Thursday 4 January 2018

Combs Reservoir

There's something magical about waking to blue skies and a scintillating blanket of snow. You sense the transformation of the world outdoors even before you've drawn back the curtain or pulled up the blind. The light that steals below and around the edges has a quite different quality, brighter with a bluish tinge.

The snow we got at the start of December had been drifting down on-and-off for several days before Monday morning burst into cloudless, sun-shining life for us. It had fallen from wind-wracked, iron-skies over the weekend though, making house lights a necessity throughout the day and not just at its margins. It wasn't the sort of weather to tempt you outside, even if you weren't nursing a cold and sore throat, as I had been.

The effects of the virus were still lingering as I worked my way through a pot of tea but I was subjected to a steady flow of winter photos on social media, which made me determined to get out and enjoy the snow-covered landscape myself. We settled on a short walk out from the village rather than driving somewhere. Unsure what state the minor roads might be in, we were wary of finding out the hard way. Our target was Combs, the hamlet that gives its name to the gritstone-edged, moorland plateau above it - Combs Moss - and the reservoir to its north. The Beehive Inn there has a good reputation for food so a short ramble through the snow for lunch and then back again suggested itself as the perfect way to get some much-needed fresh air.

We headed west out of Dove Holes, along Cowlow Lane. A group of starlings were making a garrulous feast of the food laid out for them on someone's lawn and launched themselves indignantly into the air when they noticed me aiming the camera in their direction. They seem rather maligned nowadays, viewed as a nuisance in towns and city centres, but I always think them a very handsome bird, with infectiously spirited personalities and colouring that's really quite beautiful, particularly when the sunlight hits their dappled feathers.

The trees and bushes alongside the pavement were scarcely less noisy with sparrows and other small birds, most of which proved adept at using the tangle of bare branches to avoid the lens.

There's a fairly steep pull up out of the village initially, before the gradient eases off after the last of the cottages. It's become a familiar walk to me since we moved here, a route I regularly use to access Combs Moss, but this was the first time I'd seen it in full-on winter conditions. The fields were a blaze of white under the December sun and I had to squint to take some of the photos along this stretch.

Leaving Dove Holes behind.
Black Edge, Hob Tor and Lady Low.
Lady Low.

When we reached the top of Cowlow Lane, we got splendid views north west across the slopes of Cow Low itself and the Blackbrook Valley - South Head and Mount Famine, Chinley Churn and Cracken Edge, and Eccles Pike.

Mount Famine (l) and South Head (r).
Chinley Churn and Cracken Edge.
Eccles Pike.

To the north east, beyond the pristine white fields, lay Rushup Edge and Mam Tor. Across the horizon between these compass points stretched the Kinder plateau.

Rushup Edge and Mam Tor.
Kinder Scout dominates the horizon north.

There was no chatter of birdsong as we stopped up here to take in the expansive views. In fact the muffling effect of the snow lent the landscape around us an eerie silence, broken only occasionally by the startling gurgle of a grouse up on Combs Moss and the gentle crunch of our steps when we set off again. We followed the lane downhill, with Short Edge alongside us. It hid the low-lying sun even though it was midday and we felt the change in temperature as soon as we entered the shade.

Looking back to Lady Low.
Short Edge hid the low-lying winter sun.
On Cowlow Lane.
Approaching Castle Naze.

Our plan was to head along a public footpath through Bank Hall farm, which would take us into Combs Valley. Just after we passed Castle Naze, however, I noticed a stile in the wall. I decided to climb it and see whether it'd afford good views into the valley below Combs Edge. The light wasn't ideal for photos of the escarpment but the diversion was serendipitous, as I discovered a group of Highland cattle behind the wall, always a welcome sight on a walk.

Castle Naze.
Combs Edge in the background.

After taking snaps of these placid, good-natured beasts, we returned to our route. An old signpost marked the start of the footpath down into the valley past Bank Hall Farm.

The quiet was rudely disturbed at this point by the urgent bleating of a gang of sheep, milling around a feeder full of hay in the field next to us. We weren't sure whether it was the arrival of lunch that had caused their excitement or the presence of a farmer who was exercising his dogs a little lower down the hillside.

At the sight of them feeding their faces, my thoughts began to turn towards food too - but first we had to negotiate the path down to the railway line that bisects the valley.

The start of this broad track had been full of loose snow and easy to walk. Once we'd passed through the imposing farm house and outbuildings, however, we found ourselves on a properly-finished access road and the snow on this smooth surface had been compacted by vehicles and had then frozen solid.

The easy start of our journey down into the valley.

A hairy half mile's walk ensued, during which thoughts drifted away from my impending meal and back over the hill, where a set of microspikes were sitting ineffectually at the bottom of the wardrobe. We aimed for any patch of soft ground we could find at the side of the lane hoping for something we could sink into it rather than skate perilously across. Eventually we reached a small stone tunnel that led under the railway embankment and breathed a sigh of relief.

The treacherous terrain further down.
"I've never seen humans walking like that before, have you?"
Combs Reservoir.
Crossing under the railway line.

There's a fenced-in public footpath that runs alongside the railway line at the other end of the tunnel and we turned left here to follow it into Combs. It hugs the course of the line closely, sweeping south west in a broad curve.

On the other side of the path were a series of paddocks and a couple of these contained some very skittish young horses that were whinnying, jumping and running around. Sometimes horses make me more nervous than cattle if I have to share a field with them and I was grateful for the wire barrier between us and them, insubstantial though it was.

Just after we crossed the train line, we turned off the public footpath, which carried on southwards across farmland. We joined an alternative path that took us directly into the village. It's marked on the map by a series of black dashes but there's no indication on the map or on the ground if it's a permissive path or open to general use. Perhaps it provides easy access to the station at Chapel-en-le-Frith for the villagers.

It seemed well-trodden, which reassured us we weren't trespassing, and it was fenced off from a paddock the same as the previous one had been. The horses here, rather calmer than their near neighbours, wandered over to say hello and we had some quality time stroking their noses and talking to them before we reached the lane.

The horses wandered over to meet us.
They were very friendly, though I suspect it was cupboard-love that inspired their affection.

The only person enjoying the outdoor seating.
Delayed by our slow progress down the icy lane, we made to the Beehive Inn just before they stopped serving lunch. It was surprisingly busy for a Monday and it turned out we were lucky to get a table too.

Although the menu was extensive and tempting, we only had a light bite, sensibly reasoning that a huge plateful of dinner was more likely to send us to sleep than fire us up to continue our walk. It was enough to explain why the place is so popular, though, and we made a note to return to have a proper meal a.s.a.p.

After filling our bellies, we carried on through the village on Long Lane, which brought us back to the railway and another tunnel, just south west of Combs Reservoir. Our route lay across a some very marshy ground to a small bridge that spanned Meveril Brook. And that's where we gingerly made our way, never quite sure how deep our feet were going to sink with each squelchy step.

The path followed the brook, which itself runs more or less parallel with the western side of the reservoir. There are trees between the path and the Combs Reservoir itself, so you only get occasional glimpses of its waters until you've almost reached the dam at the far end. It wasn't the most enjoyable part of the walk - protected by the tree cover, the copious amounts of mud here had remained unfrozen and we slipped and slid all over the place. Progress was tiresomely slow and I think it's fair to say there wasn't exactly an atmosphere of good humour in the nippy air during this section of the walk.

It was a relief to finally escape from the trees and reach a concrete slipway leading to the dam. As we approached and then walked along the dam wall, the light on the surrounding hills made for some lovely reflections in the water. Cheered up by the stable ground underfoot and the views, I began to warm a little more to Combs Reservoir as a walking destination, although I still made a mental note to give it a wide berth until there'd been a sustained spell of dry weather.

Looking north towards Eccles Pike as we approached the dam.
From the dam wall - Castle Naze and Combs Edge.

The reservoir lies on the edge of Chapel-en-le-Frith. This small High Peak town owes its origins to the founding of a hunting lodge by the Normans. This accounts for its French-sounding name, which translates as "The chapel in the forest". In those days the word forest had a more general meaning of "royal hunting ground" rather than the current, specific definition of extensive woodland. No doubt the area was more heavily wooded in medieval times than it is now though.

The reservoir, of course, is not nearly so old but it does date originally from 1797, which you might not suspect from the concrete "renovations" at its northern end.

We only skirted the town briefly, before leaving the road and traversing a golf course and a couple of paddocks to get back to the railway line. From here, we climbed the road past another grandiose set of buildings, this time belonging to Ridge Farm, before we came back out on Cowlow Lane below Short Edge.

Crossing the golf course.
Passing Ridge Farm.

The sun had disappeared behind Ladder Hill and the long undulating ridge that separates Combs from the Goyt Valley to the west, and the glow it left hung across the horizon. Overhead, the sky remained a flawless sheet of blue and the snow reflected it creating a beautiful softened light to walk in.

Back on Cowlow Lane.

We thought we were in for an uneventful return to the village but, making our way up the lane, we came across a flock of sheep milling around in the road. They eyed us uneasily as we approached and some of them trotted back into the field. At first, we assumed they were being moved but it soon became clear that they'd made their escape though an open gate to one of the adjoining fields. We checked around but there was nobody on the lane or in the field. Nor was there any indication as to how or why the gate had been opened so we rounded them up and secured the gate with its flimsy fastening of twisted wire.

Escaped sheep.

Hoping we'd done a good deed and not interfered with the farmer's business, we carried on up the hill to the crest of Cowlow Lane. Below it, the lights of the village gleamed in the steadily darkening evening, a reminder of the homely warmth that would have awaited us if we'd thought to leave some heating on, and we set off downhill with visions of piping hot tea at the forefront of our minds.

Date: December 2017

Walk length: 14.5 km

Total ascent: 354 metres


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