Monsai Trail (Helen Moat)
Blog Words : Freewheeling | 16 February

Monsal: The Peak District's best cycle trail?

After a rousing winter's day cycle ride, Helen Moat argues the case for what is arguably the Peak District's most spectacular ride

Cabin fever had been getting to me. I needed to get out, but the constant rain was putting me off. My bike hadn’t seen daylight for a good part of the month and I was beginning to feel more than a tad guilty. After all, I wouldn’t be able to ‘pick’ my weather on the way to Istanbul – otherwise I might never get there.

Yesterday, I arranged to meet a friend on the Monsal Trail with the intention of cycling there, but when I looked out the window, it was pouring. Red-faced, I crept out to the car. It was just as well, as the road between Matlock and Bakewell was overflowing with water. I’d have arrived for lunch looking as if I’d taken a shower fully-clothed.

But today the sun shone and the sky was blue. I had a short window of opportunity to get out there and breathe in some fresh air. My husband had a meeting in the Peak Park, so I flung my bike into the back of the car and hitched a lift. He dropped me off at Millers Dale Railway Station, leaving me to wend my way home along the Monsal Trail and back along the A6 to Matlock.

And what a difference a day makes, as the song says. The roads had dried out, the sky was clear and the sun was warm on my cheeks.

The Monsal Trail is a glorious trail for cyclists, walkers and horse riders. Up until 2011, parts of the trail were only accessible to walkers; then the tunnels were opened up again.

Today, the trail was quiet but for the odd rambler, and it was easy to pick up a bit of speed as a result. The trail is gently sloping downwards from Millers Dale to the end of the trail just outside Bakewell, an easy ride. The sun shone on the stone of the cottages and mills and on the limestone escarpments so that they appeared luminous. It was good to be outdoors again.

I plunged into tunnels at Chee Tor, Litton, Cressbrook and Monsal Head, seeking out the dry patches on the tunnel floor as the water seeped through the curved roofs. I skirted the puddles in the gloom, but still managed to catch the odd drip.

Winter is a great time to cycle (walk or horse ride) the Monsal Trail. The bare trees make it easier to view the valley below, the mills of Litton and Cresswell, the little villages and the rocks and hills beyond. On the floor of the valley, the River Wye was a bubbling torrent after days of relentless rain.

Below Monsal Head, a great viaduct crosses the valley. Monsal Head Hotel sits on the valley head, high on the skyline. Shortly after that, I passed Hassop Station Café, where I’d had a bacon bun the day before with my friend. Today I flew on by, resisting the temptation of coffee and cake, not wanting to break the rhythm of the cycle.

Then, it was downhill into Bakewell, along the river and on into Matlock, feeling the first drop of rain on my nose as I reached home.

Quirky and interesting facts on the Monsal Trail

– Litton Mill was one of the darkest and most satanic of mills, notorious for its child abuse. Orphans worked for long hours in unsafe conditions and were treated little better than animals. The boys had their (barely edible) food served directly onto their shirts as they held them up, the girl’s onto their aprons.

– The words of the poet John Ruskin are inscribed on the viaduct at Monsal Head: 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. Ruskin, a conservationist, believed the railway had destroyed the beauty of the dale

– Hassop Station was especially built for the Duke of Devonshire (of Chatsworth House) who wasn’t too keen on sharing a station with his neighbour and rival, the Duke of Rutland (of Haddon Hall)

– The Duke of Rutland built Haddon Tunnel so that he wouldn’t have to view the railway, but used Bakewell Station, especially constructed on a grander than usual scale for the Duke, and carrying his coat of arms.

 – There are four tunnels on the Monsal Trail, roughly extending 400 to 500 metres.

– Permission has been granted to extend the trail through Haddon Estate and on to Rowsley. The long term aim is to link Buxton and Matlock with a bicycle trail, and Monsal Trail with the High Peak Trail. Eventually the plan is to link all the trails in the Park and provide cycle links with surrounding cities such as Sheffield and Stoke. The Peak District will be a world class cycling destination.

Cycling the Peak Trails in winter: Why do it?

 – You’ll have the countryside more or less to yourself – particularly mid-week.

– The trails are much easier to negotiate without the hordes of summer holidaymakers and day-trippers

– The views are better in winter as a result of the bare trees and vegetation

– Being outdoors in winter is crucial for combating SAD – or just the plain old winter blues. Choose bright, sunny days.

 – With accurate short term weather forecasts (and fairly accurate longer term forecasts), you don’t need to worry about cold and rain

Best of the Peak District Trails on dismantled railways.

With so many choice trails, it’s difficult to choose one above the other.

1. Monsal Trail: Nine miles of river gorges, meandering river, mills and limestone villages

Highlight: the four tunnels and the two viaducts

2. Tissington Trail: Thirteen miles from Parsley Hay to Ashbourne. 

Highlight: Tissington, one of the most handsome historic villages in the Peak District.

3. High Peak Trail: Seventeen miles of wide-open panoramic views over moors and dales. The disused railway starts north of Parsley Hay and descends steeply to High Peak Junction. You can follow the canal on into Cromford. 

Highlights: Old engine houses, sidings, signals and quarries - an industrial heritage; open views over to the Black Rocks, Cromford, Matlock Bath and Matlock

4. Manifold Trail: Nine miles from Waterhouses to Hulme End. The Manifold cuts through limestone, past steep wooded slopes and rocky outcrops.

Highlight: Thor’s Cave. Chain your bike and climb up to this large, cathedral-like cavern.

Helen MoatHelen Moat spent her childhood squished between siblings in her Dad's Morris Minor, travelling the length and breadth of Ireland: all for a soggy, sandy sandwich and a quick runaround on a damp beach before returning home on the same day. Strangely, it didn't put her off travelling – quite the reverse. 

This year she plans to cycle from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul even though she's not that keen on cycling and hasn't a clue how to fix a puncture. And we'll be following her every step of the way. For more information, visit her website.