Sunday, 28 March 2010

Micklehurst Loop Stalybridge - Diggle

Canal at Ashton Under Lyne
Having walked one of the more celebrated railway trails in the UK I turned my attention to a short one that is probably virtually unknown outside the Tame Valley on the eastern side of Manchester.  The Micklehurst Loop was a mostly freight only line that was built to alleviate congestion on the main Manchester to Huddersfield line.  The original plan was to quadruple the existing line but this could not easily be achieved because of the limited space available on the existing line.  Thus a separate line was created on the other side of the Tame Valley between Stalybridge and Diggle.  When I lived in Saddleworth in the early 1990s I was aware of the existence of the route but never really knew anything about it, where it went or why it was built.  In those pre-internet days it wasn’t easy to find out such things!  A good history of the line can be found at http://www.buffetbar.freewebspace.com/shopping_page.html

Start of the Trail

Funnily enough in the days that I lived in the area I never actually tried to retrace the route, although I did walk along the adjacent Huddersfield Narrow Canal a number of times between Stalybridge and my home in Dobcross.  Yet despite its unheralded status on the national network and the fact that passenger services didn’t last beyond the First World War, there is much still left intact on the route to be of interest to the railway walker.  The line itself was approximately six miles in length and left the main line through a tunnel just outside Stalybridge station.  It then crossed the Tame Valley and headed up the eastern side of the valley through Micklehurst, Friezeland, Greenfield and Uppermill before heading through a tunnel to join the main line once again just shy of the former station at Diggle. 
Former Chute

Although the London and North Western Railway did operate passenger services along the line for a few years before the First World War, in those days this was a very sparsely populated area and passenger numbers must have been very light.  Yet, if the railway had stuck around long enough there has been enough development in the area now for a railway service to possibly be viable, even if it is only a Metrolink service rather than a fully fledged mainline service.  Considering therefore that the line hasn’t had any passenger services for getting on for a hundred years, the fact that any of the route remains is remarkable.
Another Look at the Canal

I parked outside Greenfield Station and took the short train journey down the main line to Stalybridge.  This is an hourly service although it does not run on Sundays, so you should take a bus then.  At Stalybridge I headed down towards the canal basin in the first instance to take a look at the restoration work that has taken place since I last came by this way.  The transformation is remarkable.  When I last came this way a large part of the canal through the middle of Stalybridge had long since been filled in.  Luckily the forward thinking Huddersfield Canal Society stepped in and have restored the entire canal from Ashton-Under-Lyne to Huddersfield including Standedge Tunnel, the longest and deepest canal tunnel in the UK which gets the canal over the Pennines.  The section through Stalybridge is now a hub for the town, with a shiny new Tesco and several food and drink establishments overlooking the canal.  It’s a far cry from the run down area that existed less than twenty years ago.  Some idea of the scale of the work can be gathered from the Huddersfield Canal website at http://www.huddersfieldcanal.com/restoration/index.htm
Remains of Engine Shed


I walked along the towpath for half a mile or so before coming to the old trackbed of the Micklehurst Railway, signposted as the Tame Valley Way.  This is about ¼ mile from the station at Stalybridge and once there would have been a viaduct carrying the track across the canal to the old tunnel, but all signs of it have disappeared.  Initially the trackbed is not obviously a railway route, since there are no engineering features for some time.  By the time I got going along this stretch of line, it was afternoon school run time and this part of the path is obviously a popular path for schoolchildren returning home, since I passed many groups along the way.  Having cleared the housing estates that would not have existed when the line was open, the number of people using the route declined quickly until it was just the odd dog walker.  This part of the line was closed last, being left as a stub to service a former power station that was finally closed in the 1970s.
A Reminder of How Long Since The Line Closed

Where I am guessing the first viaduct would once have stood is now a big gap in the trackbed with what looks like some derelict works ahead.  I was forced from the route of the trackbed down onto the adjacent towpath of the canal for the next half a mile or so.  This was hardly a hardship though as this is a particularly enjoyable stretch through woodland and past the rather eerie sight of the old coal chute that once served the power station.  Shortly past the chute I could see that the embankment was in place once again and I was able to regain the trackbed.  This was a fairly forgotten stretch, quite walkable but not part of the official path I suspect.  In the trees I came across a filled in underbridge, which was the first evidence that I was actually on a railway route!
Bridge Parapet

Through the trees I could see some old derelict buildings and upon investigation I was amazed to see that it was an old engine shed and water tank still extant.  Given the amount of standing water around the old structures I am guessing that flooding must have been an ongoing issue even during operational days.  I regained the main path and passed through a very sorry for itself looking bridge, where much of the brickwork was damaged.  The path then passed through a pretty overgrown cutting before coming to the parapets of an old viaduct, long since demolished.  Looking ahead the line of the railway had been substantially re-profiled and was occupied by several industrial units blocking my way for the next half mile or so.  I returned to the canal towpath and had a look at Scout Tunnel, which is quite walkable although a bit dark!  For me it was now in the wrong direction so after a quick look I headed along the towpath towards Mossley and enjoying the surprisingly warm spring sunshine.
Scout Tunnel

In the centre of Mossley I was able to regain the trackbed by the old Micklehurst station.  Amazingly the station masters house still exists, 93 years after the last passenger was picked up from the station!  The remaining part of the station has long gone as it would have once been at the top of the embankment and viaduct, now erased.  From the site of the old station the next couple of miles are perhaps the most satisfying on the whole walk.  The trackbed is particularly well preserved and a number of bridges still remain.  As the track heads north some great views of Mossley Church could be seen through the still bare trees and then the hills and moors around Saddleworth started coming into view.
Approaching Mossley

Eventually I reached the Roaches, once the site of a junction with a light railway built for construction traffic for the Chew Reservoir, now a local beauty spot as well as water supply.  Much of the railway has been obliterated to make room for the road junction here now, with cuttings re-profiled and bridges filled in.  I had to take my life in my hands trying to cross the busy A635 road before regaining the trackbed once again on the other side.  Now the views of industrial heritage/ dereliction had been well and truly replaced by moorland views, with the skyline being dominated by Pots and Pans and the obelisk on top built to commemorate World War One.  Somewhere hereabouts was Friezeland Station although no sign of it now exists; presumably it’s under the road somewhere.  Anyhow, it was a pleasant walk through to Greenfield, which is the only settlement in Saddleworth to still have a station although on the ‘other line’.  Just before the housing the embankment disappeared, although a linear greenspace still exists along the same corridor.  This would once have been filled by a sixteen arch viaduct, which apparently took some blowing up in order to remove it from the landscape.  Judging by the housing that now surrounds the greenspace, the viaduct was a serious impediment to housing development.  At this point the trail is joined by walkers and riders using the Pennine Bridleway (which ironically I also passed on the Monsal Trail a couple of days earlier).
Mossley Station

Rather than head back to my car I continued along the trackbed through to Uppermill village through a linear park known as ‘Higher Arthurs’.  Initially the trackbed was in good condition with overbridges still intact.  However, I soon came upon a bungalow surrounded by high Leylandii hedging, which I guessed was the original site of Uppermill Station.  Further along the trackbed I was surprised to find a new leisure centre and Astroturf pitches, which I don’t remember from when I lived here.  Perhaps they came about as a spin-off from the Commonwealth Games in 2002?  The railway trail continues out of Uppermill for a short distance before coming to the hill at Rylands where the old tunnel would once have driven through.  Now it has been completely blocked and re-landscaped and no sign of it exists.  At this point I left the old line for good, partially due to the failing light and partially as I had a 300 mile drive home ahead of me!  Determined walkers could probably find the northern portal of the Ryefield Tunnel, but for me I had a two mile walk back to my car. 
Approaching Greenfield

I dropped down to cross the main line over a relatively new footbridge (I remember crossing on the level last time I came this way).  From the top of the bridge I could see the old Saddleworth station, which was put up for sale a few years ago (see story at http://property.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/property/buying_and_selling/article2312797.ece) after the same couple had lived in it for over 30 years.  When I lived in the area I always cursed the fact that the station was no longer open as it was just at the bottom of the hill from where I lived and I would not have had to walk the almost two miles to Greenfield.  Still, when the weather is good, such as it was this evening and when there is plenty of time, the walk through to Greenfield is actually very pleasant.  I followed the towpath of the Huddersfield Canal, by-passing the centre of Uppermill.  There have been changes to this stretch of canal also, with the re-opening of the canal across the A635 in a couple of places at each end of Uppermill.  In the days that I lived here the canal was filled in at these points and it was amazing to see these sections restored now and used for boat traffic once again.
Saddleworth Section

Soon after regaining the canal I passed under the very impressive Saddleworth viaduct, a section of the walk to the train station that always gave me a lot of pleasure.  I felt very nostalgic as I walked along and was heartened to see that there were more ducks and canal boats along here than I remembered.  Apart from the annoyance of crossing the A635 south of Uppermill, it was a thoroughly lovely way to end my afternoon’s walking
Uppermill Viaduct

The Micklehurst Loop is not the most famous railway walk, not the most challenging and in places the dereliction of the surroundings can be a bit grim, but it is a fascinating little journey and can easily be done in an afternoon.  Other lines also exist in the area that can also be walked, most notably the Delph Donkey which also used to be a regular trip for me but which I would have to save for another time I am up this way.  Travelling from one end of the walk to the other is nice and easy courtesy of the train service that takes only a few minutes from end to end.  A thoroughly recommended trip.

15 comments:

  1. just read this and the Leisure centre is only 1 year old it just use to be a baths the line would have been on the road at the side of the centre

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  2. Ah - I thought it was new! Thanks for that

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  3. Just stumbled across your blog paul,as a kid i used to ride my bike to the hartshead power staion.The tracks where still on the ground ,
    Used to live in Mossley ,the pictures brought back so many memories .Thanks for a great blog Paul .

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  4. Thanks for that - glad you enjoyed it. I really want to come and explore some more old lines up there. I have tried a few, but in some cases many years ago, pre digital camera and blogging days!

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  5. Hi Paul

    I came across your blog a couple of months ago when doing research for a walk included in an ebook I have been writing.

    I see you are an ex Dobcross lad, I live in Ashton-under-Lyne and often walk the Oldham/Saddleworth paths.

    Your post on the Micklehurst Loop was very interesting and informative with some terrific photographs. It is a route that features in one of my walks albeit only from the old station house at Micklehurst to Greenfield.

    How these old lines could now be used to relieve traffic congestion! The Huddersfield Narrow Canal is now in great shape as you mentioned.

    I also see you are a long distance footpath fan as I am, although I haven't completed as many as you. I will be back to read about your further exploits. Great blog by the way.

    Bill

    Hi Paul

    I came across your blog a couple of months ago when doing research for a walk included in an ebook I have been writing.

    I see you are an ex Dobcross lad, I live in Ashton-under-Lyne and often walk the Oldham/Saddleworth paths.

    Your post on the Micklehurst Loop was very interesting and informative with some terrific photographs. It is a route that features in one of my walks albeit only from the old station house at Micklehurst to Greenfield.

    How these old lines could now be used to relieve traffic congestion! The Huddersfield Narrow Canal is now in great shape as you mentioned.

    I also see you are a long distance footpath fan as I am, although I haven't completed as many as you. I will be back to read about your further exploits. Great blog by the way.

    Bill

    http://www.walksintameside.co.uk

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  6. Hello Bill,
    Thank you very much for your kind comments. I am pleased you have enjoyed reading my accounts. I explored a good many of these old lines in my time living in the north but sadly before I had a decent camera. It would be fun to revisit so many of them now - maybe one day I will take another extended trip up there so I can explore some more. I'll take a look at your blog when I find the time - it will be good to see some of the old places!

    Regards
    Paul

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  7. Brilliant article. My own opportunity to do this walk has probably passed by now, but I have almost done it in my mind's eye from your clear narrative. David.

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    1. Thank you very much for your kind words David. I really appreciate your feedback and glad you enjoyed the 'virtual' journey!

      Kind regards
      Paul

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  8. Hi Paul, just stumbled across your blog and it bought fasctinating pictures of my local area of Saddleworth, I'm too young to remember the railway being born in 1996 but I would just like to mention that the 'Ryfields' tunnel that you mentioned towards the end is actually very evident on the Diggle side of the tunnel; indeed the whole portal is in tact on the Diggle side before being collapsed about half way through (the collapsed section is, indeed, all the way until the Uppermill portal which explains why you couldn't find any evidence).
    The sports centre has recently been renovated to the nice modern builing you saw, there has been a public swimming baths there for years previous to this although I'm not sure if it was there when the railway line was ... I suspect it wasn't though as there wouldn't otherwise be anyway of accessing the swimming pool because of the railway.
    Greenfield viaduct was apparently demolished completely by 1975.

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  9. Hello Mr Long Range,
    Many thanks for your comments and feedback. I'm glad you enjoyed the piece and have added some extra information - that's very interesting
    Regards
    Paul

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  10. Hi Paul
    Born in '61 I moved from Uppermill to Dobcross in '71 and used to walk past the Uppermill end of the Ryefields/Butterhouses tunnel on my way home from school everyday.
    At weekends we used to play in and around the tunnel. On several occasions we ventured right through to the mainline at Diggle end. There was a small prefab concrete hut that we used to call "Catch Points" after a sign nearby. It wasn't until many years later that I discovered what catch points actually were!
    We also used to go down past where the pool now is to a large two storey warehouse which was in a bad state of repair. I remember the stairs being intact but most of the upper floor had gone.
    I also remember waving to a train driver as a very small child, at the bridge that used to cross Church Road in Uppermill. I can't remember whether it was steam, or perhaps a diesel shunter type, but remember the cab being an open type at the rear of the loco.
    There was also a story going about that a large stone fell from this bridge and hit a girl from our school on her umbrella without causing injury. I always imagined that this was a coping stone, but a brick was a big stone when your hands were the size of a creme egg.
    I live in Scotland now and don't visit the area very much except to visit my parents who still live in Dobcross. I did hovewer visit last year as I have a friend with a canal boat who was going through the Standedge tunnel. This was very enjoyable, it having been closed long before I was born. I would recommend it to anyone who has an interest in engineering history.
    Stig

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    1. Hello Stig,
      Thank you very much for your reminiscences - very interesting stuff. You allude to things that were already disappeared when I lived in the area between 1992 and 1994. I found the whole area fascinating and one of these days I must find myself a reason to make another trip!

      Kind regards
      Paul

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  11. I feel awful - someone sent me some lovely comments about this walk and in my ham fisted attempts to approve the content I accidentally deleted them. If that was you I am very sorry :( I did read them and thank you very much for your contribution!

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  12. Hi,
    The first photo 'canal at Ashton under Lyne', is actually Stalybridge with the Tesco store behind the bridge shown; its about 1.5 miles east of Ashton.

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    1. Thanks very much - I obviously had a memory freeze...

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