Friday 13 January 2017

Howden Moors - Crow Stones, Outer Edge and Margery Hill

The long trail that winds around the Derwent and Howden reservoirs from the visitor centre at Fairholmes is a popular one. Even on a weekday you're likely to pass friends out for a stroll, hikers with poles and backpacks, families on foot and families on bikes, their giddy children and still giddier dogs in tow; and then there are the fitness enthusiasts - friendly joggers that nod and smile, and focused runners, to whom you're just a blur on the periphery of vision. Write them all down on a postcard and most days perhaps you'd be able to tick them off and call "House!" in a game of Reservoir Bingo. You'd scarcely believe that just a few hundred feet above this busy spot lies some of the least-visited moorland in the Dark Peak.

Derwent Reservoir Dam.
That swathe of undulating heather and peat, its high edges crumpled by deep cloughs, is Howden Moor. I decided to head here a few days after my last visit to Bleaklow, which had ended on a dispiriting note with the crossing of Harrop Moss. I felt certain that it would restore my faith in the moorland landscapes of the Peak District and I wasn't to be disappointed.

Fairholmes was my starting point and I passed the impressive Derwent Reservoir Dam to join the trail on the eastern side of the reservoir. I'd managed to connive a lift here, as I don't drive, and was setting off around lunch time. It was a warm autumn day and though the incline of the path is barely perceptible it didn't take long for my outer shell to come off in the heat.  The sunshine had drawn people out - I exchanged greetings with them as we passed each other and had to disappoint one runner who called back over her shoulder with an air of sudden, delighted recognition, "Oh, are you Roy?"

Joining the trail along the eastern side of the dam.
Looking north west along the dam.
Further ahead, the closer you get to Howden Reservoir, the trees of the Abbey Tip Plantation line the trail on both sides but for now I had clear views across the water to Birchinlee and the massive fold in the hillside that is Ouzelden Clough.

Ouzelden Clough.
It's hard to credit now that this tranquil landscape was once the location of Tin Town, a bustling "model village" of around 900 people with workers cottages, a church, a hospital, shops and all the other accoutrements of a thriving community. What's even more striking is that for all its facilities it was only a temporary settlement, built for the workers who constructed the massive reservoirs between 1902 and 1916.

Struts from the old railway bridge.
The water levels were low enough as I passed by for me to see the supporting struts of the Bamford and Howden Railway bridge that once spanned the mouth of Ouzelden Clough. Stone from Bole Hill Quarry was transported along this line for the massive dams that now bisect the Upper Derwent Valley.

Howden Dam.

As I walked north, one of the towers of Howden Dam was just visible through the treetops, looming over the valley like the turret of a medieval fortress. I was soon immersed in trees myself, as I passed below Abbey Bank. Here my views were pretty much limited to the sombre hues of their trunks and the wan grey of the aggregate beneath my feet; an occasional gleam of sun on the reservoir waters intermittently provided a startling flash of light in the corner of my eye.

As I drew closer to Howden Dam, a new sound began to mingle with the ceaseless whisper of the leaves above me; it was a background noise still but one that struck a harsher, brighter note and after a while I recognised this discord as the sound of falling water. There was no easy access to the banks of the reservoir as the trail was quite high up now, which was a little disappointing, and the trees blocked my view from where I stood. Where there were gaps in the trunks, however, I could make out the waters of Howden Reservoir pouring down the front of the dam wall as I passed by the massive stone structure.

When I looked back, the wind was blowing some of this man-made waterfall back up over the dam wall as a fine mist, that shone faintly in the afternoon sun.

There were far fewer people around now, in fact I hadn't passed anyone for quite a while. After a brief interlude where I could see the reservoir alongside me, I found myself in trees again as I drew near and crossed Howden Clough. Its brook is one of many streams that feed into the reservoir from the expansive moorland on all sides above the valley. Once past the clough, a gap in the trees provided a view back down Howden Reservoir, revealing how thickly-wooded its eastern shoreline is.

Crossing Howden Clough.
Looking back down Howden Reservoir.
As I came around the south western flank of Cow Hey, which sits above the reservoir, the plantation on its lower slopes ended. It felt good to have more extensive views and as I looked north along the hillside I could see Crow Stones Edge in the distance. This was my to be my first "summit" of the day - or at least the first spot of significant height - and I was beginning to feel like it was taking an awfully long time to get there. Despite the distance I still had to go (over two miles, as the crow flies), it was reassuring to finally have it in my sights and I zoomed in with the camera for a closer look.

Crow Stones Edge.
The landscape opens out around me at Cold Side.
Another small plantation, Ronksley Wood, appeared on my right and for a short while I was enclosed by trees again. This didn't last for long though and I emerged from them at an area named on the map as Cold Side.

Although I had no clear view to the west, I knew from that the valley floor was drying out below me in that direction and that the narrowing span of the reservoir was gradually merging into the winding River Derwent that fed it.

I could see my route stretching in front of me, roughly parallel to the river. On the path I was gaining height almost imperceptibly - the steep stuff was still to come - but the valley floor was pulling away from me and with it the trees, which opened out the landscape all around. To the right, the hillside rose up steeply above me to Long Edge.

No-one, I think, would stake a claim for Long Edge being among the Dark Peak's most impressive gritstone escarpments. Indeed, there's not much in the way of gritstone on display at all but where it does appear the effect is a curious one, almost like a set of defensive bunkers or anti-aircraft lookouts built onto the side of the moors.

Exposed gritstone on Long Edge.
Looking back at Long Edge.

Upon reaching the end of Cold Side, I found the valley opened up more fully ahead of me. Here, at a footbridge across the infant River Derwent, the path turned sharply to follow a route back down the opposite side of the reservoirs to Fairholmes. Other paths led away from this point, further into the valley, following the curves of the hillside into the vast cloughs or tracing a bright line through the dark foliage that blanketed the slopes above.

At the end of the circular trail around the reservoirs. Little Moor Top (r) and Crow Stones Edge ahead.

I could see Crow Stones Edge clearly ahead of me as I progressed. The trail was easy to follow and as I was gaining height rather more quickly than I had been before, I could now see how lush the uppermost reaches of the Derwent Valley were. To the northwest, was the striking profile of Horse Stone Naze. I made a mental note to explore it in the future, before leaving the main trail to follow a shooter's track that branched steeply off up Broadhead Clough.

Horse Stone Naze on the horizon.
Looking back along the River Derwent.

One of the more obvious paths through the heather.
The climb up Broadhead Clough was a brief one though I think I made unduly heavy weather of it that hot afternoon. Puffing and panting, I stopped for a breather several times on the way up through the bracken.

Just before reaching the edge of the moor, I turned left to head towards the Crow Stones. There's a path marked here on the "OS Maps National Parks Pathways" section of their website and a couple of grouse butts ahead vouched for there being access through the heather. On the ground, however, it was difficult to tell whether the occasional ribbons of exposed peat I was following were man-made or sheep trods or just naturally occurring gaps. I kept Crow Stones Edge in sight and tried my best to keep to a straight line.

Aircraft wreckage near Crow Stones Edge.
About halfway across, I found footprints in the peat and the channel in the heather grew wider. I was surprised to stumble across an aircraft engine lying on the ground and its presence probably explains why there were more signs of people having been in that particular area.

The plane crashed in low cloud on 12th April 1951 and was on its way to Iceland, having recently been purchased by Icelandic Airline. All three people on board (two crew, one passenger) were killed. Tragically, two other planes belonging to the RAF were lost on the same day in the Peak District. Had I been on a full day walk, I might have explored the area further but it was already mid-afternoon so I pressed on.

It didn't take too long to get to the beginning of Crow Stones Edge from this point. Once there I found some large flattish gritstone I could sit on to have a brew. I was blown away by the views from here - to the south lay the Upper Derwent Valley up which I'd just walked; south east stretched Howden Edge (confusingly one of several Howden Edges in this vicinity), my route down. Across to the west, a blast of sunlight illuminated the deep clough that brought the River Derwent down past Ronksley Moor; and hazy in the distance beyond Hope Forest and Alport Moor, Kinder stretched across the horizon.

The Upper Derwent Valley.
Howden Edge in the distance.
The River Derwent's journey down from the moors.
Kinder on the horizon.

Tearing myself away from the views, I made the short journey to the Crow Stones themselves, at the northern end of the "edge". I'd left the heather behind now and it was a pleasant, springy jog across the peaty turf to these impressive rock formations. In scale and appearance these easily rival their more famous relatives around the Dark Peak in my book and perhaps even beat some of those oft-photographed outcrops.

Approaching the Crow Stones.

Phone picture of the Crow Stones.

Outer Edge.
I spent far too long here, taking photos and climbing on the stones to explore various nooks and crannies, even deciding to break out the flask for another coffee since I liked the location so much.

From here my next target was Outer Edge, which I could see in the east across the moor. The summit - if you could call the flat expanse of moorland that - was a mere 20 metres or so higher than where I was standing.

New growth in the peat on Outer Edge.
Although the crossing looked boggy and was riven by wide peat groughs in places, it was actually pretty dry underfoot and proved to be something of a doddle to traverse. I was surprised to find myself at the base of Outer Edge in little over ten minutes. The thin line that had provided a path across the moor petered out on its slopes, which were strewn with rock and heather, but it was easy enough to pick out a route to the top.

From there, the trig column was clearly visible across the relatively featureless terrain. There were green shoots reclaiming much of the exposed peat here, particularly around the trig column. Whether this was a natural phenomenon or due to restoration work I don't know but I was careful to avoid walking on any of these rejuvenated patches and where possible hopped from one rock to another. Looking north from here, you could clearly see the Emley Moor Transmitting Station and the skyline of Leeds beyond that. The Crow Stones were now just an insignificant-looking lump on the far side of the moor to the west and seemed much further away than they actually were.

Emley Moor Transmitting Station and Leeds.
Looking back across the moor to the Crow Stones.

Some of the terrain between Outer Edge and Margery Hill.
Happy with my progress so far, I trotted off towards my next target. Although Margery Hill sounds like a member of your local W.I. it's actually the site of what is thought to have been a Bronze Age burial mound. A scheduled ancient monument, it stands a few metres higher than Outer Edge. There is a dip in the moorland between the two however, so there was more than just a few metres ascent ahead of me before I'd reach the next trig column. The amount of height I needed to gain was to prove the least problematic part of the journey though.

The cairn marks the Cut Gate path.
So far I'd been lucky with the ground I'd crossed, which had been firm and dry for the most part. But as I approached the stretch of moorland named Featherbed Moss, the clear path down from Outer Edge became increasingly water-logged and soon the terrain in front of me was rent by deep groughs, like the one in the photograph above. These were far too wide to leap across, though occasional boot prints and smears suggested people had tried and come a cropper.

I tentatively tested the peat out in a couple of spots with a cautious foot and it proved to be semi-liquid, clearly incapable of supporting any significant weight. I then deployed a walking pole to test it more scientifically and found the greasy black morass was almost waist deep in places. This didn't make me feel any happier. So I resolved to trace the edges of the groughs until I could find a narrow enough point to attempt a jump and by this method I proceeded - very circuitously - on my way.

On the Cut Gate path, looking south west.
Nearly an hour later, caked in mud and peat up to the knees, I finally reached the safe haven of the Cut Gate path. This is an old bridleway that traverses the moor and links the Upper Derwent Valley with Langsett,  a South Yorkshire village on the edge of the national park. Surfaced with a mixture of sand and stone, the Cut Gate path was dry as a bone. Reassured by the fact that I didn't sink into it if I stood still for any amount of time, I took a well-earned breather here and considered my options.

The bridleway headed downhill to the south west. I could follow this well-established path down to the River Derwent and re-trace my steps along Howden Reservoir. I'd lost valuable time negotiating Featherbed Moss and wasted time larking around at the Crow Stones so I was tempted to cut the walk short; on the other hand, Margery Hill and Howden Edge were right above me and given I don't drive, they weren't places I could easily access on my own. That swung it - I bade farewell to the Cut Gate and its cairn, and carried on straight up the hillside.

I struck out at a fair old lick now, eager to make up lost time. This path was clearly far more walked than any I'd followed since leaving the valley behind, even if it wasn't as defined as the bridleway. And thankfully it was dry again underfoot. Howden Edge stretched out in front of me and I mentally patted myself on the back at how fast I was covering the ground.

Looking along Howden Edge towards its summit..

After a while I paused for a rest. The late-afternoon sun had lost its heat now and a pleasant breeze had kept me cool even while I was marching along. I did a 360 degree turn to take in the views and noted with idle curiosity some rocks on higher ground a considerable distance behind me. It was only when I looked at the map that I realised my boundless enthusiasm and energy had propelled me right past Margery Hill.

My mood had recovered since my traumatic crossing from Outer Edge earlier on so I was uncharacteristically cheerful about my mistake as I made my way back and headed uphill. I'm not entirely sure it was worth the time or the effort, as the stone formations paled in comparison with the Crow Stones and the views were much the same as the ones I'd already seen from Outer Edge but at least I wasn't left wondering if I'd missed something incredible.

"Oh, so that's Margery Hill..."
Some of the stones on the summit of Margery Hill.

I didn't stay long and was soon bouncing along Howden Edge again, or at least until the ascent became a bit steeper, at which point I assumed my normal, plodding gait. Howden Edge itself is, I suppose, more notable for its relative height and isolation than anything else. There are a couple of gritstone outcrops here, the High Stones, and a man-made collection of rocks that's been piled up to make the least impressive cairn in the world but there is no dramatic escarpment to tempt climbers or photographers. The views though are tremendous and more than repay the effort to get up there.

A tarn on the way up to High Stones.
The Great Ridge from Lose Hill (centre) to Mam Tor (r).
Left to right, this pretty much shows my journey so far - along the valley on the left,
up onto the moors in the middle and along the ridge to the right.
High Stones. The least impressive cairn in the world.

It was downhill almost all the way from here. Around three quarters of a mile below High Stones to the south is a maintained track that winds its way back down to Howden Reservoir via the minor hill, Nether Hey. The path down to this track became somewhat indistinct in places though navigation was hardly a problem on such a clear day. The uneven and tussocky terrain slowed me down more than anything. The last thing I wanted was to twist an ankle or damage my knee again. I hadn't seen another soul since I left Howden Reservoir and at this time of day I doubted anyone would be heading up here for an evening constitutional.

Heading down from High Stones - Back Tor, at the northern end of Derwent Edge, in the background.
The track back down to Howden Reservoir.
Looking back up to Howden Edge.

In the failing light, this section of the walk became a little monotonous and I was glad to make the final pull up over Nether Hey and begin the descent to the reservoir track. When I reached the side of the clough it was a little disconcerting to see I was still above the trees that lined its sides but I'd resigned myself to walking back alongside the reservoirs after sunset anyway.

Still disconcertingly high up.
Back at Upper Derwent Reservoir.

It was rather more peaceful as I walked back past the Upper Derwent Reservoir now, though there were still a couple of joggers on the trail. By the time I got back to the car park at Fairholmes it was twilight. As is usually the case, it'd taken me longer to do the walk than I'd planned and I suddenly felt like each step was a mammoth effort but at the same time I was exhilarated by the scenery I'd experienced and eager to return to explore Howden Moors further.

Date: September 2016

Walk length: 20.5 km

Total ascent: 709 metres


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