Barney takes a trip around the shivering mountain to see if some favourite old trails still pass muster on new bikes.
Words & Photography Barney Marsh
There is absolutely no point in prevaricating about this – if you’ve been mountain biking for more than, say, half an hour, it’s very likely you’ll have heard about the Peak District, Castleton, Jacob’s Ladder, et al. They have attained a lofty permanence amongst the trail pantheon that only a very few UK places can muster – even fewer of them in England.
First published in Singletrack 138
For truly awesome riding, obviously the geography has to be perfect. Underlying the whole of the Peaks is a colossal lump (technical term) of limestone, formed when Britain was close to the equator, and the Peak District – and loads of other places besides – was actually a warm, shallow sea. Overlying great swathes of the area is astoundingly grippy, fast draining millstone grit, formed from coarse sediment laid down as the sea grew shallower. This stuff is porous, so it drains really well – but it’s more easily eroded. Over aeons, then, the Peaks split into two. To the north, there is the Dark Peak – millstone grit and wide open moorland. To the south is the White Peak, where the limestone is exposed. And straddling the divide in between the two is the small village of Castleton. It has plenty of attractions – Peveril Castle from which it gets its name, the Blue John Mines, Speedwell Cavern, and other landmarks caused by water dissolving away all that limestone to leave whopping great caves.
But we didn’t head to Castleton to stare into the abyss, however pretty it is. We came here to reacquaint ourselves with an area which has occupied such a fundamental part of my formative mountain biking history that I’d quite forgotten to ride there for more than a decade. I was very keen to find out exactly what my modern sensibilities (and my modern bike) would make of some of the challenges of the area that I used to whisper about in reverential tones. In the ’90s, there were few trails I’d attempted harder than Jacob’s Ladder or Cavedale. Let’s see what they’re like these days, eh?
The Broken Road
The A625 really doesn’t sound like a promising name for a mountain biking destination, but this particular bit of it has long been abandoned. Climbing out of Castleton, Rik, Tom and I rode past a traffic barrier, and around a corner where the reason for the road’s disuse became apparent.
Initially built in the early 1800s to provide an easier gradient for traffic than the extant Winnats Pass, what was once known as the New Road became something of a problem rather quickly – mostly as it was built across a slope of Mam Tor that has been prone to landslides for 4,000 years. In fact, the name ‘Mam Tor’ (or ‘mother hill’) derives from the plethora of mini ‘child’ hills that festoon its foot. Around the time the road was built, it was also known as ‘the shivering mountain’ because of all the landslips – so they really should’ve bloody known better.
Still, near constant repairs – and road-rebuilding after heavy rain – indicated just how bloody-minded the locals were about keeping the damn thing open. But eventually, a commendably long 160 years later in 1979, the townsfolk threw up their hands, adopted Winnats Pass once more and let the New Road fall down the hillside and into disuse.
It’s such a strange thing to ride. The going, as you’d expect for something made of tarmac, is pretty straightforward for the most part. But every now and then you’ll have to stop – either to figure out how the hell you’re going to ride up or down an enormous step-up or drop-off, or to stare in wonder at such a bizarrely post-apocalyptic sight. I quickly remembered why I used to love it so. It’s not because of its technicality, or its steepness. It’s because it’s so bafflingly odd.
You can see places where the road was shored up as it began to slip by the simple expedient of pouring more tarmac onto it. Which, of course, made it slip all the faster. And so, on went more tarmac. Cue more slippage etc. It’s genuinely astonishing that it was abandoned as late as it was – I suspect that the advent of heavier, more frequent motorised traffic sounded its death knell.
As it is, though, it makes for an excellent playground to get warmed up on, and a satisfying first hurdle to clear. The strangeness of the environment makes the whole climb feel much shorter than it would otherwise be – certainly cycling up Winnats Pass feels like a much more unpleasant experience – which is why I’ve not done it in 20 years.
From the top, we were faced with a choice. The top loop will run in either direction – Jacob’s Ladder was as challenging a climb as it was a descent back in the day – but wiser and emphatically more up-to-date heads than mine strongly suggested (OK, OK, insisted) that we ride the thing clockwise. Descending the Ladder was the order of the day, therefore, which mean that the first thing to do was head along Rushup Edge.
Rushup Edge is a fairly straightforward ridge, at least at first. To our left, there were some spectacular (if cloudy) views; to our right, on the other side of the fence, was the footpath. Deviating from the path of righteousness and accidentally finding oneself on the footpath side is an experience not to be recommended unless you enjoy receiving spittle-flecked tirades of abuse. This is an entertainment I’ve undertaken in the past, and I’m duty bound to report that it’s apparently still on the agenda today, should your tyres take you right instead of left when the two trails deviate. It’s not long, though, before the two paths join up once more, and segue into Chapel Gate, as we descended down the Sunken Road.
Derbyshire County Council, it’s fair to say, has form when it comes to – uh – creatively interpreting guidelines for the maintenance of some Peak District trails. This ancient thoroughfare is a case in point. It’s long been an entertainingly tricky thing to ride as a climb as well as a descent. Twenty years ago, scrabbly, rocky doubletrack gave frequent way to limestone bedrock slabs, requiring frequent thrutchy step-ups and no small amount of luck to clean. As a descent, then, any speed over the slabs would quickly give way to thin air, which could be entertaining if not anticipated. It was a lot of fun. While it’s certainly true that improvements needed to be made to enable easier access to folk who aren’t on mountain bikes, I’m not totally sure that concreting in a load of stone slabs, to make a sort of crazy-paved patio, is the best way to achieve this. It’s not without entertainment, but it does somewhat feel like a small corner of the Peak District is doing its best to emulate a garden centre.
In fact, it could’ve been much worse. Chris Maloney, of advocacy group Peak District MTB, was involved in the collective efforts of users to ameliorate the ‘improvements’. “Peak District MTB led on the campaign to prevent DCC completely flattening the track,” he said. “While some of resulting work leaves a lot to be desired, the original proposals would have been much worse. Peak District MTB managed to mobilise a campaign that forced two further proposals and ultimately what you ride today.”
Peak District MTB has plenty of alarming info about this on their website – original plans for improvements for this section of the track seemed to involve crushed gritstone (shudder), road planings or worse in a professed effort to improve accessibility. After several years, work starting and stopping, outrage and protests and eventual consultations from all sorts of user groups (not just mountain bikers), Derbyshire County Council decided that a ‘light touch’ approach was probably best. I emphatically agree with that sentiment.
There now followed a long section of Pennine Bridleway, which was pretty straightforward, but punctuated by occasional interludes of an increasingly spicy nature. It’s rather entertaining to barrel into sections that take you by surprise, and realise that, on a modern bike, you’re really not in too much trouble. Sketchy corners can be smoothed out; unfortunate line choices can be ridden out with ease. It’s fair to say that we all shot down this much, much faster than we would’ve even a handful of years ago, as old and decrepit as we (OK, OK, I) now are/am.
After a short road section, some recalcitrant cows, a very, very long climb and more jelly babies than I care to count, we eventually stood just above Edale Cross – and at the top of the legendary Jacob’s Ladder.
Jacob Marshall, according to The Internet, was an 18th century chap who farmed Edale Head. It was he who cut the steep, steep path into the hillside, presumably so he could have an extra few minutes in bed before hauling himself up the hill to tend to his sheep. I used to ride Jacob’s Ladder as a climb as often as a descent. I remember the climb up was horrendously steep, and scrabbly, and I recall cleaning it only once – a particular lip at the top always seemed to evade me. Similarly, as a descent, I remember it as being spicy, for sure.
But in no way do I remember descending it being like this. I’d genuinely be terrified riding down it on a bike like my trusty old ’90s hardtail. I can’t even remember dropping my saddle back then. But I must’ve, surely? I mean, I’ve fathered children since then – so there’s no way I could’ve ridden this with the saddle up. I’d be singing descant.
It starts off unimposingly enough, for sure. Rocky, yes, and slowly teasing with steepness. But then it diverts your attention with a retrospectively obvious straightforward line that snakes all over the place at the same time as you realise you’re clearly just going to hurtle over the edge of it and into the great beyond. This is the point where you’re desperately glad that you have a modern bike and, therefore, stand a (very, very) slim chance of styling it out.
Walkers looked on in amazement – not at our astounding skills, but at the shrill mews of terror that essayed from our lips as we rode past. “Hello!”, we bleated as we squeaked past. Dear God. We used to ride this with 26in wheels, and a 71° head angle? My arse must’ve been clenched so tight I’d have been pooing diamonds for weeks.
Ooop – a step-down. Another drop, there. And there. And then a long chute, which seemed simple compared to the stuff above it – until it wasn’t. A corner; more high-speed clattering. A quick dog-leg, and then a straight run to a ford at the bottom. Blimey. That was fun.
Look, I never rode with a stopwatch back in the day. So I don’t know if we were lots slower then – but I tentatively like to think that I’m a slightly better rider now than I was then. Less fearless, perhaps, and certainly less fit, but I have a little more technique. And I have a much, much better bike. Yet I don’t recall riding Jacob’s Ladder with unalloyed fear. I remember excitement, sure, but I don’t recall pre-emptively trying to shove my testicles into my abdomen to keep them safe. Maybe it’s weathered a little more? Yes, that must be it. But photos from the era seem to suggest otherwise. Clearly, I’ve simply become soft.
I needed coffee. So the Penny Pot Cafe at Edale was, at this point, a very welcome sight indeed. Not only did lovely people within supply us with prodigiously good cake and damn fine coffee, but they also filled our water bottles, and (as they’d had a surfeit) gave us a Freddo each. For this last alone, they shall receive my grovelling admiration for evermore. What’s more, Tom can’t eat chocolate – so I gallantly had his too (I’m hugely generous like that).
Climb It Control
Now we were faced with a choice. Our original route intention was to climb up to Hollins Cross via Back Tor Farm – but time was pressing on, and we were feeling idle, so we decided to head up Cold Side instead. It’s more direct, sure, but it’s also a good deal steeper – so essentially it’s a push for most people shortly beyond the farm. Pretty views, mind you. And then, after a short road descent, was the grand finale. Cavedale.
Recipe (for disaster?)
Take a beautiful, open, grassy, gently sloping and (when it’s dry), hugely fast valley. Use this to distil a supremely confident feeling of invincibility in mountain bikers, before suddenly dropping the trail through a very steep gorge. Fill the gorge with limestone boulders, and for extra spice, season liberally with walkers coming up, and then, for shits and giggles, shove a stream down the whole thing.
I mean, it’s cleanable. Of course it is. Each feature is perfectly doable; keep your weight low, don’t do anything stupid. The issue is that each thrutch, each squeak, has to be precisely ridden to make sure you’re lined up for the next thing. There is no respite. Not that we were exactly steaming down it anyway, but we had to carefully negotiate walkers, whilst ensuring that our cheery greetings didn’t issue forth as sort of strangled ‘aargh’s’. It’s all very well smiling at some chap saying ‘rather you than me’ for the millionth time, but actually sounding suave and in control when you’re trying not to steer yourself and your bike into his flailing walking poles is another matter altogether.
But eventually, the gorge narrowed yet again and popped us out into a wider section, and we could relax. Another easy, open section followed, before this too decided to get all janky at the very, very end – and we found ourselves back in Castleton.
It’s been a while since I rode around here, yes. And natural/unnatural erosion, wear and tear, and younger, fitter, more resilient bodies notwithstanding, I’m still staggered that we used to ride some of this stuff with little wheels and old geometry. A few days later, I was chatting to Cy Turner from Cotic about this very thing, and his comments rang very true.
“We did ride that stuff, yes. But I think you’ve forgotten precisely how very, very much we used to crash!”
I think he has a point.
It almost feels pointless writing this bit. It’s the Peak District – it’s pretty much guaranteed you’ll have heard of it if you mountain bike in the UK. The UK’s first National Park was established here in 1951. Twenty million people live within an hour’s drive. It’s over 550 square miles, mostly in Derbyshire, but also encroaching on the surrounding counties, too. Limestone and millstone grit abound. But you know all this.
Perhaps you might have decided that the inevitably large number of tourists is enough to put you off visiting. Perhaps you fondly recall riding there in your youth, and think that the trails can’t be nearly as much fun on modern bikes.
Well, I hope this article has made you reconsider. The legendary trails of yore were legendary for a reason, and they still are today. There are amazing views, gut-busting climbs and technical descents which have aged amazingly well. As well as Castleton, there are fantastic trails all over – from the sheer white-knuckled adrenaline hit of The Beast dropping down to Ladybower to the more mellow trails around Bakewell. There are a huge number of awesome tea rooms, excellent bike shops, and more history than you could shake an archaeology professor at. Truly, the Peak District is one of the nation’s mountain biking jewels – and it should emphatically not be underestimated.
- Distance: 32km • Total Ascent: 1,168m • Time: 3–5 hours
- Maps: Explorer OL1 – The Dark Peak
There are quite a few campsites in the area, of course, and B&Bs abound. The YHA Castleton Losehill Hall has tent camping and a bookable barn for larger parties as well as the usual dormitories.* The Yorkshire Bridge Inn in Bamford is a short ride away from Castleton and particularly recommended.
*At the time of print, the dormitories are closed thanks to Covid, but it’s at least vaguely likely they’ll be open by publication time.
There are actually a few options. Hope, Edale and Bamford have train stations. Roads are pretty good, but can get congested at peak times. There’s usually plenty of car parking at Hope or Bamford, or Castleton itself. Car parks can work out expensive though, and the pay and display machines don’t take cards or contactless at present. Take plenty of change.
The superlative 18 Bikes at Hope should see you right for pretty much everything.
Eating and Drinking
Let’s start with the Penny Pot Cafe – friendly, great coffee, excellent cake and a plethora of other tasty things. You’re spoilt for choice in Castleton and Hope as you’d perhaps expect – the Grasshopper Cafe and Cafe Adventure come particularly recommended.
Thanks to Chris Maloney at Peak District MTB and Si Bowens at 18 Bikes in Hope for their invaluable information and assistance.
This feature was produced with support from Komoot.
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