Wednesday 19 April 2017

Combs Moss

Combs Moss is a relatively small and distinct upland area to the west of the Peak District National Park. On its north western fringes, gritstone escarpments tower above the village from which it derives its name and mark it out as a junior relation of the region's most notable and much larger moorland plateaux, Kinder and Bleaklow. In fact, its parent peak is listed as Shining Tor and Shining Tor's parent peak as Kinder, which I suppose makes it the grandchild of Derbyshire's celebrated highest summit. Junior it might be but I definitely felt the familial resemblance on a surprisingly tough walk around its perimeter a few weeks ago.

Combs Moss across the Blackbrook Valley, from a previous walk.

We recently moved from the suburbs of Manchester to a small village just outside Buxton and after being stuck indoors for what seemed an age - wrapping and packing in one house then unpacking and unwrapping in another - I was eager to be out walking again. Finally a fairly decent weather forecast came my way and I decided on impulse to leave the boxes behind and explore the moorland above us.

Leaving Dove Holes.
Despite the bright sunshine, there was a cold, unrelenting wind blowing down the lane as I left the stone cottages of the village behind me. Ahead, was a striking prominence on the side of the moor, with a ragged line of exposed rock along its ridge. This is Lady Low, site of a neolithic barrow and a scheduled national monument. The map shows it as CROW access land but when I reached the gate onto it, a Gordian knot of string barred any entry that way; what's more, barbed wire topped the stone wall along the side of the lane. For a while I hesitated, wondering whether to climb over the metal gate. It would've been easy enough (and afforded me a shortcut onto the moor too) but the unwelcoming appearance of the field's margins made me wary. As a newcomer to the area, I didn't want to get off on the wrong foot with our neighbouring landowners, and any attempts to scale the gate would be in plain view of a nearby farm.

Lady Low.
Reluctantly, I left Lady Low behind and continued along Cowlow Lane, which eventually reached its apex before descending towards Combs Valley. Above me to the left was Short Edge, an angular line of exposed rock, dark against the sky. Below to the right the Blackbrook Valley spread out from west to east, a mix of pasture, small towns and hamlets: Chapel-en-le-Frith, Chinley, Chapel Milton. Stone houses gathered in neat, terraced rows around churches, small factories and pubs, with scattered farmsteads dotting the landscape around them. Beyond this domestic, industrial and pastoral patchwork, the horizon was dominated by higher and wilder ground. That moorland I'd walked myself many times over the years and from there I'd often looked across at Combs Moss and the lane on which I was now standing, while skylarks alarmed at my passage chirped indignantly far above my head.

Short Edge
Across Blackbrook Valley: Mount Famine, South Head, Kinder, Brown Knoll and Rushup Edge (l to r)
Plantation by Ridge Hall Farm.
Roych Clough, below the Kinder Plateau.

The path up to Short Edge.
The farmland below Short Edge grew rougher as I proceeded, and the wall and fencing began to look rather the worse for wear. Eventually the pale, tussocky grassland became easily accessible at multiple points through the line of tumbled down stones. I could see a worn path climbing steeply up to the end of Short Edge, even though I couldn't make out how it continued down to the lane. Bored with tarmac, I decided to strike out across the grass and find my own way to it, which I did in short order, the ground being drier and easier-going underfoot than I'd anticipated. It was a brief pull up to the top and in no time I found myself looking down from Combs Moss.

Combs Reservoir, from just below the edge.
My short climb had brought me to the most interesting and surely the most famous feature of Combs Moss, Castle Naze, an impressive set of ditches and earth ramparts that once formed part of an Iron Age hill fort. The path around Combs Moss follows the edge pretty closely but I couldn't resist exploring these ramparts before I began my walk proper. Standing there, looking down at the views that had opened up from this vantage point, the strategic decision behind the fort's location was obvious. I wondered who had kept lookout from the walls that stood here thousands of years ago and how wild and different the current picture postcard landscape of hedged fields and farms below had looked to those prehistoric watchmen.

The ramparts and ditches of Castle Naze.
Castle Naze's strategic position afforded extensive views - here to Chinley Churn and Cracken Edge in the north.
And across to Rushup Edge and Mam Tor in the north east, the latter itself the location of a hillfort.
Blustery though it'd been down on the lane, it was much more so up here and I added another layer while I was at Castle Naze in an only-partially successful attempt to fend off the biting wind chill. This was a fraught moment, sleeves and fleece panels blowing in all directions as I tried to find the armholes, and - for the first but not the only time that afternoon - I nearly got blown off my feet at one point.

The first of several snow showers I saw on the walk.
On the other side of Combs Valley, a snow shower was making its way across the hills, towards Kinder. I watched its progress for a while, wondering whether it was going to head in my direction.

Once I joined the narrow path around the edge, the full force of the prevailing wind made my eyes stream, so much so that I was forced to put my sunglasses on just so I could see where I was putting my feet. The balaclava I'd carried around in my camera bag unused since I bought it a year ago was also (finally) given its opportunity to shine and I began to warm up a little. Fortunately, the wind was blowing into the plateau from across the valley below. If it had been otherwise, I think I'd have abandoned the walk, as the path was a narrow ribbon of mud and the drop onto the rock-strewn lower slopes was sometimes quite precipitous.

Even taking the wind out of the equation, staying upright proved a challenge. Mud and peat conspired with loose stones, ready to turn on a dime from one treacherous angle to another, in a prolonged guerrilla campaign against me. My feet slipped and slid with practically every step. At one point, I sank above my ankle in liquid mud and I resigned myself to the fact that this walk was going to take a lot longer than I'd anticipated.

Whenever I got the opportunity to stop on a patch of firmer ground, I did so and savoured the beauty of Combs Edge. Impressive as it had been from the uplands to the north, it was even more breathtaking close-up. The sunlit verdure of the farmland in Combs Valley stood in stark contrast to the bleak, heather-clad slopes above. A long, winding wall formed a thick dark line on the hillside, in a vain attempt to set an unarguable boundary between the two, but despite its presence heathland seemed to be slowly and inexorably pouring down from the moors and threatening to encroach upon the pastures below. In some of the higher up enclosures, the two landscapes seemed to have already engaged in battle for dominance.

Following the path along Combs Edge.
Combs Edge and Combs Valley.
The shifting border between moorland and farmland.

Shooting cabins above Allstone Lee.
After crossing a couple of apparently unnamed cloughs, I came to a pair of stone-built shooting cabins above Allstone Lee farm. The more substantial of the two was locked up but the smaller, less prominent one simply had an open door frame. There was nothing to sit on within its confines though so I used on the dry stone wall outside as a windbreak while I had a coffee and a snack.

The continuing path now switched to the inside of the wall. It was still occasionally a challenge to walk without ending up on my backside but at least I was less likely to get hurled down into the valley by a sudden change in wind direction.

From Castle Naze, the edge leads you just under three miles south west in a somewhat circuitous manner and at the end of it the steep cliffs above the Combs Valley give way to the more gently inclined southern side of the moor. As I headed that way I could hardly have asked for better visibility conditions: Manchester city centre was clearer than I've ever seen it from the Peak District and even the transmitting station on Winter Hill was visible beyond the jumble of towers and office blocks.

Manchester in the distance, with Winter Hill and its radio masts on the horizon.
A last look across the Blackbrook Valley towards Kinder.

The path swung towards Cheshire and then back into Derbyshire at the end of Combs Edge, above a slab of hillside appositely named Round the Bend on the OS map. I left the Combs and Blackbrook Valleys behind me at this point. From here on the landscape dipped and rolled in more relaxed fashion - back up to Axe Edge Moor in the south and to the long ridge from Cat's Tor to Shining Tor in the west. A little hazy in the distance, I could make out the Cat and Fiddle Inn, now sadly empty and in need of a new landlord. Combs Moss itself was the same featureless expanse of heather it had been every time I looked east across the plateau.

Looking across to Shining Tor, Cheshire's highest point.
Looking across Combs Moss.
One of the consequences of the less defined, more moderately sloping southern aspect of Combs Moss was that the terrain altered slightly underfoot. I was now walking across moorland rather than a muddy, rock-strewn edge path. As I didn't have to gauge each footstep carefully as I went along, this made the going much easier and faster. The ground was still saturated by the recent rainfall and water pooled around my boots as they met the ground with a squelch.

Perishingly cold though it was in the wind, the blue skies weren't the only signs of spring. Out of the more saturated patches of turf around me, cotton grass was growing. Lying low on the ground and not yet sporting its characteristic white tufts, it was easy to miss. You'd hardly suspect that this modest-looking plant would be putting on a stunning display of scattered summer sunlight across the moor in only a few months time.

I missed my passage over Combs Head, a hill of somewhat meagre prominence, the name of which suggested far more than it offered. It's not the highest point on the moss - that honour lies with the location of the trig point at Black Edge - and I wondered if the name was a recent one born of the modern interest in exhaustive hill-bagging. It doesn't show up on either my paper or the online OS maps, though some minor gritstone (?) outcrops lend it at least some slight interest.

[After I posted this blog, a fellow member of the Walking Forum advised me that a Combshead Farm shows on his online 10,000:1 OS Map so it seems highly probable that the name Combs Head is an old, well-established one. 21.04.17.]

The gently sloping terrain on the southern side of Combs Moss.
Combs Head.
Looking south from Combs Head towards Axe Edge Moor.

I began to trace a course south-east from here towards Moss House Farm, and a small wind turbine going like the clappers in the distance. For a while Buxton was visible below but eventually the sombre expanse of the moor became the dominant view as I followed the path along the wall.

The "summit" of Combs Moss, Black Edge, is in the distance on the left.

The walk had become a a bit of a trudge now, if I'm honest: it'd taken me twice as long as planned and the constant twisting of my leg on the unpredictable mud underfoot had aggravated an old knee injury, both of which conspired to make me a little grumpy.

Momentarily my journey was enlivened by the realisation that I was walking across a quaking bog, which feels akin to standing on a waterbed. It was only the second time I'd encountered one of these (the first was on Axe Edge Moor last year) but the excitement didn't last for long as I made a beeline for the nearest solid-looking ground I could see. There was also a stimulating frisson of irrational fear as I approached the hyperactive windmill by Moss House Farm. It was making a right racket and I passed by its frantically revolving blades somewhat gingerly, trying not to think what would happen if one broke off and came hurtling in my direction.

The ascent to Black Edge.

I didn't have to worry about this for long, though, as I'd turned to begin my long ascent to Black Edge. The path had become a treacherous ribbon of mud again, requiring all my concentration and I regretted not bringing along at least one walking pole to steady myself. Once past Flint Clough and its skeletal trees, the going was more straightforward at least - a gentle, sometimes undulating, climb to the trig point that marks Combs Moss' highest point.

Flint Clough.
Ghostly-looking trees in Flint Clough.
Black Edge trig point.

Lady Low from above.
From here I could see home below me and the thought of the kitchen down there, with all the paraphernalia of tea-brewing egged me on. I was above Lady Low now, which was separated from Black Edge by a dry stone wall, suggesting the only access to the site is by scaling either that or the gate down below. Since my walk up there I have seen figures silhouetted against the sky on Lady Low's ridge so I intend to head up there again soon and do some more scouting around.

From here, a peaty path skirted the moor above Short Edge and took me back to Castle Naze. Another snow shower was making its way across Combs Moss from the Goyt Valley, broader than the showers I'd seen in the distance earlier and impossible to avoid. It hit as I re-traced my route down to Cowlow Lane but the snow was more like light hail, tiny compact particles swirling around in the air and bouncing off me and sprinkling themselves across grass.

The path above Short Edge.
In the snow, heading down from Short Edge to Cowlow Lane.

Back on the lane, I reflected on the walk as I made my way home. Despite it taking twice as long as it should have done, it was clear that Combs Moss is a real gem and one that I'm extremely lucky to have right on my doorstep. In drier conditions the whole circuit would make for an easy half-day walk with a wide variety of scenery both near and far and I'm really looking forward to exploring it further, especially during the summer when the cotton grass and then the heather come into their own.

Date: March 2017

Walk length: 16 km

Total ascent: 695 metres


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