Postcard from the Peak District

Words & Images: Tom Owen

The Isle of Skye is the greatest climb in England. On this point I will brook no argument. Nowhere near Scotland, it’s a 6 km climb out from Greenfield (on the Mancunian side of the Peak District), up into the moorland of the northernmost part of the National Park proper. I believe it is named after a pub that is no longer there but used to be somewhere near the top. The climb is tree-lined and claustrophobic at its foot, but opens out into something spectacular.

In the summer of 2018, the one that went on for aeons, wildfires raged all over the moors. In town, with the streets choked in the smoke of burning heather, Mancs could barely clear their throats enough to belt out ‘It’s coming home . . .’ as England marched improbably onward in the FIFA World Cup. In Saddleworth, people popped out to the shops in second world war gas masks to protect their eyes from the stinging smoke.

Meanwhile, helicopters shuttled between the Dove Stone reservoir at the bottom of the Isle of Skye and the tops of the moors carrying slings filled with water. Was this Yorkshire, or Yosemite? California or Castleton?

You go over a roundabout to start the climb, which sucks out any speed you might have hoped to carry into the initial ramp. The first part is the steepest and can sometimes be slippery because it’s shady – although not back then, in the summer that would never end. A dry stone wall acts as the barrier to your right, over which you can catch glimpses of the reservoir. Stand up and kick through the pedals and grab a sight of sailboats pulled up on the far side.

As the road curves left and gains height the land behind the wall is no longer flat enough for tall trees or cottages. From here to the next layby it’s open. Knuckle down and turn the pedals. The gradient starts to dwindle down to something more manageable. A right of way crosses the road and it broadens out for just a little bit to accommodate a gate on the left and the layby on the right.

Once you’re past that you’re about halfway and the scale of the valley becomes apparent. Look up and ahead and pick out the road as it snakes in and out with the contours of the hills, but slowly turns to the right. Put in a few more watts and suck down some water. Don’t look back and over your right shoulder for as long as you can resist.

When you do look, drink it in. This is the best climb in the country. See the water far below now and the towns of Mossley and Uppermill in the background, hemmed in by the hills that obscure the city’s scruffiest outer reaches.

One more turn to make and you can drag your attention back to the tarmac in front of your wheel. It rolls out in front for miles, all the way down to Holmfirth, or Slaithwaite, or Masham or Meltham and a hundred other glorious climbs.