The Monsal Trail
Walking this stretch of path cum trail used to be an intermittent delight and an occasional frustration. Several of the tunnels along the old Manchester - London railway line had been sealed with enormous metal doors. They resembled something left on the cutting room floor from 'Lord of the Rings.' Diversions from the trail included a stepping stone path along the River Wye - impassable after heavy rain.
Tunnels sealed in 1968 when the railway line closed have been opened this year making the Monsal Trail a delight to walk and cycle. Running from Blackwell Mill on the Wye valley to its conclusion at Coombs viaduct, 1 km south of Bakewell station, the route takes in the best of the White Peak. The length is just over 9 miles. The trail passes through several Nature Reserves. Parking is available at either end and at a couple of places en route (Millers Dale, Hassop). There is also a large cafe and bookshop at Hassop station, originally built as the Duke of Devonshire’s personal station to service Chatsworth House.
The Midland Railway engineers who built the line through this wonderful scenery did a terrific job. Not everyone agreed. Among them was John Ruskin. He was not impressed when the railway opened in 1863. He went on at some length about the wonders that had been destroyed by ‘Railway Enterprise.’
He concluded, “You enterprised a railroad through the valley - you blasted its rocks away, heaped thousands of tons of shale into its lovely stream. The valley is gone and the Gods with it, and now every fool in Buxton can be at Bakewell in half an hour and every fool in Bakewell at Buxton; which you think a lucrative process of exchange - you Fools everywhere.”
Thanks to £2.5 million from the Department of Transport, the route has been re-opened this year with the longer tunnels having lighting and an improved surface installed. A there-and-back cycle ride takes approximately 2 hours riding steadily.
The Trail has three distinct sections. Leaving Bakewell, the scenery is classic undulating farmland and gentle valleys filled with many trees. Emerging from the first tunnel under Monsal Head is delightful and marks the beginning of the dramatic limestone scenery. The trail goes across a viaduct over the River Wye as it loops within a matured gorge. An adjoining embankment provides a superb viewpoint. Industrial archaeology is now to the fore with the Cressbrook Mill (rebuilt in 1815 after a fire ) in the valley on the right. This is followed soon after by Litton Mill. Built early on in the industrial revolution, the mill became notorious for the worst excesses of the age. An account by an orphaned apprentice in 1832 exposed the cruelty and inhuman treatment of child workers at the mill. Not only did the child workers endure beatings, incredible long hours, starvation and avoidable accidents, they also risked their lives. There were many mortalities. The owners hired orphans so no-one would miss their dying or campaign to improve their conditions. They even spread the burials around so their number would not be tallied. it took a long time for their wickedness to be exposed. Not only were the owners cruel and heartless, they were also inept, going bankrupt in 1826.
The final section just after Millers Dale station, is the most grand. There are the remains of several massive quarries here which add a further dimension to the journey. The trail follows the Wye as it curves through an increasingly lowering gorge with a couple of tunnels through limestone spurs and bridges high above the road and river. A favourite for climbers, the cliffs are dramatic and impressive.
The trains are all long gone. Imagine the Pullman express speeding to London though these limestone cuttings on a wet and windy night with smoke and sparks flying. It is all so peaceful today. The scale of the undertaking survives without its harder edges. The trail has been softened by the maturing growth of a variety of trees and other plants along the route.
Ruskin would probably approve.