Derbyshire Dales

Imagine walking in the footsteps of lead miners, millers, quarriers and agricultural labourers of old. Think of their cutting back home after an exhausting day's work.

Imagine walking in the footsteps of lead miners, millers, quarriers and agricultural labourers of old. Think of their cutting back home after an exhausting day's work. Consider the trysts, the escapes, the gossip and the commerce that dark and winding alleyways allowed. Many of these jitties still survive in the Derbyshire Dales despite the constant threat of massive housing projects, neglect, obstruction ... and tarmacadam.

So I set out one bleak winter morning to begin chronicling them. I went first to Matlock, where I had once worked, but within a fortnight discovered that neighbouring Wirksworth was even richer in stone-built, stone-walled passages: amazing for a town far smaller than Buxton, which has relatively few outstanding examples.

Then it was on to Bakewell and more humpbacked footbridges, worn stone staircases and handsomely flagged byways. But this neat town and the temptation to travel on to off-the-beaten-track places like Tideswell and Youlgreave seemed to be leading me too far astray, so I returned to the Matlocks. Past lunchtime explorations had given me an introduction to Steep Turnpike, Smedley Street East, Hall Leys and some of the steepest banks in Matlock Bath, but I had not yet discovered the secrets of the more obscure lovers' walks, whole stretches of Megdale, or the incredibly rich heritage of Lumsdale. Similarly, although I knew snickets were handy for getting from one main road to another, I understood little of their true significance and hadn't really noticed the original stonework beneath my feet and in the solid ashlar buildings to the side.

I decided to map these improbable byways, but set myself strict criteria. They had to be different from ordinary (tarmacked) roads and from the long muddy footpaths I encountered on a full day's hike. Length by itself did not count. Some jitties might only be ten or twenty yards long, while a few were up to half-a-mile. Pathways also had to have a hard surface, however worn, and needed to link clusters of buildings with other buildings within easy reach. My shortcuts also had to be primarily for walkers - even if invaded by cars overnight - and ideally have alleyway 'furniture' such as destination signs, benches, instructions for dogs, handrails, hooks for buckets, and posts.

Pillars and posts proved important because they helped define a path as barred to traffic. Derbyshire Dales boasts new Edwardian-style pillars of iron, crested and painted black to match reproduction lampposts. Occasionally I found entries graced with a fine stone arch, and slanting upright monoliths were fairly common at one end or the other.

Surprisingly, turnstiles were absent. Another problem was: were the alleyways legitimately open to the public? To solve this, I only mentioned the dozens of cobbled yards shared by two or three cottages - and their steeply terraced gardens - as seen from the main path. My rule of thumb was: where would the public be expected to be? I was never, consciously, a 'Trespasser To Be Prosecuted' - and people's privacy made me selective in my photography. In all I traced around 150 twittens and snickets. Here are some of the finest. There are two superb ginnels in Matlock town that actually run parallel.

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The first is the rugged way called Rockside Steps that links the rebuilt Rockside Hydro with Wellington Street below. This passage has absolutely everything: gritstone slabs, 57 steep stairs, a slope between each run of steps, benches, galleries and magnificent vistas. Anyone worried about the disappearance of picturesque England would do well to 'lift their eyes unto the hills' when descending these Steps. Second is the curious route that links Cavendish Park - a children's play area, high above Matlock - with another hydro, Jackson Tor House (even in recent times a hotel) and Far Green, for Smedley's magnificent County Hall. From below, this path starts with a steep stone-flagged ascent unaided by steps.

However, in order to mount a miniedge of gritstone almost lost in the bracken, the path soon starts to twist and turn, incorporating stairway, lay-by and visionary viewing platform. Unusually, the Council has provided lamps here, which hardly make this spooky thoroughfare less daunting after dusk. This raises the question of alley safety. In a defensive age, there is a temptation to abandon shortcuts.

But provided pedestrians take an occasional companion, avoid ice, and leave wads of banknotes at home, they should enjoy their expeditions without grief. From St Giles' ancient parish church in Old Matlock every pedestrian path is a treat: whether opposite to John Smedley's castellated, now ruined, retirement home; behind to Matlock's memorial to those who fell in both World Wars; meandering beneath a single (working) railway line to Dale Road shops; downward, and cobbled, to a pretty bridged rivulet; or round to Knowleston Place and rock-strewn Lumsdale. In Matlock Bath the finest stone-laid path, by far, is West Bank, which climbs steeply up from Wellington to those 18th century pleasure gardens biblically called Abraham's Heights.

This Bank was quite a haul for the pony and traps that used to take holidaymakers and their luggage up Masson Hill from the Station. It still saps any reserve of energy. Further south, Cromford's most alluring alleyway is completely hidden. It goes off left from the bakery opposite Market Place, past assorted sluices and troughs, to modelvillage- like North Street. The Arkwrights didn't do things by half. Whilst in Cromford, make sure you wander down Scarthin, which has its own lakeside Promenade - a byway rich in stone steps that boasts three disused Methodist chapels.

In Wirksworth the most extraordinary survival in this new century is undoubtedly Church Way - picturesque, railed and solidly-paved. This secluded path completely encircles the ancient transepts of St Mary's, with many other alleyways including Blind Lane, The Lychgates and Canterbury starting nearby.You would have to travel to Grindleford or Ashover to find an equally good alleyway. Visitors to Wirksworth who expect a rather dreary town, cloaked with white quarry dust, have a pleasant surprise in Crown Yard, or as they wander along Bowling Green Lane, or when they are confronted with the remarkable Georgian mansions of St John's and Causeway.What treasures must have been lost when Harrison Drive was forced through Market Place just before World War II.

While in Wirksworth, never pass up the chance to wander round Puzzle Gardens: an amazing maze of preserved and precipitous passages squashed between Green Hill, above, and The Dale below. There are no less than seven entries into this smugglers' paradise from the road used by Rolls-Royce to test their earliest motor cars.

No newcomer could ever guess from a map or guide to the Peak, how attractive this sector of the town is. There has to be a purpose in exploring the snickets and alleyways of Matlock and Wirksworth. One instant justification is unalloyed pedestrian happiness. Another is the imperative to maintain and retain ancient stone-laid routeways. Already modern flats, mews and executive homes threaten to intercept or obliterate useful cut-throughs - though some have been reinstated in cement.Who knows which could be blocked in the future?

A third justification is that oldest and newest leisure pursuit: the Urban Hike.Why not use a network of jitties to form a snappy circular tour and spend hours away from the spots where other visitors congregate? It does not even matter if you are temporarily lost. Riber or Willersley, Middle Peak or the A6 soon come into view. My fourth and final justification came as a surprise: a deeper understanding of the Derbyshire Dales, and later Belper and Buxton. My trekking, tracing, cartography and photography of alleyways led to an enhanced appreciation of areas I had driven or hiked through in the past without a second thought. The flip-side of those discoveries was to strengthen my resolve to campaign on the issues of rural access, employment and architecture.

Witnessing the splendid efforts of Civic Societies has increased my own civic responsibility. Observing the Peak's miniature routes took me back to my own roots. Godfrey Holmes is author of Passage to Matlock and Passage to Wirksworth - both published by Nethermoor Books, available either from local bookshops or from Matlock Tourist Information Centre.

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