There’s a sleepy little branch line up the Ecclesbourne valley in Derbyshire, from the former Midland main line at Duffield to the market town of Wirksworth. Since 2002 a group of volunteers have been reviving it for tourist traffic. Its survival is unusual, but nothing like as unusual as its origin.
For complicated reasons of Victorian railway politics, there was a possibility in the 1860s that the Midland Railway’s line from Derby to Manchester might be blocked by its competitor, the London & North Western Railway, when the joint lease on the section between Ambergate and Rowsley ran out in 1871.
In case this happened, or perhaps to prevent the L&NWR making trouble, the Midland built the branch up the Ecclesbourne valley as far as Wirksworth, which is as far as any reasonable railway line would go. Beyond that, they secured the right to tunnel under the hills, crossing the Via Gellia road on a 280-yard-long viaduct, emerging into daylight above Matlock and dropping down the Derwent Valley to their newly-built line from Rowsley westwards.
If it had been built it would have been even more heavy-duty than the “flute” line through Monsal Dale, Miller’s Dale and Chee Dale. It would have been a stiff challenge to drive expresses and – even more – coal trains up the grade, through a series of lengthy tunnels and round tight curves under the Heights of Abraham.
The Wirksworth-Rowsley extension was never built, and instead trains pottered up and down the Wirksworth branch, carrying limestone, milk and passengers. The milk and passengers went over to road transport before and during the Second World War, but the huge Middle Peak Quarry kept the railway running until 1989.
Then, when the quarry was mothballed, the railway was left intact but utterly neglected, so that by the time the Ecclesbourne Valley Railway crews had the go-ahead to bring it back to life it was an 8½-mile-long jungle. Whereas most railway-preservation groups have to lay fresh track, as did the EVR’s neighbours at Peak Rail, here the heavy work has been clearing out blocked culverts and replacing rotten sleepers.
The line is open up the existing main line at Duffield so that passengers can connect with East Midlands trains’ hourly Derby-Matlock service.
The main-line connection has been severed and, so I’m told, there’s only a minimal chance of it being reinstalled. The EVR can provide a worthwhile passenger service with steam locomotives and diesel railcars, and Wirksworth is a pleasant market town with a fascinating history. The future looks promising for this once derelict survivor of a time when railway companies would build their lines almost anywhere.
Details of the Ecclesbourne Valley Railway services are at http://www.e-v-r.com.