Attending a conference in
The Monsal Trail is unlike many of the other rail trails in the Peak District in that this is much more geared towards walkers than cyclists. For the most part this is because much of the trail is not cycle friendly as it has some tricky detours along the River Wye in order to by-pass several tunnels that have been closed for many years due to safety concerns. However, the character of the trail may change considerably in the next few years as there are plans to re-open the tunnels (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/derbyshire/8383152.stm) and equip them with lighting so as to make the whole trail cycle-friendly (and perhaps make it a more satisfying route generally).
I decided to walk from north-west to south east along the trail (ie from the Buxton end). There is plenty of parking available in Bakewell, almost at the end of the trail. Getting to the start of the trail is relatively straightforward, even on a Sunday as I discovered since the
Anyhow, when I got off the bus I was disappointed to see how gloomy it was – the journey up had mostly been very sunny and I had been quite excited about a sunny trip along the old line. I had faith that the clouds might blow away, but for now the colour matched the colour of the limestone quarries that dominated the far landscape. I dropped down the steep valley side and met with the old line near to Topley Pike junction. Previously a triangle of lines had been shoe-horned into the valley at this point as the spur line to Buxton deviated away from the main line from Matlock to Chinley. Only one side of the triangle still operates as a railway, used only by quarry trains that take freight away from the nearby Tunstead Quarry. The whole of the remaining part of the railway forms a massive loop that enables a greater capacity of trains to be employed I suppose and negates the need for turning round. On previous visits I had seen trains negotiate the tight corner from Great Rocks Dale into Wye Dale, but not today. The only activity today was associated with the iconic cottages that once served Blackwell Mill (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blackwell_Mill).
Once on the trackbed the engineering necessary to drive the route through this way became immediately evident. If it were a functioning railway today, many folks would move heaven and earth to make sure it stayed open. There have been some attempts at re-opening the route but having been closed for more than forty years, it will need a seriously good business case to bring it back to life now. Fortunately the trackbed’s status is assured as various authorities have safeguarded the route in case the business case should re-emerge. At least as a walker, it is possible to admire the engineering and daring of the Midland Railway for bringing such a line through this challenging topography.
After having a look round at the remnants of the railway in Wye Dale I needed to get cracking as by now it was the middle of the afternoon and I had a car parking ticket and more importantly a setting sun that would call time on my outing. I passed by the old Chee Dale junction, which split the Buxton/ Chinley routes from the south. When the line was fully functioning the Buxton line was used only by shuttle trains, with passengers travelling from the south having to change at Millers Dale station. This part of the line is easy walking and Chee Dale is impressive by anyone’s standards, with huge limestone cliffs dominating the valley below. The surface of the route has considerably improved from my last visit here, with a walker friendly surface instead of the raw ballast that I remember years ago.
I soon came upon the two short tunnels that the route does pass through. These are short and straight so although dark in the middle the light from either end is sufficient to enable safe walking. At the first tunnel I saw a group of volunteers packing up for the day, I imagine after doing conservation work on the route. I was interested to know how there vehicle had got there. The mystery was soon solved when the vehicle went through one of the closed tunnels to get back to Millers Dale. For me, Chee Dale Tunnel was off limits for now and I had to follow the diversionary route along the river instead.
This is an adventure in itself. The River Wye here is full of energy and the valley floor is extremely tight. Luckily the dry weather we have had recently meant that the river level was quite low. If it had been any higher, the section of path that requires stepping stones in the river channel would have been quite impossible. The route along the river is perhaps one of the best river walks I know; the sound of fast flowing water, the moss covered woods, the rainbow trout doing their best to scratch a living from the river and dippers flying low across the river were all feasts for the senses. Clambering up and down the rocky sides of the river is not for the faint hearted since there are no handrails or protection from falling in the river. I am very pleased that no safety measures of this nature have been put into the route, as these would be unsightly and detract considerably from the natural beauty of the valley.
Eventually I reunited with the old railway line as it crossed by way of another viaduct close to Millers Dale station. After all the rock scrambling for the last mile or so it was a bit of a relief to get back to a level trail once again. The short section from here to Millers Dale is full of interest for the student of industrial archaeology. Just along from the viaduct I passed by the massive concrete installation that used to be a limekiln. This processed much of the limestone before it was carted away by freight trains to destinations all over the country. It now serves only to act as a viewpoint, but not for me today as I was too conscious of the time. As I continued on the sun made a very welcome appearance. The clouds were beginning to shift, suggesting that I might get a prolonged period of sunshine after all. Just along from the limekiln the base of the water tower is still in place, where thirsty steam locomotives would once have been refilled.
Soon the trees parted and the substantial remains of Millers Dale station came into view. The
Sadly there wasn’t time to linger today, for the sunshine had increased my urgency to continue while it was still bright. I wanted to be sure that I could reach Monsal Head while it was still in the sky, for the valley bottoms at this time of year don’t see a lot of light. I crossed the huge viaduct on the other side of the station (there are actually two still in existence but one of them is now closed to walkers) and headed down the trackbed towards Litton Mill. This proved to be easy walking for a mile or so as I continued along the trackbed on a section I had never previously walked along. Tantalising glimpses of the surrounding countryside could be seen, including Ravenstor Youth Hostel on the other side of the valley, although for the most part the trees growing on the side of the embankment obscured most of the view. Eventually I came to Litton Railway Cutting, a site of geological interest caused by the blasting of this engineering feature of the line. The sides of the cutting are bare of vegetation and are effectively mini limestone cliffs.
Just past here and I would be once again leaving the trackbed as the line worked its way through the valley by means of two further tunnels closed to the public. I dropped down into the hamlet clustered around the once notorious Litton Mill, once the employer/ exploiter of young workers and now housing some very posh apartments (see the full story at http://www.peaklandheritage.org.uk/index.asp?peakkey=21300621) . The last time I came by this way in the 1990s I hadn’t remembered this being quite as salubrious as it now seems to be, although I did remember the surrounding housing being very charming. From here I had a pleasant walk along the Wye for a couple of miles. In contrast to the last diversion this was a nice easy walk, with a flat and nicely surfaced concessionary path. Don’t even think of doing anything but walk along here though – there were loads of signs outlawing everything else!
After negotiating a couple of meander loops I soon came upon Cressbrook Mill and the wonderfully named Water-Cum-Jolly Dale. There is a useful little refreshment stop here that I have availed myself of many times but sadly it was closed today. I took a look at the impressive mill building known as ‘Big Mill’ and built in 1815. An original mill building still exists next door, dating from the time of Richard Arkwright, the famous mill owner from further down the valley in Cromford.
By now the sun was disappearing behind the high valley sides and I was getting a little concerned about the time as I still had a few miles left before I would get to Bakewell. I pressed on, taking the rocky track back up onto the trackbed, now perched on a shelf high above the
A little further along the track I came upon the most famous feature of not just this line but perhaps any former rail line in the whole of the
After the short and breathless climb to the top of Monsal Head I was pleased to see that there was still some sunshine left in the day. I also realised that most of the best pictures of this view are taken in the morning. It isn’t easy to get a decent shot with the setting sun as it shines directly across the viaduct in the line of the camera from this point. The top of Monsal Head is now populated with places to eat and stay, all taking advantage of this iconic Peak District view. There were plenty of people making use of the facilities too – it was now dinner time and most of the sightseers had had enough for the day.
I pushed on through the
After the Wye Valley I wasn’t sure that I would enjoy this section, which I had never previously walked. However, the open countryside was a lot brighter and I soon realised that with a quick pace I would certainly make it back to Bakewell before darkness fell. Shortly after regaining the trackbed I came upon the first of three stations remaining. Great Longstone Station was closed in 1962, some years before the rest of the route and couldn’t have been terribly convenient for passengers, being half a mile from the village. Apparently for five years after it closed trains used to stop for a nurse who worked at Buxton hospital. When I passed it was empty and in the process of being renovated. Considering how long it has been closed it is still in remarkable condition however (see http://www.forgottenrelics.co.uk/stations/gallery/greatlongstone.html for a picture without scaffolding!).
My pace now resembled an express train and about fifteen minutes later I reached Hassop Station, once billed as the stop for Chatsworth House but closed as long ago as 1942. The buildings are still complete and have in recent years served as a bookshop and café. All was quiet as I passed though – by now it was well beyond the normal Sunday opening hours. In common with Monsal Dale station, the studies into re-opening the line have ignored the case for reinstating Hassop.
Another twenty minutes further on and I finally reached Bakewell, my final destination. By now it was too gloomy to get many decent pictures although the station itself is in good condition, albeit that the platforms have been filled in. There is still plenty of railway interest here as not only is the station mostly intact but the goods depot and other railway buildings are also still extant and being used for a variety of businesses. If re-opened this would probably be the busiest station en-route and would probably be served by all passing trains.
The Monsal Trail continues for a short distance south of Bakewell until it reaches the Haddon Estate, when it abruptly stops. Walkers are not welcome on the Haddon section and on the other side of the estate the trackbed has been taken over by the Peak Rail operation, a heritage line that is seeking to reinstate the whole route back to Buxton (see http://www.peakrail.co.uk/index.htm) . By now the light was fading fast and I didn’t think there was much to gain from exploring the remaining half mile of route.
All in all the Monsal Trail is a hugely enjoyable railway walk and it’s easy to see why this was included in the recent BBC series. Time was tight for me, which meant that I by-passed some of the relics I would have liked to look at in more detail. Maybe next time I give it a go the closed tunnels will be re-opened once more? Although a bit frustrating that they are closed the diversions around the River Wye and up and over Monsal Head are actually hugely enjoyable sections and add considerable variety to the walk. I have a feeling that when the tunnels are open this will be more cycling focused and this will inevitably affect the character of the route. If you want to have a look at some pictures of the route in its heyday I found an excellent site at http://www.davidheyscollection.com/page34.htm.