Updated on September 21st, 2023
The Monsal Trail in the Peak District, UK is a disused Victorian railway line which is perfect to explore on foot. However, as it is flat & traffic free, I decided to get on a bike! Along the way I cycled through dark tunnels, over spectacular viaducts, between gorges, disused mills & lime kilns while being surrounded by nature. If you would like to do the same, here is everything you need to know about Monsal Trail cycling in the Peak District.”
The Monsal Trail between Bakewell & Blackwell (near Buxton) in the Peak District, UK
While travel overseas from the UK now is a complicated & unpredictable pastime, I have decided to make the most of my home country. The UK has an endless supply of beautiful gems which remains pretty much undiscovered…by me at least! Time to change that!
The first of these adventures was a solo road trip for a week around the Peak District & I loved it! During my time there I hiked up epic peaks, explored medieval castles, was left in awe by stately homes, humbled by historic reservoirs & went underground into mind-blowing caves.
And then I got on a bike & cycled the length of the fantastic Monsal Trail through amazing old railway tunnels & over spectacular viaducts. Cycling the Monsal Trail gave a whole different perspective to the stunning landscapes of the Peak District & therefore should be on every itinerary for exploring the area. So here I give you all the reasons why you should visit, what you can expect to see & everything else you need to know before you go!
To see all that the wonderful Peak District has to offer, check out my blog post on the 15 best things to do.
Where is the Peak District?
The Peak District covers 555 miles2 & sits across four counties in England – Derbyshire, Staffordshire, Cheshire & Yorkshire. It was the first National Park created in the UK. Nowadays it receives over 10 million visitors a year & is the busiest National Park in Europe.
What makes the Peak District unique is its geology. The area is separated by valleys between the ‘Dark Peak’ which is characterised by exposed moorland & gritstone edges. Here you find peaks & ridges with exposed rocky outcrops & tors. Lying alongside are the limestone dales of the ‘White Peak’ with its undulating hills & fascinating caves. The Monsal Trail is the perfect place to uncover the beauty of the ‘White Peak’ area.
The Monsal Trail is a disused railway line that was closed in 1968 & has now been converted into a traffic-free track, allowing people to walk or cycle from Blackwell Mill (near Buxton) to Bakewell. The 8½ mile trail follows the River Wye, taking you through several lit tunnels, between steep gorges & across the spectacular Monsal Dale viaduct. All making this an exceptional cycling experience.
As the Monsal Trail is traffic-free, it is also perfect for walkers, horse riders, wheelchair users, families, dogs & everyone else looking to explore some of the Peak District’s most beautiful limestone dales.
The route also features several other walking tracks, old mills, lime kilns, renovated stations & 11 nearby nature reserves to enjoy the local flora & fauna. Along the way keep your eyes peeled for birds like dippers plunging into the river or buzzards soaring overhead.”
Due to its history as a railway line, the Monsal Trail is pretty much flat for its entire length. I’d been walking a lot during my time in the Peak District (check out my post on hiking epic Mam Tor), so I decided to hire a bike & cycle the Monsal Trail route for a change of pace. I loved it. I don’t cycle very often & it gave me the opportunity to see the full length of the trail, in both directions. Without stops, I have no doubt that you could cover the same ground as me in 2 hours. But I am slow. I take lots of photos & stop constantly for video footage. I took my bike out for 4 hours & even found that a rush in the end!
There are 2 main places to hire bikes. If you’re watching your pennies then Blackwell is a little cheaper & means that you will start & finish precisely at the end of the trail.
I hired mine from Hassop Station which sits just 1 mile away from Bakewell, close to the other end of the trail. There is also an award-winning café here which is open for breakfast from 9am every morning. The menu is highly recommended, & you can either choose to sit in the old station building or the large sun terrace.
Expect to pay around £15 for two hours or £19 for four. You could also opt for an electric bike from £19. All bikes are sanitised before and after hiring. To hire a bike, you need a photographic ID (driving license or passport). This will be held for the duration until all bikes & equipment are returned undamaged. If you are planning on leaving your bike, make sure you also request a lock.
As it is flat & vehicle free there is no legal requirement to wear a helmet but you can request one for your safety if you would prefer.”
Monsal Trail history
Back in the 19th century, the Peak District stood in the way of Midland railways ambition to create a London to Manchester railway line. To achieve their goal, the company dug several tunnels (6 to be exact!) & a bridge over the River Wye. The project was completed in 1863 with the final addition of the spectacular Headstone Viaduct. For over 100 years the train line was operational, carrying both freight & passengers until it was closed in 1968. Finally, in 1981 the Peak District National Park opened the trail to allow visitors to enjoy this beautiful part of the world for themselves.
Cycling the Monsal Trail you can see glimpses of the important role the area held in the past. The River Wye was used to power mills at both Cressbrook & Litton which are still evident today. You can also see the massive lime kilns which would burn limestone from the nearby quarries. The trains would bring the coal to enable the process & take quicklime away for use in the steel, chemical & agricultural industries.
In addition, the history of the area goes much further back. The rock was formed more than 350 million years ago when the area was part of a tropical sea near the Equator. As a result, it is rich with fossils. Shells, corals & mud built up on the seabed & eventually formed the limestone.”
Practicalities of Monsal Trail cycling
- The trail is there to be shared so be considerate to others. Keep to the left, take all litter home. If you are accompanied by your dog, keep them on a short leash in the tunnels & of course clean up after them.
- Cyclists need to slow down & give way to walkers & horse riders, stay left & overtake slowly in a single file. Take extra care on bridges & embankments, where the edges of the trail can be high & steep.
- Horse riders must keep walking pace when passing other users & no more than a trot at other times.
- Picnics are allowed but no BBQs.
- Be prepared for the weather to change & bring appropriate clothing with you, including layers & waterproofs. The tunnels can get cold no matter how warm it is outside.
- The tunnels are lit during daylight hours, but it is still a little hard to see & can be quite disconcerting. Use your bell or call out “Bike” to warn people of your approach. Pass slowly when it’s safe to do so & be aware that horses can be spooked by bikes. Don’t touch the side of the tunnels as they’re dirty from their former rail use.
- Toilets are available at Millers Dale, Tideswell Dale, Munsell Head, White Lodge, Hassop Station & Bakewell.
- Make sure you pick up a map to make the most of your visit or download a copy HERE.
What will you see cycling the Monsal Trail?
As I started at Hassop, I’m going to take the highlights in order from Bakewell, at the end of the trail:
Bakewell Station lies just a 7-minute walk from the centre of Bakewell, which is worth taking a little time to explore. While you’re there, don’t miss the chance to sample the famous Bakewell pudding from theOld Original Bakewell Pudding Shop. It may not be pretty, but it is delicious!
After 2½ miles from Hassops Station, you hit the first tunnel. Headstone Tunnel is just under 500 metres long. As with all tunnels on the trail, it is lit during daylight hours but don’t expect that to mean it’s bright! The darkness can still play with your head & it is hard to see other users & gauge which direction they are heading in. Be cautious overtaking anyone & keep left. Be aware that the hired bikes don’t always have lights. There is a moment when you lose sight of the light at both ends of the tunnel.
Also be aware that the temperature change once in the tunnel is very distinct & even on a warm day, the tunnels can get cold. But cycling through them is a unique experience!”
As soon as you exit the Headstone tunnel, you practically find yourself on the Monsal Viaduct. This is potentially one of the most impressive structures along the route at almost 100 metres long. Below the viaduct lies Monsal Dale, formed by glacial meltwater during the last Ice Age. You can choose to take several walking trails across the valley.
If you lock up your bike between the tunnel & viaduct, head up on the path for a short trip to Monsal Head. This gives you the best view down into the valley & the wonders of the viaduct.
Cressbrook Mill was built in the late 1700s. Behind the mill are “apprentices” cottages, which housed orphan children brought from the cities to work in the mill. It was a tragic practice back in those days, taking children as young as 8 from orphanages to work in horrendous conditions for little pay & food. During the 19th century, the mill was in its heyday making high-quality cotton for the lace-making industry (using this child labour). It ceased to spin in 1965. Litton Mill is also a little further along the route.
Close by lies Water-cum-Jolly, a river gorge with limestone cliffs where you can keep an eye out for dipper’s & wagtails darting along the River Wye.”
Millers Dale was once the largest station on the Midland line & an important junction where tourists from London & Manchester would connect to visit the fashionable spot of Buxton. The old station building has now been converted into a handy café.
If you fancy something a little more adrenaline-boosting than just the cycle, why not consider abseiling off Millers Dale Bridge? Contact Abseil Derbyshire for all the details.
From 1880 to 1944 the enormous lime kilns here produced over 50 tonnes of quicklime a day. During the 19th century, the demand for quicklime increased for the growing steel & chemical industries as well as agriculture. To meet the demand limestone quarries & kilns opened next to railways. The tracks were bringing coal to burn in the kilns & take the quicklime away.
Today the kilns are home to wildlife. You will see white boxes along the buttresses where newly hatched swifts will begin their first flights. Once they leave the nest, they can keep flying non-stop for up to three years!”
In addition, the dark crevices in the kilns are also used by hibernating bats. There is a path up from the right of the kiln which is 100 metres & brings you out amongst the flora & fauna along the Monsal Trail.
Cutting through the limestone rocks to construct the three tunnels through Chee Dale is an excellent example of Victorian engineering. The Chee Tor tunnels are separated by a 15-metre-high bridge over the River Wye. The railway went over this before entering Rusher Cutting tunnel & crossing back over another viaduct. The line was difficult & expensive to construct since it had to go round the base of the 100-metre cliff, Chee Tor. The wildlife haven of Chee Dale has now been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
When it was a station, Blackwell Mill was reputed to be the smallest passenger station in Britain, only big enough to accommodate one carriage. Now it marks the end of the Monsal Trail & another location for bike hire.
Where to stay
For my whole time in the Peak District, I stayed at the B/W Plus Buxton Lee Wood Hotel. For me, Buxton was perfectly located to explore the area. Other options in Buxton are the Old Hall Hotel or a little further out for a self-catering option you could try Hargate Hall. Alternatively, you can find options for Bakewell using the box below to search for the best location & price for your needs.
I hope I have convinced you to add cycling the Monsal Trail to your perfect Peak District itinerary. It is a fantastic way to get a greater understanding of the geology, history & nature that are abundant in the area. And when else do get to cycle through 400-metre-long tunnels & over epic viaducts?
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