Peak District Rail Trails: A bikepacking microadventure

A Free Weekend

I had a weekend free. I hadn’t seen any hills in nearly 5 months. Following my recent Bikepacking trip in Norfolk, I decided to head to the Peak District to ride some more Rail Trails. The idea, to find some enjoyable gentle gravel riding, throw in a few hills and camp somewhere in the middle.

I planned a route on Strava and downloaded the GPX. Then promptly deleted it. I got a paper map out. Then put it away again. A desire to ride without pre-determined notions of where I was headed. I knew roughly, having a good memory for maps and knowing the Peak District Rail Trails fairly well. It was invigorating to throw such preparations out of the window for a change. To follow my nose.

Stopping to enjoy the views from a footbridge
One of many stops to enjoy the views

With the car suitably stowed somewhere South of the Peak District, I pedalled off. Within the first two miles, I got, maybe, more than I had hoped for in my search of hills. The road pitching upward to a 16% gradient reading on the Garmin. With a laden bike, progress was still made, thanks mainly to the 30t inner-ring. Slow, yes, but progress is progress on a 16% climb. My famed (at the Tuesday night club run at least) ability to spin a high cadence frustratingly useless at this point.

An early stop in Ashbourne for coffee and a croissant reminds me of the joy of bicycle travel. The friendly and inquisitive nature of others associated with bikepacking soon obvious. Chatting with the café staff and a passerby about my destination, the bike and the luggage. A fast blast on the Sunday club run is not conducive to friendly attitudes from others. Load your bike up with luggage and people actually smile at you.

The Tissington Trail: Views over Dales

Starting in an unassuming leisure centre car park, the Tissington Trail was the first of my Peak District Rail Trails. The path runs under one of the main roads, before heading straight into one of the first of many tunnels on this two-day bikepacking microadventure. Though the ride under wheel is comparable to a rail-trail in Norfolk, those in the Peak District have an entirely different feel. Cuttings are hewn through limestone, the rocky walls tower either side of a lightly gravelled surface. Suddenly rock gives way on one side to glorious views across dales filled with patchwork fields full of cattle.

Riding along the Tissington Trail
Riding along the Tissington Trail

The closure of the London and North Western Railway between Buxton and Ashbourne allowed for the forming of the Tissington Trail. It was one of the first such rail-trail schemes in the country. It joins at it’s Northern end with the High Peak Trail, but neither trail reaches as far as Buxton, instead finishing as unassumingly as it started. The remaining rail line still in use for transporting the products of the massive limestone quarries of Dowlow and Hindlow.

Thompson R9300 in front of the views at Earl Stearndale
Thompson R9300 in Earl Stearndale

So my route heads off through Earl Stearndale, which I first passed through on my first ever bikepacking trip. Every time I ride through here I tell myself that I must come back and do some walking in this beautiful corner of the Peak District. This time was no exception. Onward to Buxton, with no time pressures on the ride, I stop for a while to watch people go about their lives at the Saturday market. Next is an unpleasant but unavoidable short ride along the busy A6, before finding the track that leads to the start of the Monsal Trail.

The Monsal Trail: Tunnels and Viaducts

Once again, the Monsal Trail doesn’t reach as far as Buxton, only as far as Blackwell Mill. The rails beyond still in use to connect limestone quarries with the rest of the nation. At Blackwell Mill I stop for a coffee, chatting to the owners about their dog Dave, quietly sat in the corner. I have a photo with Dave from about 5 years before.

The Monsal Trail, formerly the Midland Railway between Bakewell and Buxton, is probably my favourite rail-trail in the country. Cool still air within the dripping tunnels providing a welcome break from the suns rays. The dimly lit passages suddenly opening out to blindingly bright views from viaducts over the River Wye meandering far below. The views down the sharp sided valley a contrast to the gently rolling hills along the other two rail trails. Stopping to spot climbers on the sport lines of Chee Dale. Leaving me missing my climbing days.

Thompson R9300 in front of Chee Tor Tunnel on the Monsal Trail
Chee Tor Tunnel on the Monsal Trail
Views from the Monsal Trail

At Bakewell, I pick up some essential supplies (a.k.a. beer) and head uphill by a long road climb to find a campsite. Knowing a few that could accept walk-in (cycle-in?) bookings, even with the current boom in camping. Soon I am sat outside my tent cooking dinner, reading my book and relaxing in the setting sun.

Sat in front of the tent with a beer in the evening sun
Tent Up, Sun Out, Beer Opened

The High Peak Trail: Straights and Bends

The following morning I make no rush to pack up camp, sitting and enjoying a couple of coffees and porridge with the sun rising on my face. Even still, as I pedal away some people on the site have yet to emerge from their tents. This (relatively) early start means the High Peak Trail is quiet as I reach it and begin my relaxed pedal along it, a light mist hanging in some of the valleys to either side.

Breakfast at Sunrise

The High Peak Trail was formed from the Cromford and High Peak Railway, famous for it’s steep slopes at it’s Eastern end. Where heavy cargo trains could not cope alone, massive engine houses would winch them up. One such house, at Middleton Top, has been restored as a visitor centre. The Western stretches of the trail though are flatter and feel different to the other trails. Long straights and sudden sharp bends replace the gentle contour hugging curves of the other lines. An express railway this would not have been.

Straights and Bends on the High Peak Trail
Sat on a bench with the Thompson R9300 on a gravel trail
Pausing for a break, there was no rush to get anywhere

I peel off the rail trail before Middleton Top, freewheeling at pace toward Carsington Water. The reservoir offering tranquil views over turquoise water from the dusty white perimeter cycle track. A set of sharp climbs through quiet countryside brings me back to the pretty village of Tissington, where I can pick up the trail to head back South. Sitting in a car park enjoying a bacon roll, I decide it’s too early to finish. So I set off again for an unplanned diversion to Dovedale along quiet roads under the now warm afternoon sun.

Big wooden sign – in case you forget where you are

Dovedale crowds, homeward bound

Dovedale, home of the famous stepping stones is beautiful. However, I will put a caveat on that statement. Come on a drizzly February day when few others are around, and it is beautiful. Come on a sunny Sunday in summer and it loses all of it’s charm. Cars queue for parking, crowds fill the gravel track along the river and a line has formed for those waiting for their chance to step across those renowned stones.

Rider, bike (Thompson R9300) and luggage (Alpkit) in front of the views over Ilam and Dovedale
Stopping on the climb to enjoy the views over Ilam and Dovedale

I quickly leave the chaos that is the public spectacle of a quiet natural place to make the last climb back to the car. Bottom gear once again, grinding my way onwards. Smiling all the way up as I reflect on a weekend well spent. Tourist hot spots like the Monsal trail and Dovedale will, unfortunately, draw big crowds in the summer. Though head for the lesser-known areas; head out early, or venture slightly off the main tracks and you are rewarded with beautiful countryside and an invigorating weekend away.

The route that I took made use of the Tissington Trail, NCN Route 68, the Monsal Trail, the High Peak Trail, NCN Route 547 and the Carsington Water perimeter track. With around 60% of the 93 miles on gravel tracks and the remainder on tarmac, it was perfect terrain for my Thompson R9300 Gravel and it’s 35mm tyres.

Komoot links are below:

https://www.komoot.com/tour/238632613
https://www.komoot.com/tour/238635820

2 comments on “Peak District Rail Trails: A bikepacking microadventure”

  1. KirstyB says:

    A great read, made more relatable as I did the high peaks and Monsal trail in the summer, departing from cromford up that bloody great hill 😄. Some great riding to be had around those parts !

    1. Matt says:

      Thanks Kirsty, I know the hill you mean but, thankfully, have only ever cycled down it. I only managed to visit the Peak District once this year, which for me is definitely below par! Which did you prefer? I think the Monsal is probably one of my favourite rail trails in the country!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *