Tuesday, 14 June 2011


With half term over - and the worst of the revision for GCSEs and AS levels behind us - we were fighting to get out walking again.

Naturally, delays are inevitable when we're desperate, so our meeting time turns out to be much later than planned. Never mind, the main car park at Castleton isn't too full since it's only just rained - and pretty briskly too - which means that most people are keeping away, for now. The car park has probably the best views in Castleton of Peveril Castle as it glares down on the village from its vantage point.

The original castle was built soon after the Conquest and is named after William Peveril who became The Bailiff of the Royal Manors of the Peak. The castle was passed from father to son through successive generations but in 1155 - one year after acceding to the throne - Henry II took the castle into his own possession and in 1176 the present stone keep was constructed. Since then it has either belonged to the Crown or the Duchy of Lancaster. It is an English Heritage site. Although now it is only a romantic, evocative ruin in its heyday it would have been alien, imposing and downright intimidating.

We set off hoping that it won't rain again, but prepared for the worst. The clouds are pretty gloomy. I'm taking hiking poles today (not my idea!) but so far I'm only carrying them as we walk through the village and up the road next to the church (and The George pub - will have to go back there sometime soon).

There's no need to map read as we head for a gap, a car's width, between some cottages to our right. As soon as we're off the road the whole atmosphere changes. The trees arc over the path and slabs of limestone studded with greenery rise up beside us.

We push open the gate and Cavedale opens up ahead of us - enclosed by cliffs - stark and wonderfully picturesque. The monotonous guttural caw of the crows only adds to the atmosphere.

It's uphill - a lot more of the uphill than we remember - so I use the walking poles. Still not sure if they're a help or a hindrance, but they make my arms ache.

It's the time of year for schools' geography field trips, so we aren't too surprised to see some 'land art' - limestone rocks and stones spelling out the names of young loves. It's likely that the stone names will outlive the youthful infatuations!

There's no one else in the dale yet, but we can hear voices from above. Looking up see people up on the castle walls peering down at us. It's quite sobering to think how it would have been when the castle was at its most active - no doubt we'd have been used as target practise.

A little way past the castle and there's a cave, barred and padlocked now, and we can hear a generator or pump working somewhere deep below ground. PC remembers stopping at this cave for a coffee many eons ago!

The dale narrows quite a bit here and underfoot it's very rocky. There's a trickle of water working its way downhill after this morning's rain, but we've been up here in the past and almost paddling.

We continue to climb to the gate at the top of the dale, then decide impulsively to head around on a track to see the castle from a new vantage point. We follow the drystone wall, hop over it where the sheep have demolished it, and find ourselves somewhere to sit for a break. A prolonged break.

We really couldn't have found a better spot. The castle is at eye level to our left, the woods are in front of us and we can see almost the full length of the steep sided dale below us. Magic.

So we sit and talk, and have a drink, and sit and talk some more until we realise that it's past noon. Pragmatic as always we fetch out our sandwiches and coffee, but hold back on the buns to add some incentive to continue. We do toy with the idea of lounging here all day then just ambling back to Castleton, but the hoards are reaching the dale and although most don't make it to the top we don't want to get caught up with them all. So we pull ourselves up, repack our rucksacks, return to the gate and carry on up the valley.

As expected, there are very few people here even though the walking is easy - the worst is behind us. We see a bird dart into a crack in a broken down wall, and hear the frantic cheep of young before the bird re-emerges but we don't go closer for fear of disturbing them.

Despite the sun coming out it is quite cold, the wind is channelling down the valley, but apart from a few ominous clouds and a couple of drops of rain the weather isn't bothering us. We have an interesting and very curious discussion about cloud-watchers. It clearly takes all sorts!

We have to go through a field of cows, but fortunately they're keeping their distance (they know I have the walking poles) and soon we're on the track that runs from Winnats to Pindale, and turn left.

This is very easy walking, level but high enough to have decent views all around. The beauty of this part of the walk is that we know we're unlikely to see anyone at all. The few people that do reach this point tend not to take the route we're following.

One thing we begin to notice is that where there is an absence of drystone walls there's lots of new-looking fencing.

However, before we think too much about it we see a herd of calves clustered close to the fence in a field next to the track. They're a little shy and skittish but very cute (especially as they're behind a fence) and I even manage to approach and touch one of the braver ones. Bravery ends there as both calf and I rapidly exit in opposite directions!

As we walk on we begin to get a feeling that something isn't quite right. Last time we were here there was a huge quarry spoil heap to our left, and now there isn't. We pause, consult the map, and puzzle over it. Surely we can't be lost. Looking at the sparse grass in the fields we deduce that the spoil has gone, been spread out and the land reclaimed.

Sure enough, a little way on we see a sign-board that confirms our suspicions. The former site of Dirtlow Rake has been levelled and returned to pasture, removing a million tonnes of waste and importing soil from Hope in the process. It has opened up views of Mam Tor and the surrounding area as well as restoring valuable agricultural land. A pity the even larger limestone quarry at Bradwell and the monstrosity of a cement works at Pindale are still around to blight the landscape.

We follow the track downhill, and it's getting worse as rain run off has gouged deep channels in the surface and dislodged stones making it hard to walk on. We skip onto the adjacent road instead and soon we see a couple of orchids growing on the verge. A few yards further and there's a field with clumps of the deep purple gems.

Undeterred by a stone wall PC decides to get up close for a shot.

Her agility and athleticism have to be commended, and with the bionic hip giving no trouble at all she gracefully scales the wall and returns triumphant after achieving a memorable photo.

After that we're starting to show signs of bun-deprivation, so as soon as we find somewhere to sit off the road we detour and unpack the coffee and fresh cream scones. What we don't realise is that we're sat on the local anthill - something that soon becomes apparent - so our break is short lived, the scones eaten and coffee drunk with unseemly haste, and we're back on our feet again for the home run.

To our left is a short-cut path across the fields which takes out the steep, severe loop in the road. What we don't realise until we reach it is that the path is obviously little used because it is so steep. Sheep watch us smugly as we carefully make our way down the slippery grass. Maybe it would have been better to take the road after all.

It isn't far to Castleton now and after we've passed the first few houses we pause to admire (with PC coveting) some huge plant pots in a beautiful small cottage garden. Very colourful but very tasteful too.

We know we're back in the village now, the sun has brought out the crowds. Sometimes we forget that the Peak District is a popular holiday destination, and June is a holiday month. For us it's 'local' and we'll be out at any time of year, commitments permitting.

The car park, naturally, is full to bursting point but we, thankfully, are leaving the hoards behind. Just enough time to plan our next walk, in two weeks, then drive off into the sunny afternoon.

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