Today I rode from the Cheshire plain up and over the Peak District hills on a glorious sunny September day. I ended up at home, because it was too close to justify staying anywhere else. In the morning I will get a lift to where I reached in map 119 and resume my journey with an assault on Skegness, on the Lincolnshire coast.
But back to Cheshire. Our first job of the morning was to get Jenni on a train to Manchester so she could get home and get on with her day. This was achieved 8 miles along country lanes in the small station at Goostrey. A couple of hours later she was in Hathersage. I, meanwhile, had other worldly adventures ahead of me. A couple of miles from Goostrey lies Jardel Bank radio telescope, a huge white dish that looks up into the skies. It is now a world heritage site and set up very well for visitors. The have a lovely looking cafe but it is only open at weekends after the summer holidays. I didn’t have time to do the whole tour and the planetarium; but I think I will be back. It can’t be much more than an hour’s drive from home, and it even has a rewilding arboretum project. A good day out, if you ask me. On this occasion I can only really comment on their friendly staff and their toilets. The whole place was covered with clever and witty signs relating to space and time, and the toilets were no exception. In the men’s toilets at a motorway service station you might stand and look at adverts about van rental. Here we had things like “Tinkle Tinkle Little Star” and “On the International Space Station today’s pee is tomorrow’s coffee!”. The signs at the entrance to the whole site set the tone, showing opening hours by which to “boldly go home” with the caveat that “Times may differ in parallel universes.”
Returning to the world we know, I cycled along a series of lovely, quiet lanes in the sunshine, which slowly became more undulating as we neared the Peak. After a nose around the tranquil village of Gawsworth in search of a non-existent cafe at the closed Hall, I entered the hills proper a few miles south of Macclesfield. I passed first through the pretty villages of Sutton (with its very timely open, sun drenched cafe) and Langley. A long, long time ago I did a student placement for a year in Macclesfield and I remember playing cricket out here one evening.
It gets properly steep after that, climbing first past a couple of small reservoirs and then up through Macclesfield Forest until you emerge at a hamlet called “Bottom of the Oven”. The country now is completely different from the green, leafy lanes of Cheshire. You are in classic Peak District scenery, with dry stone walls and bare, heather covered moorland high above. I could make out the shape of the Cat and Fiddle pub at the top of the famously steep and winding road that runs from Macclesfield over the top to Buxton. It is always about the first road to close in winter when it snows. That was where I was needed to go, and so I had to climb up the same road that the Tour of Britain road race followed in 2021. As I got towards the higher parts of the pass, the views to the west and south were amazing. It was a bright, clear day and you could see all the way across the Cheshire Plan, with Jodrell Bank telescope shining in the sun in the near distance, and Beeston Castle standing out far beyond where we had started the day. Behind that the hills of North Wales formed the distant horizon. To the south you saw other far-off lands like Shropshire. It was like the whole world was laid out before me in sharp relief. Stunning!
When I reached Cat and Fiddle I noticed signs of change. Literally. The pub sign spoke of distillery tours, and it turned out that this is no ordinary pub these days. In fact it is (or soon will be) Britain’s highest whisky producing distillery, with its first edition single malts due to be released in time for Christmas. Well, well. I suspect I may return.
Up here you are in remote country and within a mile or so of each other are the sources of five rivers: the Wye, which flows east down to Buxton and into the Derwent, the Manifold, which flows south and into the Dove; the Dove itself that flows one valley to the east of the Manifold through beautiful Dovedale and into the Trent; the fast-flowing Dane, which runs down into Cheshire and into the Mersey; and the Goyt, which becomes the Mersey further downstream when joined by the Etherow. The first three of these rivers end up at Spun Head and empty into the North Sea. The other two flow into the Irish Sea. This is truly a watershed. I love that kind of thing.
A fast descent down from Cat and Fiddle brought me to the spa town of Buxton, famous for its medicinal waters. The Romans knew about this and called the place Aquae Arnemetiae, meaning ‘waters of the goddess of the grove’. But it really took off in the late 18th Century when the Duke of Devonshire set about developing an inland spa resort. He began a collection of Georgian and Victorian buildings, added to over the next 150 years, to rival the likes of Bath. These include a splendid Crescent, an Opera House (the highest theatre in Britain), and what is still the largest unsupported dome in Europe over the former Devonshire Royal Hospital, now the new base for Buxton and Leek college. There is also a huge hotel, The Palace, that look like a French Chateau, and a large Georgian Parish Church. These are all arranged above the delightful Pavillion Gardens, with its stream and lake, bandstand and little train. There are pavilion buildings that house cafes and exhibitions, and a hot house of tropical plants. Add to that a range of shops, arcades, pubs and hotels, and a collection of huge stone houses in leafy settings around the town. It is positively genteel. And it is all there because of the natural spring. You can still fill your water bottles today with the slightly warm water at St Ann’s Well, the public fountain opposite the newly restored and magnificent Crescent. So I did, for the good of my health!
All of this sits at over 300m above sea level, and Buxton has its own micro-climate that is often noticeably harsher than the rest of the Peak. A cricket match was snowed off in June 1975! But it is a grand place, with its own Opera Festival and Fringe, Edinburgh style, and the Opera House has an impressive programme year-round. I know all this because I live a 30 minute drive away and have watched my kids perform in youth orchestras in Buxton, and even seen my daughter appear in a professional production at a full Opera House of 900 watching people! Oh, and taken her to many a rehearsal, too!
I had a brief stop in the Pavillion Gardens in the sun and enjoyed a local brew; but then I pushed on through lanes I know well to join the Monsal Trail, a disused trans-pennine railway line, at the old Millersdale station. From here I had a glorious traffic free ride that took me along the Wye gorge, through long, well-lit tunnels, via Cressbrook and Monsal Viaduct to Hassop, near Bakewell. This is a very popular resource and at weekends people come in their droves to cycle, walk and run along its 9 miles of flat surface. With all the dogs and push chairs that involves, it can be a bad choice for the more serious cyclist. But this afternoon it was all mine. There are six tunnels in total, so 12 if you go all the way there and back! At night, they switch the lights off and you can pass through in the dark, which is exciting and a little eerie!
From Hassop, my route took me through pretty Baslow, at the north end of magnificent Chatworth Park (the Duke of Devonshire again), and up a long climb over several miles to Owler Bar, a funny looking sausage-shaped roundabout with two pubs, on top of the moors just above the edge of Sheffield, and the boundary of the Peak District National Park. And that concluded my official ride for the day. I switched off Strava and headed back west and down the long and exciting descent to Hathersage, and home!