Thursday 22 September 2016

Bleaklow - Wain Stones, Hern Stones and a pathless moor

With a spare day to go walking and a reasonable weather forecast yesterday, the alluring wilderness of Bleaklow was calling out to me. I'm not one to just head into the hills and see where my feet take me, though I will wander off course to explore. I like to have a route plotted out so I jumped on OS Maps and hastily strung together a convoluted trip that would take in features I'd never visited on the western fringes of the massive plateau. Butties made, flask and water bottles filled, I headed out for the train to Hadfield.

Nature's subdued colour palette as I walked the Longdendale Trail.
I've walked the Longdendale Trail several times. The last time was in the dark after a knee injury slowed my progress off Bleaklow significantly but prior to that it was in the full flow of spring, when blossom scented the air and the sides of the path were dabbed with splashes of colour from wildflowers. Today, with autumn in the air, there was almost a sepia note to the landscape around me, and I found the muted greens and browns a bit of a dispiriting start to my day. It was around 7.30 am when I left the train station and even an hour later, when I reached the Pennine Way by Torside Reservoir, there was mist hanging over the valley in the direction of Woodhead.

It certainly wasn't cold though and I'd taken my soft shell off by now and stowed it away. I'd paused to do so at a convenient wooden bench along the trail but was driven away cursing, jacket in one hand and open backpack swinging crazily in the other, by a territorial wasp that was outraged at my making temporary use of his facilities. Perhaps the end of summer and the increasingly dark mornings had made him irritable. Sitting here now, bleary-eyed and reaching for my second mug of builders' tea, I can relate, even if I wasn't feeling very sympathetic at the time.

Joining the Pennine Way at the bottom of Torside Clough.

There were still traces of mist as I looked east towards Woodhead.

The Pennine Way traces the south-western side of Torside Clough. I think it's one of the most appealing routes on or off Bleaklow and, as a bonus, it's one that doesn't make any great challenges in terms of negotiation or exertion. The initial section is quite a steep pull up, it's true, and I was glad to be only in a t-shirt for this, but that's soon over and from then on the path's ascent is relatively gentle - although there are some minor ups-and-downs along the way. It's best to not get too carried away here, as I once discovered, for the rocks and mud underfoot can be treacherously slippy and there are plenty of loose stones waiting to twist an unwary ankle or, in my case, knee. All in all though, it makes for an easy walk up with great views.

Long Gutter Edge below Torside Naze across the clough.
Looking up into Torside Clough.
A look back down from further along the Pennine Way.
Nearing the head of Torside Clough.

At the head of the clough there's a ford, where two brooks meet on their way down from the peat hags and livid green mosses of the moorland above; I followed the Pennine Way east here, alongside Wildboar Grain, but noted with satisfaction the clear path that led to the ford alongside the other stream - my route involved me returning via this path later on.

My route back to the Pennine Way would follow a path above this clough.
The ford at the head of Torside Clough.
The Pennine Way keeps left of this stream, Wildboar Grain.

The sunlight catches Harrop Moss and Glossop Low to the west,
looking back from the Pennine Way.
The weather was improving steadily as I walked from here up to Bleaklow Head, not a strenuous task by any means. Behind me, blue skies began to dominate the skies above the flat upland of Harrop Moss and Peaknaze Moor. Ahead the morning sunlight was still strained through a layer of low cloud but it was surprisingly strong even so; fortunately, out of the clough, there was a breeze which prevented the heat from being too energy-sapping.

I gave the password to the sheep that guarded Bleaklow Head and, with his leave, made my way to the cairn and post, which always strikes me as a rather understated marker for such a huge and hugely fascinating hill. Job done, the sheep was having a sit down at his station when I looked back - either that or his legs had sunk into the peat mound he'd been standing on.

"Who goes there?"
"Don't ask me, I'm on my break..."

I wandered around a little bit and climbed onto one of the hags near the cairn. The light wasn't proving conducive to long-range photographs but it did cast an otherworldly glow over the plateau to the north east. Sadly my picture doesn't come anywhere near to capturing how magical the waves of grass looked in reality.

To the north east, Bleaklow was bathed in light.

Next stop was the Wain Stones, which I'd never visited before. Also sometimes referred to as the "Kissing Stones", for obvious reasons if you look at them from the right position, they have been much photographed over the years by walkers and professional photgraphers alike. I took a couple of snaps myself, of course, before sitting down for a coffee and some Wine Gums behind the least amorous of the rocks. The wind had picked up now and I was feeling a bit chilly, despite the hot drink, so I put my jacket back on.

Looking back to Bleaklow Head as I walked to the Wain Stones.
The Wainstones - I had a coffee break by the stand-offish Wainstone on the left.
The "kissing stones".
Looking south towards the Higher Shelf Stones in the distance.

The Hern Stones.
From my improvised seat, I could see the Hern Stones, another gritstone outcrop that had been weathered over the centuries into a fantastical natural sculpture. There was a footpath shown on the OS map, which was - just - visible on the ground too and I set off along it, on a bog-trotting journey south.

I kept an eye out for a further path leading off from this one halfway to the Hern Stones - this was to be my route back to the top of Torside Clough. There was nothing to see and the path I was on frequently disappeared itself or split into increasingly indistinct trails made by people trying to negotiate the wet crossing.

By some miracle, I arrived at the Hern Stones with my boots dry on the inside. They make for quite a handsome rock formation and I think I preferred them to the Wain Stones, though perhaps over-familiarity with the latter from photos had blunted my enthusiasm. As I was about to leave, another walker appeared from the same direction as I'd come, the first person I'd seen since I first left the Longdendale Trail a couple of hours before. We briefly exchanged greetings before I retraced my steps across the wet moor and he and his dog - a handsome, glossy black animal called Jess - continued south across Shelf Moor.

The Hern Stones.
The Hern Stones.

Having reached the supposed junction with the path heading west across Shelf Moss, I realised that this was going to be an off-piste walk for a while. If there ever was a path here, it's obviously disappeared from lack of use and I didn't see a single boot print for a good while. Visibility was good enough for me to see where I was heading and I used the GPS on my phone to periodically check I was still following the black dashes on the map. It was slow going, though, forcing my way through overgrown sheep-trods in the heather and, where I could, following the course of the one of the many, extended groughs that curve their way through the peat towards Torside Clough.

Crossing Shelf Moss.
Crossing Shelf Moss.

Back on track - for reference, the path is the waterway on the left...
To my surprise and relief, the ground was dry all around here, even in those deep groughs. It would have been pretty unpleasant if the land was as boggy as the walk to the Hern Stones. Some of the passages through the peat were sandy and rocky, others were bright green with moss, which I tried (successfully) to avoid treading on as I picked my way across the moor.

Eventually, the semblance of a trail appeared as I came to the side of the stream that would meet up with Wildboar Grain. It became more pronounced the closer I got to Torside Clough, though even high above the brook it was quite waterlogged in places. My progress here was quicker than it felt at the time: looking down on the confluence of two streams, I said to myself how picturesque it looked before I suddenly realised I'd already arrived back at the ford I'd crossed an hour or so previously.

Crossing Harrop Moss.
I rejoined the Pennine Way here for a short while, heading back along the edge of Torside Clough in a reversal of my route earlier. Eventually I reached a stone-built grouse butt called "The Pulpit", which is impossible to miss.

At this point I climbed up a slippery, peat slope to join another path that heads west across Harrop Moss. This is a grouse-shooting moor and the evidence of it was all around - grey patches where the heather had been burned, grouse butts and wooden walkways across the widest groughs.

These bridges and boards were old and weathered and in a state of disrepair and I proceeded cautiously: one board had sunk at least ankle-deep in the dank, blackened water it covered and another bridge was falling apart, both the handrail and the boards underfoot. Old and broken planks of wood lay strewn across the peat and, frankly, the whole place looked a bit of a mess; considering the sums people pay to grouse-shoot, I would have thought the people managing the area would at least ensure the boardwalks were maintained safely.

The most interesting feature, just after leaving the Pennine Way, was Torside Castle - not some decrepit Gothic pile, wreathed in mist and bats, but the remains of a Bronze Age fort. The earthworks are covered in moorland foliage now but it is a large structure and stands out distinctly from the upland on which it sits.

Torside Castle

The cairn at the top of Glossop Low.
One advantage of the grouse shooting that occurs here is that the path I was on was perfectly clear and easy to follow, something I appreciated all the more after dragging my sorry feet across a mile or more of peat, rock and heather just recently. I was heading  for Glossop Low, which paradoxically enough is the name awarded to one of the hills high above Glossop, and I could see pretty much my entire journey cutting a line through the moorland ahead of me.

The upper slopes of Glossop Low were grassier and firm underfoot. As I arrived at the Glossop Low Hut - the four remaining corners of what must have once been a fine-looking, stone shooting cabin - a farmer drew up nearby in his truck. He got out with two collies and proceeded to round up some startled-looking sheep, who until then had been grazing mindlessly all over the summit. Hungry and not wanting to get in the way, I headed uphill to the cairn and sat there to watch while I ate my lunch. It took a while for him to go about his business but I suddenly felt quite tired (I hadn't slept well the night before) so I was grateful for the rest.

Glossop Low Hut.
"I wonder why we've been asked to meet here?"

Cock Hill trig column.
My walk was all-but-over now. Once the farmer and his livestock had disappeared, I followed a narrow but clear path south-west to Cock Hill. It was easy walking and down hill so I found myself at the trig point before I knew it. I could see Glossop below, sheltered by the hills and moors around it, and in the immediate vicinity were the remains of what must have been a decent-sized quarry back in the day. All that remains now is a curious landscape of grass humps and sheered off rocks. I briefly toyed with the idea of going down to explore more before taking the lazy option and continuing along the path above the abandoned workings.

I could see a walled lane below, Charles Lane, which was my route into Glossop and which I'd seen described as "a charming walled lane" somewhere online. It kept its charms well-hidden yesterday, however: running down the centre was a dank ditch, full of coarse grass, while the semblance of a path was a ribbon of mud on a small but steep bank between the ditch and the broken stone wall.

Looking back up to the quarries.
Charles Lane.

It seemed to go on for a long while, though the lane became more lane-like once I'd passed a couple of tree plantations on my right. I wasn't particularly enjoying this part of the walk but the wind in the trees sounded like waves breaking on a shore in the distance and this cheered me up a little.

Eventually, I came to the outskirts of Old Glossop and it was an uneventful stroll to the railway station from here. It was a bit of a mixed day, perhaps because I was tired from only having had a few hours sleep but also because I'd found Harrop Moss rather depressing. I love walking across the moors, they're such exhilarating, life-filled places but Harrop Moss had seemed dour, colourless and a mess with all the broken boards littering the peat; it was very much what most people's idea of a moor is like if they've never visited one. I can't see myself returning to Cock Hill or Harrop Moss any time soon but I did really enjoy visiting the Wain and Hern Stones, and Bleaklow itself was as wild and awe-inspiring as ever of course.

Date: September 2016

Walk length: 19.5 km

Total ascent: 675 metres

Friday 9 September 2016

Aran Fawddwy

After you've driven past Lake Bala on the way to the coast, a line of hills to the south east of the A494 can't help but catch your eye. It starts in relatively humble fashion with the rocks of Moel Ddu in the north but a ridge of increasingly high, rugged crags draws your gaze steadily upwards as the range stretches out to the south. Frustratingly, as the Aran mountains rise ever more magnificently above you, the road you're following begins to descend and pull away to the west, leaving their tempting summits hidden behind the slopes of smaller hills and screens of tree plantations. The highest of these mountains is Aran Fawddwy, at 905 metres (2969 feet) above sea level. I originally planned a walk to its summit along the ridge from the north but the logistics of turning this into a circular route proved difficult and made for a very long day that would've already involved a two-hour drive from Manchester just to get to the starting point.

Making our way into Cwm Cywarch.
Instead, I settled on an approach from the south, starting in the secluded valley of Cwm Cwyarch. I was a little dejected at the thought of missing out on the airy walk up the ridge I'd looked at so many times but once we were on the tiny, single lane into (and out of) the valley, any lingering sense of disappointment melted in the face of the beautiful vista that opened up around us. At one point we stopped the car to get a picture or two of the scenery that awaited us further ahead.

Monday 5 September 2016

Axe Edge Moor via Three Shire Heads

Flash. The old school is the white building on the left.
It's always a nice feeling to finally get to a location that's been beckoning to you from photographs and walking sites for many years and last week I managed to tick off visiting Three Shire Heads on my bucket list. 

I'd attempted the walk earlier this year with Rich, setting off from Flash in Staffordshire (Britain's highest village it is claimed, though not without dispute), but we'd had to abandon our plans partway along due to flooding.