Sunday, 15 April 2012

Tissington Trail

Parsley Hay Cutting

 The last of the railway lines to be explored on my mini-trip to the Peak District was the former Ashbourne line, now renamed as the Tissington Trail.  This 17 mile route follows the course of the former Buxton to Ashbourne line across the south western plateau of the White Peak from Parsley Hay to Ashbourne.  The original railway was a latecomer to the area, not being opened until 1899.  Perhaps because of the lateness of its arrival and the sparsely populated area through which it ran, it never really managed to do a huge amount of business although there were some through carriages to London Euston via Uttoxeter and Nuneaton.  Ramblers specials were also popular in the 1930s, but passenger services finally ceased in 1954 and freight in 1967.  The line was acquired by Derbyshire County Council in 1971 and turned into the cycle route that it is now.

Steep Embankment

Sadly, very little of the railway infrastructure remains, with almost nothing left of any of the stations and only bridges and tunnels left in place.  Cyclists planning to do an ‘out and back’ trip should be aware that there is a fairly significant slope heading from north to south.  For this reason I would advise you to consider starting such a trip from Ashbourne, so as to get the ‘uphill’ part out of the way on your outward trip (I made the mistake of starting from Parsley Hay on such a trip last time out and really regretted it!).

Hartington Signal Box
After resting for a short while at Parsley Hay I started on my journey south.  The first feature of the route is Coldeaton Cutting, which even more than 100 years after it was constructed looks like a severe gash in the landscape.  The sides of the cutting through the hill it bisects are so steep that little vegetation has ever really got a foothold.  I can’t think of many cuttings that are quite as unsympathetic to their surroundings and yet there’s a sort of ‘man versus nature’ quality about it that I can’t help but admire.  The Victorian psyche was clearly different to that which exists now!  Just the other side was an equally enormous embankment carrying the route across the lower lying fields.

The downhill grading starts to kick in through the next cutting and becomes more noticeable as you approach the first station site en route at Hartington.  No remains of the station now exist since it was largely built of timer (platforms included) but the signal box is intact and has been restored beautifully.  Sadly the levers no longer control signals or points, but all are still intact and the signal box is open to the public during the summer months.  Sadly, being March, I was out of luck this time although I have been inside before.  The station was not exactly conveniently placed for the village, which was nearly a mile away at the foot of a fairly steep road.  With the advent of bus services, a railway station so inconveniently placed could never hope to compete.

New Surface

The surface at Hartington was being replaced as I headed through the station area.  The new surfacing was being made out of recycled material and I felt very self conscious as I headed along for I left tyre tracks behind me.  The new surfacing continued for a couple of miles towards Biggin and made for very pleasant riding.  This section of route was largely through cutting but eventually I came out into open countryside once again and for awhile at least the views all around were extensive.  I did find this section quite hard going, possibly because of the loss of the new surface but possibly also because of the fact that I had 20 miles underneath me by this point!

Huge Bridge

Once through the next steep sided cutting the downhill gradient made a welcome return and I suddenly felt how much easier the going was.  I was also struck at how well engineered the route was – it was clearly built as a double track formation, although only a single line was ever provided.  At the other end of the cutting I passed the distinctively shaped Johnson’s Knoll complete with small standing of trees at its summit.  This is a feature that is quite common in the Peak District, giving extra character to an already unmistakable landscape.

Johnson's Knoll

A little further on and the line is joined by the busy A515 road, popular among motorcyclists and now restricted to a 50mph speed limit.  Nevertheless the roar of traffic from the road rather spoiled the section of my ride, which is actually one of the more scenic of the entire route.  Away to the right were glimpses of Wolfscote Dale, one of the gorge-like valleys etched into the limestone plateau of the White Peak.  Ahead was a short tunnel taking the former line under the main road and for a short while I had some peace and quiet as I headed through the site of the former station at Alsop-en-le-Dale.  Again there was no sign of this station and the site is now occupied by a car park and picnic area. 


After an unusually straight section the line then curved away from the main road to follow the contours and round to Tissington.  Away to my left I could see Mininglow way off in the distance, which I had passed earlier in the day on the way up to Parsley Hay on the High Peak Trail.  The distance between the routes was now quite great and the terrain between was very hilly, which made me feel relieved that I was on a nice level track!

Alsop-en-le-Dale Station
The line takes a wide loop around Hunger Hill before heading into Tissington Station.  The final stretch of line was a beautiful tree lined cutting full of birdsong and spring flowers all enjoying what was by now quite a warm and sunny day.  Tissington Station is the only one on the route that has any remains, but it isn’t exactly a feast.  Only a fragment of one of the platforms remain, presumably because it was one of the few structures that was built of anything other than wood.

Looking Across the Moors
I took the opportunity to leave the track at Tissington, heading into the village almost adjacent.  Of all the intermediate stations on the line this was surely the most conveniently situated, with settlement almost outside the entrance!  The reason I went to have a look at the village was that I remembered it being a very pleasant place to look around.  It is also one of the best places in the Peak District to see the curious art of Well Dressing, a unique practice in these parts.  This custom was about blessing the wells, which formed such an important part of the local water supply, to ensure that the water provided was plentiful and sweet.  It is believed to have originated around the time of the Black Death and some say that Tissington was where the practice started.

Tissington Station

The village was full of buzz even on a weekday.  No wonder; it is probably one of the most picturesque villages I know anywhere in England.  Tissington Hall is the undoubted star of the show, attracting a large number of people to stand and stare.  The Hall wasn’t open for visitors, it generally isn’t except for a few special days in the year, but even from outside the old place was worth a look.  The Estate has been owned by the Fitzherbert family since the 1460s and includes the entire village, with the Hall as the centrepiece.  The pond is also worth a look, although it was fairly devoid of birds when I passed.  It also wasn’t well-dressing season, but the show of daffodils made up for all that!

Tissington Hall

I returned to the railway station and wondered what kind of an impact there would be on the village if the line were still open to allow commuting to Manchester and Derby?  Now all was peaceful with rows of empty picnic tables instead of trains.  Initially the line ahead was tree lined but I soon crossed the A515 again, this time by means of a newish bridge (and certainly not the original, although the abutments were still used to carry the bridge).  Underneath me, huge lorries thundered their way up the hill carrying freight across the moorland that would once have been done by rail.  A little further on and the banks of the cutting were strangely devoid of trees.  I soon realised why when I discovered an interpretation board.  This was Fenny Bentley cutting, set aside for wild flowers and managed to ensure that saplings are not allowed to take hold.

Tissington Station

Heading further southwards and the tell-tale signs of another station site came into view as I reached the former stop at Thorpe.  Again this was some distance from the village it was meant to serve and even more ambitiously this was where visitors to Dovedale were supposed to come to.  I suspect that in reality only the hardiest ramblers actually came to this station for that purpose.  Apparently many users of the Tissington Trail do take in the side visit of Dovedale as part of their journey, but by now I had over 30 miles under my wheels and so I moved on towards Ashbourne.

Crossing the A515

The run down to Ashbourne from Thorpe is pleasant if unremarkable except for one section crossing a stream just north of the cycle hire centre.  Here the viaduct has been removed and the track plunges down to stream level and back up the other side.  Sadly the health and safety police have been there and put in place a series of barriers that are designed to slow cyclists down.  Wise perhaps, but it did take the fun out of the feature!

Thorpe Cutting

Just beyond is the cycle hire centre at Ashbourne, sited at the north end of the tunnel under the town.  If you are tempted to hire a bike to explore the Tissington Trail I would personally use this centre rather than Parsley Hay so that you can get the uphill section out of the way first.  Don’t miss the tunnel from the trail though – although it will be ¼ of a mile out of your way, it is definitely worth adding to the experience.  I was pleased that it came last on my journey – it was a fitting climax to the route.  The tunnel only opened in 2000 so on my first outing along here in 1994 there was no access to the tunnel.  In 2003 it was still fairly freshly opened and when we travelled through I can remember the sounds of steam engines puffing their way through the tunnel being played as you went through.  Although still advertised, the sounds weren’t playing on this visit which was a shame as I enjoyed them immensely.  Hopefully it was a temporary loss rather than a permanent one.

Thorpe Incline

There is a steady downhill through the tunnel and as with many others that I have passed through, Ashbourne Tunnel has a bit of a damp problem.  Water was leaking through the brickwork in many places, sometimes leaving some interesting patterns behind.  I was pleased to get to the other end but also disappointed to be dumped into an industrial estate after passing underneath the last two overbridges.  The Station Hotel still seems to be doing a decent trade, long after the demise of the railway it was built to serve, but the station is just a distant memory now, long demolished and replaced by a hospital, leisure centre and various other buildings being used for commercial purposes.  It was rather a sad end to the ride, but one railway gem still remains and that is the goods station, still performing a useful function as a timber merchants.

Ashbourne Tunnel

The Tissington Trail is perhaps overshadowed a bit by the High Peak Trail, but from what I could see it was more popular with cyclists (I was surprised at how busy it was).  Completing the route in only one direction was particularly enjoyable for me as I had chosen the downhill run!  The surface and easy going nature of the trail makes it very suitable for young children.  The tunnel might be a bit scary for some but this adds some spice to the route.  The descent from the top of the limestone plateau at Parsley Hay down to Ashbourne is exhilarating and if taken at top speed could be done in a similar time to that achieved by the trains all those years ago.  A trip in the opposite direction is a slog though.  In all a highly enjoyable end to my mini-trip to the Peak District exploring such lines.

Ashbourne Goods Station

For further pictures from my cycle ride please see my My Flickr Site


  1. Very interesting read. we are planning to cycle this trail soon but to be honest I am worried about all the cuttings obscuring the view -- perhaps there is another route that will do more justice to the goal of seeing the Peak District? Any opinion? thank you

    1. The cuttings won't spoil your enjoyment of the views out across the Peak District on this trail although they are perhaps rather better on the High Peak Trail. If you have the time and stamina why not do both as I did? Park your bikes at Middleton Top, drive back to Ashbourne and then take the bus from Ashbourne to Middleton Top to reunite with your bikes. Then you can ride both in one direction. That's what I did. You can cycle additionally from Ashbourne to Middleton Top but the traffic is quite heavy...

      Another alternative is the Manifold Way - very beautiful