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Walk this way...

Sally Mosley has a wander around the picturesque Peak District village of Wetton and heads into the Manifold Valley  

Tucked away in the Staffordshire hills, the quaint village of Wetton appears like an estranged estate village to Chatsworth as the woodwork of several cottages and farmhouses is painted in the distinctive dolphin blue colour that is also used throughout the Chatsworth estate. During the 18th and 19th centuries, profits from the nearby Ecton copper mine made the fifth and sixth Dukes of Devonshire fabulously wealthy, and paid for many of these properties to be built.

My walk began with a wander around the village and a bit of property envy as I deliberated over which ‘roses around the door’ cottage I liked the most.

Snugly situated in the centre of Wetton is St. Margaret’s Church. It is thought that there has been a house of worship on this site since Saxon times. Whilst the tower is many centuries old, the main body of the church had to be rebuilt following a devastating fire in 1820. There are six bells in the peal, each one cast in a different century dating back to the 1600s.

Over the years an unusual and ancient custom was carried out at Wetton Church, with examples up until 1913 – some men in the parish would trace the outline of their boots in the lead on the roof and then ornately decorate their graffiti using penknives or sharp tools. When the roof was restored and the lead replaced during restoration work in 2002, 219 boot imprints were removed. Some of the most fascinating examples have been put on display inside the church with an explanation to the meaning of their decoration and identity.

Leaving the village I headed up towards a little covered reservoir on the hilltop from where there were far reaching and panoramic views. I could clearly see over the rolling hilltops surrounding the River Manifold to the rugged high ground of the Staffordshire Moorlands away to the west, as well as a line of jagged reef knoll hills splicing between Derbyshire and Staffordshire to create the county border running north to south.

I descended a path beside Wetton Hill leading down to the 17th century Manor House previously known as Pepper Inn. This is sheep rearing countryside – creating a landscape dotted with moving fluffy white spots and pebble dashed with slippery droppings that mould into the treads of your boots!

Now a private residence, Pepper Inn was the ‘local’ long ago where a few tankards of ale would have been supped by miners on their way home from work, returning to the isolated villages of Wetton, Alstonefield, Warslow and Hartington. As I made my way down the valley I was following in the footsteps of weary workers after an exhaustive shift deep below ground. Ecton Deep Shaft reached a depth of some 1,400 feet – more than 1,000 feet below the river level!

The discovery of an antler pick some 3,700 years old indicates that Ecton Hill was mined way back in the Bronze Age. The Romans also exploited the hill’s rich minerals, but the first commercial workings were established in the mid 17th century. The introduction of gunpowder led to an increase in activity at the mine. By 1764 the mineral rights belonged to the Dukes of Devonshire, and between 1776 and 1817 nearly 54 thousand tons of copper ore worth £677,112 were produced with a profit of £244,734 – a staggering amount of money at that time!

The steep sided valley leading to the Manifold Way reminds me somehow of a Scottish glen. It was so tranquil, the only transport sounds being that of the odd plane en route to Manchester airport high above. Reaching the bridge at the base of the road from Wetton, I was not surprised to see the river in flow once again. Recent heavy rain had obviously washed down off the hills to produce a muddy watercourse with patches of foam like soap suds – which in fact occurs naturally as a result of organic materials and plant life mixing with fast flowing water.

Similar to the Lathkil, the Manifold has both an overground and subterranean course. During summer months or periods of prolonged drought, both rivers ‘disappear’ below ground, leaving a dry river bed. Water beneath the Manifold reappears near Ilam Hall from a series of boil holes. Dye tests showed that the river takes 20 hours to cover the underground distance. Attempts in the 1900s to block the leaks in the river with cement and so seal the swallet holes where the water descended was a failure.  

I now walked a stretch of the former Manifold Light Railway line, taking me to what had been Thor’s Halt. The 2’6” narrow gauge railway line closed in 1936 after a relatively short and unprofitable life.

Thor’s Cave never fails to impress, although I am not tempted to scale the path to its huge gaping entrance, having done so as a child and found it to be a nerve-wracking experience. Created over thousands of years by the effects of water whipped up by wind into a swirling whirlpool in an outcrop of limestone, Thor’s Cave long ago provided shelter for both humans and animals. When excavated in the late 19th century, it was found to contain arrowheads, bone combs, bronze brooches and bracelets, as well as some Roman pottery and coins. Many of these are now on display at Buxton Museum and Weston Park Museum in Sheffield.

The Manifold Valley is rich in archaeological finds and it is hard to imagine that mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, hippopotamus, wolves, brown bear and cave lions lived here thousands of years ago.

It had been a showery day with blue sky and white cloud one minute then a sudden heavy shower the next, but as I returned to Wetton up the steep path past Hallfields Farm, it pelted down persistently. This was the perfect excuse to find shelter in the warmth and cosy surroundings of Ye Olde Royal Oak with a half pint of local ale in front of the blazing coal fire.

This is not intended as a walk guide.

Green Adventures September 2015

Sally Mosley is passionate about the Peak District and likes to pass on her vast local knowledge through guided walks, talks and writing. She has written a regular fortnightly feature for the Peak Advertiser for more than 24 years and is the walks feature writer for Derbyshire Life & Countryside magazine. Her business has been awarded the Environmental Quality Mark accreditation in recognition of her high environmental quality standards in the Peak District National Park and her caring and fun approach to promoting it!