Cy­cle ride through the Peak Dis­trict

Landscape (UK) - - Contents -

The scenic Mon­sal Trail cy­cle route re­veals relics of in­dus­try among the ru­ral charm of Der­byshire’s Peak Dis­trict

Be­neath a dap­pled green canopy, a solid, earthy ramp grad­u­ally as­cends to join a rail­way viaduct, its three grand arches span­ning a nar­row road and its banks. Birds twee­dle in the leafy branches, and the cool scent of damp sum­mer wood­land drifts in the air. Soon, the path, sparked on ei­ther side by late but­ter­cups, emerges from the trees onto a long, straight gravel track, bright sun­shine flar­ing down. From here, just south-east of Bakewell in Der­byshire, the track trav­els north-west for 8½ miles to Wyedale, some 3½ miles out­side Bux­ton. It is part of the old Man­ches­ter, Bux­ton, Mat­lock and Mid­land Junc­tion Rail­way, built to link the north­ern city with the east of Eng­land, and even­tu­ally Lon­don. Now closed and the line dis­man­tled, it has be­come a shared route for cy­clists, walk­ers and horse rid­ers through some of the most pic­turesque ar­eas of the Peak Dis­trict. For most of its route, the Mon­sal Trail roughly fol­lows the val­ley of the River Wye, skirt­ing north of it and head­ing cross-coun­try around Bakewell and Ash­ford-in-the-Wa­ter. Af­ter re-join­ing the val­ley, it stays close to the river un­til com­ing to an end at Wyedale. An ex­ist­ing rail­way line then fol­lows the river’s route into the cen­tre of Bux­ton.

Ori­gins of the trail

Work be­gan on the old rail­way in 1860 at Rowsley, and the com­pleted line reached Bux­ton in June 1863. For 105 years, it car­ried min­eral freight, goods and pas­sen­gers be­tween the towns

and vil­lages of the lime­stone White Peak. Cot­ton mills and lime­stone quar­ries were de­vel­oped along the line, their goods shipped out by rail. Its clo­sure came in the late 1960s, fol­low­ing the elec­tri­fi­ca­tion of the West Coast Main Line in April 1966. In Oc­to­ber 1966, freight traf­fic was taken off the line, and the lo­cal pas­sen­ger trains were closed shortly after­wards, the re­main­ing ex­press lines be­ing di­verted through the Hope Val­ley. In 1968, the line was closed com­pletely. Slowly, the tracks were lifted, and the route was even­tu­ally taken on by the Peak Dis­trict Na­tional Park. It was opened to the pub­lic in 1981, but four of the six tun­nels along its route re­mained closed for safety rea­sons un­til May 2011. Be­fore then, foot­paths led walk­ers around or over the tun­nels. They are now lit by au­to­matic sen­sors from dawn un­til dusk.

Ru­ral idyll

The trail be­gins at Coombs Road, ex­it­ing wood­land and travers­ing a hill­side, which rises to the right. Elder, birch and ash stand be­hind verges, heaped with re­cently mown grass, its gold and green spears still spik­ing forth. At an in­for­ma­tion board atop a stone plinth, the trees briefly give way, and a view of gold and green fields spills out be­yond. The fields are edged with ma­ture oaks and sycamore, dry­s­tone walls and well-es­tab­lished hedgerow. Oc­ca­sional rooftops and win­dows can be made out amid the green­ery. It is a quin­tes­sen­tial ru­ral Peak Dis­trict scene. Along the route, many more fields will be re­vealed of the Na­tional Park in var­i­ous guises; some farmed, some left to their own de­vices; others man­aged to re­store pre­cious habi­tat and rare species. The pale path stretches on­ward, level and flat, the wheels of the bike crunch­ing over the gravel as they spin swiftly along. The path fol­lows a slight em­bank­ment, mead­ows ris­ing up­hill to the right, nib­bled by sheep, their once fluffy white coats now tan­gled into dark and pale locks. Some­thing rus­set with a dark-tipped tail dashes across the road and van­ishes into the un­der­growth. Walk­ers bear­ing back­packs stroll along­side, and fel­low cy­clists dash past or are slowly over­taken. The track is ob­vi­ous, fol­low­ing one di­rec­tion, with no turn-offs to be mis­taken for the main route. It means the jour­ney can be en­joyed at a re­laxed pace, map tucked away in a back pocket and con­sulted only for dis­tance or in­ter­est in the sur­round­ing sights.

El­e­gant sta­tion build­ings

The trees on ei­ther side of the road be­come denser and are joined by pa­per-barked birch, a few of its flick­er­ing green leaves be­gin­ning to turn but­ter yel­low. Slen­der spires of rose­bay wil­lowherb lean over the verges, its raggedy fuschia flow­ers splayed open at the base and bun­dled tightly closed at the tip. A wan­der­ing bum­ble­bee stops by to clam­ber over the petals in search of nec­tar. Bun­dles of bracken and bram­ble tan­gle be­neath. The path passes be­neath an arched stone foot­bridge and curves slightly right to­wards Bakewell. Af­ter just un­der a mile, the town is

reached. A road bridge makes an un­of­fi­cial gate­way, and the bi­cy­cle glides un­der­neath its broad arch. Though chipped and dark­ened with coal dust, mois­ture and age, the old bridge is solid and ro­bust. Each in­di­vid­ual red brick can be counted from be­neath. The wild verges give way to slightly more cul­ti­vated edg­ing, and Bakewell sta­tion is soon met on the left. Once a grand build­ing, with glass canopies and a cast iron foot­bridge be­tween plat­forms, the sta­tion has re­tained much of its el­e­gance. It is built from fine ash­lar sand­stone, with a roof of pat­terned Welsh slate. De­tailed fo­liage stonework or­na­ments the top of two cen­tral pil­lars and the eaves at win­dow height. Above each of the pil­lars, a coat of arms has been hewn from a sin­gle brick. This is the Duke of Rut­land’s in­signia, whose seat was at Had­don Hall, south of Bakewell on the banks of the Wye. The rail­way passed through the Duke’s ground, and Had­don tun­nel was built to hide it from view. As his lo­cal sta­tion, Bakewell was built in grand style and is now Grade II listed. The trail passes above the town, but de­tours can be made from the route to ex­plore the charm­ing streets and many tea shops. A car park is found out­side the sta­tion, and many peo­ple start their jour­ney here. The track crum­bles on­ward, past a small in­dus­trial es­tate masked by trees. The build­ings are soon passed, and the young twigs and leaves of the trees en­twine as they reach for the sun­light, al­most form­ing a tun­nel. The heat of the day is briefly al­le­vi­ated in their shade. To the left, the grey slate rooftops of Bakewell can be spot­ted be­tween the branches, hills and mixed wood­land ris­ing be­yond them. To the right, a grassy meadow, which will soon be cut for hay, rises to­wards more dense wood­land. The track rolls along, the ride a pleas­ant drift through coun­try­side that seems to have sur­vived from a by­gone era. At times, the trees be­come fewer, and the canopy opens to the sky, the late sum­mer sun­shine bak­ing the track a pink­ish-grey. Soon the verges rise in ver­dant em­bank­ments on ei­ther side.

Sta­tion for a duke

On the ap­proach to Has­sop sta­tion, the verges level out. A few iso­lated pic­nic benches have been placed among the tall seed­ing grasses. Pic­nick­ers stop for a snack or a lunch, and a cou­ple of dogs scam­per around, sniff­ing at an­kles or wor­ry­ing one an­other game­fully. A lit­tle fur­ther along, a wide track leads off sharply to the right. This is one of the few places where it might be pos­si­ble to take a wrong turn. The turn-off is ig­nored here, and the trail is fol­lowed straight on to ar­rive soon at Has­sop sta­tion. Built for the Duke of Devon­shire of Chatsworth House, it is sim­i­lar in style and el­e­gance to Bakewell sta­tion, though only oc­cu­pies one side of the track. It is now a pop­u­lar café and cy­cle hire shop, with a large car park, and an­other com­mon start­ing point for peo­ple wish­ing to ex­plore the trail. The route has now pulled nearly 1¼ miles away from the river and passes through shal­low val­leys on high ground. Dry­s­tone walls sep­a­rate the mead­ows from the trail. Hay fields, in­ter­rupted with ma­ture oaks and sycamore, spread out on ei­ther side, and forested hills rise be­yond. But for the

song of the birds in the trees and the crunch of the tyres over gravel, all is quiet. Great Long­stone sta­tion is the next land­mark, built to serve its name­sake vil­lage as well as Ash­ford-in-the-Wa­ter and Thorn­bridge Hall. The main sta­tion build­ing, with its white flut­ing along the eaves, arched win­dows and tall chim­ney stacks, was built to com­ple­ment the hall and, though quiet, won an award for its flower beds and ap­pear­ance while it was open. The plat­form sid­ings are still stand­ing, and the trail zips be­tween them, back into high, wooded verges.

Arch­way in the hill­side

Soon, one of the trail’s main land­marks will be met, and the chal­lenges of the land­scape which were pre­sented to the builders of the rail­way be­come more ev­i­dent. High lime­stone walls rise up on ei­ther side, re­in­forced with brick­work and now clung all over with ivy and shade­lov­ing ferns. Ahead is Head­stone Tun­nel, cut into the hill­side and stretch­ing for 533yds (487m). It is the long­est tun­nel on the trail and lit from dawn un­til dusk, to en­able safe pas­sage for walk­ers and cy­clists. The air be­comes cooler be­tween the lime­stone walls, and a chilly damp­ness em­anates from the tun­nel. On a hot day, with the ex­er­tion of the cy­cle ride be­gin­ning to be felt, that cool is a re­fresh­ing relief. A smaller wire arch­way guards the en­trance, pro­tect­ing any who pass be­neath it from oc­ca­sional fall­ing de­bris. Eyes ad­just to the semi-light of the tun­nel quickly, and the red glow of fel­low cy­clists’ tail lights ahead guides the way. Small pud­dles are cre­ated in spots where mois­ture gath­ers and drips from the ceil­ing. The lights are not blind­ingly bright, but al­low just enough glow to clearly see the way and for cy­clists and pedes­tri­ans to safely share the path. When the tun­nel is first en­tered, the end can­not be seen, only the damp-dark­ened bricks, the dot­ted trail of over­head lights and white painted lines on the edge of the track, which has been sur­faced in­side. Yards pass by in this tun­nel, which for many years was seen only by pas­sen­gers from be­hind glass win­dows of the chug­ging train or by work­ers keep­ing it in good con­di­tion. Now it is ex­plored by thou­sands of peo­ple each year. The end of the tun­nel ap­pears at first as a spot of

white light. As it grows nearer and larger, the white turns a pale green and be­comes more com­pli­cated, speck­led in shades by the trees out­side and the bright prom­ise of the sky above. Shortly be­fore the end is reached, the air be­comes warmer and drier, and the cool damp­ness of the tun­nel is left be­hind be­fore the tun­nel is it­self. It ex­its into sud­den sun­shine and heat.

Breath­tak­ing val­ley views

The trail stretches ahead and for a while be­comes three times wider. It is no longer bounded by grass verges, but by low walls topped with a high metal rail on each side. Be­yond the rail is just air and a sud­den dra­matic view as the trail spans a deep val­ley. This is the Head­stone Viaduct. When the rail­way was pro­posed, it met with both en­cour­age­ment and crit­i­cism. John Ruskin said it would de­stroy nat­u­ral beauty which could not be re­gained. In 1884, he wrote to the Man­ches­ter City News stat­ing that “in Der­byshire the whole gift of the coun­try is in its glens. The wide acreage of field or moor above is wholly with­out in­ter­est; it is only in the clefts of it, and the din­gles, that the trav­eller finds his joy... Into the very heart and depth of this, and mer­ci­lessly bend­ing with the bends of it, your rail­way drags its close cling­ing damna­tion.” It was nev­er­the­less con­structed, and al­though the char­ac­ter of the glen has in­evitably been changed, much of its pret­ti­ness re­mains. At Head­stone, Ruskin’s cry of dis­ap­point­ment has been im­mor­talised in a small red sign, read­ing: “You think it a great tri­umph to make

“As the art of life is learned, it will be found at last that all lovely things are also nec­es­sary; a wild flower by the way­side, tended corn, wild birds and crea­tures of the for­est, as well as the tended cat­tle; be­cause man doth not live by bread only” John Ruskin, Unto This Last and Other Writ­ings

Emerg­ing into the Au­gust sun­shine from the cool of a shady stone bridge, a cy­clist fol­lows the Mon­sal Trail stretch­ing ahead at Has­sop.

The still, sil­very wa­ter of the River Wye cuts through lush val­leys and wooded hill­sides as the trail winds through the pic­turesque Peak Dis­trict.

A wall from the orig­i­nal Bakewell sta­tion, opened in 1862.

The grace­ful build­ing that was Has­sop sta­tion pro­vides a place for cy­clists to rest awhile on its sunny ter­race. It closed to goods trains in 1964.

Great Long­stone sta­tion closed in 1962, but for a short time after­wards, one train a day in each di­rec­tion con­tin­ued to stop to al­low a lo­cal res­i­dent, Mrs A Board­man, to travel to work.

Head­stone Tun­nel has dis­tinc­tive rock strata. A steel framed canopy in the en­trance pro­tects cy­clists from rock fall.

Dra­matic Head­stone Viaduct rises above the river val­ley, a tes­ta­ment to its in­dus­trial her­itage.

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