Inspirational Trails 17: Totley & Blacka Moor
Written By: SportsShoes
Here, in part seventeen of a series featuring inspirational trails, ultra-runner and photographer, Zafar Ali, talks about how running has helped him to cope with lockdown restrictions and he describes his favourite local trails in the Peak District.
I’m just an ordinary runner, never won a race since school (a long time ago!) and my talent is not matched by my ambition, but it’s never stopped me from dreaming because every time I lace up and head out of the door I’ve already won. Now don’t get me wrong, it can be hard when it’s cold and wet, but I use the mantra ‘you never regret the runs you did, only the ones that you didn’t!’
I’m lucky enough to live on the very doorstep of the Peak District and during these strange and uncertain times, I’ve never taken for granted being able to get out into the hills within minutes of my home, whilst others have been trapped in urban areas and this is one of the reasons why running has become a big part of my life.
I’m a Police Officer with a demanding and responsible portfolio, which is rewarding, but there have been times when the stress that comes with the job has taken its toll on my mental health. A fact that until a couple of years ago I would not have even acknowledged, nevermind admitted! I always thought of myself as pretty much invincible, with a ‘man-up and get on with it’ attitude and this is how I and others dealt with it… that is until it bites you. Sadly, some of my colleagues didn’t cope and are no longer with us, but thankfully public attitude has changed and mental health is now recognised without stigma, help is available and it’s ok to say I’m not ok.
Running is my go-to antidote; being outdoors in all weathers in the right kit is a brilliant way for all of us to find peace, easing the pressures from the constant noise of a busy life and offering a brief escape from responsibility. I have found that runners are generally such nice people, especially those that love the trails. I’m extremely fortunate to have many like-minded friends, with whom I can run, spend time and share my experiences.
I’m a passionate nature nut and wildlife photographer so running is a good excuse to get out into the countryside. I love exploring new places, covering the ground more quickly than walking, experiencing wildlife and to recce new locations for return trips with my big camera to immerse myself in nature.
I love running in the Lakes and completing sections of the South West Coastal Path in Cornwall, both stunning and breath-taking areas of the UK. However, my heart belongs to the Peak District, a place where I’ve memories stretching right back to my childhood. I have a catalogue of incredible routes and special places, but my regular run is very close to home; a 5-mile loop of Totley Moor and Blacka Moor, home to a beautiful nature reserve managed by the Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust. I’ve done this loop hundreds of times but I never tire of it, I never know what I might see. Also, it’s part of the fell running series organised by Totley AC, loved by runners of all abilities; from racing snakes to tortoises, everyone can enjoy the idyllic landscape and challenging terrain.
From leaving home on farmland paths which have been very busy during the lockdowns with families and dog walkers, the route takes me into and through the ancient Gillfield Woods. Totley Brook sits within these woods, winding its way southwards towards the River Sheaf where Sheffield draws its name.
The wood is home to red and roe deer, badgers, foxes, owls, hawks, all kinds of small mammals and birds, it’s rich in diversity. I’ve often left home and only covered a mile in an hour as I can’t tear myself away from watching the stags rutting at this time of year. In Spring, I marvel at the sea of bluebells and the cheerful bird song that is music to my ears.
The route climbs upwards through more farmland until a short run down a quiet lane brings me to cross the busy Sheffield to Baslow Road. A well-used but unmarked path next to a hidden Boundary Stone leads me up onto Totley Moor. This is where I get my lungs working, red grouse burst from the heather as I climb up to what is referred to as Brown Edge on the map. This is my favourite spot to sit, rest and ponder, on an inset bench seat within a large cairn. A couple of years ago, a single strip of wood served as a make-shift seat until some mindless fool threw down large stones and smashed it. I’m used to encountering this mindless behaviour, but it still frustrates me.
I decided to extend my community spirit further and I carried a replacement bench seat that used to be part of an arbour in my garden on my shoulder all the way up to the moor. With the help of my friend, I rebuilt the cairn and replaced the seat for all to use. It’s a great view over the moorland and the city far below and features in my many photographs of sunrises, purple heather moorland and wintry snow scenes. I always smile when I see walkers taking a break with a coffee and enjoying it. I just wish some of them wouldn’t leave their rubbish behind, but this is when my Plogging comes into action, returning the moor to its natural state (learn more about Plogging with this Sportsshoes guide).
A short climb to the trig point provides rewarding views over the Peak District, Hope Valley, White Edge, Higger Tor and Stanage Edge, often the start of my long-distance runs. I sometimes stand at the trig staring out into the distance, planning my next big adventure. It’s also a good meeting point for local runners.
Back to the route, a muddy and rocky trail leads over Totley Moss where it’s often boggy and heading towards the strange structures that rise out of the heather moorland. The biggest of these is the large black circular brick structure of an air shaft, connecting the moor to the 3-mile-long Totley Tunnel below. The occasional sound of a train still seems odd in a place that feels so wild, mixed in with the noise of red deer stags rutting in the heather and grouse and curlew calling to one another.
The other, much smaller structure is the remains of an old explosives store left over from the building of the tunnel in 1888 and often serves as a perch for hunting kestrels, merlin and owls. The trail passes by the head of the moor where a simple gate and wall stile mark the turning point into the high pastures of the old Strawberry Lea farm, where the White Cannons from Beauchief Abbey kept sheep and Totley is mentioned in the Domesday Book, just footprints of structures past. I take in the view before a quick descent onto a rocky track down through the beautiful and diverse Blacka Moor nature reserve, full of birdsong and wildlife and a popular spot for families to explore the maze of trails that crisscross through it.
The trail emerges onto the quiet Strawberry Lee Lane, passes another airshaft hidden in trees (there are 5 in total) and finally descends towards my favourite local pub, The Cricket Inn, home of the Totley AC Pavilion. On a hot summer’s evening or weekend, it’s the perfect place to finish a run with a pint or two of local Thornbridge ale, brewed in nearby Bakewell.
I’ll never get onto the podium for a fastest time, but running has given me so much pleasure, calmness and enrichment, reminding me that whatever comes my way, as long as I can lace up my shoes and head outside, then I’m winning at life. In these challenging and unprecedented times, enjoying our natural local environment is the perfect remedy for us all.
Physical activity can help with mental health problems. If you need help and support, please contact the charity Mind. You can also join the charity Sport in Mind, by getting active everyday, to beat the blues away.
Photos: Credit to Zafar Ali