This month (May) essential maintenance work is being carried out on the lighting in all four former railway tunnels on the Monsal Trail. The tunnels will all remain open, but the lighting level will be reduced if a tunnel is being worked on. Cyclists are required to dismount where contractors are working, and all trail users will need to divert slightly onto ballast at the side of the trail to get round the moveable platform. Look out for warning signs at the tunnel entrance and take extra care when passing through.
The lights in the tunnels are operated by a light sensor during daylight hours, but at night they are totally dark. They’ve proved a huge attraction since the Peak District National Park Authority re-opened them in May 2011 and range from the 91-yard (83m) Chee Tor tunnel near Miller’s Dale to Headstone which runs for 533 yards (487m) in a long curve below Monsal Head.
Cycling through the tunnels, at least the longer ones, is both an eerie and exhilarating experience. It’s great when it’s bright and hot above ground to plunge into the dark, cool depths; but if you’re on your own and go in when the lights are switched off it’s an odd sensation. Two tips you might like to bear in mind: try not to venture in on a busy Sunday when you run the risk of colliding with dogs running around off lead and largely invisible, as well as groups of walkers who don’t always seem to be able to cope with a bike in the dark – however slow and illuminated you might be; and be careful not to rub against the side of the tunnel, since the soot still lingers from the steam trains that last ran through the tunnels in 1968 and it’s a bugger to wash out of your best cycling jersey.
Hopefully the pressure on the Monsal Trail and its tunnels in terms of visitor numbers will ease a little when the cycle route is finally extended to Buxton and Rowsley and users can spread out a bit more. Presumably then cyclists will also be able to enjoy the long-closed Haddon tunnel, which stretches for 1,058 yards (967m) past Haddon Hall east of Bakewell and was originally built (using a cut and cover method) so that the Midland Railway’s new line wouldn’t be visible from the Duke of Rutland’s second home.
I’m sure cycling through tunnels will always be popular, whether or not you choose to hoot like a train as you enter (I’ve even found myself doing it on my own – how sad is that?!). It certainly adds interest to any route, especially if you have to negotiate other users in the dark. Carefully making your way past ramblers is one thing, but the short and extremely narrow tunnel on the Manifold Way is also a public road and – as we found out last weekend – it’s a little disconcerting meeting a vehicle half way through, not least because the sounds are amplified to deafening proportions.
There’s also a short tunnel at the start of the Tissington Trail at Ashbourne, connecting the town centre to the cycle hire and car park off Mapleton Lane, although it’s wide, straight and not especially scary. Hopton Tunnel near Middleton Top on the High Peak Trail also provides an entertaining 30 seconds as you whiz through; but neither can match the Monsal Trail and the thrill of emerging from Headstone directly on to the Monsal Viaduct. From the dark depths of a tunnel out on to a magnificent viaduct in a few turns of a wheel. Awesome!