Wye Valley - travelling through the beauty spot from Wyedale to Monsal Head
- Credit: Archant
Despite the dark deeds and controversies in its past, this area is now one of our most beautiful, tranquil and best-loved beauty spots
This tale of echoes, both real and imagined, begins on the outskirts of Buxton, where the A6 and the River Wye run side by side as they squeeze and twist their way through the limestone gorge of Ashwood Dale at the start of their journey to Bakewell.
At the foot of Topley Pike, where the gorge finally becomes too narrow to accommodate both road and river, the A6 is forced to take an alternative route over the hills, leaving the river to continue its journey through the deep, lush gorge, known along this particular stretch as Wyedale.
WYEDALE AND CHEEDALE
After following a delightful riverside track for 0.75 miles, walkers are surprised to come across a terrace of eight cottages. The only access to the dwellings, which stand at the junction between Wyedale and Cheedale, is a narrow footbridge over the Wye. Their splendid isolation is best appreciated by looking down from a lofty layby on the A6, which has now reached the White Peak plateau. The tranquil setting of the terrace, known as Blackwell Mill Cottages, is disturbed only by early-morning echoes from blasting at the huge limestone quarry in neighbouring Great Rocks Dale.
Two residents of the terrace are Simon and Cheryl Ashton, who run the Blackwell Mill Cycle Hire and Tuck Shop from a wooden building on the south bank of the river. Cheryl says, ‘Our facility was opened by the Duke of Devonshire in 2011, after 8.5 miles of the former Buxton to Bakewell railway line had been converted into a cycle track and walkway. To cater for people of every age and size, we now have 100 cycles available for hire, including electric bikes and cycles with baby seats and trailers. We also hire out helmets – and we are very busy.’
By 10am on the day of my visit, lots of people had hired bicycles. They included Julie and Chris O’Neill and their children Oscar and Charlotte, who had travelled from Buckinghamshire for a holiday in Derbyshire. The track they were about to follow runs on the disused line of a railway that was constructed with immense difficulty and at great expense. The O’Neills would be cycling through two tunnels, one of 401 yards and the other of 94 yards, separated by a 50 ft-high bridge over the river and a ridge cut into the rock face. Repeatedly emerging from tunnels into daylight, they would be re-living the experience of passengers on locomotives that once ran through the spectacular valley.
MILLER’S DALE AND LITTON MILL
Cheedale ends at Miller’s Dale, a small hamlet with a little church, several attractive cottages, including the Angler’s Cottage and a pub called the Anglers Rest. The popular riverside pub serves real ales, provides good food and has a pet-friendly holiday apartment. Immediately beyond the village, a narrow road runs between the river and a series of overhanging cliffs, which provide an irresistible challenge for rock-climbers.
The cliffs end by a row of riverside cottages at the entrance to Litton Mill, a factory notorious for the harsh conditions endured by child workers, some as young as eight years old, who were employed there. Elias Needham and Thomas Frith, who built the mill in 1782, had difficulty in recruiting workers from local farming families, who were scornful of the new cotton industry, so they turned for help to the ‘Guardians of the Poor’ who allowed orphans in their care to become indentured apprentices. The children worked 15 hours a day from Monday to Friday and 16 hours on Saturdays, with the extra hour being used to clean the machines. Many of them were maimed or killed by the primitive machinery, with those who failed to reach adulthood being buried in unmarked graves.
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When you walk past the mill, now converted into apartments, it is easy to imagine echoes of the clattering looms that destroyed the lives of the children who once worked there. Beyond the former factory, the path runs through Water-cum-Jolly Dale, where there is a real echo from a limestone cliff that overlooks an expanse of water held back by a weir. The pool is frequented by wildfowl whose squeaks and quacks reverberate from the crag, along with the resonating voices of walkers.
CRESSBROOK – MILL, VILLAGE AND HALL
At the exit from Water-cum-Jolly Dale, there is a castle-like building that once housed the apprentices at Cressbrook Mill. When the mill was managed by William Newton, who was also known as a poet, the child-workers were treated much better than those at Litton Mill. Newton even gave them music lessons in the attic room of the mock gothic ‘castle’, which looks so eerie that it is possible to imagine that echoes of their singing can still be heard coming from the uppermost floor.
The first cotton mill at Cressbrook had been established in 1777 by Richard Arkwright, but it was rebuilt eight years later by his son after a disastrous fire. Subsequently, Francis Philips replaced the factory with a mill stretching right across the valley. Although the new building had a utilitarian function, it was designed like a very handsome country house, topped by a pediment and a lantern. When Henry McConnel became the owner of Cressbrook Mill in 1835, he erected a new village of tall gabled houses for his workers on the hillside above the factory. He also built Cressbrook Hall as his country residence. Set in 23 acres of wooded countryside, tamed and fashioned by the famous landscape gardener Edward Kemp, this stunningly beautiful gothic house, which includes a large conservatory, has been the home of the Hull-Bailey family for almost 40 years.
Bobby Hull-Bailey and her daughter Harriet, who have managed the hall for many years, have now been joined by Emily, representing the third generation of the family. Greeting me warmly when I popped in to seek more information, Emily said: ‘As well as hosting weddings, the hall is a venue for parties, corporate events, training sessions and away-days. We also serve evening meals and Sunday lunches, and we have nine holiday cottages in the grounds and three B & Bs in the house.’ After Cressbrook Mill closed in 1971, the factory became derelict, but it has now been beautifully restored and converted into much sought-after apartments. The scars in the rest of the valley have gone too, as if the Industrial Revolution had never impacted on this sublime stretch of countryside. At Upperdale, a few yards further along the valley, in the most tranquil setting imaginable, there are some delightful cottages, including holiday lets managed by the Chatsworth Estate.
When the River Wye reaches the foot of Monsal Head, it veers sharply to the right. The prospect of the curving valley from the summit is one of the most celebrated views in the Peak District. It can be enjoyed from a series of benches or from the projecting windows of the en-suite rooms at the Monsal Head Hotel, where food and drink is served at a public bar, a Stables Bar and a beer garden. Another building on the summit houses Hobb’s Café, which even has its own ice cream van to serve the many visitors who come to appreciate the fabulous view over the valley.
Ignoring the dramatic change in direction of the river, the old railway line ran straight over a five-arch, 300 ft-high viaduct. The leading Victorian critic John Ruskin was appalled by this structure. He said: ‘The valley is gone, and the Gods with it; and now, every fool in Buxton can be in Bakewell in half an hour, and every fool in Bakewell at Buxton: which you think a lucrative process of exchange – you Fools everywhere.’
Today, the valley no longer echoes to the thundering sound of locomotives and the viaduct, now part of the walking and cycling trail, is regarded as a vital component in a great landscape view!