Deep in the White Peak east of Buxton is a captivating area of countryside; a union of natural bounty and majestic engineering that together create a truly astounding landscape. Although it may have its challenges, this walk is readily accessible to all with a measure of agility and a sense of adventure.
In the 1860s, the eyes of Victorian railway engineers fell upon the tortuous gorge of the River Wye in Derbyshire. Their ambition and derring-do resulted in the Midland Railway’s main line between Manchester and London searing through a series of deep dales and cliffs. This epic engineering drew the scorn of the celebrated Victorian critic and early conservationist John Ruskin as ruining the area’s limestone heartland. How times change. The course of that Victorian transport artery – closed in 1968 – is today the Monsal Trail, offering the delectable prospect of an elevated promenade halfway to the sky across viaducts, along ledges and through dark, eerie tunnels.
Clumps on fireweed dress the path verges in summer ©Getty
This walk commences at an abandoned railway junction, studded to the valleyside beside mellowing girder bridges leaping across the Wye. As the year matures, the railway fringes are generously dressed with clumps of fireweed, bedstraw, ramsons, rockrose, orchids and carpets of wild thyme and marjoram, an assault on the senses that will linger in the memory. Peer into the arboreal canyon of the Wye, a tantalising foretaste of what is to come. The return leg of this stunning ramble is a fairytale-like riverside ravine walk via stepping stones, crags, rapids, languid pools and gushing springs.
The banks of the River Wye bloom with meadowsweet (©Neil Coates)
Leave Miller’s Dale old station car park and head right along the multi-purpose Monsal Trail for Wye Dale. The way soon crosses the first of a series of viaducts before plunging into Chee Tor Tunnel.
Reopened with several others in 2011, the tunnel provides a superb route chiselled along the cliffs of the Wye’s gorge.
In 1.5 miles there is a sign pointing right for Wyedale car park and Pennine Bridleway. Drop into Wye Dale at the cycle hire base for a spot of tiffin.
Into the dale
Bear right to use the long footbridge across to the terrace of cottages. Turn right before these on the footpath for Chee Dale, heading downstream beside the lively River Wye. It’s a riot of colour throughout the summer, with fragrant meadowsweet, vetches, willowherb, knapweed, scabious and blue cranesbill shining bright as the path meanders beside the water. At the fork keep right, leaving the Pennine Bridleway in favour of the waterside path.
Vetches, willowherb, knapweed and scabious grow in the meadows ©Getty
At the viaduct, drop left (ignoring the footbridge) down steps and continue downstream. The way now encounters the first stretch of stepping stones, leapfrogging the path through the shallows. If these are even slightly underwater, then don’t continue, as the next section will be impassable. Instead, turn back to the viaduct and use the path up to the Monsal Trail, returning on this to Miller’s Dale.
Advance downstream on the clear path, changing to the right-hand bank via a footbridge for a short section before re-crossing to the left – the river should always be to your right except for this deviation.
Further lengthy stepping stones hug the base of buttresses and cliffs, liberally dressed by luxuriant vegetation. The tops almost close over you on this truly memorable walk deep within the chasm. Don’t be alarmed to hear disembodied voices floating in the ether; some vertical pitches are the playground of intrepid climbers testing their mettle.
Overhanging limestone cliffs, 100m high, dwarf those intrepid enough to walk the bed of Chee Dale gorge ©Alamy
Spring in your step
It’s an extraordinary section that follows in the tranquil, parallel world of deepest Chee Dale. High above, the Monsal Trail disappears into a tunnel while the riverside path squeezes around a series of curves at the heart of Chee Dale nature reserve. The path, thin at times, clings to the water’s edge, climbs over tree roots, scurries over outcrops of rock and pads across tongues of pebbles and sand. Limpid pools are shaded by the vast leaves of butterbur, and strands of white-flowered water crowfoot drift in the current. Some very large trout may be spotted lazily flying the flow. One bird you’re almost guaranteed to spot is the dipper. These intriguing birds are akin to diving blackbirds and are a delight to watch at length. As summer progresses, the vegetation is increasingly pervasive. The sun may be shuttered out by hanging creepers, ferns and glowing emerald cliffs of lime, ash and hazel. It is an almost tropical, shadow-dancing aspect viewed against occasional glimpses of the summer sky high above.
The riverside path stops for a short while at a series of natural limestone steps and ledges. It’s a sprightly climb – watch your step as the rock may be slick even in dry conditions. The woodland path scurries along the lip of low cliffs, curling round to cross the plank bridge at the head of the memorable Wormhill Springs. This huge upwelling issues from myriad vents across a crumpled gradient of lumpy tufa rock, perhaps brightened by marsh marigold’s yellow blooms. These springs are among the strongest and most consistent in the Peak District. Beyond here the river is soon rejoined, a stretch particularly well-vegetated with forests of meadowsweet and willowherb towering above head-height. After a series of low weirs, you will reach a footbridge.
Out in the open
Stay on the nearside path before climbing a stepped link path up to the Mensal Trail. Turn left to find Miller’s Dale station. Have a bite to eat at the quirky old Citroen van snack-bar. More filling fodder can be had at the nearby Angler’s Rest Inn.
Click on the map below for an interactive version of the route.
Min image ©Neil Coates