The Train’s Final Stop: Monsal Head

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The Monsal Head Hotel overlooks the Monsal Dale and the Monsal Dale Viaduct. In England, the valleys between the many hills are refered to as dales. Our hotel was perfectly placed at the very top of the hill with a view of the picturesque dale below. I couldn’t imagine a better place to end our UK roadtrip.

The area used to be on the main train route from Manchester to London but the route is no longer operating. This is now primarily a destination for hikers and part of the Peaks District National Park.

We arrived just before noon but our room wouldn’t be ready until around 3pm. This is a small but busy inn with only 15 rooms.  We hadn’t eaten lunch (or even had tea) so we went to the attached Stables Pub for a bite to eat. The inn used to feed and house the railway staff and passengers on their trips through. The Stables Bar was actually the stable used for horses. The horses pulled carriages of people from the bottom of the dale up to the top of the hill where the inn is located. Walking into the Stables Pub you immediately notice the uneven floor and stone drain running through the center, presumably very useful for washing out the stalls. Upon closer inspection I noticed that the wooden partitions between the dining booths were actually the former horse stalls.

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We enjoyed tea on the patio before ordering cheese burgers and jacket (baked) potatoes for lunch. At some point the lovely sunshine turned to a brief rain and all of the hikers and day-trippers enjoying the outdoors began to flood into the tiny pub to escape the rain. There were only so many tables to go round so we ended up sharing a table with two local women named Evon and Debra. They told us a bit about the area and we told them a bit about Texas. Neither had ever been to the states. We also talked about New Zealand, of all places. Debra had traveled there in a caravan (camper) many years ago. I was curious to know more about the stone fences we had seen all over the English countryside. They told me that many are as old as they look but require constant maintenance. However, some are actually new but built to match the historic style. They may look like a simple stack of rocks but require enormous skill to do right. There are even classes offered locally to landowners looking to learn the old ways!

Evon and Debra left once the rain cleared and continued their hike along the dale. We ordered two pints and headed back outdoors to enjoy the sunshine after the rain.

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By the time we had finished our beers (and ice cream cones), our room was ready. We were given room #1 and I can’t recommend it enough. We had a large bay window with a perfect view of the dale below. I spent many hours over the next few days sitting in front of that window, sipping tea and writing in my journal.

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With our bags stored in the room, we switched into our hiking shoes and made our way down to the trail head. The main trail leaves right from the hotel parking lot. Well, technically the trail begins about four miles away, in a different town, and continues for another four miles beyond Monsal Head, but we were only planning a short hike (another rain shower was imminent). Part of what makes Monsal Head so popular is its location at the halfway point along a gorgeous hiking route. You can hike the first half and stop for a reviving lunch before finishing out the day.

We managed to make it down to the viaduct and old railroad tunnel before the next bout of rain came. It was simply lovely and I can see why so many hikers flock to this area.

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We returned to the Stables Pub for dinner. Monsal Head is somewhat rural and not part of a larger town. This probably adds to the popularity of the pub. It’s literally the only place around and the food and atmosphere are wonderful. For dinner I had the sunday roast, which included roast beef, potatoes, carrots, mixed vegetables, all covered in brown gravy. On top was a Yorkshire pudding, which is like a cross between a dinner roll and a puff pastry. They are delightful and the perfect vessel to soak up extra gravy. Brandon ordered the fish and chips but I could tell he had order envy.

For dessert Brandon had honeycomb ice cream and I had the nightly special — a homemade shortbread cookie topped with lemon curd, blackberry jam gelatin, greek yogurt, and berry sorbet. Amazing!

Right after our desserts were delivered a man came out of the kitchen and triumphantly ordered a beer. I could tell he was watching us eat and thought he might be the chef. We were the last diners of the evening. He was in fact the chef, but he told us he was set to retire in five days and planned to leave immediately for Thailand followed by Australia. He was a brash and funny man and very pleased to know that we enjoyed his cooking.

The dale was beautiful at sunset. We watched from our window as the fog settled over the dimming valley.

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We weren’t surprised to wake up to rain the next morning. After all, this is England. However, this was a heavier rain than usual and was supposed to continue through most of the day. It put a bit of a damper on our plans to go hiking through the dale so we settled on a driving tour instead. Our plan was to take the “un-route” and drive aimlessly through the countryside until we found something that looked interesting. Our only real goal was to make our way back to Buxton for dinner. Our Thai lunch there was so good that it deserved a repeat. Also, we were pretty near burnt out on British pub fare.

Regarding the heavy and sometimes bland English food, I read a very interesting explanation while staying at Monsal Head that made a lot of sense — The English walk a lot, both as a hobby and as a form of transportation. Their climate is also generally cold and wet. Arriving at a pub after a long cold walk is a welcome respite. The food is therefore intended to nourish and revive the cold, tired traveler. Hence, the heavy use of potatoes, pastry, beef, and gravy. They are also heavily reliant on foods that are easily produced here, i.e., meats, cheese, dairy, root vegetables, etc. And of course, fish. This is an island after all. Imagine Gandolf and Frodo arriving at the Prancing Pony, cold, tired, and wet. They don’t want a fancy salad. They want bread, cheese, meat, and ale.

Regarding the beer, it follows much the same concept. The beer here is warmer, flatter, and has less alcohol. It is essentially liquid bread meant to revive the tired traveler. A little bit of booze to warm you up, some liquid calories, but without the excess carbonation that might make you too full to continue your journey.

After much meandering we ended up in the nearby town of Bakewell. Bakewell is known for a particular type of dessert — the Bakewell Pudding. The pudding was supposedly invented in the 1800s when a baker misread the recipe. It is basically a pie crust filled with a rich almond custard, then served with more custard and thick cold cream. It was amazing but very rich. We ordered one to share and barely ate half of it. I highly recommend giving it a try, though I’m certain each serving contains at least a thousand calories!

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After such a decadent treat we got back into the car where we could pop the top buttons on our trousers without judgment. All of the heavy English food was surely taking a toll on our waistlines. However, I am a firm believer that one should never diet while traveling. Trying all of the local delights is part of what makes traveling fun. I do, however, recommend packing your largest pants.

While meandering through the country roads surrounding Bakewell we soon spotted a picturesque grove of trees up on a hilltop. We drove towards them until we came upon the backside of the grove and spotted an open gate. There was no sign for a public footpath and I could see someone had been collecting compost and other farm materials in the field, so I am quite sure this was private property. But I couldn’t resist. The hill was very steep and the grass very wet. I was glad to be wearing my waterproof hiking boots. Brandon stayed in the car.

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At the top of the hill I found the most magical grove of trees, completely surrounded by purple wildflowers. There was also a rope swing and a wonderful view of Bakewell below.

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Many of the trees had been carved with names and initials from others who had found this place, making me feel less guilty about trespassing. Unfortunately, I had left my own knife in the car and had nothing with which to leave my mark. I suspect this hill is a bit of a local “lovers lane” and a popular place to bring your date for a romantic picnic or sunset watch. Maybe the farmer even leaves the gate open for this very reason.

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Without Brandon with me, I resorted to a makeshift tripod made from my coat and a tree stump so that I could take a few shots of myself on the rope swing.

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We continued driving though more country roads, turning whenever we felt the urge. We passed through tiny towns and passed through public gates through the sheep fields. We even tried to drive down an old public dirt road but found it to be so rutted that our tiny Vauxhall might not make it without getting stuck. We did the responsible thing and turned back but Brandon still says we should have kept going. Apparently, getting our tiny rental car stuck in a muddy rut would have made for an excellent story.  He’s probably right.

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Before it got dark we finally turned on the GPS so that we could figure out where we were and make our way to Buxton for dinner at Simply Thai. Studying the map, we had apparently driven a funky little circle around the Peaks District and despite hours of wandering were only a few miles from where we started. Which, coincidentally, is a pretty good summary of what a UK road trip is like. There is so much to see in such a small area of land. We spent ten days driving around England and covered around 900 miles, yet were still only a few hours drive from the Heathrow Airport where we had originally landed.

The heavy rains continued through the next day. We enjoyed a quiet and uneventful day at the Monsal Head Hotel. It was the last day of our UK roadtrip. The trip had been so lovely, so perfect that we just didn’t feel the need to try to force one more adventure out of it. Sitting together by our bay window, overlooking Monsal Dale through the rain, that was all we needed.

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2 thoughts on “The Train’s Final Stop: Monsal Head

  1. I has been 29 years since I last visited the Monsal Head Hotel. I am very glad it is still as I remember. It has been great to read about your tour. England might be a little wet sometimes, but is is thankfully free of hurricanes. LOL

    Like

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