Monsal TrailAs we piled in the car and set off for Bakewell it promised to be a perfect Autumn day- sunny with clear blue skies, showing the colours of the dying leaves to their best effect. My friend Helen and I had decided to undertake an 18 mile John Merrill walk, which takes in the Monsal Trail then returns over fields and through villages, in preparation for the 26 mile Spires and Steeples Challenge.

We took Helen’s dog Spud with us, and climbed out of the town to reach the trail. The Monsal trail runs for around 8 miles from Bakewell to Blackwell Mill, and as it follows the line of a former railway (and what a scenic one it must have been!) it is easy walking. The worst hazards along the path are large families out for a day on their bikes who like to take up the whole path and decide it’s a good opportunity to teach the kids how to ride- after several near misses one little girl managed to run into me. By the end of the trail I was ready to push people off!

One interesting feature of the Monsal trail is the tunnels… there are four long tunnels (Headstone, Cressbrook, Litton and Chee Tor), plus two shorter ones (Chee Tor Number 2 and Rusher Cutting), and until 2011 the longer tunnels were closed for safety reasons, so walking the trail involved a detour round them. They have now been repaired, reopened and lit with strip lighting so the trail can now be walked, or cycled, in its entirety.

Headstone Tunnel

Headstone Tunnel

Now, I am not all that keen on the pitch dark, and a fear of mine is sudden dark, such as a power cut, but the tunnels don’t cause me any problems as they are lit. Each of the tunnels is quite long and has a bend which means that the other end of the tunnel can’t be seen until you are over halfway through. There are also signs each end that advise that the lights in the tunnels switch off at dusk and which warn against walking through unlit tunnels, but as it was broad daylight and we were doing a circular route I didn’t take that much notice of this…

There are some spectacular views from the trail, particularly from Monsal viaduct and down into the delightfully named Water-cum-Jolly Dale. It was pleasant, easy walking and we stopped for coffee and cake at Millers Dale Station.

Views from the trail

Views from the trail

We had ignored the detours round the tunnels in the route description as they were closed when our guidebook was written, but did get caught out by the last one, which involved us descending into Chee Dale, walking along a rocky and slippery path through the dale, clambering under a craggy overhang complete with climbers and then negotiating a long and spectacular set of stepping stones.

Chee Dale

Chee Dale

All of this, together with an uncertainty that we were on the right path due to the sparse route description, meant that by the time we had rejoined the trail the walk had taken us much longer than expected.

We followed the trail to its end at the Blackwell Mill car park and had rather a late lunch. Helen pointed out that it was now after 4pm and we weren’t sure what sort of terrain we would encounter for the second half of the walk, so we made the decision to just turn round and follow the trail back to Bakewell.

As we set off we were relieved to note that there were far fewer cyclists, and Helen calculated that we should be back in Bakewell at around 7:15pm, just as it would be getting dark. It was then that I suddenly remembered the warnings that the tunnel lights would be going off at dusk… this was followed by an even scarier thought- the Monsal trail is quite remote so nobody is going to come round and make sure everybody is out of the tunnels so they can switch off the lights… no, they are on a light sensor, so once the light drops to a certain level, the lights will go out- whether you are in the middle of a tunnel or not…

Chee Tor Tunnel Number 2 and Chee Tor Tunnel

Chee Tor Tunnel Number 2 and Chee Tor Tunnel

Faced with the prospect of my nightmares coming true coupled with the realisation that the longest tunnel was the final one, I quickened the pace quite a bit. When we did reach the last tunnel, I would have definitely described it a dusk… god it was awful route marching through it, fully expecting to be plunged into pitch darkness at any second… if I had been on my own I may have been tempted to wimp out and take the detour to Monsal Head!

The view from Monsal Viaduct

The view from Monsal Viaduct

But I braved it and the lights stayed on- we got back to Bakewell just as it was starting to get dark, unscathed, with a happy and tired Spud and a good 18 miles of training in the bank.

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