The Peak District, while unsurprisingly revered for its hills, also holds its own when it comes to deep gorges and stunning forests. This walks takes us through a unique and captivating area in the Peaks just east of Buxton.
Back in the 1860s, the engineering might of the Victorians faced the challenge of the steep cliffs and plunging gorges surrounding the River Wye in Derbyshire. The result, Midland Railway’s mainline between Manchester and London, incurred the wrath of Victorian critic and conservationist John Ruskin. What was once seen as industry encroaching upon the limestone heartland is now known as the Monsal Trail, a walkway along clifftops, through viaducts and imposing tunnels, and into deep gorges.
This walk starts at Miller’s Dale old station car park and follows the multi-use Monsal Trail through Chee Tor Tunnel.
While the first two miles heading away from the car park will reveal old girder bridges, long tunnels and the odd view down into the canyon of the Wye, the two-mile return journey will see you walk into a fairytale landscape that somehow remains unknown to the masses.
In the summer, Chee Dale is full of colour and fragrances. It really is some of the most remarkable landscape I know of. As you advance downstream, keeping tightly to the bank, you’ll cross stepping stones and the odd footbridge.
It’s worth mentioning that if the first set of stepping stones is even remotely under water, don’t continue – the next section of your walk will be completely impassable. Don’t attempt it. The rest of your path home follows a section of extraordinary tranquility. Limestone cliffs rise above you, the Monsal Trail marking their edges like a travelator in the sky. You’ll cling to the water’s edge here, climbing over rocks, the odd fallen tree, and navigating around shallow pools and streams before climbing back up to the Monsal Trail and returning to Miller’s Dale car park where you started.
The Peak District isn’t all about hills; a view doesn’t have to be in the distance for it to be breathtaking.
This idea that technology is bad, that GPS is cheating, that outdoors aides make you less of an outdoorsy type – these ideas need to die. They’re steeped in the past, they’re unhelpful and they don’t encourage anybody to discover our beautiful outdoor spaces.
Ordnance Survey have a wonderful initiative called #GetOutside. There aren’t many hashtags I rally around on social media and I’m pretty picky about the causes I support, but #GetOutside is one that I love. I can’t sum it up any better than Ordnance Survey’s own Nick Giles:
“The GetOutside initiative is core to OS’s aims to help more people to GetOutside more often, it is about inspiring adventures, enabling experiences and helping make memories. It’s already encouraging people to re-engage with the outdoors and showing that it is enjoyable, accessible and safe for all ages and abilities.
We all know the statistics. The shocking levels of obesity and inactivity within Great Britain, even amongst children. A sedentary lifestyle is easy, and it’s winning, and we’re seeing the effects of that on people’s mental and physical health. We appreciate people have busy lives and responsibilities, and that finding the time is not always easy, but we can all incorporate getting outside into our daily routines.”
I read a post last night shared (and presumably endorsed, but I’m making an assumption that may be incorrect) by one of the #GetOutside Champions. That article kept me up last night. It royally pissed me off.
I’m not going to name who wrote the article other than to say it wasn’t the person who shared it, nor am I going to link to it. All too often on social media a difference of opinion becomes personal despite each person having good intentions and seeing merit in each other’s ideas, so I’m going to talk about why I disagree with the theme. Mine will become another blog post floating in the ether that likely garners less than 1% of the views of the article I disagree with. If I had any social savvy or cared about clicks and likes, I’d probably link to it, create a discussion and, in the midst of my burgeoning popularity, people would forget that it’s ideas that should be challenged and not the people who hold them.
That shared blog post loftily stated that if you don’t use paper maps and instead use technology, you’re not a real outdoorsy-type. It went on to say that GPS devices are for ‘children and amateurs’.
We need to lose this rhetoric otherwise a new generation of ‘children and amateurs’ won’t be encouraged to find out what our National Parks are like because they’ll be too worried about running into some holier-than-thou rambler with a ‘pocketable’ laminated map the size of a tablecloth in their hands, and a rehearsed lecture ready to go whenever the audience arises. Please don’t turn outdoor communities into an echo chamber where only real outdoors types post photos of themselves in places inferior city-dwelling types mustn’t tread; where the enlightened few can raise a pint of filtered bog water to each other before they bed down in an outcrop of heather having woven a mosquito net out of nothing but wild grass and wishes.
Don’t wear your outdoors skills like a badge of honour that puts you on a pedestal. Unless, of course, you’re doing DofE or in the Scouts or something; they’re pretty big on badges. Use your skills to inspire the intrepid and curious people who want to learn more. Don’t tell them they’re doing it wrong when they’ve only just started.
I wrote a post challenging the idea that paper maps are essential in all circumstances – it was surprisingly popular and got a lot of support, but I’m reluctant to repeat myself. I want, instead, to look at the other side of things. This idea that technology is bad, that GPS is cheating, that outdoors aides make you less of an outdoorsy type – these ideas need to die. They’re steeped in the past, they’re unhelpful and they don’t encourage anybody to discover our beautiful outdoor spaces. You know who’s going to be wandering our National Parks in 50-100 years? It won’t be you and me, it’ll be the younger generations we encourage to love the parks and their children. Stop demeaning them and making them feel like they’re not doing it right. In my view, we need to show them why there’s so much to love in the outdoors and the skills and knowledge will come later once the enthusiasm and thirst for more takes its hold. Let’s not put unnecessary barriers in their way.
My friend, Rob, is a driving instructor. He’s one of the best driving instructors in the county and is exceptionally talented at providing courses for people with learning difficulties or special needs. I know a similar argument has been happening for decades with (especially older) drivers bemoaning the use of in-car tech such as sat navs. I wanted to get Rob’s opinion on this because there’s an undeniable parallel between navigational tech in the car and orienteering tech in the outdoors – we’re just a long way behind. His response was so perfect, I’m going to post it in full:
Tech can help to reduce cognitive overload allowing a better focus on the true task in hand. In the context of driving, true driving is about what happens outside the window (judgement, assessment, interaction…) not the physical aspect of body movements – reducing the physical load allows greater brain processing on the true skills of driving. We shouldn’t be clinging onto 19th century tech for the sake of nostalgia when we have a better way. Even pen and paper is a tech which allows us to reduce cognitive overload, storing information outside the brain – at the time of its invention this was frowned upon. Even weather forecasting was frowned upon initially, anything new is seen as cheating or heresy.
I asked him to weigh in on how this might translate into the paper maps/GPS debate:
[The idea that analogue is better than digital] is very narrow-minded and works on the basis that we all perceive information the same way. We are a diverse species and our brains all work very differently, some can process paper maps well and that’s fantastic for them. Others will struggle, so a different form of processing should be sought and this is where technology can be wonderful as it provides alternative means to make sense of the same information. A map/satnav or any tech is simply an interface between ‘reality’ and the brain – we should each find what works for us best. I imagine that a lot of individuals with dyslexia/dyspraxia/Irlens Syndrome would struggle with map reading due to the perception issues – it would be insulting and crude to imply that they are lesser because of this. Technology can provide different means to access the same information allowing for the sheer diversity of brain types existent in the human race. Use whatever is necessary to make sense and enjoyment from the world around you. Technology is fantastic for this and it’s insulting that those who benefit are mocked by those who use a different style despite the fact they are using their own crutch (a map).
I may as well stop writing here. Rob said everything I wanted to say and managed to say it in a more eloquent way than I could.
When I wrote Is there still a place in your backpack for paper maps?, the answer was a resounding ‘yes’! I pretty much always have a paper map and compass in my bag for backup. I don’t think the arguments for using paper maps exclusively over technology such as phones and GPS stand up to scrutiny anymore, but I think map-reading and orienteering skills are incredibly helpful skills to have. Useful, yes. Pre-requisites, no.
If you’re the kind of person that blindly follows your sat nav along roads that you’re not supposed to be on and have routinely had to swerve to miss things like lakes after following a line on a screen, you should probably stay inside. A paper map isn’t going to solve your problems and Mountain Rescue have it hard enough as it is.
If, like me, you’re in love with that intersection between technology and the outdoors, I have good news. The Ordnance Survey app is very good and they’ve recently released a series of OS GPS devices which I hear are also very good reasonable. I haven’t tried one of those, but if I ever do I’ll report back. It really does encourage me to see that Ordnance Survey’s #GetOutside initiative and their Champions are having such a positive effect and that the company is striving to instil passion for the outdoors in the next generation. I just wish all ramblers were as forward-thinking.
You can follow Ordnance Survey on Twitter here, on Instagram here, and find out more about their #GetOutside initiative here. If you want to follow a few of my favourite #GetOutside Champions, who all make the outdoors both accessible and enjoyable, you can’t do much better than these three:
When you’re visiting a National Park renowned for it’s rugged and sweeping hills, barren moors and mountain scenery, it might not occur to you that some of the most impressive walks might be found in the valleys.
If you’re anything like me when it comes to planning your weekend walks and hikes, you’ll grab an OS Map and look for the high ground. When I was in the Brecon Beacons last week, the first walk I did fell into that category – I headed straight for Pen y Fan, the highest British peak south of Cadair Idris in Snowdonia. For this walk, I headed for these low altitude gems.
When you’re visiting a National Park renowned for it’s rugged and sweeping hills, barren moors and mountain scenery, it might not occur to you that some of the most impressive walks might be found in the valleys.
Thankfully, after watching The Brecon Beacons with Iolo Williams, I became enamoured with an area of dramatic limestone scenery in the Beacons known justly as Waterfall Country. Found south of the upland plateau of Fforest Fawr, this area of deep, narrow gorges is sheltered by the most vibrant and otherworldly woodland, interspersed with gushing waterfalls.
Truth be told, you don’t need a map for this one. The Waterfall Centre, where you’ll park your car, has some of the most well-signposted routes that you’ll find in any National Park – testament to just how popular the area is with walkers and tourists alike. As always though, I’d urge you to prepare as you normally would: make sure you have any kit you’d typically take into the mountains, including your waterproofs and a map that you know how to read.
The Waterfall Centre at Porth yr ogof, near Ystradfellte
There are a number of free laybys in the area that will all add a mile or so to your walk, but for the sake of convenience, park here. You’ll exit the car park and follow the clearly-signposted route to the riverbank of the Mellte, keeping it to your right as you weave between trees and rocks covered in the most vibrant ferns and moss.
The first waterfall you’ll come to a mile or so after leaving the car park (though you’ll hear it long before you see it) is Sgŵd Clun-gwyn, the ‘fall of the white meadow’. It is formed where a north-northwest to south-southeast fault brings hard sandstone up against softer mudstone.
From here, you can pretty much make your own route, but due to resurfacing work that was happening on the paths when I visited, I took the middle of three available routes down to the lowest of the falls and worked my way back up. Rather than describing how to get to each of these (because it’s so obvious and well-signposted once you’re there), I’ll just give you a taster of what you can looked forward to.
Sgŵd yr Eira
On the Afon Hepste, Sgŵd yr Eira is famous for being the fall you can walk behind as the ‘falls of snow’ plunge over a hard band of sandstone.
Sgŵd yr Pannwr
The ‘fall of the fuller’ or ‘fall of the woollen washer’ is the lowermost of the three falls on the Mellte. It’s a spectacular fall and the noise is deafening.
Sgŵd Isaf Clun-gwyn
The ‘lower fall of the white meadow’ is the middle of three falls and, for me, the most impressive. It’s also the least obvious to get to and I suspect that some people miss it altogether having walked down to Sgŵd yr Pannwr and not realising that you can follow a boarded walk around a corner and over some rugged-looking rocks. It’s worth the extra effort, though, the view and the sound is astounding.
Normally, this is about the place where I’d point you in the direction of OS Maps and ViewRanger routes, but I’d urge you to explore this area and forge your own path. Everything you need to know can be found on the AA Walks website.
The landscape of the Brecon Beacons is altogether different from the Peaks and, to my eyes, sits somewhere between the grandeur of the Lake District and the rolling hills I’m more familiar with back home.
As much as I love the Peak District, I find myself in the Brecon Beacons at least once or twice a year. The landscape is altogether different from the Peaks and, to my eyes, sits somewhere between the grandeur of the Lake District and the rolling hills I’m more familiar with back home.
It’s like the Peak District’s more rugged sibling. It doesn’t have quite the grandeur of the Lake District, but the terrain is often more imposing than the Peaks. As if the spectacular scenery wasn’t enough, you also get the most wonderful night skies in the Brecon Beacons thanks to it being an International Dark Sky Place.
This walk takes us to Pen y Fan, the highest peak in south Wales. At 886 metres (2,907ft) above sea-level, it is also the highest British peak south of Cadair Idris in Snowdonia. The twin summits of Pen y Fan and Corn Du at 873m (2,864ft) were formerly referred to as Cadair Arthur or ‘Arthur’s Seat’.
There are several ways to approach Pen y Fan. There’s a gentle walk from the Storey Arms or Pont ar Daf, known locally as ‘the motorway’, which is manageable for the vast majority of people – even small children – given that it starts at an altitude of around 400m. For a more challenging approach from the Storey Arms, an 11-mile circuit will also take in neighbouring peaks, Corn Du and Cribyn. If you’re going to Pen y Fan, it would be a crime to not also summit Corn Du, which I think has the better views.
If the tourist route isn’t for you – and I wouldn’t blame you for not wanting to walk up a hill surrounded by people complaining about the climb while attempting it in skinny jeans and Converse – a challenging 7.5-mile route from Cwm Gwdi car park (310m) starts just north of Pen y Fan, with stunning views east over the River Nant Sere and west over Llyn Cwm Llwch.
And then there’s the tough one; the epic 10-mile horseshoe walk. This is the route that I took and, as it turns out, it’s also one of the training routes that the British Army uses. Passing several groups of officers decked out in full camo gear on the way to the summit, it’s fun to imagine that your little hobby is what the British Army is doing for training.
As always, links to the route I took can be found at the end of this post.
Taf Fechan Forest and Upper Neuadd Reservoir
There are several free car parks to choose from in Taf Fechan Forest. If you take a look at the OS Map I’ve linked to at the end of this post, you’ll see the exact one where this route begins. From here, you’ll walk north along the lane to the Filter House and head west across the lower banks of the Upper Neuadd Reservoir.
This walk is impressive right from the start, with views across the reservoir and up the valley to Pen y Fan.
Craig Fan Ddu
After leaving the reservoir, you’ll need your camera. Not because the views are particularly spectacular (though they are expansive and beautiful) as you climb to the Craig Fan Ddu ridge, but because the steep clamber will have you gasping for breath and looking for any excuse to pause and ‘take in the view’ while your heart rate returns to a slightly-less-than-alarming level.
The wonderful glacial valley you see as you climb reminds me a lot of the Kinder Plateau, although the red sandstone provides a pleasing change to the gritstone of the Peaks. If you’re lucky, you might see red kites cruising overhead.
Some miles later, you’ll arrive at the approach to the anvil-shaped Corn Du. It’s not quite as tall as its close neighbour, but the views are spectacular. I urge you, don’t be tempted to take the lower path and head straight for the big summit – take the time to walk over Corn Du and you won’t be disappointed.
While you won’t find any trig pillars at the top of these Welsh hills, you will find the summit marked by a Bronze Age cairn with a central burial cist, similar to the one you’ll see shortly on nearby Pen y Fan.
This was probably my favourite part of the whole walk as you get panoramic views down into Cwm Llwch and across the Usk valley to Brecon as well as east towards the Sugar Loaf, Monmouthshire above Abergavenny.
Pen y Fan
While crossing the saddle between Corn Du and Pen y Fan, there are spectacular views to the south, down the Neuadd Valley to the reservoirs that are above Merthyr Tydfil. Like Corn Du, the summit of Pen y Fan is marked by a Bronze Age burial chamber. When it was excavated in 1991 a bronze brooch and spearhead were found inside.
I read before I planned this walk that if you stand on Pen y Fan and look northwest, you can see all the way to Snowdonia. The view was indeed spectacular, but the visit to the summit was short-lived because I don’t enjoy sharing my well-earned summits with people who strolled up from the nearest car park in Nikes with their selfie sticks.
From Pen y Fan, you’ll continue along the escarpment edge to Cribyn. From the plateau of Pen y Fan, Cribyn looks like a mere hill, but I found the path up to it every bit as tiring as the first climb up to the Craig Fan Ddu ridge… I blame tired legs.
Once off Cribyn, a clear path heading south takes you the whole length of the opposite side of the horseshoe back to where you parked at Taf Fechan Forest.
If you do this walk, I’d love to know what you thought of it and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. You can find the route I took on ViewRanger and OS Maps.
This was the first time I’d done the walk from Fairholmes in the Derwent Valley to the rocky pinnacles of Alport Castles.
Ladybower and Derwent Water will be familiar to anyone who’s spent time in the Peak District, but I’ve typically explored north, east and south of the waters without heading west.
OS Maps have this down as a leisurely walk, while AA Walks (via ViewRanger) has its difficulty as ‘hard’. As you might expect, it ended up somewhere in the middle, although I’d imagine that it could swing to either extreme depending on the conditions you do it in. I experienced almost every type of weather over the 10 miles of this route – mist in the valley at the start, turning to sleet and then hail, then a blizzard that froze my Camelbak feed along the ridge, sun at the midway point, and flurries of snow on the route back.
For a walk that commands impressive views, it’s remarkably difficult to do them justice through a lens. I blame the ice. There were so many times I knew I’d be able to get a great shot if only I could get over there, but getting ‘over there’ would have had even Shackleton flummoxed. Sheer cliff faces and a pervasive sheen of black ice is a recipe for Type III fun.
Despite the lack of impressive photos to write home about, the walk was wonderful and one I’d highly recommend. This is what you can look forward to on this route…
The walk begins at Fairholmes Visitor Centre at the south of the crumbling foundations of Fairholmes Farm, harking back to the days when this area used to be agricultural land. This valley was farmed for many years before it echoed with the sounds of labourers cutting, shaping and dressing stone for the dams which you see there now.
Almost immediately after leaving the car park, you’ll feel the ache in your legs as you climb through the woodlands of Lockerbrook Coppice. The path through the woods isn’t immediately obvious – there are obvious and clear paths, but they’re not the ones you’re going to take. Instead, you’ll ascend a well-trodden route that meanders through the trees, established only by the many boot marks that have blazed the trail before you.
After emerging from the coppice, the route takes you across Hagg Side spruce plantation before traversing Bellhag Tor and climbing toward the peaty ridge of Rowlee Pasture, where you’ll get your first view of the landslips that have defined the landscape here.
A fairly long stroll across the ridge will reveal the largest landslip in England. It’s called Alport Castles and, as you look toward The Tower, you’ll understand where the name comes from. It’s impossible to do justice to The Tower in an image taken from the cliff edge, but it’s a huge gritstone tor that rises out of a chaotic jumble of boulders and grassy mounds that have become separated from the main ridge.
After the last Ice Age and over many, many years, shales that are sandwiched between tiers of gritstone in soft bands were eroded, leading to a half-mile long landslide that dropped 100ft below the main cliff.
I sat on the cliff edge as close as I dared due to the ice and took in the views of the snow-dusted expanses of Bleaklow. That’s another route I haven’t explored much and it’s one I need to get around to doing later this year.
From Alport Castles, you first descend to Alport Farm before following the valley to its meeting point with the River Ashop, where you’ll take the old Roman road that linked the forts at Melandra (at Glossop) and Navio (near Bradwell). You’ll cross the lower grass slopes of Kinder Scout before your final climb rewards you with an expansive view of The Great Ridge, Castleton and Hope.
You know how there’s always a little bit of a surprise uphill slog at the end of every walk? This walk has that in abundance. The last two miles* are a more-or-less constant ascent which, having already walked 8 miles, is the reason this walk can become moderate in difficulty or hard depending on the conditions. It’s definitely worth it, even if the photos that resulted from this snowy, sunny, hailing, blizzardy, foggy day don’t quite prove it.
*Author’s note: this might be a gross exaggeration, I haven’t looked at the elevation chart. It felt like gravity assaulted me for something like two miles.
Follow the Route
If you’d like to follow my route, you can find everything you need on OS Maps and ViewRanger.
If quaint villages and picturesque hamlets aren’t your thing, then maybe you’d like to take a stroll along The Roaches. It’s a place where wallabies roamed, where a Knight of the Round Table challenged a strange figure to a duel, and where a maleficent mermaid wants nothing more than to drag you to the depths of a bottomless pool.
Have you ever watched Forrest Gump? I’m sure you must have, but it’s easy to forget that it came out 23 years ago and not all of you are in your mid-30s like me – simultaneously astonishing and depressing. For those of you who haven’t seen it, there’s a scene where Forrest tells the story of his epic run across America.
That day, for no particular reason, I decided to go for a little run. So I ran to the end of the road. And when I got there, I thought maybe I’d run to the end of the town. And when I got there, I thought maybe I’d just run across Greenbow County. And I figured, since run this far, maybe I’d just run across the great state of Alabama.
“What does Forrest Gump have to do with hill walking in the Peak District?” I hear you ask.
“Not a hell of a lot,” I reply. “But there is a tenuous link.”
I’ve been to Bakewell many, many times. Byways Tea Rooms used to be my favourite weekly haunt for pre-walk sustainance before a few average breakfasts sent me hunting for different sausages, the branch of Cotswold Outdoor there is my favourite outdoor shop by a country mile because the staff are incredible, and Bloomers of Bakewell does the best original Bakewell pudding (they just do, and let that be an end of it).
For me, Bakewell was a pleasant place to stop for food and try on aspirational walking kit on the way to a wherever the walk started. It had never occured to me to start a walk from Bakewell before. In that way, it’s a little like Forrest Gump’s run… stumbling upon a lovely route from Bakewell to Chatsworth just kind of happened. You just start walking and keep going.
“I just felt like walking.”
This 7.2 mile walk – it’s much more of a stroll than a hike, though you’ll still need your Big Boots to conquer the mud – starts and ends in Bakewell and will take you to Chatsworth House, which has been home to the Cavendish family since 1549 and is the seat of the Duke of Devonshire.
Standing on the east bank of the River Derwent, Chatsworth House is set in an expansive parkland backed by wooded, rocky hills. It contains an impressive collection of paintings, furniture, Old Master drawings, neoclassical sculptures, books and other artefacts – I’d recommend you plan to visit the inside of the house on another day as I expect, though I’m making assumptions, that they’ll be as welcoming of muddy boots as your average wine bar.
I recommend doing this walk in winter if you can, although it’s fantastic year-round. In the colder months, you’ll have the frosty meadows to yourself and will have a better chance of seeing wildlife, like the herds of deer that graze in the mature Capability Brown-designed grounds.
There are several car parks to choose from in Bakewell, all of which will cost you about £4-5, but make sure you check the closing times if you’re not likely to be back by 6pm. Some of them, like Smith’s Island Car Park, have gates that are promptly closed and your car will become impounded.
If you like to follow this walk, I’ve made the ViewRanger and OS Maps routes available for free. You’ll find links to both at the end of this post.
Bronze Age Views
Leaving Bakewell, the walk ascends to the windy heights of Calton Pastures via Bakewell golf course. I’ve never been into golfing. A friend took me to a driving range once, but all I wanted to do was hit the ball as hard as I could with the big wooden bat. He said that was uncouth, so I never bothered to go back. If you like your golfing, however, Bakewell golf course must be one of the most scenic in the country.
The meadows here are scattered with 4,000-year old Bronze Age burial mounds, all of which have been fenced off to prevent erosion. It’s still worth standing to admire the view across the Eastern Moors and Stanage Edge that our ancestors must once have enjoyed.
The Russian Cottage
One of the most surprising parts of this walk for me is the black and white Russian Cottage you pass after turning north as you leave Calton Pastures. Looking rather out of place in the landscape, it was built by the 6th Duke of Devonshire to accommodate Russian Tsar Nicholas I in 1844, but the Tsar never visited due to more pressing matters at home.
Capability Brown’s Landscape
From here, you’ll pass through a walled lane through pines before you arrive at a gate to take in what must be one of the finest views of a stately home in the country. As you walk across Capability Brown’s landscape, you might be lucky enough to see Chatsworth’s famous herds of red and fallow deer before you take a route of your choosing up to Paine’s Bridge. This is a great spot to take photos and is ever-popular on the Chatsworth House Instagram account. They were kind enough to feature one of my photos there recently (the one you see as the featured image on this post), which was taken on the walk I did this week.
Once you’ve taken in ‘the Palace of the Peak’ and its grounds, your walk returns to Bakewell via the banks of the Derwent, towards Calton Lees, and finally you retrace your steps across the golf course back to the Bakewell pudding shop of your choice. Rather pleasingly, I literally got to retrace my steps on this walk as they were the only footprints marking the snow in the meadows.
Follow Our Route
If you’d like to follow this walk, you can find the route on OS Maps and ViewRanger. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.