Peak District Railways

The railways of the Derbyshire Peak District have a long and fascinating history and have helped to shape the landscape, open up the area to mass tourism, and drive the local economy for almost two hundred years. They have also left a valuable legacy, and in the marks of their passing have provided a rich heritage of interior walking and cycling trails for the benefit of future generations.

Derbyshire has a special place in the hearts of rail enthusiasts, and remains the only place in the UK where trains are still being built – but the county also has a fascinating railway history. One local link to the bygone age of the railways comes via the world renowned Derbyshire-born engineer Sir Nigel Gresley, who designed both the Mallard and the world famous Flying Scotsman.

Another comes via the man known as the `Father of the Railways’, George Stephenson. The famous inventor of `The Rocket’ – the world’s first commercial steam-engine – lived the final ten years of his life at Tapton House near Chesterfield until his death in 1848, and is buried beneath the chancel of the town’s Holy Trinity church.

George Stephenson and his son Robert brought the main-line Midland Railway through the county in the late 1830’s, and the first train steamed into Derby Station on 30th May 1839, with the station officially opening the following year. This main line, which became the LMS (London Midland & Scottish) in 1923, connected the county with London & Glasgow and all stations in between and formed the backbone of the national railway system through Derbyshire, which it remains to this day.

However, this was not the first. That honour goes to the Peak Forest Tramway, a horse-drawn mineral line from Dove Holes to Bugsworth (now Buxworth) in the North West of the Peak, which opened on May 1st 1800 and ran for over 120 yars until it finally closed in 1936!

The Cromford & High Peak Railway, described as one of the most extraordinary feats of 19th century railway engineering, opened in June 1830.A decade earlier, a proposed canal link across the southern part of the Peak District had to be abandoned owing to lack of water and vast engineering problems, and so Josiah Jessop, whose father had engineered the construction of the Cromford Canal, turned to the new steam engine technology of the coming age and built this early rail link instead.

Originally 33 miles long, and with horses pulling the carriages along the level sections of the line and stationary winding engines hauling the wagons up several steep inclines, the line took five years to construct. The line was used mainly to carry local freight like limestone and its components out of the area, and to bring coal and other commodities in. Passengers were occasionally carried in a carriage attached to the rear of the goods train between Middleton Top and Parsley Hay during the summer months, but they were forced to alight and walk up Hopton Incline!

After amalgamation with the LNWR the line declined and became very unprofitable, and the final section from Fridon to Parsley Hay finally closed in 1967. This old trackbed is now the High Peak Trail, a seventeen and a half mile walking and cycling trail through the spectacular limestone countryside of the White Peak, with some of the old stations providing toilet and washroom facilities, refreshments and cycle-hire.

The Midland/ London & North Western Railway line which ran from London St. Pancras to Manchester Central Station was opened to passenger traffic in June 1849 between Ambergate and Rowsley, and two months later the intermediate stations at Cromford, Matlock Bath, Matlock Bridge and Darley were also opened to the public. This line was extended from Rowsley to Hassop in 1862, and as far as Buxton the following year, with Bakewell Station opening in 1863 and Rowsley being the terminus of the old line, and the start of the new link through to Buxton, which finally linked to Manchester in 1867. The Derby to Matlock line is still operating a Midland Mainline passenger service, but the line north from Rowsley was closed and removed in 1967. This trackbed which runs for nine miles from Coombs Viaduct, south of Bakewell Station to Blackwell near Miller’s Dale, is now a spectacular walking and cycling way known as The Monsal Trail.

The Leek & Manifold Valley Light Railway was a narrow guage line opened in 1904 and known locally as the `Milky Way’ and carried mainly freight, including thousands of gallons of milk every day to and from the large dairies at Ecton and Hartington for thirty years until closure in 1934. The line ran from Hulme End to Waterhouses, and there was once a station at Thor’s Cave for adventurous tourists! This is now a wonderful walking trail which runs through the spectacularly scenic Manifold Valley.

The London & North Western Railway from Ashbourne to Buxton was opened on June 4th 1899, but was never a commercial success. The line was used only for `local traffic’ carrying milk to large towns, especially from the dairy herds at Hartington & Tissington, and limestone from local quarries to the crushing plants and kilns at Buxton. The line closed in 1967 and was acquired by the Derbyshire County Council and Peak National Park who turned in into the 13 mile long Tissington Trail, which runs through the spectacular limestone country of the White Peak from Ashbourne to Parsley Hay where it joins the High Peak Trail.

That’s the history, but what of the future? Two ambitious local initiatives have already seen the reopening of some of the original lines:

Wyvern Rail is the brainchild of the Ecclesbourne Valley Railway Project, which plans to re-establish and open the old nine-mile section of the Wirksworth to Duffield line in the south of the Peak, which closed in 1947.

Already the project, launched during Millenneum Year, has successfully opened almost two miles of track south of Wirksworth.

Peak Rail was founded by a group of local enthusiasts in Matlock during the 1980’s and has been hugely successful in re-opening the old Midland Line from just north of Matlock Bridge to Rowsley, with its H.Q. in between the two at Darley Dale.

Peak Rail run special themed steam-train journeys at weekends throughout the year, with folk trains, poetry, drama, music and entertainment, and trains for special occasions, complete with refreshments available in the authentic buffet car, all of which makes it a special excursion for children and steam enthusiasts alike.

Judging by the number of people thronging the Monsal, Tissington, High Peak and Manifold Valley Trails – and the success of the adventurous and ambitious Wyvern and Peak Rail projects, the future of the old railways in the Peak seems assured!