Wetton Mill – Hillsdale – Butterton – Swainsley – Wetton Mill

DISTANCE: Approximately 8 miles

This walk explores a section of the Manifold Valley which is a fascinating and beautiful dale on the Staffordshire fringe of the Peak District National Park.

In this narrow and isolated little gorge it is hard to believe that a railway line could have been constructed. However in 1904 the 2ft 6in narrow gauge line was laid, mainly to transport minerals from Ecton Copper Mines, as well as farm produce from the upland district west of Hartington. The little railway also provided a passenger service for nearby villages and tourists with the track following the Manifold and Hamps valleys on their southward journey to Waterhouses. Here the railway met up with the standard gauge branch line from Leek which formed part of the North Staffordshire railway system.

Two little steam locomotives built to an Indian design and fitted with large headlamps pulled a series of narrow primrose-painted carriages with tiny verandas. What a curious sight this must have been if seen from the surrounding hilltops.

The scenery on the 8-mile route was spectacular and the little stations or stops simplistic in their design. Thors Cave Halt for example consisted of only a small low platform and wooden shelter! The Manifold Light Railway failed to be popular though and after 30 years of struggling, it closed in 1934. One of the reasons for its demise was that many of the villages between Hulme End and Waterhouses are situated high above the valley on the hilltops, therefore for local residents to use the railway meant a climb back up to their homes. Also the lead workings at Ecton, close to the old copper mines, closed due to non-profitability, whilst milk and produce from the farms began to be transported by road. Ironically, one of the labourers working on the original construction of the Manifold Light Railway said at the time “it’s a grand bit of line, but they wunna mak a go on it, for it starts from nowhere and finishes up at the same place!”

This walk explores some of the magical Manifold Valley whose name probably derives from the twists and turns and ‘many folds’ it takes on its way from Axe Edge to unite with the Dove beyond Ilam. There is a gradual ascent up to Hillsdale then the following few miles are either flat or downhill. It is extremely pleasant walking with a few stretches on quiet country lanes although the walk follows paths and tracks as much as possible.

1. Start your walk at Wetton Mill where there are parking spaces close to the bridge over the Manifold River. At this time of year there is water all the way to Ilam. However, as with the Lathkill to the east, the Manifold is a disappearing river and in summer months or during prolonged dry spells, the river follows an underground course from slightly downstream of the bridge. It reappears some four miles further on from a series of ‘swallet’ or ‘boil’ holes in the grounds of Ilam Hall. Thomas Wardle of nearby Swainsley Hall tried to fill in the holes in the river bed with concrete around the turn of the century. His attempt was unsuccessful but the lumps of concrete and ventilation pipes can still be found.

2. Head from the parking area to the bridge. Do not cross over the bridge but follow the road around to the right, ignoring two roads leading off to the left, one of which goes through a shallow ford. You should now be at the base of a lane leading uphill to Butterton.

3. Ignore a stile and footpath heading uphill on the left and follow instead the bridlepath which goes through a gateway and onto a path leading up to the right of Hoo Brook. The main-made path peters out after a while but you will continue to gently climb up the hillside, passing through fields and stiles. Keep the brook on your left and watch out for interesting wildlife and an assortment of birds that can be found here.

4. You will come to a junction of paths. Here you cross over the ‘Casey’ or ‘Causeway’ which was a popular packhorse route from Warslow to Froghall. A long string of ponies would have trudged this way probably carrying coal from the pits around Foxt. Cross the stream by means of the footbridge and take the indicated path in front leading up to Hillsdale. You have now left the Hoo Brook which flows down from Butterton to your right, but there is still a little stream on your left. Climb up towards Hillsdale Hall which is a distinctive marker on the hilltop with its red diamond pattern on the roof. Keep taking a look behind you every once in a while at the wonderful view of the hilltops which surround the Manifold.

5. Hillsdale Hall is dated 1620. Go through the gate at the front of the house and onto the drive, then turn left and follow the drive up to a little lane. Turn right and go up this lane past a smallholding on the left then to a further junction. In front of you is the road to Grindonmoor Gate which is an old hollow way. To the right of this is The Pen which was at one time a stockyard for ore and coal carried by packhorses.

6. Turn right and follow Pothooks Lane to Butterton. This stretch of road was previously called the Duke’s New Road because it was improved by the Duke of Devonshire who owned the mineral rights at the Ecton copper mines with this route being used to transport ore to Whiston after 1770.

7. After passing a farm on your left you will drop down a steep bank to enter Butterton. There is a lovely ford over the brook which cannot have changed in appearance for the last couple of centuries. A raised path takes you above the level of the water and in front of some cottages.

8. You now climb up the hillside through the little village and follow the road past the church which was built in 1871, and has a sharp spire that provides a striking landmark for miles around – it vies in competition with the spire of neighbouring Grindon! On your left you will have passed the unusually named Black Lion pub. Follow the road around to the right beyond the pub and towards the school and then go left down a lane heading towards Swainsley. The views from this ridge are superb with the Manifold valley hidden down to your right.

Continue for about half a mile, ignoring a footpath leading off to your right. Turn down a track to Ivy House and go over a couple of stiles leading straight ahead and then head over to the left towards Clayton House. Go over a stile just before this which leads onto a track and joins up with the drive to the house. Continue to the road. You will note that there are some lovely 18th and 19th century houses in the area, no doubt built on the wealth provided by employment in the nearby mines.

9. In the distance you should be able to make out Ecton Hill which rises to 1212 feet. On its side is the copper topped house known as The Hillocks or Castle Folly. At first glance its appearance is not unlike the setting of some 1960’s horror film and you can almost imagine a Dracula or Frankenstein production being filmed there. However, the house was in fact built in 1933 by Arthur Radcliffe the Tory MP for Leek, replacing an earlier single storey thatched cottage. The copper spire was reputedly taken from a demolished chapel. When first built, The Hillocks consisted of two storeys with a flat roof, but this leaked water badly and so another storey was added.

10. Ecton Hill is scarred with the remains of copper and lead mining, although its wounds have now healed over and hide the maze of tunnels and shafts which riddle its interior. The hill was first worked in the mid 17th century but the introduction of gunpowder led to an increase in the mines activity. By 1764 the mineral rights belonged to the Duke of Devonshire and the 5th Duke is said to have built The Crescent at Buxton on its profits. Between 1776 and 1817, 53,857 tons of copper ore worth £677,112 were produced, with a profit of £244,734.

There were 50 miners employed at Ecton, working six-hour shifts at 2d an hour. 50 women were employed to break the ore with ‘buckers’ or flat-headed hammers and they earned between 4d and 8d a day for piecework. Girls aged 8 to 12 were also employed to sort the ore and were paid between 2d and 4d a day. By 1850 Deep Ecton Mine had reached a depth of 1380 feet from the top of the hill. It was one of the deepest mines in Europe and extremely dangerous. One of the arched entrances opens into a large cavern where the ‘floor’ is said to now resemble a huge copper-green pool of water. This however covers a submerged shaft some 960 feet deep!

11. Turn right at the road and descend carefully to the bottom. Turn left to see the entrance to the tunnel where the former railway ran through the hillside, but which is now a road access into the Manifold Valley. Here you would have been able to catch the train at Butterton Halt as well as see the Stamps Yard which was established for crushing ore from Ecton. Return to the road and cross the little bridge, then go through the gate on the right and follow the gated road by the side of the river. After a short distance you should be able to make out Swainsley Hall over to your right which was built towards the end of the last century. In a nearby field is a tiny dovecote and fishing house beside the river.

12. Follow the gated road which was the original route for ore to be taken from Ecton in the 17th century. Up to 70 packhorses at a time trod their way to Wetton Mill and then up to Hillsdale following your earlier route. They then progressed to Winkhill Bridge, Bellyband Grange and Windyway before arriving at Whiston. An earlier bridge at Wetton Mill was swept away by floods and rebuilt in 1807 by the Duke of Devonshire at a cost of £184 and it is said that he continued to maintain the cost of the bridge and road until 1826, at which time a new route had been found for transporting the ore up the hill from Swainsley to Butterton as the Hillsdale route had become too steep for carts.

13. At the end of the gated road you enter the bottom end of the farmyard at Dale Farm. Follow the road around to your right and walk down to the bridge and notice Darfur Caves up to your left which honeycomb the little hillock. These have proved to be of valuable importance to archaeologists and have provided many relics and artefacts, some of which can be seen at Buxton Museum.

14. Before returning to your car, make a visit to the popular tearooms at Wetton Mill, the buildings of which date from the 18th century. A water-powered mill was first established here in 1577 by William Cavendish who was the second son of Bess of Hardwick. The Mill belonged to the Earls of Devonshire until at least 1617 when it became redundant and was then used as a farm from 1867.