Saturday 28 December 2019

A Staffordshire Ramble: Grindon, Milk Hill and the Manifold Way

I've been inspired to do my walks by lots of things - photos, blogs and articles, wanting to explore distant hills I've seen on the horizon - but this is the first time I've planned a route around winning a pizza stone in a raffle.

We'd visited the Christmas Fair in Butterton the previous weekend and were struck by how lovely the countryside around that part of the Peak District was. So when we found out we had to return to the area to collect our prize, it seemed the perfect opportunity to do some exploring at the same time.

We settled on Grindon as our start and end point. This small village sits near the confluence of the River Manifold and the River Hamps and, although we'd walked in the northern parts of the Manifold Valley, we hadn't yet ventured further south than Thor's Cave. According to the map, Grindon boasted a car park and plenty of options in the way of public footpaths so it seemed ideal.

Before we got there, though, we couldn't resist a brief diversion to the trig at Grindon Moor. I'm not a "trig bagger" as such but, Iike many walkers, I do have a lot of affection for those squat columns that dot our landscape. This one was by the side of the road rather than perched on top of a mountain so we didn't expect visiting it to pose many challenges - nonetheless we managed to drive right past it even though the concrete pillar was in plain sight.

Grindon Moor trig.
The view north from the trig.
Mission eventually accomplished, we made our way into Grindon, where we then also drove past the entrance to the public car park and found ourselves heading out of the other side of the village. Once we'd worked out where we should be and parked, we geared up and headed for the path that would lead us out into the countryside. We obviously weren't the only ones having a navigationally-challenged Saturday, as a bloke in a large four-by-four slowly passed us several times, studying the sat-nav on his phone all the while.

"For a supposedly sleepy village, it's very busy today," a local woman remarked, with a gesture towards his car, as she pinned a notice to a telegraph pole. Since we'd been driving around in confusion ourselves only minutes before, we nodded in sheepish agreement and tip-toed as quietly as we could over to the track on the opposite side of the lane.

Leaving the village behind.
Winter seems to have arrived in the Peak District this past month in much the same way as it did last year, with prolonged periods of rain and stormy winds below oppressive grey skies. The ground beneath our feet bore witness to this all this miserable weather - huge puddles of uncertain depth and earth that was more liquid than solid - and it made our progress along the farm track slow going. Above us, the cloud did seem to be breaking up in places and we began to wonder if the blue skies that had been promised would indeed make an appearance.

The Manifold Valley to the north east.
To the north - the hills around Wetton.
After a while the right of way left the left the rutted, gravel track behind and began to cross fields. Counter-intuitively, the ground here was much firmer and easier to walk over so we had the luxury of looking at our surroundings instead of concentrating on where we were putting our feet. The scenery here was absolutely beautiful, even in somewhat drab winter garb, and it must make for wonderful walking in spring and summer.

The path undulated across farmland until it met a bridleway, from which point it led us southwards below Saucefields Farm. This pastures here were home to a couple of different breeds of sheep. The ones in the second picture are Texels, I think - they're a fairly familiar sight up here in the High Peak. I haven't seen the breed in the first picture before, though.

After the farm, the bridleway joined the access road and then a country lane.

We made our way downhill to a ford, over which a stream was flowing vigorously. Even a couple of the stepping stones - which we were glad to see came with a handrail - were partially covered with water. Despite one or two of them wobbling ominously underfoot we managed to reach the other side without getting wet. Exhilarating though this thirty-second adventure was, the adrenaline rush didn't make the fairly steep climb up again into the village of Waterfall any easier.

We were disappointed to find that there was no waterfall in Waterfall. The name apparently derives from the fact that a stretch of the River Hamps disappears underground near here during the summer and reappears further downstream. The Manifold does the same thing and it's not unusual to come across these bournes in limestone country where the bedrock is so porous.

There might not have been any picturesque water features to look at but there was, however, an interesting church (St James and St Bartholomew), which we stopped to investigate. It was only a small building but it was made up of a hodge-podge of architectural styles - a couple of original 12th century arches and some re-used masonry from the same period, an eighteenth century nave and tower, and some late Victorian remodelling to glue it all together.

"Curious" was Pevsner's comment about the doorway and "over-renewed" his view of the chancel arch, not exactly a ringing endorsement of the renovations. Someone obviously thought highly enough of the church to add an incongruously grand gateway though. Appropriately enough it too was cobbled together from diverse sources: the iron gates from a park in Derby, the piers from Ilam Hall and the remaining masonry from Wootton Lodge after its demolition.*

After spending some time in the church, we carried on through the village, past the water pump and stocks, and then joined a lane that led downhill into Waterhouses.

We didn't linger in Waterhouses, which used to be the southern terminus of the short-lived Leek and Manifold Valley Light Railway. Once described by a wag who worked on it as a line that began in the middle of nowhere and ended in the same place, the railway ceased operation in 1934 and is now the route of the Manifold Way.

Crossing the A523, we walked under an arched bridge on Earlsway towards the massive cement works that dominates the village. It was quite an eerie experience walking past this imposing, industrial structure. We could hear the constant deep hum of whatever processes were taking place within but there was no sign of life anywhere around it.

We were glad to turn off Earlsway and be back crossing fields again. Our target was Milk Hill, effectively the halfway point of our walk, from where we'd begin the journey back north to Grindon. The sun was shining and even the cement works looked (slightly) nicer when we turned back to view it from this vantage point.

The climb up Milk Hill wasn't especially strenuous and as we gained height some fine views began to open out around us. By the time we reached the trig we were glad we'd made the effort to include it rather than head straight back along the Manifold Way from Waterhouses. The December sun was already quite low in the west, which made getting photos in that direction difficult, but since the hills over there have been heavily quarried it really wasn't much of a loss.

We headed down to a quiet lane on the other side of the hills and followed this back to the A523. It brought us out just a short distance away from the Manifold Way, which was an uninspiring tarmac-coated road at this southern end.

We hadn't walked this stretch of the trail before and it struck us as being less picturesque here than up in the Manifold Valley. In fairness, the wooded slopes probably do look much more attractive in summer and autumn. And despite the lack of leaves, there was of course still some colour and life to be found in the trees around us.

Ironically, although around a third of our walk took place on the Manifold Way, we never actually came within sight of the River Manifold. The southern part of the trail runs along the Manifold's main tributary, the River Hamps, and we left the valley around half a mile before the two rivers meet at Beeston Tor.

The footpath we joined curved gently uphill in a shallow dale. It was all very pleasant to start with. Then we reached an incredibly slippery strip of mud that climbed upwards across the steep hillside. The ground on either side offered no escape. You could see and feel where it had given way under people trying to avoid the path and their attempts to bypass the mud simply served to extend it. It was really difficult to get any purchase underfoot and after sliding around for a while I finally ended up going arse-over-elbow.

The start of our climb up from the Manifold Way.
Looking back at part of the muddy path.
We had two options once we reached the top of this dale - more tramping across muddy fields or a gentle stroll along a lane and I'm afraid the latter won out. Mind you, it was uphill so we weren't completely selling out and taking the easy option.**

It was late afternoon and the light was fading now. Behind us as we headed back into Grindon was the valley we'd just left and the dramatic cliff face of Beeston Tor, below which the waters of the Hamps yield to the Manifold on their long, meandering journey to the sea.

Beeston Tor to the left above the valley.

* "The Buildings of England: Staffordshire", p.298, Nikolaus Pevsner, 1974.  See this link also for more detailed info.

** [Editor's note: they were totally selling out and taking the easy option.]


Date: December 2019

Walk length: 16 km 

Total ascent:  405 metres


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