Parrots on the Trail

Some of the photos I took on this event have gone missing. I’ve left the references as they are in case they turn up again one day.

Being a fan of the Where Was I? column in the Sunday Times Travel section every week, I was pleased when they published a ‘play it for real’ version where you have to get out and about to solve the clues, rather than just relying on my Googling skills.

So it was that me and Master P took ourselves off to the Peak District on 5 September and here is our day. Words in italics are mine, normal type are the clues we were given. The camera icon links to other photos that there wasn’t room for here.

The Quest
Your starting point is a town just outside the southern tip of the Peak District National Park. It lies 13 miles northwest of a city whose name sounds like a sporting grudge match — which is a coincidence, because the place you’re after stages a historic one of its own, the annual Shrovetide football game. It’s absolute mayhem: not so much soccer, not even rugby — more like a good kicking.

Not too taxing. We’re to start northwest of Derby at Ashbourne, venue of the annual Royal Shrovetide Football match.

You’ll find your first puzzle in the triangular market square — a neat spot, all small bricks and tall windows, and hemmed in by teashops and inns. One of them features a rampaging St George, near-naked and giving one in the eye to the dragon. Step back and scan the building carefully, though, and you’ll discover that a second dragon is having the last laugh …

Q1 Where is he hiding?

Having driven over the Derbyshire hills through mist and low cloud, headlights on, we dropped into Ashbourne around 12.30 and immediately found the market square. Having parked the car we walked down the hill to the square. (How they play footie on these inclines is anyone’s guess.)

On the right, at the open end of the square, was the George and Dragon pub. We took photos as the traffic rumbled past. The relief of our patron saint is pretty gaudy, and I’m sure he should be wearing armour rather than an off the shoulder number. Photo

Still, glancing upward, we spotted the second dragon above the eaves to answer our first question.

Now aim down through the square, to the left of what sounds like a cellar bar, and past four green faces to find a black one — part of the bizarre sign of another old inn.

The ‘cellar bar’ was the Olde Vaults at the closed end of the square and spotted the four green faces between the windows of what turned out to be the offices of the Leek United Building Society. The ‘black face’ was found on the sign of the Horns, although we didn;t think it that bizarre.

Turn right here into Church Street, for a snoop among its characterful antiques shops and almshouses. The creatures above the door at Daniel Charles Antiques should give a clue to your next main destination. Before leaving town, though, walk on past the Elizabethan grammar school to visit cathedral-sized St Oswald’s church.

The creature above the antique shop was a cherub altough the shop itself appeared empty or at least in the process of being taken over as various people trooped purposely through its doors. We continued along Church Street as the drizzle worsened until we reached St Oswald’s.

Q2 How many boneheads guard its graveyard gates?
The top of the four pillars holding were each supported by four skulls, making 16 in all. Here is a photo of one peeping through the ivy. Look closely mind.

Time to move on. Next, we’re heading for a Peak District honeypot, a delectable dale that has inspired many writers. In any language, its name represents peace.

To get there, drive north for a mile on the A515, then turn left — and left again when you see signs of a hound and a hen. Now you’re aiming west, through a hamlet that shares its name with a Liberal Jeremy and a cricketing Graham. Cross the boundary into Staffordshire, turn first right and park your car (£2). Now hoof it past the ice cream hut and along the well-trodden trail into the gorge.

We headed north as instructed, through the village of Thorpe, but we didn’t cross the Staffordshire border, at least not just then. I’ve written about the road closed scam before, but eventually we arrived at Dove Dale after a very long detour, parked up and bought some excellent ice cream before heading up the valley.

Even a roaming legion of dog-walkers and school parties can’t dim the beauty of this place. The trout stream tinkles, the sun spangles off limestone crags, and silver scree slides in from every side. After about 10 minutes you’ll reach a popular river crossing — neither tunnel, nor bridge nor boat.

There were no dog-walkers or school parties, but it was truly beautiful, the sun having come out by then to glint off the river. We had wondered about the river crossing, guessing at a ford perhaps. In the event it was the more obvious stepping stones.

Q3 Which band?
Across you go. On the opposite bank, a sign warns walkers against camping and climbing; but read on, and the legend turns musical — you’ll find a band whose name virtually defines rock and roll….

The Rolling Stones, as expected, if not in the way we expected!

Back in the car, regain the lane and turn right. It’s less than a mile to your next target — a funny, faux-alpine village full of chalet-style cottages.

It was created in the 1820s by Jesse Watts-Russell as Staffordshire’s answer to Switzerland.

At the road junction stands another curiosity — could this be an underground church? The spire you see is actually Watts-Russell’s memorial to his wife, Mary, although the identity of its six statues is uncertain. Judging by the state of them nowadays, they could represent the wives of Henry VIII …

Q4 What might make you think so?
Again what we expected. Two of the statues had been ‘beheaded.’

Bear right, and left into the drive of the Watts-Russells’ former home, a mad, mock-gothic hall that crowds the valley with ramparts, turrets and temples. Remarkably, this is now Britain’s grandest youth hostel. Park up and explore the National Trust grounds, turning right along the riverbank to find the hermit holes where St Bertram is said to have repaired after his pregnant wife was devoured by wolves.

Another £2 to park having left my National Trust card at home. “So which way to the river?” I wondered. “Up there?” said Master P. “Er, no. Rivers tend to be at the bottom of hills, not at the top.”

Down we went, quickly finding the river and hanging a right. Next we found the hermit holes. There were three in all, though which was St Bertram’s we weren’t sure as there were no street numbers.

Q5 In which century was it carved?
Keep going for several minutes more, and you’ll find a shaft of stone — a remnant of a battle between Saxons and Danes …

There was mist again, this time coming off the river. Master P observed that it looked the perfect spot for a battle, like something out of Braveheart. Anyway a few hundred yards later, as the path parted from the river, we found the monument, carved in the 11th century to answer question five.

It’s lunchtime. Drive north from the village into definitive Peak District scenery: luminous lime-green pastures scored by improbably tidy stone walls. At a T-junction, make your lunch choice: left to Wetton, or right for Alstonefield.

From both villages, lanes thread north to the B5054. You need to follow it eastward for two miles or so to a settlement that has undergone Heart surgery (one ‘e’ extracted). It arranges itself impeccably around its square, complete with a working pottery, a cheese shop selling village-made Stilton, and a reedy duckpond.

Hanging out at the pub you’ll find a literary duo, busily using the net. They researched their famous work in nearby Beresford Dale in 1653, and it became the Compleat guide …

Q6 What item is the standing man holding?
Well it wasn’t lunchtime, more like mid-afternoon when we took the Alstonefield to Hartington. Master P spotted what we were after straight away on the sign over the Charles Cotton Hotel. Cotton and Izaak Walton were authors of the Compleat Angler, and the net they are using is one in the water, although you can’t really see it on the photo which was hard to shoot in the afternoon light.

Given that the hotel had given us the answer to question six — a fishing rod — it seemed only fair to take a seat outside and enjoy a break and a drink, Master P a pint of coke while I just had to sample the local Hartington Bitter from the Whim Brewery.

Ready for the final leg? Drive east to pick up the A515, then 10 miles northwest to reach your grandest stop yet, a place with a stout sense of Georgian self-importance — despite the fact that the fountainhead of its fame, its thermal spa, closed back in 1972. Even so, you can usually follow a trail of trickling water along the pavement to St Ann’s Well, where the townsfolk queue up to sip from the mineral spring, flowing continuously at 28C degrees.

A plaque outside a nearby hotel reveals that a queen once came here to treat her rheumatics. She would later suffer a serious pain in the neck …

Q7 When does the plaque say she visited?
A chance to relax again on the drive back to Buxton with Bill Bryson’s ‘Lost Continent’ on the CD somehow appropriate. We parked on the outskirts not really knowing where we were heading, but after a few missed turns, we found St Ann’s Well and in turn the Old Hall Hotel where Mary Queen of Scots was a summer visitor from 1576 to 1578 to answer question seven.

Continue around the corner to find an architectural show- stopper, the town’s double-domed opera house, designed by Frank Matcham in 1903. You needn’t go inside to find a stony-faced double act, playing up in the gods …

Q8 Which two items are these performers holding?
The Buxton Opera House was close by, in fact this photo was taken from more or less outside the hotel. Nor was it hard to find the “stony-faced double act” above the doors, but what were they holding?

The photo isn’t a good one with too much light behind it. We could work out that the one on the right held a horn or trumpet, but the one on the left? Even after looking at it through our binoculars, my best guess being a fish which didn’t seem likely.

We decided not to take any chances and went inside to try out our fish theory on the woman on the ticket desk. “A fish?” she said incredulously. “We’ve not had fish before. It’s a mask, a theatrical mask.” I still think it looks more like a fish.

Q9 Udderly delicious… What treat would you buy here?
Which left us with the last picture clue and back in our minds to Dove Dale and that delicious homemade dairy ice cream. I definitely recommend the caramel crunch, while Master P went for a chocolate and strawberry double which at £2 was better value than the car park!

It would be more than nice to win the prize of a two-week five-star holiday for two in Bangkok, Singapore and Borneo but I’m not holding my breath given the number of fellow treasure hunters we saw on a weekday. Even so, I would do it again because if nothing else, it reminds you of the most beautiful countryside on our doorstep.
And yes we did end the day by drinking from St Ann’s Fountain, sampling the ‘living waters’ and very good it was too — not quite so hot or sulphurous as expected!

So it was home for 5pm and a chip shop tea as a just reward.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

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