Start Bowden Bridge car park (£5 in coins)
Distance 8¾ miles
Time 5 hours
Total ascent 662 metres
Difficulty Moderate, harder in bad weather
Google map of the route
We leave the car at Bowden Bridge, a nondescript small car park in a deep forested glade by a rushing stream called the Kinder. There is a pay-and-display machine that accepts money, but gives no tickets. We have the place to ourselves – unsurprisingly, as a relentless shower of sleet is being slung in our faces as we set out.
Almost 90 years ago, a much larger crowd left this same car park: more than 400 people were ready to march up on to Kinder Scout, risking prosecution and a battering from the Duke of Devonshire’s hired thugs. This is the spot where the mass trespass of 24 April 1932 began, a day celebrated by honest hillwalkers ever after, and a day groused about by get-orf-my-estate types.
It was arguably the day the idea of British national parks and trails changed from a pipe dream to an inevitability, although it did take a further 17 years to achieve. And it was only one battle in a war that continues: a conflict between privileged privacy and everyone else.
Our plan had been to emulate those pioneers and head up the ravine known as William Clough, but that route, I know, is slippery and steep and crisscrosses the stream many times, not a pleasant prospect in current conditions. So we take the easier ascent, hoping to come back that way when the weather has relented.
We follow a motorable lane that bends to the south, passing stands of pine trees and distant views of cloud-topped fells. There is no one around but down this trail comes, to our astonishment, a Bentley. Then we notice a small fishing lake tucked away behind a high wire fence with a sign saying: “No entry. Guarded by attack dogs.” I peer through the wire, but the hounds of Hooray are not to be seen.
We leave the rough road behind and the footpath starts to ascend. There are no more houses, trees or Bentleys. This is what the wage-slaves of Manchester were seeking: the feeling you get when the line is crossed and you enter the wild upper realms of tussock, tup and heather.
There is also plenty of snow in deep untrodden drifts as we follow the rough track alongside Oaken Clough and reach the medieval gritstone monument known as Edale Cross, reputedly erected by Cistercian monks in 1157. Carry on eastwards from here and you would pass the Jacob’s Ladder waterfall, but we turn north, taking the ridgeline over Kinder Low and on to Kinder Downfall. The trail is fairly easy to follow, being paved with stone slabs, although large snow drifts do occasionally complicate matters.
The Downfall is a 30-metre waterfall tucked into a deep cleft that gathers the westerly wind so efficiently that the water is frequently blown straight back up the rock, a spectacular sight worth seeing. We jump across the stream and continue through a vicious sleet storm to the head of William Clough, the narrow gulch that leads back down.
This route is so well-trodden these days that it is hard to imagine it was once off-limits to most people. Hill walking had become a popular pastime by the 1930s and the limited number of public footpaths would get crowded on Sundays, the only free day for most working people.
The well-mannered and polite campaigning of some rambling organisations had achieved almost nothing and one 20-year-old hiker, Benny Rothman from Manchester, was determined to break the stalemate. From the quarry car park he and the others – including a “special correspondent from the Manchester Guardian” – walked up William Clough and fought “a brief but vigorous hand-to-hand struggle” with the gamekeepers, pushing their way to the ridge, where they held a victory celebration.
At the head of William Clough, I do not feel victorious. The sleet is driving into my face so hard that it hurts. We are soaked through and shivering. The clough is a deep slithery defile and we have to make numerous crossings before we finally reach the Kinder reservoir, regain the road and make it back to the car – with its blessed heater.
The trespassers had better weather, but their luck ran out as they walked back into Hayfield village. Six of them were arrested and later charged with unlawful assembly. Rothman was sentenced to four months in Leicester prison, a vindictive sentence that did a lot to gather public support for the right to roam.
Whether the mass trespass helped or hindered the campaign is still the subject of debate; it certainly divided opinion at the time. In 1935, Harvey Jackson, an 18-year-old who had marched with the trespass, applied to join Derbyshire police and found himself interviewed by the man who had arrested Benny Rothman, assistant chief constable James Garrow. Reading his application form, Garrow noticed a list of hobbies and frowned. “Jackson,” he said disapprovingly, “we do not like hill walkers in Derbyshire. They are not welcome.”
That kind of attitude, thankfully, is long gone.
Less than a mile from the car park is the village of Hayfield, which the protest marchers walked through, and it has several pubs. We reach the Pack Horse, which was taken over by Luke Payne and Emma Daniels a few years ago and is making a name for itself with its great food.
A delicious cauliflower and Lincolnshire Poacher cheese soup gets me started, followed by mutton merguez sausages with lentils and roots vinaigrette. All the meat comes from the local butcher, with plenty of High Peak lamb on offer. If the food is upmarket, the ambience is still local and friendly, with a quiz night on Wednesdays, two log-burners and local hand-pulled ales – with which we raise a toast to Benny Rothman and his fellow valiant campaigners.
The Pack Horse does not have rooms, but can recommend several B&Bs and cottages in the area. We stay in one of two cottages at Overlea Farm (seven nights from £578): ours has a hot tub, which is a joy after an icy day. These spacious conversions are done to a high spec – the smart TV is linked to a Sonos sound system and iPad room controls – but best of all they are kept warm and cosy by an air-source heat pump.
• This article was amended on 12 February 2022. The waterfall Jacob’s Ladder is east of Edale Cross, not west as an earlier version said.