Walk of the month: Take a hike. But watch out for the wallabies

The facts

Although the Peak District receives 20 million visitors a year, it remains an enigmatic place. If medieval heresy, headless knights, mermaids and cute furry animals from Australia appeal, then head for the Roaches, a finger of gritstone that reaches down the western edge of the Peaks. As you will discover, the Roaches are a climbers' paradise, but this route, following a figure-of-eight path, is one of Britain's loveliest ridge walks.

Although the Peak District receives 20 million visitors a year, it remains an enigmatic place. If medieval heresy, headless knights, mermaids and cute furry animals from Australia appeal, then head for the Roaches, a finger of gritstone that reaches down the western edge of the Peaks. As you will discover, the Roaches are a climbers' paradise, but this route, following a figure-of-eight path, is one of Britain's loveliest ridge walks.

By the bus stop, pass through Roaches Gate and follow the uphill path. To the left stands Rock Cottage, knitted into the crags of the lower tier and once the gamekeeper's residence. Ignore the path that branches left and instead keep ahead until a drystone wall comes alongside on your right. Already the views are tremendous, with a skyline of rolling hills and rocky ridges ahead, while to the right are the flanks of Hen Cloud, sporting the blackened wounds of the recent moorland fires.

By a wooden gate turn left and curve upwards between two flanks of gritstone rock. There is the occasional scramble near the top, but keep to the left and you will soon pick up a path that leads through a coppice in the shadow of the outcrops.

The path bears right to reach the ridge. The walk is now mapped out ahead of you, the path climbing gently to the 1,657ft summit overlooking the lowlands of Staffordshire and Cheshire. To the west stands Jodrell Bank, and beyond, the Mersey estuary. Perched somewhere on the skyline ahead is Flash, at 1,518ft the highest village in England. Along the way you pass the diminutive Doxey Pool, said to be the home of Jenny Greenteeth, a mermaid who lures travellers to a watery grave.

As the ridge descends, you encounter Daliesque rock formations: wrinkled, top-heavy granite boulders that could pass for modern art in Tate Britain. Pass the solid lump of Bearstone Rock and cross a small metalled road to squeeze through the hole in the wall opposite and then cross a stile by a gate to pick up another ridge.

The scenery is immediately softer, with farmhouses speckling the valleys. Keep going for nearly two miles, continuing straight ahead when you reach a wooden stump in the ground. Eventually, the ridge drops down towards the River Dane, the boundary between Staffordshire and Cheshire. Bear right, taking the signpost for Gradbach. You soon enter woodland, later following a sign for Lud's Church, not a church at all but a fantastic gorge, 60ft deep and barely eight feet wide.

Shortly afterwards you come to the gorge entrance, with its name carved in stone. The name comes from the Lollards, a group of medieval heretics, followers of John Wycliff, who were led by Sir Walter de Lud Auk. Fearing the usual treatment meted out to heretics, they gathered here to avoid the enthusiastic stake burners and it is easy to imagine this mossy, sodden and fern-smothered enclosure offering a redoubt for those on the fringe of the law. This area has also been linked with the anonymous 14th-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and legends abound of a headless rider appearing through the mist, said to be the green knight decapitated by Sir Gawain at Camelot.

Leave the gorge by a flight of steps and soon bear left to come to a T-junction where you turn right, following the signpost to Roach End. Wildlife is abundant here, though not all the fauna is conventional: keep your eyes peeled for another of the Peak District's surprises, a small number of wallabies. During the Second World War, the Brocklehurst family, who ran nearby Swythamley Hall, released their collection of wallabies into the wild, whereupon the marsupials promptly set up house in these woods.

The path eventually swings right and climbs uphill alongside a rocky stream. Keep alongside the drystone wall that appears on the left until you reach a stile. Here you can retrace your route over the Roaches or keep ahead along the metalled road where you have outstanding views of the ridge. I followed the road as it wound its way through a series of gates to reach the bus stop.

As I did so, a fell-runner sporting a fluorescent green fleece ran past, collar pulled high against the biting gale. His head was almost entirely hidden. So much for the Green Knight. Or perhaps he was a modern, wind-proof reincarnation? In such ways do legends get reinvented. Give it another 700 years and our descendants will talk of the legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Wallaby, with Rolf Harris in there somewhere, too.

Getting there

To reach the start of the walk, take the A53 from Leek to Buxton, turning off at Upper Hulme. Then take the left fork through a small industrial estate and continue past Paddock Farm tea house until you reach the lay-by next to the bus stop.

The nearest mainline train station is at Stoke, which has regular bus connections to Leek.

Parking at the Roaches on sunny weekends can be difficult because of the number of visitors to the area, so a park-and-ride bus service operates from Leek town centre to the start of the walk.

Being there

Total distance: eight miles

Approximate time 3.5-4 hours.

OS Map Outdoor Leisure Map 24: The White Peak.

Further information

The Staffordshire Moorlands Spring Walking and Countryside Festival runs until 18 May, with a guided sunset walk of the Roaches this Wednesday.

For more information and accommodation lists, contact Leek Tourist Information centre, 1 Market Place, Leek (01538 483741; www.staffsmoorlands.gov.uk). For general information on the Peak District, visit www.vistpeakdistrict.com.

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