06 June 2017

A very wet Monsal Trail

We Brits are known the world over for being a hardy bunch, while being a little eccentric and taking most things in our stride. It was this thought that kept me going as I walked 8 miles in the pouring rain yesterday - for fun.

I'd recently discovered that it is now possible to walk 8.5 miles along the trackbed of the former Monsal Line through stunning Peak District scenery. The line was closed in 1968 by Labour's Barbara Castle (and not Beeching) and since 1981 it has been used by cyclists and walkers alike, offering a little bit of calm in an otherwise bustling county. There had always been one drawback, however: the three tunnels that punctured the route being inaccessible to everyone, resulting in lengthy, arduous 'diversions', a number of which were unsuitable for cyclists and families with buggies and young children.

That all changed on 13 May 2011, when the Peak District National Park re-opened the three tunnels along the route - Litton, Cressbrook and Headstone - making the route now fully accessible and relatively unique. It is now possible to walk or cycle from Millers Dale to Bakewell. The re-opening occurred following a campaign, assisted in part by Julia Bradbury's TV Railway Walks: The Peak Express programme, and £3.785 million was spent, some coming from the DfT to re-open these tunnels and to establish a through route once again.

I'd planned a visit to the Monsal Line - which has become known as the Monsal Trail since it reopened in 1981 - and frustratingly my only 'window' was a day with persistent, heavy rainfall forecast. Still, we Brits are a hardy bunch etc...

I travelled to Millers Dale - the most northern point for my walk, though not the most northern point of the trail (Chee Dale) - aboard one of G&J Holmes Coaches' short wheelbase Enviro200s in 'dealership white', working the 1230 Service 66 from Chesterfield station to Buxton. Equipped with a mandatory Derbyshire Wayfarer, 1230 came and went and I was the only one stood at the rail station bus stop so at 1236 I called the company to ask if there was a problem and was reassured that the bus was on its way and was just a little late. Two minutes later it arrived and I was the sole occupant until the centre of Chesterfield where 15 others boarded. No-one paid cash, there being a mix of concessionary bus pass holders and students with pre-paid college passes.

Service 66 can trace its roots back to NBC days when the X67 'LincMan' operated from Lincoln to Manchester via Mansfield and the first part of the existing 66 route before heading beyond Tideswell to Manchester. East Midland was the operator of the route (with some assistance from Lincolnshire Road Car), though following the lengthy route's demise and privatisation, Whites of Calver was successful in operating what we now know as the 66, passing to Stagecoach in 1995 (following the purchase of Chesterfield Transport), then onto TM Travel, following Stagecoach's retrenchment in the mid-noughties and from October 2013 G&J Holmes has been operating the route. The route is being re-tendered this October.

Soon out of Chesterfield the route makes a steady climb before dropping into Baslow, thence to Calver Sough (passing the site of the former Whites depot (now a petrol station) on the right, before heading through Eyam - famous for the Black Death - and Foolow, before negotiating the quaint and picturesque Great Hucklow and onto Tideswell. From Calver Sough, Service 65 (to/from Sheffield) operates the same route, though at alternate hours; with both services operating two-hourly, the frequency between Calver Sough and Buxton becomes a clockface, hourly one. Connections can be made at Tideswell onto the two-hourly Service 173 to either Castleton or Bakewell.

After Tideswell, we deviated from the main road to Litton, making a reverse move into a side road, and then retracing our steps. I alighted in rainfall so bad that it looked as though it was dusk. Millers Dale is in a natural valley with steep mountains either sides and while this reduced the strong wind blowing the rain underneath my trusty umbrella, it still didn't detract from with wild look to an otherwise picturesque locality!


G&J Holmes MX59 AVN Enviro200 departs Millers Dale in the pouring rain

The walk to the former station at Millers Dale is up quite a steep footpath, at the top of which the wind became more noticeable. Part of the former station comprises toilets and information boards, which were a welcome sight, if only to stock up on tissue for my glasses. And so, at 1355, I started my walk towards Bakewell. Immediately, you cross one of two impressive viaducts. One is closed to the public and from the top of the other, you can't quite appreciate how spectacular they both are. For this you'd need to head to the main road in the middle of Millers Dale.


Millers Dale station, the starting point for my walk to Bakewell


Only the western viaduct can be used and while it looks a little innocuous from the top, the views below are considerably more spectacular


Looking down from the western viaduct, a car can just be made out amidst the foliage

Once across, the route takes on a very slight incline and becomes a little less spectacular, interspersed with gaps in the foliage to see the neighbouring mountains. Cloud was low on my visit and the rain was coming down heavily. I stopped once under a tree, which while it was dripping, was doing less so than had I stood away from it. Pushing on after a few minutes, I met with a German chap who'd opted to stand under a footbridge and read a few pages of his book. I, naturally, pushed on, and as soon as I caught sight of the first tunnel, the rain started to subside. Typical.


This is the generic tunnel warning sign, displayed before each tunnel

Litton Tunnel is the first of three between here and Bakewell, all of which are now open to the public. Hitherto, walkers would have to climb the not inconsiderable mountain immediately to the left of the tunnel entrance, in order to continue. Naturally this was the end of the line for cyclists! Now, we can just plough on through the tunnel - taking note of the signs telling us not to touch the sides! - and come out the other end.


From 1981 to 2011, when the tunnels were closed, walkers would leave the Monsal Trail here at Litton Tunnel and head up the steep incline to the left, around the mountain

One of the most dramatic sections of the line has been inaccessible despite being outside a tunnel. This is the very short section between tunnels - where Litton Tunnel ends and immediately before Cressbrook Tunnel starts. A slight bend in the line, overlooking spectacular scenery - even on a day like today - made this short section somewhere I chose to stop and have my lunch, despite it being devoid of seating.


My favourite part of the walk is this short section between Litton Tunnel and Cressbrook Tunnel, previously inaccessible until the tunnels were reopened in 2011

Cressbrook Tunnel certainly looked more dramatic as the huge mountain through which it passes was more noticeable than Litton Tunnel. Lighting in the tunnels was minimal though effective enough and a tarmac 'road' has been laid through the middle of each for cyclists and walkers and to the east side of all tunnels a slab of walkway has been built enabling segregation for walkers, on days when there are plenty of cyclists and you don't fancy taking your chances. Tunnel lighting is turned off around dusk, making the tunnels particularly eerie at night time as there seemed to be no obvious manner in which National Park Wardens could seal them off each night.


Some work, although not a lot, has been done to sections of the tunnel walls, though walkers and cyclists are told not to touch the sides. The tarmac central 'road' can be seen and the small pedestrian 'path' to the right of the photo. A testament to the Victorians is that very little water was noted dripping through the tunnel roofs

Having emerged from Cressbrook Tunnel, the footpath walkers would use who had to leave the route at Litton Tunnel joined the trackbed again. Again, the views towards Cressbrook were very impressive, with the Cressbrook Mill standing out in the foreground. Cressbrook, incidentally, is home to a rather spectacular bus 'move' - negotiating the hairpin bend to the east of the village. Service 173 (Bakewell - Tideswell - Buxton) diverts here three times a day (once am/pm for school children and a middle of the day journey for shoppers to reach Bakewell) and while current incumbent Hulleys of Baslow uses short wheelbase Darts and Optare Solos, this wasn't always the case. Hulleys used to regularly use Leyland Lynxes and before that Stagecoach used Alexander PS-bodied Volvo B10Ms and Alexander P-bodied Leyland Tigers. The move with a full-size bus can't be undertaken in one go, and so a three-point shunt in the midst of the hairpin bend is required, often with a scraping sound of bodywork on the adverse camber of the road.


Cressbrook Tunnel looking north, in the pouring rain


A view of Cressbrook Mill. The wooden fence is the gate where the footpath from the north side of Litton Tunnel rejoins the Monsal Train. The reopening of the tunnels has meant this lengthy detour is no longer necessary

Back to the walk and there was more tree-lined route ahead before this gave way to the picture-postcard section of the line: Monsal Head. Here, Headstone Viaduct stands majestically across the Monsal Valley before heading straight into Headstone Tunnel. John Ruskin protested at the time the line and viaduct were being built, writing "The valley is gone – and now every fool in Buxton can be in Bakewell in half an hour and every fool at Bakewell in Buxton." Access to this viaduct from the road is via a million or so steps down from a visitor centre and pub - a trek I made on a number of occasions as a kid with my parents. Back then, all there was of note was the viaduct and a closed, locked, boarded-up, impenetrable tunnel. Now, however, I stood on Headstone Viaduct all alone in the pouring rain - I'd only ever been here when it was packed - and a fully open, accessible tunnel.


Headstone Viaduct is more iconic when looked at from afar than when stood atop. Had the weather been less inclement I may have been more inclined to ascend the mountain and photograph the viaduct nestled in the valley, which is the picture-postcard shot many who visit capture. Amidst all the greenery in the distance is Headstone Tunnel

Using my phone I attempted a panorama shot looking west along the valley from the tunnel to the opposite side of the viaduct.


A panorama shot of Headsman Viaduct, looking west. Click for an enlargement

I should mention that at this point I'd seen just 3 people. I now headed into Headstone Tunnel and soon heard some screaming - not what I'd been expecting - as a school party of children using bikes came hurtling through, accompanied rather loosely by appropriate adults. Headstone Tunnel was noticeably colder inside than the other two. Very much so. Once out the other side, the 'interesting' and more spectacular elements of the Monsal Trail had now gone; the remainder of the route to Bakewell was of more traditional rolling countryside, which made time pass a little slower to pass and the remainder of the journey take a little longer than it actually did.

I passed through the former Longstone station and passed Hassop station - now a designer outlet-type place and onto the former Bakewell station before arriving at the end of the route: Coombs Road Viaduct. My journey today both started and ended at viaducts. In the rain. Although I'd clocked up around 8 miles, and was feeling a little weary, I still felt frustrated that I could go no further, especially when I knew the trackbed was in tact almost all of the way to the Peak Rail track and stations at Rowsley and Darley Dale. Rowsley, incidentally, is the main problem; the trackbed has been built on and crossing the A6 trunk road is likely to be very costly with the need for a new, realigned railway and bridge. Thereafter, of course, heavy rail continues to use the line in the form of the Derwent Valley Line from Matlock to Ambergate Junction.


Longstone Station

And there ended my railway walk, along the former trackbed of the Midland Railway. It was now 1635 and I found myself in the Original Bakewell Pudding Shop purchasing a medium-sized pudding. The rain was still falling and so I had to endure the bus shelter in Bakewell Square that smelled of urine, to devour the very tasty pudding, the recipe for which was invented by accident around 1860.


Hulleys of Baslow's Optare Solo MX09 AOF is seen here in Bakewell Square before departure to Matlock at 1715

I had intended to return home using Trent Barton's 6.1 to Matlock, though completing the walk a little faster than I'd planned meant I could take the more scenic Service 172 at 1715 to Matlock via Youlgreave, Birchover and Elton. Again, time was Hulleys would use Lynxes and in the evening Stagecoach would use PS-bodied Volvo B10Ms along roads that our Optare Solo struggled to negotiate at times. I was the only passenger on board as we entered Elton, and following the reverse move into a side road (as per the same at Litton earlier on), we gained a passenger in the form of political pundit, author, former West Derbyshire Conservative MP and former Times sketchwriter, Matthew Parris. He was catching the train from Matlock, whereas I was headed to Chesterfield aboard the 1815 Stagecoach Gold-branded Service X17, bound for Sheffield.


Since the opening of Matlock's relief road, the town has a rather pointless two bus stations. Some buses, such as Stagecoach's X17, continue to use the old bus station, while others use the new one, by the rail station; some even use both; some use Bakewell Road and neither bus station. It is a confusing mess for those with connections and who aren't particularly familiar with the town. Seen here is Stagecoach in Chesterfield's Scania/Enviro400 Gold-standard 15192 (YN64 OAC)

This was what you'd call a 'spirited' run, flying out of Matlock and up Lime Tree Hill. This Enviro400-bodied Scania had plenty of go in it. We hurtled along the A617 and ended up sitting at Kelstedge for a few minutes as we were early. Why the driver couldn't have travelled a little slower once we were clear of the centre of Matlock is a mystery.

I had a few minutes in Chesterfield before catching Trent Barton's 'the comet'. This is the route of the former Red Arrow extension north of Derby. We departed Chesterfield at 1855 and I was the only one on board. All traffic lights were in our favour and the next stop announcements gave the impression the service calls at limited stops to Clay Cross. Still with no-one on board we flew through Clay Cross and onto Alfreton where 4 passengers boarded. We left Alfreton bus station immediately and headed to Ripley where the driver turned the engine off. I'd assumed he had adopted the driving style of my last bus driver, but looking at the timetable showed we had just one minute to wait in Ripley, which made me wonder just how late we'd be if people actually used the service and we had to stop at the occasional red traffic light!


Trent Barton prefer individual route branding to generic route numbers and The Comet is one such example, operating half-hourly between Derby and Chesterfield using Volvo B7RLEs with Wrightbus Eclipse Urban bodies in a special black livery; 747 (FJ09 XPF) is seen here in Chesterfield New Beetwell Street

After Kilburn we were non-stop into Derby along the A38 and our driver chose to use a platform in Derby bus station specifically signed for use by National Express only, complete with additional, strongly-worded signage by NX affixed to the end of each bay. My final bus of the day was Service 1 operated by Yourbus, which departed at 1955. Plenty of people have strong, polarising views of Yourbus and the background of its management; I'm a massive fan of the type of single-decker they've chosen to standardise on: the Mercedes-Benz Citaro. For me, as a passenger, they have everything you would want. Comfortable inside, decent leg room, wide, open aisles and a decent, meaty-sounding engine. Other people wholeheartedly disagree, of course.


The day ended as it started, photographing a bus heading off into the distance having dropped me off in heavy rain. Seen here is Yourbus BD64 NCN, a Mercedes-Benz Citaro, leaving Derby rail station bound for Alvaston - a route they operate in competition with Arriva

At Derby station I alighted and caught the 2008 CrossCountry train to Nottingham, with a senior conductor who did his announcements at the same speed as the American chap who auctions off random items in garages in the USA TV programme Storage Hunters!

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