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
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.