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The Best Short Walk Around Mam Tor


2 miles; one steep climb.

Mam Tor is perhaps the most fascinating and best known of the Peak District’s hills.
This relatively easy route takes you through its entire history, recent and ancient.
Most reasonably fit people should be able to manage the climb, with plenty of rests to admire the wonderful view!

Park at the National Trust car park and picnic area, set back from the road in a small wood of large beech trees.  (Coming up from Castleton, you drive through the spectacular Winnats Pass and then turn right; this road takes you past the car park, which is on your right.  Or from the direction of Sparrowpit, you will turn left at this same junction; i.e. before you get to Winnats Pass.)

The chosen starting point means that your vehicle has done much of the climbing for you, leaving the most attractive part to be tackled on foot.  Head uphill through the large car park and you will see a beautifully paved way through the woodland. 
You can’t fail to start spotting the little iron plaques set into the stonework, that mark the route all the way to the top of the hill.  The first one is an image of an iron-age round house; you will see the foundations of these on the Tor above.  If you have children with you, you can motivate by asking them to find the next plaque and report back.  Among the images they should discover are:- a dagger; a neck torc (item of jewellery); an iron age plough; an urn; the face of the sun god “Lugh”.

The path skirts a bend in the road for a short distance, before a small wooden gate on your right lets you into the open area of Mam Tor.  It is all open access land, but stick to the stone path for the way up; it is much easier and helps cut down on erosion.

From this point on, the views begin to open out on both sides of you; Castleton and the Hope Valley in one direction; Edale and the high plateau of Kinder, with its dark moors, in the other.  Take plenty of time to look around; scenery does not get much better than this.  As you near the top of the hill, you pass through the original earth ramparts of the iron age hill fort.  It is worth pausing here for a closer look and to imagine them as they must have been, thousands of years ago.
   
 Already you can appreciate first hand what a commanding position Mam Tor holds, overlooking two major valleys and what an iconic presence it must have been in the minds of our ancestors.  From archaeological evidence, it is clear that the hill was inhabited from some time in the late stone age.   Back in prehistory, the hilltops were chosen for settlement, while the valleys were a boggy, impenetrable forest and best avoided.  The climate throughout the bronze age and for some time into the iron age, was actually much warmer than our own, so conditions up here were not so bad as they might appear to us now.


So, Mam Tor was not just a fortress, it was also a village.  It has, to this day, a constant spring of fresh water very near to the summit of the hill; this would have made it a uniquely attractive place; with good reason, the outer ring of the defences encircles the spring.

Stand and look at the earthworks, which were started in the bronze age, at least three thousand years ago.  Erosion has reduced them in size and there would have been a row of sharpened timbers, as a palisade, along the top of the ridge.  Today’s path cuts right through the ancient defences, but just to your left you can see the original entrance to the village; a deep narrow channel which would have been very difficult for an enemy to pass, (if it had any breath left after that climb!)

Not much further on and you are suddenly standing on top of Mam Tor.  An exhilarating place to be and the eye is drawn in all directions to the astonishing view.  Nearer to hand, just to the left of the path, is a mound.  This is a very ancient burial place and probably the earliest feature on the site.  It was perhaps the burial mound of one important, stone age individual,  but it was in use as a place for cremation right through the hill’s history, as traditions slowly changed from one era to the next.

The burial mound is the best place to stand and see the faint circles that are scattered across the hillside; these are the remains of iron age round houses.  Around eighty of them have been mapped, proving what a large settlement Mam Tor was.

The path continues over the top, past the triangulation pillar, (built on top of another burial mound) and exits through the “back door” of the fortress, before continuing along the ridge of the hill.  This takes you down to a junction of footpaths and bridleways, at a point known as Hollins Cross.  Turn sharply right here, still heading downhill, but back towards Mam Tor.  The route skirts a small plantation and Mam Farm, before emerging at a quite extraordinary place.

Up until the 1970’s this crumbling stretch of black asphalt was the A625, happily winding its way across Mam Tor, between Chapel-en-le-Frith and Sheffield.  Geology had other ideas.  Looking around and especially up at the hillside, it is obvious what an unstable environment this is.  Layers of shale are sandwiched between layers of gritstone; because the strata are inclined at an angle, the rain gets in and washes out the loose shale, causing the gritstone to collapse in a series of landslips. 

Mam Tor, above, was once a lovely rounded hilltop.  It may even have been venerated because of its shape, like that of a huge breast, as suggested by the name, literally meaning “mother hill” in the ancient Celtic tongue.  But now, it is as though a huge bite has been taken out of it; a bite that cuts right through the defensive ring of the fortress.  This may have been one reason why the hill was deserted, at some time during the iron age, but climate change and invading Romans would also have played a part.

A fun time is to be had spotting the now useless cat’s eyes and following the twisting white lines of the former highway, as they bend and jump over steps created by the slippage.  The Alice-in-Wonderland road terminates at small car.  Just below you are the Blue John and Treak Cliff Caverns.  Continue up the road and keep right to return to the main car park, or there is a short- cut across the open field, which will bring you to the point where you first entered onto the hillside, (but this way will involve a last uphill struggle which you might wish to avoid).

Simon Corble.