Pocket Britain

A valley that offers arguably the best view in the Peak District

The River Wye starts near Buxton and flows south-east to Rowsley, where it joins up with the River Derwent. It's only 24 kilometres long, but this short stretch is at the heart of the Peak District. It passes through some of the very best scenery that the National Park has to offer. The highlight is surely Monsal Dale, a horseshoe-shaped gorge filled with trees. Located above this dramatic bend in the Wye is Monsal Head, a spot that boasts one of the Peak District's best-loved views. It looks out over both sections of the valley, taking in its steep slopes and plentiful plantlife.
Monsal Dale is one of nature's finest compositions but, even so, the view's most dramatic feature isn't natural at all. Instead of being formed over thousands of years, it was constructed in a few months by Victorian engineers. This is the Headstone Viaduct, a railway bridge from 1863. It's nearly 100 metres long, leading directly into a tunnel that passes underneath Monsal Head. The structure's worn stone arches are an elegant, head-turning addition to the valley scene. However, this is a point of view that wasn't shared among many of the Victorians. The viaduct was a controversial project that drew plenty of criticism. Most outspoken was John Ruskin, a famous writer and art critic. He thought that the bridge utterly ruined the valley, and that everyone involved with its construction was a fool. It's somewhat ironic that the Headstone Viaduct now has listed status, ensuring its protection for the future.
It's been a long time since a train has crossed the bridge. The railway closed in the 60s, and the structure was abandoned. However, two decades later, the track was purchased by the National Trust. They turned it into a walking route called the Monsal Trail, which extends for 13 kilometres. The old railway tunnels are unfortunately closed for safety reasons, but you can still cross the viaduct, and enjoy the same spectacular views that the train passengers once did.
From Monsal Dale the trail leads off in two directions. To the west it passes through Millers Dale, another pretty valley with two more impressive viaducts. Millers Dale is also the name of a village here, which is known for its industrial past. You can still see the remains of the old mills and quarries. One in particular, Litton Mill, has an unsettling history. In those times, profit was valued above all else, and the industrialists would go to any lengths to get it. To that end, Litton Mill began employing scores of children as a source of cheap labour. These were mainly orphans, who basically became slaves to the brutal owners of the mill. Many of their graves can be seen in the local churchyards.
Back at the Headstone Viaduct, you can also follow the Monsal Trail to the east. In this direction, this first place you come to is the settlement of Little Longstone. It only has 100 permanent residents, but it gets countless visitors thanks to its proximity to Monsal Head. It's a traditional place, with a 17th century manor and a 16th century pub. They still hold a well dressing festival every year, when the village's wells are extravagantly decorated with flowers.
The Monsal Trail finally ends near the market town of Bakewell. If you've managed to conquer its entire length, then you should definitely treat yourself to one of their famous puddings.

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