Isn’t it nice when you discover something new about an old haunt? It’s like finding out that the tatty old teapot at the back of the dresser is actually a Clarice Cliff masterpiece. I have been walking the Monsal Trail in Derbyshire since I was a nipper. It follows part of the former Midland Railway Line through the Peak District National Park and runs for nine miles between Wyedale and Coombs Viaduct, one mile south-east of Bakewell. My dad – a Tideswell-born man – took me there first and I’ve walked its muddy tracks many times since. Little did I know that the secrets of our prehistoric ancestors lay just inches beneath the surface…
Last Autumn I was on the Monsal Trail again, filming for the BBC series Secret Britain, and this time I rather unusually found myself in the company of an archaeologist. I don’t do old bones and graves – archaeology just doesn’t illuminate my light bulb. But, Dr Clive Waddington is not what I expected from an archaeologist. He’s under 50 for a start, has steely blue eyes, a rugged five o’clock shadow, and a pleasing voice.
“Up there,” he gestured skyward along the trail, “is Fin Cop hillfort.”
“What is that, and why is it important?” I asked. And why hadn’t I heard of it before?
Digging for glory
Fin Cop is a Bronze Age hillfort, 313m (1025ft) above sea level, near the gorgeous village of Ashford-in-the-Water. It dates back to around 700BC, and had never been excavated until some very eager beavers – the Longstone Local History Group (LLHG) – made a bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund. They won their bid, and have led two large excavation projects since.
In the first excavation, back in the summer of 2009, the LLHG, plus children from Longstone School and other local volunteers spent three weeks scouring the site. Among their finds was the skeleton of a well-to-do woman in her mid to late 20s, who was pregnant at the time of her seemingly violent death around 200BC, when the fort was believed to have been destroyed.
The Monsal Trail follows the bottom of the valley, so many of the prehistoric sites in Monsal Dale are a fair uphill detour away from the track. Fin Cop is one of these sites. Unfortunately, only a part of Fin Cop is accessible to the public. The pastureland round the top of the hillfort is accessible from Monsal Dale and the car park at Demon’s Dale cave on the A6. However, you can get a good view over Fin Cop from the car park at Monsal Head, halfway along the trail.
Closer to the trail, are the remains of the Neolithic chambered cairn at Five Wells – reputedly the highest megalithic tomb in Britain. It stands on the crest of a limestone plateau, 427m (1400ft) high on Taddington Moor, overlooking the Wye Valley. Only one of the chambers is still fully standing, after wall builders removed the mound 200 years ago and a local antiquarian called Thomas Bateman excavated the site in 1846.
Peak of beauty
If you’ve still got a taste for the old and crumbly, there are lots of other prehistoric barrows, tombs, caves and stones to reveal your inner Indiana Jones nearby, such as Hob House Cave near Little Longstone, and Sheldon Barrow.
I’m more of a gawper at tiny picturesque villages myself, so Ashford-in-the-Water was right up my street. Many say it’s the prettiest village in Derbyshire, with its medieval Sheepwash Bridge, and the River Wye meandering past its timbered inns and sleepy church.
Clive and I finished up on the nearby summit of the Mam Tor, or Shivering Mountain, as it’s often known, because of the instability of its shale layers. The tor is a famous viewpoint that juts above the valleys of Hope and Edale. The rain was driving into our faces as Clive pointed out other mounds that represent the remains of a large Iron Age fort. “Clive,” I said, “I think I’ve had enough of remains for today. Can we go to a tea room and get dry now?”
The Peak District National Park Authority is looking for people to share memories of the old Midland Railway Line, before part of it became the Monsal Trail. If you’ve got a tale to tell, contact Catherine Bowmer on 01629 816203.
How to get there
For the Monsal Trail, bus services operate on the A6 from Nottingham, Derby and Manchester; stopping at Bakewell town centre, Ashford-in-the-Water, White Lodge, Taddinton, Blackwell Turn and Wye Dale.
FInd out more
Bakewell Visitor Centre
Old Market Hall, Bridge Street, Bakewell DE45 1DS
Main Street, Little Longstone, Bakewell
Their smoked trout, chicken and salmon all come from the Derbyshire smokery at Flagg.
Aisseford Tea Rooms
Fennel Street, Ashford-in-the-Water, Nr Bakewell
Serves an array of speciality teas, scrumptious homemade soup and cakes.
Monsal Head Hotel
Great Longstone, Nr Bakewell DE45 1NL
This old coaching inn has superb views over Monsal Dale, serves tasty grub and runs weekend walking breaks.