Follow any one of these former rail tracks for your ticket to some of the best walking in the UK…
Monsal Trail, Derbyshire
Inside track: Back in the 19th century, ambitious plans were afoot. The Midland Railway started to build a line that would eventually form a link between Manchester and London. Tunnels were carved into the Peak District landscape – even bridging the River Wye with the Headstone Viaduct across Monsal Dale (pictured right by alh1). The tracks were finally opened in 1863, after which they carried people and freight for over a century. But in 1968, as part of Dr Beeching’s famous axe, which cut thousands of miles of railway routes to save money, the Peak section of the line was closed down by the then Minister for Transport, Barbara Castle. This section was taken over by the Peak District National Park in the 1980s and the trail was first opened in 1981 for walkers.
Rail trail: Weaving its way through limestone dales and grassy meadows, the 13½km/8½-mile route with breathtaking views runs from Blackwell Mill in Chee Dale to Coombs Road in Bakewell. In addition to some of the relics from the railway’s past – including six tunnels and the viaduct – there’s also an array of birds to spot, from common grey wagtails to the more majestic buzzards.
Trainspotter’s fact: Be sure to look out for the inscription on the Headstone Viaduct at Monsal Head, which features the famous words of John Ruskin bemoaning the railway: ‘The valley is gone… and now every fool in Buxton can be in Bakewell in half an hour and every fool at Bakewell in Buxton.’
Further info: www.peakdistrict.gov.uk (search for Monsal Trail)
Lealt Valley Walk, Isle of Skye
Inside track: As with many railways, it was industry that called for the Lealt Valley Diatomite Railway to be constructed. Used between 1890 and 1915, this tramway ran parallel to the river and was both gravity and manpowered before converting to steam. It was used to take a substance called diatomite (used to make a range of products, from toothpaste to dynamite!) from the lochbed to the harbour at Inver Tote. It closed when there was no diatomite left to work out.
Rail trail: Starting from the car park at Inver Tote, above the cliffs, the route goes west on the track north of the Lealt River heading for Loch Cuithir. There and back it’s about 10½km/6½ miles, and en route you’ll see some signs of the old track before coming to the loch where the diatomite was found. But the highlight is undoubtedly looking up at the Trotternish Ridge – a dramatic collection of spires, slabs and cliffs, which accompanies you for the length of the walk.
Trainspotter’s fact: Below the cliffs at Inver Tote, the diatomite was dried in a kiln in preparation to be exported – and the old workings can still be seen there today.
Further info: www.railbrit.co.uk (search for Lealt Valley)
Plym Valley Way, Devon
Inside track: Originally part of the South Devon and Tavistock Railway, the track that spanned between Plymouth and Tavistock was completed in 1850. Despite going through an upgrade from broad-gauge to standard, it fell victim to the rail network’s nationalisation and finally closed in 1962.
Rail trail: Running northwards from Saltram House (one of Devon’s grandest mansions) to Clearbrook, the trail follows the journey of the old Great Western Railway line for 19km/12 miles through historic woodland, almost tracing the banks of the River Plym. En route, you’ll wander through tunnels and across viaducts, while spying some railway relics that are explained on interpretation boards.
Trainspotter’s fact: Local enthusiasts set up a group in 1982 to restore almost a mile of the line as the Plym Valley Railway.
Further info: www.devon-online.com/towns/dartmoor/dartmoor-cycling.htm
Mawddach Trail, Gwynedd
Inside track: The public’s waning interest in train travel closed this Welsh line in 1965, after it had enjoyed 100 years of success ferrying passengers and (albeit briefly) slate between Barmouth and Ruabon. John Ruskin may have hated the Midland Railway in the Peaks, but when it came to this route he famously declared that there was only one other journey in the world that had views to compare with those from Dolgellau to Barmouth – and that was the journey from Barmouth to Dolgellau.
Rail trail: Following the route of the old trackbed, this walk tackles the 15km/9½ miles between Dolgellau and Barmouth, with the south Snowdonia scenery as the backdrop. From the market town, it follows the River Mawddach, passing alongside the estuary and crossing the railway bridge over the mouth of the estuary into Barmouth.
Trainspotter’s fact: The River Mawddach is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, home to salt marsh and two RSPB reserves (Mawddach Valley and Arthog Bog), offering great opportunities to watch our feathered friends take flight.
Further info: www.mawddachway.co.uk
For the full version of this article pick up the Autumn 2013 issue of walk from Cotswold Outdoor or why not join the Ramblers and get it delivered to your door four times a year?