It gets breezy on top of Win Hill, but if you’ve got a warm hat and a well-filled sandwich there are few better lunch spots in Britain. The views are spectacular, not least because the hill stands bang in the middle of the Peak District. It’s a national park of two halves: to the north are the moody gritstone moorlands of the Dark Peak, to the south the limestone contours of the White Peak. And in the centre of it all, on any given day, sits a smattering of self-satisfied summit hikers devouring rounds of cheese and pickle sarnies.
Aptly, the hilltop also marks the approximate midway point of the three-day hostel-to-hostel walk I’m making. There’s something immensely gratifying about a multi-day loop walk; that sense of returning to the place you started from, your legs heavier, your boots muddier but your mind more open and alive. And in the Peak District — less eulogised than The Lakes, more manageable than Snowdonia — you find a slice of British countryside brilliantly suited to the task.
My route is straightforward on the map but a diverse proposition on the ground. From YHA Ravenstor, set on a bank above the River Wye, the trail winds its way through high-sided dales and open fields to YHA Eyam. From there, a moorland crossing and a riverside path precede a climb up Win Hill and a descent to YHA Castleton Losehill Hall. The third day’s route snakes back down to the White Peak plateau before rejoining the start point. The distances covered each day are 7.5 miles, 11 miles and 9.5 miles. Nothing to trouble hardcore hillwalkers, but more than enough to get the blood pumping.
The walk does a fine job of showcasing not only the physical beauty of the national park — I take joy in crossing Eyam Moor on a sun-washed spring morning, and later tracing the green bends of Monk’s Dale among busy woodpeckers — but also the area’s human history.
Bronze Age settlers, Romans and medieval royals have all left their mark on the Peak District, and the valleys are still dotted with mansions erected from the profits of the lead-mining industry. So much mining occurred here that Arthur Conan Doyle suggested that were the ground to be struck ‘with some gigantic hammer, it would boom like a drum’.
But if there’s one place on the route that really speaks of the past, it’s Eyam. The village famously chose to isolate itself in the mid-1660s — no one in, no one out — to stop a plague outbreak spreading further afield. Several cottages remain from the era, and you can still visit the spot on the outskirts of the village where food deliveries would be left by outsiders. There’s a great little museum too.
For all its diversions, however, a walk like this is always going to be more about appreciating the roll and flow of the land. There are enough climbs and downhills for it to feel like a proper outdoor undertaking (beware the will-sapping incline of Parkin Clough) and the trail serves up a countless succession of broad, sheep-and-wildflowers panoramas. All three hostels, for their part, provide private rooms, evening beers and morning fry-ups.
I’m weary but upbeat when I get back to my car at YHA Ravenstor, about 55 hours after setting off. The weather has been kind and — a personal triumph — over three days I’ve only lost my way on the OS map once.
It’s true what they say: Britain’s oldest national park has a way of casting a spell. When life gets too much, you’ll find me with a packed lunch on Win Hill.
Published in the March 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)