Walking: Taking to the hills and the skies: Paul Gosling travels to the Peak District and finds there are more people in the sky than on the ground

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The Independent Culture
THE invitation to stay with a friend in the Peak District for a weekend was irresistible. Gemma, her nine-year-old daughter, was adamant that she knew just the walk for the four of us, starting from a point on the A537, just east of Macclesfield.

We parked at the Cat & Fiddle, reputedly the second-highest pub in England. It was a hive of activity. A helicopter was taking off, giving aerial tours of the Pennines for pounds 15 a ride. Slightly to the west there was a succession of hang- gliders swirling around in the air currents. There was also a radio mast and a wind generator adjacent to the pub.

Gemma's chosen path followed a ridge, running south from the Cat & Fiddle. Although there was a steady stream of walkers, it was much less crowded than the Peak District's main paths and tracks. We soon found a caterpillar shaped and coloured like a cucumber, and almost as large.

As the view opened out we could see to our east Shutlingsoe Hill, which looked like an extinct volcano with a plateau top, steep edge, and gentle approach. Further round to the north was the Croker Hill radio tower, with its satellite dishes glinting in the sun. Further still, only clear with the binoculars, was Jodrell Bank.

The Jodrell Bank telescope was planned in 1949 and completed 37 years ago. It was founded by Bernard Lovell of Manchester University, when he realised that electrical interference in the city made it impossible to detect radar echoes from cosmic radiation.

The reflecting bowl, which has a diameter of 250 feet, ran on rails to enable it to point at any part of the sky. For over 10 years it was the largest fully steerable radio telescope in the world. From the late 1950s to the early 1960s it was the only instrument in the western world that could track the Soviet Union's satellites. Today it is run by Manchester University as a science centre and arboretum, open to the public for much of the year.

After continuing on the path for about a mile and a half we entered Danebower Hollow, losing the magnificent view but descending instead into an attractive valley which ran alongside a stream. As we lost height we passed one of the numerous quarries that scar the landscape round here.

The stream soon fed into the river Dane by a pretty stone bridge where many other walkers had stopped for a break. Our party cooled over-hot feet in the chilly water. This was Three Shire Heads, where Cheshire meets Derbyshire and Staffordshire. Above us a kestrel was imitating hang- gliders in the breeze, before suddenly dropping on its prey out of eyesight.

We kept to the Cheshire side of the Dane, clinging to Cut-thorn Hill before crossing some meadows towards Crag Hall. This is a deceptively old building, dating from the early 19th century, built for a local cotton-mill manager.

Retracing our steps through the hamlet of Wildboarclough, we turned off the road on to the lower slopes of Shutlingsoe Hill. The names around here have an unimprovable charm. Not only have many survived from the ancient Saxon, but others have a modern northern bluntness, while some are simply weird.

There is, for example, Correction Brook, which takes you towards Tinkerspit Gutter, while we passed within a whisker of visiting the settlement called Bottom-of- the-Oven.

By now we were on new ground for Gemma, and looking above us towards the peak of Shutlingsoe, she doubted she could reach the top. Happily, the alternative path took us half-way up and by then she was well into the idea, and shot ahead of us, scrambling on to the peak.

From the top the view was stunning, especially on such a sunny, clear day. Below us was Macclesfield, and further north the tall buildings of Manchester glinted like blocks of Lego covered in tinsel. Behind us, Crag Hall and its pond stood out from the grassed and wooded hills around it. Although the Cat & Fiddle was unsighted, we could see the ridge we had followed, and most of the rest of our morning's walk.

The path down on the north side was slabbed and more popular with strollers, turning into a track through Macclesfield Forest, the remnant of a great forest created by the Norman Earls of Chester. We toyed with the idea of heading across the wood to the earthworks at Toot Hill, but by then we were reaching the endurance limit for a nine-year-old girl.

We instead took a path alongside Clough Brook, and there was a pleasant surprise for us at Torgate Farm, where a permissive path - not marked on the map - took us back to the Cat & Fiddle. On our final leg we disturbed a heron, which showed off its full wingspan as it fled. We knew we were almost home because ahead of us were the hang-gliders, looking for all the world like poor imitations of the heron.

Ten Scenic Rambles of the Peaks and Plains of Cheshire, describing walks in the area, is published by the East Cheshire Ramblers Association, and is available from Macclesfield Borough Council offices, price 50p.

(Photograph omitted)

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