Saturday, 25 April 2009
Ruskin was wrong
Ruskin's appalled words are quoted on notices and in guidebooks all over Monsal Dale. He was shocked at the coming of the railway:
"There was a rocky valley between Buxton and Bakewell, once upon a time, divine as the vale of Tempe; you might have seen the gods there morning and evening, - Apollo and all the sweet Muses of the Light, walking in fair procession on the lawns of it, and to and fro among the pinnacles of its crags. You cared neither for gods nor grass, but for cash (which you did not know the way to get). You thought you could get it by what the Times calls 'Railroad Enterprise'. You enterprised a railroad through the valley, you blasted its rocks away, heaped thousands of tons of shale into its lovely stream. The valley is gone, and the gods with it; and now, every fool in Buxton can be at Bakewell in half-an-hour, and every fool in Bakewell at Buxton; which you think a lucrative process of exchange, you Fools everywhere!"
Now the main railway line is closed and regretted, though there is a steam railway offering recreational trips from Matlock (I haven't travelled in it for years.) If I want to reach the Peak District, I need the Transpeak bus which not only connects Buxton to Bakewell but Nottingham to Manchester. I don't expect Ruskin would approve of that either - and I find tarmac roads with traffic jams far less pleasant than rails and steam trains. For me they have the magic of antiquity.
When I think about it, I realise that the building of the railway in the Peak District must have created even more horror than today's extra runways and nuclear power stations. But Ruskin's account of the Peak District, which sees it as an untouched playground of the gods, misses an important aspect of the landscape.
When Ruskin wrote, the Peak District had been an industrial district for centuries. Before the railways there were canals and mills and mines. Land was ordered for agriculture and grazing; streams were diverted, woods planted and cut down, dry stone walls built. Nature was placed under strict control. The first tourists who saw the caverns saw the work of generations of miners, who hacked and scooped stony pathways and caves. Gradually the nineteenth century drew the inhabitants of the Peaks away from its green fields, hills and rivers to the manufacturing towns. But they returned at weekends to walk the paths they had made on familiar slopes and to clamber on the forbidden bleakness of Kinder Scout.
The walkers still take the bus towards Monsal. Last Saturday, my daughter decided to come with me. We took the bus to Ashford-in-the-Water, then climbed the hill to Monsal Head where we stopped for a pub lunch. Then we descended into Monsal Dale and the viaduct, which had looked so small from the heights, loomed above us. It seemed as much a part of the scene as the hills. One day I'll hire a bike and cycle on the viaduct - it's part of the Monsal Trail which offers a fairly flat route for pedestrians and cyclists who would otherwise be unable to explore the valley.
Our six-mile route was tougher. We balanced on rocks in a stream and scrambled through steep woodland. We came out into sunny fields and walked by rivers, canals and mills. Some walkers seemed surprised by my daughter's outfit as though her Barbie-pink university hoodie and matching pink-soled trainers were unsuitable in serious walking territory. But she made good process and was faster than me - and not just because I stopped every few minutes to take another photo.
Eventually grandeur gave way to cosy quaintness as we returned to Ashford to wait for the bus.
I keep looking at the photos from the walk and recalling the day as an encounter with nature and remoteness. But I depended on the bus to get me to Ashford and the focus of the most splendid views in Monsal Dale was the railway viaduct Ruskin so detested.