This is a story about an underdog. A sidekick, a minor character, passed over in favour of its more famous sibling, ignored by many but loved by those who know it. It’s a story about the White Peak.
Words TOM FENTON Photography ANDY HEADING
The Peak District is split into two halves: the Dark and the White. The names derive from the rocks found in each area – rough, weathered gritstone in the north, and slick, pale limestone in the south. The Dark Peak is the famous one, all craggy moorland and moody good looks. It’s the one people really mean when they refer to the ‘Peak District’, the one the Ordnance Survey honours with the number one slot in their list of maps. It’s Luke Skywalker or Hans Solo – famous and for good reason.
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One trick tauntaun.
The White Peak gets shuffled way down the OS list at number 24, even below Chichester. It’s the one everyone thinks of second, particularly where mountain biking is concerned.
It’s R2-D2. He’s awesome and saves Hans and Luke multiple times, but he’s not the first to spring to mind when you mention the Peak District. He doesn’t have the wild vistas and epic rocky loops of his co-stars. Instead, he’s got short fiddly trails that nip from village to village, hidden in the trees behind stately homes. And instead of grandiose titles like ‘Cut Gate’ or ‘The Beast’, his trails have boring names like ‘Back Lane’, ‘Flash Lane’ or ‘Vernon Lane’. Hardly inspiring, and maybe just a bit hard to understand.
But the Dark Peak has its flaws. Like an actor who can only play one character, its trails are all the same – almost universally wide, rocky and corner-free. Point your bike at them and hang on. Take the mythical ‘Beast’, a ten-foot wide eroded rocky rattle that, despite dropping down an entire hillside, fits in a whopping three corners. Or Hagg Farm, renowned for its natural hairpins… all five of them.
Of course, this is unfair. The Dark Peak does have more to offer, including singletrack – like Cut Gate, a fantastic piece of moorland riding. But, sadly, ten million people visit the Peak each year and they all head to the same parts. Riding around Ladybower on a sunny Sunday is a stop-start staccato experience, dodging walkers and families picnicking in the middle of the trail. And so Cut Gate is steadily eroding, growing wider, muddier and fuller.
But, just like R2, the White Peak is here to save the day. Any crowds are to be found hanging around the villages eating Bakewell Tarts, not clogging the trails, which are empty. And narrow. Empty, narrow and full of corners. Instead of deathgripping the bars and straightlining Dark Peak rocks, you need to actually ride your bike. Lean it about, turn corners and play around. The stuff that makes riding fun. And if you do want to pinball down a rocky trail (who doesn’t?), then the White Peak has them too. Wide ones, narrow gritstone ones, steep limestone ones. There’s variety in the trails here.
This isn’t to say that the Dark Peak isn’t great. It’s a star for a reason. It’s just that the White Peak, so often overlooked, is a remarkable little character.
To highlight just how good it is, photographer Andy and I have left our homes in Matlock, scooped up Richie, who lives over the hill, and headed out to take a look at a couple of our favourite trails.
Before going any further, I should admit that, as Andy pointed out, these trails aren’t technically in the White Peak, or even in the National Park. They’re also, if you want to be picky, on ‘dark’ gritstone. So it could be said that they aren’t particularly White Peaky. However, they’re on the White Peak map and that’s enough for me. To strengthen my argument, the Beast from the East winter storm has landed and the trails are blanketed in snow. Can’t get whiter than that.
Our first stop is Cartledge Lane, just south of Holmesfield. This, in case you’re feeling impatient and want to skip on a bit, is one of the best trails in the entire Peak District.
As you roll through the first few hundred metres, however, you might disagree. It’s wide and straight. But that means it’s also fast, and you’ll want to watch that speed because, with a sudden swing round 90-degree right hand, it narrows and ducks into the trees. Carry enough speed when the trail’s dry and you’ll barely have to pedal the whole way down. Today, with a big wind-blown drift of snow right in the middle of the corner, we’re more concerned with pulling massive sideways skids and kicking huge clouds of snow into the air. Luckily, Andy’s as much of a fan of this as we are and so we get to do it again, and again, until we’ve pushed most of the snow off the trail and are down to the frozen earth. Time to move on.
This trail isn’t technical, twisty or even particularly narrow. But it’s fast and it flows, unrolling ahead of you at just the right gradient to carry effortless speed. Relatively shallow corners need just a touch of lean, and straighter sections require nothing more than a pedal stroke or two before you’re sweeping into the next turn. Holly bushes and ivy-covered stone walls whizz by, gaps on either side giving fleeting glimpses of open fields and snowy hillsides, snatched from sight as quickly as they appear. Halfway down, the entrance to a huge badger’s sett creates a natural launch pad and blown snow lining the side of the trail creates berms that are swept around on faith rather than solid foundation.
Choose your foe.
Here and there the trail flattens and slows. When it’s wet, these sections are muddy. If you’re lucky, a dry line allows you to glide through with barely any drop in speed. If not, you’ve got to use a bit of force to get through. This is one of the inevitable drawbacks to the White Peak. To get the most out of the trails, you need to hit its seasonal ‘sweet spots’ when the singletrack is dry and clear of undergrowth. That means spring or autumn when the ground is firm and fast, and when the nettles and brambles aren’t attempting to sting, slash and throttle you.
You could let this scare you away north, fear leading you to the Dark (Peak), or you could think of R2-D2. The Empire captures your ship? Who cares. Get swallowed by some weird swamp creature in the murky waters of the Dagobah system? No biggie. Nothing stops R2 and there’s still plenty of fun to be had in winter if you’re happy to slither round corners and occasionally get dumped in a puddle. The lack of traffic means that the trails don’t take the hammering they might in busier areas and so, with a bit of care and good sense, you can get out year-round. Summer’s a little trickier. You need to don long sleeves and body armour before going out to do battle with the undergrowth. Even then, you’re lucky if you escape unscathed.
Today though, we can ignore all that and drop straight back into our snowy bobsled run, which just gets better and better. Either side, trees rise plumb-straight out of the ground before arcing overhead in a dense canopy. The tunnel they form is smooth and leafless on the inside, but thick with branches and foliage on the outside. It’s dark and quiet as we sweep onwards, the trail still rolling ahead of us and snow billowing from our wheels. I remember rolling through this trail late on a summer’s evening. Riding a singlespeed, the bike was silent and in the purple half-light between the trees, it felt like I was floating. This is not a descent to hammer along, it’s a trail to glide down.
Speed and swoop.
Eventually, the trail ends and we pop out into a thickening blizzard. The snow has muffled the countryside and the only sound is that of our tyres cutting through the unbroken glistening surface. We stop and listen to nothing at all.
By the time we reach our second trail, the snow has stopped. It’s just as well, because this is the fantastic Vernon Lane and it couldn’t be more different to Cartledge. It’s technical, right from the off. Diving off tarmac at a relatively gentle angle, you accelerate towards it, intending to pile into its narrow singletrack with barely a touch of the brakes, only to find yourself hauling on the levers as the corner tightens a little more than expected and tapers sharply to a thin strip of rocky singletrack between two huge banks of brambles.
After the initial shock, you release the brakes and choose the high rocky line over the low gully. Stay on target, hold your front wheel up over a small drop and tip your bike into a sweeping flat corner. Dry, muddy or covered in snow, finding grip here is a challenge and you’re never sure whether you’ll be dropping a foot as you drift closer to the dry stone wall than you’d like or whether you’ll nail it off the brakes and feet up. You need to feel, not think, your way around corners like this and you need to do it fast, because Richie’s just ahead, going at full tilt on one of his home trails.
I give chase as we drop down a rocky straight into what is best described as a Mega Rut, cutting a narrow line down the hill beneath a high stone wall before scything deeply around a huge holly bush. The base is littered with rocks, invisible and awkward in the snow which, although deep, is too light to have filled the holes between them. We carve up the side of the rut on a sweeping arc that carries us above the awkward rocks and smoothly around the next corner. I follow Richie closely off a small double drop and out of the rut, and we flick through a couple of kinks and into a series of perfect bends. One, two, three, four, they arrive rhythmically, evenly spaced with just room between them to get the bike leaning nicely from turn to turn. I’ve often wondered why turning on skis and snowboards feels so great and thought that it might be due to the ability to get into a rhythm. Grinning as I bounce between corners, I think I’m right.
The trail tightens, funnelling us between a huge holly and a stone wall. I know which I’d rather hit and cower away from the spiky branches, my glove skimming the stones instead. A blind corner means caution, which is lucky, as I slow down enough to miss a boulder on the exit by inches, the swerve to avoid it throwing me off balance and momentarily off the trail.
The descent flattens and I relax, thinking we’re done, but the trail keeps going and Richie keeps barrelling along, so I keep powering through the slush. The trail is more open here, but rougher and wetter, and we splash around searching for the smoothest lines, dropping over fallen trees and rocks. Richie’s fast on stuff like this, especially when he gets on the pedals, and it’s usually a lot of fun following his lines and chasing after him. Down here, there’s a bit too much snow and mud flying through the air and so I drop back. That’s my excuse anyway.
Trials and celebrations.
Finally, we’re at the bottom – but the fun isn’t over. Two stone bridges, ancient and huge slabs of grit over freezing cold streams, provide a little trials entertainment. The first is easy enough – a touch narrow, but with a small gap in the middle. You could roll it awkwardly, but, well, you can’t, if you see what I mean, so we hop it instead. The second is the tricky one. A muddy approach saps your speed – speed you need if you’re to make it up and on to the foot-wide slab that forms the bridge. Get it wrong and you’d better grab the rickety wooden handrail pronto or you’ll topple three feet to a damp landing. The snow makes things tricky but after a couple of goes we’re across, still dry and cruising the final stretches of singletrack to the road with massive grins on our faces.
The White Peak might not have the epic loops, gritstone moors or the famous trails of the Dark Peak, but it does have the ability to put a smile on your face. That’s what’s ace about this corner of the White Peak. Everywhere you look, there’s twisty singletrack in the woods waiting to be ridden. And when you’ve finished one, there’s another not far away.
It might not be Hans Solo or Luke Skywalker, but it’s R2-D2 and, when it comes down to it, they’d have never got out of the trash compactor without him.