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Great British Escape: Edale, The Peak District

80 years ago, Derbyshire’s hills were a battleground for walkers’ access rights. Phoebe Smith relishes her right to roam

Back Tor is a good place to gaze down on Edale (Phoebe Smith)

Gritstone crunched beneath my boots with a satisfying crack as the wind whipped the clouds into a frenzy. Up here on the mountainside the gusts were close to 80km per hour. But as the grey mist lifted, revealing an ever-expanding panorama, it wasn’t just the breeze that was taking my breath away.

To the west, twinkling in the distance, were the lights of Manchester. Lying between was the Kinder Reservoir, its ripples catching the sun as if coated in glitter, while grassy carpets lined the surrounding hills in rich greens. It was intoxicating, it was magnificent, and – 80 years ago – walking here to enjoy it was completely illegal.

Forgive our trespasses

Arriving in the Derbyshire village of Edale that morning, it was hard to believe that a journey on foot would be met with anything other than celebration. Here signs boasting ‘Right of Way’, ‘Public Footpath’ and ‘Access Land’ greet you at nearly every turn. The UK’s first official National Trail – the Pennine Way, a 430km epic that traverses the backbone of England all the way to the Cheviots in Northumberland – starts right in Edale. Here, B&Bs are nearly outnumbered by campsites, one of which acted as my base for three days of Peak practice.

Weaving between the chocolate-box cottages, among the rise and fall of fields and hillside ruins, are walkers – and lots of them. Everywhere you look, they dot the landscape: a kaleidoscope of Gore-Tex exploring the quirky nooks and crannies that nature has created. But this wasn’t always the case.

Back in 1932 the mountain plateau of Kinder Scout, the highest hill that forms the Edale skyline where I now stood, was the backdrop for a protest against wealthy landowners who stopped people walking in the countryside.

Sick of seeing this high moorland plateau from the cities but being unable to legally access it, 500 walkers took part in a Mass Trespass. Those from Manchester started at the Bowden Bridge Quarry in Hayfield (which I gazed down upon now); others from Sheffield began in Edale – as I had. They met a little behind where I stood, on the small promontory of Ashop Head, and celebrated their success. However, on their return, five walkers were arrested and sentenced to up to six months in prison.

It’s easy to see why they chose Kinder as the site for their protest. It’s the highest thing for miles, a looming mass of gritstone seemingly held together by black peat. A network of vein-like rivers run down into the edging villages, creating visual clefts in Kinder’s otherwise impenetrable profile – and beckoning you to conquer it.

I’d followed the track from Edale up to Jacob’s Ladder, a rocky path that climbs steeply onto the Kinder Plateau – but I wasn’t alone. Despite the weather, others were treading the trail too, enjoying the freedom to explore. The Mass Trespass kick-started a serious rethink about people’s right to roam. It lead to the creation of national parks (the Peak District was the UK’s first, designated in 1951) and undoubtedly helped the passing of the Countryside Rights of Way Act in 2000, which opened up swathes of previously out-of-bounds land to the public.

“My dad would have been delighted to see that the events in which he played such an important role still have a strong resonance today,” Harry Rothman, son of the late ‘trespasser’ Benny, arrested for his central involvement, told me before I came here. I thought of him now as I passed his favourite place, Kinder Downfall, a waterfall where his ashes were scattered. Harry said that a part of Benny will always be up here; as I headed back down to Edale, treading in the footsteps of other walkers who’d gone before me, I knew that he was right.

The footsteps I followed ended at the village pub, and it seemed only right to go inside and raise a glass to those who’d made my walk possible. This particular hostelry, The Old Nag’s Head, had exposed beams, real ales and taxidermy adorning the walls. But it was also full of tributes to walkers past and present, as well as photographs and paintings of the local landscape. One particular picture of the oddly named Lose Hill peaked my interest. Despite aching legs from climbing Kinder, I found myself plotting another route for the morning.

Every one’s a winner

“Haven’t you heard the legend?” asked chief ranger Sean Prendergast, when I spoke to him at the Moorland Centre the next day. “Legend has it that in AD626, an army from Wessex gathered on Lose Hill to fight the Northumbria troop who were waiting on Win Hill across the valley. The Wessex army was bigger so boldly marched over to attack, but the Northumbrians waited and when the enemy began ascending they rolled boulders down the hillside, crushing them all to death. Of course there’s no evidence to say this is true, but…”

I decided to judge these rival hills for myself. I jumped on the train in Edale, and watched with anticipation as we cleaved through the rising landscape, before disembarking at Hope station, one stop east.

Soon I spotted the jagged top of Win Hill touching the sky. The path to its summit starts almost from the platform, and a quick but steep climb through fields and forests saw me standing triumphant on its top. From here the expanse of Ladybower Reservoir revealed itself beneath the easterly woods and the peaks of the Derwent Valley faded into the horizon. Looking west, Lose Hill sat in front of Kinder Scout like a gatekeeper guarding the Edale Valley. Its name may have implied otherwise but it looked every bit a winner from here.

There was only one way to find out which was really victorious, so I left this summit for a closer look at its opponent, picking up the path at Townhead Bridge. From the top of Lose Hill, I could see south down to Castleton, the village that boasts a network of caves and caverns lurking behind its quaint streets. The pewter remains of Peveril Castle sit on a crag above it; beneath that a cleft slices through the rock, marking the dramatic opening of Peak Cavern – the largest natural entrance to any cave in the British Isles. 

After much deliberation during my return to Edale, I decided to simply chalk the summit-duel down to a draw. As I sat in my tent porch watching the hills turn black in the night sky, I gazed at another peak that also formed the site of an epic battle – this time between man and the mountain itself. With one more day left in the valley, I carefully planned my dawn raid.

Road less travelled

From Edale, Mam Tor (‘Mother Hill’) looks nothing more than a pleasing rump in an undulating ridge. But don’t be fooled: this hill hides a darker side. To see it I headed across the valley floor at first light, and up to Hollins Cross to begin the climb to its summit. The views back down to the village were spectacular but I was more interested in what was happening to the south. Here friendly rolling slopes abruptly end, leaving a sheer drop – over a hundred metres of airy nothingness – between you and the ruins of an old road below.

That road used to be the A625 that connected Sheffield to Chapel-en-le-Frith. Since the 1800s its manmade surface dominated the grassy ramparts of Mam Tor’s lower slopes. But what road planners didn’t realise was that this mountain was made of shale, a rock that crumbles unpredictably. After a nearly 200-year battle between maintenance workers and this so-called Shivering Mountain, in 1979 the hill emerged triumphant. The road was abandoned, closed to vehicles forever.

I walked down to it, peering through the giant cracks in the tarmac. Here white lines disappear into nowhere and cat’s eyes are contorted as nature reclaims its land. As I walked uphill, back to Edale, I saw more people tracing its buckled route on foot.

When you think about it, it’s no surprise that this village and its surrounding peaks were the start-point of the Mass Trespass. Just as they did in the 1930s, hikers still come from the surrounding cities to enjoy a piece of this landscape for themselves. Laws may have changed to allow legal access to the mountains but people haven’t – not really. Here, as ever, the end of a road presents no barrier for walkers; it merely represents the start of another journey still to come.

Wanderlust magazine editor, travel writer and guidebook author Phoebe Smith grew up on the edge of Snowdonia – and has loved the UK’s great outdoors ever since.

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