Buxton to Whaley Bridge and back to Buxton (26 miles)

In the mid-summer of 2015, I travelled south east along the ‘High Peaks trail’ in the Pennines. I stopped off at ‘Middleton top’ visitor centre for a well earned coffee break in the café. There, I watched a video about the Cromford and High Peaks railway (C&HPR), I was astounded to find out the original line approached Harpur Hill (the start of the High Peaks trail) from a totally different route, almost bypassing Buxton. The steepness of the land presented big problems for the railway engineers of the time, and towed inclines were a solution to the precipitous topography, but they were incredibly dangerous and inefficient taking a long time to travel the 33 miles to Cromford. There are five towed inclined planes on the C&HPR, but I’m only interested in the two inclines between between Buxton and Whaley Bridge; the Bunsall Incline and the Shallcross incline. This part of the line was abandoned in 1892, when it was superseded by the construction of a flatter route to Buxton. A lot of change would have happened to the land the railway line was on, but I’m going to try and follow this old route and I don’t really know if it’s achievable. It appears to be a long way to go just to gamble on riding 26 miles, but I conceived this ride years before, and was just waiting for the right circumstances to cycle it. To make it worthwhile two things needed to be in place; the weather had to be good (to go over a mountain), and considering we were in the middle of a prolonged heat wave- it was perfect. The accommodation had to be right; I bagged a 4☆ hotel- Bed, breakfast and evening meals for two nights at just £110 with ‘Majestic coach holidays’ (self drive) at the Palace Hotel.

First leg- Buxton to Whaley Bridge (12 miles off road)

I took the mountain bike out of the car and harrumphed at a rear wheel puncture, I must have overinflated it at home. So it was down to the nearest cycle shop for a spare tube, when I left the town the sky was clear and 26°C. Buxton is surrounded by mountains and anyway you leave the town is up hill. Climbing out of Buxton on Harpur hill on the NCR68, I turned off at ‘Hillhead Lane’ towards Hillhead quarry, here an old branch line joins the old the C&HPR. Soon after joining the old railway route, it sweeps around the derelict ‘Far hill quarry’ now a lake, nicknamed the ‘Blue lagoon’, the blue colour is from caustic chemicals in the stones beneath the water (so swimming is not advised). The track has a good shale surface which abruptly comes to an end, followed by a short section which has been rutted by off road motorcycles. We cross the road and back onto the old line. Suddenly there’s a distressing sign under a bridge; "When the red flag is flying, you may hear explosions". We are passing the ‘Health & Safety Executive’ laboratories, where they forensically test everything from terrorist attacks to industrial accidents. Now it's tarmac and as with many old railway lines; the route is absorbed by a road. The road swings right on the embankment made for the line, to the left are many strange structures resembling the old nuclear flasks used on railways to transport nuclear waste, but these are massive. There’s also a small railway constructed with old London Underground Jubilee Line rolling stock, these were used to reconstruct the 7/7 London Tube bombings.

In the opposite direction to which I’m travelling are several ‘Private road’ signs, but there are none facing in my direction (but I suppose I can’t really use that as an excuse). Still on tarmac, I passed a crossroads and onto a small track, gradually curving for about a mile until we pass a disused reservoir on the right; Stanley Moor reservoir was decommissioned some years ago. It was built over a fault between limestone and gritstone, so it always leaked, and wasn’t the most successful of reservoirs. At Ladmanlow I crossed the main A53 and surveyed a gate next to Alleyn’s School field centre, it didn’t look private property, but I could see a gated farm area ahead. This section was only 200 yards long before it was cut through by another road, so was it easy to ride around. Heading west on the A54 to pick the route backup, my progress was hampered again by private property signs, the frustrating part is I could see where I wanted to go, and it was at most only a quarter of a mile long. I headed towards ‘Burbage’ and turned left onto the old Macclesfield Road, then up a massive hill to reach the same point I could see earlier. A small bridge took the railway line under the old road, now filled in, the line continued on a shale road towards Tunnel farm (I think this was a private road too). It’s about a half a mile to the southern entrance to the Burbage tunnel, now sealed. I took heed of the strongly worded warning notice sign and didn’t approach the farm. From here, I dropped downhill and headed north up ‘Bishops Lane’ (again this has signs saying private road ‘no cycling’ but this is defiantly a public right of way). We turned left through two stone posts and carried the bike up steep steps through ‘Beet Wood’ and onto a footpath which goes up over the mountain, this why I needed good weather as this bit would almost certainly be boggy on a normal day. Some parts are ridable, but you have to be brave to ride down the hill following a drystone wall to the Northern entrance of ‘Burbage Valley tunnel’.

From the top of the mountain, the old C&HPR route is well trodden and easy to ride. The views are simply incredible as the old railway track bed curves around the mountain clinging to the contours as it gently descends. It takes me onto Goyts lane where there’s a small lake created to fill the static steam engine used for towing the engines up the Bunsall incline. The incline is now a road, and I easily reached 40mph coasting downhill on the old railway line to reach the first of two reservoirs; Errwood. I stopped just to take a photo of the larger lake’s dam, and it’s quite apparent that we're in the midst of a heat wave as the reservoir level is very low. Then there’s another steep descent to reach the bottom of the dam. The bumpy rough track bed now hugs the side of Fernilee reservoir and on such a hot day the views of the shimmering lake are very inviting, with dogs shaking off the excess water after going in for a dip. At the northern end of the reservoir, the railway route goes down a ‘Private lane’ again and into a farm, but it’s just as easy to ride on the road around this section and onto the A5004 for a short time before turning right into Taxal view Lane. After a mile we turn onto Shallcross Incline, celebrated in the local news as a sort of 'Cresta Run' after being resurfaced in 2011. Now, it's nothing more than a narrow path dotted with horseshit.

Second leg- Whaley Bridge to Buxton (14 miles)

It’s under Chapel bridge (click the image and watch the train come out of the tunnel) and near the end of the railway line, but not the end of my ride, now it's on the road through ‘Whaley Bridge’ towards the canal basin. Here is an odd example of a transit station where goods were transferred from the barges to rail and vice versa. The mill owners in 'Cromford' wanted their canal to join with the ‘High Peaks canal’, but this wasn’t feasible because of the steep terrain, so the C&HPR was born to join the two. There's a certain irony to this story which happened when they found a better route for the railway, making both canals and this section of the line redundant. The Peak forest canal continues north, but we turn east and have a short ride along the canal path, over a narrow footbridge, to ‘Bugsworth Basin’, where a pint of coke is in order at the ‘Navigation Inn’. Bugsworth Basin was once the terminal for a horse-drawn tramway, connected to the local industries it carried gritstone, limestone, and burnt lime to be loaded on the canal boats for onward carriage to the North and the Midlands. It’s this ‘Peak forest Tramway Trail’ we continue on, just after passing through a plastics company on a permissive trail, the tramway sleeper stones are still in place. Not just one or two, but half a mile of them, making progress only possible on a mountain bike.

Through another permissive path at Forge Mill, which has been changed its role several times over the last century, now it's a packaging company and residential properties. The trail goes across a well walked field and under two towering viaducts which still carry a live railway at Chapel Milton. Sadly, from here it’s on roads, up the high street of ‘Chapel-en-le-Frith’ (which was named after a small chapel, built in 1225), then climbing up the ball breaking Ashbourne Lane and then Meadow Lane to ‘Doves Holes’. The Peak forest Tramway would have terminated at the vast limestone quarries around Doves Holes and I considered terminating my ride here too. Catching the train back to Buxton, but the next train was in two hours time and it was only three miles to Buxton. My apprehension was about continuing on the A6 road to Buxton, it's quite a narrow ‘A’ road strewn with heavy goods wagons making it very dangerous to ride. My reprieve came from a narrow strip of foot path alongside the road, even with this; the draft from the HGV’s made me wobble once or twice.

There were many ‘private road’ sectors or ‘private land’ sections, some I ignorantly rode along, and some I didn’t cross respecting the landowner. I was unchallenged throughout the whole route, but I can share the land owners concerns especially with growing interest in the C&HPR. Other web sites report individuals and or groups regularly showing up at tunnel farm and demanding access to the tunnel, I can imagine how upsetting this is to the people working and living there. Many cycling routes are permissive, so arguing with the landowners makes it difficult for Sustrans to negotiate a deal. If you’re going to do this ride; be prepared to be challenged! That said, the well known sign; ‘trespassers will be prosecuted’ is not strictly accurate, trespassing is not a criminal offence, and trespassers cannot usually be prosecuted. Good job we're not living in America where in some states the image on the left is true, though shooting the survivor is likely to be tongue in cheek (hopefully).

There are two extremely popular walking/ cycling routes emanating from Buxton; I think this could be the third. In 2010 there was an application put forward by John Grimshaw Associates to create a better route from Buxton to the Tissington and High Peaks trails using the existing road through the HSE site from Ladmanlow to Harpur Hill. I can't find out if this has progressed. I really do hope Sustrans pick up the ball, and I hope there can be some compromise with the landowners as some of the sections could easily be converted to walking/ cycling paths. The ride was really hard work (the hills again) and took me six hours (with stops), and as the day progressed it went overcast and I still burnt, but what a ride, OMG the views were just phenomenal, it was simply exhilarating, it took me two days to stop bouncing.

  • Gallery

    gallery page Why not have a look at the gallery relating to this ride. Click the image or the title.

  • HSE’s Laboratory

    HSE’s Laboratory One of the least known secrets of Buxton is that it is home to HSE’s Laboratory. Founded by Winston Churchill’s government to conduct research into coalmine explosions. HSE laboratories were reportedly located in Buxton because, with quarrying already present in the area, there was a low risk of explosive noise being associated with any coal mining accident.

  • Operation Smash Hit

    In July 1984 millions of people worldwide tuned in to watch a train crash on live TV. It was a demonstration to show how safe the flasks used to carry nuclear waste by road and rail were, by running a 239 ton train into a flask at 100mph. Once the dust and smoke cleared it became obvious that the flask was completely intact.

  • Grinlow Tower (Click the image)

    Grinlow Tower The tower is a Victorian fortified hill marker 439 metres above sea-level (Click the image for a better view). This tower was a favourite place to visit in the Victorian era and continues to be a popular spot today. In the eighties, so many people were climbing the spiral steps inside, it needed urgent repairs and was under threat of being demolished by the very faction it overlooks; The Health & Safety boffins.

  • Did the RAF use Burbage tunnel?

    This part of the line closed early 1892 and Burbage tunnel and the inclines beyond Ladmanlow had not seen a train for over a hundred years or was the line still used? It’s alleged the RAF at Harpur Hill took over this tunnel after WW2 and used it to store surplus ordinance until they could be disposed of safely, they stopped using the tunnel in the early 1960's. It is unlikely they used this tunnel without the track being intact. Burbage tunnel is now bricked up at both ends and carries a BT telephone cable through it.

  • Fernilee reservoir construction

    The first job would have been to set up housing for the navies, so a temporary village was built for them to live in. Nothing remains of the huts today, but they would've most likely to have been constructed on Long Hill not far from the dam. The villages were known as ‘Tin Towns’ because of the corrugated iron used in the building of the huts. Fernilee had a canteen with an alcohol licence, to keep the men on site, so they were not roaming around the local pubs.

  • Whaley Bridge Transhipment warehouse

    This warehouse provided a transhipment facility between the C&HPR and the Peak Forest Canal. The centre arch spans the end of the canal, with railway wagons entering the building through the two outer arches. The railway was built specifically as a connection between the Peak Forest and Cromford canals, providing a canal-based link between the East Midlands and the North West.

  • The Peak Forest Tramway

    The Peak Forest Tramway was an early horse and gravity powered railway. Opened for trade on 1796, incredibly it remained in operation until the 1920’s. Its purpose was to carry limestone from the vast quarries around Dove Holes down to Bugsworth Basin.

  • Doves Holes award

    Despite its location in the beautiful High Peak countryside, a satirical Radio 5 survey put Doves Holes on the map for all the wrong reasons. Doves Holes was branded the ugliest village in Britain in a National poll in 2002.

  • Private or un-adopted roads

    There are apparently an estimated 4,000 miles of un-adopted roads in England and Wales, but what is an un-adopted road? These private roads are thoroughfares where the Local Authority doesn’t have an agreement to maintain them at public expense. Owning land doesn’t mean they can prevent you using the route for lawful purposes; such as deliveries or entrée to open access land (under the right to roam), but if you trespass on someone’s property- you may be asked to leave (and that would be a reasonable request), and you must leave (and that would be a reasonable action).

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