Around 130 years ago, as the demands of Manchester's industrial population grew, the need to supply the city with safe and sufficient drinking water became paramount. Inevitably the planners turned their attentions towards the Pennines, that formidable upland barrier that soaks up so much of northern England's rain. Before long a series of reservoirs sprang up across the hills that separated urban Lancashire and Yorkshire and, just as the counties' rivers and streams had previously been harnessed for the mills, now the moorlands were drained and the tiny Pennine valleys dammed to create artificial lakes. The first of the four reservoirs collectively known as Dovestones was Yeoman Hey, constructed in 1880, and followed by Greenfield in 1902. When Chew Reservoir was built, 10 years later, it was the highest in Britain at around 1,600ft (488m). Dovestone Reservoir is the largest of the group and was completed in 1967. When Yeoman Hey was being planned, local mill owners were concerned that it would deprive them of essential water, so a tunnel was constructed from the confluence of Birchen Clough and Holme Clough to the Ashway Gap. This ensured water would continue flowing into Greenfield Brook, down a stepped weir, for use in the mills.
Today the four vital reservoirs supply drinking water to Oldham and communities in the Tame Valley. They are owned and run by United Utilities, who provide water to nearly 3 million homes in Northwest England. In total the water company owns over 140,850 acres (57,000ha) of water-gathering land and reservoirs throughout the Peak District, Lake District and West Pennines.
United Utilities actively encourages certain types of recreation around its reservoirs. Swimming is forbidden, because of the deep water and outlet pipes that can cause dangerous undercurrents, but sailing and windsurfing take place on Dovestone Reservoir, with regular races taking place. On the adjoining hillside there are two orienteering routes: look out for the small posts with helpful coloured markings and numbers. The popular 2.5-mile (4km) track around the shore of Dovestone Reservoir has been made suitable for wheelchair users, while the numerous paths and bridleways that explore the surrounding moors include the Oldham Way. The course of this superb circular, 40-mile (64.3km) walking route around the borough of Oldham can be seen as you set off from Dovestone Reservoir. It runs high and straight across the hillside to the south, on the route of a former steam tramway that was built 100 years ago to aid the construction of Chew Reservoir.
From the car park walk up to the top of the Dovestone Reservoir dam and turn right, along the road past the sailing club. Where the plantation ends go over a bridge and keep straight on to follow a private service track that winds its way steadily up to the very top of the Chew Valley.
When you reach Chew Reservoir turn left and walk along the top of the dam. Just before it kinks right, drop to the foot of the embankment. Ignore a footpath sign over to the right and, with your back to the dam, head away along a broad but indistinct peaty path. Before long, the way becomes clearer and gradually firmer underfoot, curving gently to the right and joining the rocky edge above Dish Stone Brow.
With Dovestone Reservoir coming into view far below, continue along the high rim of the hillside past a series of rocky outcrops. After almost a mile (1.6km) the way passes the ruin of Bramley's Cottage, built into the lee of a great boulder, and continues to a prominent cairn on Fox Stone above Great Dove Stone Rocks.
Beyond Great Dove Stone Rocks, the edge swings in above the deep, narrowing valley of Dove Stone Clough. After later crossing a side stream, the path eventually reaches the head of the clough.
Cross the stream as it flows over a rocky shelf and head back above the opposite side of the ravine. Watch for a fork (grid ref SE 031040) and bear left, contouring the hill and dropping gently towards the reservoir. Keep left again as it splits once more a little further on (grid ref SE 031042). The monument seen ahead above is a memorial to James Platt, who was killed nearby in a shooting accident in 1857. Now descending more purposefully, the path leads to a fence stile with a dog gate. Cross and turn left on a narrow path, contouring back through bracken to towards the mouth of a tunnel bringing water from the valley head above Greenfield Reservoir. Keep left at a fork in the path, then cross another path, keeping straight ahead through bracken on a narrow path in the direction of the tunnel (in summer, when the bracken is high, it may be difficult to see start of this path). Drop steeply to a stile and cross the aqueduct on a high footbridge.
Climb away to a stile and continue beside a fence through rocky debris beneath the impressive towering cliffs of Dean Rocks and Great Dove Stone Rocks. Eventually the path falls gently along a wide, grassy strip between a maturing plantation of conifers. Go through a gate and drop down across a rough, open pasture to reach the popular reservoir-side track. Turn left and follow this track all the way back to the car park.
Generally hard and rocky, some boggy patches on moorland top, some stiles
Steep hillsides with rocky outcrops and open moorland
Mostly open sheep country subject to access agreements; dogs should be kept on lead or under close control at all times
OS Explorer OL1 Dark Peak
Car park below Dovestone Reservoir dam (daily charge)
By car park
Walking in safety
Read our tips to look after yourself and the environment when following this walk.
Also in the area
About the area
Discover Greater Manchester
The Greater Manchester conurbation incorporates the towns of Bolton, Oldham, Rochdale, Salford, Stockport and Wigan, and has the vibrant city of Manchester as its administrative headquarters.
Manchester was founded in Roman times, and developed during the 17th century as a textile town, becoming the centre of the English cotton industry. Its magnificent Victorian Gothic public buildings are reminders of Manchester’s prosperous heyday. The Manchester Ship Canal was completed in 1894, linking the Mersey with the sea and bringing ocean-going vessels into Manchester, enabling the city to compete with its rival, Liverpool.
The city of Manchester today is alive with a vibrant youth culture (it has England’s largest student population), a flourishing club scene, and a whole range of multi-cultural festivals and events. To take in the atmosphere, take a stroll around one of Britain’s largest Chinatowns, or wander down to Rusholme to take in the tempting aromas of curry houses and browse among the sari shops, Asian grocers and Indian sweet shops. The city is also home to the world’s longest-running soap opera – Coronation Street.