via Litton Mill, Cressbrook Dale, Water-cum-Jolly Dale
Peter Sargeant & Anny Jones
This 5 mile walk covers some of the most glorious walking country in the Peak District, and it’s designed to be reached by bus.
It begins in Tideswell, a village in the limestone uplands south of Buxton and home to the spectacular 14th century church of St John the Baptist (the ‘cathedral of the Peak’), some lively pubs and small craft shops, and one of the finest fish and chip shops for miles. From Tideswell it takes a less well-used route through high meadowland and quiet lanes down into Millers Dale, threads its way through the Wye Valley and ends at Monsal Head, with towering views over the valley, Monsal Dale and its viaduct. There isn’t a dreary moment on this walk and, apart from the final ascent to Monsal Head (easily managed with occasional stops to admire the view), it’s fairly level walking all the way.
The walk starts from Tideswell’s Fountain Square bus shelter. (The village has a regular service from Sheffield, Chesterfield, and Bakewell via Monsal Head, including Sundays; contact Traveline or 0871 200 22 33 for details.) Walking away from the village centre, pass the Horse and Jockey pub and continue up Gordon Road.
In a few yards you’ll see a red post box mounted on a lamp post. Turn right here up Brockley Lane, and follow it between the cottages and drystone garden walls.
At the top, turn left along Sherwood Road and past a small estate of modern houses in local limestone. In a couple of hundred yards the road bears right into meadowland bordered by limestone walls. Passing the last of the houses on the right, take a left along the lane marked ‘Unsuitable for motor vehicles’.
In a few yards you’ll reach a junction with a lane to the right. Ignore this lane and bear left along the (unmarked) Meadow Lane.
You’ll see farm buildings ahead on the brow of hill. But before you reach them, and just before the modern-looking farmhouse on the left, follow the footpath sign on the right through the 5 barred gate. The grassy right of way takes you through the farm’s vegetable plot; it’s as neat as a pin, complete with pigeon and chicken coops.
At the other end, pass through another 5 barred gate and turn left onto the lane. Ignore the track on the right and continue down past a house on the left, pausing to take in the fine upland meadows, with larks and swifts, rocky outcrops and superb open views. To your left you’ll see the Derbyshire Wye Valley, its wooded slopes and rocky gorges sculpted by meltwater from the last ice age. At their foot, not yet visible, is our route to Monsal Dale.
In a few yards you’ll pass another enticing green lane on the right, but resist it and carry on down the metalled lane. Notice the dew-ponds along the route to trap water before it drains off these high meadows. Even on a fine Sunday afternoon, when more beaten tracks are congested with walkers, you probably won’t see another soul along this lane – maybe the odd agricultural vehicle or local dog walker. Another attractive green lane: ignore it and continue down hill. In the field on the right you’ll see a rocky outcrop with a small ruined barn beyond. If you come in July, the lane here will be fringed with blue cranesbill and lilac-coloured scabious, both typical of limestone areas.
The fields are becoming smaller now, more trees line the lane, and there are footpath signs and stiles leading off to the right and the left. The descent becomes a little more marked. Continue past the signs for Monks Retreat holiday cottages and Monks Dale Farm and down the hill, where woods now appear on either side of the lane.
Head for the buildings below on the right, passing gates and a public bridleway sign. At the road (B6049) cross over, go through a gap in the wall and descend some stone steps. Before following the lane to the left take a moment to admire the little clapperboard Old Stores and church on the opposite side of the road.
The entrance to the lane passes the old Millers Dale Meal Mill. There have been mills along this valley since at least 1086. This one was already established in the 18th century and worked till the 1920s. Today its waterwheel makes a handsome informal planter for wild flowers.
Turn left in front of the mill wheel and pass the Angler’s Rest – an excellent spot for refreshment. There’s a fine late Victorian bay-fronted terrace alongside it. The river is now on your right and will remain there for the next couple of miles.
Millers Dale was a bustling junction on the Midland Railway Line, serving London, Manchester and Buxton, until it fell victim to Dr Beeching in 1968. Twelve years later the track was taken over by the Peak District National Park and became the Monsal Trail walking and cycling route. There are two nature reserves nearby – Priestcliffe Lees and Station Quarry are part of Derbyshire Naturalists' Trust, and Monk's Dale is a National Nature Reserve – and the area is home to an exceptional range of limestone-loving plants and birds, such as the common spotted orchid and rare Marsh Tit.
The riverside lane squeezes through the valley bottom, bearing right as the valley broadens. A limestone cliff rears up on the left of the path and on the overhang at its base you’ll probably see new climbers building up their confidence.
Just beyond it is the entrance to the Ravenstor Youth Hostel. A wooden bridge crosses the river here leading off up the valley side. Ignore it, and carry on along the riverside path. Look out for dippers and grey wagtails along here skimming and bobbing in the shallows. And, to your left, the gate piers before the way up to the Hostel. Clumps of tall campanula and bloody cranesbill appear along this section of the path in summer, late forget-me-nots line the river margin, and the huge rhubarb-like leaves of butterbur flourish along the valley bottom.
The car parking area coming into view on your left indicates that you’re now only a few hundred yards away from Litton Mill (which has no public parking). Go past the footpath signs to Tideswell Dale, and the Field Study Centre to reach the workers cottages of Litton Mill, a hamlet that grew up around a cotton mill, and has now absorbed it. Ignore a bridge over the river here and head past the cottages towards the Mill complex, where buildings once associated with brutalised child labour have been rehabilitated as handsome apartments.
Depending on your walking speed, you’ll be around an hour and a half into the walk. Before continuing through Litton Mill you might want to take the turning on the left, in front of a low cottage with a striking tall round chimney to the ‘tea, cake and loo stop’ that’s a 60m or so climb from the path. The modern house has a small collection of memorably quirky vehicles, including a Harley Davidson from Alaska, a Russian bike with sidecar and an Indian motor rickshaw.
Return, refreshed, to the path and resume the concessionary route through Litton Mill grounds, passing another, even taller, round chimney on the mill’s Old Gas House, now also converted into apartments. Bear right over a bridge, pausing to look back at the old mill race as it emerges from the arched base of the Mill building.
Keeping to the concessionary path, turn left through the 5-barred gate and enter the conservation area. On the opposite bank are steep grassy slopes with limestone outcrops and in the clear river shallows you might spot the brown and rainbow trout that spawn here. In a few yards the path crosses a small stream that enters the river beneath some metal plates. Beyond it, you’ll see a notice announcing that we’re in a conservation area. Up to the left of the path, branches pruned from the trees lie in heaps, presumably to provide shelter for wildlife.
Follow the river round to the right, passing a small weir. The river widens and slows here, creating a boggy habitat that’s buzzing with animal life: in summer, look out for coots and moorhens picking their way delicately along the muddy banks with their chicks, and swans and ducks with their young. On the left, up a flight of rough limestone steps, you’ll see the alternative path to Cressbrook Mill, for use when the riverside path is flooded.
Dramatic rocky outcrops overhang the opposite side of the river here. It’s fun trying out the echo if there’s no-one around or you’re not easily embarrassed. The edge of Cressbrook village now comes into view on the steep valley side ahead.
The river’s increasingly shallow as you pass the remains of a small brick building on the path-side and approach the gloriously-named Water-cum-Jolly Dale. The muddy island in the middle of its wide expanse is a popular refuge for water birds.
The path passes under dramatic overhanging cliffs pitted over the years by climbers developing their skills.
The buildings of Cressbrook Mill come into view across the water and through the trees to the right. Rounding the cliffs, cross a wooden bridge to face a drystone wall. From here, the route turns right and crosses another bridge to the opposite bank of the river.
Before crossing the second bridge, however, look to the left. You’ve entered Cressbrook Dale and the first bridge has taken you over the mill race that once powered Cressbrook Mill.
Looking along the mill stream you can see some of the equipment that remains and, beyond that, the Mill itself. Originally a cotton mill, it was built in 1787 by the son of Sir Richard Arkwright two years after his father’s mill there had burnt down. Today, like Litton Mill, it has been converted to smart apartments. Sadly, the ‘brew stop’ beside the millrace has now closed and the extraordinary Georgian Gothick folly that housed it is being sold.
Returning to that second footbridge, cross over it, passing another weir, to reach the opposite bank.
Turn immediately right and ascend the steps that bear left. Admire, as you ascend, the spectacular view of Cressbrook Mill below. Pass through a pedestrian gate at the top by an interpretation board. You’re now on the Monsal Trail, which follows the old Midland Railway line for 20km through tunnels and across the spectacular Monsal viaduct. The Cressbrook Tunnel is immediately to your right, but head left towards Monsal Head.
You’ll shortly pass the remains of the old station. A few yards beyond them a bridge crosses the trail, beside a bench. At this point, you can either continue along the trail directly to the Viaduct or, in summer, turn off here for a chance to see some common spotted orchids. To do this, immediately before the bridge follow the footpath on the left for a few yards up to a wooden stile; cross it and go over the bridge. Turn right again over another wooden stile and then left into a meadow.
Follow the (slightly indistinct) path past the curved branch of a large ash tree and over a small meadow dotted with hawthorn bushes and, in summer, with orchids. Monsal Head is now visible on the other side of the valley.
The path slopes left towards a drystone wall, under some larger hawthorn bushes, through a tumbledown wall onto a rough limestone path. Follow it down to the left and after a few yards
emerge through a pedestrian gate back onto the Monsal Trail. On your right is the magnificent Monsal (more correctly, Headstone) Viaduct.
Back in 1863, John Ruskin berated the Midland Railway for sacrificing the idyllic beauty of Monsal Dale so that ‘a Buxton fool’ could get to Bakewell in 12 minutes. Today, the structure is celebrated as part of that beauty and a superlative viewing point for the Wye Valley beyond. On the right is the river with Cressbrook Dale below and above it Fin Cop, the site of a hill fort where recent excavations have unearthed the first known segregated mass burials found at an Iron Age site. Monsal Head looms to the left.
On the far side of the viaduct you’ll see the Headstone Tunnel. Turn left at the fingerpost immediately before it and head up the wooded path, through a pedestrian gate, to Monsal Head.
These last few hundred yards to Monsal Head are the only really steep part of the walk, so after a hundred yards or so, at a junction with another path, you might want to take advantage of the bench and admire the views. When you’re ready, follow the fingerpost to the right and continue up to Monsal Head. There are limestone steps from this point, with a good surface.
At the top your efforts will be rewarded with truly remarkable views along Cressbrook Dale and the Wye Valley – and the prospect of refreshment at the Monsal Head Hotel, its Stable Bar or the Café and Crafts shop.
In front of the hotel is the bus stop and, across the road, another with a timetable for checking your return journey to Tideswell. It’s three and a half miles away but bear in mind that if, like us, you stop to take almost 200 photos en route and miss the last bus, a taxi can be surprisingly expensive.
In that case, we recommend fortifying yourself in the Stable Bar, admiring your surroundings, and watching other walkers make the ascent before you start the walk back – which, as everyone knows, is always shorter.