Two major Peakland rivers, the Dove and Manifold, begin their lives a little over a mile apart, high up on the gritstone moors of Axe Edge, between Buxton and Leek. They both flow south west, almost parallel to each other, separated by limestone ridges, before joining below Thorpe village; here they continue, now known simply as the Dove, southwards to enrich the waters of the River Trent.
The river and its valley we are exploring is the Manifold. Unlike the Dove whose birthplace can be identified by a well that once provided drinking water for a farm at Dove Head, no single place can be identified as the true birthplace of the Manifold. Several streams rise from the bleak shales of Axe Edge, but they soon join to make the Manifold.
But if one source must be identified then perhaps being the most northerly, it is the stream which rises near the Traveller’s Rest close by Flash village. Few if any tributaries join from the east, but several including the Hamps, the Manifold’s major side stream, flow in from the west. At one time there were plans to flood a wide shallow basin below Longnor, but fortunately they were abandoned in favour of Carsington Reservoir. The underlying rocks are shales as far as Hulme End. Here the river starts to meet limestone, a rock so porous that further down the dale, the Manifold frequently disappears underground, only to surface at a well in the grounds of Ilam Hall.
Tiny farm-based villages dot the moors, with Longnor traditionally their focal point. The village sits on a high ledge above the Manifold and is where until recent memory that farmers brought their produce and animals for sale. Overlooking the cobbled square, the market house with its scale of charges on a board above the entrance, is now a craft workshop and café. Classified as a Conservation Area, Longnor is one of those places where quiet wandering down narrow side alleys leads the traveller to the discovery of attractive cottages and scenes. The village was once part of the Crewe and Harpur Estate, a fact highlighted by the name of the inn opposite the old market house.
Although Longnor church was rebuilt in the 18th century, it stands on foundations at least 8oo years old. Look for the tombstone of William Billinge, who, if we are to believe records of the day, was 112 when he died in 1791. He was a soldier who fought under the command of the Duke of Marlborough and faced death so many times in action, that he believed it had overlooked him.
A complex pattern of moorland roads run west then south above the headwaters of the Manifold’s higher tributaries. One of them leaves the Buxton/Leek road beyond the Royal Cottage pub where Bonnie Prince Charlie is supposed to have rested on his march south. This side road, never dropping much below 1400 feet, winds its way south across the Morridge moors where the remote Mermaid Inn is the only habitation for several miles. As befits such a remote spot, a nearby pool is said to be the haunt of a mermaid who drags the unwary to their doom. The inn once looked after the needs of coal miners who worked shallow pits on the surrounding moors, but is now much more upmarket.
For several days on either side of mid-summer’s day, the sun when viewed from the Mermaid Inn appears to set twice when it passes behind Hen Cloud to the north-west.
Warslow is on the Leek/Hartington road, a focal point for the surrounding farms. Again like Longnor, Warslow was a Crewe and Harpur estate village where the Calke Abbey dwelling family had a shooting lodge nearby.
Moving east along the B5054, limestone appears at Hulme End, continuing south towards Ashbourne. Engine sheds and station buildings are now an information centre at Hulme End using what was once the northern terminus of a light railway that joined the standard gauge Leek-bound line at Waterhouses. Intended to find most of its trade carrying milk, it was also popular with passengers who travelled in its yellow-liveried coaches hauled by locomotives resplendent with massive headlamps; they came this way seeking the delights of the Manifold valley. Never profitable The Manifold Valley Light Railway became known as the railway that went from nowhere to nowhere, it was opened in 1904,but only ran until 1934. Since then the track has been converted to a cycle and walking trail.
A large round hill dominates the landscape immediately to the south of Hulme End. This is Ecton Hill, a hill which gives little hint of the fortunes won and lost beneath its green slopes. Copper and lead were mined here for over three centuries, and although at one time its profits paid for the Duke of Devonshire’s plans to develop Buxton as a spa town, all that is left upon the surface are overgrown spoil heaps, the outflow from one of the mines close to the valley road and the restored Agent’s House (privately owned), with its green-coloured copper spire peeping through the trees.
While the Manifold Valley Trail follows the old railway, the riverside road leaves the valley at Wetton Mill. There is a small car park and café here, making it easy to venture further afield by climbing up to Thor’s Cave where our ancestors dating from pre-historic to Romano-British times once sheltered. Earlier still, the shallow cave became the lair of hyenas and sabre-toothed tigers.
At Wetton Mill, the river makes the first of its disappearing acts beneath the fissured layers of limestone, only reappearing finally at a ‘boil hole’ below Ilam Hall, about seven miles downstream. A waterwheel once powered Wetton’s mill by water carried along a leat that can be still traced from where it took water from the main river about a mile upstream.
Three villages sit high above the valley. To the west is Butterton and across the fields, its neighbour, Grindon. Both are peaceful, little known places, but during the Great Blizzard of 1947, tragedy struck when an aircraft crashed while attempting to drop emergency supplies, killing all of the crew. A steep hair-pin-bended road links the villages above both banks of the Manifold, crossing it at Weag’s Bridge. Set back from the lip on the eastern side of the valley, beyond Thor’s Cave, Wetton is a delightfully laid-out village surrounding its award winning real ale pub. The village was once the home of Samuel Carrington, who, together with his friend Thomas Bateman of Middleton-by-Youlgreave discovered many Romano-British and Neolithic remains throughout the Peak District.
The light railway, now the Manifold Valley Trail left the main valley a little way beyond Weag’s Bridge in order to follow the Hamps Valley upstream to Waterhouses. Downstream along the Manifold there is no valley-bottom road or track from below Beeston Tor. This is where a dig in 1924 yielded a hoard of Saxon coins and two silver brooches; the coins have been dated from about AD871. More or less opposite on the valley side and connected by a minor side road running from above Waterhouses to Ilam, the ruins of the original Throwley Hall stand beside its later version as a farmhouse. The defensive pele tower, a rarity in the Peak District can still be seen from the road. Pele towers, mostly found around the Scottish Borders were places where animals and humans could sheltered when under attack. Castern Hall a mile or so further down the dale dates from the sixteenth century and has been owned almost without interruption by the Hurt family for at least 370 years.
The river gradually flows, devoid of the light of day before it reaches Ilam, with odd stretches running on the surface before joining with the last resurgence at the boil hole below Ilam Hall. Here the valley begins to widen, especially where the two dales join and it becomes more pastoral. Ilam Hall and its estate village of Hansel and Gretel houses was built by Jesse Watts-Russel, a rich London merchant who erected it on the site of a Tudor mansion.
The Tudor-Gothic styled building is now owned by the National Trust and is run as a youth hostel; along with a café in the old stable block. Abandoned in the 1930s, the demolition squad moved in and had pulled down the section between the house and church. Fortunately this act of vandalism was stopped by Sir Robert McDougall, a Manchester flour merchant who had the remaining part of the hall stabilised before handing it over to the National Trust. The hall’s grounds are open to the public, along with the tree-lined path known as Paradise Walk.