Bleaklow is one of the great hills of the Peak District. A huge, gritstone plateau, it is often overshadowed by its southern neighbour, Kinder Scout. Kinder Scout is slightly taller, but Bleaklow is slightly larger in terms of area.
This walk can be completed in a day, and starts and finishes at railway stations, so there is no need for a car. Glossop is less than an hour from Manchester by train, so is in easy reach of most of the North West of England.
When taking on Bleaklow, you need to be prepared. As a large hill in the Peak District, it is not unknown for it to be subject to strong winds, low clouds and rain. A map and compass are a must1, as is food and good walking gear, including waterproofs. Also recommended is a walking pole and, of course, a camera. The best map is the Ordnance Survey Explorer map at 1:25000 scale. OL1 is the map that covers the area.
Glossop train station (Grid Reference SK035941) is a pretty little terminus in the market town of Glossop. You can either leave the station, turn right down the hill and left onto the main A57 road, or use your map to navigate your way through the various footpaths of the town and onto the A57. Heading east on the A57, the road will go gently uphill and is a nice chance to warm your legs up after sitting on the train for a while. A mile into your walk, you should pass the neat wooded peak of Shire Hill on your left. The A57 then turns sharply to the right at Woodcock farm. A track with a footpath carries straight on from this corner, and you need to say goodbye to the road to follow the track.
Along the track there is a modern, wheelchair accessible kissing gate. Do not be fooled, however - this route is not wheelchair accessible.
The track splits in two here - the left hand side descends to Mossy Lea Farm, while the right hand track stays slightly higher, meeting another footpath at the confluence of a couple of streams. This new footpath is Doctor's Gate, and it'll start the climb of Bleaklow. You’re now at about 220 metres above sea level, having started from 160m.
Doctor's Gate path (Grid Reference SK085935) is a Roman Road that linked the Roman Forts of Ardotalia (also known as Melandra) near Glossop and Navio near the village of Hope. There are a number of legends about where the path got its name, including one where a doctor had to race the devil to escape his power. The path itself is classed as a bridleway, so you can expect horses and cyclists to use it.
The path follows the Shelf Brook along the base of Shelf Clough (a clough is a steep sided valley formed by a stream) until you reach a small footbridge. The area around the bridge can be extremely muddy and it isn't unknown for the bridge to be missing slats. You’ve now walked 2.8 miles (4.5km). If you look up and to your right, you may see some stones on the edge of the hill, high up. We'll meet them later.
As you rise out the valley, much of the land becomes Access Land, meaning that you don't have to stick to the footpaths and can wander cross country. If you are feeling brave and fit, you can march straight up the side of Bleaklow to the stones, but we'll make a detour to somewhere a bit flatter.
Having crossed the bridge, the path now climbs uphill, crossing a few streams. It’s here where the path becomes tricky, and you will find yourself looking down sheer drops where the path has narrowed to a couple of feet across and the edge has fallen away. It's now that you can curse Roman road builders and wonder who thought that this needed to be wheelchair accessible.
Having negotiated the final steep part of the path, you reach a plateau where the Doctor's Gate carries on in a cutting. We’re now at 510 metres above sea level. As you carry on for a few hundred metres, you will reach Old Woman, where Doctor's Gate meets the Pennine Way. You’ve now walked 4 miles (6.5km).
The Pennine Way National Trail is one of the most well-used long-distance footpaths in the country, starting in Edale, just south of Kinder Scout, and carrying on all the way to Scotland. Just because it is long and popular, do not mistake it for being easy, as you'll find out. At Old Woman, you can look to your right and see the dark mass of Kinder Scout in the background. Between you and it is the A57, at the top of Snake Pass, and Featherbed Moss, a moor that links Kinder Scout and Bleaklow.
At 633m high, Bleaklow is only 3m lower than the highest peak in the Peak District, Kinder Scout. Bleaklow’s prominence, that is the distance from the top to the lowest contour line that doesn't enclose a higher peak, is 128m. If it was 150m, then Bleaklow would be classified in the Marylin list, one of the major listings of hills and mountains in the country2.
Bleaklow, like most of the Dark Peak area (the northern half of the Peak District), is made of Gritstone, which water can’t sink in to. As such, peat bogs have developed on the top of Bleaklow and the surrounding hills. You need to be very careful with naked flames near peat, as a fire can smoulder away under the surface for a long time, spreading over a large area before coming to the surface.
As you head northeast on the Pennine Way, the path will start to enter groughs - these are water eroded channels in the peat. By now the top of the peat will be above head height, so walking in these channels means that you won't be able to see much of what is around you. This is assuming that you're not already in a cloud - clouds do like hanging around on Bleaklow. Being able to use a map and compass now is very useful, as the groughs can form a bit of a maze, with channels splitting and joining up again.
About 5 miles in, the path will turn north then northwest as it comes to the steep V-shaped valley of Hern Clough. Now it's time to leave the Pennine Way for a detour. We need to head directly west - there is at least one grough that takes you there - heading for Higher Shelf Stones.
As you approach grid reference SK090949 you'll begin to see scattered debris on the ground. These are the remains of 'Over Exposed' a reconnaissance version of the Boeing B29 Superfortress bomber. It was on a trip from Scampton near Lincoln to Burtonwood near Warrington. In poor visibility, flying on instruments only, they believed they'd gone over Bleaklow, and so decended for the approach to Warrington. In thick cloud, they didn’t see the ground coming. All 13 crew were killed. The remains are a memorial to the lost airmen. The sober and haunting sight of broken engines and undercarriages adds to the spooky atmosphere of this hill.
A quick trip southwest takes us to Higher Shelf Stones. These are the rock formation you have been able to see from Doctor's Gate. From here you can see down across the Valley and into Glossop, Manchester and beyond. You may, if you are lucky, be able to see Snowdon and the mountains of North Wales. The Trig Point, the small column used by the Ordnance Survey to help map the shape of the British Isles, is at a height of 621 metres above sea level.
Now we are really going to take on Bleaklow - we are heading North, past Hern Stones and onto Bleaklow Head. There isn't a footpath as such, and we are now heading cross country. This is the part where a walking pole is very useful if you want to avoid being Bleaklowed, that is finding yourself waist deep in a bog after having stepped on the wrong bit of mud.
The landscape between here and Bleaklow Head is relatively flat, but it is very, very boggy. Extremely boggy. You cannot overemphasise how boggy this landscape is. It is quite easy to spend 20 minutes trying to navigate across 10 metres of terrain. How fun is that?
Reaching Bleaklow Head (Grid Reference SK111929) you've now done 6.5 miles (10.4km) or probably a bit more depending on the route you took up Bleaklow. This is the highest point of the hill, and is a large clearing. A pile of rocks and a post marks the top of the hill at 633 metres. A third summit (after this and Higher Shelf Stones) is about a mile to the east at Bleaklow Hill (height 630m). Bleaklow's summit is remarkable for how poor the view is. As Bleaklow Head is a vast plateau, you don't get the sweeping panoramas that you do from more pointed peaks or even from Higher Shelf Stones. Still, you've made it - well done. Time for a pat on the back, a drink, a banana and a quick dance on a mound of peat.
Back on the Way
We rejoined the Pennine Way at Bleaklow Head, so now we need to look for the signs of the path heading northeast. It will soon head north and, with this, it starts going downhill. The path is a vague approximation of being paved, consisting of rocky steps. It now heads east as it runs alongside Wildboar Grain. The clough formed by the Grain should be on your left - if not, you've fallen in.
The descent is taxing, if not actually tricky, and is quite long. After a mile or so, you’ll come to a fantastic peaceful corner, where a stream from the left meets the stream you've been following. It looks like the Pennine Way carries on to the right around the bend. It doesn't. You have to ford the stream then climb up the muddy 5m cliff on the other side. Now you learn that the Pennine Way is not a piece of cake!
At the top, you walk for another hundred or so metres, before taking a footpath to your left, heading east. The Pennine Way now carries on into the valley and on to Black Hill. We've now covered 7.7 miles (12.4km) and are at 490 metres above sea level.
A Brown Moor
This area is marked on the map as Harrop Moss or Glossop Low. Whatever it is called, it is a vast brown moor. It is quite muddy, but thankfully there are a load of wooden boards over the muddiest parts of this leg. In fact, the best way to navigate this is to try to spot the next bit of wood and head that way.
To your right as you start is Torside Castle, a raised patch of ground that looks like it would be the perfect site for a castle that could command the valley below. Despite the change in colour of the ground here, it is no longer thought to be a Bronze age Earthwork, but rather a natural feature.
In front of you in the distance is Manchester, and the skyscrapers peering up over the smog of the city. On a good day you can also see Liverpool and the massive cooling towers of Fiddler's Ferry Power Station near Widnes.
We are heading for the top of a small hill, the last proper bit of climbing of the day. At the top, there is a small shack and various detritus. The hill tops out at 481 metres above sea level, and by now you’ve done 8.7 miles (14km).
We can now take the track down towards civilisation. As we descend, the brown moor turns to farmland populated by sheep, horses and cows. To your left is Cock Hill, and another Trig Point about a kilometre from the track. If you fancy 'bagging' the Trig Point (it is a thing) then heading that way takes you eventually back into Glossop. Carrying on along the track takes you out into Blackshaw Farm, at 264 metres elevation. You will have travelled about 10.6 miles (17km) at this point.
You can now take your tired feet and head up the farm's driveway to Woodhead Road. Cross over and there is a footpath just past the hotel. You’re now crossing a grassy field. This path joins up with another. You want to be heading west (turning right) on to the path to Little Padfield Farm. There can be a few obstructions on this path, but remember that this is a public right of way, so you are entitled to use it (having walked 18km to find a farmer has stacked a bunch of palettes in front of a stile is not a good feeling, however).
Heading southwest from the farm, you'll come to a road - turn right and head west along the road through the village of Padfield. It turns to the left as it meets the former MS&L railway line linking Manchester and Sheffield. Follow the road as it goes under the railway line and you'll soon reach Hadfield Station (Grid Reference SK024960) and hopefully a train waiting to take you back. If not, have a look around the town, the setting for TV's League of Gentlemen, but don't let on you're not a local!
The total distance for this walk is around 12 miles (19.3km) according to the map, but it is undoubtedly longer due to your having had to negotiate your way carefully over the top of Bleaklow. Hadfield Station is at 177 metres above sea level.
Points to Remember
You don't need to be super-fit to take on this walk, as there is no real climbing, just a few steep paths in places. That said, you need to be confident that you can walk 20km, as there will not be many people around to help you. Without stopping, a fit walker can do this in five hours. However, if you don't see the point of marching through the countryside without taking time to admire it, then it can easily take a few hours longer. You need to have enough water to last you the day and enough food to keep you going.
Be aware that the weather on Bleaklow can be different to that at low levels. It will be colder and the wind will be stronger. It isn't unknown for a cloud to settle on the hill. You need to be prepared for it. During the winter, snow settles on the Peaks when it doesn't settle in nearby towns and cities.
In general, when walking in the countryside, you should not only look at the weather on the day, but on the previous few days, as rainwater can take a day or two to find its way into streams. Since you will be fording the occasional stream on this route, bear that in mind. On Bleaklow, water doesn't permeate into the rocks, so it will stay in the peat bogs at the top for a long time after the rain, so be wary of getting Bleaklowed even if it hasn't rained for a week.
There is quite a variety of wildlife that makes its home on Bleaklow. One of the birds you are likely to encounter is the Red Grouse. This is a game bird and Grouse hunts occur on certain parts of the hill. Watch out for signs warning you of shoots going on.
The very accessibility of Bleaklow is one of its dangers - you can park on Snake Pass and find yourself on the hill pretty quickly, and it is just a short drive from Manchester and Sheffield, within easy reach of most of Yorkshire and the North West. People can be complacent, because Bleaklow isn't sharp and pointy and they think that as it is slap-bang between two large English conurbations that this is a hill that doesn’t deserve respect. You can easily run into people wandering aimlessly on the top, without a map or compass, in pink wellies, with no idea how to get back to their car. And that's when the hill is not covered in cloud.
Despite, or maybe because of the challenges, this is a very rewarding walk - the scenery switches between spectacular, beautiful and other-worldly. Like most of the walks in the Peak District, the nature of the walk can switch from one day to the next.