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.
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.
Near Millers Dale viaduct (I think)
An old photo looking down at where we were in the one above
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).
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)
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.
The bike van
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).