A Derbyshire Ramble
By Bill Scheller
Photos by the author
“When you see a lot of pine trees and bluebells, take the path that leads off to the left.”
The man talking to me was standing in his garden, one of those artfully disheveled forests of flowers and shrubs that brighten dooryards all over rural England. It seemed perfectly appropriate for him to be putting a botanical spin on the directions from Rowsley to Bakewell, in the county of Derbyshire.
I had asked the gardener how to get to Bakewell after learning that Rowsley’s bed-and-breakfasts were filling up fast. My last hope was a B&B supposedly on this very lane, with its serene stone houses and handsome Anglican church.
“Where is the Vicarage?” I asked the man.
“You don’t want the Vicarage,” he answered. “The vicar lives in the Vicarage. You want the Vicarage Croft.”
“Where is that?”
“Just down the next lane. But she’s full, too.”
So it would be off to Bakewell, four miles to the northeast. I shifted my knapsack on my shoulders, trudged up to where the lane ended and a trail continued through a meadow, and set off to find the pine trees and bluebells. Perhaps I should have asked the vicar if he’d like company. But it was only four in the afternoon, and I was sure I would find lodging in Bakewell.
I was on the first day of a ramble through Peak National Park, a 555 sq. mi. sampling of six Midlands counties, including much of northern Derbyshire. The park takes its name not from any definable mountain peak but from the gradual rise of its central plateau from the surrounding lowlands. This isn’t an uninhabited, Smokey-the-Bear American-style park, but a line drawn around a lovely English landscape of pasture and dale, working farms and neat stone villages, with a wild heathery moorland on its northern fringe.
I had reached Rowsley, which lies on the park’s eastern border, by way of a train from London and a nine-mile walk from the old spa town of Matlock. My route had taken me along the banks of the river Derwent, and along the Peak Railway, a tourist line.
As I stood alongside the path that parallels the tracks, talking with a fisherman, I watched a World War II-era steam locomotive chuff by pulling cars filled with railfans.
“Used to be part of the main line between London and Manchester, this,” the fisherman said. “British Railways abandoned it in the sixties, tore up the rails. Now a volunteer group is rebuilding it — laying a bit more track each year.”
What a reversal, I thought. Back in the States, there’s an outfit called “Rails to Trails,” dedicated to making hiking paths out of belly-up railroad lines. What I had come upon here was rails to trails, and back to rails again.
A little bit farther along, I had some doubt as to whether I was on the rails or on the trail. I had passed through a gate that seemed to lead to a continuation of the path, directly alongside the track; it was a little close for comfort, but there were no trains coming and the maintenance yard and a street intersection were just ahead — I figured I could reorient myself once I got there.
In no time at all, though, I was facing a chap who was all too happy to do my reorienting for me. He was young, black with grease and soot, and clad in Dickensian coveralls. He was steaming toward me like the 11:06 bound for Paddington Station.
” ‘Ere now,” he said. “Don’t you know you’re trespassing?”
“No. I thought I was on the path to Rowsley.”
“Well, you’re on railroad property and you’re trespassing. Tell you what you do, you get across this fence right here and stay the other side, I’m telling you. You wouldn’t want me to have to call the police, and have you arrested.”
No, I assured him, I certainly wouldn’t want that. I wanted to add that the police might think it rather tedious, as well, carting off a middle-aged American on … what? Suspicion of stealing locomotives? But this was the worst sort of twit, a volunteer twit, and I decided to clam up and do what he said. Besides, he did get me onto the actual trail.
After I got past the train yards, I looked in the opposite direction and saw sheep in a meadow cradled by a gentle curve of the Derwent, another angler readying his cast, and a young woman on horseback. Church bells tolled in a nearby village, Darley Dale. Here were the two great British stereotypes, green Hesperidian idyll and gritty Industrial Revolution, side by side with little buffer in between. In American terms, it would be as if there were cowboys and Indians camped outside the Chrysler Building.
Later, as I watched for my bluebells and pine trees, coal and iron were nowhere in the picture. It was early May, and the spring lambs were in pasture. I found my turnoff and began following a path that led between walls crafted of the local limestone, neat pale gray foils to the thousand shades of green beyond. At the crest of a hill where I stopped for a late lunch of oatcakes and Wensleydale cheese, I could look across acre upon sheep-trimmed acre latticed with those trim stone walls, all wandering down toward the valley of the River Wye.
Bakewell is an ancient market town, built of limestone like the pasture walls. It has a namesake tart, made with almonds and jam, and a sturdily graceful little five-arched bridge that some say rests upon Romans foundations. What it didn’t have, on this golden spring afternoon, was a single vacancy — not in the humblest B&B, not in the Jane Austen suite of the Rutland Arms hotel.
As it turned out, though, I didn’t have to head back up into the hills to camp out with the sheep. A transplanted American heard my Jersey accent in Bakewell’s supermarket, and offered me dinner and a snug sofa at his home. Married to an Englishwoman, with two English children and an English garden snug against a pleasantly tangled English wood, and in possession of what I would have called an English accent but which, he assured me, business acquaintances immediately suspected was tarred with a transatlantic brush, my rescuer-from-vagrancy was an expatriate of eighteen years.
My hosts introduced me to England’s remarkably detailed Ordnance Survey maps, allowing me to set aside the fifteen-pence map of all Derbyshire I had bought the last time I was here, in 1976. For twenty-two years, that little souvenir had been stuffed into the cartographic gallimaufry that I call my map drawer, a reminder of the car trip I took through the region with my first wife. It was a symbol of great freedom then, because I bought it after we parted company with an English couple we’d been traveling with (he was alright, but she could have made a train take a dirt road); but over the years it had become instead a reminder of quarrels with Erstwhile Spouse over how early in the afternoon we should start looking for a B&B.
“We’ll wind up sleeping in the car!”
“No one ever winds up sleeping in the car.”
“What was the matter with that place back there?”
“I want to check out this next village …”
It had been the names of the villages, more than anything else other than the sheer green plumminess of the landscape, that had pulled me along on that trip: Youlgreave, Chelmorton, Hassop, Winster, Monyash, Bakewell. Bakewell, where I almost wound up, two decades later, without even a car to sleep in.
That old map had eventually persuaded me back to Derbyshire, although once I saw the Ordnance Survey’s beauties, I realized I had been like some cartoon character, lost in the desert, pulling out a globe and saying, “We must be here.” At scales of up to two and a half inches to the mile, the Survey’s maps pack an astounding amount of detail. I would later use them to corroborate small groves of trees, and would hardly have been surprised to find that they revealed the locations of individual sheep who had stayed still long enough.
Buoyed by good maps and good fortune, I trekked on along the River Wye to where the village of Millers Dale appeared out of the streamside woods — appeared as I knew it would, because nowadays places like Millers Dale have websites, and the websites tell of little bed-and-breakfasts like Dale Cottage, where I threw off my knapsack, drew a hot bath, and studied the menu I had been handed on my arrival by Mike McAuliffe, the proprietor. “Circle what you’d like to have in the morning,” he told me.
The menu looked like a provisioning checklist for the Falklands campaign: eggs, bacon, sausage, toast, potatoes, baked beans, mushrooms, tomatoes, hot cereal … I circled what seemed the components of a reasonably hearty morning feed and left this weighty document on the hall table. In the morning, when I was called upstairs to breakfast, Mr. McAuliffe spoke words no one had ever spoken to me before.
“You’re a light eater,” he said.
I laughed nervously at what I assumed was sarcasm. I hoped I hadn’t set some Guinness record for breakfast gluttony.
“No, really,” he insisted. “Some of our guests circle everything.”
Once we had established what a feathery little ascetic I was, I turned the talk to to the region’s wonderfully intricate system of trails and paths. How was it, I asked, that it was perfectly acceptable to traipse over private land, right under the noses of sheep in their pastures and even through householders’ front and back yards?
“The paths are public rights of way,” Mr. McAuliffe told me. “Access to them has been recognized and protected for centuries. When someone buys property, they understand that those rights can’t be interfered with.”
“That’s all well and good,” I said. “But yesterday, I followed a public footpath sign that led me into someone’s flower garden. I would have been two feet from their kitchen window. I just couldn’t do it. I walked back to the road and took a roundabout way to where the path continued, away from the house.” (Who says Americans can’t be reserved and polite?)
“If a path passes too near a house, the owner can petition to have it moved a little ways — but never closed outright,” he explained. The people with the flower garden, I assumed, probably just hadn’t girded themselves yet to face the bureaucracy. Or else they were counting on nice people like me.
I asked my host about another aspect of the landscape that I had noticed the night before. While waiting for the evening opening of the Angler’s Rest, the village pub in which I later enjoyed a lovely steak and ale pudding in a beam-ceilinged room filled with Staffordshire china and strains of Sir Edward Elgar, I had looked into the Wye at twilight and watched big brown trout dart among the riffles.
“The Wye is one of the best trout streams in England,” Mr. McAuliffe told me. “But all rights to game fish along this stretch belong to an exclusive club in Sheffield. It has a long waiting list. And it has two bailiffs in Land Rovers, patrolling against poachers.”
“There’s a switch,” I said. “In the States, you can fish just about anywhere. But you can’t go walking across people’s property without taking your life in your hands.”
After breakfast I headed north on a trail that led through a deep valley, in places nearly a ravine. A morning mist had dampened the terrain, and walking on the wet limestone outcrops was like walking on broken bars of soap. There were forests of hazel, and purple wild orchids. Birds, invisible in the misty treetops, twittered all around me. No one was near. I felt I could have been a Roman legionnaire, marching to ambush and doom in a dank corner of Brittania forsaken by the Mediterranean gods.
And that was the easy part of my day’s journey. At a crossroads hamlet called Peak Forest, a cool fog gathered as I ducked into a cluttered little Mum-and-Dad variety store to buy a map of the territory to the north. I also asked for specific directions to Castleton, my evening’s destination.
“Go down the road to Oldham Lane, and follow it up into the woods,” the lady said from the other side of the counter. “Go through the gate at the top of the hill and follow the stone wall. You’ll come out in Cavedale, with Castleton straight ahead.”
It sounded simple enough, and up to the gate, it was. By the time I had gotten that far, though, wind-whipped fog had descended on the high pastures, a deep, silvery fog penetrated by no sensation other than the disembodied voices of sheep. I could barely make out the pitch and roll of the pastureland itself, but I held to the stone wall, a darker line of grayness in a world gone gray.
On I stumbled, King Lear on the blasted heath, the wind all but tearing the slicker off my back. I passed the tattered carcass of a lamb, half-eaten, then farther along the clean skull, scapulae, and backbones of a badger. Do badgers attack lambs? Do angry farmers shoot them? The only badger I had ever come across was Badger, in The WInd in the WIllows, and although he was a crusty old sort he hardly deserved to be shot. But that was a book for another day. Right now, Lear had to get down off the blasted heath.
I kept following the wall. I followed it so dutifully that I returned to where I had first encountered it, for it made a vast but complete enclosure. Down the lane I went, back into Peak Forest, and into a pub. The publican called me a taxi, which happened to be driven by the husband of the shopwoman who had given me the directions. “Happens all the time,” he told me. “People walk into Peak Forest and think they’re in Castleton.” I wanted to ask him if he pays his wife a commission.
Castleton clusters tightly about the base of a steep hill surmounted by the ruins of Peveril Castle, built 900 years ago by a son of William the Conqueror. I walked among the worn foundations, conjuring banquet halls and noblemen’s bedchambers, and climbed into the keep for a lord’s eye view of the world.
A double-decker bus took me through a settled landscape as neat as a model-train layout, to the nearby town of Hathersage. Here, the churchyard of St. Michael and All Angels contains a grave said to be that of Robin Hood’s sidekick Little John. The neatly tended plot was reportedly excavated in the 18th century, yielding a thigh-bone long enough to have belonged to a man seven feet tall. Inside St. Michael’s, for many years, there hung a green cap, and a longbow with a monstrous pull of 160 pounds.
Is Little John buried at Hathersage? I wanted him to be — the leafy hilltop churchyard is the perfect place for a Merry Man to lie. And a visit to that grave was a personal pilgrimage, since nearly forty years ago it was Howard Pyle’s Robin Hood that first introduced me to the England of literature and legend. Before I knew Dickens or Trollope, Shakespeare or Dr. Johnson, I knew the land of this long-boned longbowman and his mates.
I left Castleton with a full day’s rest, and with a more critical ear for directions. (“Imagine,” a publican said to me, “telling someone to follow a stone wall in Derbyshire.”) My immediate goal stood in plain view — Mam Tor, the barren, rounded, 1,700-foot hill that rises less than two miles from Castleton.
Curious sheep surrounded me as I broke off from the road onto the footpath leading to Mam Tor, while paragliders circled above. They gather at the summit to take advantage of rising columns of warm air and the forgiving terrain, denuded of trees by iron-age smelters and kept that way by centuries of grazing.
I crested Mam Tor, pausing to watch the paragliders from above, and clambered down through the pastures on the north slope to enter the village of Edale by the now-familiar ritual of crossing a stone bridge that looked as if it had been built by the Public Works Department of the Celts.
Edale stands at the start of the Pennine Way, a 250-mile trail from here to the Scottish border — the “Official Start,” says a sign on the outside of the half-timbered Nag’s Head, a real rambler’s pub, where there are always hiking sticks lying across the tables. Beneath the places where the blackened beams of the low ceilings meet the white plaster walls hang pictures of the Pennine Way in all seasons. There is a coal stove, and a quarry-tile floor to handle muddy boots.
Fourteen draft taps — several of them the hand-pulled fonts of what aficionados call “real ale” — lined the bar. It was at the Nag’s Head that I enjoyed the most distinctive beer of my Derbyshire ramble, a brew called Theakston’s Well-Hung. It tasted like dried apples, like musty cellars, like the fourteenth century must have tasted in a town like this.
I set out the next morning, following the Pennine Way towards the hazy bulk of the plateau moorland called Kinder Scout. Hiking through a farmyard, I saw a flock of sheep swiftly re-routed by a black-and-white blur that darted and wheeled before me. A border collie was earning its keep.
But it was the locus of a different dog that I had in mind as the morning mist burned off, giving me a clear view of truncated towers of black gritstone, the ramparts of Kinder Scout. In Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles — which wasn’t set in this part of England but easily could have been — the real antagonist isn’t the phantom hound, but the moor itself.
I had never seen such a landscape. But for the first time, on the climb to Kinder Scout, I understood the writer’s description of the approach to the moor: you don’t walk out onto a moor so much as walk up onto it. Flat as it appears, moorland is generally high territory. The actual, 2088-foot “summit” of Kinder Scout, which rises so gradually that it is nearly impossible to discern, is in fact the highest point in Derbyshire.
I worked my way through the last of the pastureland, quickly gaining altitude via a tortuous rocky stairway called Jacob’s Ladder. Crossing a short saddle of land, I reached a weirldy eroded mass of gritstone and climbed the last few feet to the plateau.
An awful, beautiful desolation lay ahead. Empty moorland reached northward for twelve miles, and stretched for a lesser but still forbidding distance to the east and west. The Pennine Way stumbled forward, barely marked — “some people think there should be no signs,” a rambler later told me darkly. Distance was nearly impossible to gauge — was that black hump of rock a hundred yards away, or half a mile?
I reached down, and for the first time crumbled peat between my fingers. The spare, stunted plants along the path were true heather. A fat red grouse, emblem of the moors and devourer of heather berries, took wing to my right. If this were the “Glorious Twelfth” — the twelfth of August, beginning of the shooting season — grouse hunters would be on the moor, closing it legally to ramblers for the only six days of the year. (It was a famous protest, the “Great Trespass” of 1932, that first opened Kinder Scout and environs to landless recreational hikers.) Gloriously enough in his own way, the grouse descended into a distant patch of heather.
I looked to the north, across the moor. There were no pine trees or bluebells here. It was an unforgiving landscape, forbidding yet enticing, bizaare in its sameness and solemness, far more strange and desolate than I had imagined. Those endless hummocks of peat and heather had an eerie pull. The Pennine Way and its tributary paths could take me to their very heart, way north to vast Bleaklow Moor and beyond.
But it was the last place on earth I would want to be caught at night. I skirted the southern apron of Kinder Scout, followed a trickle of a stream down a sunlit ravine to where Edale sat at the foot of its cirque, and reached the Nags Head before the shadows fell.
After a long day’s southwesterly hike from Edale, my map told me to expect a golf course in the eastern suburbs of the city of Buxton. Sure enough, there it was, bisected by a narrow, unpaved road, the continuation of the same public footpath I’d have to follow into town. I sallied right out onto the links, confident by now in the ironclad protection offered by the right-of-way laws … although part of me suspected that the survival of this particular path was less a matter of respect for tradition than it was a slap at golfers, cooked up by some Trotskyite city council. It had been constructed, though, by a somewhat more august political entity.
Just off to my right was a foursome of happy gents, the sort of Tory golfers whom I imagined were supposed to be driven bloody daft by proletarian ramblers with the law on their side. One of them had just landed his shot at the edge of the road, and asked me nicely if I would step aside for a second while he played it onto the green.
“Personally,” I joked after he had lofted his ball off the road, “I wouldn’t have put a hiking trail through a golf course.”
“Well,” he answered, “We didn’t build it. The Romans did. They didn’t know there was going to be a golf course here.”
Sure enough, the path had the telltale javelin-straightness of a Roman road. Somewhere beneath my boots there were stones carefully laid eighteen or nineteen hundred years ago by the Senate and People of Rome, desirous of easy access to the mineral springs at the place they called Aquae Arnemetiae — today’s Buxton. Their road had evolved over that ocean of time as a public footpath, sacrosanct like all such rights-of-way.