Category Archives: Life-enhancing experiences

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 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.

Home of Blue John

Peak Cavern, Castleton, Derbyshire

The bleak, remote north-west of Derbyshire was in medieval times the Forest of High Peak, a royal preserve for deer, not much blessed with trees, but valuable for its minerals, particularly lead.

It was guarded by Peveril Castle, established by William the Conqueror’s favourite, William Peveril (c1040-c1115), though the earliest surviving structure is the keep erected in 1176, which dominates the town of Castleton that grew up outside its precinct.

Castleton is a tourist honeypot, rich in opportunities to eat, drink and buy souvenirs.

Apart from the Castle, the most significant historic buildings are the Church of St Edmund, with its box pews and six-hundred-volume library “to be lent out to the parishioners at the discretion of the minister”, the bequest of the bachelor vicar, Rev Frederick Farran (d 1817), and the seventeenth-century Castleton Hall, which Sir Nikolaus Pevsner described as “comically ignorant”.

Castleton is world-famous as the only home of the unique form of fluorspar, Blue John, known for its coloration (bleu-jaune), and now in short supply.  Two of the largest artefacts of Blue John remain in the county at Chatsworth House and Renishaw Hall.  Mrs Malaprop, in Sheridan’s The Rivals (1775), refers to it as “Derbyshire putrefactions”.

There are four show caves, the result of mining activity going back to prehistoric times.

Peak Cavern, known in impolite times as the Devil’s Arse, is a natural opening fifty feet high and 114 feet wide, with enough space to contain a pub and several cottages (Celia Fiennes’ “poor little houses…thatch’d like little styes”) and, until well into the twentieth century, a ropewalk.  Lord Byron visited it with his cousin, Mary Ann Chaworth, for whom he had feelings:  lying in a boat with her to reach the innermost part of the cave, he wrote “I recollect my sensations but cannot describe them.”  Princess Victoria visited the cave in 1834, and again, as Queen, in 1841.

Blue John Mine, now celebrated for its displays of stalagmites and stalactites, appears to have been mined since at least Roman times:  two vases excavated at Pompeii appear to be made of Blue John. 

Speedwell Mine is a mining tunnel begun in 1774 to transport lead and never profitable as such.  In 1778, half a mile from the entrance, the miners broke into a natural cavern they named the Bottomless Pit, because all the waste thrown into it, estimated at 40,000 tons, simply disappeared.  The ultimate length of the adit was 2,650ft, built at a cost of around £14,000.  Only £3,000-worth of undressed ore was removed, and mining ceased around 1790, after which the Mine’s interest to tourists ensured its continuing maintenance to the present day.

Visitors reach the Bottomless Pit by boat, until recent years legged by the guide in narrow-boat fashion, the most exciting of the Castleton cave-experiences:  the adit is 840 feet below the surface at the point where it crosses the Bottomless Pit;  the water seventy-feet below the adit is up to thirty feet deep.  The furthest point of exploration in the system, the Cliff Cavern, is over a mile from the entrance and six hundred feet below ground.

The Treak Cliff Cavern, which consists of old mine-workings leading to a series of caves newly-discovered in 1926, was opened to the public in 1935.  It contains the only known workable vein of Blue John, and its stalagmite and stalactite displays are as spectacular as any others in the district.

The Pumping Station

Former Cropston Pumping Station, Leicestershire

For most of the nineteenth century, demand for water supply in the borough of Leicester and its surrounding area left the waterworks company – and its successor Leicester Corporation – constantly chasing demand by increasing capacity.

The Leicester Waterworks Company was founded in 1846 and the following year secured an Act of Parliament to build a reservoir and treatment works at Thornton, to the west of the town.

The company struggled to attract capital until the Corporation promised to invest £17,000 of the required £80,000 in return for guarantees of a dividend of 4% per annum until 1883 and all the company’s net profits over 4½% for ever.

Thornton Reservoir began supplying up to 1.6 million gallons in 1853, but within ten years Leicester suffered two serious water shortages, in 1863 and 1864, and Leicester Corporation took shares in the company to finance the reservoir and pumping station at Cropston which opened in 1871.

When the Waterworks Company proposed to increase its capital further in 1874, the Corporation decided to purchase the company outright by means of an enabling Act in 1877.

The water level of Cropston Reservoir was raised to increase capacity in 1887, and in 1890 parliamentary powers were sought to establish another reservoir at Swithland. 

A further severe water shortage in 1893 was relieved only by taking an emergency supply from Ellistown Colliery which customarily supplied Coalville, and construction of the new dam began the following year.

Swithland Reservoir was built at almost the same time as the Great Central Railway line to London, which crosses it on two viaducts.  This stretch of railway now forms part of the Great Central Railway (Loughborough) heritage line.

In preparation for the opening of Swithland Reservoir in 1896, the Cropston pumping station was extended to pump water between the three reservoirs.

No sooner was this system in place than Leicester Corporation went to Parliament for powers to extract water from the Derbyshire River Derwent.  Other authorities had similar ideas and were obliged to collaborate by forming the Derwent Valley Water Board and building the reservoirs at Howden (1912), Derwent (1916) and Ladybower (1945).

The Leicester legacy of this race to build reservoirs includes three reservoirs and two former pumping stations.

Cropston Pumping Station, built for the Leicester Waterworks Company in 1870 and extended by Leicester Corporation Waterworks in 1894, was stripped of its engines and boilers in the 1950s and has been sensitively converted, retaining what was left of the internal installation, to a restaurant, wedding and conference venue by the current owners, Simon and Liz Thompson in 2015: https://www.thepumpingstation.co.uk.

The bar and restaurant space is in the former boiler house and the adjacent 1894 engine house retains the overhead winch which serviced the machinery below.  The 1870 engine house is now a private residence which includes the spiral staircase up the truncated chimney to an observation deck.

Visitors park their cars among the ornamental filter beds, below which is an underground brick reservoir which, in time to come, could become an exciting visitor attraction.

Water supply engineering has the happy advantage of enhancing local amenities.  People are resistant to having their land flooded, but the end-result is attractive, from Derbyshire’s spectacular lakeland to the quieter landscape of the Charnwood Forest in Leicestershire.

The Pumping Station, Cropston is a lunch stop on the ‘Cemeteries and Sewerage: the Victorian pursuit of cleanliness’ (September 16th-20th 2021) tour. For details of the itinerary, please click here.

Swithland Pumping Station is not accessible to the public.

A library for the twenty-first century

Library of Birmingham
Birmingham Central Library (2011)

My first memory of Birmingham, at the start of the 1960s, was of bulldozers battering buildings.

This activity was the life’s work of the City Engineer & Surveyor from 1935 to 1963, Sir Herbert Manzoni (1899-1972), who insistently proclaimed the need to get rid of the detritus of the past in favour of a brave new twentieth-century future.

I have a memory of spending an afternoon, sometime in 1971-2, in the clerestoried reading room of J H Chamberlain’s magnificent Central Library of 1882, manhandling bound volumes of The Times in search of a Victorian scandal.

The building was already doomed, being in the way of Manzoni’s Inner Ring Road, and the books were soon to be transferred from their galleried shelving, accessed by spiral staircases [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Birmingham_Central_Library#/media/File:BCL_restored_after_the_fire_of_1879.jpg], into the replacement building, the Birmingham Central Library (1974) designed by the Birmingham architect John Madin (1924-2012).

John Madin was responsible for many of the significant buildings in Birmingham in the 1970s, and many of these unlovely structures have already disappeared.  I used the Central Library occasionally and loathed it.

It consisted of an unobjectionable three-storey lending library and an eight-storey reference library in the form of an upturned ziggurat.  Prince Charles dismissed it as “a place where books are incinerated, not kept”.

The design was repeatedly compromised by the City Council’s refusal to accept Madin’s specification of Portland stone or marble cladding and the glazing in of the central open atrium.  The bare concrete became grubby and the surrounding land was sold off and haphazardly developed.

There were some who valued John Madin’s claustrophobic library as a “… grand romantic gesture of the Brutalist period with subtle use of internal space, and remarkable tact in relating to [its] nineteenth-century neighbours” but the building gradually became too cramped for its purpose, as library users demanded monitors and keyboards as well as books.

Birmingham City Council was lucky to put its plans for a replacement in place in the nick of time before the economic downturn choked local-authority expenditure.

The Library of Birmingham, designed by the Dutch architect Francine Houben (b 1955) of the Mecanoo practice, occupies the site of a former car park on Centenary Square between the Birmingham Rep Theatre and the pre-war Baskerville House.  The project was launched in April 2009;  construction began at the beginning of 2010 and the Library was opened on September 3rd 2013 by Malala Yousafzai (b 1997), the world-famous activist who is a Birmingham resident.

It’s a fascinating combination of shapes and levels, rising from below ground to the rooftop, the main bulk of the building clad in gold, silver and glass behind a filigree of metal rings that commemorate the city’s Jewellery Quarter.  Its purpose, in the words of the director, Brian Gambles, is to be “no longer solely the domain of the book – it is a place with all types of content and for all types of people”:  https://www.dezeen.com/2013/08/29/library-of-birmingham-by-mecanoo.

At the top of the building, on Level 9, is the Shakespeare Memorial Room, which houses the Shakespeare Library and was transplanted first from J H Chamberlain’s 1882 library, and latterly from John Madin’s Brutalist ziggurat – a symbol of continuity, and of cultural value, linking the city’s nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first century centres of learning.

John Madin’s library was demolished – to howls of protest from fans of Brutalist architecture – in 2016.

Happy resort

Felixstowe, Suffolk

Over years of driving into East Anglia I have only associated Felixstowe with processions of container trucks hammering down the A14.

When I stayed at the Woodbridge Station Guest House I took the train to Ipswich and then on to Felixstowe to a happy surprise.  “Felix” is, after all, Latin for “happy”.

The mouth of the River Orwell has been strategically important, both for trade and defence, since Roman times at least, and grew markedly after the arrival of the railway in 1877 and the opening of the port in 1886.

The passenger train-service now terminates at the latest of the town’s three stations, Felixstowe Town (1898), which was built in response to an upturn in tourism after the 1891 visit of Princess Augusta Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein (1858-1921), Queen Victoria’s great-niece and the wife of Germany’s last Kaiser, Wilhelm II.

The walk down Hamilton Road, now partly pedestrianised, leads to a clifftop view of the Pier (1905;  rebuilt 2017) [http://www.felixstowe-pier.co.uk], with the cranes of the distant docks to the right, and the promenade to the left.

On the way, you pass the former Ritz Cinema (1937;  still operating as the Palace) [http://www.palacecinemafelixstowe.com].

The seafront is dotted with opulent former hotels, of which the Felix Hotel (1903) is the most prominent.  This is where Princess Victoria and her family stayed in 1901 and, coincidentally, where Wallis Simpson took rooms while her divorce took place in nearby Ipswich in 1936.  (This was the occasion of the legendary American newspaper headline “KING’S MOLL RENO’D IN WOLSEY’S HOME TOWN.”)  The Felix closed in 1952 and became the headquarters of the fertiliser company Fisons Ltd for thirty years.  It is now, predictably, converted to apartments.

Landguard Fort [http://www.landguard.com] introduces visitors to the long history of Felixstowe’s defences.  This was the location of the last opposed invasion of England in 1677, and four of the original seven Martello towers in the town survive.

I had a typical seaside lunch, fish and chips at Fish Dish [http://www.myfishdish.co.uk].  When I told the guy behind the till that the place reminded me of Whitby he smiled and said he’d trained and worked at Whitby for thirteen years before setting up in Essex.

The pleasures of Felixstowe are simple.  On a sunny day you can sit on a promenade bench and watch vast container ships, loaded to capacity, making their way out of the port at surprising speed.

And, because Ipswich is a significant rail hub, you can visit Felixstowe from far afield without using a car.

Woodbridge Station Guest House

Woodbridge Station, Suffolk

The Station Guest House at Woodbridge – https://woodbridgestationguesthouse.co.uk – is an excellent example of practical reuse of a potentially redundant station building.  The station itself continues to operate as the first stop out of Ipswich on the line to Lowestoft and the building houses a high-quality café, the three-bedroom guest house, a florist’s shop and a taxi office. 

The station was built for the former East Suffolk Railway and opened in 1859.  A footbridge provides access both to the Ipswich-bound platform and also to the banks of the nearby River Deben.

I had a comfortable family room with a double bed and a single bed, with an en-suite which allowed me to watch people walking over the footbridge without them seeing me at my ablutions.  It’s a corner room, so from one window I could watch the trains arrive and depart over the level crossings and from the other I could watch the boats riding the tide on the river.

Breakfast is served promptly at 9.00am at a reserved table in the café and the service is admirable.  The only minor downside is that car-parking is £3.00 a day maximum and you have to feed the meter before the guy with the hi-vis jacket books you.  The notice by the machine warns that photographs may be taken, which I read as a threat.

There’s really no reason to bring a car to stay at the Station Guest House.  There’s a perfectly good train service that links with London and East Coast services via Ipswich.

Carla, the delightful lady who welcomed me to the Station Guest House , reeled off a list of places to have dinner as the café closes at 3.00pm.  For most of my stay, however, I happily picnicked each night with more than enough tea and coffee and the sound of the trains through the open window. 

Woodbridge itself is an attractive town.  Beside the river is the Woodbridge Tide Mill, one of two remaining tidal watermills that are restored to working order and producing wholemeal flour for sale [https://woodbridgetidemill.org.uk] and on the opposite bank is the National Trust Sutton Hoo Visitor Centre [https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sutton-hoo], marking the site of the enormously significant Anglo-Saxon ship burial, excavated in 1939. 

Miyajima

Miyajima, Japan: Itsukushima Shrine

On my second day in Hiroshima I bought a slightly more expensive streetcar-and-ferry pass, and in the morning travelled down tram route 2 all the way to the terminus, Miyajima-guchi.  This was another transport surprise, because after a dozen stops in street-tramway mode, à la Leeds or Sheffield circa 1950, the streetcar turns a corner into a complicated little station and then becomes a fully-fledged railway, like the Fleetwood tramroad but far longer, with houses backing on to the track, stations at regular intervals and endless automatic full-barrier crossings.  A road-sign outside Miyajima-guchi station shows the distance back to Hiroshima as 23km, but the rail line is actually 16.1km.

The ferry takes about fifteen minutes to cross a stretch of water to a wonderfully picturesque island, Miyajima, with the steep, deeply forested mountains that you see in Japanese prints, and on the foreshore the Itsukushima Shrine, ostensibly dating back to the twelfth century but apparently last replaced in 1875.  Tourists flock to photograph themselves with their backs to this monument;  schoolchildren are brought in droves to line up for class photographs.  There are sacred deer, in Shinto belief the messengers of the gods, which are regularly fed by the tourists, despite notices forbidding it.

The Hiroden public-transport operator, through its subsidiary Hiroshima Tourism Promoting [Hiroshima Kankō Kaihatsu] runs a ropeway up the sacred Mount Misen.  The upper terminus is a thirty-minute hike to the actual summit at 1,755 feet but you can’t have everything:  the ropeway takes out 945 feet of that climb and every little helps.

The island has much else to offer, several temples and a pagoda, and spectacular displays of blossom in spring and maple leaves in autumn.  I could cheerfully return for a Japanese holiday on Miyajima, knowing that a day-visit to Hiroshima city is easily practical.

Ferry up the Mersey

Manchester Ship Canal

The best birthday presents are inspired, and when my friend John and his family gave me a voucher for a Mersey Ferry cruise up the Manchester Ship Canal for my seventieth birthday they made possible a long-held ambition that I’d never got round to fulfilling:  https://www.merseyferries.co.uk/cruises/Manchester-Ship-Canal-Cruises/Pages/default.aspx.

The gift was enhanced by the fact that John agreed to join me.  No-one knows better how to compile a Marks & Spencer picnic.

Booking a Ferry Cruise takes persistence:  I lost count of how many times I was told, in an inimitable Scouse accent, that “it’s not on the system yet”.

Persistence pays.  I booked us on a cruise up the canal to Manchester.

I was tipped off that the smart advice was to sail from Seacombe and arrive at the terminal good and early to bag a decent seat.

John was told the exact opposite, that the boat started from Pier Head.

My source was correct, and we took a taxi to Seacombe so far ahead of time that we were treated to complimentary coffee left over from the commuters’ sailings, so that we were in position to march down the gangway, like Gracie Fields in Sing As We Go, and park ourselves on the upper deck, facing forward, with seat, a table and a window ahead.

We were advised to take a picnic because of the queues for food at the café-bars on each deck.  In fact, we took it in turns to fetch hot drinks whenever the queue was manageable.

It’s a fascinating experience to sail up the trench that was dug thirty-six miles up the Mersey valley from Eastham Locks to Salford in the early 1890s, and even more memorable to meet an ocean-going ship coming the other way.

Rising through huge locks in a sizeable boat that doesn’t touch the sides is disconcerting.  The Mersey ferries are around 150 feet long and have a beam forty feet or slightly more.  The widest MSC locks are eighty feet wide.

One of the enjoyable features of the trip was the way in which, like other canals, the Ship Canal route stitches together places that aren’t directly connected by road and rail routes.

From the start of the canal at Eastham Locks, past Ellesmere Port, the refineries at Stanlow and the Runcorn Gap with its road and rail bridges, the Ship Canal clings to the river bank.

As it approaches Warrington it dives through the town in a dead straight line that continues under the M62 Thelwall Viaduct, then weaves it way towards Irlam and beneath the M60 at Barton.

Shortly after the M60 viaduct it passes the two 1894 swing-bridges at Barton, one for the road and the other the historic replacement  for the even more historic James Brindley aqueduct (1791) that was sacrificed to make the Ship Canal possible.

The world’s oldest railway

Tanfield Railway: Andrews House Station, Co Durham

By an accident of signposting, my visit to the Tanfield Railway [https://www.tanfield-railway.co.uk]  began at East Tanfield which is perhaps not the best place.

I later discovered that Andrews House station is where the party’s at, not least because it’s within walking distance of the Marley Hill engine shed, where there’s lots to see.

The station building at East Tanfield is the very welcoming Tommy Armstrong Tea Shop, its tables impressively laid out with fine-looking china.  Coffee and pastries are in abundance, and they’ll even sell you a train ticket, written by hand.

However, there’s a noticeable lack of what the heritage industry calls “interpretation”.

Even the timetable is occult, possessed by knowledgeable old geezers squinting at sheets of A4 paper which they fold and stuff surreptitiously in the pockets of their anoraks.

You can, of course, ask the station staff.  Like freemasonry, knowledge here is acquired by degrees.

Trains appear when they’re good and ready, and they’re worth waiting for.

This is a no-nonsense coal railway, partly dating back to around 1720, which allows it to claim to be “the world’s oldest railway”.

It operates sturdy little tank engines, such as would, in times gone by, heave long trains of coal wagons out of the local collieries.

The passenger carriages are mostly four-wheelers that don’t go “diddly-dee, diddly da” but rather “clunk, clunk” – Victorian equivalents of the notorious Pacers, but much more elegant.

It’s always heartening on a volunteer-run railway to see engine crew who look not a day over twenty.

The passengers are mostly older than twenty – serious enthusiasts who know what’s going on, and couples with glum-looking dogs which would rather be chasing sticks than catching trains.

There’s a trackside footpath, useful for photographers who wait, tripods set and cameras ready, to capture the seldom-spotted tank engine.

The place is a delight.  Everyone is friendly and unrushed.  And the roast pork breadcakes are superlative.

Castello con un teatro annesso

Castello di Meleto, Tuscany, Italy: theatre

One of the delights of my Great Rail Journeys ‘Highlights of Tuscany’ holiday [https://www.greatrail.com/tours/highlights-of-tuscany] was a life-enhancing visit to the Castello di Meleto [http://www.castellomeleto.it/eng/castle/castle.php].

This is an intriguing place, a medieval hill-top castle documented from 1256 and for centuries owned by the Ricasoli-Firidolfi family, who sold up only in 1968.  The interiors, on the ground floor at least, are entirely baroque, with an unrestored patina of faded splendour.

We were treated to a cookery demonstration by the chef, Elena, who spoke only Italian, translated (or perhaps explicated) by the hostess Geraldine, who extolled the quality of the Castle’s extra virgin olive oil, which we were invited to smell and taste.

We were shown how to make an Italian stew, which seemed to me exactly how I would make an English stew with Italian ingredients. 

The pasta-making demonstration was more entertaining, and a great deal of pasta was passed hand to hand around the group. 

We were invited out for antipasti on the terrace, where a classical wing of the house (with a medieval turret on the end) faces a flat lawn and a wall, from where expanses of hillside vineyards are visible. 

No sooner had we wandered outside than a misty rain began to fall, and within ten minutes the waitresses shifted the antipasti back into the castle and a loud clap of thunder heralded a downpour that lasted no more than half an hour.

We tucked into the antipasti indoors while Geraldine gave lectures first on the Castle’s white wine and then on the rosé, all the time pouring wine into everyone’s glasses and interrupting her flow with “I’ll fetch another bottle.”  There was no sniffing or spitting.  This was a straightforward invitation to get trollied.

We weren’t formally shown the downstairs rooms, but instead trotted off to the cellars which are tricked out with barrels and racks of bottles.

Geraldine took us from the cellars to a surprise – a tiny, intact private theatre, dated 1741, complete with perspective scenery and a balcony.  I can find nothing of any significance about it online, and I’ve never come across it in the theatre-history literature. 

Indeed, I wonder if its provenance and history have been seriously researched.  It is at any rate a great rarity. 

A three-course dinner followed, liberally lubricated with red chianti and a dessert wine.  I sat back from the conversation and watched the sunset through the trees outside the window. 

Then predictably, “pat,…like the catastrophe in the old comedy”, came the buying opportunity.  My fellow guests queued up to buy bottles of wine and olive oil, while I sat in an armchair and watched.

Eventually we began the journey back, of which the first seventy minutes were simply a succession of hairpin bends and a few small villages.  We joined the motorway south of Florence, and it took another three-quarters of an hour to reach our hotel in Montecatini Terme.

I reflected on the considerable appeal of the Castillo di Meleto.  It’s now owned by a joint-stock company and you can stay there, at rates which are high but not outrageous.  However, it’s so remote that it would be impractical to go anywhere:  it’s simply a place to enjoy, with extensive gardens, an infinity pool and a restaurant down the drive for lunch and dinner:   https://translate.google.co.uk/translate?hl=en&sl=it&u=http://www.castellomeleto.it/&prev=search.