Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Churnet Valley Railway

Oakamoor Crossing and Tunnel

As I had been able to get an early start on the Manifold Way there was still time for another cycle trip and with the weather being so good I decided to take full advantage. At Waterhouses the Leek and Manifold Light Railway made an end to end connection with another line that was a branch from a line that once connected Leek and Uttoxeter through the Churnet Valley. A glance at today’s map will show a network of lines in the area that are disused or dismantled, but which in theory will soon get a new lease of life if preservationists get their way.
Oakamoor Station

The Churnet Valley Line was originally part of a network of lines built for the North Staffordshire Railway, which eventually merged into the London Midland and Scottish. It was built with the intention of being a main route between Manchester and Derby, but as with so many of these lines rivalry between the North Staffordshire and the London and North Western prevented the early potential to be realised.
Heading South
Most trains were therefore run as local services between Macclesfield and Uttoxeter, although some special journeys were laid on the promote Rudyard Lake, a few miles north of Leek. The line eventually succumbed to closure during in 1960, just before the rash of closures elsewhere under Dr Beeching. Yet this wasn’t the end of the tale, for much of the local network survived well beyond this to service various facilities requiring freight services. It is due to the freight use lasting into the 1980s that the preservation opportunity exists and part of the line between Cheddleton and Kingsley and Froghall now sees regular steam services. For more details see their website at http://www.churnet-valley-railway.co.uk/main/index.php .
Former Canal

South of Kingsley and Froghall Station the preservation society has plans to re-connect to Oakamoor and potentially Alton (of Alton Towers fame). However, at present the tracks run only as far as Oakamoor Tunnel and the station at the south side has been trackless for a good few years. However, there is a five mile stretch of line between Oakamoor and Denstone that has been opened as a shared walk and cycle path by Staffordshire County Council who own the trackbed. A further stretch of line is available north of Leek but I didn’t have time to explore that stretch as well.
Heading to Alton

This railway path proved to be extremely rewarding to explore, since it still has more than its fair share of railwayana still in place. As well as some well-preserved looking bridges, there are three stations still with intact platforms and the scenery is most beautiful. Unlike the Manifold Way, this is a more conventional railway and the scenery is largely wooded valley with rolling hills rather than moor tops.
Sunny Bridge

I started my journey at Oakamoor Station, where there is an ample (although popular) car park. Only the platforms remain of the station as the buildings burned down many years ago. However, to the north of the station the old level crossing keeper’s cottage remains intact as a wonderful reminder of what the buildings at the station may have looked like. Beyond that the portal of Oakamoor Tunnel sits at the end of a shady looking cutting. The trackbed is still in good condition here and it would be relatively easy to re-open this piece of railway.
Rambler's Retreat

After having a nose around at Oakamoor I headed south in the direction of Uttoxeter. The trackbed follows the river for most of the way to Denstone, although after leaving Oakamoor it is largely out of sight for most of the way. Unlike the Manifold Way no serious attempt at resurfacing the route has taken place, although the track surface is good enough to cycle easily on. The late afternoon sun glowed through the trees to the left hand side of the track, making for a most attractive scene. Judging by the number of walkers and cars in the car park this first stretch of the line is a very popular local stroll. Further on and the trees on the left were joined by a largish wetland area. The still and sunny conditions made for some excellent reflections in the water, particularly where there were some tussocky looking grasses that had perfect mirror images below them. Just beyond and the line passed through a rocky cutting, the sides looking like a good training ground for would-be rock climbers.
Alton Station

Just over a mile into the route and I came upon the first railway bridge. Lots of walkers seemed to be heading across it and so I thought I would be nosy and find out where they were going. I crossed the River Churnet and found a most attractive teashop that looked like an Italian Villa. I got the urge to have an ice cream but soon gave up on the idea when I saw how long the queue was. Slightly disappointed I pushed on although made a mental note to explore this area in more detail on another day since the surrounding forest looked most inviting.
Alton Station

Back at the railway I headed on towards Alton and was rather surprised at how quickly I reached the station. I wasn’t altogether sure it was Alton station at first since the platforms started well before the station buildings came into view. The length of the platforms were curious – they had clearly been added to some considerable time after the station was built. The north end of the station had concrete extensions, perhaps in readiness for lengthier trains that still weren’t enough to save the line?
Alton Castle
Alton station is a delight – it was built in an Italianate style, which was probably what saved it for preservation. No expense was spared in the construction of the station to satisfy the Earl of Shrewsbury, the then owner of Alton Towers. It was bought by The Landmark Trust and now operates as an unusual holiday home (see http://www.landmarktrust.org.uk/BuildingDetails/Overview/126/Alton_Station) Be warned though – it isn’t especially cheap!
River Churnet
It is easy to see why the Churnet Valley Railway are anxious to incorporate Alton Towers station in their network. The famous theme park is at the top of the hill and I would imagine that many visitors would love to arrive behind a steam engine. I lingered for awhile at the station looking carefully at the architecture of the place and trying to imagine what it must have been like in its heyday. Because of the completeness of the station this wasn’t anything like as hard as other locations!
Abandoned House
At the far end of the station I trundled through the tunnel like overbridge carrying the main road into the village. Alongside the bridge was a large but derelict warehouse type building. As a piece of heritage it looked great but I would fear for its long term future. The village of Alton is high up above the station and is dominated by Alton Castle, a Catholic Youth retreat (see http://www.altoncastle.co.uk/ ). It is certainly a building that you wouldn’t normally see in the UK! I am guessing that the railway wasn’t especially convenient for either village or Alton Towers estate and therefore neither did much to help its case against closure.
Heading to Denstone
Pushing on from Alton Towers and the line takes on a rather different character, with a more open feel as it emerges from the woods. I seemed to have lost the crowds on this section too, with only a small number of people walking this section of route and no other cyclists seen. It was rather different to the almost motorway-like Manifold Way earlier in the day! I felt a lot less self conscious as I inspected every facet of the railway infrastructure that was left behind, including the mile posts, which lurked in the undergrowth! I soon came upon a bridge across the River Churnet, quite a big one and metal too, which was unusual. I guess the distance to the nearest road put off the scrapmen. I was glad of it though as I doubt whether there would have been any other way to cross the river for some distance. Part of the deck was missing and the side that remained intact was a bit of a mudbath, making for a tricky crossing.
Denstone Station
As it was now late afternoon, I entered a shadowy world on the other side of the bridge, as the sun was unable to penetrate the valley side. The effect on the trackbed was noticeable too, with a rather more difficult surface than I had had to encounter thus far. At the far end of this short section I caught sight of a house on my left hand side poking up just above the cutting. I took a closer look at the first opportunity, where a gateway existed a little further on. The sight of a derelict looking farm surprised me, especially as it had such a lovely setting, with the river in front and plenty of garden. I was puzzled as to why such a place could have become empty and unloved looking. I am guessing that it is probably a bit too far gone for anyone to fix it up now.
Denstone Church
The onward trip to Denstone was rather less interesting but the end of the track at Denstone did serve up a couple of treats. Firstly the platforms of the old station are still intact and despite the loss of the buildings the site of the station seems to have been shown some love in recent years. It has a train related play area for small children at one end of the station and a picnic area for adults on the platforms at the other end. Sadly the trackbed beyond the station has been obliterated by the addition of a dreaded housing estate. Alongside the station was a rather fine, if modern, looking church. I took the opportunity to have a good look around at both and stopped for refreshments in the picnic area. I like to use these moments to consider what these places would have looked like when operational. I guessed this would have always been a rather sleepy station, with bursts of activity from school children arriving and departing at the nearby Denstone College, for which the station really came into its own.
Churnet Valley Countryside
By now the time was getting on and I summoned the strength to head back to Oakamoor. It was a nice quiet ride back, but when I got to the old station at the far end of the track I was rather shocked to see that my car was the last one remaining in the car park, from the dozens that had been there when I left! I had the horrible thought that I might be locked in, but discovered to my relief that there is no lockable gate. I was just more patient for my tea than anyone else!
Operational Part of the Railway
This was a most rewarding ride. I wished that I had had the time to undertake the other section of line north of Leek, but there are several miles between the two sections and this will have to wait for another time. There is plenty of railway history to sustain the historian and most beautiful and gentle scenery to attract everyone else! The Rambler’s Retreat looks a most agreeable place to stop for refreshments half way along the track if you haven’t managed to bring any with you. Perhaps next time I come here it will be on board a train?


  1. It is good to see you traveling in the Midlands, if not the North. Shropshire is very close to us and these are two walks / rides I am unfamiliar with. From reading your blogs on the two outings, they are now firmly on my list of areas to visit, after I have completed the coast.

    It is interesting to read that you have been using a bike for these trips. I have found that my bike has been very useful in covering the miles that would have taken ages on foot. Now that I am 90% towards achieving my objective, I have resolved to try to do the rest (in Cumbria, Durham, Suffolk and Cornwall) on foot. Hopefully I can do everything except Cornwall on one day outings.

    Once complete, I shall try to revisit my rides on foot - should keep me busy!

  2. Thanks Tom,
    I have to confess that I don't head north as much as I would like to these days as I normally only have odd days available. Worthing is a long way from anywhere other than the south east :(.

    I did live in the Peak District about 20 years ago and so am very familiar with most of the best places, although these two railway lines had previously passed me by. When I travel away from home overnight my normal visits are to the south west to chalk off more coast path but occasionally (as in this case) I get away for work trips and take the opportunity to check out old railways when I am there.