Cycling the Monsal Trail

monsal-tunnel

Sandra and I cycled the Monsal Trail the other day. The trail has apparently existed since 1981 but I hadn't heard of it until last year when it was announced that four ancient railway tunnels are now open to walkers, wheelchair users, cyclists and horse riders, after being made safe by the Peak District National Park Authority with £2.25 million from the Department for Transport. You can now go from one end of the 9-mile trail to the other, whereas previously, for safety, you had to skirt round these tunnels on footpath diversions.

As we arrived from the direction of Manchester we naturally started at the western end of the trail, at a small car park near Blackwell Mill about three miles from Buxton. From there, you cycle through a limestone gorge along the River Wye until you come to the wooden cabin that is Blackwell Mill Cycle Hire and a small café with tables outside. A ramp goes up to the start of the trail.

monsal-trail-start

The Monsal Trail starts here (Buxton end)

The western end is more spectacular as the trail cuts through the hills at high level. The tunnels are fun and down below in the valley you see the rooftops of bygone industries that thrived in the days when life was hard: mills, quarries, lime kilns, etc. Life was not hard for everyone. The path of original (privately owned) railway was determined in part by the Dukes of Devonshire and Rutland who didn't want it spoiling their estates. It is worth remembering that the railway companies were commercial enterprises with shifting alliances, rivalries, and a profit motive. It seems a wonder, with all the tunnels and viaducts, that the old Midland Railway ever made this line pay, and even more surprising, when you see the terrain, that it linked Manchester and London (if I've understood Wikipedia correctly). At any rate, the history of the British railways is a complex web of intrigue and this is really the most interesting aspect of the Monsal Trail.

Monsal Trail

Near Millers Dale viaduct (I think)

An old photo looking down at where we were in the one above

monsal-trail

Soft spring sunlight

Purely as a cycling venue the Monsal Trail is a little disappointing. It's completely flat of course, and as is usually the case, sharing a level path with walkers means you are continually coming up behind them straddling the entire width (three is enough). The eastern end, towards Bakewell, is out of the gorge and right at the end is a reminder that on official cycle paths in modern Britain you are never far from the Nanny State (Sandra's words, not mine).

Watch out, there's a road - get off your bikes and begin supervising the kids

Cyclists unmount – the Monsal Trail ends here (Bakewell end)

After a snack in Bakewell we cycled back the way we'd come. A party of children were abseiling off one of the viaducts, people in wheelchairs were taking photos, there was a horse or two, some joggers, families on bikes, and the café at one of the disused stations was doing well. The trail must be very busy at weekends and in the holiday season. Blackwell Mill Cycle Hire have several dozen bikes and at peak times they are all hired out. All most encouraging! (the reason there are no people in my photos is that there never are, unless I am taking their picture)

monsal-trail-bike-hire

Blackwell Mill cycle hire

Back to the bike van. I got it last November to carry two bikes without the usual half-hour of fixing them to a rack. It's also long enough to sleep in and the bikes are secure. This was the first time we've tried the van with two bikes so I haven't yet perfected the eezi-load system. The most important thing is for the bikes not to fly forward in a crash. Each of them is secured with a cable through the frame and back to the purpose made loops on the floor.

bike-van

The bike van

P1020256

A good day out

The Monsal Trail seems a success as a place to walk or go in a wheelchair, and good for children who are learning to cycle, but I wouldn't recommend it to regular cyclists. The in-depth history of the railway is probably very interesting indeed if you can spend a few days exploring the places it connected in times when it had a true purpose. I would not be surprised if one day, after the economy has fully recovered, the railway is restored, but this time as a viable tourist attraction. The trail and tunnels seem wide enough for walkers plus a single track (but not cyclists as well).

17 comments on “Cycling the Monsal Trail”

  1. ian wrote:

    I've cycled the High Peak trail and it seems broadly similar to the Monsal Trail. Like you I prefer riding these trials either out of season or very early in the morning. They do get rather busy at times! On another note Patrick, is your cycle van a Peugeot? My faithful but thirsty C5 estate is being traded in soon and the idea of a cycle van is very appealing.

  2. ian wrote:

    'trails' that should read although perhaps 'trials' was a Freudian slip :)

  3. Patrick wrote:

    LOL

    It's a VW Caddy Maxi van. This one is a 5-seater Kombi but the rear seats lift out.

  4. Keith Edwards wrote:

    Patric if you look at the Raleigh front fork support (the type that clamps the forks with the wheel out). Then use an old rood bar or box tubing you can make your own system by adding angle iron drilled and bolted to go down the length of the van and clamped to the points in the van. I have found that this is better than the expensive ones that just rely on the tube across the van gripping the side of the vehicle.
    If I knew how to put pictures here, I would take some of the system I have made.

  5. Mary wrote:

    This is a fab post thank you Patrick for putting this on. I have a thing about old railways, and in particular tunnels... love em. I dont know much about the history of the railways, but I do love looking at and imagining them chugging along belching out choking coal smoke and the like.

    Your pictures as always are brochure quality and really give an impression of atmosphere.

    Cakes at Bakewell, oh one day Im cycling to Bakewelll if only to eat tarts!

    As for the trails its self, I have learnt from experience that cycling along these routes unless you are looking at scenery can be tiresome as they do get full of others using them. I am a selfish cyclist, I like to be alone.

  6. Hilary wrote:

    Excellent pictures as always. That first one is a real beauty.
    My father was an expert on railway history but I'm afraid he is no longer here to ask about it.
    It looks an interesting spot for a little potter but shared use paths just don't work for cyclists who are actually trying to get somewhere. Constantly dodging pedestrians and their dogs is not my idea of fun!

  7. Patrick wrote:

    Thanks for the comments :)

    In Bakewell the tarts are apparently known as puddings, so remember to ask for Bakewell Pudding otherwise they won't know what you mean LOL

    Keith, many thanks for the suggestion. Will send you an email so I hope you can send me your pictures.

  8. Kern wrote:

    The first photo really conveys a sense of mass and is almost foreboding. Nice.

    According to your photos, spring is in the air, Patrick. It looks like it was a great day for a casual ride.

    There is a tension between the demands of "serious" versus casual cyclists. If the Monsal Trail was designed for multi-purpose use, I would judge it a success.

    I'm very interested in seeing Keith's bicycle mounting arrangement.

  9. Dan wrote:

    Hi Patrick, enjoyed the blog, and reminded me of a time I used to cycle in this part of the world more often! Not sure I've ever cycled on the Monsal Trail (I've walked some of it), though I'm familiar with its route – as I've mentioned elsewhere I prefer the variety of the roads, and gradients, though a cycle route can still be in inspiring scenery and still be a change in itself, and yes, can encourage cycling, walking, general exercise and visiting beautiful parts of the country amongst others, so I have to give them my support – they're just not really for me!

    As Hilary and Kern have commented, the first photo is a stunner. Whatever your views on cycle trails, however the day goes, whatever the weather does, if you pass through scenery like the Peak District's then you can't really escape stunning views once in a while!

  10. Patrick wrote:

    I must get to know the Peak District better. The last time I was there (before the Monsal Trail) I fell off my MTB and knocked myself out.

    Kern wrote: I'm very interested in seeing Keith's bicycle mounting arrangement.

    Here are the photos, Kern (with thanks to Keith Edwards).

    Keith wrote: 4 pictures that show how I made the clamps and one that shows the whole layout, this carries 4 bikes. The 4 uprights were made from scrap off cuts of a sixth form project. The uprights are bolted to the angle iron with one bolt. The side angles stop the uprights from moving backwards and forwards. If I were to purchase the materials I would use 1¼" x 1" box tubing for the uprights and still use angle iron for the base. You could use any bar for the base if the clamps for the forks were purchased.

  11. Mick F wrote:

    If you remember my post about The Granite Way a few weeks ago, you'll appreciate what I was saying.

    The Monsal Trail looks and sounds far better than The Granite Way!
    I reckon it's a good ride, clearer surface and much more interesting.

    Good account, Patrick. Thanks.

    Regards to all.
    Mick.

  12. Kern wrote:

    Keith's arrangement for transporting bikes is very, very clever. Welding is one of my bucket-list wish list skills.

  13. Keith Edwards wrote:

    Kern if you look at the way some of them are done they are not welded just 6 nuts (4 nylock) on threaded bar.

  14. Chris wrote:

    Setting aside the expense of it all, I think these trails are a great idea to get people out on bikes, especially those people who wouldn't otherwise bother. I spoke to an adult at work the other day who said he was very wary of going on main roads on a bike. He looked genuinely upset just at the thought of it. Either that or he thought I was trying to get him out with me and came up with a very convincing excuse. +1 for these sorts of trails. The first image is particularly well captured too.

  15. Graham Lynch wrote:

    I cycled the Monsal Trail about 6 weeks ago. It was delightful. I cycle quite a few of the trails featured in the AA/Sunstrans book and this is on a par with those featured. It's not just a disused railway line. Tunnels of varying length, beautiful views to look down onto. It's not a long cycle route approx 8 mile if I remember rightly. Took some finding though. There is a public car park in Bakewell close to the town centre BUT if you cycle along the small road alongside it you can park nearer to the route and its FREE!! If you climb the hill adjacent to this car park it takes you to the old Bakewell railway station where there is parking but you miss out on some of the route.

    A tip though . . . . if you start from Bakewell there is a very nice cafe not far on the route with all the usual fare including a shop. There isn't much else on the route apart from an ice cream van by an old station which is now a toilet stop. Lovely ice cream but the attempt to provide a brew was thwarted. The hot water from a flask was only just warm so only had to pay 50p !! Continue on to the cylce hire centre you can get tea and coffee there but its not a full blown cafe.

    If you go into Bakewell visit the two shops that both claim they make the original acclaimed delicacy. One makes the Bakewell Tart and the other the Bakewell Pudding :)) A good enough reason to boost the energy levels after or before the ride.

  16. Fin Green wrote:

    The Monsal is actually a very dangerous place particularly for young children. There are unfenced cliffs at various points along the trail sometimes as close as 4 feet from the edge of the trail. If children follow the advice to 'keep to the left' they will sometimes be cycling as close as 5 feet from an unfenced cliff.
    Safe? I don't think so.
    I've contacted the National Peak Park Authority about this. I've received a reply stating 'that they very seriously blah blah blah. Not seriously enough apparently to consider erecting signs warning people of these dangers.

  17. barada71 wrote:

    Hi
    Thanks for the right up. Im hoping to ride this from bakewell. Then take in bridalways on the return to make a fun filled loop
    Nice pictures, i'll remember to take my camera

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