Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Wild Moor and Burbage Edge

Although the hills to the west of Buxton, with their sheep, stables and copses, have an air of rural respectability their heights conceal a landscape of much wilder-looking topography. Indeed, one part of this hidden world is actually named Wild Moor, a stark vista that unfolds before you from the top of the hills. Patches of marsh jostle below slopes of coarse moorland grass and heather; and streams, some of them barely a trickle, strive to find a mazy route through it all to the Goyt Valley on the moor's far side.

Most, if not all, of the moorland in Northern England is the product of human deforestation thousands of years ago, of course, and much of it is now managed to take advantage of the money-making opportunities driven grouse shooting provides. Wild Moor has been subject to human intervention more than many such landscapes over the years. Even so, when I surveyed the expansive rolling grass ahead of me from the almost-comically neat and understated gate on its edge, I did get a little thrill of anticipation - as though I was about to step into an untouched wilderness.

Gateway to a different world...

It's surprisingly easy to walk into the middle of Wild Moor from the civilised centre of Buxton, and I did so after calling at the baker's to stock up on provisions. Pasty and chocolate cake safely stowed away, I crossed the Pavilion Gardens, which were bursting with spring colour, and made my way along St Johns Road to Bishop's Lane. Once you're on this "Quiet Lane", the busy main road seems a world away and you find yourself surrounded by farmland and some rather handsome houses. Trees and hedges line this lovely avenue, which stretches invitingly ahead of you in a straight line.

Bishop's Lane.

Lapwing trying to protect its nest.
Every now and then a gate breaks the cover at the side of the lane and I was drawn to one of them by the distinctive call of the lapwing (also known as peewits because of the sound they make). At first I saw one in the distance, standing in the grass, but then I noticed it was watching another chasing a group of rooks or jackdaws; desperately and valiantly, again and again, the second lapwing drove the wheeling corvids away from a dip in the ground. I presumed their nest and eggs lay in the long grass of this decline and watched the struggle for a while until it became clear neither party was going to back down anytime soon.

Plentiful blackbirds and a solitary song thrush were the only other birds I saw until I passed an imposing set of gate posts at Plex Lodge, although the air rang with their song all the while.

As I crouched to take pictures of forget-me-nots on the verge, a Royal Mail van overtook me and the birds were momentarily drowned out by an incongruous blast of grand opera as the evidently music-loving postie left the van to deliver his letters. The houses were certainly a little grander past the lodge and I wondered idly whether the residents here demanded a more elevated radio station from their delivery people. It didn't come as a surprise to find a peacock and a rather well-fed pheasant wandering on their lawns - I say "wandering" but in fact the latter was sitting in self-satisfied repose, as though waiting for a glass of port and cigar to be brought out to him by a footman.

Song thrush.
We don't get many of these at our bird feeder.
"I'll take my glass of tawny on the lawn..."

I turned sharply and left the lane at a series of steps that bore a public footpath up through Beets Wood. I was soon out in the sunshine, climbing to the tidy wooden gate that marked the entry to open access land.

At the top of the steps, heading into the sun...

Once through it, I was standing on the cusp of the moors, where the civilised grass of the valley gradually cedes the sward to its more uncouth upland relatives. It was striking how dry the ground was up here, despite there only having been a few days in row that were completely rain-free. The rock-hard path was a pleasure to walk on and I fairly jogged across the ground ahead, which undulated gently for a while before finally beginning a decisive descent to Wild Moor. It'd been a murky day when I set out from home and the forecast had advised it'd become even more overcast but blue sky was breaking through above me now. I was a little taken aback to see a heat haze blurring contours of the land in the distance and above me, the foliage on Burbage Edge positively glowed in the freshly-liberated sunlight.

Heading down onto Wild Moor.
Burbage Edge glowed in the unexpected sunlight.

Once the bed of the Cromford & High Peak Railway line.
Aside from a couple of boggy patches caused by the run off from the moors, the ground remained solid beneath my boots. I continued to make good progress, arriving part way down into the valley on a flattened out ledge of turf. This shelf on the hillside was once the course of the Cromford and High Peak Railway, permission for which was granted in 1825 by an act of Parliament. It was fully opened in 1832, though extra sections were added over the decades.

The aim was to link two canals, the Cromford Canal and the Peak Forest Canal, and it was devised when construction of a waterway over the limestone bedrock of the Peak District proved unworkable. In itself, it still called for significant feats of engineering, including nine steep inclines. Static steam engines would haul the carriages up these inclines on chains (in later days, steel cables), as the gradients were too steep for the early locomotives to handle, let alone the horses that had initially preceded them on the tramway. One of these, the Bunsall Incline, was in the Goyt Valley and you can read more about it at this informative website. At its highest point, Ladmanlow, the track was 1266 feet above sea level, which is almost 100 feet higher than England's current highest railway line. Where I was standing below Burbage Edge, however, the line bored through the hillside, and emerged on the other side at the ingeniously-named Tunnel Farm above Buxton. The tunnel itself, though still there to see, is closed off at both ends for safety reasons.

Burbage Tunnel.

You can follow the course of the old track into the Goyt Valley but I took a route that ran roughly parallel with Wildmoorstone Brook. The going remained easy underfoot. The lower I got, the more the moorland and heath above me seemed like the swell of a vast sea. It was a fascinating landscape to walk through, riven as it was by vast cloughs, where tributaries of the brook had slowly but determinedly carved out a route to join it on the quest for the valley and the waters beyond that.  Trees and bushes lined these creases in the earth, as though the water trickling from the peat reserves above created oases of fertility in the otherwise plain grassland.

The going remained easy underfoot as I left the remains of the railway behind.
Watford Moor to the the north west.
One of the cloughs.
At a couple of points I had to cross one of these streams but little wooden bridges got me over the water with dry boots. White flowers dotted the damp ground around the brook. Based on the marshy ground they sprouted from, I surmised these were cuckoo flower but I'm the first to admit my botanical knowledge is very limited and am more than happy to be corrected.

One of the very welcome footbridges.
Cuckoo flower?
Cuckoo flower?

Looking back up Wildmoorstone Brook.
My ornithological knowledge isn't really any more comprehensive but I didn't need to draw too deeply on it to identify the call of the cuckoo, which rang out through the air as I made my way down the moor. It took me by surprise and it sounded so loud the bird might as well have been perched on my hat. I suppose the topography and the silence of the moor helped amplify its distinctive greeting. 

I was almost as excited by this as I had been by my first sighting of a mountain hare on Bleaklow a couple of years ago - I'd never heard a cuckoo in real life before, despite living in the Wiltshire countryside for several years as a child. It wouldn't be the first time I was treated to the sound during the day's walking though and it put a real spring in my step.

I soon arrived at a trail above Errwood Reservoir, by this time feeling quite hungry and thirsty. The day was shaping up to be a hot one and the cloud cover was dissipating quickly under the heat of the spring sun. Although it was slightly off course, I followed the track on the north side of Wildmoorstone Brook, looking for somewhere to sit and have my lunch. Eventually, I found a spot on a wall and rested here for a while listening to the cuckoo, whose stage proved to be the plantation right behind me.

As I ate, a large group of walkers passed by from the reservoir, some lost in animated conversation, others simply taking in the views and more inclined to smile or exchange greetings. By the time I was finishing off my pasty, they'd marched up the valley I'd just descended and I could see them strung out along the thin path in a human version of the trains that once ran here.

A train of ramblers. The course of the actual railway can be seen cutting across the hillside above.

A green tiger beetle.
Fortified by my lunch, I retraced my steps briefly, crossing a small bridge to follow a winding shooters' track west and then south, at which point it began to climb more steeply upwards. I passed a small, brightly coloured beetle here that I hadn't seen before. I struggled to identify it on the internet afterwards but thanks to someone on Twitter, I now know it was a green tiger beetle. It gleamed beautifully in the sunlight.

This was heather moorland I was traversing now, Goyts Moss, marked out as grouse-shooting territory by the great grey scars controlled burning had left on the hillsides. Below me to the north, the two reservoirs - Errwood and Fernilee - stretched out along the Goyt Valley, the slopes above them thick with trees, a more attractive vista than the scorched earth closer at hand.

Leaving my lunch spot to head onto Goyts Moss.
The shooters' track.
Errwood and Fernilee Reservoirs.
The patchwork effect caused by heather burning.
Eventually, I left the track and followed a narrow path downwards again - the route I'd planned was something of a switchback - before turning south on a trod through the heather towards Goyt Clough. The intermittent rain-free spells we'd experienced this spring had made the risk of upland fires a real danger and we'd seen warning signs in various parts of the Dark Peak over the past week or so. Just how tinder-dry the ground was beneath my feet became clear from the crackling and crunching sounds that greeted each step. It was quite unnerving to be following this narrow ribbon of dried mud across the moor, knowing how quickly a fire could spread - certainly faster than I could outrun it.

Keeping a watchful eye on me...
Goyts Clough to the south.
Cats Tor and Foxlow Edge to the north.

The River Goyt.
I arrived eventually at a junction of paths at the base of Goyt Clough. A narrow bridge spanned the River Goyt, which ran down the clough from the watershed above and on it I filmed a short video of the juvenile river near the start of its long and convoluted journey to the Mersey - you can view it here.

This was the point where my own journey began to circle back towards Buxton and I started another uphill climb, this time heading into Berry Clough. There was another cuckoo piping away in a plantation just by Goyt Clough, his call just one of many now as the moorland around the clough echoed with birdsong.

One particular bird really stood out for the melodious quality of its song, which unfurled through the air from the upper branches of an isolated tree. It was, I think, some kind of warbler - reed or marsh, perhaps - and I was pleased to get a couple of shots from a distance to help at least partly identify this captivating vocalist.

Heading up Berry Clough.
Close up of the warbler.
Close up of the warbler.
The path up the side of Berry Clough isn't a particularly challenging one in terms of ascent and it didn't take me long to reach the top of it and the open moor. A track led south from here, in the direction of Axe Edge, which was now visible in the distance, but I ignored this and carried on uphill. My target was Burbage Edge and its trig column. The track I was walking didn't take in this summit (if you can call it that - I'm reliably informed it's classed as a "Subdewey"), as it carried on over the moor and then down into Buxton, but I felt certain the presence of a trig point so close to civilisation would assure me of an easily-followed path.

Looking back down Berry Clough into the Goyt Valley.
My route lay straight on towards Burbage.
Axe Edge Moor to the south.
And I was right - a narrow trod soon veered off from the main path and then followed the dry-stone wall that bound the moor to the east. It was the time of year when cotton grass starts to put in an appearance now and it dappled the dark moorland at the side of the path as I headed up Burbage Edge. The path up to the trig point provided some fine vistas and so did the summit, despite being rather flat and featureless in itself. I took a quick video with my phone of the some of the views to be had: Axe Edge Moor and the Cat & Fiddle Inn to the south, Shining Tor and Cats Tor in the west across the Goyt Valley, finishing with Wild Moor and Combs Moss in the north - you can view it here.

Buxton below Burbage Edge.
Looking back along Burbage Edge.
The trig point on Burbage Edge.

The obvious path down northwards. Combs Moss
and, very hazy on the horizon behind it, Kinder Scout.
I'd intended going back down from the trig point the way I'd come and heading into Buxton via Macclesfield Old Road but I noticed that the path I'd followed to the summit carried on northwards and down onto Wild Moor. The prospect of a return journey via Bishop's Lane seemed more pleasant than one along a built up road so I decided to head that way. It was a steep descent sometimes and probably wouldn't be very pleasant in wet conditions because of the mud and peat but on this day it was easy enough and I soon found myself back at the old railway tunnel entrance.

A final sharp descent brings you to a gate below the railway tunnel entrance.
Heading back down to Bishops Lane.

From here I retraced my steps from earlier in the afternoon, up to the edge of the moor and then back onto Bishop's Lane past the side of Beet Wood. The passage of two tractors and some kind of steam roller rendered this Quiet Lane less serene than it might have been but with cheery waves from the driver of each of them it still made for a pleasant enough return to Buxton, where I reflected on the afternoon's wanderings over a well-earned pint of pale ale at 53 Degrees North. I'd walked around Errwood Hall and up onto Shining Tor previously but the eastern side of the Goyt Valley was new to me and quite a revelation. I've been back since and I can imagine this fascinating landscape, so rich in history, will become something of a regular haunt from now on.

Date: May 2017

Walk length: 9.25 miles (starting at Buxton station and ending at the bar of 53 Degrees North)

Duration: 4.5 hours


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