Slow Travel The Peak District - the joys of staying local for your adventure
PUBLISHED: 00:00 16 July 2020
How lockdown helped bring what’s on our doorstep into sharper focus.
From the Silk Road in Uzbekistan to the medieval tower houses of Svaneti in Georgia - places I’d visited just months previously as a travel writer - my world had shrunk to a few square miles surrounding my hometown of Matlock. I was in lockdown.
At first I felt hemmed in, but slowly I discovered an unexpected freedom in emptying my diary, seeing no-one, going nowhere and savouring each outdoor moment in the gentlest of springs.
As author of Slow Travel The Peak District, I’d appreciated the joy of walking and cycling locally. Researching the book, I’d spent months exploring the Peak District’s hidden corners and unsung heritage. But lockdown was forcing me to travel even more slowly, even more locally. I started to comb pathways within walking distance of my front door. I shared photographs of my discoveries on social media. Some Matlock friends were inspired to follow in my footsteps - or share details of places I’d missed.
Gradually, I realised I didn’t need to travel to exotic places: I’d found adventure on my doorstep. Lockdown was giving me the freedom to meander, to dream, to stop and breathe. I could lie down on a grassy slope (there was no hurry), close my eyes, listen to birdsong and allow time - or at least my footsteps - to stand still.
I tuned into the landscape surrounding me as never before. I paid more attention to the topography of my local area: how dale connects to dale; woodland to hilltop; ridge to field. I listened more carefully to the songs of the sky; observed more closely the flora at my feet. I started to appreciate how landscapes change, not just from season to season, but from day to day.
The 1,109-foot high Masson Hill fills the front window of my home. From the armchair, I can follow the line of ridge across the sky from the Heights of Abraham tower to a fairytale-rounded clump of trees. From there, the summit opens up to meadow before dropping down to Salters Lane. I’d never stood on the highest point of the ridge, much less explored the curious tuft of woodland.
For the first time, I ventured to the high point of Masson Hill. My son and I sat on the ridge top, the land falling away to a Matlock in miniature; the moorlands rippling out to the Dark Peak. It was enough. It was more than enough. And somewhere on the hill a willow warbler filled the air with sweet cascading notes, while a sand martin wheeled across the sky before dropping to a quarry hidden from view.
‘Did you go into the walled woodland on the top?’ a friend asked. ‘You’ll find a circle of daffodils at this time of year.’
We climbed the hill again and found the woodland. At the heart of the copse, a perfect circle of daffodils echoed the curve of the drystone wall enclosing it. Who had planted the flowers? I was unable to find out, but I didn’t mind - I liked the mystery of this curious place.
My son and I continued to explore Masson Hill. When we started out on our lockdown walks, the pathsides were scattered with modest clumps of primrose, celandine and wood anemone. Soon, the blues and purples of bluebells, speedwell and forget-me-nots were recolouring the spring landscape. Birdsong that had begun with a single, hesitant voice, became a trio, quartet and quintet, then a heady symphony.
We discovered a littering of industrial heritage on Masson Hill - disused mines, air shafts and Q-pits on kiln sites. We found a capped vertical shaft (there are many on Masson Hill) with a winch and rusting tractor engine. We stumbled on a ruin with thick walls and decorative castellations, returning to nature in the undergrowth, possibly an engine house.
Next, we explored the other side of our valley, heading up the narrow path beside the Gothic Jackson Tor House (once a hydro hotel) and into Hurker and Farley woods. We skirted fields and dropped down to Sandy Lane through soft, pine-needled floors.
Across the golf course on Cuckoostone Lane, we stumbled on a vineyard. A friend informed me Cuckoostone Lane is the best place to hear the eponymous bird around Matlock. We returned one early evening and wandered along the lane, listening out for that iconic, soporific spring sound. The air was still and warm, but no cuckoo. Then that distant two-note call - a smudge on the air, its call growing sharp and clear as we drew closer. I wondered how long Cuckoostone Lane had existed. How many decades, centuries even, had the cuckoo favoured this place?
The same friend told me that Bottom Moor Woods next to the lane was a good spot to hear the nightjar. We made our way there one evening as the sky drained of light. The blackbird and song thrush echoed through the conifers but there was no sign of the nocturnal bird. We skirted the new plantation, then heard a short, low-level whirring sound, so brief and subdued we were not sure if we had imagined it. Then, as darkness descended, a clear, sustained sound rumbled across the saplings like a clockwork toy. There was no doubt - it was the unique sound of the nightjar.
I continued to post pictures of my ‘lockdown walks’ on social media, as did others. It was clear that the nation was learning to appreciate the treasure on their doorstep - we just needed to look more carefully. Another friend asked if I knew of Bailey’s Tump, a World War II air defence site on the corner of Asker Lane and Bull Lane in Matlock. I didn’t. Another walk, another piece of local history slotted into place. We marvelled at the raised circular enclosures, ramparts created to protect equipment and soldiers and to bring down enemy aircraft that threatened Sheffield and its important wartime steel industry.
This small but crucial site contained everything from a Stanton shelter to a sound locator and powerful searchlight. In the winter of 1940, it managed to bring down an attacking Dornier bomber, crashing close to Great Longstone, ten miles away.
As our lockdown walks continued, spring gave way to early summer and fading bluebells yielded to creamy sprays of hawthorn and cow parsley. By the middle of May, lockdown was eased and we could travel as far as we wanted within a day. But I wasn’t sure - there was more to discover on my own patch. Much more.
Helen Moat is a freelance travel writer and author of ‘A Time of Birds’, published by Saraband