Derbyshire has done more than any county in England to convert its disused railways into traffic-free greenways for cycling and walking. This route is a variation on the classic ‘trails triangle’ that combines two of the most popular Peak District cycle trails — the High Peak Trail and the Tissington Trail — with the traffic-free path around Carsington Water. The route starts at the railway station in Cromford, but starting at Middleton Top C would avoid the steep climb up from the Derwent Valley and reduce the overall distance by 7 miles.
Cromford was one of the most important locations in the early years of the Industrial Revolution. It was here in 1771 that self-made inventor and entrepreneur Richard Arkwright built the world’s earliest water-powered cotton spinning mill. It is regarded as the first modern factory, a system of production that would quickly wipe out traditional artisan cottage industries. Working conditions were severe. Two thirteen-hour shifts a day kept the factory in continuous production. Whole families were employed, including large numbers of children, as young as seven. Workers had a week’s holiday a year, on condition that they didn’t travel beyond Cromford. Arkwright made a fortune and set to building a country seat to match his elevated status. Willersley Castle can be seen from the bridge, though he died before it was completed. The mill complex is now part of the Derwent Valley Mills UNESCO World Heritage site and hosts a visitor centre, shops and two cafés A.
From Cromford it’s a stiff climb up Intake Lane to join the route of the Cromford and High Peak Railway. One of the earliest railways in Britain, it was built to carry minerals and goods between the Derwent Valley and the canal network around Manchester, as an alternative to the lengthy canal route to the south of the Pennines. Wagons were hauled up the many steep inclines by chain, and later by wire cables, wound by stationary engines. It ran until the 1960s and now lives a second life as the High Peak Trail for walking and cycling. On the way up you’ll pass the National Stone Centre, an educational charity based in an old limestone quarry. It offers a short self-guided fossil and geology walking trail, and runs courses in dry stone walling and stone carving – including for absolute beginners B.
Once onto the high plateau at Middleton Top, it’s pleasant, traffic-free riding all the way towards Parsley Hay, where there’s a café and bike hire shop E. Before you get there, just off the route and accessible by a permissive footpath, is Minninglow Hill. At the top, in a wooded clearing, is the largest Neolithic chambered tomb in Derbyshire and two Bronze Age bowl barrows D. A little further along, the route passes the Friden brickworks, a major local employer for over a century, which specialises in making heatresistant bricks for blast furnaces, glass making and other high temperature applications. The critical ingredient is silica, which for decades was quarried from local deposits, though now it is imported.
Two miles past Parsley Hay, the route leaves the High Peak Trail for an interlude of splendid gated roads, initially along Dovedale, then through Hartington. Once a local centre for the mining of ironstone, lead and limestone, Hartington is also known for its cheesemaking: its creamery is the only one in the county where Stilton is made (by law Stilton can only be made in Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire or Leicestershire).
From Hartington, a classic Peak District farm track leads to Biggin, where the route picks up another ex-railway line cycleway, the Tissington Trail. It’s worth a short deviation from the most direct route to visit the pretty estate village of Tissington F. The current lord of the manor is the amiable Sir Richard FitzHerbert, who inherited unexpectedly from his uncle and can often be seen lending a hand at the bustling cycling-friendly café opposite the church, as well as giving regular tours of the manor house. In 2007 Tissington Hall was among several historic houses to draw attention to its involvement in the slave trade and the wealth it derived from sugar plantations in the Caribbean.
From Tissington it’s rolling lanes via Bradbourne to Carsington Water G, a reservoir ringed by a shared use cycling and walking path, followed by one last climb back to the High Peak Trail, and the return to Middleton Top. If you’ve ridden up from Cromford, the way back follows the same route – take care as it’s steep and the surface is loose in places.