I’d heard intriguing things about the Hermit’s Cave at Cratcliffe Tor and we used my partner’s birthday lunch in Birchover as an opportunity to visit this magical place.
Starting at the Red Lion, Main Street, turn right out of the pub and walk down the street, heading west. The main village street bears right, into The Mires. Don’t follow this but go straight on down the track ahead, which is a continuation of Main Street. On the right is the Druid Inn, and above that is Rowtor. This fascinating natural outcrop has prehistoric carvings and some quirky later additions by a local parson about 300 years ago – well worth a separate visit. It can be accessed via a path to the left of the Inn.
To get to Cratcliffe Tor, continue down the track, soon passing the little Church of St Michael on the left. The architectural and stained glass artist, Brian Clarke used to live in Birchover’s Old Vicarage and there are striking windows by him in the church. To the right through the trees above you can glimpse Rowtor Rocks. Set further back, past three houses on the left, is the Old Vicarage. Head straight on through a gateway and you’ll see a small conical wooded hill a little to the left – the walk goes to the left of this and returns via the other side. Turn left, following a footpath sign.
Go up the slope, and where the path meets a farm track bear left, shortly passing through a gateway, past a sign for free range eggs on the right, then a low wall enclosing a neat lawn, behind which is a farmhouse. You will probably be greeted by a pair of howling dogs, a bigger and a smaller one, not so much barking as serenading!
Go through a squeeze stile to the left of the gate ahead, turn right and follow the path down, between walls of quite large, mostly rounded, stones. The wall on the right ends and is replaced by a grassy slope. Ahead are the roofless remains of an old barn which seems to have been built against a natural rock face. Keeping the wall to the left, go down to the handgate ahead. Go through this and continue down and round to the right, skirting a copse. Go through a 5 barred gate between old stone posts and turn right, ignoring the gate immediately on the left.
Very soon there is another gate on the left. Climb over the wooden stile beside this and follow the path diagonally down the hillside. Note the impressive rock formation on the opposite side of the valley, towering over the wooded slopes below – this is our destination, Cratcliffe Tor. The little earth (or mud, depending on the weather and season) path widens and becomes grassier as it descends. Note the roofless stone barn up on the left – descend to the road via a handgate, a short boardwalk, a wooden bridge and finally another handgate.
Go left here – it’s a B road and not usually too busy, but take care as the verges are narrow. Continue for about 100 yards, noting the ancient milestone on the right, “To Bakewell 5 miles” and “To Ashbourn 12 miles” (opposite the bend-in-the-road sign) and turn right just past the layby, after two rather sad oak trees – then over the cattle grid and on to the Limestone Way. Straight ahead you’ll see Cratcliffe Tor.
To the right, on the opposite side of the valley now, is the roofless barn we passed earlier, nestling in the woods, splendid in autumn colours. The curious conical wooded hill we skirted becomes more prominent as the track climbs, following the line of the outgrown old hedgerow to the left. Further up on the left, the remarkable rock formation of Robin Hood’s Stride appears.
The track goes through a gateway into a triangular field surrounded by a drystone wall. Keeping the wall to your left, go up the field, following the sign for the Limestone Way. Below Cratcliffe Tor, to the right of the path, is a farmstead surrounded by trees, including a huge ancient chestnut in the boundary wall. Head to the left hand field corner, while admiring Robin Hood’s Stride. Take advantage of the seat to the right of the path, and look back at the fine panorama towards Winster.
Go through the handgate, up a rocky slope, and in 50 yards turn right over a stile, following the footpath marker – take care over the crumbling stones. To the right, in front of the copse, are some large rocks. Follow the path across the field to the stile ahead, beyond which are many more rocks. Admire the view to the left, towards Youlgreave and Stanton in Peak.
Go over the stile, turn right, under the oak trees, down a little, over and round the huge rocks, glimpsing magnificent views over the treetops. Soon you will see a large yew tree under which is a low wall enclosing some railings. [PHOTO 8] These are to protect the Hermit’s Cave, within which is carved an impressive crucifix, variously thought to date from the 12th, 13th or 14th century, flanked by a niche for a lamp. To see this, you may need to bring a torch as we had difficulty seeing it by natural light.
Retrace your steps to explore the Tor, from the top of which there are spectacular but vertiginous views. Be cautious as you investigate, as there are some sheer drops between the rocks! The enormous boulders are redolent of ancient mystery, and it’s easy to see why our distant ancestors were so obsessed by megaliths. It has recently been discovered that the Tor was used as a hillfort.
To return, go back over the stile, across the field and the further stile. Robin Hood’s Stride can be explored from the opposite side of the rocky footpath. Retrace your steps down the hill, left on to the main road, though the handgate on the right and diagonally up the slope to the stile at the top.
Here, instead of turning right, go left to skirt the conical hill on the northern side. There is another small roofless barn below to the left, and a little further along the track passes right beside another one, with its blocked up doorway. To your left is another lovely valley. Soon you will go through a gate. Take the left fork here, follow the track down and rejoin the path you took at the beginning of the walk – through the gateway, past the Old Vicarage, the church and the Druid Inn, back to the Red Lion for a well-earned drink.
This walk was brought to you by Peter Sargeant