Me, England’s Peak District, and a Six-Hour Bike Ride
I take a long cycle on a late summer holiday in the glorious Peak District and discover a new attitude as well as all the incredible things the Peak District has to offer.
By Catherine McColgan
On a late summer holiday last Autumn, I went for a 6-hour cycle in the Peak District National Park. I know right, what was I thinking?!
Though my summer holidays usually involve lounging on a Mediterranean beach with family, books, and music, 2022 had to be different; only my dad and I were free for our annual vacay.
We couldn’t jet off on our usual family holiday without half of our family so we decided to change it up and followed a couple of recommendations to the Peak District instead.
‘What will we actually do there?’ I wondered.
Down the Google rabbit hole, I discovered there was plenty to explore England’s first national park, founded in 1951: Mam Tor, Thor’s Cave, Stanage Edge, Kinder Scout, and Blue John Cave were just some of the recommended sites.
555 Square Miles of Peak
With 555 square miles of Peak District on offer and only one weekend to see as much as we could, on day one of our trip, we got on our bikes for a cheap and fun overview of the area.
I created a rough cycle route (we were keen to adventure freely, rather than glued to our screens) centered around the Hope Valley and its surrounding towns, an area mentioned so often it even stood out in the online world of information excess.
With the endorsement of my dad (a regular cycler and walker) that the route was doable, we headed to our start point: Eyam (he’s not really one for taking it easy so, at this point, I probably should have checked the trip duration too!)
As well as offering the Plague Town Museum, a good hour and a half pre-cycle activity, Eyam was unexpectedly an excellent start-point for another reason: we only had to climb one peak before enjoying a long stretch of downhill road.
While I had enthusiastically signed up to cycle in the Peak District, this was supposed to be a holiday after all; I wasn’t really looking to feel the burn like in a spin class!
Despite my apprehension, as I climbed the first peak, I found it easier to push through the burn than in a gym class.
With a sprinkling of the September sun’s rays shining through the tree-covered canopy and the unexpected appearance of an occasional local landmark (Mompesson’s well in Eyam – a boundary stone for villagers during the 1666 Plague outbreak), my mind was too occupied taking in everything around me to think about giving up and walking.
Our excitement at coming across the unknown was having unexpected benefits.
Before I knew it, I saw the top of the hill and pride washed over me. Soon the unpolluted country air was blowing away any leftover fatigue from our uphill journey as we breezed downhill toward the next town, Grindleford.
Guided past the town by the River Derwent on the right side and a woodland that looked like something out of a Disney fairytale on the left, the easy, picturesque journey left us truly clear-headed.
Cycling through the next village, Hathersage, I remembered all the things I’d read that were on offer here. There was North Lees Hall (reportedly Charlotte Bronte’s inspiration for Jane Eyre’s Thornfield Hall;) St. Michael’s Church where, according to local legend, visitors can see Robin Hood’s friend Little John’s grave.
And the more modern site of the outdoor pool can be heated to 28 degrees so swimmers can bathe while taking in the beauty of the peaks in summer and winter. No wonder Hathersage is so popular.
Moving on past Bamford, Thornhill, and Aston, we traveled through Hope before arriving at Castleton, the town closest to Hope Valley’s main attraction (the Mam Tor Circular.)
We could have easily spent a few days exploring here, but our empty stomachs wanted food. Without realizing it we’d been cycling for three hours!
Replacing living by deadlines and plans with spontaneity and adventure, we’d freewheeled through time as well as the countryside.
Craving more of this natural mindfulness, after lunch we got ready to set off again. “You’re brave to be cycling up here,” a passer-by remarked.
We tilted our heads in bemusement. “Keep going and the road just goes like that,” he explained, making a vertical gesture with his hand.
‘Hmmm was I wrong to suggest taking the scenic route back to the car?’ I wondered, momentarily reverting to my apprehensive mindset, considering that my newfound athletic capabilities might be limited.
I was increasingly aware of a strong pulsating in my legs and how oddly hard and heavy they’d become (like standing on tree trunks!) “Daaaaad!” I yelled ahead (goodbye adulting for now) “Is it possible that I’ve damaged my legs from cycling too much?”
Reassured by some good ol’ no-nonsense fatherly advice that my legs wouldn’t fall off and that I don’t exercise enough, I refused his offer to bring the car around. I had already climbed a humungous hill and cycled for three hours in the morning, how hard could it be?
Arriving at Winnats Pass, a stand-out valley said to be one of the most photographed roads in the UK and the climb the passerby was talking about, I pushed the pedals optimistically, but immediately needed to use all of my muscles to keep pedaling through what felt like a brick wall.
Soon enough, even the thought of owning some Hailey Bieber-toned legs didn’t keep me going and I decided to walk. Without the stress of a missed deadline or goal failure caused by not reaching the top, I could simply enjoy the chance to take it easy up the pass before admiring the green view at the top.
Somehow we went off course speeding down the next road and needed to reroute; this gave us the chance to see Great Hucklow and Bretton, towns not on display in tourist brochures. Cycling through Great Hucklow, I didn’t even want to speak; it felt wrong to disrupt the surrounding stillness and silence.
I had never seen rolling hills like those in Bretton (I wouldn’t be surprised if the person who coined the phrase was here when they did so.) Interestingly, despite being a very different experience from lying and listening to waves crashing on a beach, our resulting zen-like peace of mind was the same.
On the Nook, the final road back to Eyam (true to its name we decided as we nearly cycled past its slit of an entrance) we were transported into a narrow tree-covered Pandora, getting to see every unique nook and cranny of the Peak District – another perk of cycling.
As the evening sun’s rays peaked through the trees, the end of the path was clear and I whooshed downhill, legs still intact (definitely just a case of INeedToExerciseMoreItis.)
After six hours of cycling, I was physically exhausted yet smiling from ear to ear. Even though the excursion was a world away from my standard holiday comforts of sun, swimming, and lounging, our cycle was the perfect detox from 9 to 5 city life.
Like any holiday, lots of the fun was simply down to getting away and exploring somewhere new, but the best bit about this holiday was something else.
Pre-trip, if someone had told me I would travel up big peaks, via nine villages and around roughly 26 miles of the English countryside, there’s no way I would have thought it was possible.
In reality of course the route was not an endurance test, but a chance to freewheel away from the routines of city life — checking off a million and one things on work to-do lists, being surrounded by five-year plans and sticking to deadlines … yup even for fun stuff (so many places make you book via an app just to go swimming now.)
And above all, it gave me the revitalized attitude I needed for any adventures waiting at home. With renewed optimism and an open mind about the road ahead, I was prepared for any peaks and troughs coming my way.
Catherine McColgan is a freelance writer who loves discovering and sharing all the exciting and wonderful things the world has to offer! To keep up with her adventures, follow her on Instagram (@Catherinemcc01)