As the epicentre of three of England’s finest counties: Cheshire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire; you’d be forgiven for thinking that Three Shires Head might be an easy place to find, though you’d be wrong, very wrong. The evening before, I’d spent hours flicking through guidebooks and wrangling with Google Maps, who kept insisting I was ‘someplace in New York City’, so that by the time we finally reached the lay-by on the A54 Congleton Road high above Buxton in Derbyshire, I was just about ready to launch my laptop and iPhone over the cliff and into the bubbling River Dane below.
Serves me right for not shelling out for the OS map, I thought as I shouldered a black bin liner concealing my wetsuit and changing towel and strode off down the hill, before my girlfriend’s premonition that I’d be arrested for fly-tipping could come true.
The path cuts through a rock-strewn earthscape, where great pillars rise from the Peaks like giant chimneys of the underworld, the relics of our coal mining past. The whole of Axe Edge Moor is open land so walkers can ramble where they please, as long as they keep an eagle eye on the hidden shafts that plummet straight down to the long-forgotten coal seams. Being rather fond of daylight, we kept strictly to the bridleway, by now a smooth grassy track striping south through countryside that goes on and on forever. The walking seemed too easy, until we hit the bog. Our boots squelched into a field of spiky sedge and bog cotton, with a solitary stile our destination on the far side. Within moments my girlfriend was coated in mud and cursing my inadequate navigation skills, as a couple of experienced hikers cruised by, levitating on a chain of hefty flagstones; the real path.
“They were definitely locals.” I ventured. “Obviously they take a stroll here every weekend.”
We pressed on, me receiving mutinous stares in the back; before reaching the famous packhorse bridge, where, in great chivalry, I gave her my socks and sluiced her boots in the stream, before diving valiantly like Mr Darcy (or rather, tiptoeing gingerly) into the pool and swimming up to the falls. Though of course, Colin Firth never wore a wetsuit, and neither does Andy Murray, who’ll be drinking Buxton spring water on the Wimbledon court this summer.
Historically, Three Shires has been a kind of no-man’s land, a triskelion frontier of three counties, or shires. Once a vital crossing on the silk trade route, the area was also used as an illicit playground for all sorts of subversive activities, including illegal bare-knuckle fighting. If rumbled by the police, all the warriors had to do was flee across the border into a neighbouring county, and live to fight another day. Nowadays all is peaceful, and the bridge and grassy banks are more like a motorway service station for hoards of lunching walkers, cyclists and trail bikers.
Keen to escape the bustle, I ran down a sandy path to Panniers Pool; so named for the horses who once bathed here; joining our ghostly equine ancestors in a peaty swim, where water funnels into a green stadium of young brackens and mosses, overlooked only by cuckoos and all the unseen wildlife of this RSPB endorsed site.
Although, falling foul of the same lack of local knowledge that nearly sank me in the bog, I’ve still no idea whether I actually swam into Staffordshire or not.