I won't make any apologies for the superlative above because what I am about to describe really was a massive undertaking, featuring some of the most stunning scenery, absurd roads, momentous vistas and finest pubs. Barraharri was the driver who made the trip possible, and if we conveniently sidestep the fact that camping didn't go to plan due to a lack of poles, this was a fantastic day out. Here's what happened (apologies for the length of this post!).
We set off in inauspicious circumstances, taking the Staveley exit from the M1 (and then the Staveley ageing process road) into Chesterfield, before finding our way up to Walton Hospital and over the moor to Two Dales. Our delay meant we could have legitimately stopped off at the Plough but it was a Friday lunch so it wasn't guaranteed they'd be open - unfortunately, this Friday lunch malarkey was something that slipped my mind prior to stop number one.
Having headed through Darley Bridge and Wensley, where the bizarre and eccentric Red Lion is now reportedly closed, we drove to Winster and wound our way up the barely drivable snickett that comes out at the Miners Standard then headed over Bonsall moor into Uppertown. Here we took the preposterous road down into the dale, to find a beer festival banner at the Barley Mow, and it closed. They don't open Friday's. They probably never have. I thought it was Saturday. Silly beefy...
From here we came out onto the Via Gellia and followed the road as far as Newhaven then headed down the A515, coming off past Shining Tor to Milldale and Hopedale, then through Stanshope to Ilam, followed the footpath/road through Throwley and out onto the Leek Road at Waterhouses, to head to teh Yew Tree at Cauldon. Which was also closed. Doh.
Barraharri wore a pained expression, I was annoyed, but as we later discovered, the landlord had been unwell, and somebody else was running the bar for him. They really did used to open dinnertimes, but this was obviously no longer the case. Knowing that the Red Lion at Waterfall would also be closed we headed into Leek, parked up and visited the excellent Wilkes Head.
Three beers on here, all from Whim, Barraharri went for the Hartington Bitter and me a pint of the IPA, which lasted about 5 minutes. I also went back for a pint of the excellent Flower Power. All the beers including the stronger 5.2% Flower Power were below £3.00 a pint (the latter £2.90). An excellent if belated start.
Next we had to suffer the dismay of driving on a proper road into Macclesfield and on to Bollington where we parked up and visited the Vale Inn. There were 5 Bollington Brewery Co beers on with one guest from Blackjack Brewing. Barraharri enjoyed a half of Parklife and me a pint of the 500 nights (I think, it was dark anyway) which was a fabulous smooth roasted malt delight that went down well.
Since we were now effectively early, we decided to go for a walk and maybe another beer. It was gone three and we passed the Hollybush, Bollington's National Inventory listed pub, but in keeping with our theme of abject closed pub disappointment the door was locked. We walked onto the Poachers, not really expecting it to be open, which inevitably it wasn't. We completed our Bollington circuit via 2 more closed pubs and one which was open which we decided to give a wide berth before getting back in the car. On our way out we noticed the Holly Bush was now open, but the moment was lost and we decided instead to press on.
Up to Pymchair next for a look at the views and a late dinner, before we got back onto the route, somewhat wiggly, to Earl Sterndale, via Wincle and the Royal Cottage (so we could memorise its location for later). We headed past Lamaload and straight across the main road into Wildboarclough, followed its length then headed down into Wincle for gone 17.00, alas, that was too early for the Ship at Wincle to be open as well, although I hadn't expected to be there that early.
Next we followed the road over the moors to Royal Cottage before heading along Dale Head and down Dowal Dale then up to Earl Sterndale for 10 to 6 - we had told them we would arrive about 6. We parked up in the least fly-y place, and started to unfurl the tent.....and discovered half of the poles were missing. How we laughed. This was not a simple A frame tent so no poles 3 and 4 meant no tent. I'm not apportioning any blame here but Barraharri was very annoyed with himself. And we were too early for the Quiet Woman to open....
A lesser duo may have given up at this point but we pressed on, not least because we needed a loo stop. In Longnor, we found the Grapes, Crewe and Harpur Arms and Cheshire Cheese shut (but then, has the Cheshire Cheese ever been open?) which is surprising for nearly 18.30 on a Friday, but luckily the Horseshoes was forging a path by being open, so we popped in for a pint of Marstons Bitter (two in my case) whilst Barraharri spent 20 minutes waiting at the chippy for the most rubbish fishcake butty you ever saw. The proprietors of the chip shop really need to go to Betty's to see how its really done.
Next we drove the short distance to the excellent Butchers Arms at Reapsmoor. They opened a few minutes after we got there (officially its 18.45) and we were soon inside, playing the find out the identity of the real ale game. Only one on this time, an apple themed ale which Carl repeatedly insisted he did not know the identity of. Which was a shame, as it was quite nice.
We got settled down near one of the fires and admired the view across the moors whilst supping our refreshing fayre (a delicious water for Barraharri) as the pub quickly filled up with drinkers and diners. Please note that a rudimentary web search has thrown up very few suggestions for the beer's identity, unless it was Downton or Wissey Valley, both of which seem very unlikely. Perhaps Springhead Bramley Bitter?
Anyway we made our way over to Royal Cottage next, stopping to photograph the view at the Mermaids pool, before parking up next to the pub and enjoying the views over Staffordshire. The Royal Cottage opens "about 20.00" but the landlord has always said that you can knock if you are in the area earlier and he'll let you in. At 20.00 we caved in and knocked and Cliff let us in to the dimly lit delights of this ultra traditional pub.
The very first time I came was bout 6 years ago and it was a folk night - there was draught beer, in the form of Tetley smoothflow, which I think he'd bought in specially. It was certainly heaving, so no doubt he sold most of it, but I've never spotted draught beer since. So my beer was a bottle of Old Speckled Hen whilst Barraharri experimented with a small bottle of Manns, just for the novelty.
We stood in the dim light (Cliff turns the light off over the bar when he's not serving!) and chatted to him and his friend and fussed the enormous rottweiler that has the gruffest and loudest bark, but not a temperament to match. It was here we found out about the Yew Tree and the fate of the Red Lion at Wensley, and discussed some of the finer points of life in Sheffield over our drinks.
I think its safe to say that I don't know of another pub like the Royal Cottage. Its a dying breed of farmhouse pubs that serve as company for the farmer and a place to meet for the locals, and probably almost never sees passing trade, although visitors are made to feel welcome. Bearing in mind that its only open from 8ish onwards Friday and Saturday, I reckon a casual unplanned visit is unlikely, but I highly recommend you make the effort to go. Please be aware that Cliff insists he's not about to start serving food any time soon....
We headed towards Elton next, and petrol became a bit of a preoccupation. We drove through Hartington and up to the main road then into Monyash, and decided that we would have to divert so headed to the garage in Bakewell for supplies. We now had just enough time to go to the Duke of York at Elton, having missed the Winster turning, by the rather lengthy but pleasant dawdle from Middleton by Youlgrave. We were able to park up outside the pub, distinguishable only by my knowing exactly where it was, and a dim light above the doorway.
Inside there was a choice of two beers, Adnams and I think Marstons Bitter. I went for the Adnams but it was very tired and noting that everyone buying cask was on Martsons perhaps should have been a hint to what would have been a better choice. Sat by the fire we got chatting to Len who used to work at Rolls Royce, whilst surveying the unchanging scene in the tiny bar. I seem to get out to the Duke of York less and less now, which is a real shame, because this is a fantastic unspoilt country pub on the National Inventory of unspoilt pub interiors.
All too soon we had to leave and got back to Dronfield by 22.30, Barraharri dropping me at the Coach and horses whilst he went to park the car. We had a few pints in here, mainly Jaipur and Lord Marples, although I did also have a rather enjoyable bottle of Urthel Saisonnaire, before we got a couple of pints (or more?) of Jaipur to take away, and enjoyed them at Barraharri's with homemade burgers.
The moral of this story is clearly, never go on a Friday! But had we been stopping over at Earl Sterndale we would have got to more pubs such as the redoubtable Quiet Woman, and perhaps Waterfall and Cauldon on the way home.
Either way this was a really enjoyable, if tiring and frustrating day out in fantastic countryside.