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. 

This time I was walking with my brother, Matt, (itself a long-awaited event!) and for our day out  I resurrected the route that I'd previously plotted. We parked in a large lay-by on the A53, just below Oliver Hill and a short stroll along Brown Lane from Flash itself. 

As on my last visit there, the tiny village - little more than a hamlet, though the presence of a church prevents it from being defined as such in Britain - was deserted. We paused briefly by the pub, formerly the village school, surprised that such a small or remote community would have had so large an educational establishment in 1760, when it was founded.

It didn't take long to leave the handsome, old buildings of Flash behind and we soon found ourselves heading quite steeply downhill. 

The views were extensive from this vantage point, though sadly the visibility wasn't as good as on my previous visit when the air was clearer and the mountains of Wales could be made out - albeit hazily - on the skyline. 

We could still see the Roaches to the south west, however, and Shutlingsloe's summit put in an appearance to the north west, though somewhat less pointedly than it does from other angles; between these notable features, verdant farmland and woods clothed a series of rolling hills and the deep folds that separated them.

Looking north west - Shutlingsloe on the horizon.
Looking west.
Lunching alone.

We left the lane by Far Brook, heading north and downhill all the while, until we came to a narrow, fenced-in bridleway that was to take us to Wicken Walls. We were about halfway along here when we spotted a couple of horses ahead - we started to clamber up the precariously steep bank of grass on our left to allow the riders to pass but they called us forward to a passing place and once we got there it became clear why, as there were about fifteen further horses from a local riding school behind the two we'd seen. Balancing on a slippery slope of damp grass while they all passed wouldn't have been a pleasant experience so we were grateful for their courtesy.

Once we'd bade farewell to the smiling equestrians, we came to a brook crossing. Today it was easy enough to hop from rock to rock and get across but back in late March of this year, the stream had been in full spate, fed by the recent rains and melt water from the still snow-shrouded moors above. It was at this point that Rich and I had abandoned our walk.

Matt crossing the stream.
The same stream in March this year.

Today, Matt and I carried on and crossed a couple of fields to join a footpath that curves north around Turn Edge. To gain this path, we found ourselves climbing up again, which was a bit of a shock to the leg muscles after such an unremittingly downhill route so far!

Sunlight shining on the Cheshire side of the valley.
Once on this path, if your goal is Three Shire Heads, you can't go wrong as it leads directly around the hillside to the famous beauty spot. The walking was pleasant underfoot here on a sandy trail that descended very gently as you followed it. On our right, Turn Edge rose at a far sharper gradient above us and on the left the ground dropped away in a series of enclosed fields, affording views across to sloping hills on the far side of the dale. Following the course of the River Dane below us in the valley was the boundary between Staffordshire, where we were walking, and Cheshire - not far ahead was the meeting point of not just those two counties but of Derbyshire also.

Nearing Three Shire Heads.
We were lucky, given the pleasant weather and the fact that it was the last week of the school holidays, to find Three Shire Heads empty when we arrived, save for one other walker and his dogs; he had a fine-looking camera with him and, as an obvious photographer, was kind enough to hang back while we took some snaps ourselves.

This location certainly lived up to expectations. The natural basin, set in a mixture of rocks and lush greenery below the ancient, arched packhorse bridge, is called Panniers Pool since it formed a perfect spot for the pack ponies to refresh themselves with a drink as they made their laborious way across the moorland, laden with heavy panniers (saddle-bags).

Three Shire Heads wasn't just popular with thirsty ponies back in the day, however, as the location was also historically frequented by the criminal fraternity hundreds of years ago: the jurisdiction of the constables at the time was limited to their own county, enabling coiners and other ne'er-do-wells to smartly step over the border into one of the neighbouring counties and evade capture. No doubt there were quite a few noses thumbed, mentally or literally, at the hapless lawmen of the time whenever that happened. The name of Flash itself is supposedly derived from this criminal connection, with "flash" having connotations of thievery and counterfeit goods.

Panniers Pool at Three Shire Heads.
The River Dane flowing south from Panniers Pool.

We crossed packhorse bridge and joined the Dane Valley Way now, which traced a path north below Cut-thorn Hill but above the river before descending to river level and following the Dane's western bank. We were heading to Danebower Quarry now, which nestles in one of Axe Edge Moor's sheltering folds, and the path would lead us uphill again as we neared the disused stone workings - for now though, the "trail" was muddy and waterlogged and slow-going, an omen of what was to come later on.

Looking back along the water-logged riverside "path".
The path dries out as we approach Danebower Quarries at the head of the valley.

We stopped for lunch at the quarry, eschewing the small shelter to sit in the sun as we ate. We'd passed a tall chimney on our way through the workings, its isolated but seemingly unblemished tower making for a stark contrast with the ruined walls and heaps of spoil that dotted the rest of the landscape; the chimney looked as though it could be pressed back into service at a moment's notice, while all around it the heather and grass bespoke nature reasserting itself on the broken relics of human interference.

Making our way onto the disused quarry - the well-preserved chimney above the path to the left.
Nature reclaiming the land.
Heather in bloom on the abandoned workings.
Looking east from our lunch spot onto the wild moor and the source of the River Dane.

Reeve-edge Quarries.
We had to climb down a rocky slope to ford the adolescent River Dane to continue along the path, which was thankfully dry and easily-identifiable as it climbed up the hillside from the shallow stream. 

A slight trod in the grass did tempt us off-trail briefly, as it wound itself out-of-sight between two heaps of broken rock; I find it hard to resist discovering what lies around a corner or beyond a summit, so I needed no second bidding to explore this flattened ribbon of grass. It led us to Reeve-edge Quarries and what looked like an old tramway, heading out from an impressive man-made gorge, the cliffs of which had been cut into Cheeks Hill's far-western slopes.

Back on the Dane Valley Way, we followed it around the hillside towards Orchard Farm. Below us to the south west we could see the furrows in the landscape that meet at Three Shire Heads and it was surprising to find we were now so far above it. It hadn't felt like we were gaining that much in height as we walked.

Back on the Dane Valley Way - The Roaches can be seen in the distance.
Looking back down on Three Shire Heads.
Dry stone walling near Orchard Farm.

Back on track, literally! Looking south at our route from Orchard Farm.
When we got to Orchard Farm, confusion ensued - the map showed the public footpath crossing in front of the farm but the wooden sign directed us south east across a field away from the buildings; ever wary of trespassing when on farmland, we elected to follow the sign - there was no evidence of a path on the ground but there was a (non-public) path marked by a series of black dashes on the map. It was a bit of a diversion but it headed to the path we were going to follow so it didn't seem too much of a hardship until we found ourselves clambering down and up steep banks and jumping a stream to get where we needed to be. Looking back, I'm still a little curious about that sign, which - either deliberately or accidentally - has been turned to direct walkers away from the official, PROW route that goes directly past the farmhouse.

This interlude out of the way, we began to head north east now onto Axe Edge Moor. For me at least, it made a pleasant change to be away from the enclosed valleys and hillside paths (and confusing farmland) and out on open moorland, which I always find exhilarating and breathtaking. At first we were on a track but before long we were walking across the surface of the moor itself. From here, aside from an occasional post, the "path" became more of a hypothetical thing and although we were following a bearing, walking in a straight line was impossible across the water-logged ground.

Heather on Axe Edge Moor.
Heather on Axe Edge Moor.

I didn't take any photos until after we were pretty much across this section of moor as we were concentrating so much - in fact, for a long while it didn't even occur to me to look anywhere other than where I was placing my feet. It wasn't so much a case of trying to keep them dry as our feet had become soaked before the question of putting on gaiters had even begun to formulate in my brain, but rather a question of picking the spots where you'd sink the least.

Featureless moorland as far as the eye could see ahead.
At one point, thinking I was on relatively firm ground, I paused to turn and speak to Matt only to find I was standing in the middle of a quaking bog. The ground started undulating around me in all directions and it felt like I was balancing on a waterbed. I've crossed many moors and sunk into many a peaty or muddy mess but this the first time I've stood on a quaking (or featherbed) bog and I couldn't get off it quick enough. Looking for the most promising tussocks of pale grass nearby, I jumped with a wing and a prayer and made it to solid ground without breaking through the mat of vegetation I'd been standing on. This part of the day was a slog, without a doubt, and as the lane we were heading for couldn't be seen until you were practically on it, the terrain looked very bleak for what seemed at the time like miles ahead.

We crossed a few more widely-spread bogs and we got wet on a regular basis but thankfully we didn't encounter anything like it again between that point and the lane we were heading for. When we reached the road, I paused to take a picture looking back at the moorland we'd just traversed east of Cheeks Hill summit. It looks deceptively innocuous.

Looking back across the bog-ridden route we took across the moor.

Our last "aim" of the day was the trig point at the summit of Axe Edge Moor, which we were to reach by following the road south east for a while before walking pretty much directly north to the top. There was no path marked on the map but I knew from research that there was one on the ground and sure enough, after a short while, a wooden gate appeared in the fence along the lane.

The summit of Axe Edge Moor
We were grateful to discover that the clearly well-walked path up through the grass to the hilltop was dry and, though we were gaining height a little more sharply than we'd been used to of late, it was easy enough to get to the deserted trig column. We sat here a while and decided to scrap our planned route back to the car, which would have entailed re-walking the moor we'd just waded across. A short walk down from the summit of Axe Edge Moor was the A53, a couple of miles along which we were parked. Having narrowly escaped sinking into who knows what depth of water through the quaking bog's surface layer, we both thought we might be tempting fate by going back the way we'd come so it was the A53 we made for.

Axe Edge trig point.
Roadside walking is never pleasant, but the path to and from the summit at least showed that we would have pleasant scenery to accompany us back to the lay-by. An unexpected surprise, just before we got to the car, was finding Flash Bar Stores, a small grocery shop on the A53 that also serves fresh food and drinks and even has a seating area outside. Although I had water left, I couldn't resist a bottle of isotonic mixed berry drink from the fridge - I have no idea if the super-charged rehydration and electrolyte-boosting claims made on the label were true, in fact I never even bothered to check what those claims were in any great detail, but it was icy cold and tartly sweet and that alone did the trick for me.

Axe Edge itself, a separate prominence south of the summit.
Looking south east across to Chrome Hill and Hollins Hill.
Looking north into the Dark Peak, towards Kinder Scout.

When I got home, I re-plotted the revised route in OS maps and the estimated walking time was 3:53 hours. It took us 4:55 hours, which also includes lunch, going off route around Orchard Farm and the very slow and laborious crossing of the bog-ridden moor east of Cheeks Hill - so I think we were justified in giving ourselves a pat on the back.

Date: August 2016

Walk length: 14.5 km

Total ascent: 436 metres

1 comment:

  1. Those views across to chrome Hill and the upper dove valley look incredible