The Peak District National Park - The Dark Peak

The Peak District National Park - The Dark Peak

The Dark Peak is the harsher gritstone northerly region of the National Park with its dramatic vistas and narrow windswept roads that twist like ribbons across the rocky landscape linking villages, reservoirs and hiking trails. This striking and engaging landscape provides sensational drives with superb views.

Use the M6 motorway to reach junction 16, your gateway to the Peak District National Park. Here you will take the B5078 towards Alsager, joining the B5077 eastwards. Head through Alsager and onto the A50. At the junction turn left and use the A34 following signs for Congleton until you see the brown signs for Little Moreton Hall, pointing you to the right towards the car park and ticket office.

Little Moreton Hall is a wonderful timber-framed Manor House going back to the early 16th century. Your first glimpse of it will amaze you, it is such a pleasant surprise that a half-timbered building still survives in its entirety, its as if someone dropped a slice of Tudor life right into the 21st century. Three floors high with a large gallery on the upper floor giving it a top heavy appearance, the house is also surrounded by a moat. There is a charming Elizabethan style Knot Garden and orchard.

From here, continue on the A34 to Congleton and then head east on the A54 Buxton Road passing Bosley Reservoir on your right. Keep on this road as it twists around the hills until you reach a crossroads where you follow signs for Wildboarclough to your left. You'll head into the dramatic Dark Peak landscape as you meander down to the pretty hamlet of Wildboarclough with its collection of stone cottages. In legend the name of the village is linked to the killing of the last wild boar in England, although the date of this and any further evidence is scarce. The village name almost certainly means a deep valley (a clough) with a wild river prone to rising levels and occasional flooding (a bore). It is also a starting point for those that wish to climb Shutlingsloe for its incredible views.

This hill has a number of routes to its summit and one of the most popular is at the end of the village at Clough House car park on your right. This walk will be about 5 miles (8km) and quite steep. If you prefer a shorter walk, continue north until you reach a sign for Macclesfield Forest and Forest Chapel which will take you left back westwards to Trentabank Reservoir where the car park there will be the start of a more gentle 2.8 mile (4.5km) walk to the summit of Shutlingsloe.

The hill is known as Cheshire's Matterhorn, the title being taken from the county you are in and the Alpine mountain on the Swiss/Italian border. But it really isn't anything as challenging as that, it is just 1,660 ft (506 metres). It is a dark gritstone steep-sided hill and the views from the top on a clear day are simply breathtaking.

From the Trentabank Reservoir continue west to the village of Langley and once in the village turn right up Coalpit Lane heading northwards along a single track road until you reach a junction where you will head right again, up a hill, on the Old Buxton Road to Teggs Nose Country Park which will appear on your right hand side. Here you will find another great viewpoint along with a tea room and "one pound for 5 minutes" telescopes. There are a number of short walks and views over Teggs Nose and Bottoms Reservoirs and one can do a short climb up to Teggs Nose summit, the hill being 1,246 ft (380 m) above sea level.

Contining east from Teggs Nose you will join the A537 New Buxton Road and eventually take a left turn when you see the signs for Saltersford and the Goyt Valley. This single track road will take you over the moors and past the Lamaload Reservoir which you will see ahead of you when you reach the crest of the hill. Built in the late 1950s it is the country's first concrete dam construction. It has a car park and a wooded shoreline and provides a pleasant beauty spot with picnic tables.

After the reservoir you will start to climb up along Hooleyhey Road. Keep right at the first junction, following the Goyt Valley and Kettleshulme signs until you reach the junction near the summit at Pym Chair. Just make a left here and the car park is ahead of you. Park here for the views or use it as a starting point for a couple of hill climbs, the short one up Cats Tor or the longer one up Shining Tor. A 'tor' by the way comes from the old Brythonic or Welsh language word for a high rocky hill.

Both trails will head south from Pym Chair, a name that derives from the adjacent chair-shaped rock that a notorious highwayman by the name of Pym would sit on while waiting for his next victim. Alternatively a preacher by the name of Pym would preach from this rock to his windswept congregation. Take your pick!

The parking area to Cats Tor walk will be just over a mile (2km). The walk up Shining Tor will be 6 miles (10km) to a height of 1, 834ft (559m). On the very clearest of days it is said you can see the distant mountains of Wales. It will be a very rewarding walk whichever hill you choose to climb.

From Pym Chair car park head northwards towards Kettleshulme, pausing on the way at Windgather Rocks, the dramatic gritstone craggy ridge popular with rock climbers. Drive down into the attractive village of Kettleshulme with its grey stone houses, joining the B5470 by turning right and heading northwards towards the Toddbrook Reservoir and then along the banks of Combs Reservoir which will be on your right, continuing onwards to Chapel-en-le-Frith, a town that fashions itself as the "Capital of the Peak".

Stone terraced houses stretch out in all directions from the little Warm Brook valley in the centre of the town. The chapel, of which the town gets its name, is now the largely 18th century church of St Thomas Becket, although the original place of worship was built by the Normans in the 12th century (hence the town's French sounding name, meaning chapel in the woods). In the centre of the town turn left following signs for the A624 to Glossop.

You will now be following the western edges of the Dark Peak, heading northwards through little villages characterised by terraced houses built in the local millstone grit with stone walls bordering fields of sheep. Through Chinley Head, Hayfield and into Glossop where you join the A57 to Sheffield via Snake Pass. You will turn right at the junction in the centre of Glossop and climb back up into the National Park along this famous winding road, its name "Snake Pass" giving you advanced indication of the twisting nature of the route, although the name is derived from the coat of arms of the Duke of Devonshire not its winding course!!

Snake Pass and Snake Road is one of the major routes between Manchester and Sheffield and replaced the old drover's road which is now a hiking trail. The route was engineered by Thomas Telford and built between 1818 and 1821 with Snake Summit being 1,680ft (512m) above sea level. The Snake Inn, halfway along the route featured the coat of arms of the local major landowner, the Duke of Devonshire, which has a serpents head included. This then gave its name to the road, but the road has now given its name to the pub as the name has been altered to the Snake Pass Inn these days.

Follow the Snake Road up into the moorland from Glossop, note the patchwork-like landscapes to your right, the different colours relate to different levels of heather growth in the dark peaty soil, some of the heather is grown to full-length, some has been cut back and some of it has been burnt. Gamekeepers do this in order to manage grouse for hunting. As you reach the summit there are a number of lay-bys, often full of parked cars, with hikers going off in all directions. The road then dips into conifer forest and continues to the Ladybower Reservoir complex where you can break for a while and enjoy this beautiful series of lakes, the largest body of water in the Peak District and a chance to see the nearby Hordron Edge Stone Circle. There are three adjacent reservoirs here, the Howden Reservoir which is the uppermost one at the head of the Derwent Valley, followed by the Derwent Reservoir and finally the Ladybower Reservoir. The first two dams were built around 1902 to 1918 with the Ladybower Reservoir completed in 1943. Two villages were abandoned, demolished and flooded during its construction. One of the villages, Derwent, had its church tower remaining intact, surrounded by water, for at least a further five years until it too was demolished as it was considered unsafe. The middle reservoir, the Derwent Reservoir,  was used to train flying crews of 617 squadron for Operation Chastise, more commonly known as the Dambusters Raid, of May 1943, utilising the famous "bouncing bomb" devised by Barnes Wallace. The 1955 film of that raid on Germany was also filmed here.

The way the valleys were flooded gives the Ladybower Reservoir three arms and this first section will appear on your right as you descend from the pass. Just before crossing the central section on a bridge, turn left following brown signs for Derwent Valley Dams. This will take you up the valley with the reservoir on your right, passing numerous parking places and views across the water, to the top of the road and a pay and display parking area called Fairholmes with refreshments, picnic tables, toilets and cycle hire along with short walks to the upper reservoirs and dams. Return back to the A57 with a superb view of the concrete arched bridge called the Ashopton Viaduct built in 1943 crossing the lake ahead of you. Drive on to it by turning left and cross Ladybower then continue about two miles (3km) to the Cutthroat Bridge lay-by which will appear on your right hand side. There will be a very small car park which will appear on your right to begin with. No larger than a spot for about four cars. If there is room in it, grab a spot! The walk starts here. If you can't get parked there, continue a few more feet to the larger Cutthroat Bridge lay-by. A rough track will take you back to the smaller car park then you cross a style to head up the ridge to the Hordron Edge Stone Circle. 

It can be a bit of a scramble up the ridge to this ancient monument, alternatively there is a path which circles around on a less steep gradient but can take a little longer. The Hordron Edge Stone Circle dates from the Bronze Age, therefore around 4,000 years ago, and today consists of 11 standing stones up to around three feet (just short of a metre) in height.  The circle is approximately 51ft (16m) across and is totally accessible to the public. Like many other places in the Peak District, it comes with tremendous views especially back down to Ladybower Reservoir.

Back at the lay-by return west to Ladybower. This time turn left at the traffic lights for Bamford on the A6013. Just after the dam you will see the Yorkshire Bridge Inn, a large pub on your right, then just a little further on, a left hand turn. This is New Road. It rises steeply upwards and follows the escarpment to your left known as Bamford Edge. The views on your righthand side are astounding, looking down onto the Derwent Valley below you. In front of you the expanse of Stanage Edge cuts across the horizon like some sort of huge amphitheatre. Follow this road down to a T-junction then turn left along a road called Long Causeway. Eventually the road will go over a cattle grid and bend sharp right. Ignore the parking places here and continue onwards, the next parking area is Hollin Bank car park where there are toilets facilities and a pay and display parking fee, however a little further on you will get to another road junction, turn left here and about 400 yards (360m) further on is another lay-by car park called Hook's Carr which is free and is arguably the closest spot to Stanage Edge. From here a gravel path will take you up to the rocks. This will be the best of parking areas you will find here.

This incredible gritstone escarpment is about 4 miles long and to get a sample of it walk up the path for about 15 mins. Stanage Edge features in the 2005 movie Pride and Prejudice and you can stand, like Keira Knightley, on the very edge of these dramatic rocks and recreate that scene from the film. You can walk along the escarpment either way for a mile or so admiring the views from the outcrops.

Back at the car park, exit by turning left, southwards following Stanage Edge on your left, then you turn right on a road called The Dale which will take you into charming stone-clad village of Hathersage. This delightful place was often visited by Charlotte Brontë who had a close friend whose father was clergyman at St Michael's Church. At the time the Eyre family were well known in these parts. Inspirations for the novel 'Jane Eyre' are all around Hathersage which doubles for the village of Norton in the story. Not only will you find the graves of the real Eyre family in St Michael's churchyard but also the supposed grave of Little John of Robin Hood fame.

From Hathersage you will join the A6187 Hope Valley route. You are now travelling along a broad valley formed by the River Derwent, the river that had provided water for the reservoirs earlier in the journey. Passing the large cement works in the town of Hope you will approach the historic former lead mining village of Castleton nestled in the shadows of the ruins of the 12th century Peveril Castle, which gives the village its name. There is a considerable amount of parking at the tourist information centre on the right hand side as you get to the centre of the town, also some of the pubs provide all day parking at a cost, a cost often refunded if you use the pub for a meal!

Castleton is also well known for its caverns, some natural, some with man-made extensions and the semi-precious mineral called Blue John. Peak Cavern in the centre of the village is the largest and most visited. Lying just outside and in the direction of your journey along the A6187 is Speedwell Cavern. This is also the start of the steeply graded Winnats Pass, although signage is almost non-existent to deter tourists in cars and campervans clogging up the roads. But, it is important to remember you are perfectly entitled to drive this way. Just remember, left hand fork on the A6187 just outside Castleton. For Speedwell Cavern park in the car park opposite the cave entrance then put on your safety hat and board a boat for a journey along deep tunnels that open up into illuminated caverns. Its quite claustrophobic but exciting nevertheless. The other cave system nearby is Treak Cliff Cavern, just off the Old Mam Tor Road where blue john is mined. This cave is accessed via the right hand fork in the road just before the ascent to Speedwell Cavern. The right hand fork used to be the main road but look carefully at the signs, it tells you its a dead end, as you will find if you try and drive further than Treak Cliff Cavern!! Further up the A6187 the drive gets absolutely stunning, driving up the steep gorge to the road junction at the top. Here you can bear left to Sparrowpit or right for a brief side trip to Blue John Cavern, where, not surprisingly, blue john is also extracted and just further ahead, on your right, a parking area for those that wish to climb to the summit of Mam Tor, the name means ''Mother Hill', and because of various landslips in the area its nickname is the Shimmering Mountain. One such landslip in 1979 caused the closing of the main road from where the Blue John Cavern entrance is today all the way via the Treak Cliff Cavern entrance. Most of this section of road is now under rubble.

The road to Mam Tor and the National Trust car park is at such a high elevation that it's only a short walk to the summit at 517 m (1700ft), although you'll will just be walking the very last bit of the path to the top. Amazing views over the entire National Park can be enjoyed from up here. Return back the way you came to the A6187 and follow the signs for Sparrowpit on the spectacular Winnats Pass across the tops and down to the little village of Sparrowpit itself.

At Sparrowpit take the A623 heading southwards to the roundabout on the A6 and turn left to take the A6 down to Buxton.

Buxton is the highest market town in England at 1,000ft (300m) above sea level. Its history as a spa town goes back to Roman times when it was known as Aquae Arnemetiae. In many ways the 5th Duke of Devonshire revived the town's fortunes in the 1780s by promoting and generating new interest in the town as a place to take the healing waters. Amongst many impressive buildings that date from this time are the architect John Carr's residential Crescent and the Great Stables with its incredible Great Dome. At 144ft (44m) across it was for many years the world's largest unsupported dome, bigger than the Pantheon in Rome or St Paul's cathedral in London. Although initially built as stables it was turned into the Royal Devonshire Hospital until the millennium and is now part of the campus of the University of Derby.

Buxton Pavilion Gardens are a delight to visit and were created in 1871 with water features, lakes, bridges and the River Wye meandering through. The Pavilion Gardens parking area is the most convenient and centrally located place to park your vehicle.

When you leave Buxton use the A53 to exit the town following signs for Leek, Macclesfield and Congleton. As you climb out of the town you will see a right hand turn for Congleton on the A54. Take this road back over the moors for a dramatic finale as the road winds its way back to Congleton where you can pick up the A534 to Junction 17 on the M6.