A LINE LESS OR­DI­NARY

OF­FER­ING UN­USUAL ROUTES AND EASY NAV­I­GA­TION, OLD RAIL­WAY TRACKS ARE IDEAL FOR HIK­ING, BIK­ING OR JUST A WAN­DER IN NA­TURE, SAYS RUTH CHAN­DLER

The Simple Things - - ESCAPE | OUTING -

It’s a bor­rowed day of sum­mer in early Septem­ber; cardi­gan weather, no need for a coat. I’m on a mi­croad­ven­ture: cy­cling with my brother David along the Mon­sal Trail in Der­byshire, an 8.5-mile stretch of old rail­way line along which the last ser­vice ran in 1968. The path takes us through a wooded dale and past hand­some 18th-cen­tury Cress­brook Mill built on the River Wye. A cot­ton pro­ducer dur­ing the in­dus­trial rev­o­lu­tion, it is now con­verted into lux­ury apart­ments. Trees in a spec­trum of greens ap­pear to be sponge-painted onto the hill be­hind.

Next is Head­stone Tun­nel – 400 me­tres of cool, il­lu­mi­nated pas­sage­way in which it’s easy to imag­ine the ghosts of lo­co­mo­tives past. The val­ley is per­haps all the more peace­ful now because of its bustling his­tory; where trains once sped and fac­to­ries whirred, is a lin­ear sanc­tu­ary in which traf­fic is for­bid­den, peo­ple can­not help but slow down and wildlife thrives. »

Where trains once sped is now a lin­ear sanc­tu­ary in which traf­fic is for­bid­den and wildlife thrives

This Peak District track is one of many de­com­mis­sioned lines fol­low­ing the now in­fa­mous re­port by Dr Richard Beech­ing, ‘The Re­shap­ing of Bri­tish Rail­ways’, which rec­om­mended the clo­sure of ‘un­eco­nomic’ routes in town and coun­try to Harold Macmil­lan’s gov­ern­ment. Still re­viled more than 50 years later as the man who de­railed the na­tional net­work, Beech­ing did at least leave be­hind a legacy. The wounds through the land­scape healed and, in nu­mer­ous cases, with the help of or­gan­i­sa­tions such as Sus­trans, which pro­motes walk­ing and cy­cling, these disused lengths of trackbed be­came a dif­fer­ent kind of as­set to their lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties, whether ur­ban or ru­ral.

There are 4,000 miles of such routes in Bri­tain open to walk­ers, cy­clists, horserid­ers and, in some cases, wheel­chair users. Each chan­nel through the land is a world in it­self of­fer­ing re­cre­ation for young and old, and a refuge for flora and fauna. The shel­ter of em­bank­ments gives them added ap­peal for the pur­suit of sim­ple plea­sures, whether that’s a jog in the early morn­ing cool of a hot sum­mer’s day or bird­watch­ing on a win­ter’s af­ter­noon. In a city, old rail­way lines take on a sa­cred qual­ity, too, due to their wild side in an oth­er­wise tamed ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment. The in­vi­ta­tion to let off steam and re­lax is made even more at­trac­tive by the fact that due to their orig­i­nal pur­pose, old rail­way lines re­quire vir­tu­ally no nav­i­ga­tion – you just need to de­cide where to stop with your flask and pic­nic along the way.

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