... otherwise known as the Great Vulture Failure of 2020 🦅😂
In early July, a bearded vulture (aka lammergeier) was spotted travelling across the Belgian lowlands. A few days later, it was seen over the Netherlands. Then, in an incredibly unlikely event, it appeared above Cambridgeshire! Finally, after what must have been quite a few days on the wing, the bird appeared to settle in the north part of the Peak District, initially around Edale valley before finding a "permanent" roost in the cliffs just north of the Crowden campsite, near the Pennine Way. It was big news, particularly amongst conservation circles, because this was only the second confirmed sighting in the UK and the first semi-resident (as in, the bird was actively roosting and feeding within the country, rather than simply stopping over to rest). It was also more than a little worrying as that region is home to grouse moors, which have a less-than-stellar track record of preserving our country's endemic birds, particularly our (much smaller/harder to target) native raptors. As the Wildlife Trust put it:
It is deeply worrying that the Bearded Vulture has ended up in hot spot for wildlife crime and bird of prey persecution.
As the weeks ticked over, though, the vulture seemed to be thriving. Far from simply regaining some strength and heading off, it fell into a fairly predictable pattern. At around the same time, the British government began to lift lockdown restrictions and started promoting "staycation" getaways. Alison was asked to take some time off in September by her employer to try and spread out staff absences, and the Peak District began to look like an increasingly positive place for us to visit. It's a wild area, so there wouldn't be many other people about, and it hasn't had particularly bad outbreaks (touch wood); we have several friends in the area, or close enough that it would be easy to meet up; it's about equidistant between London and Cumbria, so an ideal location to actually see my parents without needing to use public transport; and, of course, there was the possibility of being part of a historic British wildlife event.
Plans began to fall into place. We found a beautiful little cottage in the village of Hadfield, right on the edge of the Dark Peaks and only a short drive from Crowden itself, with a fully hands-off checkin process (key safe) to reduce the risk to all involved. We worked out the best weekend to overlap with my parents, set up various outings to see friends, and crossed thumbs that the weather would be good enough to get in some hiking/vulture hunting. Plus, of course, I picked up that birding telephoto lens earlier in the year and this was an ideal time to get some proper use out of it!
In the runup to the weekend, the weather forecast looked ideal. I began scouring Twitter on a daily basis and was pretty much always rewarded with new photos of the vulture, normally around the cliffs at Crowden or swooping over the peaks just beyond them. So on Friday morning, Alison packed up our stuff (I was on a half day at work) and, after lunch, we hopped in the car and headed north. It was an easy ride and we even managed to hear news that the vulture had been seen heading back to the cliffs that evening. Arriving in Hadfield we found the cottage to be everything we'd hoped for, microwaved our reduced Indian collection from a Waitrose service station we'd picked up en route, and had a relaxing evening watching live TV for the first time in ages.
Saturday: Pickled Pheasants, Kites, and the Gardens of Huddersfield
Saturday morning we got up early-ish, but it was our first day of holiday all year so we didn't exactly push it. We threw the stuff we needed for the day in the car and drove out to Crowden, found a parking spot, and arbitrarily set off on one of the many fell hikes that begin there. It was at least 10am by this point, so I knew the vulture was likely already on the move; the plan wasn't to look for it that morning, but just get a feel for the area. We had plans to meet up with friends for lunch anyway, so couldn't really stick around. Still, it was a nice start to the trip and a beautiful day; we bumped into quite a few other walkers and even got chatting (at an appropriate distance) to a local out with his dog, who pointed out which cliffs the vulture had been using and told us roughly where it would go most days. Turns out it had developed a fairly strict routine; it was also a much earlier riser than I had figured. I guess I'd just assumed that – like a lot of vultures in South Africa – bearded vultures would wait until the earth was warm and the thermals were quite strong before launching off the roost, but apparently not. "Viggo", as some locals had taken to calling it, was frequently up and off straight after sunrise, so we would need to arrive much earlier if we hoped to have a chance of spotting "him" (no one knows the bird's sex and different groups had adopted different pronouns, I also learnt) in the morning. We thanked the hiker for his guidance, explored a little more, and returned to the car.
Lunch was just over the other side of the peaks, in a rather picturesque village called Holmbridge. Here we met up with Sam and Alice, who we haven't seen since their wedding last year (!), for a hearty affair at the wonderfully named Pickled Pheasant. It was our first insight into post-lockdown life outside of London and it definitely felt, well, less organised. Menus still exist in the Peak District for a start, and masks were occasionally forgotten by staff (genuinely forgotten, too, rather than ignored or discouraged), but overall it still felt safe enough. We had our own masks, of course, plus hand gel aplenty, particularly as both Sam and Alice work in the medical field for the NHS, so it wasn't a problem, merely a little different to what we've come to expect. At any rate, it was brilliant to be back in a proper pub, with friends, catching up and generally having a good time.
As for the food, I went for an extremely generous mustard, chicken, bacon, and mushroom puff pie (delicious, though if you're not a mustard-fiend like I, you might struggle a bit 😂), followed by their cheesecake of the day: Reese's peanut butter cups! That's right, not only was this an excellent and homey pub, with good beer (I had a half of their own bitter) and solid food, but they also have a cheesecake of the day and we happened to luck out with one of the best chocolates on the market as the featured ingredient. The result was divine and I would happily go back for a second round of all of it any time 🤤
Post-lunch, we drove up towards Huddersfield to Castle Hill, a slightly bizarre almost-folly built on the top of one of the (surprisingly) many hills around the city. The hill itself has a long and storied history, with Neolithic burials, Bronze and Iron Age forts, and more recent occupation all evident around the plateau, but it's now primarily dominated by a 900+ foot tower that seemed most similar to the defensive "Peel Towers" of Cumbria than any castle I've ever seen. The tower/castle was built to commemorate Queen Victoria (I forget which precise jubilee it was, but a jubilee none-the-less), though it's been modified a few times since, mainly to make it safer for visitors. There's also a cast iron and timber signal burner that was apparently lit for the Millenium as part of a Lord of the Rings-style signal system across the Pennines that I've somehow never heard of before. Oh, and a car park and some large, flat, grassy areas, which turned out to be ideal for kite flying, which is how we spent the next couple of hours of our day.
Eventually, arms aching and kites packed away, we said farewell to Sam and Alice and began thinking of our next stop, meeting another friend who had recently moved to Huddersfield proper to begin a new teaching job. Well, that was the plan at least. Having had radio silence from Richard all day, we Googled nearby attractions and found ourselves exploring Beaumont Park whilst waiting to learn of his availability. In the end, Rich turned out to be too busy and we rescheduled for Monday evening instead, but I'm incredibly glad we got to discover this bizarre and fascinating local area anyway.
Walking around Beaumont Park is a little like tripping into Wonderland or some other fantasy realm; the similarities to both The Elder Scrolls and the Witcher franchises were particularly ever-present. Whilst the area we parked next to was a fairly typical kids' play park with easily maintainable flowered borders, every step we took deeper into the gardens seemed like a step further from reality. For starters, the entire thing has been built into a fairly steep-sided valley, which gave the Victorian gardeners ample opportunity for terracing and split-levels. It's also clearly a fairly old park which embraced existing woodland into its design, which gives it the air of somewhere almost ancient. In turn, that mystical nature has been amplified by whoever architected the place, with hidden amphitheatres, dead ends, fake caves, and countless twisting, cliffside walkways that constantly cut back on themselves, loop underneath other paths, or just split multiple times only to all come back together again further along. Down near the lowest levels we even found faux-city-walls and gates with rampart walkways, built pre-aged and ruinous and now, naturally, even more so, with ivy and buddleia bursting from every crack and crevice.
From the information boards scattered around it would seem that the park was once even more bizarre. Whilst some structures, like the bandstand, have been recreated or kept, others such as the castellated restaurant have been entirely removed. What's more, right at the bottom of the now fully forested valley, a single track is all that's left to show of a railway that once ran through the area. Oh, and the entire surreal experience is heightened by the scattering of black plaques inscribed with local efforts at poetry, from a wide range of ages. Some are merely a little sombre or dull, but the local children are clearly a special kind of possessed, with lines about terrifying monsters and death throughout. One particularly cheery little girl described her day exploring the park, slipping in the mud, and then finding herself looking at the grave of another young girl, as blood fell from her eyes and her "frozen heart finally felt something"! I'm convinced that wasn't written by a child, not a living one at least... 👻
At any rate, we had a great time wandering and exploring the surprisingly long, dense, and surreal park scape and I'd thoroughly recommend a visit to anyone who happens to be in the area! Plus, the views from the top back towards Castle Hill and the huge viaduct over the River Holme are beautiful in the golden light of an ending day.
With our plans rescheduled with Richard, we wandered back to the car and Alison began researching somewhere we could get some food on the drive home. I took a look to see what the vulture had been up to; well, I was in for a surprise. For the first time in over two months, the bearded vulture "Viggo" had broken routine and been spotted multiple times back in Edale Valley, south of where we were staying. Oh no! Still, our plans were to see my parents the next day at Mam Tor, just south of Edale, so who knows? Maybe we would spot the vulture together! (Spoiler: we did not.)
Sunday: Dad & Mam (Tor)
The vulture had vanished. No one had seen it roost overnight, so it could have been anywhere: back in Crowden, still in Edale, or even halfway back to France. Oh well, Sunday was our family day anyway, so it was up, out, and down to Mam Tor and Treak Cliff Cavern to meet my parents. This area of the Peak District (known coloquially as the High Peaks) is the only place on the planet where a particular blue gemstone is commercially mined: Blue John (it most likely gets its name from a mistranslation to-and-from French). The mining has been going on for generations, with a total of (I believe) 15 seams so far discovered, and mainly around the base of Mam Tor, where several mines have become tourist attractions, allowing people to wander around the old cave systems in which the gems can be found. Post-lockdown, they're operating a highly-staggered service with self-guided tours via phone apps, which actually worked quite well (even if the proposed Bluetooth trigger panels never kicked in).
Despite getting to the cavern with plenty of time to spare, we still almost ended up being late for our prebooked slot, initially because we'd parked at the wrong caves (not realising how close the three "open" mines were), then due to my own stupidity trying to get everything I needed. In the end, apart from masks and a good low-light camera, I shouldn't really have worried; I certainly didn't need the scarf or second jumper I ended up carting around!
The tour itself was enjoyable and pretty interesting, with lost veins, local folklore, and an unexpectedly complex stalagmite cavern at the end, complete with large drip catcher that actually supplied the drinking water for the visitor centre above – or possibly below by that point; caves are confusing and disorienting, you feel like you're always going down but we came out uphill of the centre somehow! Back in the open air, we paused to soak in the beautiful weather and views (plus the local hangliders and kestrels) before a quick look around the small attached museum and purchasing of lunch – though not to be eaten here. Instead, we drove up the hill – which meant going back up the incredibly steep and stunning (and luckily short) Winnats Pass, which the Yaris just managed despite the best efforst of two cyclists on the final blind rise – to the National Trust car park at Mam Tor and (incredibly luckily) both got spaces.
Up the tor we went, distancing as much as possible on the tracks and looking out for the small metal insets detailing aspects of Iron Age life on the peaks. Mam Tor isn't quite the tallest hill in the Peak District – that would be Kinder Scout, just north of Edale and very visible throughout our walk – but it's not far off, on top of which it has steep sides (a cliff amphitheatre on one side) and good views over the valleys below. In other words, it's an ideal defensive point, which is why it was used for centuries by all manner of people. The very peak itself is actually a burial cairn (so technically artificially heightened 😉) and the whole top point is ringed by both a ditch and earthen wall, the remnants of an Iron Age hill fort that once contained 50+ individual buildings.
Despite all of that, the hike up was fairly gentle and whilst the peak was quite crowded we easily found a spot on the calmer, northern slope to sit and eat our lunch. We'd brought some pork pies up with us, augmented by Treak Cliff pasties (very sturdy and still pleasantly warm). Alison had grabbed a cheese scone as well, whilst I'd opted for some Blue John marble cake (which hadn't made it past the car park in reality 😂). Lunch eaten, far valleys scoured with binoculars for circling winged shadows, socially distanced group photos taken, and one entrepid hanglider launch later, we packed up and split apart. Dad, Alison and I continued on towards Great Ridge to complete a short circular hike, whilst Mum decided to stick around on the peak and head down the shorter route we'd come up. It was an extremely pleasant walk and as soon as we left the main bridleway we barely saw any other people, choosing a less-well-trod path round the base of the Tor proper before dropping down to the now defunct Old Mam Tor road, passed the Blue John Cavern visitor centre that we'd incorrectly parked in earlier that day, and back up to the car park.
Our route took us past intrepid mountain bikers, two young guys testing out some racing drones, a beautiful sighting of a kestrel out hunting, and the Blue John ice cream shop (strawberry and cream Calypso is pretty decent). Plus onto that aforementioned defunct road, which is a pretty phenomenal site. Originally the main route down to Castleton, one too many landslips had seen it abandoned, now used as a walking trail and nothing more. The landslip itself is incredible to see, as are the sheer number of layers of tarmac and concrete it exposed, showing how many times the road had been repaired in the past. What's left looks like something out of Inception, all neatly folded and collapsed into itself, as though the road had been heated up to drip and flow over the landscape like a Dalí clock.
Back at the car park and reunited with Mum, I checked on the progress of the vulture. Bad news again: a confirmed sighting in Leicestershire. The vulture was out of the Peak District and most likely heading home to the Alps. After three months of planning and wondering if we might be able to spot it, we overlapped with the UKs second-ever bearded vulture for all of 12 hours, for most of which both parties were sound asleep. At this point Mum revealed that she'd promised my Gran that if we failed to spot the vulture she'd get a picture of me wearing a mocked-up beak instead... somehow between the car park and our evening meal that topic was subtly side stepped and distracted from. Oh well 😏
Vultures now forgotten, we drove down to Castleton, to explore the town where my parents were staying. Castleton takes its name from Peveril Castle, which sits atop the hill above the town in a way that it's all but invisible from street level itself. Unfortunately, access to the castle is tightly controlled, these days more than ever, so our quest to see it in the setting sunlight was largely in vain. Our walk did take us up to Peak Cavern, a huge opening in the cliff face beneath the castle, large enough to host concerts (and routinely did, in the before-times 😁) and home to a huge colony of raucous jackdaws (and one incredibly loud wren!). Castleton itself is a beautiful little town, with several streams criss-crossing through the old village gardens and greens – replete with dabbling ducks – and seemingly about one pub per household. In other words, you can tell its a hiking centre 😂
We ate at Ye Olde Nags Head (yeah, it's that kind of quaint English town 😉), a very comfortable modernised pub with a good selection of ales (driving, sigh) and an excellent bangers'n'mash speciality menu that I completely ignored. Instead, I had BBQ pizza with extra pineapple. It was a veritable feast and a perfectly solid pub pizza, though it wiped me out so much I couldn't even consider dessert. It's not the kind of place I'd rush back to, but after a solid days hiking and with local lodgings I would more than happily go back and spend a long evening eating, drinking, and resting my feet. As it was, as an end to an excellent day of seeing family, it seemed like a fitting closing point.
Monday: No Vulture, What Do?
Monday had been earmarked as our vulture-hunting day, but with "Viggo" now just as likely to have left British air space than not, we found ourselves without any real plans. Alison had expressed an interest in walking a part of the Pennine Way, so after a lazy morning with Chinese brunch, we drove back up to Crowden, parked up (in a now much less busy car park) and realised that it just felt like a bad day to head up to bleak moors. The sun was beating down, blue skies in all directions, so if we didn't want to fry it might be better to stay near some semblance of shade.
Luckily, the valley in which Crowden is situated has a sequence of reservoirs running down its centre, created an interlocking sequence of circular walks. Off we set down Torside, hugging the wooded shore just beneath the A628, with every intention to cross at the junction between it and Rhodeswood Reservoir and then possibly head up the southern side of the valley on the Pennine Way for a little while, where forestry plantations might offer both elevation and escape from the midday heat. Unfortunately, that section of the walk turned out to be closed for maintenance, but nevermind, down the next reservoir we went, crossing at the next junction instead. By this point, the shaded walk seemed lovely, so we kept on our current bearing, now down the south side of Valehouse Reservoir, only to cross back at the head of Bottoms Reservoir and circle round to head back up the valley and towards the car from there.
It was a lovely, albeit quite flat walk, with a whole host of interesting little areas, some local zebra-camouflaged horses, a few ducks, two dogwalkers with about a dozen different sizes between them (all allowed to frolic on the banks of one of the reservoirs in a truly bizarre scene), and plenty of weird and fascinating engineering feats to prevent water overflows between the reservoirs from ever becoming problematic (the main gist appears to be "put concrete in the way" 😁). As we got back to the car we realised the return trip had been a bit quicker than the way out, despite a couple of bench-stops to nibble on Pringles and swig some water, so when we re-found the Pennine Way we turned across the A-road and followed it back up into the northern hills, towards the old vulture roost, and down to another really interesting bridge, before finding ourselves back at the car park. Because the entire area is practically man made at this stage (the reservoirs are not natural at all, just making use of a high-rainfall valley) there hadn't been too much in the way of wildlife, but an occasional pheasant or kestrel had been interesting enough and the almost five hours had disappeared in a blink, making it suddenly late afternoon and time to think about heading out.
Crowden has some publicly accessible toilets. They're disgusting but just about useable as a place to change (clothes bundled under one arm, simultaneously praying you don't drop something onto the weirdly blackened clay tile floor or that some gnarled hiker doesn't suddenly stroll in whilst you're in your scivvies balancing on distinctly townie trainers), so change we did, ready to drive back over the top into Huddersfield once more to (actually) see Rich. Apparently, Huddersfield is not a bustling place on Monday evenings, and the only restaurant of note he'd been able to find that was open for reservations was attached to the local Premier Inn, but the parking was free, the mac'n'cheese burger was absolutely delicious, and the outside table next to the canal was a perfect place to trade tales and chat for an hour or two before his new teaching duties called him away to prep for the following day.
Tuesday: Southward Bound
After a wonderful stay, we wiped down our little cottage, packed the car, and (for the first time) had a quick chat with our hosts before waving goodbye to Hadfield and striking south. Rather than rush back on motorways, we'd given ourselves the whole day to wind through the Peak District, up and over Snake Pass, round towards Castleton, through Brough and over to Monsal Head for a quick stop to look at the view, then on and out of the National Park to Carsington Water (yet another reservoir).
With the disappointment of the bearded vulture, I'd done some searching around for a possible WWT or RSPB reserve en route, and Carsington Water had been the best fit. Unfortunately, when we arrived it was to find a watersports and family activity centre, not an RSPB nature reserve. Confused (and without any signal on either phone), we assumed that we'd wound up at the wrong part of the lake, and promptly circumnavigated it. By the time we came back around, Alison had found a few bars and confirmed that she'd been right all along: this was the only visitor centre. The RSPB aspect was simply a shop... whoops!
Fortunately, that shop was adjacent to a lovely little restaurant with outside tables on a first floor balcony overlooking the water. Despite the slight breeze, it made a perfect pit stop, so we grabbed a table and thoroughly enjoyed a lunch of bacon-cheese burger (where, much to my surprise, the maple-salt-bacon was the star of the show!) and local Bakewell tart (having failed to find a car-accessible bakery whilst driving through the titular town itself about an hour earlier). Delicious. One quick walk around the area directly next to the visitor centre and our prepaid parking was coming to an end, so we hopped into the car and scooted off once more, now to join motorways proper and put some distance down.
Still, we were loath to just turn up back in London after such a nice break, so Alison managed to find (and book) a table at The Ferry in Cookham. It was a brilliant discovery and one we'll need to remember; overlooking the Thames, only a short (and easy) drive out of London, and with a superb menu. I thoroughly enjoyed their speciality chipotle jam chicken to start (genuinely brilliant), whilst Alison ate her fried brie so quickly I didn't even get a sniff 😁 That was followed by a perfectly cooked Asian duck salad, before closing out on a decadent salted caramel billionaires bar; this was probably a bit too chocolatey to really be considered "salted caramel" (or even "billionaires") but it was still pretty darn tasty.
And that, as they say, was that. Zero vultures, but four fantastic days spent catching up with friends and family, exploring a new area of the UK, and generally getting as far away from the tropes of city life as possible. Delicious food, great hikes, good company... oh, and even if the birding didn't go to plan, we did spot a hare (though almost certainly not the rarer mountain hare, which does have a small introduced population in the area) on the drive over the moors on Saturday and a hedgehog trundling around the roads in Hadfield on Sunday! And who knows? If the vulture returns, maybe I haven't missed my shot completely 🦅