I am always looking for places to take a great hike that also feature a brewery visit and a good beer along the route. The Monsal Trail in England’s Peak District National Park is such a place. I woke up to a misty morning in Buxton, one of the larger towns in the South Peak District and said to be the highest altitude town in England, donned my rain jacket, and headed to the market square where all of the bus services converge. The western start of the Monsal Trail is a few miles east of town near a place called Wye Dale. I found what I thought to be the right bus and told the bus driver what I was up to. He confirmed that I was in the right place and that he would look out for dropping me off at the right spot.
Following a 15 minute or so bus trip, the driver let me off and pointed me in the right direction. A short walk from the drop-off along the highway leads to the fast moving River Wye and a pleasant pathway along the river to the trailhead at Blackwell Mill.
The Monsal Trail is a “rail-trail”, meaning a section of defunct railway right-of-way that has been converted to a full-time trail for hiking, cycling, and in this case horse traffic. The railway that used to run through here was part of a line connecting London and Manchester that was closed in 1968 and taken over by the Peak District National Park in 1980. The route features seven major tunnels and two major viaducts that keep the grade pretty steady as you traverse hill and dale. The track has all been lifted and is gone, replaced by a well maintained surface of crushed stone and, in places, asphalt pavement.
There are several train stations along the trail although all of them seemed to be a pretty good distance away from the villages they were there to serve. Lateral pathways are numerous and lead to those villages and the rolling countryside. It took years to get the tunnels re-opened after the Park assumed control but that was finally accomplished in 2011. There is a bike rental operation at Wye that I think is coordinated with another one over closer to Bakewell (at Hassop Station I think) and I can imagine this may be a popular biking route.
Not on the day I was there though, as the intermittent rain had chased away pretty much any other users. I encountered just a handful of other people along my way. I stopped for a lunch and a pint at Great Longstone and a visit to Peak Ales brewery which was down the road in the opposite direction from Great Longstone. I left the trail at Bakewell Station and walked into the town to look around. Thornbridge Brewery is located in Bakewell and makes for a great visit at the end of the hike. A bus took me back to Buxton. Following are some images from the hike and the breweries.
Just off the trail near Blackwell is a brewery called Taddington Brewery. They are a small operation specializing in traditional European lagers and are located in an historic brewing location at Blackwell Hall. I learned that the owners were away on holiday so I did not try to visit, although I would have loved to give their beer a try. They are on a side trail from Blackwell Mill.
As I approached Longstone Station the unmistakable aroma of grain being cooked permeated the air and cut through the drizzle. I assumed this was coming from the small batch brewery I heard was housed at Thornbridge Hall, an 18th century country estate whose grounds stradle the Monsal Way. The estate is owned by the owners of Thornbridge Brewery which I would visit up the trail in Bakewell. As I understand it, this was Thornbridge’s original brewery location but now is used for test and specialty brews. The estate is not generally accessible except during special events.
Lunch was my next priority, so I took a detour North to the village of Great Longstone.
The Crispin was the first pub I came to. The open fireplace was a welcoming place to warm up and dry out a bit. There were no menus here — just a giant chalkboard with the variety of pub offerings. I had a nice stew of some kind accompanied by a pint of Unicorn — a satisfying cask bitter from Robinson’s Brewery in nearby Stockport.
Following the lunch stop, I crossed back over the Monsal Trail at the station and headed south into the countryside to look for the Peak Ales brewery.
Peak Ales Brewery
I found the Peak Ales brewery in an industrial strip near Ashford on the Water where they occupy several bays. Peak runs a twenty barrel brewhouse here producing a range of traditional cask ale styles. There is no taproom so sampling the product would wait until I made it to Bakewell. A friendly brewer named Michael gave me the cook’s tour of the place. He told me that Peak Ales prides themselves on being a steady and consistent brewer of quality, traditional style ales — both cask and bottled.An unusual side business that Michael said they are involved in is what they call “bespoke labeling.” This involves custom naming and labeling of a variety of their standard range of beers. A customer provides an image file and the name they want to label their order and Peak produces 12 bottle cases of custom-labeled beers for about £39 each. He told me these have been a popular novelty item for weddings and other events.After a short hike back to the Monsal Trail, I was back on route and on my way to try one of those Peak Ales at a pub in Bakewell.This is limestone country and there are a variety of heritage attractions of interest in the Monsal Valley including abandoned lime kilns and historic water powered cotton mills that once supplied the lace-making industry.
Thornbridge Brewery is arguably what I would call the “big dog” brewery in the region. Throughout my time in Sheffield and the southern part of the Peak District, they were typically the first brewery mentioned when I told people I was checking out hikes and beers in the area. Thornbridge is a good sized operation and runs a string of traditional pubs throughout the area where they distribute their products. One of these is even in Holland. Their beers are distributed worldwide — a quick check for their flagship brew, Jaipur IPA, shows I can get it in a broad variety of locations in the eastern USA and as close as Austin in the west.
A short walk from the town center along Buxton Road brings you to an industrial park that Thornbridge occupies a big piece of. A main building houses a taproom and the brewing and packaging operations. A second smaller building that was part of the tour houses racks of wooden barrels aging beers. Brewer Ben Wood took us on a tour through the impressive operation.
We were treated to a sample of Serpent, a bourbon barrel aged Belgian-style golden ale. Serpent is a collaboration with Brooklyn Brewery in the USA. The Thornbridge follks were quite excited to share it. (video about Serpent)Thornbridge produces cask, keg, and bottled beers. Sales manager Stacey Webster serves up beers in the tasting room.