Thursday 13 September 2018

High Wheeldon and Pilsbury Castle

Two significant Peak District rivers have their sources on the Axe Edge watershed - the Manifold and the Dove. Over millennia, their meandering journeys south-east carved out deep gorges in the bedrock, resulting in limestone tors and caves that have long drawn sightseers to the area (including William and Dorothy Wordsworth).

If you're in the White Peak, the breathtaking scenery of Dove Dale and the Manifold Valley should definitely be on your list of places to visit but you shouldn't underestimate the countryside north of these tourist hotspots. Here a generous network of footpaths weaves quieter routes through broad valleys or over rounded hills and provides plentiful options for short walks, be it a half-day excursion or a summer evening ramble of an hour or so.

Looking south-east from Axe Edge Moor, source of the River Dove and the River Manifold.

The main aim of this walk was to visit Pilsbury Castle, an historical land feature in the Dove Valley - I hadn't even heard of this until a couple of months ago, when someone I follow on Twitter posted pictures of it from his evening run. I also planned to take in a couple of summits I hadn't visited before, High Wheeldon and Sheen Hill, although I knew the latter might not be achievable as it's on private land.

The display of toll-charges on Longnor's Market Hall.
Our start and end point was Longnor, which sits on a high ridge between the two rivers. It's listed in the Domesday Book of 1086 as Longenaire, though there's evidence of people making a living here earlier than that.

It was our first visit to this village and it charmed us with its stone buildings, narrow ginnels and handsome Victorian Market Hall (now a café and craft centre). For its size, it sustains an impressive number of fine-looking pubs too, a fact that didn't escape us as we headed out on our hike.

Heading out of Longnor along Dove Ridge.
We set off from Longnor east along the High Street before taking a left onto a walled lane named Dove Ridge. This runs along an area named Top o'th' Edge, which appeared to be a neatly kept green with well-spaced trees enclosed in deer-proof fencing. These blocked out the valley below but soon the tarmac gave way to a farm track as we began to head downhill and the views opened up.

The day's first summit, High Wheeldon, had come into sight now across the valley. However, our attention at this point was focussed more on a herd of cows below that looked suspiciously like it might be directly in our path. A quick glance at the map confirmed this was the case. Unfortunately, there were no easy detours without returning to Longnor and walking along roads, so we gritted our teeth and carried on.

The valley and the cattle come into view.
The summit of High Wheeldon to the left.
Into cow territory...

When we got down to the field, the cows had thoughtfully arranged themselves across it to ensure we had no clear route around them. Reassuring each other that the wall next to us was low enough to hop over should we need to, we gingerly edged along the margin of their pasture.

The herd was pleasingly blasé about our presence - apart from the closest cow to us, which turned 180 degrees and stared far longer and far more intensely than I felt was polite. Soon, though, we were over the highest point of this long rectangular field and they sank out of sight. Now I could relax enough to pause and pay attention to the scenery. And it was well worth taking time to do so, as two of the White Peak's most iconic hills stood directly north-west of us - Chrome Hill and Parkhouse Hill.

Chrome Hill and Parkhouse Hill dominate the view north-west.
Close up of Chrome Hill (r), with Hollins Hill behind (l).

We headed downwards until we reached a gate, where we joined a green lane. Despite the prolonged dry spell, the Meadow Cranesbill and Devil's-Bit Scabious were doing well here and there was a buzz in the air from bumblebees, regular bees and hoverflies, which was great to see and hear. Cue ropey phone pictures:

Out of the green lane, we found ourselves below High Wheeldon. A short walk up the road brought us to a stile at the base of the hillside and we began our ascent on the other side of this. It was a hot day and the recent lack of rain had left the ground parched, with bleached grass beneath our feet and crumbly patches of dry earth that felt like they were going to give way any minute. All this conspired to make our journey to the top far harder work than we expected. Wherever we could find a spot of flat ground to stand, we used it to take a breather. And photos - some of which demonstrate the height we were gaining:

A short spine of limestone finally provided a less punishing surface to walk on and brought us to the summit. The trig point had a plaque explaining how this land had been donated to the National Trust by a local man in 1946, "in honoured memory of the men of Derbyshire and Staffordshire who fell in the Second World War."

The scenery we looked on from this vantage point was wonderful; in fact, I think I'd go so far as to say High Wheeldon's summit offers one of the best viewpoints in the White Peak - hills, dales and high moorland provided a feast for the eyes all around.

Looking roughly NW - behind Hitter, Parkhouse and Chrome Hills,
Axe Edge Moor stretches across the horizon.
To the NE - this pastoral landscape conceals the massive Dowlow Quarry,
which has hollowed out the hillside beyond the crest.
To the south lies Wolfscote Hill (l) and Sheen Hill (r); beyond those hills
wind the popular limestone dales carved out by the Rivers Dove and Manifold.
To the west, the uplands of the Staffordshire Moors dominate the distant views.

We found a couple of rocks to sit on and had a much-needed rest here. Our route ahead was clearly visible, along the undulating ridge of which this summit forms the northern end. It was hard to resist looking back in the other direction, though, where Chrome and Parkhouse Hills were looking their most photogenic.

Once we'd caught our breath, we set off south. The route through the grass was easy to follow. Although it initially kept to higher ground, the path subsequently led us diagonally down the hillside to a hairpin bend in a lane.

Heading south from the summit of High Wheeldon.
Looking back up to the summit from the southern end of the hillside.

I'd originally plotted a walk down the lane into Crowdecote, a small village by the River Dove below: from there a public right of way would take us along the valley to Pilsbury Castle. The access land continued on the other side of the lane, though, so we decided to scout around and see if there was a gate or stile onto it. And there was, plus a clear path running along the top of the valley. Deciding the views would be pleasanter up there, we took this route instead, planning to head downwards wherever the descent looked easiest.

Looking south along the valley to Pilsbury Castle.
The path we followed along the top of the valley.
Sheen Hill on the western side of the valley.

These gently rolling slopes form the western side of Waggon Low, a broad mound crowned with exposed limestone like so many of the hills in the White Peak. Curiously, there's another prominence along this stretch of high ground, an unnamed summit of greater elevation around half a mile roughly south of Waggon Low. Had we carried on along the upper level path I assume we would have found ourselves at its cairn, 450 feet above Pilsbury Castle... But the castle was the main purpose of the walk so we headed down into the valley when we saw a gate in the wall below.

Almost down on the valley floor, we made our way to a gate in this wall.

There was a buzzard wheeling around in the air above us as we walked southwards along the valley floor. It was moving too fast for me to get a picture of it but it alighted on a limestone outcrop high above us eventually and I was able to get a couple of fairly rubbish shots of it.

It was a short stroll to Pilsbury Castle from where we'd come down into the valley. Even without the wooden palisades that once lined its embankments, it remains an impressive-looking structure. Built shortly after the Norman Conquest, the castle was probably used in the consolidation of William I's power across the region. The location's strategic significance is obvious, with commanding views along the valley and control of the River Dove, which flows beside it. Unsurprisingly, some people think this area was the site of a fort long before the Normans arrived, possibly as far back as the Iron Age.

Pilsbury Castle.

Artist's impression of Pilsbury Castle when in use
(from the information board on site).
In the Middle Ages, Pilsbury Castle was a motte and bailey fortification, simple in design, easy to defend and a daunting prospect for any would-be attackers. Their use spread across Europe between the 10th and 13th centuries.

The motte and bailey also had the advantage of not being difficult to construct from a technical point of view. So even if you were an Anglo-Saxon of entirely unremarkable abilities, your fancy new Norman overlord could still press-gang you into building him the castle he intended to move into and subjugate you from.

The motte was a raised mound, fenced or walled around the top and containing a central keep, the whole thing encircled by a moat or ditch; the bailey was a flat area adjoining the motte, also surrounded by raised earthworks and protected by a palisade. The day-to-day activities of medieval life took place within the bailey's confines, which housed a number of buildings such as a chapel, a smithy, etc. There were several variations on this basic plan and many were on a far grander scale than Pilsbury Castle. That said, Pilsbury did boast two baileys and is notable for the way it incorporated the limestone tors of the valley into its fortifications.

Standing below the remaining earthworks.
A limestone tor that was used as a natural extension of the defences.
Looking down into one of the remaining ditches.

Suddenly feeling hungry, we settled ourselves down beneath a tree, from where we enjoyed uninterrupted views almost all the way to Parkhouse Hill. There didn't appear to be any bands of rebellious peasantry making for our stronghold, so we broke out the butties. We kept an eye out along the valley as we ate, though, just in case.

Lunch over, we reluctantly left the welcome shade of the tree and carried on along a track to Pilsbury, the hamlet that lends its name to the castle. Here we crossed over the River Dove back into Staffordshire and set off on our second major ascent of the day, which would bring us out just near the rocky summit of Sheen Hill. On the opposite side of the valley, the view was dominated by Carder Low, cattle dotted across its slopes.

The bridge over the River Dove.
Carder Low.

The path we were following uphill was lined by dry stone walls and trees - rowan, blackthorn and hawthorn. They were all laden with berries, purple and red signifiers that summer had reached its peak and autumn was approaching.

We left the track at a lane just below the summit of Sheen Hill, where a white trig gleamed on top of an incongruously dark outcrop of rock. It looked like someone had lifted a chunk from one of the Dark Peak edges to the north and dropped it here, so it was no surprise to find out later that the bedrock below the earth around Sheen is indeed millstone grit. Whatever the geological composition of the ground beneath our feet, this inviting highpoint promised excellent views and we set off for the farmhouse nestled in its shadow, intending to ask permission to access it.

The summit of Sheen Hill.

Unfortunately, there didn't seem to be anyone around when we arrived in the farmyard, though our arrival was very noisily announced by a pair of black labradors that ran at us with fearsome barks and joyfully waggy tails.

After being assessed and thoroughly licked (wiping my hand dry on my shirt, I was glad I'd already eaten my packed lunch), we decided to return to the road and save this summit for another time. As we followed this lane back to the junction that would lead us down into the Manifold Valley, we compensated ourselves with a harvest of blackberries from the plentiful supplies growing along the verge.

There was a reasonably lengthy section of road walking ahead of us now as we headed downhill towards the River Manifold. Happily, this quiet lane remained traffic-free and we were able to enjoy the new viewpoints that cresting the hill had provided.

Looking south: Gratton Hill, Narrowdale Hill and Wetton Hill.
Ecton Hill.
Looking north: Axe Edge Moor, Hollins Hill, Chrome Hill and High Edge.

Fine though these vistas were, both new and familiar, I have to say that perhaps the best view we had on this walk downhill was one rather closer to hand:

What the goats lacked in stature they certainly made up for in enthusiasm and they came trotting over at the sight of us. After a mutually-agreeable amount of nose-scratching, sniffing and licking (the first on our part, the second two activities solely partaken of by the goats), we carried on to a crossroads. Here we turned right, in the direction of Ridge Farm. It was another tranquil lane, surrounded by farmland, with occasional stone-built properties along its course. At one of these, we left the lane behind, passing through a tiny gate to take a public footpath across pasture towards the Manifold Trail.

Although the Manifold Trail runs roughly parallel with the river, this particular stretch of it is some distance from the bank and we couldn't see the waterway at all. It was pleasant walking nonetheless, the views extensive and pastoral. Sheep gazed curiously at us as we strolled by and only an occasional encounter with cattle disturbed our equilibrium. To be fair, they were no more interested in us than the sheep or the cows we'd met earlier in the day so our alarm was - as usual - unfounded.

As we neared Longnor the trail drifted left, down to the riverside, but still the Manifold remained hidden behind trees and hedges. And there wasn't actually much of it to see anyway - I took a peek over a fence before we started heading uphill again and found the dry weather had reduced the river to a mere trickle along its rocky bed.

The path drifts left towards the River Manifold, which lies behind the trees.
Heading uphill, back into Longnor.
Looking back along the Manifold Valley.

The heat of the day had dissipated now and grey clouds were forming above head as we re-entered the village. Although we'd walked north and south of this area previously, this section in the middle had eluded us until now and exploring it made for a fascinating afternoon. As with all the best walks, it sparked our curiosity about other routes we could take in the area and we're looking forward to returning to the Manifold Valley soon.

Date: August 2018

Walk length: 13.5 km

Total ascent:  589 metres


  1. Thanks for telling me about your blog, Justin. We walked the Pilsbury Castke route to and from Hartington, but I will read the Chrome and Parkhouse Hill info before taking my grandchildren up. I haven’t done that part. Great photos and detailed description. You might be interested to see my brother’s Veer TV films and photos which he took with a 360 camera, including some of Derbyshire Chrome Hill and Parkhouse but lots of other places he’s been walking too. Search on Veer TV site for Michaels_360_VR but he has lots of films on,

  2. Thanks, Dawn - glad you enjoyed the blog. I just had a look at your brother's Veer uploads from around Chrome and Parkhouse Hill. Great stuff! Enjoyed the ones from the Glyderau in Wales too. Snowdonia's one of my favourite places to go walking. Looking forward to checking out his other pictures & videos too. It was nice to meet you at the Gallery In A Shed today. Best wishes, Justin.