I was left to my own devices while my friend was in Barnsley cramming for her exam to become a grown-up doctor (I think that’s about right). After ticking the box on finding bluebells late in the season, I found myself returning often to Peak District National Park. Next on my list was to hike the Monsal Dale trail.
- Why I loved the Peak District: Technology in baffling places
- My Tale of Woe with Cows Along the Monsal Dale Trail
- Hiking Trail Start at Monsal Head
- Descending the trail into Monsal Dale
- Walking out of Monsal Dale to Brushfield Hough Farm
- The Hamlet of Brushfield triggered my Oblivion gaming addiction
- Entering Taddington Dale
- Reaching the end of the Monsal Dale trail
- Carbon offset information to the United Kingdom
Why I loved the Peak District: Technology in baffling places
I had expressed interest in the Peak District to my colleague-friend, whose home range this region is. He was the one who suggested choice spots to explore within it, such as the plague village Eyam and the charming Bakewell. He gave me a selection of Peak District walks 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 that is why England’s Peak District National Park is up there among my most favourite places in the world.
My Tale of Woe with Cows Along the Monsal Dale Trail
The blog post link he gave me is most excellent and gives you a good feel for the whole of the walking route. It was essential to prevent me from being lost and needing to be airlifted by helicopters. At the time I was nowhere as adventurous as I am today, so I followed the directions closely. So, to be perfectly honest, I could really end this article right here, since I have nothing to add to it.
But instead, I’ve decided to tell the story of something entirely unhelpful, and focus on cows! Cows?? Because. What do you mean because? Well, because! [Cue maniacal laugh]
Hiking Trail Start at 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 here. 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 the necessary driving support intel.
There’s a pub/restaurant as well at Monsal Head, and in the late spring/summer, you’d probably get ice cream vans too.
Headstone Viaduct and the subjectivity of aesthetics
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 (hint: it is not the same as aqueduct!).
Combined with its setting, I consider Headstone Viaduct among the loveliest bridges I’ve ever seen. I could see why my friend rates this walking trail highly.
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’. Huh.
It seems 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. I guess I’m more tolerant of technology within nature.
Descending the trail into Monsal Dale
It was uncharacteristically sunny when I began the walk.
Once down the steps, I went onto the viaduct itself, 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.
In fact, I would advise you to do it straight away, and backtrack. Later on, there’s a more than even chance that the English weather would turn and cast a grey spell upon any photography. So, take the photo op when you can.
I returned to the trail and continued on down into the dale.
Rambling through Monsal Dale, reflecting on cultural scripts
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. (Oh hey, I do have something useful to contribute!)
I stopped for a snack by the river. And afterwards, more than a little self-conscious, I washed up from it and did my prayers there. You couldn’t wish for a more gorgeous location. But it still felt weird, and that’s all down to being Malaysian.
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 finding 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, out in the wild.
Yet despite knowing it, and resolving to re-train my mindset, I was still self-conscious. Nobody else was around, and it still felt weird. Culture makes us do things that are contrary to what we believe.
I’m still on a journey to re-write these cultural scripts. But I suppose, we are all a work in progress.
The cows of Monsal Dale: Part 1
Continuing along the Monsal Dale trail, 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 had 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.
In my defence, this particular cow seemed so… pushy. And I never noticed before how the horns are kind of pointy. Hers were turned towards me.
I thought maybe I should be polite and let her pass, but she didn’t get on the footbridge at all. Eventually, though, she moved away, and I crossed in relief.
The relief was short-lived.
Cows: the deadliest animal in Britain
Admit it. We all have scoffed at our parental figures for seemingly daft precautions they try to instil into us. But then we later try desperately to remember if they had also said anything useful, for when you get in a fix through ignoring said precautions.
This was the exact moment when I recalled scoffing at my boss-dad’s visceral fear of cows. We had laughed at him, for being afraid of placid, meek domestic herbivores. [For ‘boss-dad’, see previous article]. For the first time I wondered whether my boss-dad may have had a point. [By the way, cows are in fact the deadliest animal in Britain].
A veritable herd was grazing in the glade. I tried to act nonchalant, but one of them looked up and noticed me.
Then the others looked my way.
And worse – they started walking.
I drew a deep breath, and slowly but (I hoped) confidently walked past them. They actually followed me a bit! Like I said, pushy much? But I kept walking, studiously ignoring them, and finally left them behind. Presumably they went back to grazing. I didn’t look back.
Walking out of Monsal Dale to Brushfield Hough Farm
I eventually left Monsal Dale and headed up the trail that should lead to Brushfield Hough Farm. There’s a handy sign at this critical juncture. Without it, I would have an even chance of guessing which path would be the right one.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler…
From here on, the path fades to but a trace.
I angled up the slope and emerged upon farmland, bounded by low cobblestone wall. Soon there was a road again.
Cows on Monsal Trail: The sequel!
To my chagrin, as I rounded the bend it emerged that my livestock woes were not over.
A cow poked its head out from behind a wall, staring at me. Just, you know, staring. It was creepy. A creepy kind of curiosity, just like the herd grazing by the river Wye.
I began to look around at what could be causing this bizarre behaviour… my T-shirt, blazing through the open front of my outdoor jacket, was a bright, bright red. Ah, crap.
But that’s totally a myth! I was pretty sure I had read a total debunk of the whole cows being inflamed by the colour red thing!
However, just in case, I surreptitiously zipped up the dull maroon jacket before walking through the gauntlet of this herd of highly dangerous animals.
Yet this herd followed me too, a bit.
Perhaps they’re just waiting for a human to follow. Any human will do. Maybe they’re just sooo bored. Any change from routine is interesting. Perhaps that is why cows sometimes jump off of cliffs together. Anything to kill the boredom!
I idly thought about what might happen if I ran. Would they run too? Would they draw wheezing asthmatic breaths as my school friend Aida 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).
The Hamlet of Brushfield triggered my Oblivion gaming addiction
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].
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
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 in Brushfield once I encountered yet another one that’s different from all the previous ones. I could have compiled a gallery of them!
GAAAAHHH! Why won’t it open? How would it open??
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.
End digression, and back to the trail.
Entering Taddington Dale
By contrast, 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. I quickly descended through the first paddock.
And of course, what else. There were cows in the paddock I must cross.
Stop loving me! @ The Return of the Monsal Trail Cows
This third encounter ranks among my weirdest animal encounters.
I figured I was now a veteran of walking through cattle herds like a boss. But these particular cows were black, and somehow it made them seem bigger. One of them began to follow me down the slope.
And then the others followed.
I grew a bit concerned. The slope was very steep and I was most of the way down. The lead cow was very close to me. If it slipped on the steep slope, it could easily fall on top of me. I tried to angle away but somehow I ended up cornered by cows against the fence.
Surrounded by highly interested cows. It’s half-flattering, half-creepy.
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 more.
I needed to get to the gate, plus have 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 last part is a realistic concern, but it crossed my mind. A lot of things seemed plausible at the time!
In the end I screwed up my courage and gently but firmly pushed through my adoring fans. I gave them a stern talking-to.
Dispersed, they grumpily hiked back up the slope. I cannot believe that worked!
Reaching the end of the Monsal Dale trail
Past all the paddocks, I reached the edge of the crest. I looked upon the valley far below.
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. The view would be awesome, I thought.
Except that it hugs reeeeaallly close to the edge of a terrifying slope.
Except that the gravel kept sliding under my boots as I tried to clamber up the surprisingly steep slope. Damn, who is this gravel trail for?
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 walk all the way back across Headstone Viaduct and back up to Monsal Head.
His Derbyshire roots: Nature and nurture
My colleague-friend, who recommended this trail to me, is yet another guy who loves mountains. He also surprised me with a fairly sanguine reaction to the faint or indifferent hiking trails in many Asian countries. Up until then I was more used to foreigners complaining over the lack of safety this posed, and blah blah blah. Though he was an expat when I met him, he didn’t carry himself like a privileged city boy, unlike the other foreigners in his office.
It was here, while rambling across the countryside around Monsal Dale, that I thought I understood both how he developed a love for high terrain, and an acceptance for unmarked trails. He had lived a youth roaming countryside that was not marked. You simply walked across it where you can, and that’s the trail.
And it is beautiful countryside indeed. Perhaps his accepting, humble nature owed something to it.
Derbyshire is a certain kind of hospitable
There were others on the Monsal trail at this end portion, 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 nobody ever asks me. So it took me more than half a second to apprehend what 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 has isn’t quite hospitality. It’s something that I feel is even better than hospitality. It’s the presumption of belonging. That if you are here, then you must belong here. Whatever you look like (I don’t look English in the least). I mean, even the cows keep trying to lick me and follow me around…
It was a simple-hearted acceptance that I think is quite special. What a great loss indeed, if current events in the UK destroyed this beautiful innocent friendliness.
Carbon offset information to the United Kingdom
A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Manchester via Amsterdam produces carbon emissions of approximately 8,815 lbs CO2e. It costs about $44 to offset this.
Planning to ramble through the Monsal Dale trail? Pin this summer version of the trail! And look out for the deadly cows!
For more on this Odyssey: