Category Archives: Waterways & Railways across the Derbyshire Peak

Change at Matlock

Matlock Railway Station, Derbyshire

One of my very first adult-education lecturing jobs was at Tawney House Adult Education Centre, Matlock, in 1972.

At the time I was teaching in a Nottingham grammar school, so my weekly trips after a day in school began with a diesel railcar journey to Matlock station, by then the stub end of a singled branch line that had once been the Midland Railway main line from Derby to Manchester.

A persistent local rumour said that the town wouldn’t have retained this vestigial rail link had not Alderman Charles White secured the former Smedley’s Hydro as a county hall for Derbyshire in 1955.

In the mid-1970s Peak Rail [] began to implement a scheme to restore the entire missing railway between Matlock and Buxton as a heritage line with scope to carry heavy freight through and out of the Peak District National Park.

In the years since, that scheme has been repeatedly revised.  The current railway runs from Matlock to just south of Rowsley, and its next development phase envisages extending north to Bakewell.

When in 1991 the Peak Rail services reached Matlock, they were obliged to terminate at the boundary with Network Rail, and a temporary station was constructed, a quarter of a mile north of the historic station, and named Matlock Riverside.

Eventually, in 2008, following completion of the Matlock A6 road bypass and the construction of a Sainsbury’s store in the former Cawdor Quarry, Peak Rail negotiated a fifty-year lease into platform 2, the former down platform of Matlock Station, so that it’s now possible to travel by National Rail to Matlock from afar, cross the footbridge and continue with Peak Rail north to Rowsley South.

The route along the wide Derwent valley is attractive, but nowhere near as spectacular as the old main line further north and west which is now the Monsal Trail. Peak Rail specialises in on-train catering [], and the extensive former marshalling yard at Rowsley contains a number of interesting preservation projects, including the Heritage Shunters Trust – an entertaining memorial to one of the cheerfully loopy episodes in the history of British Railways.

Trains to Edale

View from Edale Station towards Cowburn Tunnel, Derbyshire

Edale is the last station for stopping westbound trains from Sheffield to Stockport and Manchester before the line plunges into Cowburn Tunnel (3,702 yards).

It serves the village of Edale (population 353) and is handy for walkers setting off on the Pennine Way.

The Hope Valley Line is notable, and rare among intercity railways in the North, because all its original stations remain open to passengers, and an hourly stopping service runs in between non-stop trains serving Norwich, Nottingham and Liverpool via Sheffield.

Edale station itself offers only basic facilities.  British Rail replaced the original timber buildings with bus shelters, and eventually provided automatic ticket machines and digital information displays.

The Dore & Chinley Railway was opened in 1894 by the Midland Railway, providing a cross-country link between Sheffield and Manchester.  It gained additional traffic when G & T Earle opened their cement works, served by a private branch railway, at Hope in 1929.

The cement works is an ambivalent factor in the economy of the Peak District National Park:  it’s ugly and dirty, yet it provides jobs for the local community, and its rail connection helped to save the line in the 1960s.

Though the Woodhead route between Sheffield and Manchester via Penistone had been modernised and electrified after the Second World War, it had less social value as a passenger route, and after its coal traffic declined it closed in 1981.

The Hope Valley route offers an attractive ride through some of Derbyshire’s finest scenery, even though a quarter of the mileage is in tunnel.

Each of its stations provides access to interesting tourist sites and attractive walking country.

Hope station is isolated, but has bus services to Bradwell and CastletonBamford is within walking distance of Ladybower Reservoir and the Upper Derwent dams;  Hathersage has an open-air swimming pool and the David Mellor Factory, and Grindleford boasts the best fry-up for miles around – as long as you don’t ask for mushrooms.

In the days of steam traction and non-corridor slam-door carriages, the last train back to Sheffield was nicknamed the “Passion Special”, apparently because the length of Totley Tunnel (6,230 yards) provided opportunities not commonly found in the decades before the Swinging Sixties.

In contrast, latter-day Sprinter units are passion killers.

The above image is available as a greetings card, price £2.95 for one or £11.95 for a pack of five, or as a notelet to order. For the entire range of Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times greetings cards, please click here.

End of the line: Rowsley

Rowsley Old Station, Derbyshire (1978)

Rowsley Old Station, Derbyshire (1978)

The Manchester, Buxton, Matlock & Midland Junction Railway, the little railway with the long name, was an ambitious project to connect the East Midlands with Lancashire, starting at a junction with the North Midland Railway at a place called Toadhole which the railway renamed Ambergate.

The MBM&MR opened in 1849 through Cromford and Matlock as far north as Rowsley, where the Duke of Devonshire’s Chatsworth estate bounds the Duke of Rutland’s Haddon estate.

The intention, had there been sufficient capital, was to continue up the Derwent Valley, tunnelling beneath Chatsworth Park, towards Baslow, Edale or Castleton and Chinley to Cheadle.

The 6th “Bachelor” Duke of Devonshire was in favour of this route.  The company chairman was the Duke’s cousin, Lord George Henry Cavendish, and he was succeeded in 1854 by the Duke’s agent, Sir Joseph Paxton.  (Paxton’s original sketch for the Crystal Palace was in fact drawn on a sheet of MBM&MR blotting paper during a directors’ meeting at Derby.)

The 6th Duke died in 1858, and his successor had no intention of letting a railway through Chatsworth.

As it happened, the 5th Duke of Rutland died in 1857, and his successor was prepared to allow the Midland Railway to build a cut-and-cover tunnel at the back of Haddon Hall which was at the time practically derelict.

The Midland line to Manchester consequently went up the Wye Valley, through Monsal and Miller’s Dales on its way to Chinley.

And the original Rowsley station, designed by Sir Joseph Paxton, was left at the dead end of an unbuilt main line, made redundant by a new Rowsley station a few hundred yards away.

The old building survived as the goods office for sidings known as ‘The Old Yard’, and was the very last rail facility to close in Rowsley in July 1968.

After the railway closed the Old Yard was occupied by a construction company, and in 1999 the old station became a feature of the Peak Village shopping outlet:

The original MBM&MR track is now operated from Matlock to just short of Rowsley by PeakRail, with the ultimate intention of extending the heritage railway through Haddon to Bakewell and beyond.

Bull Bridge Aqueduct

Bull Bridge Aqueduct, Cromford Canal, Derbyshire (1967)

Bull Bridge Aqueduct, Cromford Canal, Derbyshire (1967)

My journeys to school in the early 1960s were punctuated by a pause on the road through Bull Bridge, near Ambergate in Derbyshire, for the traffic lights that controlled the tight gothic arch of Bull Bridge Aqueduct on the Cromford Canal.

The canal had not been used since before the Second World War and the arch was impossible for any vehicle larger than a single-deck bus.

The A610 road was already a significant link in the 1960s, and would become more important when the Ripley by-pass was opened in 1977.

It was inevitable, therefore, that Jessop and Outram’s tiny road-arch had to go.  It was demolished in 1968 – shortly followed by the adjacent iron-trough aqueduct that had been inserted into the canal when George Stephenson drove the North Midland Railway through in 1839.

Images of the canal at Bull Bridge can be found at

In the 1960s no-one in their wildest dreams would have expected the Cromford Canal to be restored, but the Friends of the Cromford Canal plan to return the whole canal to navigation, however long it takes, and so one day an elegant new aqueduct will span the road and the railway, rather like the New Semington Aqueduct (2004) on the Kennet and Avon Canal:

The shortest way, or the prettiest

L&NWR Station, Buxton, Derbyshire

L&NWR Station, Buxton, Derbyshire

At one time, you had a choice of rail routes to travel between Buxton and Manchester.

As a result of farcical Victorian competition, there were two Buxton stations, served by two companies, running between Buxton and Manchester by completely different routes.

The London & North Western service, which survives, took a reasonably obvious way over the hills to Whaley Bridge and Hazel Grove, where it joined the main line through Stockport to Manchester.

The Midland route, which was a by-product of that company’s desperate dash to find an independent route from Derby to Manchester, dived through deep Derbyshire limestone dales and a lengthy, 1½-mile long tunnel at Dove Holes, to link with the Cheshire Lines into Manchester Central.

Though the Midland line passenger service closed in 1967, almost all of the track is still in place for use by mineral trains.  Only the approach tracks into Buxton and the Midland station have gone, replaced by the town’s inner relief road.

Present-day trains run into the North Western platforms, and though the train-shed roof has been demolished, the distinctive gable with its Crystal Palace fanlight window remains.  The adjacent Midland station was a mirror-image of this.

The shape of the window hints at the involvement of Sir Joseph Paxton, the 6th Duke of Devonshire’s head gardener and a Midland Railway director.  It seems that the Duke, as principal landowner, insisted that the two stations should sit harmoniously side-by-side, and Paxton was instructed to advise the architect, John Smith.

Indeed, when the two companies opened on May 30th 1863 it seems that the inaugural dinners were scheduled to begin an hour apart.  Presumably, Paxton turned up to both, and got two starters and only one pudding.

A full and well-illustrated account of the Buxton Midland station can be found at

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Derbyshire-based Taking the Waters:  the history of spas & hydros tour, with text, photographs and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

2½ miles and six locks to start with

Ironville Locks, Cromford Canal, Derbyshire (1978)

Ironville Locks, Cromford Canal, Derbyshire (1978)

My blog-article about the Cromford Canal caught the attention of Hugh Potter, the Archivist of the Friends of the Cromford Canal, partly because of the 1963 image of the west portal of the Butterley Tunnel, which is no longer recognisable because of the construction of the A61 Ripley by-pass.

Hugh asked what other images I had from that period, and very kindly rescanned them for me to a higher resolution than my scanner can achieve.  They’re now displayed on the Friends’ website at

The Friends exists to work towards the entire restoration of the Cromford Canal, including its Pinxton and Lea Wood branches.  This is clearly the work of a generation, at least.

When I pottered around the canal in the 1960s it was virtually intact.  In the time it took me to go through secondary school and university, a great bite was taken out of it at Ambergate to build a gas-processing plant, and other stretches were lost to road improvements and opencast coal working.  The current state of the entire line can be seen at

At the moment, only six hundred yards of the Cromford Canal are accessible from the inland-waterways system:  above the first lock at Langley Mill, a stretch exists as moorings for boats that have travelled up the Erewash Canal.

Beyond that, the course of the canal was obliterated by opencast mining in the 1960s:  six locks and 2½ miles of waterway must be completely rebuilt to connect with the surviving flight of locks to Ironville.

Here, well-intentioned but over-enthusiastic flood prevention works have wrecked the top locks which were, until 1985, virtually intact, though the gates had been removed and concrete cills installed to carry overflow.

What would have been a restoration will now become a major rebuilding.  Now is not the time to expect enormous financial support from outside bodies, but the Friends quietly beaver away reversing the decay and encroachments of nature:

It’s the work of volunteers and their determination, for which ‘heroic’ is not too strong an adjective, that kickstarts the recovery of amenities which shouldn’t have been squandered in the first place.

One day, boats will sail again up to Ironville and to Pinxton, and in time through the Butterley Tunnel and on to Cromford.

It worked on the Rochdale and Huddersfield Narrow Canals, and it’s happening on the Chesterfield.

It’s only a matter of time – and timing.

The Flute

Monsal Dale Viaduct & Headstones Tunnel, Derbyshire (1970)

Monsal Dale Viaduct & Headstones Tunnel, Derbyshire (1970)

My friend Richard is a serious walker.  He doesn’t think twice about twenty-five miles in a day, and goes walking with people who’ll tackle the West Highland Way (94 miles) carrying their own rucksacks.

So a walk along the Derbyshire Monsal Trail [see Changing trains in the middle of nowhere: Miller’s Dale Station] counts as a gentle stroll.  This is the former railway line between Derby and Manchester that has so many tunnels the railwaymen called it “the flute”.

Richard told me that as he walked across Monsal Dale Viaduct on a hot day in a T-shirt recently he was suddenly confronted with a blast of cold air.

This turned out to be the draught from Headstones Tunnel, which for years has been bricked up with a locked steel door for inspection parties.  Now the tunnel mouth is open again, and work proceeds to make it accessible to walkers, complete with lighting.

This welcome development is flagged on the Peak District National Park website:

One might ask, what happened to the proposal to reinstate the railway line from Matlock to Buxton, which at present stops at the PeakRail terminus at Rowsley [see Rails across the Peak].  The most probable answer is not that there’s a bridge missing across the A6 road at Rowsley, but that there’s a problem a little further west.

UPDATE:  Richard told me (riding through another railway tunnel on a train, on our way to a Friday night at Anoki [see Cosy Curry]) that the Monsal Trail tunnels are now open:

Slow boat to Cromford

Cromford Canal, Butterley Tunnel west portal (1963)

Cromford Canal, Butterley Tunnel west portal (1963)

The history of inland waterways in Britain has gained a fresh chapter within the past generation.  When the author Tom Rolt (1910-1974) struggled to navigate silted and derelict waterways before and after the Second World War in his narrow boat Cressy it seemed inevitable that water transport had at best a minimal place in the future economy.

Not least through the campaigning energy of Rolt and his quarrelsome colleagues who founded the Inland Waterways Association, political momentum built up, first to save barely navigable waterways from destruction and ultimately to resuscitate canals that were thought irretrievably lost – among them, the Rochdale, the Huddersfield Narrow, the Chesterfield, the Hereford & Worcester, the Lancaster, the Manchester, Bolton & Bury and the Montgomery.  Now canals that were proposed over two centuries ago and never built, such as the link between the Sheffield and Chesterfield Canals, are seriously discussed:  Rother Link – Wikipedia.

There is clearly much more to this than air-headed enthusiasm.  The growth of leisure boating (of which Tom Rolt was a famous pioneer), the real-estate possibilities of waterside property and the recognition that waterways are an amenity not an eyesore have led to an environmental revolution.

My first personal experience of inland waterways was exploring the Cromford Canal in Derbyshire in the early 1960s, just as its course was repeatedly broken up by mining subsidence, opencasting, road upgrading and industrial development.

Fifty years later, the upper five miles from Ambergate to Cromford is now a Site of Special Scientific Interest [SSSI] while the bottom three miles from Ironville to Langley Mill has been completely obliterated by opencast mining.  In between, the obstructions include industrial installations, at least one bungalow and a major trunk road.

Repeated collapses within the Butterley Tunnel put paid to through traffic as far back as 1900 and provided easy justification for abandoning this particularly scenic waterway.  In fact, now that coal mining has ceased in the area, the tunnel appears to be stable, and an intrepid canoeist, Robin Witter, surveyed a substantial length of it in 1979:  Butterley Tunnel | Friends of the Cromford Canal.  Tina Cordon made a more extensive exploration from both ends of the tunnel in October-November 2006:  Microsoft Word – Butterley Tunnel Survey Edited.doc (

It’s no longer facile to suggest the restoration of long-vanished canals.  There are now sufficient examples of resurrected waterways to provide economic and amenity arguments for schemes that in Rolt’s time seemed utterly impractical.

In each case, it won’t happen quickly, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

For more information see the website of the Waterway Recovery Group –

Risk of grounding

Ecclesbourne Valley Railway, Derbyshire

Ecclesbourne Valley Railway, Derbyshire

One of the peculiar attributes of the Cromford & High Peak Railway was that it provided water-supply, not only for its own engines but also for adjacent farms and quarries on the high limestone hills that it traversed.

The water was carried along the line in trains of reused locomotive tenders which were filled from a spring at High Peak Wharf.  One of these tenders was rescued when the line closed in 1967 and ultimately ended up in the reserve collection of the National Railway Museum.

This fascinating but unspectacular piece of railway archaeology would hardly attract attention in the main museum at York, and has been loaned to the Ecclesbourne Valley Railway [] in Derbyshire, where it’s locally relevant.  There it stands, in a siding, labelled “Cromford” as you’d expect.

Apparently, this is incorrect.  Someone at the Middleton Top Visitor Centre [], which is beside the actual trackbed of the C&HPR, has interviewed the last surviving engine-driver, who is adamant the tender at Wirksworth couldn’t possibly have got up the cable-hauled Middleton Incline.

It has six wheels.  All the tenders based at Cromford had four wheels:  indeed, the six-wheeled versions had their middle wheels removed precisely so they could breast the top of the inclines.

The tender now at Wirksworth must have come from the other end of the line.  Perhaps it should say “Parsley Hay” on the side.

Does this matter?  Certainly not to 99.9% of the EVR’s visitors.  But it shows that to make historical and archaeological facts as accurate as possible, it’s important to listen to living witnesses.  Oral history matters, even if it’s as prone to misinterpretation as written or moving-image evidence.

Shunter hunters

Peak Rail, Rowsley, Derbyshire:  British Railways D2284

Peak Rail, Rowsley, Derbyshire: British Railways D2284

Wandering round the Peak Rail site at Rowsley South in Derbyshire, I came across a gentleman in a shed surrounded by more 1960s and 1970s heavy diesel shunting locomotives than you could shake a stick at.

Peak Rail provides a home and facilities for a number of specialist rail-preservation societies, and I was intrigued by the work of the Heritage Shunters Trust [], who conserve and commemorate an extraordinary episode in the non-development of British Railways.

When the Attlee government nationalised the railways in 1948, the initial policy was to run the railways on steam and coal-fired electricity to make best use of the British coal industry.  Only later did the cheapness of imported oil become economically irresistible.

After British Railways decided in 1955 to phase out steam (having built over 3,500 locomotives since 1948, 999 of them to brand-new designs) there was a rush to obtain sufficient diesel locomotives on a one-for-one replacement basis.  In particular, small, heavy-duty steam shunters were replaced by a great variety of diesel equivalents, some to designs which had not been fully tried and tested.

This policy ignored the fact that single-wagon loads of freight were diminishing, as road transport became more efficient and cost-effective.  By the mid-1960s increasing amounts of rail freight were moving in train-loads not wagon-loads and there was less and less need for shunting locomotives.

This huge, diverse fleet proved to have been a waste of money, and not all of them were capable of doing the job they were intended for.  As pieces of engineering history, however, the different designs are fascinating.

There are over twenty of these engines at Rowsley, some fully restored, others awaiting attention.  I asked my guide what the display policy was – is it an art gallery of locomotive design, or do the workable engines have a practical function?  There is, after all, not much more shunting to do at Rowsley than there was on British Railways after the 1960s.

The major annual jamboree when the working shunters get an outing used to be the Shunter Hunter weekend when the Trust took over the Peak Rail line and worked all the passenger services.  This put up to ten shunting locomotives on the line.

As a means of raising funds to help volunteers preserve the engineering heritage it was a worthwhile enterprise.  And it was entertaining into the bargain.

The Shunter Hunter weekend has now become part of Peak Rail’s Diesel Weekend: