“There was a rocky valley between Buxton and Bakewell, once upon a time, divine as the Vale of Tempe... You Enterprised a Railroad through the valley - you blasted its rocks away, heaped thousands of tons of shale into its lovely stream. The valley is gone, and the Gods with it; and now, every fool in Buxton can be in Bakewell in half an hour, and every fool in Bakewell at Buxton; which you think a lucrative process of exchange – you Fools everywhere.”
John Ruskin, master of self-righteous Victorian bombast, thus addressed the British working-man in the pages of Fors Clavigera. Ruskin’s professed admiration for the dignity of labour did not extend to the itinerant labourers who toiled mightily on behalf of the Midland Railway carving cuttings through the limestone, drilling tunnels through the hills and bridging the rivers with viaducts, linking the fools of Buxton with their counterparts in Bakewell. After just over a century of trains from St. Pancras to Manchester, the railway that so offended Ruskin was closed in 1968. Subsequently the track-bed was converted into a footpath and bridleway (Monsal Trail) in the care of the Peak District National Park Authority. In May of last year the Park Authority completed a project to modify the former railway tunnels for public access and in doing so, eliminated the need for some lengthy diversions and greatly enhanced the walking experience.
The subject of tunnels is one we keep returning to, offering fascination on a number of levels. Walking through tunnels it’s difficult to ignore the fact that these are places we are not meant to be in – deep in the earth, encircled by rock and scree and far from the nearest source of natural light. Then there’s the sheer volume of labour involved in construction, with primitive tools in conditions of terrifying discomfort. An enormous price was paid in terms of the amount of injury and accidental death inflicted upon the unprotected workforce. All this melancholia hovers in the back of the mind as we trudge from portal to portal through the chill and humid semi-darkness but nothing dispels it so rapidly as the need to take urgent evasive action as an army of super-fast cyclists sweep past. The risk assessments and safety cases have all been duly observed, damp proof overhead lighting has been installed and a tarmac path offers relief from the scrunchy ballast. A sooty, black squelchy gunk adheres to the tunnel lining and offers a reminder of its former existence – a notice warns of the damaging consequences of transferring this toxic post-industrial slurry to our lips.