Monday, 10 April 2017

Country Roads (Take Me Home)

I am not, and I don't think I ever will be, a 'city girl'. I was brought up in Hertfordshire which, as I found when I first arrived at university, is apparently a county seen as 'basically London innit?' No. For the most part, no, it is not.

My Hertfordshire has very little to do with London, or any other city for that matter. My Hertfordshire is a small town with a street of shops and a street of restaurants, a wide town park, and beyond it fields on fields of crops, spattered here and there with tiny villages of increasingly ridiculous names (my favourite is 'Loudwater', because it truly belongs to a Tolkien novel). It's home to narrow country lanes and wide open spaces and the occasional forest. Not well known (9/10 people assume that I said 'Herefordshire' when they ask where I come from), nor very large, and certainly not a 'city' place, it has put deep roots in me that long to be surrounded by skies and grass, not buildings.

But so much of modern life demands buildings. Buildings are where jobs are. Cities are where jobs are. And, for me, cities are where universities are - so, through weeks of planning and applying and deliberating, I ended up in Sheffield.

I have often read of Sheffield that it is one of England's 'most under appreciated' cities. Its merit is then argued in many ways - the culture, the music (nearly always hand in hand with mention of the Arctic Monkeys), the food...

For me, the greatest merit of Sheffield is that, quite by chance, in it I stumbled across one of the least 'city-like' cities I've ever been in. Sheffield is on my Dark Peak OS map. Sheffield has more trees per person than any other city in Europe (a fact I genuinely quoted when explaining why I wanted to come here), outnumbering people 4 to 1. Over a third of the Sheffield district lies within the Peak District National Park. It has more types of habitat than any other city in the UK, and large parts are designated Sites of Scientific Interest.

I live approximately 35 minutes from Sheffield city centre. I live approximately 6 minutes from the start of a valley walk that brings me into the Peak District, that makes me feel at home.

I may live in a city, but if I walk 20 minutes from my home, I am a equal distance from that city and from one of England's most beautiful National Parks.



My new 'local patch', if you will, is the Porter Brook Valley. It says something about Sheffield that this valley - one of at least 5 which lead into Sheffield - has its own charity, the 'Friends of Porter Brook Valley'. It says something even more that the symbol of this charity - of a river which lies IN Sheffield, is a dipper.

Walking the Porter Valley from Sheffield outward is like an exercise in rewilding.. The river widens, the trees thicken, houses give way to rolling fields of sheep; sometimes I swear you can even feel the air getting fresher around you.

The walk along the Porter Brook essentially consists of walking through a succession of parks, each less suburban than the one before. Every time you cross a road, from one park to the next, the habitat gets slightly denser and the landscape becomes less manicured, until you've escaped urban life altogether.

Endcliffe Park, the first and nearest to the city centre, feels almost-but-not-quite like a city park. 'Almost', because it is, for the most part, long and narrow and surrounded by houses, and has ponds where claggy bread floats on the surface from over-enthusiastic duck feeding...but 'not quite', because of the dedication of the space to nature.


This is not just a 'recreation ground' style park - it is taken over in majority by deciduous trees that lean over the bubbling Porter brook, which itself runs in cascades of tiny waterfalls, the water the glorious brown of a wild river. It is landscaped, with a main concrete path, ponds, bridges, some too-big-to-possibly-be-real stepping stones - but not so much that it feels artificial. My favourite route is the dirt track on the nearside of the river to where I enter the park, which is narrow and muddy and best trodden in walking boots. At the moment, the far banks of the brook here are carpeted in purple crocus, waving daintily up at the tree boughs above them. Some are trodden down by dogs or plucked by children, but most stand tall, the unfailing sign that Spring is on the way.

From Endcliffe Park, you cross the road into Bingham Park, which is as urban or as rural as you want to make it. The main park has bowling greens and tennis courts, and lies a brisk walk up the steep valley side, while continuing on the lower path brings you into Whiteley Woods. Legend has it that the park came about just after the death of Queen Victoria, when the wealthy Mr Bingham asked his wife if he should buy her a set of pearls, or buy all the land within sight and donate it to the city for the children to play on. She chose the latter. The extent to which this is true, I'm not sure of...but it's a nice thought.

A steep, muddy climb on a narrow path through the trees leads you up the side of the valley to a wide track through the woodland, where the air is still and you feel quite alone. The sun gleams through the trees, illuminating the slippery drop down to the valley bottom through row on row of shrubs interspersed with saplings and their parents. This is the place for finding fungus, the place for finding quietude and peace. If you don't feel like peace and quiet, or you're wearing nice shoes, a concrete path leads along the valley bottom into Whiteley Woods.

I've made the lower path seem like the worse option - it isn't. Along the valley bottom, the Porter Brook is a gurgling backdrop to what is starting to feel like a proper woodland. On the other side of the river, allotments spring up, and houses start to give way to nature. This part of the valley is laden with history, and home to the Shepherd's Wheel Museum, a tiny building packed with Sheffield's industrial past. The mill pond beside it is a mirror, reflecting trees so clearly you forget that they aren't real.


Crossing another road brings you truly into Whiteley Woods. This is where the real nature starts, where areas off the path are wild and boggy and, from a stone in the river, the grey wagtail bobs in greeting. You walk on, cross another road, reach my favourite place - a set of stepping stones beside a ford, which are often covered by rising water after rain. This is a place to be intrepid, a place to be glad you put on walking boots. Something about crossing stepping stones is innately childlike - it triggers memories of leaping them when you were little, crossing them with your hand clasped tightly by a parent who's certain you'll slip and fall. If you're like me, you'll remember falling in, too. The story of how I 'jumped' into the River Dove as a two year old is legendary in my household.





The woods now are dense around you, like a cloak. The houses are concealed behind them, the steep valley sides rising to enclose the tree-lined river in its own private world.



Now you have to start making decisions. The path to the left of the river is incredibly well-maintained; without being concrete, it is well-constructed with drainage tunnels, preventing the quagmire that Winter in Sheffield does its best to encourage. A higher path runs beside a large pond, with views up hill to the twisting road to Ringinglow and the fields of sheep that run up to it, now that the houses are gone for good. A lower path runs beside the river, with frequent bridges lest you regret your choice of path and wish to switch. The left-hand path is steeper and muddier, but runs closest to the river and gives impeccable views of the light shafting through the green leaves, the rich browns of the Earth and water, and the 'wildest' (muddiest!) experience. If you can't decide, not to worry - you can always take the other path on the return journey!

Just as you've been walking for a little while, and are thinking that perhaps you might like to stop and have a drink and a little snack of something, and perhaps a sit-down to breathe in the fresh air you've travelled to, you reach Forge Dam.

Forge Dam is a remarkable place for, though I know it's barely a five-minute walk from Fulwood, a full suburb of houses and streets and cars, it feels as though you've driven to a remote place somewhere in the Peak District. There is a little park (with an extraordinary slide!), and an adorable café which serves, though I may be biased, some of the most delicious food a walker could possibly ask for. The amount of cake concentrated in that one small building is incredible. The wide array of chips and breakfast food and, if you're feeling slightly fancier, paninis, on offer, along with full meals, is all you could want and more. To top it all off, there's an all-year-round ice cream kiosk, and lots of seating outside. There's also a large pond, with plenty of ducks to feed (birdseed please, not bread!).

The café is one of my happy places, but for now we'll bypass it and press on up the river. Taking the steep bridleway up to the left of Forge Dam, looking down on the pond and the people enjoying their gorgeous food, you start to feel as though you are truly, now, in the English Countryside. The field to your left is filled with sheep, to your right is a wood, and in front of you, the landscape opens up and you sigh in satisfaction because, now, you are in the Dales.

From here on in, you're in the National Park. You're in the Peak District. It's been 45 minutes, and you're out of Sheffield so much so that the traffic noise and bustle seems worlds away.



Your options are spread out across the hills before you. Up to the left lies Holly Hagg Community Gardens in the pretty Peak District village of Ringinglow, through whose streets the path up towards Stanage Edge winds. Holly Hagg has recently seen a boom in popularity because of its 'Alpaca Treks' - certainly worth looking into!

The track before you begins to wind uphill, through a wooded valley where the river burbles and cascades every now and again into a proper waterfall; it becomes, in its higher reaches, the free-spirited stream you feel every natural river should be. The trees grow close around you, the floor is dense with leaf litter and slippery now with mud. You are in Porter Clough now, truly wild.


Just as you push your thighs into action, climbing the increasingly steep track, five picturesque bridges cross and recross the path, until you appear out of the trees, blinking in the sunlight, onto a country road. You look behind you now, down the hill, to the buildings of Sheffield far away. This is where you have been. You are in the countryside now, just an hours walk away.

Having walks like this so accessible gives me strength. When I feel alone, when I miss my family, when I need escape, the Peak District is just there on the horizon, and it calls me home. Somewhere in the silence of wild spaces is a voice that soothes me to the bone, and I am privileged to find it so close.



All photographs are taken by and belong to me, Annabel Lever. 







2 comments:

  1. I grew up in the countryside in the south west Peak District and love visiting Sheffield. I hate cities but always said if I ever had to live in one, I would only consider Sheffield as it's so close to the Peak and has so many green places. It's not that far away but I only ever go to Sheffield for a particular reason and so have never got around to visiting any of the places you mentioned, though they've been on the 'to visit' list for years!

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  2. Thank you so much for your comment Louise, it really is a lovely city, and I too don't like them very much! If you can find the time they're well worth a visit - and you'll barely feel as if you're in a city :)

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