David Conn and family cycle in the Peak District.

The Peak District is particularly well served for cycle trails (see below) on the routes of former railway lines, and we've explored miles along the pretty High Peak and Tissington trails and pounded the Longdendale, which is overseen by pylons, but a good ride none the less. This time we decide to try the Manifold Trail, to the south of the national park, in the low, limestone country that Derbyshire calls dales but Staffordshire counts as moorlands. The beauty of cycling is that you can just up and go. All you need is a bike rack for the car, two adult bikes to heave on to it and secure with bungee ropes, a child's bike to stuff in the boot - along with a child seat and its wretched loose foot rest, four helmets, coats, jumpers, gloves, scarves, hats, spanners, pump, puncture-repair kit, first-aid pack, gloves, keys, phone, wallet, waterproofs, map, biscuits - and you're off. It need not take any longer than three hours to get on the road.

We drive through the White Peak's gentle hills past the stately village of Hartington to Hulme End, where the Manifold Trail starts . The unload isn't bad: get the bikes down, attach the Trail-Gator smoothly enough, fiddle with Emily's seat, clip the girls' helmets on, then enjoy a long debate about whether they really need their coats. The visitors' centre, built into the neat former train station, is worth a look; knowing a little of the history deepens appreciation of this strange charmer of a trail. Nicely self-deprecating, the information boards proclaim the verdict of a sceptical local when the railway was being built in the late 1890s: "A line starting nowhere, and ending up in the same place." The Manifold & Leek Light Railway seems to have been a narrow- gauge white elephant. It was promoted by businessmen in nearby Leek who were worried that the Manifold Valley's mostly agricultural produce would head away down the newly built Ashbourne to Buxton line. Government grants were matched by private share capital, poured in by a local silk-dyeing magnate, Sir Thomas Wardle, who sounds the very model of a Victorian business figure: a keen archaeologist and palaeontologist who also played the organ in his Methodist church. Costing 67,243, the line was not, however, one of his better bets. It never did much business, suffered badly in the 1920s and closed in 1934, after just 30 years. You might relish this history even more if you haven't got two little girls running around frantically fingering all the trinkets on sale. No, we tell them, you really don't need a keyring on a sheep.

When we finally mount our bikes, it is amazing how immediately the palaver of getting there is forgotten. Isobel is not one of life's naturally fearless letters-go, but she has taken to the Trail-Gator with unabashed gusto. She leaps eagerly on to her bike, Sarah pushes off, and they go for miles, Isobel pedalling behind, going faster than she can believe, chatting constantly, not scared at all. Emily gets the thinnest deal, stuck in the child seat. She does seem to like it, though - out in the fresh air, freewheeling along, spotting flowers, butterflies and cows. We stop regularly so she can run around. If she gets frustrated, we resort to chocolate. When that stops working, we're in trouble.

First stop is the site of the old Ecton dairy, which was the commercial mainstay of the line - 600,000 gallons chugged from the creamery to London every year. You can see where the loading platform was; there is a bench there now, dedicated to John and Peggy Hancock, "whose joy of this area they would wish to share ". Good job, with our girls clambering all over it. Back on the bikes, the trail is quite level and we keep up a decent pace. The trail pops out on to a quiet back road, then through a tall, narrow tunnel. This, it turns out, was built because Sir Thomas Wardle, for all his unquenchable enthusiasm for the railway, didn't want it spoiling his view from Swainsley Hall, his home. The engineer, Everard R Calthrop, had to bury it in a tunnel as it passed its proprietor's windows. There is an echo, so we have a shout: "Hello, Izzy!" "Hello, Mum!" Emily, perhaps a touch more familiar with The Lion King than is necessary, shouts "Hello, Simba!" but thankfully nobody else is about.

Some friends have recommended the farm seven miles along, near the end of the trail, for lunch, so we press on past Wetton Mill, an old corn mill that is now in the care of the National Trust, with cottages and a cafe. We ride past Thor's Cave, the Manifold's most famed attraction, high in the limestone spur, deciding to have a proper look on the way back. On, through the lush valley, across the old railway bridges over the rocky riverbed, round past the ragged caravan site at the old Beeston Tor station. An uphill stretch makes us happy to come upon Lee House farm, with its picnic tables on the lawn. This isn't a restaurant review so I shouldn't moan about the toastie, the baguette or the soup; it is a lovely spot, and the girls love the barn owl in its aviary, the guinea pigs in their little hutches.

The end of the line is Waterhouses, where there isn't much. You can go off the trail and round, but we meet a muscular couple who'd been stuck in mud, carrying their bikes for ages, so we head back, soon reaching Thor's Cave. High and mysterious, there is a path to scramble up, and people tell us it's well worth it for the size of the cave, in which Neolithic and Bronze Age remains have been found, and for the spectacular view from the top.

I'm afraid we don't make it; Emily doesn't quite understand the need to keep walking to a destination when there are flowers to look at, Izzy's not exactly racing up, and when it comes to bikes, Sarah and I are townies at heart - we had too many nicked when we lived in Manchester. Even in a place as civilised as the Manifold Trail, we'll bring locks next time, and haul the girls up. The ride is long enough to be proper exercise, and even though the trail is so helpfully laid out, it still takes us far enough to feel like a genuine adventure.

Izzy will go to school the following day, tell everyone she cycled 14 miles and they'll all be satisfyingly disbelieving. We can hardly believe we northern scruffs are managing to do this, cycling together, like the sunny, perfect Florida mother and child who beam from the box the Trail-Gator came in. The Manifold Trail escapes from the narrow, sheltered valley to finish back at the old station at Hulme End. It adds richness to the ride to know that the trail was an expensive mistake, an eight-and-a-quarter mile relic of Victorian ambition. What was madness for a train line is perfect for a cycle trail: from nowhere to nowhere, and back again.

 

Trail-Gators can be bought in most bicycle shops; www.trail-gator.com. Following the Peak trails High Peak Trail, 17 miles through open countryside from Cromford Canal to Hurdlow, with some steep inclines at the Cromford end. Cycle hire is seasonally available at Parsley Hay (01298 84493; closed until half term, open February 12-20 and daily March-November) and Middleton Top (01629 823204; open February 12-20, then March 5 & 6 and some weekends until Easter holidays; open daily May 28-September 11). Tissington Trail, 13 miles from Parsley Hay to Ashbourne, climbing about 500ft over the whole length. Cycle hire at Parsley Hay (as before), Ashbourne (01335 343156; open weekends in winter, weather depending; daily, March-November). Monsal Trail, runs from Bakewell Station to Blackwell Mill, near Buxton, but the best cycling stretch is from Bakewell to Longstone. Manifold Trail, 82 miles from Hulme End to Waterhouses along the Manifold River. Cycle hire at Waterhouses (Old Station Car Park, 01538 308609; Brown End Farm, 01538 308313; open Easter to October). Sett Valley Trail, 24 miles from Hayfield to New Mills. Short, flat and not the most scenic route. Cycle hire at Hayfield (01663 746222; open at Easter; weekends and bank holidays in April, May, September and October; daily June, July and August). Longdendale Trail, 12 miles from Hadfield Station to the closed old tunnel under the Woodhead Pass. Spectacular views of hills and reservoirs. Further information For cycle hire, see www.peakdistrict.org or contact the Peak District office of the National Parks Authority (01629 816552; cyclehire@peakdistrict.gov.uk). For general visitor information,see www.visitpeakdistrict.com.