Hiking the Derwent Watershed

Hiking the Derwent Watershed


Posted 2023-12-05 by John Burnsfollow

The Best of the Peak

Looking south along Howden Edge – one of the clearer lines of the watershed.

Where: The watershed of the River Derwent, in the English Peak District. Beginning and ending at Bamford, Derbyshire.

What: A hike of almost 40 miles around the rim of the watershed.

When: All year round. Just keep an eye on the weather and bear in mind trails may be slippery or hard to find in winter.

How: Take the train to Bamford from Manchester or Sheffield, or drive and park in Bamford. Give yourself two days with a wild camp, or set off very, very early if you plan to do it all in a single day.

It was just after night fell on the approach to Bleaklow that I realised I’d made a bit of a mistake. The blistering sun of a late summer day had gone, and the evening brought with it much cooler temperatures. But it brought something else too – midges, loads of ‘em. These insects might be tiny, but what they lacked in size they more than made up for in numbers.

I hadn’t really put much thought into where my campsite would be. I’d aim to get roughly halfway round the loop, I decided, before I pitched up for the night. Starting from Bamford at the southern end of the watershed, this meant somewhere on the north side of Bleaklow. Now, as I padded across the spongy marshland that makes up Bleaklow’s northern shoulder, I realised that I was going to be ending the day slap-bang in the middle of a midge spawning ground. 

Any ideas of spending the night looking up at the stars, supping a well-earned beer and ruminating on this that and the other, were swiftly dashed. I picked a spot, slung my stuff together, jumped in my bivvy bag and lay munching on a sandwich in my cocoon as the invertebrate hordes massed outside. Still, at least I’d have an early night. There was another big day ahead of me in the morning.

The Peak’s Must-Do Walk

The Wheel Stones, Derwent. Edge – one of many wind- and rain-sculpted gritstone features on the walk.

If you only do one hike in the Peak District – and I heartily recommend you do more than one! – this is it. The Derwent Watershed reads like a greatest hits of the Dark Peak. The historic rock climbing destination of Stanage; the dark desolation of Bleaklow; the ragged charm of Kinder Downfall; the sweeping triple-header of Lord’s Seat, Mam Tor, and Lose Hill; the strange pyramid of Win Hill… it all here.

But it’s not an easy ride. At almost 40 miles, the circuit is difficult to do all in one go. Camp out, break it up into chunks, and take your time – do whatever you have to do to enjoy a stunning hike in one of the most remarkable areas of the country.

Part 1: Stanage Edge

We can’t condone graffiti, but still… welcome to Stanage.

Winding up out of Bamford village on steep country lanes and farm tracks, you might start to think there’s no end to the climb. But there is. Eventually, to the east, you’ll see the gritstone majesty of Stanage Edge filling the horizon.

Reaching the top of Stanage, past the rock climbers working their way up High Neb buttress, you’ll begin to understand the scale of the task ahead of you. If the weather’s clear, you’ll be able to see almost all of the Derwent Watershed from up here, rolling northwards to Bleaklow and looping back to Kinder in the northwest, and then back to Mam Tor over on the other side of the valley.

Fortunately, the going is good here. The path is easy, and relatively flat, so push on until the edge curves away to your right and you see the Snake Pass road beneath you to the north. Cross the road, then head north and west as the trail rises toward another edge in front of you.

Part 2: Derwent Edge to Margery Hill

The northern end of Dovestone Tor.

You’ll crest Derwent Edge at the Wheel Stones, also known as the Coach and Horses – the first of a number of fascinating gritstone features that dot this ridgeline, sculpted by millennia of wind and rain erosion. Further north you’ll hit White Tor, and then the Salt Cellar that overlooks Ladybower Reservoir and resembles… well, you can probably guess what it resembles.

Dovestone Tor is a fine crag of pocketed gritstone sitting just below the path on the hill top. This is where I felt the call of the grit – and the knowledge that my rock shoes were in my bag – pulling a little too strongly, and I stopped to get a quick route done. Whether you’re a rock climber or not, it’s certainly worth spending a bit of time here if you can spare it on the trek.

Roughly a mile further on is the impressive jumble of Back Tor – Derwent Edge’s highest point. (A quick note: There are two Back Tors, this one on Derwent Edge in the east, and another on the Edale skyline in the west. You'll be hitting both on this trip.) Here, the trail splits. The western fork crosses the eerie hillock of Lost Lad over to your left, named, at least according to legend, for a young boy who sadly perished in a blizzard on the high ground here many ages ago.

Visiting the cairn of the Lost Lad might be an excursion for another time, however, as you’ve still got far to go. Take the northeasterly fork for around another mile before heading west towards High Stones. This is where the terrain begins to get a little rough – keep an eye on the path, and mind how you go, and you’ll be rewarded by a new trail heading north along Howden Edge for Margery Hill.

Part 3: Bleaklow

The stillness of Bleaklow, just before dawn.

It’s difficult to take any step upon Bleaklow without thinking of the packhorses and travellers who made these journeys in years gone by. Today, barely an hour separates Manchester and Sheffield by road or by train, but once upon a time, this crossing would have been an ominous and arduous task, fraught with risk. It’s a lot more pleasant today, but Bleaklow still gives those feelings of an epic trek across desolate moorland.

Passing the 1894 Stone means you are beyond the northernmost extreme of the Derwent Watershed, and you’re about halfway around. Keep on heading west until you reach Black Clough, where the path darts southwards through the lunar undulations of the peat moors. At Bleaklow Stones, take a moment to survey just how far you’ve come, and then head west again across the plateau to Bleaklow Head, then south to Snake Pass.

Following the runnels and rivulets of water draining out from the peat, you’ll find yourself dropping down off the plateau once again, and you’ll see the familiar sight of the Snake Pass road arcing its way across the Peak. Over to your right, on the higher ground around High Shelf Stones, the wreckage of a B-29 bomber lies as a poignant memorial to the lives lost there when the American plane came down in poor visibility in 1948. If you’ve got time – and energy – to spare, go and pay your respects, but if not, it’s time to say goodbye to Bleaklow.

Part 4: Kinder

Beginning the pull up onto Kinder Scout.

Together with Bleaklow, Kinder Scout is one of the twin sentinels of the northern Peak. As you cross Snake Pass and meander along the flagstoned path of Glead Hill, you’ll see the Peak District’s highest top sitting like a battleship to the south. To say it’s a little imposing is an understatement, especially after thirty miles of walking.

From Mill Hill, you’ll drop down and begin the sharp pull-up onto Kinder Scout itself. It’s not quite as tough as it looks at first, and you’ll soon be through it, skirting the rocky western edge of the plateau, with Kinder Reservoir and Bowden Bridge several hundred metres beneath you on the right.

Eventually, you’ll reach Kinder Downfall, cut like a notch into the mountain. This is one of the most impressive sights on the Derwent Watershed – a rocky ravine, sliced from the terrain by the cascade that runs through the middle of it. When conditions are right in winter, this place can become completely frozen up, providing some of the best winter climbing in England.

Part 5: Edale and Win Hill

A moody-looking Back Tor.

This is it; the final stretch. But you’ve still got some work to ahead of you. Head south from Kinder to Brown Knoll at the head of Edale, then sweep round and eastwards to Lord’s Seat. You’re really closing the circle now, hitting the southern extreme of the watershed.

From here, the snaking dragon’s back of the Mam Tor ridge extends to your east. Follow this on well-paved paths, greeting the crowds at the trig point on the top of Mam Tor, then continuing along the soaring ridge out to the rugged escarpment of the other Back Tor, and beyond this to Lose Hill.

At the top of Lose Hill one last heartbreak for weary legs awaits – the view across the valley to the dark crown of Win Hill. The final obstacle on your circuit involves losing all that lovely height you’ve gained, dropping all the way down into the village of Hope and hauling yourself back up the other side to the summit of Win Hill. Enjoy the view. You’ve really earned it. All that remains is a slow trundle down the steep and awkward Parkin Clough, to Yorkshire Bridge, Bamford, and the knowledge that you’ve completed one of the best – and toughest – two day walks in England. If you’ve done it in a single day… well… you’re made of sterner stuff than I am.

The Derwent Watershed – A Few Things to Keep in Mind

It’s not all as easygoing as this.

  • There are plenty of great trails up here, but there’s lots of awkward terrain too – sturdy footwear is a must, and hiking poles are recommended.
  • It’s advisable to carry all the water you will need in your pack – it can be difficult to find safe drinking water up on the moors.
  • Keep to the trail wherever possible – protect the fragile ecosystems of the peat moorland.
  • Many of the locations around the watershed can get busy on weekends and public holidays in good weather.
  • Conditions can change quickly, particularly on the higher spots of Bleaklow and Kinder – bring appropriate layers and waterproof clothing.
  • Set up camp late in the evening, and break camp early in the morning – take everything with you when you leave.
  • It’s possible to start and finish the route at the train stations of Hope, Edale or Bamford, making the Watershed easily accessible from Manchester and Sheffield. Hope station is closest to the route itself.

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