Shirley to Ashbourne, by Mark Halliwell [Back to start]
It dawned a fabulous day for my last leg of the Centenary Way, and the first half of the section from Shirley to Ashbourne turned out to be a highlight of the whole route. Recommencing just south of Shirley, I set off north on Church Lane past the pretty cottages and gardens, and the excellent Saracens Head pub on the left. Straight after the pub and just before St Michael’s Church on the right, the Centenary Way turns up left past some houses, and then heads downhill across and along the verges of several fields. As I approached the woods ahead, a Roe Deer emerged for a few short moments at the far side of the field on the right, keeping close to the cover of the woods.
Now alongside an extension of the woods on my right, I joined a boardwalk across marshy ground and crossed over Shirley Brook: an attractive spot. I entered the mixed woodland, bright sunlight pouring through the tall trees, soggy, wide path across the forest floor, woodpiles and fungi, rhododendrons in bloom, warblers, song thrushes and woodland birds in full song. Every direction was a beautiful photo-in-waiting, multi-layers of vivid scenery adding more depth than seemed possible. I needed to breathe all of this in and become part of it. Still early morning, this was a magical space.
This is Greaves’s Wood and Shirley Park, all part of the Osmaston Park estate, now managed from Okeover since Osmaston Manor was demolished in 1965. There are four lakes of note within the 3,000-acre estate, and the stunning woodland gave way to a view of the first lake ahead, with its waterfowl and trees around the shore. The path turns right into the woods and crosses a small, concrete bridge over the lake outflow, which becomes Shirley Brook. Another lake soon appeared on the left with a heron and lily pads. The Way heads uphill through the woods, flanked by no-entry signs into other areas of the estate, signs that clearly didn’t apply to birds, based on the song all around.
At the top of the hill, the Bonnie Prince Charlie Walk (BPCW) is met again, at a track crossroads with woods on three sides, and the fourth with open fields where I’ve seen hares and Red Kites before. Turning left, both Ways descend through trees to reach the old Osmaston Sawmill, dating from the 1840s. This extremely attractive spot is between the two main lakes of the estate, and the mill has its own pond surrounded by colourful rhododendrons. The track crosses over the dam for the upper lake to the right, and trees below on the left hint at the shape of the second main lake, both with a great wildlife.
The path rises, initially through estate fields and then woods, reaching the pretty village of Osmaston. This was initially set up as an estate village, also built in the mid-nineteenth century, and including a 160-year-old duck pond, which was an ideal spot for a coffee. In other times, the Shoulder of Mutton has proven a superb pub lunch stop during walks. Suitably refreshed, I followed Moor Lane through the village and, shortly after passing the impressive neo-gothic church on the right, took the track angling away to the left. The Way led across fields, then through some large pens of alpacas at Whitemeadow, and a caravan park, before descending to the A52.
A straightforward crossing and some steps led to a bad surprise! The Way was blocked by some houses being built on the edge of Ashbourne. I diverted along the A52, rejoining the route at the Wyaston Road junction with Willow Meadow Road. Dan and Samantha, of Derbyshire County Council and Ashbourne Town Council, have since reassured me that the short, blocked section will be reopened February 2021.
Now on the highest part of The Way, I continued north to the second roundabout on Wyaston Road, then straight on and taking the path to the left just as Old Hill began its steep descent. As I headed out into the fields of the hill spur at The Leys, the view ahead was excellent. Here, Ashbourne suddenly appears spread out below with the impressively steepled St Oswald’s Church reaching 212 feet high, whilst beyond rise the hills of Dovedale and the Peak District, an exciting sign of other adventures past and yet to come. The sharp descent ends at houses on the A515, where I turned left, then right along Station Road at the roundabout by Ashbourne Leisure Centre.
The route of the old railway line was given away by The Station Hotel, then the road crossed Henmore Brook (on its final approach to the River Dove), where I was lucky enough to see a Grey Wagtail and a Dipper. The adjacent path ahead enters a tunnel, originally a branch from the railway line into Ashbourne and now leading to the start of the Tissington Trail on its route north into the National Park. Instead, the Centenary Way proceeds along Station Road, and makes a right at Church Street.
A number of Ashbourne’s antique shops were in evidence along this final stretch, along with a group of motorbikes heading under the over-street bunting, on their way into the Peak District. I arrived in the centre of Ashbourne outside the Thai Basement Restaurant and Smith’s Tavern, both venues for an earlier great night out whilst hiking the southern part of the Limestone Way with my University friends. But it wasn’t quite clear to me whether the Centenary Way ended here at the junction with Buxton Road, near where the Millennium Clock is now installed (though that wouldn’t have existed when the path was devised!) or at the nearby Market Cross where the BPCW starts. So for good measure I visited both, then sat down, had my sandwiches and a coffee, and worked out a return route (which was to be via Ashbourne Park, Bradley Wood, Ashbourne airfield and the BPCW). It was late morning on a beautiful, sunny day, and I felt really chuffed that I’d just completed The Way!
The Centenary Way is a beautiful route, so accessible, full of nature and history – I recommend it without hesitation. I reflected that it was something I should have done long before now. The Way is often signposted, though not always, but with map and app there were only two points where I ended up missing it or thwarted. Whether you decide to go and do the route yourself, or you relive my journey and images from along The Way, I hope you find as much enjoyment as I did.