It’s amazing what you can do if you set your mind to it.
After many years of walking no more than 10 miles in a single walk, it was time for me to get back into more challenging hikes in Britain. Having completed the first challenge (The Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge) in May this year with two pals of similar age (we are in our early-50s), we decided to follow it up with a second hiking challenge.
But, finding a circular walk which would be long and challenging enough was a little trickier than I expected. There are plenty of linear, long-distance hikes, but not so many circular routes in Britain which you can complete in a day.
Thank goodness for Google. After an hour or so searching online, I came across The Dark Peak Challenge on ‘The Walking Englishman’ website, run by Mike Brockhurst. It’s 21-miles long with 1,286 metres to climb. It would take 8 or 9 hours to complete. Perfect.
The route is in the Peak District National Park, which is about two hours from where we all live in Lincolnshire. Being just east of Sheffield makes it easy to access.
Setting off on the Challenge
The Dark Peak Challenge officially starts in Hathersage in the south It takes in Stanage Edge (enjoyed by many climbers), Derwent Edge, Derwent Reservoir at its most northern point, before dropping south towards the Hope Valley, and back to the starting point.
We started at 7 am in Aston, because we were staying near the village, and it was just as easy to walk onto the route rather than drive to Hathersage. Our route took us through country lanes (past a stray sheep in one lane), past Bamford Mill (now flats) on the River Derwent, through fields and parkland to the north of Hathersage before heading up onto Stanage Edge.
.As we began our climb up onto Stanage Edge, we came across a group of people who were setting up an ‘electronic gate’ which clocked participants passing through it. The ‘participants’ were fell runners who were running a 26-mile course over the Peak District.
Walking over it is tough enough. But, running over it means you need to be built like a beanpole with a set of lungs the size of whale. We didn’t see any of the runners, much to our surprise, despite following the route signs for a good stretch of the the hike.
Towards Derwent Edge
After a short incline to the top of Stanage, you walk north along its edge until you get to the A57, where you turn west for a short time before rejoining the route.
After a short incline to the top of Stanage, you walk north along its edge until you get to the A57, where you turn west for a short time before rejoining the route. We saw few walkers on this section. It was still early in the morning so most walkers and runners were yet to arrive.
The next section takes you up towards the highest point of the walk, which is 516 metres above sea level. We stopped at the foot of the climb to Derwent Tors for lunch, sitting beside a dry stone wall.
The track goes past a series of grouse butts up to a ridge, where you head north again towards Black Tor. Along this ridge, Derwent Edge, you see a series of gritstone rocks which have been hewn into dramatic formations.
The path is clear, but low cloud blotted out our views, apart from an occasional window over the valley to our west.
Just south of Black Tor, the Dark Peak Challenge route heads west off the ridge towards Derwent Reservoir. It’s a gentle descent from the ridge (and out of the low cloud for us) onto a small plateau before the path drops into the valley.
If your knees get sore going downhill, this is the point where you will be glad of a pair of walking poles. It’s steep and my companions were both suffering. Fortunately, they had at least one walking pole each.
Past the Dambuster Reservoir
After dropping through woods you reach the reservoir and the track which runs beside it. After the relative isolation on the ridge, the track feels much busier. The area was teeming with mountain bikers, a few hikers, and a handful of fell runners.
The Peak District seems to cater well for the bikers, with plenty of tracks and routes for them to use. It’s popular with road cyclists too, with plenty of challenging hills to climb and cafes to visit.
We headed south towards the Derwent Reservoir dam over which the Dambusters practiced for their mission over Nazi Germany in World War 2. It’s an impressive dam, especially when you consider the technology the engineers had available to them in 1902, when started work on it.
A short distance south is the cycling centre at Fairholmes, where we stopped for a brew and an ogle at all the visitors on their bikes or herding their children and pets. It was busy, and the tea was expensive from the kiosk!
Out of the valley
The next stage is a steep climb up through woods to Lockerbrook Farm. We were sweating by the time we ascended 127 metres from the valley.
As usual, as soon as you get 100 metres away from any car park in the countryside, the number of people you see drops in a big way. At the farm, you head south along a track, past an outdoor training centre and down a steep track into the valley of the River Ashop, which feeds Lady Bower reservoir.
Next, the route climbs up through woods on a bendy, rocky track. The climb was steep enough to make us sweat. You emerge from the treeline and walk up to a crossroads of tracks, at which you turn left and follow the route of a Roman road.
After a kilometre or so, the ‘official route’ heads towards the next and final high point of the Challenge, Win Hill. We headed off the hill before reaching the top to return to Aston. This part of the route overlooks the beautiful Hope Valley whose only blight is a cement factory.
The Dark Peak Challenge took us 8 hours 20 mins of walking time to complete (excluding a few short stops). Our route was just under 23 miles long.
Equipment used on this walk