where I sat for my coffee break.
A view south of Alport Castles and Alport Dale.

I'd forgotten that a large section of the path here had been paved to prevent erosion and damage to the moorland habitat and soon made up the time I'd lost. Crossing what from a distance looked like a field of porcupines, I soon arrived at Hagg Side plantation. Most of the day so far had seen me surrounded by the muted colours of the moors and the cloud cover had reinforced that; brighter greens had appeared in Alport Dale and as I crossed Rowlee Pasture I got views of lusher vegetation and trees that were made even more vibrant by the sunshine that was now beginning to make an appearance.

Can that be a porcupine farm ahead?
Win Hill ahead and the increasingly lush greenery that marked out this last section of my walk.

The bridleway skirted the south- western edge of the trees before heading across open farmland at Bridge-end Pasture. I have to admit I proceeded rather tentatively here and across the next couple of fields, keeping an eye out for cattle. Thankfully, all I could see were sheep and by the time I reached the top of Bridge-end Pasture I was rewarded with fine views of the Great Ridge on the southern side of the Vale of Edale and of my final destination of the day, Crook Hill.

The Great Ridge.
Crook Hill; behind it, Bamford Edge (l) and Winhill Pike (r).

As always seems to be the way, particularly when you're tiring at the end of a hike, the shapely twin summits of Crook Hill required me to head downhill before climbing up their sharply-inclined slopes; it also proved to be one of those devious hills that hides its true summit behind a false one, which I discovered with a groan. I had started out at lunchtime, in pleasantly cool weather, but paradoxically the day had begun to get sunnier and warmer even as it drew to a close. The summit itself was studded with rocks, the sort of place I would have loved exploring and clambering over as child - well, I enjoyed it as a bloke closer to 50 than 40 years old too, if truth be told. I stood at the top and soaked up the views all around for a while.

Approaching the summit of Crook Hill.
The Kinder plateau dominates the horizon to the west.
Derwent Edge stretches away to the north.
To the east, beyond Ladybower Reservoir:  Bamford Edge (r) and Stanage Edge (l).
To the south: the colourful Wiseman Hey Clough Plantation below Win Hill.

"Does that bloke over there
look lost to you?"
I made my way down across a small col to the second, slightly lower summit and wandered around a little, looking for evidence of the location's megalithic past from this vantage point. Apparently two stones from what was once a stone circle remain standing somewhere within the hill's boundaries but I couldn't spot them.

Occasionally Lost by name, occasionally lost by nature, I took my eye off the ball here and followed a path downward to the south-east without really thinking: it got me a third of the way down before abruptly disappearing on a very steep - too much so to comfortably walk - slope. Tired and hot, I cursed myself roundly and made a very slow, sweaty climb back up to where I had just been to retrace my route back over the summit. Heading downhill in the correct direction now, I able to join a track down to Crookhill Farm, a National Trust owned property.

Pausing to say hello to the horses in the farmyard, I made my way now down to the unnamed road that leads to Fairholmes and Derwent Reservoir. Here I was on flat ground again, turning right to make for Ashop Viaduct - I didn't even know the bridge over Ladybower Reservoir had a name until that moment, when I passed the plaque on the bridge wall and crossed the Snake Road. I'd like to say it was just a short walk from here to the Ladybower Inn, which is what it seemed from memory and looked like on the map, but with a pint of bitter shandy waiting there for me courtesy of Rich it seemed like it went on for ever.

Passing through the farmyard at Crookhill Farm.
You learn something new every day.
Looking north up Ladybower Reservoir from Ashopton Viaduct.

Finally I made it - hungry, thirsty and elated. Bleaklow had enchanted me again and I spent the meal we had regaling Rich with descriptions of its uniquely desolate charms, though I'm not sure he was completely convinced. On the consistently high quality of the food at the Ladybower Inn, however, there was no discord between us and their excellent cheese and onion pie made for a fitting finale to a great afternoon's walking.

Date: May 2016

Walk length: 18 km

Total ascent: 539 metres



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