Hiking Monsal Dale: The Time When I Got Mobbed by Deadly Cows

The Peak District: Technology in baffling places

I was left to my own devices while my friend was cramming for her exam to become a grown-up doctor (I think that’s about right). After ticking the box on bluebells, I found myself returning often to the Peak District.

I had expressed interest in the Peak District to my colleague-friend, whose home range this region is. So he suggested choice spots to explore within it, such as the plague village Eyam and the charming Bakewell. He gave me a selection of hiking routes as well, and when I chose Monsal Dale, he was highly gratified. I took it to mean that he ranked it at the top himself.

But above all, what made me instantly fall in love with this region, was how bits of well-kept technology kept beautifully popping up in the most inexplicable spots of otherwise-nature. (Yes, I’m eccentric that way). Weirs in random streams, majestic mill buildings in isolated dales that can only be reached by exceedingly narrow lanes, and even – I kid you not – a sinkhole in the middle of a lake, like in a bathtub.

OK, so it’s really an engineered reservoir. But go ahead, click on the link or search for Ladybower Reservoir. I challenge you not to feel tempted to put a plug in the middle of it. It is my regret that I discovered this reservoir from a postcard, too late in the trip to drive to it.

And so England’s Peak District National Park is up there among my most favourite places in the world.

Cressbrook Mill | Peak District National Park | England | Monsal Dale hiking trail

This lovely building was a mill. Seriously. It’s in the middle of nowhere Cressbrook Mill.

The Trail of Monsal Dale

The blog post link he gave me is most excellent and gives you a good feel for the whole of the route. It was essential to prevent me from being lost and needing to be airlifted by helicopters. At the time I wasn’t particularly adventurous so I followed the directions as closely as I could.

Since I feel no need to improve upon it, I will instead write about something else entirely unhelpful, and so focus on cows! Because. What do you mean because? Well, because!

Monsal Dale hiking | Peak District National Park | Monsal Trail | Cressbrook Mill | Headstone Viaduct | Litton Mill

Monsal Head

The trail begins from Monsal Head, where there is a commanding view of the dale and the River Wye coursing through it. A small parking area is available. There is also a nearby parking area that is quite walkable to the start of the trail. If you have a good GPS with you, the English maps should be precise enough to provide you these driving support intel.

There’s a pub/restaurant as well, and in the late spring/summer, you’d probably get ice cream vans too.

Headstone Viaduct and the subjectivity of aesthetics

Monsal Dale Railway Bridge | Monsal Dale hiking trail | Monsal Head | Peak District National Park | England

Headstone Viaduct, seen from Monsal Head.

There is a railway bridge crossing the River Wye that forms the focal point of the view from Monsal Head. It’s named Headstone Viaduct (sometimes called ‘Monsal Dale Viaduct’). Go ahead, look up ‘viaduct’. I had to (not the same as aqueduct).

Combined with its setting, I think it’s among the loveliest bridges I’ve ever seen.

If you agree with me you might be surprised to learn that once upon the 19th century, there were objections against Midland Railway for its construction, because of its ugliness.

A lot has changed in the intervening centuries, but many things are still the same. For instance, I personally think power-generating windmills are aesthetically attractive. Yet they too, fall in the NIMBY bucket in many places, with ugliness sometimes cited as the sole reason.

Down to the dale I go.

Monsal Head descent to Monsal Dale | River Wye | Headstone Viaduct views | Peak District National Park

Down to Headstone Viaduct; views of River Wye from the viaduct; and onwards down into the dale.

It was uncharacteristically sunny when I began the walk. Once down the steps, I went onto the viaduct, even though the trail directions would only have me cross it at the end. If the weather is fine, it’s worth popping onto it, just for the views. Later on, there’s a more than even chance that English weather would turn and cast a grey spell upon any photography.

I returned to the trail and continued on down into the dale.

Monsal Dale, and reflecting on cultural scripts

Weir on River Wye | Monsal Dale | Headstone Viaduct | River Wye | Peak District National Park

Random technology; and views along the River Wye

The first part of the hike was fairly easy and clear. I followed the river Wye for a while. The views were brighter and more verdant than on the blog article, because of the difference in season. I had a snack by the river. Afterwards, more than a little self-conscious, I washed up from it and did my prayers there.

As an educated Muslim, I know better than to feel anxious. But it’s funny how culture conditions you to feel like what’s natural and original is awkward, and what’s unnatural is comfortable (like, insisting on a human-made building to turn to the Creator of nature). No one even knows at what point it became ‘not the done thing’ in my culture to worship more spontaneously.

I’m still on a journey to re-write these cultural scripts. But I suppose, we are all a work in progress.

The cows, Part 1

Cow blocking footbridge | Monsal Dale | Peak District National Park

Thou shalt not pass!

I reached the footbridge that the blog guide mentioned. I happily began to cross. But there was a problem. A big white cow was blocking the other end.

Now prior to this I’ve never considered cows to be particularly intimidating. But then I’ve never encountered them without some kind of barrier in between – like the outside of a car, or perhaps a fence. I didn’t think it would make a major difference, until it, er, did.

It’s just that this particular cow seemed so… pushy. And I never noticed before how the horns are kind of pointy, and hers were turned towards me. I thought maybe I should be polite and let her pass, but she didn’t get on the footbridge. Eventually she moved away, and I crossed in relief.

The relief was short-lived.

Grazing cows in Monsal Dale | Peak District National Park

Don’t mind me, don’t mind me, don’t mind me… crap. They’re curious.

Cows: the deadliest animal

Admit it. We all have scoffed at our parental figures for seemingly daft cautions they try to instil into us. And then later try desperately to remember if they had also said anything useful for when you get in a fix for ignoring them.

This was the moment when I recalled scoffing at my boss-dad’s visceral fear of cows. [For ‘boss-dad’, see my previous article How to be Surprised: When You Get a Sign, Forget the Bucket List]. A veritable herd was grazing in the glade. I tried to be nonchalant, but one of them looked up and noticed me. Then the others looked my way. And worse – they started walking.

For the first time I wondered whether he may have had a point. [By the way, cows are in fact the deadliest animal in Britain].

I drew a deep breath, and slowly but (I hope) confidently walked past them. They actually followed me a bit! Like I said, pushy much? But I kept walking and finally left them behind, presumably back to grazing.

Up to Brushfield Hough Farm

Brushfield Hough signpost | Monsal Dale hiking trail | Peak District National Park

“… long I stood; And looked down one as far as I could…”

I left Monsal Dale and headed up the trail that leads to Brushfield Hough Farm.

There’s a handy sign at the critical juncture. Without it, I would have an even chance of guessing which path would be the right one.

From here on, the path fades to but a trace. I angled up the slope and emerged into farmland, bounded by low cobblestone wall. Soon there was a road again.

Peak District farmland | Brushfield Hough | Monsal Dale trail | Peak District National Park

Out of Monsal Dale

Cows: The sequel

To my chagrin, as I rounded the bend it emerged that my livestock woes were not over.

Cow in Brushfield Hough | Monsal Dale trail | Peak District National Park

Well looky what we have here…

A cow poked its head out from behind a wall, staring at me. Just, you know, staring. It was creepy. I began to look around at what could be causing this bizarre… my t-shirt, blazing through the open front of my outdoor jacket, was a bright, bright red.

But that’s totally a myth! I was pretty sure I had read a total debunk of it!

But just in case, I surreptitiously zipped up the dull maroon jacket before walking through the herd of highly dangerous animals…

Curious cows | Brushfield Hough | Monsal Dale trail | Peak District National Park

Yet another herd of interested cows

These followed me a bit too. Maybe they’re just sooo bored. Perhaps that is why they sometimes jump off of cliffs together.

I thought about what might happen if I ran. Would they run too? Would they draw wheezing asthmatic breaths as my school friend had once vividly imagined? (I don’t remember why she thought about asthmatic cows in the first place. But just imagine a cow cantering across a meadow, wheezing. It’s hilarious).

Brushfield, and my Oblivion addiction

Brushfield | Peak District National Park | Straight out of Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

No, Teja! You are not an Assassin practicing potion-making skills. Leave the flowers alone!

The last PC game I played before I simply had no more time to devote to computer games, was The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. [The last game I played before I really, really simply had no more time to devote to computer games, was World of Warcraft].

Brushfield | Peak District National Park | Straight out of Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

No, Teja! You cannot walk into the house and see if there are wooden chests with goodies

Such. an awesome. game. I loooved it, and that’s why I hung on to it long after I gave up catching up on new games, or even sequels to Knights of the Old Republic. You could play it endlessly, and I never did explore all of the game world.

Anyway, as I approached Brushfield hamlet, I was overcome with an overpowering pseudo-Pavlovian impulse to start picking all of the flower bunches in sight. You know, for Alchemy ingredients.

Look upon the farm approach, and every Oblivion player will understand. Straight out of Oblivion.

I half expected NPCs to be chatting by the fence, one of them reminiscing over how he ‘took an arrow to the knee’.

I exerted Willpower and overcame the impulse. ;)

The maddeningly diverse livestock gates of England

Livestock gate | Peak District National Park | Monsal Dale trail

Levelling up on Lockpicking

OK, I really wish I had taken a photo of every livestock gate I encountered in my walks in the Peak District. I began doing it once I encountered yet another one that’s different from all the previous ones.


Some of them are really simple to work out, but here I will confess publicly that it took me a long while to work out how to open some others. [Yes I know it calls into question my problem solving skills relative to livestock].

Why England?? Why???

Yes, I kept that in me for a long time, and now I feel so much better for the rant.

Taddington Dale or, The Return of the Cows

Taddington Dale | Peak District National Park | Monsal Trail

Hiking through Taddington Dale

The passage through Taddington Dale was uneventful. There were no cows along here, only sheep who understood the concept of personal space. The sky began to cloud and I hurried through to the end, where the farmland sloped steeply downward through squares of fenced paddock.

And of course, there were cows in the paddock I must cross.

Stop loving me!

This third encounter ranks among my weirdest animal encounters.

I figured I was a veteran now – of walking through cattle herds like a boss. But these cows were black, and somehow it made them seem bigger. One of them began to follow me down the slope, and then others followed.

I grew a bit concerned.  The slope was very steep and the lead cow was very close to me. If it slipped, it could easily fall on top of me. I tried to angle away but somehow I ended up cornered against the fence. Surrounded by highly interested cows. It’s half-flattering, half-creepy.

Cows in paddock | Peak District National Park | Monsal Trail

It’s not you, it’s me.

They began to nose at me. It’s weird because I didn’t have food on me or anything. Then one of them licked my jacket. Another one gave me another lick and crowded in a bit. I needed to get to the gate, and with some time to figure out how to open it, while also not accidentally giving the cows the idea that they could all pass through it with (or *gasp* over?) me. I wasn’t sure if that’s a realistic concern, but it crossed my mind.

In the end I screwed up my courage and gently but firmly pushed through. Gave them a stern talking-to. Dispersed, they grumpily hiked back up the slope.

The final stretch!

Past all the paddocks, I reached the edge of the crest. I looked upon the valley far below.

Litton Tunnel | Monsal Trail | Peak District National Park

Through the tunnel or over?

I confess to a bit of apprehension with heights. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say ‘phobia’, vertigo does inconveniently affect me.

It doesn’t usually affect most of my wandering activities, so when I was confronted with the option of going through Litton Tunnel or over, I thought I might go over. After all there was a gravel path.

Except that it hugs reeeeaallly close to the edge of a terrifying slope. Except that the gravel kept sliding under my boots. I admit here that I ended up trying to crawl onward, to try and feel more secure on the trail. It felt stupid.

So I folded.

I half-slid back down and went through the damp disused railway tunnel. From here it was a fairly straightforward way walk all the way back across Headstone Viaduct and back up to Monsal Head.

Derbyshire roots: Nature and nurture

My colleague-friend, who gave me this trail, is yet another guy who loves mountains. He also surprised me with a fairly sanguine reaction to the faint or indifferent trails in many Asian countries – up until then I was more used to foreigners complaining over the lack of safety this posed.

Here was when I thought I understood both how he developed a love for high terrain, and an acceptance for unmarked trails. Though an expat when I met him, he wasn’t really a spoiled city boy like the others. He had lived a youth roaming countryside that was not marked. And it is beautiful countryside indeed. Perhaps his accepting, gentle nature owed something to it.

Litton Mill | Miller's Dale | Peak District National Park | Monsal Trail

View from the crest with Litton Mill on the left

Still local, apparently

There were others on the trail as well at this portion of it. Joggers, and cyclists. A guy came from the opposite side, walking his dog. He greeted me, and then asked whether I passed by any pubs.

Now I never in my life have been asked about whether I knew anything about pubs. It just is something that never comes up. So it took me more than half a second to apprehend what it was he was asking, (and that’s separate from processing his accent). But I finally got my wits about me and answered him.

There are many places where people are really friendly and hospitable to visitors. Many people say my home country Malaysia is one. And most people seem to agree that Middle Eastern hospitality is unmatched (I have not tested personally).

However, what Derbyshire showed me isn’t quite hospitality. It’s something that I feel is even better than hospitality. It’s the presumption of belonging. I mean, even the cows keep trying to lick me and follow me around…

It would be a great loss indeed if current events destroyed this beautiful innocent friendliness.

Litton Mill | Monsal Trail | Peak District National Park

Looking back to Litton Mill near the base of the slope.

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20 Responses

  1. Peak district looks amazing. Loved the trail and views are stunning. Looked hilarious that you had encountered so many cows. But yes truely sometimes it could be dangerous too. Liked your memes though.

  2. Perri says:

    I have never been to the Peak District (im such a bad Brit) your photos are amazing and it sure does look like beautiful countryside so I must check this out. I love your cow encounter stories, they really didn’t like you being in the territory huh!

    • Teja says:

      Oh God I never would have gone except that my friend begged me to accompany her to Barnsley. And then I felt like I never wanted to leave the Peak District! It feels like…. hm, like the Shire! All wholesome and green and welcoming.

  3. Hazel says:

    People absolutely underestimate how fiesty cows can be (and how huge they are). I’m sorry I laughed when the cows were licking you, but I was pleased to see you made it out! Thanks for the entertaining account

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