Cycle ride through the Peak District
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.
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.