Thursday, 29 March 2012

High Peak Trail

Middleton Top
After my sojourn in Staffordshire, I turned my attentions to a couple of cycle trails across the border in Derbyshire. Along with Devon, Derbyshire is possibly one of the best counties in Britain for railway trails, with many former lines bought by the County Council and turned into leisure routes. Elsewhere on this blog you will find previous trips of mine along the Sett Valley Trail and Monsal Trail. I turned my attentions this time to the High Peak Trail and Tissington Trail which meet in the heart of the Peak District at Parsley Hay and which can be cycled as an end to end route.

Hopton Tunnel

Back in 1994 I was young and fit enough to do a complete loop from Ashbourne, completing the triangular shaped route by cycling along the main road from Ashbourne to Middleton Top. This time however, I neither had the inclination (or probably the fitness) to undertake this extra 10 mile (and hilly) section so I came up with a cunning plan. I dropped off my bike at Middleton Top, parked in Ashbourne and caught the bus along this stretch of road.

Hopton Incline

The High Peak Trail is 17 miles in length and was originally part of the Cromford and High Peak Railway. It looked unlike any other railway when it operated until the late 1960s. Largely built along canal principles it has some very strange attributes as a railway, with steep hills and sharp curves all a feature of the trackbed. At each end of the railway was a connecting canal, at Whaley Bridge and Cromford. As the railway crossed some very high terrain, steep inclines were provided where sometimes complete trains were hauled up and down using steam power from stationary engines.

Top of Hopton Incline

I concentrated today on the section that crosses the high moorland from Middleton Top to Parsley Hay. A further three mile stretch makes its way down to the north of Wirksworth to the Cromford Canal way down in the Derwent Valley. Cycling this stretch is not such a great idea, for in one direction you have a very steep set of hills to contend with and in the other a rather dangerous descent! Given the number of other users of the trail this is probably best avoided. From Cromford the railway climbed over 1000 feet in less than five miles through inclines varying at 1 in 8 through to 1 in 16. I did take the opportunity to look at a couple of parts of the route after I had completed my ride, but more of that later.


At Middleton Top one of the engine houses remains in place as a preserved monument to this feat of engineering. A mock up of how the engine would have worked in practice has been provided for visitors. Sadly the visitor centre was closed on this visit, but you can find out more about the workings of this incline and the one further down the slope at Sheep Pasture by looking at the excellent website called Forgotten Relics . It was a good time to be looking at the old place, for all around me the mist swirled around the quarries and engine house, providing a fantastic atmosphere and almost as if steam were still pumping out of the old plant.

Former Works

Eventually after having a good snoop around I summoned up the energy to commence my 25 mile journey to Ashbourne via Parsley Hay. Although there were many quarries along the length of the railway, it is perhaps the area immediately around Middleton Top where they are most apparent. Some are still working but most are not. They are full of limestone so pure that hundreds of tonnes a year used to be gobbled up in the sugar beet growing industry in the fens. Now much is used as roadstone or as flux in power stations. There is plenty of signage telling people to keep out, a necessary evil I suppose in these days of health and safety and where leisure facilities sit alongside industrial sites.

Rocky Cutting

Although the day started out with swirling mist and plenty of cloud it soon became obvious that this would only be a passing phase and I was hopeful of some really good weather as I headed for the first engineering feature of the route – the dank yet splendid Hopton Tunnel. Considering that this had been built in 1825 it is still in remarkable shape. I was pleased that the trackbed surface had been dealt with differently here, for there was a fair amount of water about, probably as a result of the permeable nature of the limestone it tunnels through. I passed the first person of the day through here after a mile or so of travel – a young female runner who looked like she had plenty of miles under her feet but still looked pretty fresh. She was one of the few people I met on the entire trail.

Wheel Seat

Beyond the tunnel is a sight that many visitors to the Peak District will be familiar with. A large industrial complex sits within the park, reminding everyone that this part of the world still has an industrial future as well as past. Great big thundering lorries left the plant every so often, rather than the hard working locos and wagons that would once have serviced these kinds of places.

Derbyshire Dales

Once past a couple of old boys walking an elderly looking dog I set about something I would never have equated with a railway path; Hopton Incline. This 1 in 14 incline was originally serviced by an incline but this was dispensed with in the later years and engines had to haul their loads up the hill I had to tackle by adhesion only, making it the steepest stretch of railway in the UK for that period of time. Having cycled it I can testify to its relative steepness and length and I had the benefit of much better grip with my road tyres.

Engineering Works

I paused to catch my breath at the top, which enabled me to check out the remnants of the engine houses here, together with a couple of cottages that looked as if they might have once been used by railway workers. There was also an excellent signboard here showing how the trains would once have looked as they puffed their way up the hill. I don’t remember these signboards on my last outing but they certainly add extra interest to this most fascinating of routes.

Mininglow Embankment

Although at the top of the hill I still felt myself climbing steadily for quite a long stretch past the incline. Earthworks were fairly few and far between for the next few miles as the line used the contours of the landscape as much as possible to continue its journey north-westwards. I found progress rather slow, partly as a result of me feeling the hills but also just wanting to really take in my surroundings as I pedalled along. Train passengers would not have been able to do this, for the line was freight only for the majority of its life and the short-lived passenger service stopped as long ago as 1874.

Looking Back at Mininglow

Some way past the incline and through a big dank rocky cutting I headed round one of the incredibly sharp curves that would have had locomotive and truck wheels squealing and grinding as they struggled to stay on the rails. At the end of the curve was the site of an old freight yard at Longcliffe, complete with loading bay where the trucks would have been loaded with more stone. Thanks to the interpretation board the scene could still be easily imagined.

Across the Moors

Eventually the industrial plants ran out and I headed across lonely moorland, seemingly a long way from the nearest road. The line was now a lot more level and I could feel the difference as I pedalled on. Progress was a lot quicker now and the features of this extraordinary line were continuing to surprise me. As the line switched from one part of level ground to another, huge embankments built along the principles of dry stone walls carried the line high above the surrounding countryside in places. This was especially apparent at Mininglow, where the route suddenly swung from one side of the valley to the other. The sight of this limestone embankment must have been very harsh on the landscape when it was first built in the 1820s.


Mininglow is now the site of a small pocket car park but was once one of the many shunting yards that characterised this route. In the early days progress along the railway was incredibly slow – it was not unheard of for trucks to take two days to traverse the entire route of 33 miles. It wasn’t immediately clear why this location had a yard, for it wasn’t near any industrial facilities and indeed I was completely surrounded by farmland now.

Level Crossing

A rare piece of tree lined trackbed followed until I got to the famously tight curve at Gotham (no, not that one!). This curve was a radius of 50 metres through eighty degrees and trains struggled to get around it. Indeed any engine with too long of a wheelbase simply couldn’t negotiate this corner and the screech of the wheels must have been unbearable for the farming folk that lived just above this point. No such problem on my bike though and I was grateful for the easy surface of this stretch of the path. The path continued on an embankment high above the surrounding countryside for a short stretch and I took a breather to watch a chap laying a hedge far below me. He looked to be nearly finished but the whole process was a work of art and will hopefully allow the hedge to have a much healthier season ahead.

Newhaven Bridge

A little further on and I came upon Newhaven level crossing. We mere cyclists no longer have right of way here, having to negotiate the large gates blocking the way. In operational days though the train was king and this level crossing could cause some serious delays for motorists unlucky enough to be caught by the gates. Apparently the road rises to a crest on one side of the crossing so the enginemen (who were responsible for shutting the gates by hand) had to keep their wits about them to stop passing traffic.

Friden Works

The dramatic earthworks that had characterised the last couple of miles did not seem to be needed for the next mile or so. I came upon the brickworks at Friden, still functioning although with finished products taken away by road these days and not rail. The former goods yard is now a car park for cyclists and dog-walkers and even on this weekday morning there were a few cars using it. I was more interested in the frieze that has been inlaid into the rear wall of the works facing the trackbed. This shows how they make bricks at the plant in a most novel and informative way.

Friden Works

A little further on and the track passed through a small stretch of woodland, a fairly rare sight on the limestone plateau. The trees had a lovely glow about them as the sun’s strength was really getting up now. In fact the High Peak Trail is particularly good because of the lack of trees, which on some former railway lines cut off the views of the surrounding countryside and mean that the tracks resemble tree lined tunnels.

Stretching Out

The last piece of engineering to encounter on the trail was the Newhaven Tunnel. Although modest in length, the date of completion (1825) is very early compared with most railways. With the sun getting surprisingly hot behind me, I was quite pleased to have the damp shade of the tunnel for a few moments. Not far ahead of the tunnel is Parsley Hay Junction, where the High Peak Trail now meets the Tissington Trail but which would have once been a railway junction with the line heading south towards Ashbourne and Rocester. I would be heading down the line on my next journey, heading back to meet my car in Ashbourne. However, before I did so I pedalled the half mile or so to the site of the former Parsley Hay railway station.

Former Signal

Parsley Hay Station is no longer, but the station area is now occupied by a popular visitor centre, car park and bike hire place. There is a refreshment kiosk her too, but being a weekday in March it wasn’t open (only at weekends during the winter months). There were still a lot of people about, using the picnic area and the bike hire shop seemed to be doing some reasonable trade. I took the opportunity to take a breather myself and admired the view out towards the Chrome and Packhorse Hills and over towards Buxton. It was a fabulous view on a nice calm and relatively still day like today, but it must have been a pretty cold and inhospitable place to wait for a train in years gone by.

Parsley Hay Tunnel

The High Peak Trail officially continues northwards towards Buxton for another 3 miles. I was eager to complete my trip to Ashbourne and didn’t much fancy a further six miles of cycling so I didn’t do this section of route (in fact I never have – must rectify that one day!). Once back at Ashbourne I did go and explore the southern end of the railway, including a couple of the inclines and the former railway junction at Cromford. The sheer daring of the whole enterprise can really be appreciated by exploring this part and the steep valley sides that the railway traversed are delightfully scenic now, with trackbed properly absorbed into the countryside. This part of the line is in stark contrast with the section across the limestone plateau, which in places can be quite bleak. If time allows I may do the whole route one day, but if time is pressing (as it was for me), the section from Middleton Top to Parsley Hay is particularly fascinating and should not be missed.

Parsley Hay Station


  1. Hi Paul

    From your photographs it looks like you had decent weather for your cycle trip. I often think about getting a bike in order to see more of the countryside but so far haven't taken the plunge.

    The White Peak is one of my prefered areas for walking with lots of great villages and pubs!


    1. Thanks Bill,
      A trip to the Peak District, even one the other end of the Park from where I used to live is always a great pleasure. I can honestly say that in the few years I lived there I never took it for granted. I really enjoy bike riding as a change from hiking but these days restrict myself to former railway lines and canals as I do not enjoy competing with motorised traffic!