Reader Ride: United Kingdom - The Peak District

Text: Hayley Stephens • Photography: Hayley Stephens

I'm lucky enough to live near the edge of the Peak District, the first national park to be created in the U.K. Situated at the center of Britain, its 555 square miles are within 60 miles of half the nation's population. Surrounded by Britain's once-great industrial heartland it is considered a green lung, a natural environment where millions of visitors can enjoy unspoiled countryside.

The Peak District is divided into two geographic regions - the Dark Peak in the north and the White Peak in the south. The Dark Peak consists of hard gritstone cloughs and edges. Gritstone is a water-impermeable layer of sandstone that leads to the formation of peat bogs and is characterized by high heaths and sparse vegetation. Our tour, however, starts at Cromford in the White Peak.

Cromford is the home of Arkwrights Mill, part of the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site. It is considered the birthplace of the modern industrial revolution and is the origin of the phrase "dark satanic mills." The site is in the early stages of restoration but has guided walks, several shops, and a café within its bounds.

I meet my riding buddy, Matt, at the Cromford Meadows car park. We travel briefly through the man-made gorge formed by the stark mill buildings and turn right at the crossroads to join the main A6 trunk road. The cliffs, which constrain the road, show why this area is called the White Peak. Rising steeply on either side of the valley are high, white, limestone cliffs that form a deep gorge cut by the River Derwent. We soon come to Matlock Bath, where the Victorians once flocked for its healing waters. Today it is where motorcyclists congregate in the hundreds each weekend.

Heading out of Matlock we head to the village of Rowsley, where we turn onto a minor road that takes us past Chatsworth House, the Palace of the Peak. It is a fantastic house of treasures, and in its garden is the Emperor fountain, the highest gravity-fed fountain in the world. As we sweep out of Deer Park we catch our first glimpse of the gritstone edges that characterize the Dark Peak, but we skirt around them and head over to the high moors.

Following the signs for Sheffield and the A621 through Baslow we are on a fast-sweeping, exposed road with panoramic views. As we approach the end, the bends begin to tighten and present some of our first small challenges. Eschewing the delights of Sheffield we turn at Owler Bar, onto the B6054, a mostly straight road that turns into the A6187. We suddenly find ourselves falling as Surprise View, the first of the awe-inspiring sites along this route. The following stretch is a fairground ride of a road as it undulates and sweeps down the steep valley side.

We head to the village of Hathersage, which is famous for its historical and literary connections, most notably as the claimed burial place of Little John, Robin Hood's mighty companion. Charlotte Bronte was also a visitor, and the village features heavily in "Jane Eyre". It also lays claims to the finest fish and chips in the peak at the Pool Café.

From here we head to Castleton, a village of caverns, a Norman castle (actually a royal hunting lodge), and source of the unique Blue John Fluorspar. Then we rise up through the superb Winnats Pass, now the only route out of the village since the lower-lying road was swept away when the southeastern face of Mam Tor, the shivering mountain, slumped in 1977. A short ride from the top we take in the views over Edale. These are narrow minor roads and require caution.

We emerge back onto the A6187 at Hope, then turn onto the A6013 toward Bamford. This road leads us to the Ladybower, Derwent and Howden reservoirs. Turning by Ladybower Reservoir we are now on the A57, or Snake Pass, which is known for its danger. It has some spectacular views, but there are some potentially difficult corners if taken at excessive speed, and it is a busy trunk road between Sheffield and Manchester.

We emerge into the town of Glossop and find the road that brings us down from the bleak high moorland, offering some sharp bends and yet more views into verdant valleys. Near its end we ride under the spectacular, intersecting viaducts at Chapel Milton. At the roundabout we take the road for the A6, Chapel-en-le-Frith and Buxton, and follow it to the Georgian spa town of Buxton, which is a great place to stop for food.

Next, turning off the A5004, we take the single track Goyt's Lane, which has a vast range of scenery. A notable landmark is Pym Chair, named either for a nonconformist preacher or a highwayman, depending on which legend you prefer. We ride to the end of the road where it joins the midway point of the A537, or the Cat and Fiddle. You need to quickly get your rider's head on again as the Cat and Fiddle is one of the most challenging roads in the country and has many twists and turns.

At the end of the A537 is a convenient gas station, a good spot to fill up before heading south along Axe Edge Moor and passing by Flash, the highest village in England. There is a small stretch of Roman road that leads to Ramshaw Rocks. There is no sign to turn, but it's hard to miss. The rocks are accessible and offer a place to stretch your legs and check out views over the county of Staffordshire.

Next we loop back to the A53 and travel until we come to a junction with a sign for Warslow. We follow the road until we see a sign for the pretty village of Hartington, but before we reach the village we take a right by the Manifold Hotel at Hulme End. This takes us through the valley bottom then up again toward the village of Wetton, where we get a good view of Thor's Cave.

From Wetton we follow signs again for Hartington, where we stop to sample local cheeses at the Old Cheese Shop. We carry on out of the village toward the A515 and turn onto another short stretch of Roman road before finding the A5012. It's a long, sweeping road, which ends with tight twists through a tree-lined gorge and brings us back to Cromford, our starting point.

We complete our weekend by enjoying a night of fireworks for the Matlock Bath Illuminations, which we reach by taking advantage of a park and ride bus from Cromford Meadows. We have some fish and chips, watch the parade of illuminated boats on the river, and enjoy the show before heading home to our welcoming beds.

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the July/August 2011 back issue.