The decision to park in the laybay just past the bridge on the Great Longstone road (Longreave Lane?) is a good one, saving us driving through Great and Little Longstone as well as allowing us to follow the walk for a greater distance. However, given PC's legendary navigational skills I consider it prudent to be there before her so she doesn't miss the spot! Whilst waiting (yes, I make it first, an uncommon occurrence) the cloudy but dry day turns damp, then proceeds to become progressively wetter and wetter. By the time PC arrives we have to haul on all the waterproofs. Then I discover, to my dismay and PC's horror, that I've forgotten the umbrella. It would have been perfect on this steady, level walk.
The thunder rumbles around us as we walk along, and the rain hammers down. I'm seriously regretting forgetting the brolly as I'm sure my waterproof coat leaks but at least it is summer (supposedly) and warmish so I doubt I'll suffer too much.
We pass the village of Great Longstone over on our right, partly obscured by the rain, then under the bridge and past the old station. We walk on and pass the stile leading to Little Longstone which we'd always had to cross in the past as from this point the trail was closed. Not any more.
As we continue the rain eases a little and we pause to watch the tractors in one of Little Longstone's fields, then are quite surprised to see them going over a bridge that we're about to go under. A little way further on and we get our first glimpse of the Headstone Tunnel with its arched, protective cage to shield it (and those entering) from rock falls.
It's quite eerie walking up to the dark, bleak tunnel. There are lights along the roof but the far end cannot be seen as it curves away along its length. Along the approach the high walls of rock have insets of masonry making it look like something out of Lord of the Rings.! Very atmospheric.
OK, I'll admit it, I find it spooky but PC is in her element, snapping away with the camera while I try to get over the creepy, cold-fingers-down-the-spine feeling whilst trying to appreciate being out of the wet. Not that it's a lot drier under the tunnel as water is drip-dripping from the ceiling and running down the walls. It's quite a lot colder here too, though it's hardly a blisteringly hot summer's day outside, and we ponder on the suitability of using the tunnel for a wine cellar.
Sound carries very well and we can hear others entering from the far end long before we see them, and no doubt they can hear us and our rambling discussions too. We stop at the mid-point where we can just about see light at both ends of the tunnel, and PC attempts to take a series of panoramic shots.
We emerge from the tunnel at the iconic Monsal Head viaduct and peer through the high railings to watch the misty haze rising from the River Wye down in the dale. It isn't raining quite so much, but we hear another rumble of thunder which heralds a heavier downpour to come so we stride out along this familiar stretch of path to seek shelter in the last remaining building standing at the old Monsal Station. Just before we reach it - and with the promised rain keeping off for now, we discover a veritable field of toadstools emerging from some very damp wood chippings. Again, PC is in her element trying for a good photo.
The windowless, doorless station shelter provides a good place in which to enjoy a nip from the secret flask. Bit of a change today (in a rush to leave this morning so it was filled with the first bottle I put my hands on) so we treat ourselves to some homemade 'Red Arrow' (my name for raspberry gin). It's a while since I've had some and I'd forgotten how good it tastes. PC and I decide to savour a few sips to help to banish the gloom.
Maybe the gin hasn't helped the rain to stop but we feel a bit brighter and more summery for it and before long we reach the second opened tunnel, the Cressbrook Tunnel. It doesn't feel as long nor as gloomy as the Headstone, and there are a few more people about even though the rain is bucketing down again. Emerging at the far side we are high up above Water-cum-Jolly Dale and enjoying a view that we've never experienced before. It's quite magical - especially so when this is where we see the orchids.
Despite the continuing rainfall it's very pleasant walking along a brand new track (to us) but we haven't gone very far before we reach Litton Tunnel which we enter like old hands. We're beginning to feel hungry and do consider stopping in the tunnel for lunch, but it isn't terribly inviting so we decide to wait. Luckily, by the time we emerge the rain has slowed down considerably and looks ready to stop. By the time we reach our usual path down to Litton Mill (which we're not following today) the rain has actually stopped so we commandeer the bench at the side of the path and prepare for lunch.
We pass on another nip from the secret flask - it is possible to have too much of a good thing - and start off with a warming coffee. It's a good one this week, made by PC and far better that my dismal mix from the week before. Then it's lunch - a rapidly consumed sandwich for PC and a heavy salad for me (old joke) - followed by the buns. I'd been spoiled for choice on the bun-run this morning and eventually settled for individual banoffee pies - shortcrust pastry, bananas, caramel and fresh cream. I'd even brought forks to eat them with, but they weren't needed, the pies went down very quickly and very well.
A slight panic mid-lunch (another ominous rumble of thunder) made PC fetch out a small, flimsy brolly with a broken handle to cover us (and our buns) while we ate. It managed to do the job, saving us from soggy pies and diluted coffee.
The rain, though heavy, doesn't last long and by the time we've finished eating and drinking it has stopped and we're free to pour the rainwater from food containers and refill the rucksacks.
We've never walked this far along the trail before so, again, we have the benefit of newness. And as we walk we look up to see a glimmer of blue sky. Does this mean that the day is actually going to turn out nice after all?
The clouds gradually shift away and the grey murk starts to lift. We pause to admire the views at Ravenstor and a couple pass us in shirt sleeves and shorts - a sure sign that the weather is improving. Further along we see a metal speaker on a stand which turns out to have information on it 'Monsal Memories' - a series of six ten minute podcasts about the Monsal Line. It's a shame we don't have time to listen to them.
A little further on we decide it's time to turn around. It would be good to travel further, the sun is shining after all, but we have the same distance to travel back and we really can't be out too late. So we retrace our steps and see, a short way back, some wild strawberries. Tiny and sweet they are too good to miss so I scramble up a slope and pick them. A real taste of summer. Further along we see a huge swathe of them and temptation is too great. We have to stop and pick. It takes no time at all to gather a large handful - still plenty behind (oh, for more time) - and it really feels good to be eating them as we walk along. How come we missed them on the way out? And how come more people haven't seen them and devoured them? It's a very short season for the wild strawberries, so we're just grateful to have been lucky enough to find them.
We're making good time, and enjoying the returning views though PC's camera isn't too happy about getting soggy and will probably need some drying out when she gets it home. As we approach Cressbrook Tunnel we're greeted by swirling mist rising from the entrance and PC jokes that maybe the trains are still running. It certainly looks as though a ghostly train is on its way, but it's merely the effects of the warm moist air meeting the colder air of the tunnel. We can feel a distinct chill as we approach and the swirling fog extends some way inside before dissipating. Eerie.
We're on a bit of a march now so although we're enjoying the sights and the sun we don't have time to loiter. There are plenty of cyclists and walkers out, an indication of the popularity and accessibility of this trail. We pass a straggling group of primary school children who look as tired as their teachers, then we heading down the slope off the trail towards our cars. It's good to be able to take off soggy coats and boots although it doesn't look as though the rain has done with the day. A few more spots fall as we drive away.