I completed my first ascent of a “Hewitt” (Hills of England, Wales and Ireland over Two Thousand feet) of the year yesterday. I only had the afternoon so I needed a short and easy climb on a hill that didn’t require a long drive to reach and Bleaklow Head in Derbyshire’s Dark Peak area fit the bill perfectly as it was only just over an hours drive from my home and starting from the Snake Pass road, was a climb of just over a hundred metres in a walk of eight kilometres round; easy peasy!
This part of the Peak District National Park is called the Dark Peak for obvious reasons; the gritstone moors with their wide rounded hills are both dark in colour and must have seemed dark and forbidding to early travellers as well with the course vegetation and bogs making for a difficult crossing for anyone brave enough to venture out of the sheltered valleys to east and west. My recollections of this area from my youth are certainly not happy ones with several hard, wet and mucky walks etched into my memory from the days when I didn’t have the means to travel to the more scenic and more walker-friendly Yorkshire Dales and Lake District which later became my stomping grounds of choice. But a few years ago the route of the Pennine Way along the watershed was paved with flagstones or gravel over the worst areas and together with the return of the moorland vegetation to full health following the clean-up of our air, access has been much improved. So much so that now I would call Bleaklow Head an easy walk, even early in the year.
Early in the walk the Pennine Way crosses the route of an old Roman road called Doctor’s Gate for some unknown reason. Well actually the “Gate” part of the name is easy to understand as it derives from the old English (or is that Norse) word for road which is common in northern English towns where many streets are called gates, a fact that must be very confusing to visiting tourists. But the “Doctor” bit, that is another question all together.
The road is still partially paved but the flagstones may not be Roman as the route will have been used throughout the period since (it’s an obvious crossing point) and Pennine packhorse routes were usually flagged as well.
After walking along the similarly mysteriously named Devil’s Dike (an old drainage ditch) the route dropped down into the shallow valley of Hern Clough with it’s small stream complete with delightful little waterfalls and an extensive view back over the moorland eastwards.
Once up onto the summit plateau (which is very extensive) the stream fanned out into numerous tributary streams and the route would have been difficult to follow except for the occasional waymark stone.
This is the stretch that I remember from my youth as being so difficult. My recollection is of a maze of steep peat groughs (water-cut ditches) that were filled with knee-deep black oozing peat that I had to slide down, wade across and clamber out of repeatedly; a wet and very mucky experience. Nowadays the grough sides are stabilised with abundant moorland grasses and the bottoms have been washed clean so that it’s possible to walk on gravel or the bedrock beneath. Isn’t clean air a wonderful thing! By the way you can just make out the small patches of snow clinging to the sides of the grough in this image. We’ve had a particularly mild winter in the UK this year but Bleaklow is high enough so that snow hanging around into April is quite normal, even in a mild year.
There are still a few patches of bare peat high on the summit but the presence of many bags of chopped heather suggested that re-seeding was planned for the near future.
On my long walk three years ago (Land’s End to Berwick-upon-Tweed) I spent a rest stop chatting to a man who was a volunteer ranger for the National Park and he explained the process to me as he had been involved in the exercise on nearby Black Hill (which used to be a particularly apt name). Heather and grass seed heads were cut and collected and the resulting mulch spread out over the bare peat to encourage the regeneration. It was certainly successful on Black Hill which is now both attractive and easy to cross when it used to be a nightmare that made even Bleaklow seem easy.
The cairn in the photo above right looks like it may be the summit of Bleaklow Head but it is just the high point of this stretch of the Pennine Way. The summit of the hill is actually about a couple of hundred metres south-west at a rock outcrop called the Wain stones.
Being a bit closer to the edge of the plateau this spot also allowed for an extensive view over the greater Manchester conurbation a dozen kilometres to the west (not easily visible in this image because of the haze) and the nearby Derbyshire towns of Glossop and Hadfield. This side of the Pennines is so much more precipitous than the eastern slopes and it always feels to me like the hills are almost falling onto the towns below.
The Wain Stones have another (unofficial) name and are sometimes called the “kissing stones”. Can you see why?
From the Wain Stones I followed an indistinct but not too boggy path to the Hearn Stones about a kilometre away across the plateau.
I have a vivid memory of once sheltering in the lee of these stones with a group of hill-walking friends one winter hike nearly forty years ago. The ground was frozen which had made the walking easier but a cold wind blew hard across the hill and we stood around shivering as we vainly tried to cook a meal on our totally inadequate portable stove. Luke warm beans and half-cooked sausages if my memory serves me right; quite possibly the foulest meal I have ever eaten!
From the stones it was back to Hern Clough and then along the Pennine Way back to my car for the drive home. Having started from such a high altitude rather than the valley below and with the good paths and improved ground conditions, a walk that would have taken me a full hard day in my youth had taken me just over two hours. And I wasn’t covered in black mud either. How things have changed.
By the way, see that long dark hill five kilometres southwards in the image above. That’s the Kinder plateau which contains the second of the two Derbyshire Hewitts and will be the subject of a future post. I could have easily included the hill in my walk though I’d have had to have taken a day to do it but “the Kinder trespass” is quite possibly the most important event ever for hill walkers in the UK; something I must cover when I climb Kinder Scout. Lumping the summit in with another hill would have been just be wrong. So watch this space.