Dam It.

Ladybower reservoir from Bamford Edge

Three dams, three reservoirs, one cycle track, sixteen miles. We’ve done about a hundred yards before rain splatters my sunglasses. Damn it! But we aren’t daunted. The forecast said 2% chance of showers and my calculations make that less than a couple of minutes so it should soon pass. Should…

The two upper dams, Howden and Derwent were built in the early 1900s, the water they hold filling the narrow valley and supplying most of Derbyshire and a large part of South Yorkshire. They played an important part in the second world war, standing in for the dams on the Ruhr in Germany’s industrial heartland to test the bouncing bombs of Barnes Wallace, which were instrumental in stymying the German war effort. (Some years ago we paused in this spot to watch a yellow vintage bi-plane flying repeatedly along the path the dambusters used. Later we discovered that Sir Peter Jackson had been in the area scouting locations for the re-make of the film he was planning.)

Derwent overflow

The third dam, Ladybower, was built in the 1940s and the reservoir behind it obliterated two villages, Ashopton and Derwent. All three reservoirs are set amongst some of the most stunning countryside in the world and are astonishingly beautiful, the backdrop of heather covered moors and pine plantations making them extremely photogenic. When the dams, especially Howden and Derwent, overflow, it is the most spectacular sight.

Howden overflow (taken February 2016, hence the winter colours!)

Full disclosure – we’re not cycling around all three reservoirs but cutting across the bottom of Ladybower, the largest of the three (we’re not cheating – it’s still sixteen miles, or 26 km). The first section, alongside that reservoir, is on a minor road and more uphill than I remember. We pass the memorial to Tip, the faithful sheepdog who stayed beside her dead master for fifteen weeks high on the moors through a harsh winter before both were found, then descend slightly to the visitor centre at Fairholmes, the top of Ladybower and snuggled under the imposing wall of Derwent.

Riding past Howden Dam

It’s a bit of a slog uphill past the dam but at least it’s stopped raining. Or has it? Whoever is in charge seems to be struggling to make up their mind. As the sun attempts to beat the clouds it’s pleasant cycling – this part of the road is beyond the main car parks and therefore we’re passed by only the occasional vehicle. It’s also mainly flat, passing beneath large pine trees and alongside the water.

There’s a monument at the site of Birchenlee, the village created to house workers on the first two dams. At the peak of work there were nearly three thousand living here; as soon as the dams were finished the village was abandoned. Nothing remains now, the land reclaimed by the forest. We climb past Howden Dam and pause, looking across an impressive feat of man’s engineering towards the even more impressive beauty and splendour of Mother Nature’s work. The sun silvers the water, the heather is in its summer pink dress, and the moors rise behind, dark and overseeing. It’s stunning.

Derwent Dam

The road around Howden becomes a little rougher, small streams of water running across it. King’s Tree marks the road end, so called because it was ‘planted’ by King Edward in 1945. A seventy-five-year-old oak but still only a small tree. Above it dark clouds are gathering again and spits of rain hit us as we pass through the gate and onto a gravel road where a sign warns of a steep descent, a cartoon image of a cyclist lurching from his bike reinforcing the warning.

‘That’s not steep!’ Neil cries from in front of me, his voice a mix of disappointment and disbelief. ‘The beginning of the Old Coach Road is steeper than that!’ We coast down the slight slope and across the ford at the bottom (another warning there, although there’s less water than we’ve splashed through on the road). I grunt my way up the other side – I don’t know if there’s a sign but this side is flipping steep!

Slippery Stones

We ride through the forest and swing around to the packhorse bridge at Slippery Stones. The bridge stood for centuries in Derwent village and, as a listed monument, was dismantled and each stone numbered, eventually to be rebuilt here where the river is not much more than a stream, but where it runs freely before being harnessed by the stone and concrete of three dams. It’s a magical place, away from the crowds and with open moorland surrounding it. Whilst Neil takes pictures I clamber down to the water’s edge and sit under the bridge, watching the raindrops create circles in a pool where the water is still and deep. I could sit here all day.  

The path splits here. If we took the left we would soon be in the wildness of the moors on the Cut Gate track, an ancient crossing leading to the Strines above Bradford, near where I grew up in Stocksbridge. As it always is, the temptation to take this route is great. But it is harsh and open country, windswept and derisive of puny human effort. It is too far for me to walk, or even cycle, both ways and today I have no gear to protect me from what Mother Nature may throw at me. Our path lies another way but, as it often does in this landscape, my heart tugs against the direction I must take.

The going is easier than we remember it, large rocks that halted momentum hidden below a new, wider track that is still not completely smooth but allows for a rolling descent, faster than the old narrow track would have allowed. I’m torn between letting go of the brakes and enjoying the ride or taking it slowly and enjoying the scenery. Alongside Howden dam there’s another sign for a steep decline. Neil snorts derisively and mutters something about signs being wrong. But this is marketed as a family track and I understand the cautionary warnings.

Howden reservoir from King’s Tree

The track is an easy ride, not technical in the slightest, and much easier than anything we’ve done in New Zealand. It’s nowhere near as challenging as the family trail the OCR is marketed as and nothing compared to the Timber Trail – our ride mates from that would possibly be disappointed here. But, like that does, it takes you through some of the most marvellous countryside in the world.

Howden towards Bleaklow Moor

I’d thought the route back to the car would be easy and downhill. It is mainly so but there are a few short climbs that test my legs on a bike that is much heavier than my own Giant. Halfway back we divert to Fairholmes to the hole-in-the-wall establishment that’s been here for decades and sells wonderful home-made cakes and mugs of tea. Fortified by fruit cake (me) and flapjack (Neil) we fly down the final stretch. Or we would if we didn’t have to be careful of pedestrians who seem to have forgotten it’s a bike track and wander aimlessly across the path in front of you.

Howden towards Cut Gate

Another black cloud hoves into view and starts to release its load as we pass through the final gate. By the time we get back to the car it’s making a real effort and we quickly load the bikes and jump into the car. With no real plans for dinner and our accommodation not offering cooking facilities it just seems sensible to stop at the Ladybower Inn and have a meal there. Of course, you can’t stop in a pub and not have a pint.

4 thoughts on “Dam It.

  1. Gosh, it’s so beautiful. And go you, cycling all that way.I wonder how people felt having their villages flooded for the dams, shades of the big dam on the South Island whose name escapes me. Or the ten lost villages they drowned to make the St Lawrence Seaway in Canada. There’s a wonderful novel about that, The Winter Vault, by the sublime Anne Michaels.


  2. I don’t know that but I’ll look it up. There is a book about the lost villages, Silent Valley by Vic Hallam (I think!) I have two copies, the original and a revised version from a few years ago. It has some amazing pictures of the dam construction towering over the cottages. I suspect that people had little choice in those days. Now there would be more furore. It’s sad but a growing population needs water. I don’t know the answer.


  3. Sounds wonderful. Nothing wrong with an easy ride from time to time, I say. I love the idea of riding along, enjoying the scenery and then standing the bike up at a cafe for a ‘re-fuel’ before carrying on. I enjoyed the Otago Rail Trail for that and look forward to the same in the northern hemisphere some time. Keep on keeping on up there you two!


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