Exploring the unspoiled villages of the Dane Valley
PUBLISHED: 00:00 15 June 2018 | UPDATED: 09:38 15 June 2018
Looking for somewhere new to explore this weekend? Why not follow Mike Smith to the unspoiled villages of the Dane Valley.
Axe Edge is a large expanse of wild moorland southwest of Buxton that is shared between Derbyshire, Cheshire and Staffordshire and is the source of five rivers: Dove, Manifold, Wye, Goyt and Dane.
Whereas four of these waterways enjoy celebrity status, the Dane is little known in comparison. Although it may be a quiet, unassuming river, it has managed to carve out a valley of exquisite beauty on its meanders through the moorlands of the Peak District’s ‘Wild West’. The river passes through two delightful hamlets, runs close to some of the finest country inns in England and is the gateway to an ancient forest.
The tiny hamlet of Wildboarclough is best approached by following a steep side road from the A54. On its descent, the road passes three remarkable buildings. The first of these is Crag Hall, the country retreat of the Earl and Countess of Derby. Until recently, the house was used exclusively by themselves, their friends and family, but is now available for hire to large groups choosing to gather in a location with breath-taking views dominated by the shapely peak of Shutlingsloe, known as ‘the Matterhorn of Cheshire’. The mansion can accommodate up to 21 guests who enjoy the services of a housekeeper and a chef.
Standing imposingly on a hillside below the hall, the picturesque church of St Saviour’s was built by the 16th Earl of Derby to celebrate the safe return of his sons from the Boer War. The church is unusual, not only in having gabled dormers, but in possessing a tower with a prominent battlemented upper stage. An even more unusual building is to be found a little further down the road. This is a stately three-storey structure whose symmetrical frontage has a central clocktower with an arched doorway surmounted by two 25-pane windows.
Built as the administrative centre for a calico-printing factory established in Wildboarclough by George Palfreyman in 1800, it was later used as a post office and became known as ‘the most imposing village post office in England’.
A rather less ostentatious but equally unusual building is a terrace of riverside cottages originally built for workers at the printing factory. The row’s most striking feature is an array of arched windows with Gothick tracery. Just outside Wildboarclough, which claims to be the place where the last wild boar in England was killed, is a 17th-century farmhouse that is now the Crag Inn. The pub serves local beers and locally-sourced food. It opens at weekends and on bank holidays.
Wildboarclough is the gateway to Macclesfield Forest, the last remnant of the ancient Royal Forest of Macclesfield. This western area of the Peak offers wonderful opportunities for walking, orienteering, horse riding, cycling, mountain biking, fishing and bird watching.
In a remote fold at the heart of the forest, there is a small hamlet called Forest Chapel, set around St Stephen’s Church and two buildings that originated as a school and a teacher’s cottage. The church, a simple building enlivened by a saddleback tower with a louvred bell opening, is famed for its annual rush-bearing ceremony, a ritual dating back to the days when rushes on the floor of the church were renewed each August.
Today, the annual decoration of the building with rushes symbolises ‘spiritual renewal’.
The Stanley Arms occupies another hollow in the forest known as ‘The Bottom of the Oven’, a name now borrowed for the title of the best-known dish on the pub’s menu: Bottom of the Oven Lamb. A barn conversion next to the popular pub has seven en-suite bedrooms and provides accommodation for travellers who come to enjoy an idyllic country break.
The road leading southwest from Wildboarclough runs alongside a delightful stretch of the River Dane before making an undulating journey over the wild moors to the village of Wincle. The village school, which also takes pupils from Macclesfield Forest and Wildboarclough, is operating very successfully to its full capacity of 40 pupils, with an additional 12 pupils in a pre-school unit known cutely as Twincle, ‘a pre-school for little stars’.
The school stands adjacent to St Michael’s Church. As a carving above the priest’s door testifies, the church dates from 1647, but it was rebuilt in the 19th century when it was given a battlemented tower similar to the church at Wildboarclough. At the time of my visit, Chris Tandy, a joiner from Gradbach, was constructing a finely-crafted new internal porch with a glazed window, as well as a toilet and a kitchen. As Chris explained, ‘The aim is to greatly improve facilities at the church, not only for churchgoers but also for the schoolchildren who often make use of the building.’
Wincle contains some picturesque cottages and a pub called The Ship, well known for its wonderful atmosphere, traditional cask ales and fine food. The inn sign features ‘Nimrod’, the vessel in which a local man called Sir Philip Brocklehurst sailed with Sir Ernest Shackleton to the Antarctic. Standing alongside a large green area next to the River Dane is the Wincle Brewery. Now in its tenth year of operation, the brewery makes ‘eccentric English ales’ with catchy names, such as Wincle Waller, Rambler, Wibbly Wallaby, named after the wallabies that once ran wild on the nearby Roaches, and Sir Philip, a beer which commemorates Wincle’s Antarctic explorer.
Brewery manager Justin Bowler showed me photographs from last year’s Wincle Festival, which takes place this year on 29th and 30th June. The local festival was revived by the brewery and is now promoted by them as ‘the most beautiful beer festival in the world’. This is no idle boast, because the scenery in the riverside location where the event takes place is absolutely stunning. At the times when revellers are not competing in tugs-of-war for prizes of cask beer, sheep graze peacefully in the meadows and cows wade lazily through the waters of the river below Danebridge.
ALLGREAVE AND GRADBACH
At Danebridge, the river finally leaves the Peak District National Park. The return journey to Axe Edge can be made by driving along the A54 through a series of hairpins. At Allgreave, one of the most severe bends in the road skirts around a former Methodist chapel, which closed in 1999 when the congregation had dwindled to just two members. Unfortunately, efforts by the chapel’s trustees to convert the building into holiday accommodation came to nothing.
The former chapel is overlooked by the Rose and Crown Hotel, built in 1790 as a turnpike inn and now an idyllic country inn run by Ian and Linda Rottenbury, the most affable hosts you could possibly wish to meet. With fine bed and breakfast accommodation, superb home-cooked food, very obliging bar staff and a garden with tables commanding fabulous views over the Dane Valley, this is the perfect place to seek refreshment on your return journey.
A side road that leaves the A54 next to the hostelry runs across a remote stretch of moorland to Gradbach, where a large former silk-spinning mill and an adjacent farmhouse have been converted into accommodation. There are 13 bedrooms in the mill and seven bedrooms in the adjacent farmhouse where there is a hot tub in the garden. An outdoor café also operates in the summer months.
Duty manager and chef Matt Mycock, who showed me the lovingly-converted interior of the mill, said: ‘People who enjoy walking and active pursuits come here, as do those simply seeking a place where they can breathe fresh air and find relaxation. We cater for corporate clients who use the place for away-days and conferences and we host weddings, when the bride-to-be can stay in the farmhouse on the night before the ceremony and the reception can be held in a field on the banks of the Dane.’
Our journey into the unspoiled Dane Valley, majestically overlooked by Cheshire’s Matterhorn, began at the idyllic country retreat of Crag Hall and it is now ending at Gradbach Mill, a perfect hideaway for a self-catering or fully-catered break in the ‘Wild West’ of the Peak District.