Mam Tor is one of the Seven Wonders of the Peak, standing grandly above Castleton in the north of Derbyshire and the heart of the Peak District.
Castleton is an exquisite village at the head of the Hope Valley, with its back against a cliff, on top of which stands the castle which gave the village its name, filled with pubs and cafés, with arty boutiques, hardy boots, and surrounded by sights for the curious.
At the very top of the Hope Valley, just above the village, the wall of hills is suddenly pierced by Winnats Pass, a narrow chasm between the rugged hill slopes, which attracts cyclists after a challenge beyond the rest of us.
There are several walks around Castleton and the valley. A particularly satisfying one loops all round the caverns and over the summit of Mam Tor itself.
This is a landscape full of surprises, many of them underground, for this is Derbyshire, known for natural caverns as well as for its profusion of lead mines, and here the two meet. This valley is where the limestone of the White Peak stops and the Dark Peak to the north begins. The limestone is full of water-carved caves and holes which lead to passages without end all under the hills – a hidden kingdom.
The walk starts in Castleton, and wanders to the back of the village below Peveril Castle, to the chasm in which is the Peak Cavern, a vast show-cave known traditionally by its more robust name, the Devil’s Arse. It continues westwards to the portal to the Speedwell Cavern: the lofty cavern is far inside the hill, discovered by lead-miners and reached by boat along the tunnel they carved; but that is another trip. The walk continues past this, across the road and up Treak Cliff (which is not a cliff, but a steep slope across which the path takes a gentle gradient) to yet another mine entrance, this time to Treak Cliff Cavern halfway up, where Bluejohn is mined – a decorative stone unique in the world to this and one other mine reached later on the walk.
Over the top and round one comes to the entrance to Bluejohn Cavern, the other mine for this stone. In the Regency and Victorian periods, bluejohn was used to create vast bowls and vases, now worth a fortune, but now it is depleted it is found in small chips in the artisan jewellery shops of the village.
Past Winnat’s Head (a farm at the top of the eponymous pass), and it is on to Mamo Tor itself
There are now steps on the well-worn path up to the summit of Mam Tor: it is not a public footpath but National Trust land. There was a univallate hill fort built up here in the Iron Age, the earthworks still prominent. (The steepness of the hill should have been defence enough.) The summit now is part-paved, a detraction from natural beauty but necessary to reserve it against the passing of footsteps. The view is wonderful all around, down to the valley, and over to Edale the other side, and along the sweeping ridge in both directions.
Continuing along the ridge eastwards, the path is broad enough, but with a plunge each side. The target and point furthest north is Ward’s Piece, or Lose Hill, another fine viewpoint. Along the ridge looking down to the lower slopes of Mam Tor, you can see the feature which gave the hill its almost mystical reputation: a jumble of little hills looking as if they are growing at its foot, born of the mother mountain. They are understood to be the spoil shivered off Mam Tor, and it was said that the hill never becomes less however much rock it loses to its daughter hills.
Coming off the ridge steeply down to the valley the walk works its way back to Castleton.
If that is not enough though, at just six and a half miles, a loop can be taken a little further to the village of Hope down the valley, before looping back to Castleton.
There is more to be seen from the hills here than by staying at ground level, and more amongst just this little ring of hills than in any outwardly similar setting.