Cycling the Monsal Trail: learning the hard way

Monsal Trail

“Now, is the seat ‘igh enough for you?” asks Cheryl from the cycle hire place, beaming at me with twinkling eyes. I’ve no idea, but quietly nod. She points up at a steep gravel track. At the top is the Monsal Trail. “Back by five at the latest, love,” she says. I don’t mention that I’ve never ridden a bike before.

Derbyshire is damp, but there are advantages. All around the trail lush, vibrant foliage shoots in every direction. It bursts with green, and plump leaves of every shade vie for attention: giant slug-nibbled water dock, thick grasses, ferns, mighty trees and tiny saplings. It’s green on green on tangled green – a cacophony almost too bright to focus on.

I wheel my bike up and stand evaluating the map – eight-and-a-half miles from Buxton to Bakewell along a disused railway line, recently renovated and opened for traffic-free wanderings. Then back again. I should be a master after that.

It’s midday and the air is thick with low summer cloud. But it’s dry, for now. The stony track is flat and fairly straight and after a couple of failed starts I manage to balance. For a metre or so.

Following the trail along the river Wye, cutting through damp tunnels, I cycle, in fits and starts, passing limestone kilns cut boxily into the cliffs. They taper towards the sky like temples to the lost local lime industry. But mostly my eyes stay fixed on my front wheel, desperate to keep it pointing forwards.

I rest at a disused Victorian railway station – now a toilet block – and I’ve only fallen off once. My knee is bruised and bloody, but, as I tell an onlooker, “I’ll soldier on”. Over the Monsal Head viaduct, where the steely Wye veers off through steep valleys flecked with limestone, and on I wobble, jerk and skid all the way to Bakewell.

When I get there it’s nearly three o’clock. There’s no time for a cup of tea or even a tart. Turning back, with gritted teeth, I peddle faster and faster. Back through cool tunnels, back to Monsal Head, passed leafy nature reserves and overgrown footpaths.

The sun is finally out and everywhere there’s life – tiny birds bobbing around like buoys in the undergrowth, pairs of pale butterflies teasing each other, spiralling mischievously into the sky.

After two more falls I’m sore and tired. I crouch on a rock watching cows graze the velvety pastures below, envious of their simple life – eating and walking and never riding bikes.

I make it back to Buxton with ten minutes to spare. The cycle hire hut is buzzing with excitable children and men in Lycra. I do my best to hide the cuts and bruises. Cheryl’s there, bright and smiling, her caramel hair glossy in the late afternoon sun. “Good ride?” she asks. “The best,” I tell her.