Image: Montage from Middleton Top, High Peak Trail, Derbyshire Cromford and High Peak Railway.The Cromford and High Peak Railway was built in the 1830s and finally closed in the late 1960s as a result of the Beeching Cuts. In the 1970s, the Peak Park and Derbyshire County Council acquired the trackbed from Dowlow near Buxton to High Peak Junction on the Cromford Canal, a short way from Arkwright's mill. They converted this 17 mile stretch into the High Peak Trail - a traffic free (other than crossing a couple of minor roads and farm tarcks) trail for cyclists and walkers. It has become the first stage of the Pennine Bridleway. To the left, you can see a montage of photographs taken at Middleton Top.

The High Peak Trail begins (or ends!) at the High Peak Junction on the Cromford Canal - the pump house for the canal is fired up occasionally for the benefits of visitors. Another key canal of the Peak District, the Peak Forest Canal, lay on the other side of the high limestone plateau. There were plans to join the two but it would have proved far too difficult to cut a canal between the two so the owners linked them by railway instead. Basically a lack of water and the permeability of the limestone were the two insurmountable problems. The route of this railway - the Cromford and High Peak Railway - survives as the High Peak Trail. Its construction was organised by Josiah Jessop, the son of the builder of the Cromford Canal. The line was designed to carry freight, limestone out, coal and other materials in. Occasional passenger services ran during the summer months, if the line still existed, I’m sure it would have been classed amongst the great railway journeys of the world.

Map of the High Peak Trail (external site).

The railway took 5 years to build and was around 17 miles in length. It opened in 1832 and the final section was closed in the late 1960s. The dismantled now gives easy walking and easy traffic free cycling along most of its length, with a fairly flat and generally well maintained surface. There is just one road crossing to be made, but please also be aware that there are several farm tracks that intersect the trail. There are several information centres along the route such as the one at Middleton-by-Wirksworth (Middleton Top). There are several fierce inclines on the trail, notably getting from the High Peak Junction to Black Rocks and between Wirksworth and Middleton Top. The Hopton Incline was the steepest worked incline on any British railway and often caused problems for the train drivers with its 1 in 14 gradient. The line was a record breaker in other respects too, the highest point on any British Railway and the tightest gradient (the Gotham Curve).

Starting at the High Peak Junction with the Cromford Canal, the line heads steeply uphill behind the visitor centre (small gift shop, also sells sweets and drinks). This starts off in the open and rapidly takes you above the A6 and gives great views. The trail then enters gorgeous natural woodland which, when in leaf, forms a brilliant natural green tunnel. On a bike, the gate at the end of the 'tunnel' seems to remain tantalisingly distant! So, after the good but steady climb it flattens out and on the left you will see the ruined winding house. The incline was far too steep for either horses or locomotives to pull trucks up so that was done using a cable and a massive stationary steam engine. Nothing remains on site of the winding engine. There is a pond on the left and a seat on the right, where you can recover a bit from the climb if needs be! The views over the Derwent Valley are worth it. The trail, now flat for a while, then passes Black Rocks, a well known and popular Derbyshire Beauty spot at Wirksworth. This was one of the early hard gritstone climbing venues and, in our opinion, there are no giveaways. A couple of the Peak Districts hardest climbs reside here - Gaia and Meshuga. To us mortal climbers of mid grades, these hard routes look ridiculously bare of gear and holds. Possibly the best named climb of the Peak District is a Black Rocks - Discombobulator. It actually looks reasonable until you get to the overhangy bit! There is a bit of bouldering here but it is not one of the greatest venues. Groups like to use Black Rocks for abseiling, scrambling and a bit of climbing, though there are better venues for the latter that are less traumatic for beginners.

Carrying on along the trail, you pass the Steeple Grange Light Railway and the National Stone Centre, where the trail once more heads up a steep incline, not as long as the first but equally as steep! Where it finishes, you will find Middleton Top. At Middleton Top you will find toilets (toilets are also available at Parsley Hay, Black Rocks and High Peak Junction.), cycle hire, a visitor centre which sells souvenirs and snacks plus the Middleton Top winding house and an old wagon used on the original railway. There is good parking. The winding house contained another huge steam engine (still fired up occasionally for visitors) to pull wagons up to the top of the plateau from Black Rocks. Once at Middleton Top, they could be coupled to an engine for the rest of the journey. After a near miss in 1888, when several wagons broke loose and careered out of control all the way back to the Canal, a 'catchpit' was constructed along this section. Just outside the winding house, you can see the remains of the wheel, round which the rope for pulling the wagons up the Middleton Incline ran.

After Middleton Top, the trail passes through the short Hopton Tunnel, when has been resurfaced to make it much safer for wheelchair users. After this, the trail goes uphill again, though not as violently steep as the previous two inclines. It did cause problems for trains but did not require a winding house. Where it flattens out at the top, there is a handy seat and an information panel, plus, for the keen eyed on a clear day, views over to the Wrekin in Shropshire. Continuing on, the trail then passes Harboro Rocks (good bouldering and beginners climbing group venue) and out into the White Peak. Along the way, you pass some industry based on the local minerals, most notable perhaps is the Friden Brickworks where there are several information plaques attached to the wall of the building that detail the fascinating history of the factory, including old photographs. Just beyond the Newhaven Tunnel, the High Peak Trail is joined by the Tissington Trail, a branch line that was constructed at the end of the 19th century. A few hundred metres further on is Parsley Hay (toilets, refreshments, bike hire and car park). The trail continues on northwards from here to Dowlow, where it ends abruptly at a gate.

For archaeology, the section of the trail that passes Roystone Grange is the richest - with remains stretching from the Neolithic, through Bronze Age, Romano-British and Medieval and Victorian in a remarkably small area. After appreciating the perfect sweep and excellent stonework of the Minninglow Embankment, cast your eyes uphil to note the tree-shrouded hill to the east of the Trail. This can be seen for miles around and is an ancient burial mound containing several Neolithic Chambered tombs. Unfortunately this is on private land however there is concessionary access for the time being. If time permits, take a walk up, it is an interesting site. It is also worthwhile to take time to follow the Roystone Grange trail to see Bronze age and Romano-British remains including field boundaries (well actually just a few of the original stones remain but the walls are in the same places as they were 2000 years ago). Medieval remains have also been located here. Keep your eyes open also for the Lime Kilns.

There are various books about the Cromford and High Peak Railway on Amazon as well as guides to the high Peak Trail, not all of which are readily available, try The Cromford and High Peak Railway by John Marshall or Walking the High Peak Trail (Trail Guide) (Paperback) by prolific local writer John Merrill.

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