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A Derbyshire road trip - Litton to Monsal Head

PUBLISHED: 00:00 11 July 2019

One of the two viaducts that carried the Midland Railway over the river Wye at Millers Dale

One of the two viaducts that carried the Midland Railway over the river Wye at Millers Dale

mike smith

Avoiding the well-known Wye Valley, Mike Smith explores the field and moorland route between Litton and Monsal Head

John Ruskin, the most influential arbiter of good taste in the Victorian era, visited the Peak District for the first time when he was a boy and returned many times throughout his life. He once described the area as 'a lovely child's alphabet, an alluring lesson in all that's admirable'. On another occasion he was more selective in his praise, saying: 'The whole gift of the country is in its glens. The wide acreage of field and moor above is wholly without interest.'

Is Ruskin's qualified assessment of the appeal of the Peak District justified? Writing in the August 2018 edition of this magazine about a trip through the Wye Valley from Cheedale to Monsal Head, I was full of praise for the spectacular beauty of the deep gorge and the echoes of the past that can be detected there. Would I have been equally impressed if I had taken an overland route between those places? Leaving the valley at the junction between Cheedale and Millers Dale, I set off to find the answer to that question.

Set high above the meeting of the two dales, there is a ghostly reminder of what was once the largest station on the Midland Line. The railway tracks were removed many years ago, but the waiting rooms have been restored and converted into an excellent café and information point. Built in 1863 at a junction where Buxton passengers could make connections with express trains running between London and Manchester, the station expanded from two main platforms to five, with the three extra platforms being added in 1905, when a second high-level viaduct was constructed over the Wye gorge. One of those viaducts is now part of the Monsal Trail, which allows walkers, horse riders and cyclists to make their way high above the river valley to Monsal Head.

I would be making my way to Monsal Head by following a looping road route over the limestone plateau of the White Peak, calling off initially at Litton, one of the most unspoilt villages in Derbyshire. In the 1990s, when the little settlement was in danger of being destroyed as a living community because the village shop and post office were threatened with closure, the villagers got together to save these two vital facilities. Securing funds from the East Midlands Development Agency and the Countryside Agency, they acquired and refurbished the former village smithy as a Post Office and Community Shop.

Stone walls near LittonStone walls near Litton

The shop is managed by Carol Millington on behalf of the Litton Village Shop Association (LVSA). She is supported by almost 30 local people, including Carol's mother Judy Cooper, who serve in the shop on a rota that covers every day of the week. Enthusing about the success of the store, Carol said, 'We try to provide a little bit of everything, from essential food products, beer and Bradwell's ice cream to plants, cards and stationery. And we have a good range of books donated by the villagers, who also make great cakes to serve in our little café, where people can relax and gossip.'

Litton is something of a rarity in retaining all the ingredients that make up the picture of the ideal English village most of us carry in our imagination. Its neat stone cottages are set picturesquely around a village green on which there is a simple obelisk-style cross mounted on four steps. A popular inn, called the Red Lion, has three cosy rooms with blazing log fires and dispenses traditional hand-pumped ales. Food is served every day and there are two guest bedrooms to accommodate the people who choose to stay in this idyllic country location.

The village hall, which is also the venue for a Branch Surgery, is run by a committee that takes bookings from exercise classes and private parties. There are two places of worship in the village, Christ Church and the Methodist Chapel, and the C of E primary school, classed as 'Outstanding' by Ofsted, provides education for 50 lucky pupils. During Wakes Week, the pupils contribute to the traditional atmosphere by dressing in Victorian costumes to perform country and maypole dances.

The viaduct crossing Monsal DaleThe viaduct crossing Monsal Dale

The fields surrounding Litton are subdivided by a mesmerising myriad of stone walls that form fascinating geometric patterns on the limestone plateau. A dry valley to the north of the village contains a sugarloaf-like limestone outcrop known as Peter's Stone. This prominent feature is also known as the Gibbet Rock, because the bodies of people hanged for serious crimes used to be placed on a gibbet and displayed there. The last body to suffer this indignity was that of Anthony Lingard, who had been executed for the murder of Hannah Oliver, who lived at the toll house at Wardlow Mires, a small hamlet located in a dip in the road that crosses Tideswell Moor.

Wardlow Mires is a welcome oasis for travellers crossing the moorland road, because it contains a café called the Yondermann and a 300-year-old pub with limited opening hours called the Three Stags Heads, where there are two small rooms which have stone-flagged floors and are warmed by an ancient range. As one visitor reported, 'There is a tangible feeling of times past.'

A road running away from Wardlow Mires cuts through the village of Wardlow as it climbs to the higher reaches of the plateau. Wardlow is a classic single-street settlement, with farms and cottages flanking the road. The Church of the Good Shepherd has been a place of worship for the hamlet since 1873, but the adjacent former village school now serves as a village hall and Sunday school.

The countryside surrounding the village may look unremarkable at first sight, but many of the fields are pockmarked with mounds, hillocks, hollows and the capped shafts of former lead mines.

After leaving Wardlow, the road reveals sublime views across the fields towards Longstone Edge, before dipping slightly towards Monsal Head, a noted beauty spot commanding a spectacular view over a loop in the River Wye. The view can be appreciated from public seats overlooking the valley or from the projecting upper-floor windows of some of the seven guest bedrooms in the Monsal Head Hotel. Good food and real ales from local breweries are served in the hotel and at the adjacent Stable Bar, where customers sit among the horse tack and hayrack.

Another building on the summit is Hobb's Café, acquired in 2006 by Rose and Ray Lambe, who opened up the rooms at the front and made them into tea rooms serving delicious food and turned a rear room into an attractive craft shop. The building was erected in about 1850 for use as an office and a bunkhouse for navvies constructing tunnels and a viaduct built to carry the Midland railway line 300 feet above the bend in the river. The former railway track is now part of the Monsal Trail.

Criticising the construction of this viaduct across the beautiful valley, Ruskin 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.'

Tastes have changed since Ruskin's day, with the viaduct now being protected as a listed structure. If Ruskin was wrong about the viaduct, was he wrong about the land above the valleys being 'wholly without interest'? After following my looping high-level road route from Cheedale to Monsal Head, I believe he was wrong. As we have seen, the fields and moors above are 'wholly with interest.'

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