Wednesday, 21 March 2012

The Manifold Way

Waterhouses Station
One of the more curious former railways that have been turned into a cycle track in this country is the 8.5 mile long Manifold Way. Formerly a narrow gauge railway built to serve a very sparsely populated part of Staffordshire, it was closed after only thirty years of operation. The London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) handed the trackbed over to Staffordshire County Council in 1937, with some incredible foresight. The route is now one of the more popular cycle paths in the whole of the country and featured recently in a Telegraph article highlighting the top ten cycle paths for families.
Leaving Waterhouses
Despite living on the edge of the Peak District for a number of years in the 1990s I am ashamed to say that I had never before explored this particular cycle trail. With a conference in Birmingham to attend though I had a number of cycle trails that I wanted to explore while the opportunity existed. This was top of my list, especially when I saw how good the weather forecast was.
Manifold Valley
I parked at Waterhouses, the southern extent of the line. When operational Waterhouses station provided the transfer point between services on the standard gauge line from Leek to the narrow gauge railway that chugged up the Manifold Valley. A really comprehensive website devoted to the history of the line can be found at If you want to explore the line but don’t have a bike handy, there are hire facilities at Waterhouses. There is little public transport connecting each end of the line, so cycling out and back is probably the best option for exploring the whole line. Ironically the average cyclist will probably complete the route in not much more time that a train would have taken when the line was operational!
Narrow Cutting
Waterhouses still has the former goods station intact, but other traces of the railway are mostly gone. The station site is now occupied by the car park, crucial for its present role as cycling trailhead but rather a shame for the rail historian. The first part of the former trackbed has been rather usurped by the A523 Road, but once this is crossed the trail starts properly at the first crossing of the River Manifold on the other side. Unlike many cycle trails, the Manifold Way has a tarmac surface, which is a mixed blessing. For much of its length it is in pretty good condition but there are sections where frost damage has created some cracks and unevenness, which you will feel as a cyclist!
Manifold Farm
Conditions were ideal for cycling, with no wind, a slight chill in the air and plenty of sunshine. What I didn’t account for though, was the amount of users that were out that day. Almost immediately there were large numbers of cyclists and walkers taking advantage of the fantastic conditions. Being that this had been a narrow gauge railway, the width of the trackbed was often quite narrow and this caused a few traffic jams in places. It was also apparent very quickly why the line had failed to prosper. Despite there being ten stations en route to Hulme End, there were no settlements along the route of any great size and even the small places that did exist were often at the tops of hills overlooking the Manifold Valley rather than on the valley floor where the railway ran. It was obvious that when buses came along to serve these places that there would be little room for a railway.
Crossing the Manifold
Yet the windy and enclosed nature of the former railway made for delightful cycling and the crowds were not as bad as I had first feared when I left Waterhouses. Within half a mile or so I had the track pretty much to myself and made sedate progress up the track, enjoying the sounds of twittering birds in the trees alongside me. I soon became aware of the fact that the line crossed the River a large number of times along this section of the former line, although it looked like many of the bridges had actually been reconstructed by cycling use rather than for trains.
I passed a farm after a couple of miles or so. In the past the railway must have opened up some valuable markets for places like this, when even now roads in this part of the Peak District are still very narrow and not really designed for handling anything much larger than a Transit Van. Nowadays though farming seems to be taking a back seat to tourism and the farm in question was eagerly promoting cream teas & slices of cake to passing cyclists. Very tempting on a warm spring day!
Weak Bridge
By now the gentle rolling countryside that I had passed through on the way to Waterhouses was giving way to the rather more rugged terrain of the White Peak area of the Peak District National Park. The engineers of the railway chose to run alongside the River Hamps, an unusual river in that there was no water in the river bed when I passed! This is not uncommon during the summer months when the water table is below the surface of the river bed, but at this time of year I should have expected quite a lot of flow. Instead all I saw was a whole lot of very dry rocks!
Thorpe Cloud
Nevertheless the railway engineers had to run the railway across the dry river no less than nine times in order to take advantage of the relatively flat but narrow valley floor. It was quite obvious that the trains must have run quite slowly along this tortuous route. Eventually at Beeston Tor Farm, the River Hamps met the River Manifold, after which the railway took its name.
Rocky Territory
Despite the supposed confluence of these two rivers there was still no water. The valley floor was wide enough to accommodate a campsite though and what an unusual site it was. It seemed to be full of rather elderly looking camping vehicles and caravans, most of which seemed to be semi-permanently stationed there. The campsite is overlooked by the impressive limestone cliff from which the farm takes its name. In operational days the second station heading north from Waterhouses was located here. As with all the intermediate stations, no trace remains for they were all built of wood and quickly fell into disrepair.
Grindon Station
A little further on and I took the opportunity of admiring the rather substantial stone arch bridge across the dry river. I guess at one time there would have been a level crossing here, but no trace remains. A short distance further on and the site of Grindon station was passed. Again this was a considerable distance from the place t was supposed to serve. The path continued its winding route up the valley until I reached what was surely one of the few reasons why passengers would head this way – Thors Cave.
Peak Barn
Even now this is one of the major attractions of this part of the Peak District. Easily seen from the valley floor, despite being about 80 metres above, it is a mecca for rock climbers. There is some evidence that this cave was once inhabited by Palaeolithic people, for whom the cave was shelter rather than merely a curiosity. There was quite a gathering of people at the bottom, although I suspect most had come from the nearby car park rather than all the way along the valley bottom as I had done.
By now the river had water in it, although it was impossible to tell from following the railway track when this had actually happened (I even checked on the return journey!). What was obvious though was how much it changed the river valley for the better. Something about the water sparkling in the spring sunshine just made everything around it rather more appealing. By the time I reached the next river crossing, the river bed was completely filled with water and rightly attracted a lot of admirers now walking along the track. This wasn’t such good news from my point of view as many didn’t seem to realise it was a cycle track and had no awareness of us people on two wheels!
Pepper Pot
At this river crossing the track turned into a public road for the short distance to Wetton Mill, a local beauty spot and approximately the halfway point of the route. The Mill is now an attractive refreshment room and there were dozens of people out enjoying a drink by the waterside. Originally this was a corn mill, but I am struggling to imagine where the corn came from since this is hardly arable farming country! The old station here is now occupied by a very busy car park, one of the few available in this part of the Peak District.
Swainsley Tunnel
As I headed north from Wetton Mill, the track is now occupied by a public road, which was fortunately quiet along its length. The gradient took a definite slope upwards here though and it was a bit of a slow slog up the bank to Swainsley Tunnel. This rather unusual tunnel was built under the grounds of Swainsley Hall, a large manor house still visible from the line. This was owned by the Wardle family, a shareholder of the line, but who did not wish to see the trains chugging through their estate! The tunnel is unusual in that it is a good deal higher than one would imagine of the small trains that once plied this route. Apparently it was built this way in order to accommodate the practice of milk trucks riding on top of flat bed wagons carried along the route.
Approaching Butterton Station
Passing through the tunnel is not for the faint hearted. It is beloved of motorcyclists who use it to motor through to make the most noise possible! The road is only just wide enough for one car so as a cyclist you either have to take advantage of the refuges provided or just hope you get lucky! In fact I did on both the outward and return journeys and for this I was very grateful. At the north end of the tunnel was Butterton station, now a pocket car park although with a little imagination it is possible to see where the station might have been located.
At the north end of the tunnel I was pleased to leave the public road behind me and continue my journey along path only. The route skirted along the western edge of the valley through some rocky cuttings, which must have taken some serious excavation. Another half mile or so further on and I came upon the striking looking village of Ecton. This was dominated by a church half way up the valley side. It had a green copper spire, rather an unusual feature for a church serving such a small community. There had once been a creamery at Ecton and the business from this plant helped ensure the prosperity of the line for many years. When it closed in 1933 this signed the death knell for the railway since there was insufficient remaining traffic to make it a viable proposition.
Approaching Hulme End
Ecton is also clearly the site of much mining activity. Copper and lead were mined here, perhaps explaining the copper church spire and certainly the large spoil heaps which still exist all around the village. The station yard is still quite visible here, with the goods platform still somewhat intact although seriously overgrown. I would very much doubt that it is visible at all during the summer months. Overlooking the yard is a small terrace of cottage, either built for railway workers or probably more likely for workers in the creamery.
Hulme End Station
A little further on from Ecton and the narrow confines of the valley are finally left behind. The last mile or so along the Manifold Way are across the wide open plateau of the White Peak to the final station at Hulme End. There is some suggestion that the final destination was actually supposed to be Hartington, some three miles further on up the valley. However, plans to build this final part never materialised and any onward passengers would have had to make do with other connections, perhaps by horse and cart. Thus the village of Hartington lay beyond the reach of the rail system, although it did have a station on the Ashbourne line, about a mile up a steep lane. What a different world that must have been!
Manifold Museum
Hulme End still has the original station building intact and this make for a most fascinating place to linger for a short while. It now serves as an information centre and toilets. The information centre has a number of pictures showing the railway in its heyday together with a model mock up of Hulme End station in operational days. Next door is a replica of the former engine shed, now serving as a most attractive looking tea room. For me this marked the halfway point of my journey for I had few other options than to return the way I came! The good news for cyclists following the route in the same direction as me is that the return journey is mostly downhill (at least the first two thirds anyway!).
Manifold Valley Visitor Centre
The Manifold Way is perhaps not the best rail cycle path to tackle at busy times. Necessarily quite narrow, it suffered a bit from the amount of use it gets. The tarmac surface is a mixed blessing too, for it is badly cracked in places and isn’t quite the smooth ride that can be gained on more modern cycle paths. Unsurprisingly there are few railway relics left from this line that ran for barely 30 years and closed 80 years ago. Notable exceptions are the tunnel at Swainsley and the stations at either end of the line. Nevertheless the scenery is quite spectacular and this is a thoroughly recommended trip for anyone interested in railway history. If cycling it is probably best to start at Waterhouses, so that the worst of the uphill cycling can be completed on the outward leg. The various refreshment facilities along the way all look well worth a look or there are plenty of places where a picnic would also be very enjoyable. This served as a good starter for my mini-tour of Peak District cycle routes this spring.

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