A Grim North

Musings from a northerner living in the deep south…

The Monsal Trail

Posted by Alan on February 24, 2012

In August last year, R and I took to one of the UK’s many off road cycle trails – The Monsal Trail, in the Peak District national park.  This wasn’t just for fun – it actually formed part of of a journey between London and Manchester!

Along with many of the most celebrated cycle routes, this is a former railway line which closed following the Beeching Axe of the 1960s.  It’s hard to tell now, but this was a main trunk routes built by the Midland Railway – this was their link between the great industrial cities of the North and the Midlands. This is of course important on a bike because it means you can look forward shallow gradients and curves.

The south end of the trail starts near Bakewell at a rather abrupt point.

The End

North end of trail - the south end has a very similar sign

We had arrived by train, taking the mainline to Nottingham for a connecting local train to Matlock.  Plenty of cycle space aboard both and no bother loading or unloading and very cheap with an advance ticket. From Matlock to Rowsley we took the short Peak Rail heritage service as it was raining and we wanted to avoid as much of the A6 as physically possible (and have a cup of tea away from the summer rain).  But from Rowsley it was A6 all the way, today’s trunk route into the Peak District. A winding road, full of HGVs heading to Peak places. It’s pretty clear that the authorities see the Monsal Trail as a discrete leisure activity – there’s not much in the way of signage for anyone arriving by bike who is looking to find the start of the trail at either end.

Abandoned Station

Abandoned Station

Once on the trail everything is good. It is indeed flat and well surfaced. We had absolutely no problem maintaining a good shared speed of 12mph (following the sensible limit applied to canal towpaths). It’s wide enough to allow cyclists and pedestrians all to pass at ease as well as having some stunning scenery.


It may be serene today, but the Peak District once hosted much industry

Along the current route all the major infrastructure is now open to trail users – including bridges, viaducts and tunnels. Continuity is a great thing. These are all well prepared – tunnels lit and hazards marked.


Approaching one of the many tunnels

Apart from a puncture that had be fettled in typical English summer weather, it was a enjoyable experience.  It’s a stunning piece of countryside and without the traffic to worry about it’s a very stress free route, that is until you are are either end of it. This I feel is a shame – at 8.5 miles long it isn’t all that long. Close to the north end, Buxton is a reasonably sizeable town but I can’t imagine many people tackle the A6 through to Wye Dale Car Park (4.3 miles) to go for a nice ride, they probably put the bikes on the back of the car. Admittedly on the south side it’s another ~8.5 miles to Matlock, so at over 20 miles Matlock to Buxton it starts to look more like a “proper cyclist” trip. Still… it would be nice if these short sections could be joined into a network – I’m sure some people would use them as a-2-b even in a rural area.

So a short hobby horse section – this is probably a lot of the problem with cycling in the UK today.  The marketing and conversation is framed in a sport / leisure context.  You’re either a glowing power ranger speeding along on a racer or a family loading mountain bikes onto the 4×4 to drive somewhere to cycle like the Monsal Trail. Personally I don’t fit into either category – my bike is a tool to travel and to do the weekly shop. Yes, I do enjoy cycling away from traffic on trails such as these and canals such as the Lee Valley Navigation but this is much less useful to me than humdrum every day movement some of which I would like to do by bike.  Do I have to be classified as a Cyclist because I ride a bike? Or Am I also a tubeist because I use the tube to go on weekend adventures?

4 Responses to “The Monsal Trail”

  1. Stuart Fear said

    The Monsal Trail is a great thing and those involved in creating it deserve much credit, but thrre is one thing about it that appears to make no sense. Large parts of it are surfaced with a loose aggregate which is less than friendly to bikes. A touch too much front brake can end in disaster and the day I rode it I saw three people who’d come a cropper. It left me scratching my head about that particular decision.

  2. If you ride it now you’ll find that the surfaces have setttled in and are much smoother. I rode it in my touring bike at the weekend with no problems. Pedalpeakdistrict are working hard to link the open section up to Matlock and Buxton, as well as creating a circular route that will take in the High Peak and Tiissington trails.

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