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Derbyshire's best cycle routes - Monsal Trail

PUBLISHED: 14:31 06 July 2015 | UPDATED: 14:31 06 July 2015

View from Monsal Head to the Monsal Trail  Photo: Karen Frenkel

View from Monsal Head to the Monsal Trail Photo: Karen Frenkel

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This year marks the 20th anniversary of the National Cycle Network. Wendy Johnson, author of the new official guidebook to the Network, will be exploring some of Derbyshire's finest trails

L'Eroica Britannia 2014  Photo: James Brown at 93ftL'Eroica Britannia 2014 Photo: James Brown at 93ft

Over the last 20 years the National Cycle Network has grown into more than 14,000 miles of paths spanning the country. I cycled some of its finest parts last summer whilst researching the Network’s new guidebook and, where some trails have since merged together in my memory, the Monsal Trail has proven unforgettable. There is no mistaking this marvellous 8.5-mile path for any another, simply because there’s no other ride like it.

The route is within the Peak District – the UK’s first National Park – and follows part of the former Midland Railway Line that once linked London and Manchester. Like others up and down the country, this section of railway fell under the Beeching Axe and eventually closed in 1968.

However, it isn’t the trail’s railway past that makes it so unique. Disused railway paths have a long history of being transformed into walking and cycling routes, and in many ways they’re ideally suited for the purpose as they’re often fairly flat and allow new or less confident cyclists to enjoy their bikes away from roads and traffic.

What really gives the Monsal Trail the edge, though, is the adventure of plunging into the six dim and chilly tunnels along the way, emerging from each one into the dramatic limestone gorge of the White Peak. It is this perfect contrast between open-air freedom and atmospheric enclosure that makes it so memorable.

Cressbrook Mill from the Monsal Trail  Photo: Wendy JohnsonCressbrook Mill from the Monsal Trail Photo: Wendy Johnson

The dark depths of the long, curving tunnels are a particular source of excitement among children. ‘Dad, I’ve found another one’ is the eager cry I recall one little lad giving as he passed me at the entrance to Cressbrook tunnel. That sense of discovery, of being a pioneering adventurer riding into the dark unknown is something he, and the many other youngsters who tackle the trail, will not forget in a hurry.

Popping out of each tunnel, blinking against the summer sunshine and soaking up the Peak District scenery was a highlight for me. Some of these unique views have been largely hidden away since the closure of the railway, but the reopening of the tunnels and completion of the trail in 2011 has made them accessible to all once more. A favoured spot for many is at Chee Dale, alongside the overhanging limestone rocks of the gorge. But, for me, the scenery was never better than atop Monsal Viaduct, sometimes known as Headstone Viaduct. Its five vast arches make it one of the most impressive and famous viaducts in the country, and the sweeping views over the hillside and wriggling River Wye are tremendous.

There couldn’t be a better time to sample this trail than right now, as we celebrate 20 years of the National Cycle Network. So, saddle up and take a gentle ride along a truly spectacular railway route that was almost lost forever.

Entering one of the tunnelsEntering one of the tunnels

Tackling the Monsal Trail

Start at Blackwell Mill cycle hire at Wyedale and head east. The route is signposted as number 680, but there’s no way of getting lost if you simply follow the path. Cyclists, walkers and horse riders all use the trail, so be sure to cycle considerately and take particular care through the tunnels.

You’ll pass through two short tunnels in the opening mile, then the longer Chee Tor Tunnel with its moody lighting and smooth surface.

Back in the sunlight you’ll reach Millers Dale Bridge before riding beneath old lime kilns towering above the trail towards Millers Dale Station. There are several stations along the way that make great places to pause. Millers Dale is a good early one with a picnic area and toilets. There’s often a coffee van here too.

Next, you’ll discover some wonderful spots for looking down over the River Wye and across the limestone gorge. You’ll also spot two former cotton mills in the valley bottom. Litton Mill is first, directly followed by the long Litton Tunnel, then Cressbrook Tunnel follows with Cressbrook Mill beyond.

The ride’s midway point brings you over Monsal Viaduct, one of Britain’s most impressive viaducts with beautiful views from its top. Headstone Tunnel is the last of the ride, then it’s a pleasant open-air ride all the way.

In the final miles pause at Hassop Station to sample the café or lovely picnic spots, alternatively, carry on to the trail’s end at Coombs Road.

It’s advisable to dismount and push down the steep, stony track that leads from the trail to the road, then it’s just a short on-road ride into the market town of Bakewell, the ancient capital of the Peak.

Cycle Hire: Blackwell Mill Cycle Hire (01298) 70838 or Hassop Station (01629) 810 588.

This ride is taken from new guidebook Sustrans’ Traffic-free Cycle Rides by Wendy Johnson, £15.99 from sustrans.org.uk/shop.

Viva Velo

L’Eroica Britannia, based on a popular and stylish Italian cycling event, will be held once again in the Peak District National Park from 19th to 21st June, when cyclists on vintage bicycles will tackle the Monsal Trail. Find out more or get tickets at eroicabritannia.co.uk.

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