Exploring the great outdoors in the Peak District

21/01/2020 16:07

Written by Helen Moat

Adventurous travellers will be in their element in the Peak District, a region packed with caves, canals and rocky crags that demand to be explored. 

Exploring the Derwent Valley Reservoirs

Ladybower Reservoir Derwent Valley Peak District Jon_Clark_shutterstock© Jon_Clark, Shutterstock

Of all the many reservoirs that puddle the Dark Peak, those in the Upper Derwent Valley are probably the best known – and as a result this is one of the busiest areas of the Dark Peak. Ladybower, Upper Derwent and Howden reservoirs are set in a magnificent landscape of sheltered woodland dales and contrasting wild moorland. 

Most visitors head straight for Fairholmes where an information centre between Ladybower and Upper Derwent reservoirs has bike hire (every day in summer & w/ends out of season) and a kiosk selling a range of snacks and drinks. Come out of season, if you can, or early in the day – but try and come in clear, sunny weather to enjoy the intense blues of the water set against the vivid greens of the pines.

Howden Reservoirs Peak District by Julius Kielaitis, Shutterstock© Julius Kielaitis, Shutterstock

There are opportunities to spot goshawks and sparrowhawks, as well as buzzards, merlins, peregrine falcons or red grouse on the moorland paths above the reservoirs.

From the centre, a range of walks fan out to match every level of fitness, from gentle lakeside strolls to challenging moorland rambles. The centre provides maps and guides, and from the car park three colour-coded walks range from 40 minutes to three hours. Some of the most interesting moorland walks take in the pointed Win Hill (above Ladybower) and the dramatic rocky crags of Alport Castles (above Derwent).

Hiking through Padley Gorge to Longshaw Estate

This is one of the choicest ravine and moorland walks in the Peak District. It’s a place to return to through the seasons: in autumn when the ground is carpeted in oak leaves; in winter mists when the mossed stones and twisted oaks take on a haunted, primeval appearance; and after the spring rains when the brook spills and spirals its way down through the gorge. Refreshments at Grindleford Station Café and Longshaw Estate Café.

From Grindleford Railway station, walk across the railway bridge. Just past the clapboard house on the left, go through the gap in the stone wall on the right at the National Trust sign (Ignore the sign pointing you further along the lane for Longshaw Estate) Follow the track upward through the gorge, with Burbage Brook on your left. Take the higher wide path leading straight up the gorge to continue the walk. Keep on following the track as it veers left, with the stone wall and the road next to it on your right. Ignore the gate leading out on to the road. Climb over the little hummock and ford the stream. Eventually you will come out of Padley Woods on to open ground with striking views over to Carl Wark and Higger Tor.

Padley Gorge Peak District stemack, Shutterstock© stemack, Shutterstock

There’s a bridge crossing Burbage Brook but, instead of crossing the brook, take the steps leading up and on to the B6521. Cross the road to the information barn and continue along the path signed for Longshaw Estate, passing a lake on your left. At the end of the track go left through the gate and continue on to Longshaw House with an opportunity to stop for a drink and a snack.

Follow the Longshaw driveway to the end and cross the main road again. Climb the stile beside the white gate and take the wide path straight downhill. Near the bottom of the hill, the track diverges. Veer left with the track as it curves round to follow the course of the brook. Keeping Burbage Brook on your left, walk downhill over the moorland and back through Padley Gorge. Reaching a gate, go through it and continue downwards. At the end of the lane turn left and continue past the mill, over the bridge and back to the starting point at Grindleford station.

Cycling the Monsal Trail

This eight-mile trail can be walked, but it’s best seen from the seat of a bicycle or the saddle of a horse. There are three main resting places along the way: Hassop and Miller’s Dale station cafes and Blackwell Mill at the end of the trail. There are plenty of benches too for an alfresco picnic, and interesting information boards on the geology and history of the trail.

For walkers, I’d recommend combining sections of the trail with the dale below, taking in Cressbrook, Litton Mill and Blackwell Mill, Miller’s Dale and Chee Dale, for variety and interest. If you choose to cycle the trail, bikes can be hired from either end.

Monsal Dale Peak District by Jason Wells, Shutterstock© Jason Wells, Shutterstock

There are six tunnels along the length of the trail: Headstone, Cressbrook, Litton, Chee Tor (1 & 2) and Rusher Cutting. Cycling through the tunnels is great fun – dodging the drips (and walkers), while peering through the dimly lit tunnel to the daylight beyond.

Travelling northwest from Bakewell, the landscape is initially gentle and pastoral, but becomes increasingly wild and dramatic towards Miller’s Dale, its great limestone slabs and the River Wye squeezing through the ever-narrowing valley.

The entire trail shows off Victorian engineering at its best – not just in the impressive cuttings and tunnels that slice through the limestone and burrow under the hills, but also the wonderful 300ft-long Monsal Viaduct with its five 50ft span arches. Do stop at this point and take in the views of the Wye Valley – it’s one of the highlights of the trail.

Exploring Jacob’s Ladder

One of the most iconic walks in Edale is an ascent of Jacob’s Ladder, a punishing uphill hike over a rough stepped path – but with superb views over the Edale Valley and the Dark Peak moorlands. Start from The Old Nags Head pub in the hamlet of Grindsbrook Booth – at the beginning of the Pennine Way – then follow the long-distance footpath to Upper Booth.

Jacob's Ladder Peak District christographerowens, Shutterstock© christographerowens, Shutterstock

From here the track runs parallel to the River Noe below (not much more than a stream). Cross the narrow pedestrian bridge. On the other side of it, you’ll see the hewn steps of Jacob’s Ladder climbing up into the wild moorland valley. It’s a hard slog to the top but you’ll be rewarded with sweeping views of the Kinder Massif. 

The walk covers six miles and takes in some steep inclines. The National Trust, which owns and manages much of Edale, and the Peak District National Park Authority organise walks and events in the dale throughout the year. 

Climbing up to Thor’s Cave 

Why would a Norse god find himself holed up in rural England? A less romantic, but more likely explanation is that the name is a corruption of tor meaning hill. Either way, this cave is an extraordinary geological and historical SSSI.

The crag that sits in landlocked Staffordshire in the northern hemisphere was once a tropical reef lying under warm shallow waters south of the equator. The steps to Thor’s Cave bear evidence to this fact, the fossil crinoid stems and the odd brachiopod imprinted in the rock.

Thor's Cave Peak District by Sponner, Shutterstock© Sponner, Shutterstock

The cave itself was created over thousands of years by wind and water. In time it was used by animals, then man for shelter. Excavated bones show that the caves in the area were used in prehistoric times by giant deer, bear and even mammoth. More recent finds (including stone tools) reveal Thor’s Cave was used as a burial site in the Bronze  Age and probably right through to Roman or Saxon times.

Today the cave is occupied by nothing more exciting than modern Homo sapiens – holidaymakers and children who scramble over the rock. Before leaving, take in the spectacular views over the Manifold Valley and beyond, framed by the great mouth of the cave.

Boating on Rudyard Lake

Just off the Macclesfield to Leek road, Rudyard Lake is a bit of a misnomer as it’s actually a reservoir. As you stroll along the waterside though, it does feel as if Rudyard is part of the natural landscape, tucked into thickly wooded hillsides and meadow. It’s only the dam wall at its southern end that gives the game away.

Rudyard Lake Peak District © christographerowens, Shutterstock © christographerowens, Shutterstock

The elegant converted boathouse (one of four Victorian boathouses built out over the water) is home to the small Rudyard Lake Visitor Centre (Mar–Oct) with information panels on the history and wildlife of the reservoir. Next to the Activity Centre there’s a snack bar and a recently built indoor cafe with a cheerful wood burner for cooler days and TV monitor displaying fascinating photographs of Rudyard in its Victorian heyday. For warmer days, there’s pleasant covered outdoor seating. You can hire rowing boats and canoes, or launch your own for a fee.

Exploring Cromford Canal by barge

One of Britain’s most recognisable baritones booms out across Cromford Canal, welcoming passengers aboard Birdswood, the barge lovingly restored by the Friends of the Cromford Canal.

As president of the organisation, Brian Blessed beseeches Birdswood’s passengers to have a ‘wonderful, magical, mystery’ trip, and in a quieter, more understated Beatrix Potter-esque way, we do exactly that. It just so happens there’s another Potter – Hugh Potter, volunteer and Cromford Canal enthusiast, acting as our guide today.

Cromford Canal, Peak District by David Muscroft, Shutterstock© David Muscroft, Shutterstock

As we putter along the canal, Hugh points out the canal’s natural and industrial heritage. And it’s an impressive one. A trip on Birdswood is the ultimate in going Slow – even the walkers on the towpath overtake us. I arrive on a beautiful early summer’s day, perfect for idling along the canal. As we cast off, I spot a pike resting on the canal bed, while mallards dive for pondweed on the water’s surface. I sense we’re in for a treat. We slip between banks fringed with forgetmenots, red campion and May trees. White blossom drifts and settles on the surface of the water, while dragonflies dance and mate on the water’s edge. Little grebes float alongside us, their chicks sticking to their mothers’ sides like glue. Further on a coot sits on her twiggy island, where she’s nesting. As we drift on, the still waters reflect the canopy of vegetation that lines the canal. It’s a dreamy, lazy day.

Check the Friends of the Cromford Canal website for running times and departure schedules and for details of special events such as horse-drawn trips.


Want to find out more about getting out and about in the Peak District? Check out our comprehensive guide:

Peak District guide

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