Advertisement

Sign up for our newsletter

Advertisement

Peak District: Big Ride

Stu Bowers
9 Dec 2015

In the heart of England, Cyclist discovers a ride in the Peaks that is as testing as it is beautiful, with a tale around every corner.

I seem to have ridden straight into the opening credits of Postman Pat. Just up ahead above the dry stone walls, with rolling grassy hills in the background, I can see the top half of a small red Royal Mail delivery van making its way along the narrow road towards the next cottage. I’m too far away to see if the driver has a cat with him, but I wouldn’t be surprised. 

I’m in Derbyshire, in what is known as the High Peak, having started out a short while ago from Hayfield – a village with superb views of the Kinder Scout Nature Reserve. My guide today is local cycling legend Nick Craig, a former pro racer and double Olympian with several national titles to his name. It’s a pleasure to be in such esteemed company, although I’m hoping he isn’t planning to take me on one of his more punishing loops around the Peak District.

Peak district climbs

The landscape is like a patchwork quilt, with segments of arable land divided by the dry stone walls that run for miles and miles across the hillsides and open moorland. The hills might not be considered mountainous in terms of their overall altitude but they are often steep, rising sharply from the floor of deep glacial valleys. 

Park rangers 

We head south, and after grazing the outskirts of Chapel-en-le-Frith, dubbed the capital of the Peak District, the climb up to Eccles Pike is an early wake-up call for our legs. The road is narrow and when I hear the approach of an oncoming car I veer over towards the gutter to make space, so it’s with a certain amount of surprise that I watch as the driver of the vehicle, a Porsche no less, practically buries it in the hedgerow to give us more room to pass. 

‘You wouldn’t get that in Surrey,’ I say to Nick. Friendly car drivers are simply an extra blessing on a day that is giving us clear skies and warm sunshine, topped off by the view when we reach the Eccles Pike summit, which overlooks the westerly side of the Peak District National Park. In the distance a reservoir shimmers like a mirror and Nick tells me how his two sons learned to sail on it. As someone who lives near the coast, I find it odd to think of this spot as a place to come sailing, seeing as we’re about as far from the sea as it’s possible to be in the UK. 

We head in the direction of Buxton and eventually find ourselves on the aptly named Long Hill. It’s a fairly busy road, but wide enough for us to not feel intimidated by passing traffic as it snakes its way up the valley. In the distance to our right is a ridge of hills, and Nick informs me that this is what we are heading for. 

Peak district hills

Descending to the valley floor once more, the magnificent sight of the Errwood Reservoir comes into view. I have a sudden feeling of deja vu and I realise I’ve been here before when I took part in the L’Eroica Britannia sportive – Britain’s version of the Italian vintage cycle event – and we follow the same route for the next few kilometres as we wind our way along the valley on the far side of the reservoir, following the course of the River Goyt that feeds it. 

The final part of this road climbs up to the Cat and Fiddle Inn, a famous landmark around these parts, sitting exposed at the top one of the high points of the A537. It’s frequented by motorcyclists and cyclists alike, who share a love for the sinuous roads. As we head beyond Allgreave on the road to Gradbach, we pass a small stone cottage called The Eagle and Child. Local legend has it that the house was named because an eagle once flew off with a baby near here. The truth of the tale is uncertain, but perhaps of more relevance to us today is that it was once a cafe and regular stopping point for cyclists of the likes of Beryl Burton and Reg Harris, both multiple World Champions, who would enjoy a mid-ride cuppa here. 

The cafe has long since closed its doors, but if it were still open today the chances are some other cycling stars would have passed through. The Peak District’s proximity to Manchester’s National Cycling Centre means these roads are often used as a training ground by the cream of British Cycling. Aside from my chaperone, both David Millar and Rob Hayles have lived and trained in these hills from a base in Hayfield, and Team Sky’s Ian Stannard lives just down the road. This morning we also passed close by the house of Steve Peters, sports psychiatrist to Team Sky and author of The Chimp Paradox.

Cake and decapitations

Peak district flash

The narrow strip of tarmac we’re following is again bounded by dry stone walls preventing the vast expanses of moorland from engulfing everything, and there’s a beautiful feeling of spaciousness. We reach the village of Flash, on the Staffordshire Moorlands, and a sign proudly proclaims it to be ‘the highest village in Britain, 1,518ft above sea level’. The Peak District is well known for its varying climates that depend on whether you’re in the shelter of the hills or exposed to the chilling, sweeping winds on higher ground. To illustrate the point, as we pass through the village Nick says, ‘If they’re in Speedos in Stockport, then we’ll be in shorts and T-shirts in Hayfield, but in Flash you’ll still need a jacket.’

With around 50km of our 132km loop covered, it’s time for our first coffee stop, and on Nick’s recommendation we pull up in Longnor outside the Cobbles Cafe. It’s an excellent choice. Not only is the coffee and cake exceptional, but it also has a pile of cycling magazines too. There, on the top of the pile, is a copy of Cyclist. Nick swears that this was not planted for our benefit. 

After a good fill of coffee, milkshake and a couple of toasted tea cakes, the climb back out of Longnor feels like a struggle, and I can’t help smirking when the next village we reach is rather appropriately named Glutton. 

Peak district cafe

‘The only way to keep a woman quiet is to cut off her head,’ Nick suddenly proclaims as we pass through Earl Sterndale. I’m momentarily taken aback, until I see he’s pointing at The Quiet Woman pub at the side of the road. Its hanging sign displays a headless woman and the words, ‘Soft words turneth away wrath.’ The pub is over 400 years old and owes its dubious name to a talkative young lady who was decapitated to keep her quiet. Nick and I continue on past the pub wordlessly, both inwardly thankful that our respective partners are not here to pass comment on the curious case of The Quiet Woman. 

Head in the clouds 

Watched by cows and grazing sheep, we press on to Monsal Head. Just when I was thinking that the scenery couldn’t get any better, the view down the trail almost stops me in my tracks. The spectacular viaduct ahead of us once supported the railway lines that took passengers to and from Manchester, plus the lead mining freight trains that passed through the River Wye valley. The ice cream van is enticing too, but we decide to carry on into the valley and past the enormous Arkwright Mill, once a cotton mill and another testament to the area’s industrial history. 

When we reach Cressbrook, the houses are decorated with bunting and coloured flags. ‘It’s well dressing week,’ says Nick, explaining the tradition unique to Derbyshire and the Peak District where from May to September the towns and villages create intricate art installations around their wells. The ‘dressings’ often celebrate biblical scenes or special anniversaries, and we stop briefly to admire the hard work the residents of Cressbrook have put in on their well. 

Peak district climb

Another 5km further on, the Vanilla Kitchen coffee shop in Tideswell is too alluring to miss, and with 82km covered we feel justified in stopping. The sun is still shining and we can enjoy our calorie replenishment al fresco. 

After plentiful portions of homity pie followed by chocolate and Guinness cake washed down with cappuccinos, we’re in no particular hurry to sprint off up the road, so we saunter past Tideswell’s impressive 14th century church (known locally as the Cathedral of the Peak, although not officially a cathedral), and roll slowly out of the town heading north-west. 

Next our route takes us towards the famous Ladybower Reservoir, along the course of the River Derwent to meet the Ladybower Dam. The great reservoirs around this area, Derwent and Ladybower, were famously used as the training ground for RAF 617 Squadron, practising the deployment of Barnes Wallis’s bouncing bombs that were used to attack German dams during the Dambuster raids of the Second World War.

The evening light is beginning to cast long shadows, and the waters of the reservoir glisten as we approach the start of the Snake Pass. The road is closed to traffic for essential repairs, but Nick knows a man who knows a man, and thanks to a prior agreement (the price of which was a six-pack of cider), we have permission to pass and continue on our way. 

Peak district descending

Most of the climbs we’ve encountered so far have been short and steep, making the route profile look like a set of dragon’s teeth, but the Snake Pass is different. It ascends gradually with gradients mostly between 4-7% for the 15km to its summit at around 500m above sea level. The lower reaches are tree lined, but higher up the climb we emerge once more into open moorland. Nick tells me the tale of an American World War Two Superfortress bomber that crashed on top of the Snake Pass in 1948, and because it was built predominantly from aluminum, which doesn’t corrode, parts of its wrecked fuselage and engines can still be found in the peaty landscape, not too far from the road. 

With the final challenge over, we can enjoy the fast descent on the wide and winding road (it’s not called Snake Pass for nothing). Safe in the knowledge that there will be no traffic on the closed road, we throw caution to the wind and dive into the corners for a truly thrilling descent. 

Arriving back at our hotel in Hayfield it’s relatively quiet, with just a few locals sipping pints in the sun-drenched courtyard. It’s a very different scene to the one that greeted us when we arrived the previous night. Then it was standing room only and three deep at the bar, as a local fell race had just finished in the village and the bulk of the competitors were eagerly seeking a recovery pint. 

Time for us to do the same.

Do it yourself

Travel

Hayfield sits between Glossop and Buxton in the heart of the Peak District National Park. Both towns are served by trains from Manchester or Stockport. Manchester airport is also less than 40km away. 

Accommodation

Cyclist stayed at the Royal Hotel, a spacious, clean and modern hotel serving a range of hearty choices for breakfast. Rooms cost from £60 single and £80 double. They are very used to hosting runners and cyclists.

Thanks

We’re grateful to the local tourist board – visitpeakdistrict.com – for all the guidance and info that made this trip possible. Big thanks also to Nick Craig, whose knowledge of the local roads provided us with an unforgettable loop, and to Kate, who demonstrated admirable patience while chauffeuring our photographer.

Read more about: