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The Charm of the Churnet

Trace the route of an old canal and railway to the fascinating industrial village of Oakamoor.


Minimum time 2h30

Distance 8.5 miles (13.7km)

Difficulty Easy

Suggested map  OS Explorer 259 Derby

Start/finish  Denstone, grid ref SK 100410

Trails/tracks  old railway and back lanes

Landscape  wooded river valley and old villages

Public toilets  none on route

Tourist information  Ashbourne, tel 01335 343666

Bike hire  none near by

Recommended pub The Bull's Head, High Street, Alton, see Directions to the pub, page 67


© Automobile Association 2015. © Crown Copyright Licence number 100021153

Getting to the start

Denstone is on the B5032 about half-way between Cheadle and Ashbourne. In the village follow the signs for Denstone College and park at the village hall or on the roadside near by

1 The route follows the trackbed of the former Churnet Valley Railway which closed in 1965. It starts at a gateway just beyond the village petrol station. Join the old line here, immediately passing between the old platforms. Once past these, the way becomes a grassy trail, with just a narrow strip of compacted gravel offering a surfaced route through the greensward. This is true of the route for the first couple of miles as it forges a way remote from any road or building. At one point it crosses the River Churnet and comes close to a muddy, overgrown cut, the first sign of the old canal that the railway replaced in the 1840s. The narrow track widens here and there, eventually becoming more graded as it approaches the village of Alton.

2 Keep an eye out for imposing Alton Castle. This is Victorian, built on the site of an original Norman castle by the 16th Earl of Shrewsbury and mimics some of the grandiose castles that top crags and hilltops along the Rhine gorge in central Europe. This route doesn't touch the village itself, but sweeps past the stunning old North Staffordshire Railway (NSR) station, now a private dwelling.

3 Passing beneath an overbridge, the trackbed runs below sandstone cliffs and beside further marshy stretches of the old canal. The gorge-like quality of the Churnet Valley is best appreciated here before the old line reaches the site of the former station at Oakamoor. Keep left of the old platforms here to join an access road that brings the route to the outskirts of the village at the old tunnel keeper's cottage, another striking NSR building. Turn right for the short distance to the village car park. It's worth securing your cycles here and following the heritage trail around this fascinating settlement with its surprising history.

4 From the car park here turn left along the lane which, beyond a left fork to join Red Road, rises gradually high above the river, then offers an easy passage along this quiet by-road to reach the Rambler's Retreat tea rooms and restaurant, a very popular stop for cyclists and walkers for many years. It's at the edge of the Dimmingsdale Nature Reserve, renowned for wild birds and woodland flowers.

5 You have a choice here. To regain the old railway take the gate opposite the car park entrance, cross the Lord's Bridge over the river and then the old railway bridge. Immediately left, walk your bike down to the trackbed and turn left beneath the bridge to return to Denstone. Alternatively, remain on Red Road, tracing this along the foot of the gorge to reach the outskirts of Alton. Keep left to pass the Alton Bridge Hotel.

6 At the main road turn left and cross the river. At the sharp left bend, carefully cross to the right and take the potholed road beside an old factory to find a rough car park and the railway. Keep ahead to return to Denstone.

Here and there along the way are the scant remains of the former Uttoxeter branch of the Caldon Canal. This 13-mile (20.9km) stretch was built during the early 19th century, running from the canal terminus at the vast limestone works at Froghall through to the market town of Uttoxeter, thereby connecting the town to the main canal network at Stoke-on-Trent. It lasted just 34 years before the North Staffordshire Railway bought out the canal company and built its new line along the Churnet Valley, filling in much of the canal to use as a trackbed.

One impetus for both the canal and railway was the industrial complex at Oakamoor. It had been the site of an iron-processing centre for centuries before the industry really found its feet in the 19th century when Thomas Patten & Co developed tinplating and later copper wire foundries here. The copper came from the Duke of Sutherland's mines at Ecton, in the Manifold Valley, and was brought the short distance across the moors by packhorses. Most famously, the copper wire used in the first transatlantic telegraph cable was drawn out here before being laid across the ocean from Isambard Kingdom Brunel's Great Eastern steamship.

Why do this bike ride?

The Churnet Valley, one of the most peaceful and unspoilt valleys in the Midlands, is dotted with a few small villages but is otherwise remote and picturesque. This easy ride links three of these villages and takes in beautiful wooded sections along the way, encountering surprising industrial heritage and scenery reminiscent of the Rhine Valley in Germany.


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