Derbyshire’s best cycle routes - The High Peak Trail

Fine weather and willow herb Photo: John Grimshaw

Fine weather and willow herb Photo: John Grimshaw - Credit: Archant

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the National Cycle Network. Here, cycling guidebook author Wendy Johnson continues her exploration of some of Derbyshire’s best-loved walking and cycling trails

On the High Peak Trail in August Photo: John Grimshaw

On the High Peak Trail in August Photo: John Grimshaw - Credit: Archant

Whenever I’m trying to convince someone to haul their bike out of the shed, blow the dust off and get pedalling, I always advise them to start by tackling a railway path ride. Many former railway routes have been repurposed as traffic-free walking, cycling and horse riding paths so there’s a huge array to choose from ‘and the best thing about railway paths’, I always enthuse, ‘is that they’re fairly flat, so it’ll be an easy ride’.

This broad theory has always stood me in good stead. Most of the railway routes I’ve ridden take flat or only gently undulating paths through the countryside, with tunnels or cuttings through the steepest hillsides, and embankments or viaducts to plug the dips and deep valley bottoms, all helping to keep trains on a level course. However, whilst riding routes for the new official guidebook to the National Cycle Network last summer I tackled the High Peak Trail, formerly part of the Cromford and High Peak Railway, and within the opening miles I found myself on a testing climb up the long Sheep Pasture incline which seriously challenged my theory.

Cyclists heading from east to west will have the satisfaction of climbing three of the nine inclines that originally featured along this remarkable railway. In fact, the gradients were considered so unusually severe when the railway was built that the wagons relied upon steam-driven winding engines to help haul them upwards.

Only one of these magnificent engine houses remains intact and it was a second heart-thumping ride, this time up the Middleton incline, which brought me straight to its doors. The Middleton Top engine house has been beautifully restored to former glory and is operational on around a dozen days each year, giving visitors a glimpse into its industrial heyday.

Cycling on the High Peak Trail at Parsley Hay

Cycling on the High Peak Trail at Parsley Hay - Credit: Archant

I wasn’t lucky enough to see the beam engine in action, or to have the kind of steam-powered assistance on my ascent that the rail wagons enjoyed, but the wild and windswept views were reward enough for the effortful climbs. Hopton Incline, the third and final of the ride, proved to be particularly rewarding as the picnic spot at the top offered a chance to rest surrounded by sensational views, and I knew I’d be in for a more restful ride from here on.

It’s this exposed, top-of-the-world feeling that makes the trail so uniquely appealing and is why Clyde Hinton, leader of the Sustrans volunteer group that helps to maintain the trail, has become one of its most passionate advocates. ‘This has long been a favourite ride of mine,’ Clyde admitted to me as we chatted about the many desirable routes across the Peak District. ‘It follows what was once one of the highest railways in Britain so the conditions can be harsh at times, but that’s what makes it special.

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‘It’s not unusual to see snow here when it has disappeared days or even weeks ago elsewhere, and the snatches of industry among the natural, rural landscape are fascinating,’ he continues. ‘You can see evidence of derelict quarrying machinery, lime kilns and other industrial architecture as you ride, all of which gives a tantalising glimpse into the Peak District’s past life.’

This past life came to a halt in the late 1960s when the line closed to rail traffic. However, by 1971 a section was reopened as the High Peak Trail, giving it an almost 25-year head start on the National Cycle Network and making it a true trailblazer for walking and cycling. So, if you want to tackle one of the highest, hilliest and most original railway path rides in the country, head for the dizzy heights of the High Peak Trail.

At Middleton Top Photo:

At Middleton Top Photo: - Credit: Archant

Tackling the High Peak Trail

The trail is 17.5 miles between High Peak Junction and Dowlow near Buxton. Two steep inclines occur at the eastern end but can be avoided by starting at Middleton Top engine house and ending at Parsley Hay cycle hire for a gentler 11.5-mile ride.

Either way, you’ll enjoy the staggering scenery of the Peak District’s limestone landscape as you ride. From Middleton Top follow signs for Route 54 of the National Cycle Network, soon entering Hopton Tunnel then tackling the Hopton Incline. There’s a good chance to rest and take in the beautiful views at Hopton Top picnic spot, a former station of the railway line.

Soon you’ll reach the jagged limestone lumps of Harborough rocks and caves as the countryside grows evermore wild and remote, speckled with grazing sheep, wildflowers and bird life. Look out for the remains of an old limekiln and ride over the top of the impressive Minninglow Embankment, a vast stone structure spanning the valley bottom.

In the final miles you’ll pass Friden brickworks and ride through Newhaven Tunnel to join up with one end of the Tissington Trail, another popular traffic-free route across the Peak District. Continue onwards to end at Parsley Hay cycle hire centre and enjoy a cuppa from the café as you soak up the long views across the White Peak.

Cycle Hire: Middleton Top cycle hire centre (01629) 823204 or Parsley Hay cycle hire centre (01298) 84493 This ride is taken from Sustrans’ Traffic-free Cycle Rides by Wendy Johnson, £15.99 from

Carsington Water

At the Hopton Incline you could choose to leave the High Peak Trail and follow signs for route 547 along the road to Carsington Water visitor centre, where you can take the 8-mile circular traffic-free trail around the reservoir.

Middleton Top operating days

It’s worth riding the trail when the beam engine at Middleton Top is in operation. This year the dates are 5th and 26th July, 2nd, 9th, 16th, 23rd, 30th and 31st August and 4th October

Support the trail

If you’d like to join the Sustrans volunteer ranger team that makes sure the National Cycle Network is signposted on this and other trails around the White Peak, please contact the team’s leader Clyde Hinton

White Peak Cycle Routes

The Tissington and High Peak Trails are owned and looked after by the Peak District National Park Authority, Middleton Top engine house and the trail to Cromford Canal are looked after by Derbyshire County Council,