Manchester to London: The Monsal Trail

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Emma Osenton is part of the planning committee for the Rapha Manchester To London Challenge, a 220-mile ride in aid of Ambitious About Autism. Entries are now open for the event, which will pass through the Peak District, Midlands, and Chiltern Hills on its way to a reception at the London Olympic Velodrome.

Anyone else love poring over maps? Plotting, planning, remembering the roads you’ve been on, wondering about the one you’ve yet to ride? Spotting a landmark you’ve not noticed before, quickly looking up its history. Hearing about places from friends, then discovering that with a quick tweak to the route you can include them too?

This is what the plotting for the Manchester to London Challenge has been like. I stumbled upon a book written by C. E. Montague called The Right Place. Montague was an explorer and journalist for The Manchester Guardian; in 1924 he decided to set out to ride from the Manchester office to the Guardian’s London offices within 24 hours. Montague travelled down on the white macadam roads of the day, though they’re all tarmac trunk roads now. As I read about Montague’s route, it looks like he travelled down the A5, not much fun for today’s cyclist. I did, however, love his descriptions of the adventure.

“The land is the common run of the land, both the choice and the poor, barren place and fertile; everything that Caliban showed Prospero – “all the qualities o’ th’ isle. And yet you must come to know them as things connected and truly parts of a whole. To this later end there is no better means than to make friends with some one great trunk road. Get to know, for example, the road from London to Manchester, running through St. Albans, Woburn, Northampton, Leicester, Derby and Buxton. That done, your knowledge of England will have a backbone, something central, columnar and sturdy. Everything else that you come to know later will fall easily into its place as tissue attached to that spinal pillar”

This called for some re-thinking on how to harness the essence of Montague’s journey with its wonderful poetic view of the land whilst making the challenge a whole new journey for our riders.

With this in mind I rode down from where I live in West Yorkshire, skirting round the edge of Manchester to Mottram in Longdendale, to pick up one of the classic climbs of the Peak District, Snake Pass. This will be the first of the open landscapes that the riders will see. Snake Pass was not named from its winding nature but from the name of the pub on the Sheffield side, The Snake Inn, which had the serpent from the coat of arms of the Duke of Devonshire in its sign. In recent times, the Snake Inn was renamed Snake Pass Inn – so the inn named the road which became more well known and so then renamed the inn.

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As I descended toward the Lady Bower reservoir I noticed some forest tracks just to the south side of the road. Leaving the main road and the traffic behind and into tall trees and hard-packed tracks was just amazing. I didn’t care about Garmins or time – suddenly I was transported back to how I began riding all those years ago, with nothing more than bits of string and a road map selotaped together to guide me. Not so long ago, mind, to have seen the villages of Ashopton and Derwent which now lie under the waters of the Lady Bower reservoir, invisible until a drought.

Onwards I rode. I’d heard about the Monsal Trail some time ago, but never really known where it was – only that it was in the Peaks – until poring over maps I realised that we could fit it in the challenge’s route.

The Monsal Trail is an amazing thing, a totally traffic free cycleway with lit tunnels cutting under the peak itself. The tunnels were restored and reopened in 2011, and they’re lit all the way though. It needed exploring though, I wasn’t really sure about what the surface was like for road bikes. Passing down through Tideswell the Cathedral of the Peak and into Millers Dale where I picked up the Monsal Trail at the old station by the viaduct. It’s a hard-packed gravel track, pan flat and perfect for tapping out a good pace.

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There’s something wonderful about passing through England’s industrial heritage, to think back to Montague’s time, these train lines would have still been running. The Duke of Devonshire would still be kicking himself for making sure the tracks didn’t come close to Chatsworth House, not yet knowing the importance and value of industry. Closed in 1968, they’re now transformed – a blend of manmade with nature reclaiming and reusing previous damage, birds nesting in the blasted stone sidings, lichen white and green growing in clean air where once coal and steam dirt would have coated the rock.

The National Park Authority has restored all the facades of the stations. It’s a little bit strange, as if you are the train – only there are no iron tracks, just a path. A peaceful step away from cars on roads to bicycle-only roads. I began to miss the speed of the tarmac though, as if I was jumbled between the ancient and modern world of the bicycle as transport and as pure adrenaline fun. Pulling off the trail at Bakewell and beginning to wind my way back north to home. I’ll pick the roads up here again to continue plotting, as we begin to leave the Peak and head into the industrial and rural midlands, the steelworks and beyond.

The Manchester to London Challenge is on 7th September.
To find out more about the event and sign-up, see here »

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  • Oliver Sinclair

    This makes me wish I still cycled!

  • Harry Hugel

    This makes me wish I would be in England for the event.

  • Phil Middleton

    Looks great I have entered a while back on the 13th of March, should I have received an information pack by now?

    • five a.m. rides

      I haven’t received mine either.

  • Alex Crawford

    All looks and sounds fab – your ‘pouring over maps’ typo made me smile :)

  • five a.m. rides

    Emma, this looks fantastic although the talk of trails suggests that it’ll be even more arduous than simply cycling a road bike from Manchester to London. Pave tyres I think.

    • Emma Osenton

      I was on road tyres. Monsal is pan flat. Tapped along quite leisurely at 18mph.

      • five a.m. rides

        Thanks. Looking forward to the next instalment.

  • mikecoffee

    Monsal Trail is nice, but if you hit on the weekend, it’s a slow way to travel lots kids and dogs…. Hopefully you guys/gals will riding it on a week day.

    Good luck with the ride.