The Great Outdoors (UK)

Roger Butler plays snakes and ladders

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THE LIMESTONE VILLAGE of Chelmorton always looks like it is stuck in the middle of a board game. Tight networks of rectangula­r walled fields stretch either side of the main street, and you can almost imagine someone throwing a giant dice before moving their counter half a dozen blocks to the right. The path behind the church climbed steeply to meet the Pennine Bridleway and soon gave fine views over these distinctiv­e plots.

Up on Taddington Moor the walls became packs of dominoes that had been lined up ready to topple. Green horizons drifted northwards but beyond Priestclif­fe – where some of the enclosures were only a sheep or two wide –

the high pasture alarmingly dropped into emergent woodland by the large bowl of a former quarry. Until 1930 this was a bustling landscape of noise and smoke but nowadays the site is fenced off as an important nature reserve above Miller’s Dale.

Across the valley, secretive Monk’s Dale would make a suitable stage for an outdoor performanc­e of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A confusion of densely twisted trees and damp, mossy knolls led north to a small rocky tor by the junction with little-known Peter Dale. This would have to wait for another day since I turned south on a tumbledown green lane to the sleepy hamlet of Wormhill, where it was hard to believe the stories that say the last English wolf was killed nearby.

Back down at the River

Wye, impressive cliffs and tall trees shadowed Chee

Dale’s great meander by the bubbling Wormhill Springs. Subterrane­an water gushed to the surface amidst a maze of wrinkled roots, and some think a substantia­l cave system awaits discovery here. This was the sort of place where hunter-gatherers might have sought safe refuge amongst the verdant vegetation and cascading rapids.

They would have got an almighty shock if they had magically returned here a few thousand years later. Trains started to trundle through the gorge in the 1860s and the line, closed in 1968, necessitat­ed the constructi­on of tunnels and viaducts that now form part of the popular Monsal Trail. But just imagine the protests if this were planned today!

Solid stepping stones enabled progress along the base of sheer riverside crags as the narrow path pushed its way through curtains of creepers. Steps eventually led out of the underworld and up to the former railway track, where rock cuttings and limestone bluffs created more drama. Old viaducts carried the trail above the crystal-clear river and offered jackdaw-like views to inaccessib­le caves and overhangin­g cliffs.

The high viaducts to the west of Great Rocks Dale are still used by the mineral line that creaks out of the huge quarry at Tunstead and, consequent­ly, the Monsal Trail came to an end below Topley Pike. Back down by the river I enjoyed the cool shade of alder trees and watched a dipper as it busily gathered its underwater afternoon tea. Chee Dale had effortless­ly merged into Wye Dale and now the steep cowslip-studded slopes of

Deep Dale lay south of the A6.

After crossing the road I forked right near Churn Hole to follow a cress-filled brook into a blaze of buttercups. A redstart flitted from bush to bush and seemed intent on guiding me towards Thurst House Cave. This looked like a chasm in a pale-grey tooth but the path soon rose above the crags to meet the walled enclosures on the west of Chelmorton. Once again I thought of board games: if the wriggling dales had been the snakes then these rigid field patterns were the ladders. [Captions clockwise from top] Warm evening sunshine near Chelmorton; Looking along the stepping stones beneath the overhangin­g crag in Chee Dale; A classic patchwork of limestone walls seen looking north from the slopes above Miller’s Dale; Looking north over the White Peak from the hills to the south of Miller’s Dale

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