Taking the High Road from Glossop to Ladybower

Mike Smith takes a road trip from Glossp to Ladybower the spectacular Snake Pass

The fame of the Snake Pass has spread well beyond the Peak District. It is almost invariably the first main road in England to be closed in snowy weather – and the last to re-open. Auto Trader has called it one of the ‘best driving roads in Britain’, which actually translates as ‘one of the most challenging’. For participants in the Tour of Britain cycle race, it is the equivalent of Mont Ventoux in the Tour de France. And the Human League even wrote a song about it, featuring the refrain: ‘Come and join us/Come and join us/From the valley to the hillside/From the upside to the down’.

Opened in 1820 as a turnpike, this notorious cross-Pennine route was cleverly engineered by Thomas Telford, who was dubbed the ‘Colossus of Roads’ by the poet Robert Southey. More prosaically known as the A57, the high-level pass is the shortest link between the town of Glossop on the western side of the Pennines and the city of Sheffield on the eastern flank. It rises to 1,680ft (610m) at its highest point, where it crosses the Pennine watershed and passes between the high summits of Kinder Scout and Bleaklow Hill.

As the road makes its long, sinuous climb from Glossop, the scenery becomes more and more stark. Trees, hedgerows and buildings all disappear from the landscape and even grass gives way to heather and peat. Up on the tableland at the summit, there is a small upland lake flanked by a signpost which indicates that the Pennine Way cuts across the road at this point on its 267-mile journey from Edale to Kirk Yetholm on the Scottish border. After traversing the Snake Pass, those walkers who are determined to make it to the end of the long-distance path have three gruelling weeks ahead of them.

After crossing the bleak summit, the road passes the occasional roadside waterfall as it slithers its way down to the Snake Pass Inn, the first building for over four miles. The inn was built by the Sixth Duke of Devonshire to offer a welcome respite for travellers and horses on the turnpike, although it is hard to imagine how the horses that pulled the coaches could actually complete the steep climb as far as the hostelry. In fact, the Quaker John Woolman was so appalled by the toll inflicted on horses by steep toll roads such as this that he would neither travel by coach nor send his letters by mail-coach.

The Duke of Devonshire named his hostelry The Snake Inn after the serpent which features on the Cavendish coat of arms, and the road on which the inn stands soon became known as the Snake Pass. Although the name was not intended as a metaphor for the many twists and turns of the pass, it could hardly be more appropriate, and the story has now come full circle, because the hostelry was renamed some years ago as the Snake Pass Inn, taking its new name from the road that was named after the inn!

John Atkin became landlord of this famous high-level inn some ten years ago, but day-to-day management has now passed to his daughter, 22-year-old Sophie Atkin. Food is served from noon on every day except Monday and the inn is also a 12-bedroom hotel, with eight en-suite bedrooms and four apartments, and the open fire in the bar is kept alight to welcome the many travellers who break their journey across one of the bleakest uplands in Derbyshire.

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In fact, the bleakness comes to an abrupt end just above the Snake Pass Inn, because the stark moors on the western side of the Pennines suddenly give way to conifer plantations on the eastern slopes. Further twists and turns take the road down through the National Trust’s Hope Woodlands estate and past Hagg Farm Outdoor Education Centre, which is run by Nottinghamshire County Council’s Outdoor and Environmental Education Service. The centre offers a wide range of outdoor activities for young people, who are accommodated in the converted 19th century hill farm. As the road makes its descent, there is yet another abrupt change of scenery, heralded by the appearance of the River Ashop, which flows parallel with the road and then widens out to become the vast Ladybower Reservoir, the last of three great reservoirs which were constructed in the last century in the upper reaches of the Derwent Valley.

Howden Reservoir was completed in 1912 and Derwent Reservoir in 1916, but the construction of Ladybower did not begin until 1935 and took ten years to finish. The upper reservoirs provided an ideal practice area for the ‘Dam Busters’ of 617 Squadron as they prepared for their bouncing-bomb raid on the reservoirs of the Ruhr. A commemorative fly-past each May by a Lancaster bomber attracts thousands of spectators. However, the Derwent Valley is popular at all times of the year, with the Fairholmes Visitor Centre providing cycle-hire facilities and a perfect starting-point for exhilarating walks. The centre is reached along a cul-de-sac road that runs away at right angles from the Snake Pass.

Ladybower Reservoir is overlooked by the Ladybower Inn, which was established by the Cotterill family in 1830, long before the reservoirs were built. After the turnpike was constructed, Jonathan Cotterill paid to have the road diverted so that it would run past the inn and bring the coach trade with it. The inn has seven en-suite bedrooms and has been managed for the past eleven years by Deborah and Stephen Wilde, who also have a farm where they raise pheasants and pedigree cattle. Deborah said: ‘Stephen and I made a deal when we came here. He looks after the bar, which has five real ales on offer, and I am in charge of the cooking. I don’t want him in the kitchen and he doesn’t want me in the bar.’

The construction of Ladybower Reservoir required the villages of Derwent and Ashopton to be flooded, with the displaced inhabitants being re-housed in new dwellings built for them on a ridge above the River Derwent. The stone bridge below the houses was built in 1695 to replace a wooden bridge which carried a packhorse route over the river on its way to Yorkshire, which explains why the large Derbyshire inn that was built here in 1826 is known as the Yorkshire Bridge.

This well-known inn has been managed since 1997 by the Illingworth family and is an AA four-star and Visit Britain Silver Award-winning hotel with 14 en-suite bedrooms. Long-serving barman Tim McVeigh told me that the locally-brewed real ales available in the bar include Easy Rider and Moonshine from Sheffield and Bakewell Best and Chatsworth Gold from Peak Ales.

In the dining area, whose ceiling is festooned with tankards and chamber pots, I met Tony Leach, Rita Sawtell and Denis and Margaret Hughes, who make frequent pilgrimages to the Yorkshire Bridge from their homes in Sheffield. Margaret praised the ‘cheerful atmosphere and good service’ they always encounter and Tony said: ‘I spend a lot of time in the United States and it’s always great to come to this pub when I return, because it’s a real piece of old England.’

I was equally pleased to step into this traditional English pub after following the twists and turns of the Snake Pass, which had taken me across a bleak summit that looks more like a moonscape than a patch of Derbyshire and through a beautiful Lakeland area which has been dubbed ‘Little Switzerland’.