The Peak District sprawls across five counties and 555 square miles. It became the UK’s first national park in 1951. Mixing the wild moorlands of the Dark Peak and the limestone dales of the White Peak, the south-west Staffordshire corner of the national park is a patchwork of waterfalls, blanket bogs, farmland, heath and high, craggy outcrops of wind-carved gritstone.
From the Three Horseshoes pub, on the edge of the national park and near the old textile town of Leek, you can walk up the road to follow a loop along the cascading River Churnet to Ramshaw Rocks and across country to the Roaches for unbelievably big views. To avoid the roadside half-mile to start, you could catch occasional bus 16 for one stop or park near Upper Hulme. The rest of the walk is on quiet lanes, paths and tracks and is spectacular. On a fine day, energetic hikers could make it all the way through Gradbach Wood to the mossy chasm known as Lud’s Church, but I am setting off in blustery drizzle and this seven-mile route is quite adventurous enough.
There’s a wren hopping through the rosehips as I trudge by the A53 towards Buxton. Just before the gritstone millwheel above a national park sign, an idyllic path leads left to run beside the little River Churnet, with the first of several small waterfalls. The next one is near the peaceful lane that winds through Upper Hulme. Last night’s heavy rain, which lorries are now sending up as spray, has turned the streams rushing down mossy hillsides into roaring brown Niagaras.
A fallen holly tree across the stony track makes a natural archway. Occasionally, there are arrows showing that the path is part of a walking route called the Churnet Way, which starts here on the Staffordshire moors. There are sheep grazing around gnarled trees and a ruined cottage. As I walk past a farm, cocks are crowing, dogs are barking and there’s a bedraggled row of dead stoats pinned to a barbed-wire fence. They were presumably killed by a farmer to stop them preying on eggs or young game birds, but they add a macabre touch. The damp air is rich with dung and woodsmoke. I cross the fields towards the distinctive silhouette of Ramshaw Rocks, and wide Peak District views open up in all directions.
A flagstone path leads up through the heather, past a protuberant block of gritstone known locally as the Loaf and Cheese. I reach the distinctive slanted slabs at the top of Ramshaw Rocks just as sideways sleet starts to drive across them. The bleak carboniferous crags and the stunted hawthorns all seem to lean sharply away from the wind. The image of Sean Bean as Boromir in Lord of the Rings saying “One does not simply walk into Mordor” comes to mind as I wade through a boggy valley tussocked with rushes and marsh grass. Two lightly spattered fell runners overtake from behind, startlingly fast and as silent as elves, while I am squelching and swearing through the mud. Reaching a lane near Hazel Barrow Farm, I opt for a blissfully easy mile along the deserted tarmac. Heading through waterlogged farmland towards the high ridge of the Roaches, I climb beside a stream to a track along the top of the escarpment.
The Roaches, long cliffs that slope like a broken table, take their name from the French word for rocks. Walkers and climbers flock here on sunny weekends, drawn by the spectacular views across Cheshire, Lancashire and Wales. Below the escarpment, around the tentacled silver of Tittesworth reservoir, the old market towns and dark green hedges, trimming a lighter patchwork of fields, are all mapped out until they fade into distant hills.
The Wrekin in Shropshire is a lonely hill on the horizon, lit just now by a surreal and hazy gleam of sunshine. I walk past strangely shaped boulders and the atmospheric clifftop Doxey Pool, one of many local homes of a sinister nymph who grabs unwary travellers. The fell runners pass me again, swiftly and mysteriously disappearing as I begin to climb slowly down giant rocky steps into a misty coniferous Mirkwood.
The solitary hill immediately ahead of me, over a nest of drifting fog, is Hen Cloud. The local hills take their names from an Old English word clud (related to clod) meaning mound of rock. As I start to climb, Hen Cloud is suddenly drenched in brief and unearthly light, but it’s raining again as I triumphantly reach the top and half slither down a steep rocky path back to the track at the bottom. There is a gentler route, following the main track until it doubles back. There are parking places along the lane and a steaming tea room in an old stone farmhouse. I feel like some wanderer returning from a year-long quest in the wilderness who has forgotten how to interact with ordinary life.
I cover the final half-mile along the road from Upper Hulme in five minutes, pulled back to the pub by the idea of trying out the Jacuzzi, drinking coffee in a warm, dry room and heading down to the dining room for an early supper. There’s nothing puritanical about the Three Horseshoes’ crowd-pleasing dishes, which recently netted it a gold medal as Staffordshire’s casual dining restaurant of the year.
The cauliflower soup, rich with applewood-smoked cheddar, is topped with toasted hazelnuts, the chips are quadruple-cooked-crispy and the salad has plenty of dressing. By evening, I’m reminiscing enthusiastically about my ramble over the wild peaks and making plans for another walk tomorrow.
Google map of the route
Start The Three Horseshoes
Distance 7 miles
Time 4 hours
Total ascent 440 metres
Follow the GPX track of the route at Ordnance Survey
Camra-listed in 2019 as having one of the UK’s top beer gardens, the Three Horseshoes began as a modest sandstone inn by the main road from Leek to Buxton. Next to the bar is a photo of the building in the 1920s. Doom Bar and other beers from Sharp’s brewery are on tap, plus the odd guest ale like gluggable Jute from Saltaire. Beyond the stone-walled bar, the restaurant, spa and extra rooms have gradually expanded towards the fields and distant hills. The beamed, fairy-lit dining room surrounds a flaming faux-charcoal hearth with an anvil.
The food is as hearty as you could want after hiking up the rocky Roaches and down the steep sides of Hen Cloud. Sustaining breakfast options include Staffordshire oatcakes: wholemeal oaten pancakes that come stuffed with bacon or mushrooms and melted cheese.
Decor favours gold and coppery tones and fancy rooms have four-posters, whirlpool baths or even private gardens and hot tubs. One package includes the onsite Mill Wheel Spa (£25 as an optional extra otherwise). The industrial-heritage-themed spa opened six years ago along with the newest garden rooms. Besides the sauna, steam room and hot tub, it has a beach-hut-style space where you can lie on warm sand with music, essential oils and dawn-to-dusk-style lighting.
Doubles from £102 B&B, shoesinn.co.uk