Peak District Walking – The High Peak Trail

Traffic free walking, horseriding and cycling on the High Peak Trail

The High Peak Trail is one of the major trails that have been developed in the Derbyshire Peak District from dismantled railways. It is almost traffic free, at one point it crosses the busy Newhaven to Cromford road and there are several places wher it is crossed by farm traffic. Still, it is definitely much better than walking or riding the increasingly busy Derbyshire roads.

The High Peak Trail begins (or ends!) at the High Peak Junction on the Cromford Canal – the pump house for the canal is fired up occasionally for the benefits of visitors. Another key canal of the Peak District lay on the other side of the high limestone plateau. There were plans to join the two but it would have proved far too difficult to cut a canal between the two so the owners linked them by railway instead. Basically a lack of water and the permeability of the limestone were the two insurmountable problems. The route of this railway – the Cromford and High Peak Railway – survives as the High Peak Trail. Its construction was organised by Josiah Jessop, the son of the builder of the Cromford Canal. The line was designed to carry freight, limestone out, coal and other materials in. Occasional passenger services ran during the summer months, if the line still existed, I’m sure it would have been classed amongst the great railway journeys of the world.

The railway took 5 years to build and was 33 miles in length. It opened on 1890 and the final section was closed in the late 1960s. The dismantled line was acquired by the Peak Park authority and after safety work was carried out, gives easy walking and easy traffic free cycling along most of its length, with gentle inclines and a fairly flat and generally well maintained surface. There are several information centres along the route such as the one at Middleton-by-Wirksworth.

Here you can find the Middleton Top winding house. This contained a vast engine to pull waggons up to the top of the plateau from the Cromford canal. Once at Middleton Top, they could be coupled to an engine for the rest of the journey. After a near miss in 1888, when several waggons broke loose and careered out of control all the way back to the Canal, a ‘catchpit’ was constructed. In addition to this industrial archaeology, there is a gift shop (sells snacks, drinks and ice creams), toilets, a car park and cycle hire. Toilets are also available at Parsley Hay, Black Rocks and High Peak Junction.

It is a steep and long walk (or bike ride) up to Middleton Top from the Cromford Canal, but for those who do not wish for this exercise, or are unable to walk/cycle, there is an easy drive! Hurrah!

Montage taken at Middleton Top on the High Peak Trail.

High Peak Trail Photo Montage

For archaeology, the section of the High Peak Trail that passes Roystone Grange is the richest – with remains stretching from the Neolithic, through Bronze Age, Romano-British and Medieval and Victorian in a remarkably small area.

After appreciating the perfect sweep and excellent stonework of the Minninglow Embankment, cast your eyes uphill to note the tree-shrouded hill. This can be seen for miles around and is an ancient burial mound containing several Neolithic Chambered tombs. Minninglow is on private land but there is currently concessionary access (up until 2020 I believe. Take time to follow the Roystone Grange trail to see Bronze age and Romano-British remains including field boundaries (well actually just a few of the original stones remain but the walls are in the same places as they were 2000 years ago). Medieval remains have also been located here.

OK, lets take you along the trail, starting at the Cromford Canal. The railway buildings at the High Peak Junction with the Cromford Canal now house toilets, a small snack shop with outdoor seating, very pleasant in the summer and a bunkhouse. There is also the Leawood Pumpouse, a stationary steam engine which is fired up from time to time for the benefit of visitors. This was built in 1849 to top up the Cromford Canal with water from the Derwent. Restrictive conditions were applied so the engine was built BIG! Worth a visit when in steam.

Right, so having had your fill of attractions and history here, off you go. Grind your way uphill, passing through a short tunnel and past the earlier mentioned catchpit. The worst bit of this hill is the part where you can see the gate in the distance at the end of the woodland – it doesn’t seem to get any closer until you are almost there. Catch your breath by the ruined winding house, there is a convenient bench. The winding house was one of two that pulled the wagons up the incline.

The flat section now lasts for a while and takes you past Black Rocks, where the white Peak meets the Dark Peak. The trail passes a small visitor centre and the Steeple Grange Light Railway before climbing again to Middleton Top where there are toilets, cycle hire and a shp with souvenirs and snacks on sale.

The High Peak Trail is now on the plateau, there is a tunnel and then another incline, gentler and shorter than the previous two. The trail winds its way past Harboro Rocks, a popular bouldering venue, past a couple of rural factories and on to Longcliffe where some of the original station buildings survive.

The following section is pretty much rural, passing Roystone Grange where there are archeological remains dating back to Roman times. The High Peak Trail then sweeps round a marvellous curve atop a superb victorian embankment below Minninglow, past the Parwich car park, a few farms and crosses the Via Gellia road to arrive at Friden Brickworks. The story of the brickworks is on the outide of the wall. After that, it passes thorugh more typical White Peak scenery and joins with the Tissington Trail close to Parsley Hay (toilets, cycle hire, shop and refreshments plus pay and display car parking).

The surface is then a bit rougher and the High Peak Trail continues on past the Royal Oak pub and on to the finish, just south of Buxton. From there, it is possible to join the Pennine Bridleway.