On a sunny spring day with a hint of breeze, the new season’s wildflowers assault the senses. Stand on Headstone Viaduct and breathe deeply; ramson’s garlicky smell drifts by, while hints of yellow, white, blue and purple ripple tantalisingly on the flanks and floor of Monsal Dale.
There’s a treat in store on this four-and-a-half mile ramble across, above and into the Wye’s twisting, wooded gorge deep in the White Peak.
Take old tracks
To explore this Site of Special Scientific Interest, walk the lane to Little Longstone from Monsal Head Hotel. On the right just past The Hollow B&B, a driveway hosts two public footpaths. Join the right-hand one through the handgate; a well-worn path strikes across pastures to an old railway trackbed, the Monsal Trail.
Turn right; the way shortly enters Headstone Tunnel. The 500m bore explodes from its western portal straight on to the viaduct high above the River Wye. Built by Midland Railway in 1863, its five arches span 15m (50 feet) each. Take in the memorable views up and down the winding dale before you reach the far end of the structure.
Use the gate, left, and take the bridleway for Brushfield. A steady climb reaches a wider track; keep uphill on this limestone field road, indulging in extensive views across the gorge, hills and plateau of the White Peak. Early purple orchids, mountain pansies and cowslips dapple the pastures hereabouts; look for black rabbits, too. The track eventually levels out as a walled, gated track past old lead-mine workings above the steeply wooded dale.
Into the woods
Just past the gate in a further 700m, turn left on the signed path for Lees Bottom and White Lodge, shortly joining the farm road to Brushfield Hough Farm. Immediately past the long renovated building on your left, turn left into the yard and bend right past the old stone barn to a gate into another farm lane. As this bends right, slip left over the waymarked wall stile.
A grassy path roughens underfoot as it winds steeply down through woodland, perfumed by bluebells and with a classy chorus of warblers, flycatchers and redstarts. A long, irregular series of steps approaches the valley floor at a junction; turn left for Monsal Head.
Spikes and sunshine
At the riverside head upstream; keep an eye out for dippers and kingfishers. The peculiar spikes of butterbur flowers stand sentinel beside the river and marsh marigolds shine like miniature suns. The hill-fort on Fin Cop towers above. Pass the thundering old weir, a robust reminder of the long-gone industry in this area, and continue upstream to within 70m of the viaduct.
Branch left up the steep path that reaches the gate back onto the old railway. Cross the viaduct; then fork left just before the tunnel up the path for Monsal Head.
Neil Coates is a Manchester-based writer specialising in walking and pubs.