Sometimes it's fun to relive the past and today was one of those days. We've done the White Peak Loop twice before about ten years ago. Of course we've done individual sections of it many times since then – the Monsal trail tunnels, the Tissington trail to Parsley Hay for coffee, Miller's Dale Station to Eat Out to Help Out. But we haven't done the whole loop in a oner for over a decade, and even then it was over 2 days. Today we aimed to do it non-stop. Whilst not quite in the league of Lynn Hill's freeing of The Nose on El Cap in a Day, it would be an amusing milestone of our own, and one that can only be legitimately disparaged once you've done it.
Today was the day because it was forecast to be an oasis of dry weather in a desert of otherwise wet and windy washout. To give ourselves the best chance of not backing out we laid out our cycling clothes, set alarms for 6am and went to bed early. When we got up we even ate carbs.
The forecast was right – although the air was cool the sky was clear and it was obviously going to be a lovely sunny day. Buoyed with the enthusiasm of adventure ahead we ate tonnes of porridge and set off swiftly into the crisp morning air, excited to be getting ahead of the curve and avoiding the traffic. However, we were soon disabused of the misguided notion that 7.30am constitutes 'early' by the time we got to Ashwood dale, a whole mile away, as the lorries thundered past and we tossed in their turbulence. To be fair they do seem to be more considerate of cyclists these days and gave us a wide berth but they still travel fast and leave a lot of commotion in their wake. I always end up cycling faster than I'd like when I start a ride down here and I was slightly out of breath as we pulled off left into the Wye Dale car park and the start of the 12 mile traffic free Monsal Trail. Gill, who I noticed was sticking uncommonly close to my back wheel, looked very composed. She admitted to having had to brake slightly to avoid running into the back of me. “I know why they call it 'being towed along' now,” she called over her shoulder gleefully as she surged ahead through the car park and onto the bumpy track towards Blackwell Mill.
There's something oddly rewarding about having a place all to yourself when it's usually teeming with people. It's like you're the one doing it right when everyone else is doing it wrong. The trail was deserted and the early morning sunshine was starting to burn off the chill in the air and everything felt fresh and exciting. We barrelled along joking and laughing and feeling very pleased with ourselves. It was going to be a good day.
The miles passed quickly with no one to dodge and before we knew it we were dropping off the end of the trail onto Coombes Road about a half a mile beyond Bakewell station. This is where you need to know where you're going as there are no signs indicating the way ahead. Indeed there is no indication that the Monsal Trail is part of the White Peak Loop at all. This is a shame as the next section, around Haddon Hall, whilst being far from ideal is perfectly accessible to anyone on two wheels. The grand plan for the loop proper is to go through the tunnels on the Haddon Hall estate but that is just one of several sections that have proved a touch too tricky at the moment. For now there's a perfectly decent bridleway up and around which also affords fantastic views back over your shoulder towards Bakewell. For me this is what I love about living in the Peak District – it's not on any postcard or anybodies bucket list, it's just one of dozens of splendid views of wide skies, undulating fields and hillsides peppered with little villages that serve to enrich the lives of all who seek them out.
The rough track climbs for a mile or so before a sketchy descent on a gravelly, rocky descent down into Rowsley on the A6. I wouldn't want to do this on my brand new carbon framed racing bike but anything cheap and cheerful should be fine, as long as your tyres are pumped up sufficiently to avoid snakebite punctures. As much as I hate those condescending road signs instructing Cyclists to dismount at the slightest opportunity, it may well be necessary here to avoid either losing control or having a flat. I thoroughly enjoyed it on my full suspension MTB but Gill was more cautious on her touring bike.
At the bottom of this gravel chute we intended to have a second breakfast at Caudwell's Mill cafe but we were far too early, it only being 9am, so we pressed on towards Matlock. The work that has been done on this section is nothing short of amazing. Running parallel to the chaos of the A6 the path traverses above the Derwent initially across very boggy terrain on a raised platform of wooden boards followed by a splendid cycle path alongside the heritage railway line. It's a wonderful demonstration of what can be achieved when the political will is there to provide proper cycling infrastructure – most people we encountered were commuters, not leisure cyclists like us, using their bikes as transport to avoid the nasty business of driving on the A6 and instead enjoy the peace and delight of gentle exercise in a calming environment.
All too soon the cycle path ended and we continued on the shared use pavement to the roundabout on the outskirts of Matlock. Here, local knowledge allowed us to ignore Komoot (the mobile phone based navigation software we use when planning cycle touring adventures) and drop down onto the narrow but delightfully tree lined path above the river that takes you right into the heart of Matlock. More calm pedalling in the dappled sunlight above the muddy river Derwent again ended abruptly with the sudden reemergence into the bustling urban world from the tranquil depths below. To soften the blow and readjust to the madding crowd we sought respite in a local coffee shop that had tables on the pavement. Eat out to help out and all that.
The town was busy, mainly with traffic but also with masked people enjoying the sunshine and studiously avoiding each other. A couple of roadies carefully parked their gaudy carbon crotch rockets within view and transferred the load from their meaty quads onto their bulging glutes. I felt sorry for the chairs.
Ten years previously we'd crossed Matlock by cycling through the park and on some paths towards the A6 and the major roadside attraction of High Tor, the spectacular limestone cliff that towers above Matlock Bath. Not wanting to either cycle on footpaths nor the A6 we opted to take the far more strenuous route that Komoot had planned for us. It went up one short road that was too steep to cycle because my front wheel kept lifting off the floor. A short push led to a much less steep but much longer road climb up to the housing estate behind High Tor with amazing views of the valley below and hillsides in the distance, which more than made up for the effort it took to get there. The descent back to the valley below was rapid and soon we picked up the Cromford canal which was again as peaceful as the neighbouring A6 is rowdy. We crossed the canal at High Peak Junction, which signals the halfway point of our journey and we turned through 270 degrees in the horizontal plane and what felt like 45 degrees in the vertical as the High Peak Trail starts here and ascends to the heavens in a no-nonsense Yorkshire-esque 'let's get it over with in one go' sort of way. The first long, long climb up towards the High Peak Plateau is pretty brutal. At Sheep Pasture House it flattens off and affords magnificent views of the quarries dotting the hillsides around Matlock. There's a brief lull in hostilities as the trails passes through Black Rocks, a grippy outpost of gritstone friction amidst the surrounding limestone norm, before the trails rears up again on the short but still steep climb to Middleton Top. There's a cafe and cycle hire business here but we didn't bother them, instead continuing on until Harborough Rocks where we stopped to admire the crag and eat a snack bar. The High Peak Trail here crosses some of the remotest parts of the plateau and catches all the wind that's going, so it was head down and grind it out as it was sunny but breezy. Gill was in the right place, just behind and to the right as the wind was coming in over my left shoulder. The railway here must have made a marvellous sight in the days before cars were as ubiquitous as sheep.
For now it was steady as she goes, slightly uphill and into the cross/headwind which raised a sweat and concentrated the effort. With no further talking points but plenty of gates and the Newhaven road crossing we were surprised to arrive at Parsley Hey cafe and bike hire centre just after 12 noon. I must have entered a time warp because I couldn't quite believe it was still so early in the day, we seemed to have come so far in such a short space of time. And such different surroundings – only an hour and a half earlier we'd been drinking flat white and eating pain au chocolate outside a busy cafe on the White Peak Loop in Derbyshire and here we were, drinking tea and eating Chocolate flapjack outside a busy cafe on the White Peak Loop in, er, OK, it physically it wasn't that different, but I felt we'd changed. I'd taken my jacket off.
Leaving the fleshpots of Parsley Hey behind we slouched towards Buxton in a strange mixed mood, part relief to be so close to home but part disappointment that the going seemed to be getting harder. We were obviously tired after 5 hours of almost continuous cycling, the wind wasn't helping and the trail got rougher and steeper as it dog-legged leftwards towards Earl Sterndale. There are four disused railway trails that traverse the Peak District - the White Peak Loop links two of them, the Monsal and High Peak trails - but there are also the Tissington Trail and the Manifold Trail further west. They are obviously a completely brilliant resource for cyclists keen to get away from the constant traffic in the world's second busiest National Park, but you aren't half glad to get off them after a while. There's something to be said for a bit of low resistance tarmac and most of the back roads in this neck of the woods are pretty light with traffic. We ignored the dubious delights of the Quiet Woman in Earl Sterndale and headed up the road which eventually passes High Peak Raceway en route to Axe Edge and true, bleak moorland. Before that though the WPL strikes out rightwards across fields and between quarries on a nicely laid track before plunging alarmingly down in switchbacks to the old railway line again. DCC have again done a really good job with this section. It contours around Harpur Hill quarry on this level overlooking Buxton, home seemingly minutes away. But wait; not so fast; hold your horses.
Although the nicely laid track drops steeply down to The Parks pub and then onto Buxton via town roads, the original route doesn't take this cop out. Oh no, that would be far too easy (in this direction anyway). As if to say 'this is what you could have won' the White Peak Loop cheekily reveals Buxton briefly before snatching it away again as it semi-circulates south and westwards to emerge almost at the other side of town. To do so it skirts around the hillside at this elevated altitude for several miles, crossing first a rough, muddy track, almost too tricky to ride, towards Harpur Hill industrial estate. The end of this track has been partially blocked, although awkward it's still possible to get bikes through and onto the road. You cross, go through the gate and then a long the muddy rough singletrack behind the industrial estate. It soon opens up onto the huge embankment on Health and Safety Laboratory land and the longest straightest stretch of tarmac this side of the A515.
Being a weekday the gate at the Ladmanlow end of this track was unlocked (for HSL staff to cycle to work), so we passed through rather than over. But we did pass on the idea of cycling down through the woods behind Rock Bay where the trail was originally proposed (exiting onto Holmfield). Instead we just cruised slowly through the residential streets of Burbage, across Temple Fields and home. The White Peak Loop is still 50 miles of fun even if it's not completely realised. It'll be grand when it is though, and well worth the wait.