The Manifold Valley, known as the Little Switzerland of Staffordshire, is really a quintessential English landscape of deep-cut dales, broad-leafed woodlands, drystone-wall-bordered fields and caves carved in limestone cliffs.
From Waterhouses, the 12.8km Manifold Way follows the route of the dismantled Leek and Manifold Light Railway along quiet country lanes and asphalt paths through the Hamps and Manifold river valleys. The giant red deer, mammoths and bears that took refuge in spectacular Thor’s Cave above the route are long gone, but the fossilised sea creatures set in limestone remain – evidence the landlocked Staffordshire of today lay under a tropical ocean some 335 million years ago.
1. Tropics to ice
From the car park off Earlsway in Waterhouses (just beyond Ye Olde Crown Hotel) take the path to the main road. Crossing the road, turn right and walk along the pavement until you see a bridge over the Hamps. Cross to Brown End Quarry nature reserve and Brown End Farm Cycle Hire. Take time to explore the reserve with its great layers of tilted rocks. You’re unlikely to spot the corals, crinoids and brachiopods here that helped geologists date the site, but the excellent information boards will help you visualise the Carboniferous Period when the quarry lay just off an atoll teeming with marine life, as well as the frozen wastes of the ice age when mammoths (pictured left) roamed the area.
Let your bike ease you gently downhill through the bucolic Hamps Valley, criss-crossing the meandering river course. Cycle through meadow and woodland for about 1.5 miles until you reach Lee House Farm Tea Room and Garden. Here, you can treat yourself to a cream tea and fine views of the surrounding uplands.
3. Manifold drama
Where the River Hamps joins the Manifold, the landscape becomes increasingly wild. Precipitous meadows rise up as grassy walls, only broken by jagged cliffs that puncture the sky. Soon, you’ll see Thor’s Cave, a colossal gaping mouth in a slab of limestone high above the valley.
4. Thor’s Cave
Chain up your bike and climb the steep wooded pathway, taking a right turn to traverse the hillside to the cave. Watch your feet: the hewn steps are packed with crinoids and the odd brachiopod. Scrambling into the cavern is a challenge, but worth the effort.
The cathedral-like space is impressive, as are the finds it yielded. Along with the bones of prehistoric animals, primitive tools were discovered here, dating from the Bronze Age through to Roman times.
5. Riverside mill
Soon the asphalt path joins a quiet country lane. To quench your thirst after the combined cycle and climb, cross the humpback bridge to Wetton Mill Tea Rooms, an idyllic spot next to the babbling Manifold River.
6. Swainsley tunnel
Beyond a curious riverside round tower – a small dovecote built on the grounds of 19th-century Swainsley Hall – you plunge into the long, dark and narrow Swainsley Tunnel. Cross the road to rejoin the off-road trail.
7. Cycle’s end
The track ends at the old railway station Tea Junction tea rooms and information centre at Hulme End. Take time to explore the hamlet with its elegant stone-built Manifold Inn, humpback bridge, Bank House Farm campsite and verdant meadows fringing a loop of the Manifold River. Have a well-earned rest at the inn or tea room before retracing your route back to Waterhouses.
Click on the map below for an interactive version of the route.