Saturday, 30 March 2013

Ecton Hill, The Upper Manifold Valley & Thor's Cave

Open Space Web-Map builder Code

Route: Wetton, Manor House, Lees Farm, Ecton Hill, Ecton, Manifold Way, Swainsley Tunnel, Wettonmill, Dafar Bridge, Thor's Cave, Wetton

Date: 30/03/2011
From: Wetton 

Parking: Roadside parking in Wetton
Start Point: Wetton
Region: Peak District White Peak

Route length: 6.9 miles (11.1 km)
Time taken: 2:54
Average speed: 2.4 mph
Ascent: 673m
Descent: 633m

Summits on this walk: Ecton Hill (369m)

Other points of interest: Thor's Cave

The River Manifold is a beautiful river, with a lower section that rivals Dovedale's spectacular valley. The river meets the Dove at Ilam but not before it has wound its way through some very fine limestone scenery to the imposing mouth of Thor's Cave. Its name may come from Anglo-Saxon word manig-fald meaning "many folds", referring to its comely meanders. It's a place certainly worth exploring, the first challenge for us however was actually getting there.

An unseasonal and prolonged snow had fallen in the weeks preceding our chosen weekend which had left many of the country lanes around Wetton inaccessible. In fact, we had to detour a number of times thanks to barriers of snow blocking the way. It turns out, after getting the car parked in the village, that many residents had been totally snow-bound for a couple of weeks with access only being cleared a few days prior to our arrival. Luckily for us this did make for a stunning winter / spring day out.
One of the many snow filled lanes that impeded our progress
Snow piled up along the lanes leading from Wetton
We passed through the village and out onto a wide bridleway that out into the open countryside. We had a few stiles to cross on the way, a number of them were actually covered by the snow to such an extent that we simply walked over them rather than having to awkwardly climb over them as usual. The route leads between the two tops of Wetton Hill, a prominent landmark in the southern part of the National Park.
Some of the undisturbed snow buries a cattle trough
The snow bank makes for an easy stile crossing
Heading towards Wetton Hill
The view west towards Ossoms Hill and the middle reaches of the Manifold
We followed the drystone wall down the valley, keen to have a good tramp around in the snow that had piled up alongside it. The wall drops into the valley of a small stream before it begins a climb up the flanks of Ecton Hill, an historically important area for mining.
The path coming down the slopes of Wetton Hill
Deep snow on the route down towards Lees Farm
Snow drifts along the drystone wallks
Wetton Hill
Wetton Hill's eastern summit
During their heyday in the late 18th Century, the mines at Ecton Hill were at the forefront of many developments in mining technology, with both technology in Chemistry and Geology developing rapidly as a result of these advances. Among the achievements at that time were the sinking of the deepest mine shaft in Britain, the reputed first use of explosives in British mines, the building of an early steam engine, and the efficient use of water power for mine pumping. Ecton Hill had worked for over 3500 years, ceasing in 1891 with total ore production, mainly Copper ore, estimated at over 100,000 tonnes.
Plenty of signposts mark the route
It was a short climb to the summit of Ecton Hill, along the road adjacent to Lees Farm where it joins a path running along the crest of the hill. The highest point is marked by a trig pillar. Despite a modest height, Ecton Hill sits on the edge of the valleys of both the Manifold and Dove rivers and, given the steep sides of the northern slopes, affords an expansive view across the countryside.
The trig pillar overlooking the Manifold Valley to the north
A panorama from the summit
A view down into the rapidly deepening Manifold Valley
We slipped and slid (quite literally) down the hillside into the valley below, joining the Manifold Trail at Ecton Bridge. The trail is built along an 8 mile section of the old Leek and Manifold Light Railway, providing a multi-user route through the valley.
The slopes of Ecton Hill
Some of the remaining snow drifts
The snow was still very deep in places
Sunlight reflects off the snow covered slopes
Sara makes her way down some slippery paths
An interesting house in the hamlet of Ecton
The Manifold Trail
The Leek and Manifold Valley Light Railway was a narrow gauge railway that operated between 1904 and 1934. The line mainly carried milk from dairies in the area with some 300 milk churns being handled daily at Waterhouses. From 1919, the demand was so great that a daily milk train ran from Waterhouses to London specifically for this traffic.
The L&MVR in its heyday
You can follow the River Manifold on either side, the Manifold Way follows the eastern banks while a small lane follows the western. We followed the lane, passing through Swainsley tunnel on the way.  It was built at the insistence of Sir Thomas Wardle, a L&MVLR director, so that the view from nearby Swainsley Hall should not be spoilt. Now it accepts light vehicles in single file and the inevitable foot traffic of pedestrians. There are a number of refuges cut into the walls for precisely this purpose.
The River Manifold
Swainsley Tunnel
Inside the tunnel with one of the refuges
The River Manifold at Wettonmill
Heading south, the valley becomes narrower and more dramatic, with Ossam's Crag towering high above. A short distance further is Wettonmill, a redundant corn mill that closed in 1857. It now offers the convenience of a tea room and self catering cottages owned and run by the National Trust.
The crags of Wetton Hill
The valley sides become steeper still and, as you head around a spur from Ossoms Hill, the yawning entrance to Thor's Cave reveals itself, the most spectacular sight in the Manifold Valley. I think it's quite an intimidating yet awe inspiring sight, a great 10m diameter hole piercing a triangular crag which you can't help but be drawn towards. Though high up on the hillside, accessing Thor's Cave is easier than it seems.
A look back towards Wetton Hill
The ominous Thor's Cave
Thor's Cave once again
A path heading up a narrow valley towards Wetton has a well marked junction which gives access to the stepped path through the woods to Thor's Cave. It is quite a steep climb in places, made marginally more difficult on this occasion by the ice and snow that had gathered. Towards the top of the path, the trees open up revealing the huge cave entrance.
Sara on the climb up the path
The entrance to Thor's Cave
The Manifold Valley
Thor's Cave
On any normal day, getting inside the cave is an easy climb over the rocks that bar the way. Today, however, those rocks were covered in a sheet of ice making the task all the more difficult to achieve. It is well worth a clamber inside though.
Thor's Cave
Thor's Cave (or Thyrsis's Cave is some circles) is a huge Karst cave with a number of separate caves connected to it. It was formed by the erosive force of water dissolving the natural limestone. Unsurprisingly, excavations in the 1860s and 1930s found human and animal remains, stone tools, pottery and bronze items within the cave. The collection of caves are estimated to have contained the burial sites of at least seven people.

Getting out of the cave in one piece was a difficult a challenge as we faced all day but we managed it with a few ungraceful moves. We returned back down the steps to the path before making our way up the muddy valley to Wetton.
The climb through the trees towards Wetton
The top of the valley
The Manifold Valley
This is a great little walk and, at 6 miles long, is a good one for a morning or afternoon in the Peak District. There are a few other routes that can be taken by the more adventurous, such as continuing within the Manifold valley to Beeston Tor or climbing up Wetton Hill to admire the views over the countryside but, as a short excursion, this walk packs a lot of interest into a short space of time.