Monsal Trail Walk – A personal recollection by Chris Hindley

The Journey to the Walk (61 miles)
Getting to the top of the Monsal Trail required a spiritual awakening, as well as two trains from Liverpool Lime Street. After an active youth involved in many sports, I had settled down into a sedentary existence, punctuated by irregular and short-lived attempts to ‘get fit’. It took the arrival of a new Fundraising Manager at work to finally shake my inner runner from his long slumber.

I had been persuaded to enter the Manchester 10k, viewing the distance as pretty much equivalent to a trip to the moon and was pleasantly surprised when the race didn’t quite finish me off. Having completed the 10k I was looking for the next challenge when Julia Bradbury entered my world. Julia was walking the Monsal Trail and it looked splendid. That’s why I found myself on the 9.25am Manchester to Buxton train in January of 2012.

Although this is the closest of the six Railway Walks to my home, it still took 2 hours to reach Buxton and then a taxi ride to the top of the trail. The driver seemed suspicious to be dropping someone off in the middle of nowhere and took some reassuring that I wasn’t going to try and make off with his day’s takings. Once reassured that I wasn’t a crazy man, just a crazy runner he deposited me at Topley Pike junction, the start of the Monsal Trail.

Running the railway walk (2 x 8miles)
Three things immediately strike you as you reach the Trail proper. Firstly, it is wonderfully quiet. The steep valley sides block out the noise from the busy A6 and you quickly get lost in the tranquility of the Trail. Secondly, it is downhill for 8 miles all the way to Bakewell. Thirdly, you are going to experience something unique amongst the six railway walks; tunnels*. There are six tunnels in all ranging from the shortest, Chee Tor No2 at 91 yards to the Headstone tunnel which is just short of half a mile. When Julia walked the trail for TV, four of the longer tunnels were closed, but thanks to the Peak District National Park Authority and a dedicated group of enthusiasts all six tunnels are now open throughout the day.

Chee Tor Tunnel

The top and middle parts of the trail are the most dramatic with impressive vistas of the surrounding hills and sheer drops down to the River Wye below. There are also very few people about when compared to the busier sections past Monsal Head. Running through the old Miller’s Dale station you get a sense of how busy the line must have been at its peak, serving as it did both passengers from Manchester and London and the local agricultural community.

*There is a short tunnel on the Speyside way just before Craigellachie, but these are on a different scale both in terms of width and length. 

The River Wye

Just past Litton Mill you enter the first of the three longer tunnels. Incredibly impressive and a testament to the ambition of the railway builders, they are now a wonderful experience for the runner, cyclist or walker. As you pass back into daylight for a short distance before you enter the Cressbrook Tunnel you can’t help but ponder on the thousands of passengers who thundered up and down this line during its hundred-year history. What a local farmer’s boy of the 1880’s must have made of a mechanical beast, belching fire and smoke as it briefly appeared from its underground lair between the two tunnels is anyone’s guess.

Litton Tunnel

I continued running downhill towards Bakewell, enjoying how easy the run is, but always conscious of the runner’s maxim ‘what goes down must come up’. For now I blocked out the pain of the inevitable uphill return journey and enjoyed the view down to the imposing Cressbrook Mill and progressed onward to the highlight of the whole Trail: the Headstone Viaduct. Julia’s Description of the viaduct, both in the television programme and the Railway Walks book really does this amazing structure justice. For me it was a great place to stop and rest, taking in the wonderful views and contemplating the beauty of this part of the world.

I then ran through the daunting Headstone Tunnel. When you reach the middle of the tunnel you realise it is that long (and curved) that you can’t see either entrance. It’s also a pretty noticeably downhill which must have made for an exciting journey.

Once through the Headstone Tunnel the trail opens up into rolling Derbyshire countryside as you approach Bakewell. There is time for one more surprise as you run through Great Longstone for Ashford station. There are actually two station buildings as the owner of nearby Thornbridge Hall: George Marples had his own separate waiting room constructed so as to avoid sitting with his tenant farmers.

From there you are on the final approach to Bakewell. As it was January it was getting dark quickly, but I was determined to run right to the end of the trail. It is much easier to leave the trail at Bakewell Station and walk down into the town, but the Trail currently finishes at the Coombe Road Viaduct. And so, after a wonderful 8-mile, gently downhill run I competed the Monsal Trail.

Bakewell

Epilogue
After an entertaining night at the The Manners pub I set off to run back up the Monsal Trail. Whilst it was uphill all the way, it was still wonderful and you appreciated how the trail got steadily quieter the longer you went on. Once again it was getting dark when I reached the Trail’s end, but this time I was stood in a desolate car park with no phone signal and a steady rainfall to dampen the euphoria of completing the run. My only option was to start to walk up the A6 towards Buxton. For those who know it the A6 is busy, fast and devoid of a footpath and so walking is a challenge. As each car approached I jumped into the roadside verge and hoped the driver was at the peak of their skills as they flew past. After 20 painful minutes of making very slow progress, a white van stopped and picked me up. The extremely kind occupants had noticed the crazy man in the black running gear me as they drove out from Buxton and had decided to turn round and rescue me. So it was, that I competed the journey back to the station rolling about in the back of a van with a giant poodle for company!

Best bit
It’s a tie between the Headstone Viaduct and the tunnels.

Worst Bit
Trying to walk up the busy A6 in the gathering gloom, with rain falling and no footpath.

Top Tips
Run downhill from Buxton to Bakewell and get a bus back to Buxton. Download the Monsal Memories audio blogs to your smartphone and listen to how the railway was as you run – peakdistrict.gov.uk/visiting/trails/monsaltrail