Tracks to Trails
The Peak District once had a sizeable network of railway lines, despite the difficult terrain it presented to their builders. Railways were constructed to link the great cities on each side of the Peak and to serve the towns and villages within the area itself. Increasing road competition and the sparse population eventually led to the closure of many routes. Fortunately, there are a good number of former railway lines whose trackbeds have been retained; their gentle gradients and firm construction providing easy routes for walkers, cyclists and horse riders. Many have been converted into named trails, with associated visitor facilities including cycle hire and cafés.
The area contains four major trails: High Peak; Tissington; Monsal; and Manifold; plus some minor ones. We’ll take a look at each of these, with the emphasis on their railway past.
The High Peak Trail follows the course of the Cromford and High Peak Railway for 17 miles between Dowlow, near Buxton, and Cromford. This line, completed in 1831, was built to link the Peak Forest Canal at Whaley Bridge with the Cromford Canal, connecting the important industrial centres of the North-West and East Midlands. Earlier schemes to construct a canal through the Peak District were scuppered not only by the hilly topography, but also by the lack of water on the high limestone plateau – essential to feed a canal. A railway was decided on, but this was a line built on canal principles, with long, relatively level sections connected by inclined planes (a substitute for locks), up which wagons were hauled by cables. Modern day trail users have to propel themselves up these inclines – power for the cables formerly being provided by a stationary steam engine at the top of each incline, one of which survives in working order, at Middleton Top. This line was also notable for having the steepest adhesion worked incline on the national rail network – the 1 in 14 gradient at Hopton, up which the small tank engines that worked the line would struggle, capable of taking only a handful of wagons at a time.
Between Parsley Hay and Harpur Hill, a short section of the Cromford & High Peak was incorporated into the London and North Western Railway’s line from Buxton to Ashbourne, which opened late in the era of railway construction, in 1899. North of Dowlow, this part of the railway is still in use, carrying limestone products away from the quarries and lime works. Traces of the original course can be found either side of the existing line, notably where the original sharp curves were straightened to take main line trains. North and west of Harpur Hill it’s also possible to walk parts of the trackbed towards Whaley Bridge. There’s an interesting path along the trackbed through the Health & Safety Executive’s laboratories at Harpur Hill, complete with sinister danger signs! Beyond Ladmanlow the line closed as early as 1892, having been superseded the more conventional railways, built to serve Buxton. Here you can follow the course of the line across wild moorland and through the beautiful Goyt Valley, before finally reaching the canal wharf and transhipment warehouse at Whaley Bridge.
Mention of the Buxton to Ashbourne line brings us next to the Tissington Trail. Branching off from the High Peak Trail at the former junction station of Parsley Hay, this route follows the course of the line for some 13 miles to Ashbourne, taking its name from one of the villages it served. The line wound its way across the high, sparsely populated limestone plateau, with its few stations often some distance from their namesake villages. These stations enjoyed a regular passenger service for only 55 years, with excursion and freight traffic lingering on for a few years longer until 1963. The restored signal box at Hartington remains in use as an information centre, perhaps the most notable relic of the line’s past. Access to Ashbourne at the southern end of the trail is through a 378 yard tunnel, which is lit and sometimes echoes to the sound of steam!
The 8 mile Manifold Trail follows the course of a very different railway – The 2’ 6” gauge Leek & Manifold Valley Light Railway which ran along the valleys of the Manifold and Hamps rivers for only 30 years between 1904 and 1934. Notable for carrying standard gauge wagons on narrow gauge transporters and for its colonial style locomotives and passenger carriages – they were originally built for export to India – this was a line serving nowhere in particular; with the stations in the valleys lying way below the hilltop villages they purported to serve and the terminus at Hulme End being some distance from the nearest large village at Hartington. The Manifold Trail opened as early as 1937, three years after the line’s closure, and is paved throughout, with some short sections being shared with road vehicles. Hulme End station has an exhibit of the line’s history, including a model of the station as it was.
The grandest of the four trails through the National Park must be the Monsal; for this was no branch line; this was the Midland Railway’s main line to Manchester, featuring express trains from London right up to closure in 1967. This was a railway that even Dr Richard Beeching didn’t earmark for his infamous ‘axe’, but close it did, following electrification of the London Euston to Manchester line and the decision to retain the Hope Valley line to the north, which Beeching had listed for closure. This trail is the most spectacular to traverse, with its many tunnels, high viaducts and excellent views. One minute you are deep underground, the next high above the River Wye on a viaduct. Railway relics abound, with many former stations retaining their buildings and platforms. South of Rowsley it’s possible to walk the track bed on a footpath installed alongside the surviving single track of Peak Rail’s heritage railway as far as Matlock and there are plans afoot to open the Bakewell to Rowsley section to walkers and cyclists.
Aside from the four well-known trails, you can also traverse the Sett Valley Trail along the former branch line from New Mills to Hayfield and, to the west, the 10 mile Middlewood Way along the route of the line from Macclesfield to Marple. Both of these lines closed as recently as 1970, in a late restructuring of services out of Manchester. Finally, in North Staffordshire, a trail runs along the Churnet Valley between Oakamoor and Denstone, through the former station of Alton and passing beneath Alton Towers theme park, where you can experience thrills of a less gentle kind. This line, part of the once extensive North Staffordshire Railway, ran from Uttoxeter, via Leek, to Macclesfield.
So, if you have a dislike of muddy paths, steep hills and getting lost, or an interest in railway history, a stroll or ride along one of these trails might be for you.