The village of Birch Vale, High Peak, Derbyshire
PUBLISHED: 16:18 30 April 2010 | UPDATED: 16:13 20 February 2013
On the Sett Valley Trail, Mike Smith explores the village of Birch Vale set in a wooded valley in the High Peak.
Contrary to expectations, one of the most attractive hamlets in the High Peak is reached by following a direction sign to Birch Vale Industrial Estate. As the signpost indicates, there are several industrial units in the part of Birch Vale that is situated in a hollow to the north of the main road between Hayfield and New Mills. However, the factories are so well hidden in the deep, wooded valley of the River Sett that they make almost no impact on the charming village scene.
A few yards above the river, there is a cabin-like structure that once accommodated the village's hairdressing salon and is now the Special Touch Caf. For the past seven years, Beverley Millington has been serving up breakfasts and lunches, not only to workers at Birch Vale's industrial units, but also to the many walkers, cyclists and horse-riders who use the Sett Valley Trail, a path and bridleway constructed along the route of the former branch railway that ran through Birch Vale on its single-track journey between Hayfield and New Mills.
The caf stands close to Spinner Bottom Bridge, an ancient crossing point over the River Sett. A track leading into the woods on the northern bank of the river provides access to some engineering works and a stone lodge on the opposite side of the road marks the entrance to a large polymer factory, equally well hidden in the woods on the southern bank of the river. This modern factory occupies the site of the old Birch Vale Print Works, which closed in the 1960s.
Superbly situated on the opposite bank of the river, there is a long crescent of cottages, built in the 1830s for workers at the printworks. Although this gently curving row of houses is unusual in having a concave frontage, it is almost as aesthetically pleasing as the more famous convex crescent in the spa town of Buxton. The geometry of the terrace is further enhanced by a succession of round-arched doorways, which open onto well-tended riverside gardens.
Immediately beyond this fine crescent, a cobbled bridleway begins its steep ascent to Lantern Pike, a 1,224-ft summit that commands panoramic views of Kinder Scout and the surrounding hills of the Dark Peak. The entrance to the bridleway is overlooked by a terrace of white-washed, 18th-century cottages, carefully renovated by David Waterhouse, whose wife Jackie runs a bed-and-breakfast business at Spinney Cottage, the first and largest of the group.
Comprising three B & B rooms, the accommodation carries AA four-star rating. Many of the guests return time and time again, which is hardly surprising, given the cottage's ideal location at the foot of Lantern Pike, the warmth of Jackie's personality and the welcoming feel of the cosy dining room, where guests can enjoy homemade flapjack and relax in the warm glow of a wood-burning stove.
After leaving the riverside, the village street climbs above dense woodland towards the Sycamore Inn. One of the houses along this stretch of the road still carries a large sign betraying its former use as Birch Vale Post Office. Like many other villages of comparable size, Birch Vale lost this facility some time ago, but it has managed to retain its red telephone box, which adds a traditional touch to the streetscape.
Two years ago, the Sycamore was acquired by Gill Forrest, who immediately set about refurbishing the five en-suite rooms, installing Italian slate flooring in the dining area and re-decorating throughout in minimalist style. With daily offerings of fine, locally-sourced food from head chef Dave Oldham and sous chef Michael Hiton, the refurbished 65-seater restaurant and the 35-seater al fresco dining area have become hugely popular venues. A marquee is available for all manner of functions and the Sycamore even has a licence for weddings.
As the road climbs beyond the inn, it passes through another fine stretch of woodland. At the foot of the steep, wooded banks on the northern side of the road, there are four very tall stone enclosures. According to local historian Derek Brumhead, these odd structures were originally constructed as coal bunkers into which coal could be emptied from adits situated on the hillside above the road. However, one of the enclosures was converted to a second use. Until a few years ago, it served as a men's urinal and was listed as a county treasure!
The adits were located at a small hill-top colliery called Noon Sun, a delightful name that has been adopted by one of the roadside cottages. Beyond Noon Sun Cottage, there is a neat terrace of six dwellings, overlooked in turn by Birch Vale Terrace, built in 1870 as a much longer and more elevated row with a rather pretentious projecting gable at its centre. The lofty terrace terminates at the former Primitive Methodist Church, now converted for residential use.
All the hillside residences on this stretch of road overlook a part of the wooded valley that once contained the Garrison Bleach Works. Much of the factory has been demolished since its closure in 1968, but the remaining buildings house a small trading estate. A footpath runs through the estate, crosses over to the southern bank of the River Sett and arrives at Wilde's Crossing, where a gate-keeper was employed to control a level-crossing on the New Mills-Hayfield railway until the line's closure in 1970.
From this point, it is possible to walk up a steep, cobbled track to the Vine Tavern, which is valued for its mid-week lunch specials and its Sunday lunches. The Vine is one of three pubs in this southern part of Birch Vale. The others are the Grouse, which offers televised sport to its drinkers, and the Waltzing Weasel, advertised as 'an ideal venue for walkers or stressed business people who want to chill and be pampered'. As well as having en-suite bedrooms and a well respected restaurant, the Waltzing Weasel possesses a beer garden with a fine view of Lantern Pike. All three pubs stand alongside the main road that we left to begin our walking tour of the northern part of Birch Vale. The road is flanked by several old stone terraces and some newer residential properties. Although this southern section of the village is far busier and much more open and elevated than the cosy hamlet to the north of the River Sett, it has the compensation of spectacular panoramic views of the grey and green hills of the Dark Peak.
An alternative return route to the starting point of our walk is provided by the Sett Valley Trail, which can be picked up at Wilde's Crossing. Following the line of a railway track that once carried 18 trains a day to Manchester, the path eventually reaches the fork where we made our initial diversion from the main road towards the Birch Vale Industrial Estates. From here, it is but a few yards descent to our starting point at the Special Touch Caf.
However, it is worth continuing along the trail for a short distance until it joins a path that drops through woods to Birch Vale Reservoir. Created to service the former printworks, the lake is now the home of New Mills and Disley Angling Club. As we have seen throughout our walk, the wooded valley of the River Sett is an effective hiding place for various industrial premises that would otherwise detract from the quiet beauty of the hamlet of Birch Vale, but this particular stretch of water is a place of tranquillity in itself. It makes a fitting end to our walk through one of the hidden gems of the Peak District.