One of the things I did while in England was go to Sheffield and the Peak District to go walking over the Monsal Dale Viaduct, which is officially the Headstone Viaduct but I never heard anybody call it that. I was with my oldest pal Steve, a Sheffield resident, and one of my regular, if increasingly less frequent, walking partners. My living in Hollywood and Steve having a bad back are the two primary causes.
The viaduct once formed part of the Derby to Manchester railway line, and is most famous for having been railed against by John Ruskin. He wrote, “That valley where you might expect to catch sight of Pan, Apollo and the muses, is now devastated. Now every fool in Buxton can be in Bakewell in half an hour, and every fool in Bakewell at Buxton.” Growing up in Sheffield, I never heard of John Ruskin, but I did know Monsal Dale as a place the family sometimes went on Sunday afternoons. We never did much of anything there except walk about, which I suppose was the whole point.
Ruskin might be somewhat cheered by the current state of things in Monsal Dale. The railway has gone, and although the viaduct remains, no trains run across it. It’s a reminder, a relic, and now it’s the preserve of pedestrians, cyclists, and the occasional horse rider. Our plan was to join them.
It was in fact rather harder than we imagined. We started at the car park outside the Monsal Head Hotel, and we took what seemed the obvious path, that looked like it would lead us down to the viaduct, but before long it was clear we were heading in completely the wrong direction. The viaduct was behind us and to the right, and we were walking away from it, alongside an increasingly broad stretch of water with no crossing place.
Reluctant to turn back, or admit our mistake, we kept going till we met another walker, a large, jolly young woman, and we asked her if we could get to the viaduct this way. She assured us we could, so we pressed on. After a while we wished we’d asked her exactly how we could get to the viaduct this way, since we could see it very definitely wasn’t getting any closer, and a little after that we began to wonder if perhaps the woman didn’t know what a viaduct was, especially when we came to a weir, which made the water get broader still, and cascade fiercely over its edge. Maybe the woman had thought “viaduct” was another name for weir.
Fortunately Steve knew his history and wasn’t afraid to repeat it. He recalled the Duke of Wellington at the battle of Assaye, in the Second Maratha War, in central India, in 1803. Wellington, he explained, who was still Arthur Wellesley at that time, was leading British and East India Company forces against two Maratha chiefs. Unexpectedly, and after he’d split his forces, he spotted the Marathas across the other side of the Kaitna river, at the village of Assaye.
Outnumbered and outgunned, he nevertheless decided to attack. There was a ford at that point in the river, and although it would have been possible to cross there, it would also have been suicidal. The local guides assured him there was no other crossing, but Wellington wisely didn’t believe them. He reasoned that there must be another crossing somewhere else, and sure enough one of his men scouted out another ford not so far away. Wellington took his troops there, crossed, and launched an unexpected, thoroughly bloody, but successful attack on the Maratha. We, Steve suggested, should do something similar.
Like Wellington, he reasoned there must be a crossing somewhere nearby, and sure enough we eventually found a small footbridge. Once across we could go back along the other side of the river and come to the viaduct. And we did. After a longish walk, an encounter with a herd of ominously insolent cream-coloured cattle, and a scrabble up a steep bank, we got to the top, and set foot on the place where the rails had once been, where the trains once ferried fools from Buxton to Bakewell. As we walked across, Steve told me this was the site of the worst and, he insisted, the only, dirty trick he ever played on his two sons.
Some years back, when the boys were aged six and eight, he’d brought them to walk across the viaduct, much as we were doing now. The tracks were already gone, but at that time the mouth of the Headstone Tunnel, at the far end of the viaduct, was boarded up, with a couple of solid wooden doors. It must have looked somewhat like the image above, though in fact that's the other end of the tunnel. Steve went ahead of his boys, walked up to the doors and peered through a crack into the darkness of the tunnel. Then he suddenly feigned exaggerated panic, turned to his kids and yelled something like, “Oh no, there’s a train coming. Run for it!” and began to run back across the viaduct the way they’d come.
The kids panicked for real, were absolutely terrified, and ran desperately after their dad, until at some point Steve stopped running and turned, laughing just a little guiltily. He hadn’t really meant to terrify his boys. He’d thought they were old enough and smart enough to have noticed that since there were no tracks along the viaduct there would be no trains either, but they were young and naïve, and above all they’d made the mistake of trusting their father.
Steve decided to make this a teachable moment, and pointed out to his lads that even if there had been trains and tracks it would certainly have made no sense to try to outrun the train. The sensible thing would have been to clamber up the embankment at one or other side of the tunnel mouth; although looking at it now he noted now that there wasn’t really much embankment in evidence.
He said to me later, “I thought it was a useful lesson in observation and the ways of the world. And I also told them that that would be the last time I would ever play a trick on them. Others might in the future but from that moment they could trust me implicitly.” He says he has stuck to his bargain. Next time he and his sons are out walking and he says they’re about to get run down by a train, they can absolutely believe him.
These days the Headstone tunnel is open to walkers, though rather overburdened with health and safety notices, and in we went. Below is Steve disappearing into the distance of the tunnel, creating an image suitable for the cover of his next, or in fact his first, doom drone album.