Cycling with Grandpa

Spinning along the smooth gravel of the Peak District rail trails, three generations found our flow.

Two cyclists are visible in the distance riding up a steep incline in a dark forest.

It was the second day of our trip and we were hauling ourselves back up the steep incline from High Peak Junction. The slope sits on what is now a trail for walkers, cyclists and horseriders but was once the trackbed of a railway built to carry minerals and goods.

The incline was too steep for locomotives so static engines pulled goods wagons to the top. In 1888, two of these wagons escaped their tether and tore down the hill towards the canal. Unable to round the curve into the wharf, they flew over the canal and the double-track railway line beyond, landing in a field. We, though, made it safely to the summit with our load of snacks.

And we celebrated by consuming them at a convenient picnic bench. As we ate, we reflected on our rides: the Tissington Trail the previous day and the High Peak Trail that day. On satellite images when planning our trip I’d seen the trails as veins of white gravel through the green countryside. Now these veins had carried my son, my dad and I nearly 120km through the national park.

Two cyclists, a child in blue and an adult in fluro yellow, cycle away from the camera along a brown stone track.

Our favourite bit, we agreed, had been the wildflower-scattered embankment south of Biggin on yesterday’s ride. On the long, sweeping descent, every hypnotic turn of the pedals pushed that morning’s car journey further from our minds. Hills and valleys unfolded around us. Butterflies flitted along the margins of the path. Our momentum seemed effortless – we were completely absorbed. It was perfect.

Here in this limestone landscape we’d found the formula for a successful family ride. With my dad still riding over 100 miles a week in his mid 70s and G’s range increasing now that he was 10, we needed a substantial route. To be a relaxing experience, it would have to be off-road. But not too off-road for Grandpa. He’d bought himself a gravel bike to use on winter roads but wasn’t – he reminded me – up for anything too rough.

That we could balance all these requirements on our trip was thanks to some far-sighted decisions taken long ago. In 1968 and 1971, Derbyshire County Council bought the trackbed of two stretches of disused railways to create the Tissington Trail and High Peak Trail. By doing this, they grabbed a slice of the hundreds of millions of pounds that cycle tourism brings to the UK economy every year.

The second far-sighted decision was the establishment of the Youth Hostels Association (YHA) in 1930. We stayed at YHA Hartington Hall, just a short ride from the confluence of the two trails. Locations such as these were why YHA was set up: to help all, but especially young people, to a greater knowledge, use and love of the countryside.

Sadly, that mission is under threat: YHA is closing 20 of its 150 hostels in England and Wales as it tries to make ends meet. Hartington Hall is safe for now. But it would be a shame if society were to lose more of this valuable connection to our great outdoors.

As for us, we’d formed a strong connection to the cake in the YHA cafe. So we sat and savoured another slice before getting in the car for the long drive home.