The Monsal Trail: Views, tunnels and historical landmarks

Walkers, cyclists, horse riders, wheelchair users, prams, dogs; all are welcome on the Monsal Trail in the Derbyshire Peak District. If you’re looking for a route full of surprises, railway tunnels and amazing views, look no further. Many BCH Camping customers have embarked on this walk that underwent a £3.785m restoration programme in 2011, and been far from disappointed.

The Monsal Trail runs between Blackwell Mill in Chee Dale, and Coombs Road at Bakewell, Derbyshire. The trail is 8.5 miles long and completely traffic free. Its National Cycle Network route number is 680. As well as the opportunity to walk through former railway tunnels, the Monsal Trail offers an amazing journey over impressive viaducts above the River Wye. The views are stunning and there is a wealth of wildlife to observe.

The history of the Monsal Trail

Originally a section of railway built in 1863 to link Manchester with London, the Monsal Trail was closed along with the rest of the line in 1968 and remained unused for twelve years before being taken over by the Peak District National Park.
In 1981 most of the route was opened to the public, but for safety reasons four of the former railway tunnels remained closed; the Headstone, Cressbrook, Litton and Chee Tor tunnels. Footpaths were created to detour visitors around them. Upon completion of the restoration project in 2011, the tunnels were opened, lighting was installed, and the route was resurfaced to be suitable for bicycles.
Each tunnel is about 400 metres long and they are all lit from dawn to dusk to make them safe to use. They are operated by a light sensor, so in winter the lights in the tunnels switch off at around 4.30pm. If you are using the trail in the afternoon, you are advised to take a torch or use bicycle lights in case you get caught out. If the lights go off because of a power failure there is a two-hour emergency back up in place (good to know!).

Accessing the Monsal Trail Route

The Monsal Trail starts just north of Bakewell, 10 miles north of Matlock and 8 miles west of Chesterfield in Derbyshire.  There are many entrance points to the Monsal Trail along the route between Bakewell and Blackwell Mill at Chee Dale. Wheelchair users can access the trail through accessible ramps at Bakewell Station, Hassop Station, Great Longstone Station and Millers Dale Station.

Monsal Trail Route Highlights

There are many highlights for those completing the Monsal Trail. As well as the wildlife there is a fascinating geology in the limestone landscape, and the opportunity to experience at first hand the industrial heritage which supported and shaped this part of the country.

The Monsal Trail Tunnels

The tunnels offer a fascinating and unique, if at times eerie, walking experience. Knowing that they were once used by trains carrying passengers to and from London gives the walk through the tunnels a sensory contrast to the outdoor sections of the trail.

Headstone Tunnel

The longest tunnel at 487 metres, Headstone Tunnel is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) because of its distinctive rock strata.

Cressbrook Tunnel

Cressbrook Tunnel is 430 metres long and follows an S shape alignment.

Litton Tunnel

Litton Tunnel is 470 metres long and brings you out onto Water-cum-Jolly, with its meandering river, mill pond, and meadows.

Chee Tor Tunnel

Half a mile west of Miller's Dale, Chee Tor no.1 tunnel extends for 366 metres up to a single-arched bridge found at the beginning of no.2 tunnel, which is 86 metres in length. 

Monsal Viaduct, Monsal Head

Monsal Head provides a spectacular view; one of the best views in the Peak District. It’s a famous beauty spot with a magnificent view down Monsal Dale and up the Wye valley. The river can be seen far below, winding through a steep-sided, rocky valley.
The Monsal Dale Viaduct, now a surfaced walking path, is steeped in history. In response to the proposal to build the viaduct, art critic and painter John Ruskin complained bitterly. His reasons are quoted on an information board in the area, “The valley is gone and now every fool in Buxton can be in Bakewell in half an hour and every fool in Bakewell in Buxton”. Ironically, the viaduct is now protected so no-one – fools included – can walk across it.

Cressbrook and Litton Mills

Cressbrook Mill

The village of Cressbrook is located on the River Wye, about 4 miles north of Bakewell. Sir Richard Arkwright built the original Cressbrook Mill in 1785. After complaints from the workforce about the quality of accommodation, work started in the late 1830s to include a village club. Cressbrook Mill went into bankruptcy in 1965, after which time it changed from being a private mill estate to a public village. The buildings have since been restored into modern apartments.

Litton Mill

The original 19th-century Litton Mill became notorious during the Industrial Revolution for its questionable employment practices. Many of the children, brought from London and other large cities, died young from cruelty and were buried in the churchyards at Tideswell and Taddington.
Due to a downturn in the industry in the early 19th century, the workforce was reduced by half. There was a fire, and in 1811 the waterwheel broke and couldn’t be used for a month. The mill was operated for a time by the Newtons of Cressbrook Mill but was destroyed by another fire in 1874. Very little remains of the original mill. Its replacement mill manufactures nylon yarn for hosiery.

Lime Kilns

The Lime kilns to the east and west of Millers Dale Station are examples of commercial kilns built in the 19th and 20th centuries. A means of processing lime for farmers in days gone by, the commercial kilns were a response to the increase in demand for quicklime in agriculture and the chemical industry. Before then, quicklime had long been produced in small kilns.
Limestone from the quarries near the railway, and coal brought in by train, were burnt to produce the quicklime. The railway was then used to transport the finished product. The last remaining kiln closed in 1944.

What do you need for following the Monsal Trail

There are many things to consider when preparing for a trail that is 8.5 miles long with varying temperatures and terrain. The tarmacked paths and indoor, damp environment of the tunnels will place different demands on your clothing and body warmth to the outdoor sections of the trail.
As with many walks, at BCH Camping we would strongly recommend layering. Take a look at our earlier blog for tips on keeping warm -  but not too warm – on lengthy walks. We have an extensive range of clothing available, including fleeces, down jackets, softshell jackets, thermal base layers, hats, gloves and much more. We also have a selection of backpacking rucksacks which are ideal for carrying lunch and other essentials.
Our staff are always on hand to advise you on your kit, clothing and the most appropriate footwear. If you fancy taking on the Monsal Trail, get in touch with our walk-savvy team at our stores, or drop us a line. We’d love to hear from you.
If you have been on a walk that you’d like to share with the BCH Camping community, let us know and we may be able to cover it in a future blog. All ideas welcome!