The view back up to Minninglow from here provides a layer-cake scene through the historical use of this landscape. On the hill’s summit the prehistoric burial site; below that the natural outcrops of limestone (which provided the slabs for those tombs); then stone walls dating back to the enclosure acts of the late eighteenth century; finally the magnificent railway embankment of 1831.
But what are these huge earthworks in the foreground all about? A clue lies in the track surface we have just walked over. You may have noticed that, unlike the rest of the route, it was very sandy back there. By a happy accident, a large pocket of very valuable silica sand was discovered just below the surface of the soil and right next to the railway line.
It is part of series of such deposits, stretching in a line between here and Brassington, to the south east. The silica deposits were laid down in the hollows of the limestone by some long vanished river, during the late Miocene Era – around 10 million years ago.
Silica sand is very heat resistant, so is used to make the bricks which line industrial furnaces. A Victorian brickworks was established right here. For a while, our little medieval lane would have been busy taking bricks up to the railway line for onward transport to Sheffield, with its burgeoning metal industries. So besides being a valuable link across the White Peak, the railway encouraged the growth of industries, particularly those dealing with the local minerals.
There is still a firm that works with silica sand nearby – Hoben – while two others, Viaton and Longcliffe quarry and process specialist limestones. All three operations are just a short distance further south and right next to the track. The deposits of sand here are all worked out and the trains long gone, so the Hoben works bring in raw materials from elsewhere – by road instead of by rail.
Right from the start, the railway’s canal-like design rendered it less and less efficient. Though steam locomotives ran within a just few years of the line’s completion, they were much thirstier than horses. Limestone is a permeable rock, which means water easily drains through it. As a result this plateau contains no running streams, so to service the trains special tankers of water had to be transported up here from the Derwent Valley.
Add in coupling and uncoupling the fixed engines on the steeply inclined sections and using the line was hard, slow work. A prime candidate for the infamous ‘Beeching cuts’, the line finally closed in the late 1960s.
The railways’ loss was the walkers’ and cyclists’ gain. Today it makes for a truly fascinating tour, twisting like water this way and that, through an impressive landscape and thousands of years of history.
To return to the start of the route, continue along the lane. It becomes tarmac as a small road joins from the left. Follow the lane all the way to a crossroads. Turn right onto this minor road, alongside a belt of mature trees, back to the car park on the High Peak Trail.
This trail was originally developed by Simon Corble for the Royal Geographical Society’s Discovering Britain.
Simon Corble is a theatre director, playwright and actor based in Derbyshire’s Peak District, is passionate about the countryside and discovering the hidden secrets of the natural world.
Thanks are also due to Ben Brooksbank and David A Hull for photographs reproduced under Creative Commons Licenses