“ Nearest Town: Leek, Staffordshire / Tel: 1538 384017 „
For millennia, the bubbling Coombes Brook has been mindlessly cutting a path through the beautiful Staffordshire countryside near the town of Leek. The result of this extensive excavation is a gorgeous, steep sided valley, hidden away from view, but full of wonderful walks and wildlife.
Today, Coombes Valley is owned and managed by the RSPB and is open and free for all to enjoy. The reserve is signposted from the main A523, Ashbourne to Leek road, so is relatively easy to find.
Upon arrival, visitors will find a large car park, a small visitor centre and a toilet block. Access for disabled visitors is, however, poor, with no disabled toilets or wheelchair access to either the centre or the reserve's paths.
The visitor centre overlooks the valley, and stopping here, the newcomer will be struck by just how gorgeous this place is. Here, at the top of the deep valley, the vista is extensive in all directions, with the valley's meadows and woodlands laid out beneath one's feet, dropping away to the hidden depths below.
A visit at any time of the year will be special, but for the best experience, late spring is the time to come. Pick a sunny day and the meadows below the visitor centre will be filled with colourful butterflies and the air full of the buzzing of insects. Chairs have been placed here and it is a wonderful location to just sit and watch whilst basking in the sunshine.
Impatient walkers will want to get straight down into the valley. Upon passing the first gate, pick up a guide leaflet which shows the paths through the reserve and some of the special wildlife you'll hopefully meet.
The first part of the 1.5 mile trail descends steeply through woodland. Almost immediately, the noise of civilisation is replaced with the sound of birdsong. In the spring and summer, the visiting and resident birds will be singing their hearts out, protecting territories and (hopefully) attracting mates. To our ears, this sounds serene and beautiful, but is in fact, a life and death struggle to survive and breed.
A practiced ear will pick out many different songs from this avian score: blackcap, garden warbler, song thrush, whitethroat, blackbird, redstart, and wood warbler should all be heard, with the mechanical drumming of the great spotted woodpecker evident, too.
The path then descends to the valley floor with the clean waters of Coombes Brook flowing ever downstream to its confluence with the River Churnet. Here, the RSPB have a surprise waiting. Pied flycatchers visit and breed here every summer. Normally, they're quite difficult to see; despite their jet black and dazzling white plumage, their quiet unobtrusive behaviour makes them hard to spot.
However, the RSPB have roped off an area where these gorgeous little birds nest. Stand behind the ropes, be quiet, and you'll be treated to the sight of these lovely little birds collecting insects for their growing family (the roped off area also prevents people from getting too close, protecting the birds from disturbance).
The stream holds wildlife interest, too. Grey wagtails should be seen and, if you're lucky, you'll get a glimpse of the dipper. This dumpy little brown and white bird will show you how it was named, as it moves along in the stream, dipping under the surface looking for aquatic insects.
Once past the brook, the path starts to climb again. Here, is perhaps the most scenic part of the walk. In late spring, the area is literally carpeted with flowers. White wood anemones and wild garlic, yellow lesser celandine and marsh marigold, with lesser numbers of delicate looking orchids, will vie for the visitors' attention with a riot of colour. Their efforts are, of course, in vain, because of the bluebells!
Coombes Valley is a classic 'bluebell wood'. In their season, there are literally hundreds of thousands of them covering a wide area, densely packed, glowing softly in the dappled sunlight filtering through the trees. No other country in the world can boast such impressive bluebell woods, and this is one of the best. This part of the walk will be difficult to move on from.
The trail then moves along the far side of the valley, before dropping back to the lower levels again. At the small pond, sightings of kingfisher are likely, as well as hordes of dazzlingly colourful dragonflies hunting on the wing for any fly foolish enough to come within reach.
A quite strenuous walk follows, as the trail winds through the woodland. The RSPB have thoughtfully provided eight benches throughout the reserve so that people can stop and admire the views (as well as getting their breath back).
As the path returns to the start of the walk, a final wonder awaits. Emerging from the woodland, the visitor suddenly enters an area of extensive meadows. In spring, these are not green, they are yellow; the effect of the dazzling display of millions of buttercups shining in the sunlight. I love wildflower meadows, but have never seen such an impressive display of buttercups before. Intermingled with the yellow are patches of pink. Cuckooflowers tower above the buttercups providing a lovely contrast.
This area will be packed with butterflies on a nice day. Large and green-veined white, meadow browns, and gatekeepers will all be busily fluttering along from flower to flower, completing this entrancing vista. Black 'butterflies' are also present. These are actually day flying moths; the descriptively named chimney sweeper.
All too soon, the visitor centre will be reaching indicating the end of the walk. Tired but happy, a cup of coffee or a cold drink will be welcomed in the centre, perhaps with a final look down into the wonderful valley. It will then be time to leave this special place, hopefully to return next spring. I know I will be going back.