Two disused railway lines and a reservoir provide plenty of traffic-free riding on this tour of the southern Peak District.
The Cromford & High Peak and Ashbourne to Buxton railway lines closed in the mid-60s but, on the Bank Holiday of my visit, looked like they had never been busier – with cyclists, of course. All ages of cyclist and types of bike were represented – from toddlers in trailers to children on tandem extensions, adults on tandems, grandparents on mountain bikes and the occasional tourer. I even passed one bike fitted with a wheelchair on the front. There could hardly have been a more heartening advert for the National Cycle Network and leisure cycling in the 21st century. If you enjoy your cycling alone, though, make sure you come off-peak and, whenever you visit, make sure your bike has a bell.
You can join the two trails at many different points but chosing one of the former stations is the best bet if you need somewhere to park. I picked up the Tissington Trail at Thorpe. To start with it was hard work since I was carrying a pair of panniers and towing my seven-year-old son, Bertie, on a tag-along bike. What I didn’t realised was that I was also travelling slightly uphill. Between Alsop and Hartington the scales tipped and, with the gradient in our favour, I didn’t feel quite so out of condition.
Hartington was once one of the busiest stations on the Ashbourne to Buxton line used by walkers as well as by the limestone quarrying industry. It had two platforms (with a ladies waiting room on each), a booking hall and waiting area. Today it’s a popular picnic spot, our bench bearing the inscription: “Sit back on this bench and dream of noise and wheels and coal and steam.” A short walk from the station is Hartington Meadows where you might hear skylarks singing while they hang in the air or the distinctive cronk-cronk call of ravens that breed in the quarries in the spring.
Some railway paths are enclosed and can get a little monotonous after the initial novelty but not the Tissington Trail. After a showery summer we saw England’s green and pleasant land at its most verdant. Cows, sheep, fluffy clouds, rolling hills and dry stone walls were all around. At the northern end of the Trail we passed along two deep, dramatic rock-sided cuttings which were framed in a purple v-shape by willow herb waving gently in the breeze like peacock feathers.
Reached after 10 miles and at the first corner of our route, Parsley Hay was a natural spot for lunch – for us and most other cyclists too. I hadn’t seen such a great concentration of bikes since my last visit to Halfords.
Parsley Hay was initially a rural outpost on the Cromford & High Peak Railway. The railway was conceived as part of the canal network and as a means of connecting Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire to the industrial north-west via the difficult high ground of the Peak District. Opened in 1830 it was designed like a canal with level sections of track (originally worked by horses) between five steep inclines. It would sometimes take 16 hours to complete 33 miles of the railway – which made our earlier progress seem positively speedy! In 1889 the Buxton to Ashbourne line opened making Parsley Hay a busy junction.
The High Peak Trail – which follows the route of the old Cromford railway and now forms part of the Pennine Bridleway – wasn’t quite as busy as the Tissington Trail but we still had to take care as we wobbled our way on the narrow track past the other cyclists. It also includes several bridal gates and you need to cross a main road.
There are few obvious station buildings on the Trail but two towering dam-like embankments, walled on either side, gave a strong hint of its past. Just after them we passed a working quarry. The Arbor Low stone circle near Parsley Hay (see map) is described as the “Stonehenge of the north” so perhaps Bertie’s comparison of the quarry to the Grand Canyon wasn’t quite so far-fetched.
Our next stop came at Longcliffe, a former goods yard and and watering place. Little water was available in the area because of its limestone geology so spring water from Cromford was brought here in tenders. These were shunted up onto the waiting ramps to provide water for the steam locomotives and for other industrial and domestic uses. Milk from nearby farms and limestone from quarries were also loaded at Longcliffe.
The highlight of the High Peak Trail for us was the 113-yard long Hopton Tunnel. Suddenly, we were plunged into the darkness. In fact, it was so pitch black that I couldn’t even see my wheels turning and felt like that little boy cycling through the night sky in the ET film. Also looking a little sci-fi was a mysterious structure next to abseilers at Harboro’ Rocks. Four towers like an Aztec temple connected by stone steps stand forbiddingly in a field looking out across the Trail. A quick Google suggests they are part of old quarry workings.
We reached the end of the Trail at Middleton Top. At least, it’s the end if you’re on a bike as a sign indicates that the incline too steep for cycles and we were bound for an overnight stop in nearby Wirksworth anyway.
The following day it was almost a novelty to cycle along roads again. A lane led us up a steep hill from the town’s marketplace and then down to the peaceful Carsington Water. The Bank Holiday weekend now having past, we were mostly on our own as we pedalled around the numerous little ups and downs of the reservoir’s eight-mile perimeter track which encompasses a mile-long dam wall. Beside it were two more strange structures: what looks like a giant plughole with a rock in the middle of it is a performance area and a small building in the water next to the dam is a valve tower which controls flows into and out of the reservoir to and from the River Derwent.
We had a look around the visitors centre – which includes a craft and RSPB shops – and trip to the playground then walked around Stones Island. This land was the site of a Bronze Age settlement and, consequently, was saved when the valley was flooded in the 80s to create the reservoir. Up to 4 metres tall and weighing up to 7.8 tonnes, stones were sited on the island to continue Derbyshire’s long-standing tradition of hill top monuments. They reminded me of what we’d seen earlier at Harboro’.
A signed Sustrans route conveniently links Carsington Water via Bradbourne and a big hill back to Tissington. The church and the Jacobean Tissington Hall stand imposingly on banks either side of the long green and the village also has several chocolate box cottages, no less than six wells, a chapel, a duck pond and butcher, an even greater rarity. We’d resisted exploring Tissington at the start of the our ride as it seemed to be the ideal place to celebrate its completion – which we did in style at the tea room on the green, the terminus at the end of our line.
Distance: 34 miles.
Time: All day.
Join the Tissington Trail in Tissington and head north towards Parsley Hay. Keep going for 10 miles until a sign saying ‘Refreshments 800 yards’ at which point either continue to Parsley Hay station (in view) or turn right onto the High Peak Trail (also signed). Leave the Trail at Middleton Top just before the visitor centre via a track on the right.
Turn left at the t-junction then, at the B5035, turn left again signed to Wirksworth. Turn right at the crossroads beside The Rising Sun down Middleton Rd. Turn right beside the Hope and Anchor and through the marketplace. Just after the sign to Hopton turn left off the road, pass through a five-bar gate and bear left to join the the Carsington Water Circular Route. It is well waymarked (in blue) with one exception. At the Millfields car park and toilets pass a wooden sculpture then, at a barrier, turn right down a track then immediately left signed ‘Viewing area, dam wall and visitors centre’. Cycle along the top of the embankment to the visitor centre and playground.
Leave Carsington Water via the main exit and turn right signed to Kniveton, Wirksworth and Matlock. At the Town Farm campsite fork left to join the signed National Cycle Route 54A. Keep following the signs through Bradbourne (turning left at the t-junction). On the descent from Bradbourne turn left onto a traffic-free section of Route 54A (easy to miss – at Valley View Barn). Follow the route over a bridge, across a road and then (back on road) over another bridge beside a ford and up a steep hill to Tissington.
Pubs and grub:
Parsley Hay station (kiosk only). SK17 0DG. Tel 01298 84888.
Middleton Top visitor centre, DE4 4LS. Tel 01629 823204.
Le Mistral bistro, The Marketplace, Wirksworth, DE4 4ET. Highly recommended. Tel 01629 824420. Plus six pubs and seven other cafes in the town.
The Knockerdown Inn, Knockerdown (near Carsington Water), DE6 1NQ. Tel 01629 540209.
Mainsail coffee shop and restaurant, Carsington Water visitor centre, DE6 1ST. Tel 01629 540363.
The Bluebell Inn, Tissington, DE6 1NH. Tel 01335 350317.
The Old Coach House Tea Room, Tissington, DE6 1RA. Tel 01335 350501.
Parsley Hay station, SK17 0DG. Tel 01298 84493.
Middleton Top visitor centre, DE4 4LS. Tel 01629 823204.
Ashbourne (Mapleton Lane). Tel 01335 343156.
The Old Lock-up, North End, Wirksworth, DE4 4FG. Tel 01629 826272. Former police station with a room also in Gothic chapel in graveyard next door.
Overfield Farm, Tissington, DE6 1RA. Tel 01335 390285. Beautifully situated at the top of the green.