Travel: Family therapy on wheels

Cycling `en famille' along abandoned railway lines in the Peak District may sound like hard work, but it's a very enjoyable way to avoid arguments.
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The Independent Culture
IT WAS during a camping trip in Derbyshire last summer with my two older sisters, my niece, nephew and assorted partners and in-laws, when, in the hope of avoiding the almost inevitable family argument, we found ourselves planning a full day's cycling trip on a network of abandoned railway lines. Given all that proximity, riding ourselves into a state of exhaustion seemed like a canny idea.

We assembled at the cycle-hire centre in Ashbourne where the delightful staff assembled a train of five mountain bikes and two children's buggies. The trains that used to huff and puff along these tracks have been replaced by people who do much the same thing. From the look of our fellow travellers, the route is a haven for the unfit and middle-aged who attempt to demonstrate to their families that they are not ready for the sidings yet.

The buggies were sturdy contraptions that fixed to the centre of the rear wheel. Three-year-old Harriette took to hers immediately, with the wide, look-at-me grin of a princess in a carriage. Two-year-old Tom was less certain. His toddler's intuition told him that if he climbed into the strange pram-like affair he wouldn't be able to crawl around for a while. A diversionary finger of KitKat bought enough time to strap him in, and we were away.

The first leg of the journey was along the Tissington Trail, which covers 13 miles from Ashbourne to Parsley Hay in the Peak District National Park. It runs along the route of the Ashbourne to Buxton line - which opened almost exactly a century ago on 4 June 1899 - and the section was constructed at the tail end of railway building in the region. serving as a branch line, taking milk and limestone to places such as Buxton. It closed in 1963.

We pulled out of Ashbourne under swooping branches which cast a mottled shadow over the gravel path. Like the trains that used to run here, our pace could best be described as a chug. The children were remarkably good- humoured, certainly more so than I would have been had I been dragged in a cart behind a bike along a dusty track. Tom alternated between sleeping, gurgling and bawling; Harriette sang, beamed and picked wild flowers - sorry about that.

After a detour to take in an open-air lunch at the Waterloo Inn in Biggin, we rejoined the trail and continued the fractional ascent to Parsley Hay. Then it was a sharp right, to link up with the High Peak Trail which runs for 17-and-a-half miles from Buxton to Cromford.

The Cromford and High Peak Railway, whose former route this section follows, was opened in 1830 and was as commercially unsuccessful as the later Ashbourne- to-Buxton line. It was built to navigate a 1,000ft limestone plateau and was used mainly for local traffic - to run lime, coal and agricultural products out of the area and bring back supplies. For a time, passengers could travel in a carriage attached to the goods train. The final section from the brickworks to Parsley Hay closed in 1967.

After a few more miles of open fields we set off cross-country to link the two branches of the disused railway. After describing a winding arc around the Minninglow Embankment we hopped off at Loncliffe and set off for Brassington, a pretty village of Derbyshire stone with two very decent pubs, the Miners' Arms and the Gate, for those in need of sustenance. After five or so hours in the saddle, we were certainly in that category, but had promised ourselves a cream tea further on.

After Brassington it was Bradbourne before a long, free-wheeling descent - Harriette giggling all the way - towards Tissington Ford. This was followed by a long, hard push up the other side of the valley before we remounted our bikes, pedalled past a picturesque trout pond and turned a corner into the Blytonesque village of Tissington.

After tea and scones on the lawn of the Old Coach House, it was time for the final push and the few remaining miles back to Ashbourne, six- and-a-half hours after we had departed. In retrospect, our chosen route was a little ambitious. By the time we had squeaked to a halt, unstuck ourselves from the saddles and woken the children, we had cycled almost 30 miles - without a single argument.

There are six cycle-hire centres within the Peak District National Park; Ashbourne, Derwent, Parsley Hay, Waterhouses, Middleton Top and Hayfield. For information, call 07000 732529. Mountain bikes cost pounds 8 per day, cycle buggies pounds 6, child seats pounds 2 (helmets are free). All centres have cycles suitable for use by people with disabilities.