Our Travel blog
Sunday 14 August
Saltswell cottage in the Staffordshire village of Flash is where we honeymooned last year. Originally part of the Harpur Crewe North Staffordshire Estate it was sold as a cottage with Post Office at auction in 1922 when the estate was broken up. Saltswell then commanded a rent of £7 a year. Since it was built in 1904 it has been the village post office, a parish lending library and reading room, and was subsequently converted into a family cottage. By 2008 though it was little more than a ruin until renovation work started. It was completed this year by the same friends who run Shallowford House, after they purchased it a while ago as a getaway from their residential position.
The main part of the village clings to the hillside just below its brow, clustered around the church and The New Inn pub and acts as a centre for the many isolated farms and tiny hamlets scattered around the hills and moorlands. Most of the land is given over to sheep farming. Local coal mining, first recorded in 1401 finally ceased early in the 20th Century. The village of Flash has the distinction of being the highest in England at 1514 feet above sea level. In winter it is frequently snow-bound. A local saying is that Flash has 9 months of winter followed by 3 months of bad weather. Electricity finally came to the village in 1962 and mains water in March 1984.
In the past Flash was known as a rough place, attracting hawkers and villains who would squat in the desolate moors. Illegal activities such as prize fighting apparently took place nearby and local legend has it that counterfeit ‘flash’ money was pressed here. Undoubtedly the village’s proximity to the boarders of Cheshire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire at nearby Three Shires Head made escape easy for local miscreants, crossing easily into neighbouring counties where the local police couldn’t follow. Cock fighting was another local pastime despite being illegal in the UK since 1849; indeed adjacent to Saltswell there is what appears to be the remains of a cock fighting ring on a level piece of land.
Local Tory politician Sir George Harpur Crewe visited Flash around 1820 and is on record as saying Flash village was 'dirty, and bore marks principally of Poverty, Sloth, and Ignorance'. Mind you, George was a considerable philanthropist, driven by strong Christian principles and was considered "too conscientious for a Member of Parliament" according to The Gentleman’s Magazine (1844). It was his descendant, the strangely aloof and tyrannical Sir Vauncey Harpur Crewe, the 10th Baronet, who broke up and sold part of the estate in 1922 that led to the freehold purchase of Saltswell.
Just outside the village on the A53, are Flash Bar Stores and the Traveller's Rest pub. The pub is mostly given over to food, and decorated throughout in a medieval theme, with suits of armour, shields and swords hanging on the walls and heavy oak tables and chairs of a type that wouldn’t be out of place in a castle. It’s all very quirky but the food is good and the service pleasant. The shop next door hosts a small café, popular with bikers who flock to the area to enjoy the local roads with their infamous bends. Its shelves are stocked with the kind of goods you only find in small out of the way places where the shop is a local lifeline. So sheets of fine leaf gelatine sit alongside damp start for your car, birthday cake candles, sets of spanners and greetings cards for every conceivable occasion.
Happily we were spending a few days holed up in Saltswell in return for continuing with our newly acquired gardening addiction, having promised to clear the weeds from the driveway and ragwort and other intruders from the verges. Like the battle hardened horticultural troopers we are we unpacked Mavis and promptly put the kettle on. After a cheery cuppa we immediately put the kettle back on and settled into an evening of watching lithe Olympic athletes on TV while we sprawled on the sofa shovelling carbohydrates into our faces.
The pictures below show Saltswell in 2008 and 2016.
Monday 15th August
Feeling slightly ashamed at waking up after 9am we pottered about on the driveway and gradually got into our stride, clearing everything not anchored to the bedrock and as our momentum slowly built we found ourselves ferrying bags of weeds and debris up to their final resting place on the hill behind Saltswell, part of its 2 acres of steep land.
Around 3pm we stood back and admired our handy work, before jumping into Mavis for an essential supply run into nearby Buxton. Here we provisioned with goods of the type that require an oven. In Mavis we don’t have an oven so have learnt to ‘top cook’ on the gas rings. Having a range to cook on is a novelty and so we set in motion our plan to survive on a baked and roast diet for our time in Flash.
Tuesday 16th August
Mid-morning we were greeted by Saltswell’s owner armed with a smile, a strimmer and an exciting weed killer spray with a back pack like an astronaut’s. Thus the morning passed for Alison in a blur of whirring vegetation while I pranced about pleased as punch liberally spraying everything vaguely green and pretending at various times to be a space man, deep sea diver and Ghostbuster.
Talking of Ghostbusters my mother had an uncanny resemblance to them. She kept a special Hoover of the old cylinder hover type upstairs whose solitary purpose was to vacuum up spiders. Her phobia of the harmless arachnids went far beyond mere fear to a place of special loathing, as if they’d evolved over millions of years for the express purpose of giving her a bit of a fright. I’d often call in to an apparently empty home to find her on the landing wearing my late father’s beige mackintosh for protection and towing the hoover with its extra-long hose that she’d had engineered specially. She would place a finger to her lips and whisper ‘shush Raymond, I think there’s one under the chair’ and turning on the appliance she would attack the poor beast with all 1300 Watts, sucking up anything in the vicinity, tissues, sheets of wallpaper, the dog for example, along with it. To be fair we did get some large spiders in Suffolk. Occasionally you could hear their footsteps on the kitchen floor. Even the dog avoided them.
If the ‘infestation’ was severe, more than 2 sightings in a month as far as my mother was concerned, she would employ some sort of chemical smoke bomb. Goodness knows where these came from, probably Vietnam via some black market army surplus store. They were certainly effective. The house would rattle to the sound of bugs falling from the beams while she took the dog out ‘for its protection’. Returning to the house she would crunch over twitching creatures of all varieties, a few birds, the odd bat and but for chance me, as I was still in my bedroom coughing away through the cloud of noxious fumes and admiring the purple pixies and dancing unicorns coming out of the wallpaper.
Happily I survived all manner of such attacks long enough to be able to play in the garden at Flash until, with a sad face I realised the weed killer had run out and Alison took me inside before I got over excited. Duly rested we took ourselves off over the hills behind Saltswell for a ramble. The first hurdle was a small stile into a field. Fortunately a local man was busy painting the footpath sign and advised us to take a short diversion as the cows in the field were particularly aggressive and stealthy. Apparently this meant they creep up behind you and deliver a nasty shove. I had visions of them sneaking up on tip-hoof, tapping us on the shoulder and then disappearing behind the nearest rock, sniggering as we looked about for the mystery shoulder tappers. Or maybe I’d just inhaled too much weed killer.
Thus forewarned we moseyed onwards, picked up the path and found some comely rocks to perch on overlooking Knotbury, the hamlet that lies in the valley behind Flash. It was a lovely day, sunny with a cooling breeze; the moors were vivid purple with heather and the fields green and gold. There were no signs of life in the valley save for a few sheep grazing lazily on the hillside below. Apart from occasionally checking over our shoulders for cows creeping up it was a perfect moment. We shared water and wearily stretched our legs for the homeward journey, into the valley and out via the road, past Flash Bar Stores and back to Saltswell in time to stick anything that would survive temperatures over 200oC into the oven for dinner.
Wednesday 17 August
While taking breakfast we became aware of a faint alarm sound. Similar to that of a digital alarm clock, which we assumed belonged to the owners and was upstairs somewhere, probably in a cupboard. Setting off to find it I opened the curtains to a scene of carnage on the busy Leek to Buxton road outside. The accident, a nasty rear end shunt into a stationary car went completely unheard by us inside. The alarm turned out to be from the iPhone of the driver of the car rammed from behind who had it connected via Bluetooth and which somehow realised that the car had been hit and was signalling a warning – having alerted the emergency services remotely.
We opened Saltswell up as a tea and sympathy mission, ministering to the walking wounded and letting the ambulance crew use the living room for examinations while the police sorted out the road. Happily no one was severely injured and by early afternoon the drama was over, we tidied up and decided that we’d halve our original plan of a long circular walk to Buxton and back and just walk into town and get a cab home.
We set out up steep access roads leading to remote cottages and farms and generally more suited to walking than driving. The path led us through a gap in the hedge, over Axe Edge and onto a faint footpath, cutting off at right angles to the track at Dane Head, where the River Dane springs from the gap between Axe Edge Moor and Featherbed Moors. Our route took us through moorland wrapped in heather, the scent wafting over the heavy peat and rich earthy aromas from the watery ground on either side of the path. Deep black trenches appeared, overhung with heather at the top and green moss, bright against the murky soil lower down. In some water ran, trickling to join the many streams that feed The Dane. Others held pools of dark stagnant water, fingers of pale green algae spreading on the surface of dark satanic mirrors.
We crossed Thatch Marsh, a boggy area where the path petered out as previous walkers had picked their way across by whatever route promised the surest, driest crossing. At one point we ‘rafted’ over, hopping across floating beds of moss, springing onto the next before we had a chance to sink into the ooze, until we made firmer ground where we could pause, watching the bog burble and bubble back into shape after our rude traverse. The dry weather made our passage a lot more comfortable than we could otherwise have hoped for and soon we picked up the path and rested at a rocky outcrop for water and a check on the map before descending via an old drovers road to cross the busy A537 and onwards through old coal mining country, now almost clear of the scars of heavy industry save for warning signs around abandoned shafts.
Skirting The Terret, a bare green hill topped with trees in a formation that always reminds me of the head of a punk version of the jolly green giant, we walked down the old Macclesfield to Buxton road. This is a rocky track suitable only for the most extreme 4x4 off road motor vehicles of the sort found extensively in The Peak District, but it was fine for walking. We followed the road winding down the hillside as it gradually became a passable sandy track then uneven tarmac until in Burbage on the outskirts of Buxton it developed into a modest carriageway suitable for cars and buses.
By way of footpaths and pavements we found ourselves in Buxton’s busy formal civic park, several acers of manicured lawns and recreation with the river splashing through over rocks and around the toes of paddling children. It was a bright sunny afternoon and the folk of Buxton were out in force enjoying the park. Elderly visitors wrapped in cardigans sat within sight of their coach, watching children play while they supped tea, lovers wandered arms linked as if their very life depended upon each other’s touch, mums awkwardly kicked footballs for toddlers to chase, children drove baby siblings in pushchairs, sticky with ice cream and other sugary confections and couples sat silently together, wondering what to say to each other while their children amused themselves in the playground. It was a wonderful summer scene, sunshine and shade accompanied by the constant soundtrack of shrill laughter, screams of delight, chattering and the murmurs of diverse accents and languages fading in and out; fragments of conversations, glimpses into others’ lives as they stroll by, dialogue heard and instantly forgotten in the joyful hubbub.
We sought refuge from the sun in the cool oasis of the tea rooms, where genteel folk were finishing afternoon tea before being whisked home on their coaches. We supped as politely as two parched sweaty walkers are able to, a pretence of polite society that we dropped as soon as the After Eight cheesecake arrived and we dived in with gusto. Pausing only to apologise to the cake flecked diners around us we ventured out into Buxton just as it was closing. Signboards were being dragged in, shutters closed and open signs turned to face in. Without any real plans we stocked up at the Aldi stores and got a cab back to Saltswell. Our driver was charming company with an easy going friendliness that seems to come readily to the people around here. We exchanged views on traditional drinking pubs vs their modern dining equivalent, property prices and the quirks and charms of characters local to Flash, an area our driver knew well.
Later, safely ensconced in Saltswell we reflected on how much we like Buxton. It has a good range of shops, many of which are still independent, a railway line into Manchester, good walking into the Peaks, fine civic amenities, cheap housing, a charming park and even an opera house; food for thought.
Thursday 18 August.
Sad to leave Saltswell and Flash (and secretly to leave a comfy bed) we packed slowly and left Flash as the morning fog was lifting and the sun was warming the fields. We were due in Cambridge for a few days, using it as a base to make some necessary domestic arrangements. We broke the journey at the strange Derby South Services, a nether-world that promises to be a busy motorway stop but is actually one almost empty hanger sized space with a few vending machines, a magazine rack and for some reason a single display of high visibility jackets. We didn’t linger, choosing to lunch in Mavis before re-joining the motorway and making our way down the A14, the world’s most boring road. The only relief was counting the stationary cars in the 6 or so mile tailback going the other way.
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