Walking the Monsal Trail

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There are several long walking/cycling paths in the Peak District that are formed from old railway lines. They run through some of the most dramatic landscape that the heart of the Peaks has to offer.

The Tissington Trail is 13 miles long and runs from Ashbourne to Parsley Hay. The High Peak Trail is 17 miles long and runs from Dowlow near Buxton to High Peak Junction at Cromford. Then there is the Monsal Trail, this is 8.5 miles long and runs between Bakewell and Chee Dale.

Easy access and walking in the Wilds of the Peaks

All three trails are easily accessible at different points along their routes from car parks. The pathways are smooth and constructed to give easy cycling and walking.

I would say though that the Monsal Trail is the easiest with the most spectacular surrounding countryside of the three. The path is basically level, whereas the Tissington is on a steady incline (not hard, but never-the-less an incline) and the High Peak has some really stiff inclines at the Cromford end.

Much of The Monsal Trail runs along the side of the Wye River valley. Walking along it you cannot help but admire the engineering feats of the Victorians who were determined to build a railway line through some of England’s most dramatic countryside. There are six tunnels that carve their way through hard volcanic rock they vary in length the longest being Headstone Tunnel. There are several bridges that cross the dales of the river at different points, these are significant structures the best known is the viaduct at Monsal Head.

What I find most exciting about the Monsal Trail today is that it is enables almost anyone to enjoy the wonderful rugged beauty of the Peaks. When I walked along the trail I saw people of all ages and abilities, young babies in pushchairs, pensioners in wheelchairs many people were out for a casual stroll with family or friends. There were an awful lot of cyclists again many of them were families with bikes varying with the ages.

I started the trail from Coombs Road in Bakwell. As I drove up Coombs road a narrow country lane that becomes little more than a dirt track it was only the brown signs that appeared in the hedgrows that kept me going, it did not seem like the place to start a well known footpath. Eventually I arrive at a large bridge across the road and here finally was the start. A steep path led me up to the old railway track and the beginning of my journey.

Walking the trail

The beginning of the trail skirts north of Bakewell and is probably the least spectacular part of its route, but almost immediately I encountered other people. At this point it seemed to be mainly locals walking their dogs and hardened cyclists who are determined to conquer the whole length of the trail.

I had not walked far along the trail before I arrived at the first station, this was Bakewell. I was impressed by the grandeur of the old station buildings straight away. It was built from the local stone with a slightly Grecian style to it. The classical edge gave the buildings far more style than the usual brick work that we normally identify with the bye gone era of the rail. All of the stations along the trail had a similar architectual style whether this had anything to do with the lords and dukes who lived near by I do not know. Bakewell station offers the most southerly easy access to the trail and from here on I met a lot more people.

At Hassop Station the once oppulant waiting room has been refurbished to become a popular cafe. There were many people sitting both inside and out with drinks, cakes and the like enjoying what was a cold but sunny day.

Headstone Tunnel

There are six tunnels along the Monsal Trail the first is called the Headstone Tunnel and it is the longest. All of the tunnels are lit and easy to navigate but even so you have to keep your eye out for cyclists. Almost as soon as I walked into the tunnel I felt the temperature drop, on a hot summers day I would imagine that this would be most welcome. On the day of my walk it felt more like a ghostly chill with a slight dampness in the air.

Stepping out of the tunnel the amazing Monsal Dale hit me like a wave of cold water. This is the famous Monsal Head a steep sided gorge with the mini viaduct crossing it that carries the trail. Many people visit the pub at the top of the Head to admire the views of the river as it flows around the oxbow bend below them. Looking down from the bridge is a dizzying experience watching the waters flowing far below and the people walking along it’s banks. I would say that it is impossible not to stop and linger upon the bridge and gaze up and down the valley at it’s white limestone sides and the trees that cling so determinedly to the slopes. It is an awe inspiring spot of great magnificence.

I find it funny how things we enjoy today were once seen as blighting the countryside. There was great opposition to building the railway through this part of Derbyshire. The poet Ruskin who was very much against it wrote “The valley is gone – and now every fool in Buxton can be in Bakewell in half an hour and every fool at Bakewell in Buxton”. Today it seems to be part of the character of the land.

Cressbrook and Litton Mills

There are two massive mills visible from the trail, both lie in a dale next to the river. The flow of water from the River Wye powered both these mills that produced cotton. Today they have been converted into living accommodation, I expect that it is not cheap to own one of the apartments in such an amazing location.

The current Cressbrooke mill was built by Sir Richard Arkwright jnr and was opened in 1783. Litton mill was opened in 1782 and was owned by Ellis Needham, who sadly had a reputation for exploiting his child employees and many of them died while still young.

A walk for all

The Victorian engineering works were impressive and the landscape fantastic but I think what left the greatest impression apon me was the people using the trail.

For 95% of my walk it was busy with people what I particularly liked was the number of young families I saw walking or cycling. I am a firm believer in getting your kids out and about in the countryside, it has got to be far more healthy for them than sitting indoors looking at a screen. Most of them seemed to be really enjoying it – there were some moans and wailings. There were plenty of older folk as well, it is easy to get onto the trail at a point where there are the stimulating views and many folk were just plodding along enjoying the fresh air. I did see a group of folk in wheel chairs.

For the more adventurous family there was abseiling off of one of the bridges over the river. Not every bodies cup of tea, it did look good fun though and I thought I would not mind having a go.

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I have loved walking in the in the great outdoors as long as I can remember, weather is not an issue and any landscape is a new adventure. Personal details:- Height 5'10"(1.78m), Wt 12st10oz(81kg) Chest 41"(104cm) Trouser size 32"W,32"L, Baselayer/midlayer size medium. Hardshell layer size large.