White to Dark Day 1 – Bakewell to Litton

Published 8 September 2019

The River Wye at the edge of Bakewell town centre
The River Wye at the edge of Bakewell town centre

Created to celebrate 25 years of Country Walking Magazine, the White to Dark is a 27 mile walking trail through the Peak District. It starts at the town of Bakewell, and the first bit follows old railway lines, goes through classic Peak District dales, and may see you get wet…

It wasn’t the most exciting way to start a walk. A stroll along a paved path through a field next to a river at the edge of the putting and pastry capital of Derbyshire. Then some ruined buildings and a rusting crane followed as the path started going uphill. What next, I wondered? A landfill sight? A car park?

But it would all turn out all right, for the path I followed went into a field. And the field took me to a track hemmed in by dry stone walls. And the lane had some great views of Bakewell looking all sultry in the cloud, whilst a hint of morning sunshine forced its way through.

Drystone walls next to a footpath, outside Bakewell
Classic White Peak walking features drystone walls

It didn’t take long to get into what felt like classic walking for the White Peak. All small fields and drystone walls. If there’s a quintessential White Peak experience, that’s probably it. Ask me to sum up the Dark Peak in the north of the park and I’ll immediately think of wild, heather topped moorland, and brooding landscapes. Ask the same thing about the White Peak and you’ll hear about a landscape covered with drystone walls.

Although it turned out that the White to Dark had a surprise in store for me. The drystone wall section was brief. And everything was going to change completely as the walk joined up with the Monsal Trail for a couple of miles.

A former railway line, the Monsal Trail is a 8½ mile bridleway. It also starts at Bakewell, and heads towards the former spa town of Matlock. And it’s popular. That much was obvious. For it was heaving. Full of joggers, cyclists, walkers, and even a few young ones in buggies. It felt like everyone was out, taking advantage of an unseasonably warm day in November. And what they’d all decided to do was walk the Monsal Trail.

Great Longstone Station on the Monsal Trail
Can you tell that this house was once a railway station?

Now when all is said and done, I’m not always a fan of walking down old railway lines. Bit too straight. Too flat. Too monotonous. Except in autumn when they come into their own. When all the leaves turn golden brown, and start coating the ground. It’s like it all clicks into place in my mind, and goes “yeah, that’s what it’s all about.”

But the Monsal Trail had long intrigued me. For the Monsal Trail has a major selling point over most walks on old railway lines. And it wasn’t Great Longstone station which closed in 1962. This in itself isn’t particularly amazing. Lots of stations closed in the 1960s. But how many then continued to have trains stop at them, so that one woman could still use the service there? That’s what happened at Great Longstone. Somehow, local resident Mrs A Boardman persuaded British Rail to call twice a day at the closed station just for her. Although it was on condition that only she was the only one to use the station. Although in the end, it was all moot as the line closed for passenger trains six years later.

No it wasn’t that. It was something even more exciting. And I got to experience that after a mile or so when I arrived at Headstone Tunnel.

If you’ve walked along a couple of old railway lines, you’ll know what happens when you get to a tunnel. It’s time to for a detour. The tunnel’s blocked off, either with bricks or big metal gates. There may even be a sign telling you why. That it’s now a bat colony, or was used as a landfill site. Or that, as it wasn’t maintained, the roof has caved in. So instead you have to leave the old railway line, and do a large detour. You end up wandering around various side paths, usually coated in mud, and surrounded by trees. It’s usually not the best part of the walk.

Not so on the Monsal Trail. Why, you may ask? Well I’ll tell you. Because you get to go through the actual tunnels! Lights were installed, tarmac laid down the middle, and everyone invited to enter be it on bike, foot or horse.

The entrance to Headstone tunnel, in a deep cutting
The cold, slightly dark entrance to Headstone Tunnel

There’s six tunnels on the trail, and the White to Dark goes through the longest. The 487m long Headstone Tunnel.

It was approached from a cutting, carved out of the rock. The temperature began to drop before I’d even entered it. As I approached, I wondered how many navvies had spent their time cutting through the rock by hand. More than a few no doubt. And then I entered the tunnel itself.

The gloomy conditions were noticeable, especially after the blazing sunshine from outside. And it was noticeable how quiet the trail had suddenly become. Not long earlier, I’d been fighting through the crowds. Now it seemed I was alone. Alone in a tunnel only illuminated by a series of fluorescent tubes suspended from the roof.

Path running through an old railway tunnel
At least the lights are on.

The tunnel curved to the right, meaning that you couldn’t see the far end. All signs of daylight were gone. It all felt rather surreal. Here I was, walking in a tunnel where steam trains had once brought passengers from London. There was even ballast at the side of the path. For added atmosphere, a drop of water plopped on me from the ceiling and proceeded to go down my neck

Every now and then, a flurry of bike riders would zoom past, but I traipsed on at slower speeds, until I could see the end. And I was about to re-enter the light in style. For you leave the tunnel and then go over the mighty Headstone Viaduct.

Monsal Dale, viewed from Headstone Viaduct
Monsal Dale, viewed from Headstone Viaduct

Although highly regarded now, not everyone agreed that the five span viaduct was a good thing at the time. The railway company thought it would be useful. How else could the railway cross Monsal Dale? But art critic, poet and conservationist John Ruskin decried the building of the viaduct. In fact he wasn’t a fan of the entire line, declaring

‘There was a rocky valley between Buxton and Bakewell, once upon a time, divine as the Vale of Tempe… You enterprised a Railroad through the valley – you blasted its rocks away, heaped thousands of tons of shale into its lovely stream. The valley is gone, and the Gods with it; and now, every fool in Buxton can be in Bakewell in half an hour, and every fool in Bakewell at Buxton; which you think a lucrative process of exchange – you fools everywhere’.

John Ruskin

No, he wasn’t impressed. Although the irony is that the viaduct now provides a perfect spot from which to admire the beauty of the dale. And scores of people were doing that. Someone was even flying a drone over it all, and no doubt getting some superb shots. Oh and on the stone work, someone’s installed plaques with key quotes about the viaduct and the trail. Quotes from whom? Why, one John Ruskin.

In front of Cressbrook Tunnel, the White to Dark left the railway. It would take me across the hillside, over a river and alongside Cressbrook Mill, a former textile mill now converted into housing.

Cressbrook Mill
Cressbrook Mill – now flats.

From there, a road needed to be followed. It would its way steeply uphill until it turned sharply back on itself. Heading straight on was a path, and it was that I now followed, walking through woodland to Cressbrook Dale.

The path was supposed to follow the course of a stream, before turning off into Tansley Dale. But where that path went from, I couldn’t tell. There was a huge amount of bushes and trees, hiding the path from me. So I continued to follow the much clearer path that went to the top of the dale towards the village of Wardlow. The wrong direction, but never fear. For at the top of the hill was a junction. And if I took the other path, it would take me down to rejoin the White to Dark proper.

Path winding through Cressbrook Dale
Path winding through Cressbrook Dale

A light shower as I perched on a rock under some crags at the entrance to Tansley Dale. I rested for a few minutes, scoffing a Bakewell pudding. But then the shower turned to rain. And before I knew it, I was scrambling around in my rucksack seeking my waterproof jacket as the heavens opened in spectacular fashion.

I was almost at my destination, the Derbyshire village of Litton. It had shelter and a convenient bus stop. But I couldn’t get there fast enough. A muddy path slowed me down. Then I got stuck on a narrow path behind a couple walking their dog. By the time I’d arrived in Litton, I was drenched. Of course, then the rain began to subside. It was hardly the best ending to the day I thought, as the water dripped from my trousers onto the floor.

I headed to the bus stop. Not that was much use. Due to roadworks on the narrow country lane, the bus I needed to get back to Buxton, wasn’t serving Litton. I could have gone to the nearby Red Lion pub for a reviving ale. But the alternative bus stop was a mile or so away, and the bus only ran hourly.

One of Litton's bus shelters, in the rain
A very wet bus stop. Where I couldn’t get a bus.

Instead I walked down the road to nearby Tideswell. In this village, a sign told me I could find the “Cathedral of the Peak.” It’s a splendid parish church that’s apparently well worth a visit. But the bus was almost due. So I stood at the bus stop instead, munching on a second Bakewell Pudding. Well, it would have been rude not to try both of the contenders.

Despite the flurry of bad weather, it had been a great walk. And the next section to Hathersage looked like it would be cracking too. But that would need to wait for a bit. Winter was coming. Christmas wasn’t far away. Bad weather would follow. But in the spring… Yes, in the spring, I’d be back. And I couldn’t wait. I thought I might love it.

Next time: Day 2 proves to be perfect for comparing the White and Dark Peaks. Even if it doesn’t get Silly.

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