Bleaklow Circular

For experienced hill-walkers only.  About ten miles with challenging terrain in parts.

OS 1:25000 map and good compass are essential.

Bleaklow sits brooding at the centre of the High Peak, a high, boggy plateau with a sinister reputation; yet it has its picturesque aspects, also.  This walk takes in some of the very best scenery that the Peak District has to offer as well as some impressive industrial heritage.

The walk begins at the Torside Car Park which will be found on the B6105, the Glossop to Crowden road.  OS Grid reference SK088982.  Start by heading uphill out of the car park – there are two routes, winding through the young trees of a memorial forest, but both emerge onto the Longdendale Trail, which is itself part of the Trans Pennine Trail (TPT).  More on this later, as for now you need to cross straight over this former railway line, through a small gate onto the open access area.  We are right at the start of our walk, but there is no official path here, just a fairly obvious way trodden through the rough grass, bracken and heather.  Long Gutter Edge is the crag above you to the right and the aim is to pass below this, rounding Torside Naze into Torside Clough. 

Cascade in Torside Clough

The path, on its diagonal ascent, crosses a few old stone walls, some of which may be totally hidden in the bracken, depending on the time of year; on meeting some larger rocks, you may want to have your first pause for breath on this steepish climb. It is the first great vantage point on a hike that promises many superb scenes. The presence of pylons should not really detract from the overall effect; this is a landscape shaped by various phases of industry over many generations.  Originally, thousands of years ago, there was nothing but upland forest, mainly of oak; a few remnants of this ancient habitat can now be seen as you progress further towards Torside Clough.

The walls are left behind now and, as the path enters the heather-dominated terrain, you may well find a choice of ways.  A lower route will take you closer to the brook, while the views will be more extensive on a higher path.  Your ultimate goal is to meet up with the Pennine Way, which should be clearly visible on the opposite side of the clough, running along its southern rim.  This can be achieved by crossing the brook (also known as a “grain” in these parts”) somewhere near SK079967.  Or, alternatively, you can find your way over the expanse of Sykes Moor to meet the Pennine Way as it runs alongside Wildboar Grain around SK084965. 

First viewpoint across torside

Either way, two features not to miss are the pretty cascades on the side streams tumbling into Torside Grain (not marked on the map as “falls”) and Torside Castle on the near skyline to the South.  Nothing but a rough oval lump in reality, and it will be noted that the OS does not honour this feature with the fancy gothic lettering reserved for trusted antiquities.  The truth is that debate rages over its origin and age; it may be a bronze-age defensive enclosure, or it may simply be a natural variation in Bleaklow’s otherwise smooth lines.

If you have opted for crossing the brook to meet the Pennine Way, (there is no easy crossing point, so use your common sense in finding the best way over) you must now follow the PW with the water gurgling to your left.  Beware!  After not more than a few hundred paces, the Way and our route take a sharp left-hand turn to cross the stream again, while a different and nameless path continues onwards to the South.  As the Pennine Way enters one of its paved stages, this should be visible on the opposite bank heading up and almost due East, following Wildboar Grain.  The crossing here is relatively easy, and the stone slabs, dropped in by helicopter to help prevent erosion, make the next ascent a veritable walk in the park. 

Pretty soon the flags end and you are left following your compass and the bootprints left by hundreds of hikers on this iconic trail through the Peak District.   On your left Sykes Moor is under going restoration by the MoorLIFE project. This is some of the most vital conservation work being carried out anywhere in Europe.

Amongst the larger fauna, you will almost certainly have encountered Red Grouse by now, (they rely totally on the young heather plants for food), but keep an eye out for a High Peak speciality, the mountain hare; bluey-white in winter, you stand a very good chance of seeing one. The Peak District’s highest moors are the only areas of England or Wales that rejoice in them.

The path winds along the “groughs” – sandy eroded channels between the brown-black “haggs” of peat.  It is easy to get disorientated in this maze of erosion, so keep your wits about you.  The Pennine Way takes a swing to the South East and not long after comes the reassuring site of a large cairn, topped by a wooden stake.  You have reached Bleaklow Head. 

Less than two hundred metres SW from the cairn is a square block highlighting an important sharp turn in the Pennine Way, but at a more-or-less midway point between these two markers our path home starts out almost due East.  In all of the confusion of boot-prints, it may be impossible to see anything of a path, so rely on your compass once again and head for SK097959.  This is the trickiest section of all to navigate, as the haggs are tall and the groughs are deep, so you will be continually re-aligning yourself.  Thankfully, it is only tricky for a short way, for at this grid reference, (less than 500m from where you left the Pennine Way) the path swings from near due East to due North as it begins to follow the start of another “grain”.  Keep tight watch on that compass though, as from this watershed streams flow off in all directions, even though they may begin as parallel groughs.

Into Black Clough

Pretty soon you should find yourself in the makings of a definite clough – “Black Clough” – and, if this is heading due North, stick to it, or rather to the now much more defined path on its left bank.  As the brook continues, the path keeps to higher ground; some sections here can be very sticky through the peat, but just keep moving quickly and things do get firmer.   Around half a mile from its beginnings the clough starts to veer towards the North East, taking the path with it.  Over the next two miles, the clough matures slowly into a rocky landscape, with cascades, rowan trees and bilberry bushes.  Typical heather moorland in the shape of Birchen Bank Moss is on your left as the rowan trees are joined by birch and then oak, thickening into Birchen Bank Wood on the sides of the clough that now falls steeply away from you, to the right.  It is a dramatic scene at any time of year, full of different colours, light and shade.  The woodland should be alive with birdsong in the Spring; this is a great habitat for Redstarts and Pied Flycatchers, Great Spotted Woodpeckers and Willow Warblers.

Above Birchen Bank

Follow the path as it winds to the right into the woodland and you will be rewarded with a truly idyllic spot by the brook, now the size of a small river, tumbling over the rocks through this grassy glade.  Unfortunately it is one of those “idyllic spots” that is a little too accessible, as empty beer cans and thoughtlessly abandoned food wrappers may attest; yes, you are not far from a public car park.

The “small river” is effectively the start of the River Etherow, though the map pedantically gives this honour to the smaller-looking stream approaching from the East. You are following a track now alongside the Etherow, with the A628 above on the hillside. When the wind combines with the river’s music, most of the traffic noise is mercifully screened-out.

At the end of the track there is a gate marked “private” to the left, so turn to the right to find a way immediately to the left onto the old railway station that once stood here by the gaping mouths of the Woodhead tunnels.  As you walk Westwards, (you are back now on the TPT / Longdendale Trail) be sure to turn around to admire the tunnel entrances; the original two Victorian ones on the left and the nearer one on the right that bears the date “1956”.  Number One at 3 miles and 13 yards was amongst the longest in the world when it was completed in 1845.  Number Two opened in 1853, but both were closed when the ribbon was cut on the third tunnel.   In total, 33 navvies lost their lives their lives in constructing numbers One and Two.  Conditions must have been unbelievably grim, for both work and accommodation.

Since 1963 the National Grid have used the older tunnels to carry electricity cables, (better than running them over the moors, of course) but there is some controversy over the decision to start installing them in Number Three also, (work started in 2008) as some people think it should be re-opened to railway traffic.  The track was only lifted in 1986. 

Plain sailing now, three miles to Torside Car Park, on the flat level where the rails once ran.  With pylons and high voltage electricity lines overhead, lorries on the A628 thundering away on the far side of the river and cyclists passing you on the trail, it is a far cry from the wilds of Bleaklow, yet full of interest too.  Well planted with birch, oak, willow and alder, thrushes sing here, while frogs and other water creatures breed in the ditch to your left.  As you proceed, the road becomes ever more distant and the views up a succession of dramatic cloughs – deep gashes in the side of the Bleaklow plateau – are arresting; Shining Clough, dropping down behind the quaint old hunting lodge, is perhaps the most impressive.  Does the name derive from the light playing on the rocks, wet with spray from the waterfall?  Or is there a spookier reason?  Longdendale is world-renowned amongst those with an interest in the paranormal for the appearance of strange balls of light, sometimes seen flying around the crags at night and behaving in a manner that defies all rational explanation.  On occasion, local residents have reported the whole valley lit up by an eerie glow that does not seem to have any particular source. Of course there is a main road, high voltage power cables, reflections in the water, police helicopters and a major flight path into Manchester Airport… but nonetheless, the number and variety of strange stories from seemingly sane and reliable people really is quite remarkable.  “The Longdendale Lights” remain ultimately mysterious.

Just less than a mile beyond The Lodge and Shining Clough, you will pass some old, brick railway cottages, now looking rather sad and dilapidated.  Passing through gates here and over a track-cum-car-park, the trail continues just above the B6105 heading for Glossop.  The road crosses the Woodhead Dam in its other direction to meet the A628.  Look up, just above the road junction over the dam and you will see Woodhead Chapel, seeming stark and lonely against the dark moor behind.  This is where the 32 fatalities from the construction of the first Woodhead Tunnel lie buried and commemorated.

The Longden Trail home

Just a mile to go now, back to the Torside Car Park, which you can find by returning through the memorial wood – perhaps taking the alternative path to add even more variety to what has been a fascinating journey through wilderness and our industrial heritage.

Simon Corble.