Friday 11 May 2018

Wardlow Hay Cop and Cressbrook Dale

Cressbrook Dale is a beautiful limestone valley just north west of Bakewell. It's one of my favourite spots in the White Peak and there's no better time of year to visit it than spring, when its wildflowers put on a breathtaking display. If you walk the full length of the dale, you'll find yourself in ash woodland at the southern end and here in May the air is rich with the aroma of wild garlic. We've done a circuit that takes in those woods and the beautiful expanse of ramson flowers that spreads below their canopy, which you can read about here.

Wild garlic in Cressbrook Dale in May 2015.

For our most recent visit, though, we mainly wanted to show my mum the wildflowers that thrive in the limestone grassland here. With this in mind, we plotted a shorter walk from Wardlow into the northern part of the dale but added a diversion onto Wardlow Hay Cop, a modest hill above the valley with superb 360 degree views.

Once parked up near the Church of the Good Shepherd, we made for a public footpath that connects the village with the dale.  There was no doubt that spring had arrived in Wardlow, with plants - wild and cultivated - in bloom all over the verges and gardens. One colour dominated, yellow, the dandelions taking over where the fading daffodils had left off.

This much-maligned plant, which provides a valuable nectar source for bees and other invertebrates, had spread its cheery flowers across the patchwork of meadows on the outskirts of the village too, we noted, as we followed the footpath between dry stone walls towards Cressbrook Dale.

At the end of the enclosed path, we came to a stone stile. Once over this we were at the top of the dale, with superb views down into the valley. Hawthorn trees, now in full leaf, dotted the steep slopes of the dale and exposed limestone scars gleamed in the sun.

All around us in the turf were swathes of flowers - wood anemones and lesser celandine, common violets and mountain pansies, and of course the early purple orchids for which the dale is renowned.

Early purple orchid and wood anemone.
Wood anemone.
Common violet.
Lesser celandine.
Early purple orchid.
Early purple orchid.

We followed the path south west below farmland to a small gate. The public footpath continues on the same course, descending the steep hillside into the southern end of the valley and the woodland below, but there is a narrow trod that stays high above the dale and sticks close to the dry stone wall.

The southern end of Cressbrook Dale.

If you take this sometimes indistinct higher level route, it brings you to another small gate in the wall directly below Wardlow Hay Cop. The hilltop is access land and there's a sign explaining how the scrub on this patch of land is carefully managed to restore and maintain its delicate ecosystem.

Hairy rock-cress.
Wardlow Hay Cop.

On the other side of the gate isolated trees stood aloof from one another across the hillside and between them the wood anemones really came into their own.

The cowslips and orchids were giving them a run for their money; violets and mountain pansies too, although their tiny flowers were half-hidden by the grass and you had to look more keenly to pick them out. There were plenty of them, far more than when we'd visited the week before.

Not to be outdone by their more colourful competitors, some of the anemones had appeared in pink garb - though the only ones I managed to get a photo of in the breeze looked sadly a little unkempt and ragged around the edges.

It's only a short walk to the summit, which is surmounted by an OS trig column and thronged with primroses. The views from here take in the Derbyshire Dales and in good visibility you can see the wind turbines near Carsington Water slowly revolving on the horizon. It was a little too hazy to the south to see them on this visit but the bright greens of the hills around us left no doubt that spring was in full flow.

Looking north west, with the moors of the Dark Peak on the horizon.
Looking south west, across Derbyshire to Axe Edge Moor in the distance.
A hazy view south into the heart of the Derbyshire Dales.

We returned the way we'd come and headed north west down into the dale. In winter, the floor of the valley is a shallow stream. This dries out in the open dale from spring onwards, although the area just next to the woodland in the south can remain marshy and waterlogged.

As we near the floor of the dale, note the marshy ground to the south.

As we wandered lazily along the valley floor northwards, the wildflowers around us and the limestone scars above us vied for our attention. As well as cuckoo flower, we also came across a small clump of pink orchids down here. At the time we wondered if they might be a different species but I'm inclined now to think that they were just a paler colour variant of the early purples.

The dale winds to the north east in its upper reaches and as we followed it around we passed below Peter's Stone. It's also known locally as Gibbet Rock, as it was the site of Wardlow Mires gibbet, the last one in Derbyshire. A local murderer, Antony Lingard, was hanged in Derby in 1815 and his body was suspended in the gibbet here for the next eleven years, a grim sight for anyone traversing the dale - and a grim sound too when his bare bones rattled in the wind. There is a detailed account of his misdeeds and his downfall here.

Looking back at the path we took through the dale, below Peter's Stone.

As you pass below it, Peter's Stone doesn't look especially remarkable, indeed you might think it's a cliff face, just one of several significant limestone scars in the dale. When you're north of it and look back, however, you see what a striking landform it actually is. Once part of the bedrock above, due to a landslip it's now a distinct outcrop that sticks out at an angle. You can walk all around it and you can climb on top of it relatively easily too - I didn't on this occasion but I have done previously and it's a nice little detour from the walk along the valley floor that gives a different perspective on the landscape around you.

There are reports online that its name derives from its dome-like appearance, which reminded people of the dome of St Peters Basilica in Rome. Several sites mention this in passing but I can't find anything about the original source of this information. I don't know how familiar ordinary folk would have been with buildings in Rome back in the day and the anti-Catholic attitudes (and laws) that existed in England well into the nineteenth century also make me a little suspicious of this story.

Peter's Stone from the north.A runner, bottom left of the photo,
gives an sense of its height.

We weren't far from the end of the dale now. There was still some impressive limestone on display, albeit the sides of the dale were less high than they had been before, and wildflowers continued to bloom, sometimes in the most uncongenial-looking locations.

Nearing the northern end of the dale.
A look back south down Cressbrook Dale.
Cuckoo flower.
Lesser celandine.
A gate at the end of the dale brought us out onto a road by Wardlow Mires and from here it was a very short stroll along a grass verge to the lane that would lead us into Wardlow. The verges of the lane around the junction were thick with green alkanet, a new plant for me and one with beautifully shaped petals.

This walk only took a couple of hours, at a very gentle pace with plenty of photo-stops, so it's a great one for those long summer evenings or if you just have a morning or afternoon spare. The wildlflowers in spring and early summer make it extra special, of course, but the scenery in the dale and the views from Wardlow Hay Cop (should you include it) make it worthy of visiting any time of the year.

Date: May 2018

Walk length: 5.5 km

Total ascent: 322 metres


  1. Looks a lovely spring walk. I normally prefer the Dark Peak but this might tempt me to head a bit further South :)

    1. Cheers, Matt. I'd definitely recommend it - it's one of my favourite places in the White Peak. All the best, Justin.