If you don’t already know it, the Peak District can be a dauntingly large area to explore. Beginners often gravitate towards familiar names like Edale and Kinder Scout, but I prefer some of the less-well-known areas further south, which may not have the sweep of the moors but isn’t as busy either.
And rather than rely on the more famous Pennine Way, too often an unrelenting if virtuous slog, far better to follow the Limestone Way, created by locals to show off their landscape. Just as the Dark Peak area to the north of the Peak District national park is on gritstone, the White Peak area in the south is so called because it is on paler limestone.
The Limestone Way runs for 46 miles from Castleton down to Tissington and then on into a flatter stretch in Staffordshire, so needs careful selection to find the perfect day’s walk. My favourite, very achievable, outing starts at the pretty village of Youlgreave on the River Bradford, just south of Bakewell, then heads south across a well-waymarked route. After crossing Harthill Moor, you come to the outcrop known as Robin Hood’s Stride, nicknamed locally “The Mock Castle” as Robin was supposed to have scaled its turrets by leaping lightly in his green velveteens from one enormous boulder to another. This is one of the last gritstone outcrops as you head south, an outlier from the Dark Peaks.
From the top of Robin Hood’s Stride, there’s a perfect sightline to a small, prehistoric stone circle in the field below. I can see why our stone-age ancestors felt at home in this area – it has an unusually high concentration of prehistoric remains. There are even traces of a prehistoric road, which the Limestone Way follows. For the route now takes the Portway, one of those ancient tracks where for thousands of years humans, horses and cattle have combined to create a path with momentum that contours intuitively across a landscape.
As Stephen Bailey points out in his excellent short book, The Old Roads Of Derbyshire, the Portway shows that it predates even the establishment of the villages in the area by the Anglo-Saxons as it does not run between them, which it would if it had been created since.
The route follows a timeworn holloway that generations of travellers and their animals hollowed out between the line of ash and oak trees. Part of it is now called Islington Lane, after the lost lead-mining village of Islington, which stood nearby in the 19th century; little remains except traces of spoil heaps in the fields.
When lunchtime beckons I would suggest taking a small detour past Rocking Stone Farm (which also has superb accommodation, from £188 a night, three nights minimum, discounts for longer stays) to reach another fine set of rocks in Birchover behind the friendly Druid Inn, so named because a druid is supposed to have held court sitting on the boulders.
This may be the best place to end a family walk, but adults on their own can continue along the Limestone Way as it enters one of its most beautiful stretches to the west of Winster, and then curls south and east along a high ridge offering up “prospects”, as Daniel Defoe would have said when he toured this part of the world. The sight that caught my eye was of Chatsworth way to the north, the great house surrounded by the high moors that are so often hidden when you get closer to it; Defoe thought it a waste to build such a fine house in such desolate scenery.
But tastes have changed. This walk gives the chance to appreciate some of the subtler ways in which limestone can change the landscape. WH Auden’s poem, In Praise Of Limestone, ends with the declaration that
… when I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.
And he makes clear what it is about limestone that he finds so attractive:
If it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones,
Are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly
Because it dissolves in water.
The way limestone dissolves gives many of the hills of the southern Peak District their particular shape – and also created the geological strata and opportunities for mining that so fascinated Auden.
Even the small stones either side of the sheep-stiles are pockmarked by vugs, little cavities of crystals that have dissolved in the limestone to leave hollows. I noticed another curious effect: the narrow stiles we squeezed through seemed to get smaller and smaller as we got higher, perhaps because the sheep get thinner at altitude – or we had lunched too heartily at The Druid Inn.
One thing I particularly like about the Limestone Way is that it is a local creation, dreamed up by walkers from Matlock who thought their area needed celebrating. It was officially opened in 1986, and unlike national trails, which are administered by Natural England, this one is waymarked and preserved by the local council.
On reaching the higher ground of Bonsall Moor, the wind turbines of Carsington Pasture are visible in the distance; erecting the turbines was considerably delayed by the large amounts of Roman artefacts that had to be excavated first. Although out of sight, you can also hear long warning blasts from the Longcliffe quarry where they are extracting limestone for powder, granules and aggregates.
Alongside the path are old workings from lead pits, such as the evocatively named Beans and Bacon Mine. In the past, local farmers often worked their land in summer and turned to the mines inwinter when their fields lay fallow. Unusually for the Peak District, many of the local stone barns have been restored; elsewhere the park authorities have discouraged this out of concern that owners might attempt to get planning permission for a holiday cottage via the back, stone-clad door.
Coming to Uppertown, I was amused by one of the most ambitious sheds I’ve ever come across. I like to think of myself as a bit of a shed connoisseur – but this was an uber-shed. Its corrugated metal sides were decorated with bric-a-brac from a thousand car boot sales, and large signs proclaimed that at one and the same time it was an RAC hostel, a small post office and a mining hut; in case anyone fell into the sea many hundreds of miles away, there was also a prominent lifebuoy, with a union jack flying nearby to proclaim eccentricity rather than nationalism.
The final stretch takes you down Stepping Lane between the lines of two dry stone walls to arrive in Bonsall at the Kings Head, right next to the village cross, for some welcome refreshments. The Limestone Way continues on from here towards Tissington, but you’ve just walked the best of it.
And if you’re still feeling adventurous, Bonsall is one of the UFO capitals of Britain – no less than 19 sightings in one year alone – so if you don’t manage to see any spinning circles overhead, you can at least enjoy a second pint at the nearby Barley Mow, where the UFO-spotters often congregate; just remember to wear an anorak and carry night-vision goggles if you want to blend in.
• A route guide to The Limestone Way is available from Derbyshire Dales district council for £3.50. YHA Youlgreave is a hostel at the start of walk; also in the village, The Old Bakery offers B&B (doubles from £85, two-night minimum) and self-catering accommodation (from £65 a night, three-night minimum). More accommodation at visitpeakdistrict.com
Hugh Thomson is the author of The Green Road into the Trees: An Exploration of England (Random House), which won the Wainwright prize