Tuesday 27 March 2018

A Circular Walk from Peak Forest to Castleton

As I type this opening paragraph, the sun is streaming through the window, the skies are the most beautiful shade of blue and I'm being informed on a regular basis by Facebook and Twitter users alike that today is the vernal equinox. It certainly didn't feel like the first day of spring was only hours away when I ventured out on a walk above the Hope Valley yesterday. It's true that Mam Tor did stand resplendently green in the sunshine above Castleton - but that was because the unrelenting and bitter wind of the past few days had blown all the snow off its exposed slopes and not because of a seasonal thaw.

The wind's handiwork was apparent as I set off up a farm lane from Peak Forest, where huge drifts of powdery snow had formed along the wall. The pristine white whorls and curves and cornices in miniature were fascinating to look at, almost like works of art, and these were the first of many I was to encounter that day.

In fact, I was to have a very close encounter with one shortly, when I reached the end of the track just below Eldon Hill. Here a step stile and a gate provided entry onto access land, but both lay behind a three-foot wall of snow.

My crossing was exactly graceful but I got where I wanted to be.
I stopped and looked at it for a while, wondering how best to get across. At the same time I took the opportunity to check if anyone was around - I knew that however I ended up tackling this barrier it most certainly wasn't going to be an elegant or athletic operation.

After a bit of prodding and kicking, I decided it was solid enough climb over. It wasn't - and I ended up in a surprised and dishevelled heap of arms and legs on the other side quite before I knew what was happening.

Picking myself up and dusting myself down on the other side of the snow bank, I glared furiously around to see if my tumble had been observed. There was no-one in sight and I couldn't hear any laughter so I clambered sheepishly over the stile and set off up the bridleway.

There were drifts around the gate and at the edge of the field but the hillside itself was pretty much clear and the summit of Eldon Hill, like Mam Tor, was predominantly green.

Looking back down across the farmland below to Combs Moss and Bolt Edge in the west, the pattern was the same - snow only collecting in dips, gullies and against the dry stone walls. It was this combination of loose snow and strong prevailing winds that had created such havoc over the preceding weekend, when the snow was blown back onto the roads even as the ploughs and tractors were clearing them.

The summit of Eldon Hill. 
Looking west across to Combs Moss, Bee Low and Gautries Hill.

The path I was on followed the south eastern border of the field, which was where most of the snow had settled. If you have time, it's worth diverting from the bridleway here onto the summit of Eldon Hill. It has superb views and you get to pay a visit to the "bottomless" Eldon Hole, which lies on the route up to the top.

Eventually, I swung around to the north and joined another bridleway that had wound its way east by the side of the now-disused Eldon Hill Quarry.  Aside from the brutal wind, it was shaping up to be a fine day for walking and visibility was superb. As I reached the crest of the track I could see Stanage Edge some seven and a half miles away to the east.

Skirting the flank of Eldon Hill.
The official path runs alongside the wall but the land is open access and the gates weren't locked.
The next bridleway I joined was relatively clear of snow.
Looking east to Stanage Edge - the long distance views were excellent.

The easy walking didn't last and it wasn't long before the track was full of snow again. It seemed like I was the first person to walk this stretch since the drifts had formed and I almost felt guilty disturbing their perfectly-sculpted surfaces.

As I headed east along the track, new views opened out across the Hope Valley and beyond - Win Hill and, in the distance, Derwent Edge. Looking southwards, in the opposite direction, I could see my return route over the highest point of Bradwell Moor, location of the ancient Starvehouse Mine and an unusual trig column.

The plan was to head across to Winnats Pass from here and then walk down it into Castleton but when I reached the next junction of tracks my way north was completely blocked. Not just by a couple of deep drifts or an isolated bank of snow that could I fall through in clown-like fashion but a waist-deep river of the stuff stretching as far as my eyes could see.

There was clearly no way I could wade for half a mile or more through that so I sheltered from the wind behind a conveniently located wall and worked out an alternative route while I ate my lunch.

Time to plot a diversion...

My revised route to the left, the way to Cave Dale is on the right.
I remembered there was a right of way that split off from the path into Cave Dale and brought you out in the village by Peak Cavern. This huge cave in the village was originally called The Devil's Arse and renamed in the nineteenth century to avoid offending Queen Victoria on her visit to the area.

I hadn't walked this path before, which seemed a good enough reason to try it. Also it would allow me to maintain the semblance of a circular route without having to pass through Cave Dale twice.

On a broad, flat track it climbs very gently around 40 feet over the eastern slopes of Hurd Low. Then it starts to head ever more precipitously down into Castleton after passing by Cow Low. The views into the Hope Valley and beyond were stunning that afternoon - if this was winter's last gasp, then it was certainly going out in style.

Back Tor and Lose Hill (r) and the Kinder Plateau in the background (l).
Winnats Pass and Mam Tor.
Winnats Pass.

This steeper section of hilllside was quite evenly coated with around six inches of snow and there was someone practising their snowboarding ahead of me.

My own descent was far less sporty although sometimes I did manage to build up quite a bit of speed as I half-walked and half-hurtled uncontrollably downwards. Although I ended up on my backside several times, it was the thought of twisting an ankle or breaking a bone that concerned me more than a bruised posterior.

And actually, I've since read that the next day a walker slipped in that exact location, requiring attendance by the Mountain Rescue team.

I could see from the photos accompanying the report that there'd been a thaw since I was there. However, from my own experience I knew that where the snow had melted up on these hills the saturated mud was even more treacherous underfoot.

Down in Castleton, I made a beeline for one of our favourite cafes and fortified myself for the return journey with some Bakewell tart and a coffee. No pictures, alas, as the tart wasn't on the plate long enough for me to take a photograph. Energy levels restored, I settled my bill and headed for Cave Dale.

This limestone gorge is magnificent any time of the year but today's walk was the first time I'd visited when there was still snow on the ground. The effect was quite magical. Even more amazing, I found I had the whole place to myself apart from one couple and they were leaving as I arrived at the entrance. We exchanged hellos and they said to look out for the icicles just ahead. I climbed up the hillside to get a closer look at the cave entrance where they hung and it felt a little like walking into the jaws of some giant, slathering monster.

The walk up Cave Dale was a surprisingly easy one. I thought the path might be treacherously icy but water was streaming down it, which provided a helpful guide to where you could securely place your feet. Further up the thaw was less pronounced and I had to take more care, as the snow concealed many a hollow or loose rock.

The snow lay heavier on the path the further I climbed.
Looking back down Cave Dale to Peveril Castle and Lose Hill.
Nearing the top of Cave Dale, where it opens out into farmland.

The gorge broadens out at the top and after a while it brought me back to the junction of paths below Hurd Low, from where I'd made my way down to Castleton. The ground was drier and more solid here so it was a pleasant stroll back to the bridleway that cuts across these hills.

I needed to cross this track to make my way south on a final loop back into Peak Forest. For once the snowdrifts worked in my favour, enabling me to simply walk across the top of the barbed wire fence that blocked my way (the gate was completely buried and unmovable).

From here it was a straightforward tramp across relatively flat fields. Since leaving Castleton I'd been following the Limestone Way, which runs southwest below the highest point of Bradwell Moor. This is a long promontory of access land and I wanted to revisit the summit for its commanding views of the surrounding countryside. The drifts were particularly deep on the trail here and I employed the bog-trotting method of trying to be as fast and light-footed as I could to get across them onto the hillside - and remarkably it worked.

The summit of Bradwell Moor ahead - you can see the deep drifts below the hillside.
Looking back in wonder at how nimbly I'd crossed the drifts.
The Limestone Way by Starvehouse Mine, at least waist deep and probably more in places.

It's an easy walk up the hillside from the Limestone Way to the trig point on the summit of Bradwell Moor. The ground is pockmarked by circular depressions and mounds, presumably relics of the atmospherically-named Starvehouse Mine that once existed here. I've tried to find some information about the mine online but the internet has little to say other than it existed and is one of several obsolete lead mines in this area.

The trig pillar is a distinctive one and a handy one for anyone walking these hills as it has a built-in seat on which you can rest and take in the superb views.

Mam Tor with Kinder in the background.
Derwent Edge on the horizon.
Stanage Edge.
Looking south into the Derbyshire Dales.

I had a sit down myself. Mindful of the huge amounts of snow collected on the path below, I wanted to check the map for an alternate route down. All I could see was a roughly parallel track running past Ox Low (and the remains of another curiously-named mine, Clear-the-Way). But that didn't seem likely to provide any easier passage, so I set off for the huge snowdrift that covered the gate off the hill.

Heading back down to the Limestone Way.
The two sides of the gate off Bradwell Moor.

Over the gate, I extricated myself from the thigh-deep snow and set off down the track. It didn't look too bad ahead of me; in fact it was a lot clearer than I'd expected. Most of the drifts had accumulated against the eastern side of the wall. And the further down I got, the less snow there seemed to be.

Until I reached a crest in the path and looked down into this:

At least I could vaguely make out the gate at the other end of this final stretch. I inched through the waist-deep snow slowly and surely, holding onto the wall on the right as I went. I was well wrapped up with base layers and gaiters so I was actually pretty toasty all the while, even though it took some time to get down into the field at the other end.

Looking back after I'd reached the field below.
At least the snow was only ankle deep here.

I crossed the field and exited onto a narrow lane. It serves as access to a couple of farms and a house and the local tractors had obviously been employed here to keep it open. Although I'm not usually a fan of walking on roads, even quiet ones, I have to admit it did come as something of a relief on this occasion.

From here it was just a short and uneventful stroll downhill into the village. I've done several variants of this walk from Peak Forest but none have provided views quite as magical as on this day in the snow.

Date: March 2018

Walk length: 11.25 km

Total ascent: 473 metres


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