Thursday, 29 March 2012

High Peak Trail

Middleton Top
After my sojourn in Staffordshire, I turned my attentions to a couple of cycle trails across the border in Derbyshire. Along with Devon, Derbyshire is possibly one of the best counties in Britain for railway trails, with many former lines bought by the County Council and turned into leisure routes. Elsewhere on this blog you will find previous trips of mine along the Sett Valley Trail and Monsal Trail. I turned my attentions this time to the High Peak Trail and Tissington Trail which meet in the heart of the Peak District at Parsley Hay and which can be cycled as an end to end route.

Hopton Tunnel

Back in 1994 I was young and fit enough to do a complete loop from Ashbourne, completing the triangular shaped route by cycling along the main road from Ashbourne to Middleton Top. This time however, I neither had the inclination (or probably the fitness) to undertake this extra 10 mile (and hilly) section so I came up with a cunning plan. I dropped off my bike at Middleton Top, parked in Ashbourne and caught the bus along this stretch of road.

Hopton Incline

The High Peak Trail is 17 miles in length and was originally part of the Cromford and High Peak Railway. It looked unlike any other railway when it operated until the late 1960s. Largely built along canal principles it has some very strange attributes as a railway, with steep hills and sharp curves all a feature of the trackbed. At each end of the railway was a connecting canal, at Whaley Bridge and Cromford. As the railway crossed some very high terrain, steep inclines were provided where sometimes complete trains were hauled up and down using steam power from stationary engines.

Top of Hopton Incline

I concentrated today on the section that crosses the high moorland from Middleton Top to Parsley Hay. A further three mile stretch makes its way down to the north of Wirksworth to the Cromford Canal way down in the Derwent Valley. Cycling this stretch is not such a great idea, for in one direction you have a very steep set of hills to contend with and in the other a rather dangerous descent! Given the number of other users of the trail this is probably best avoided. From Cromford the railway climbed over 1000 feet in less than five miles through inclines varying at 1 in 8 through to 1 in 16. I did take the opportunity to look at a couple of parts of the route after I had completed my ride, but more of that later.


At Middleton Top one of the engine houses remains in place as a preserved monument to this feat of engineering. A mock up of how the engine would have worked in practice has been provided for visitors. Sadly the visitor centre was closed on this visit, but you can find out more about the workings of this incline and the one further down the slope at Sheep Pasture by looking at the excellent website called Forgotten Relics . It was a good time to be looking at the old place, for all around me the mist swirled around the quarries and engine house, providing a fantastic atmosphere and almost as if steam were still pumping out of the old plant.

Former Works

Eventually after having a good snoop around I summoned up the energy to commence my 25 mile journey to Ashbourne via Parsley Hay. Although there were many quarries along the length of the railway, it is perhaps the area immediately around Middleton Top where they are most apparent. Some are still working but most are not. They are full of limestone so pure that hundreds of tonnes a year used to be gobbled up in the sugar beet growing industry in the fens. Now much is used as roadstone or as flux in power stations. There is plenty of signage telling people to keep out, a necessary evil I suppose in these days of health and safety and where leisure facilities sit alongside industrial sites.

Rocky Cutting

Although the day started out with swirling mist and plenty of cloud it soon became obvious that this would only be a passing phase and I was hopeful of some really good weather as I headed for the first engineering feature of the route – the dank yet splendid Hopton Tunnel. Considering that this had been built in 1825 it is still in remarkable shape. I was pleased that the trackbed surface had been dealt with differently here, for there was a fair amount of water about, probably as a result of the permeable nature of the limestone it tunnels through. I passed the first person of the day through here after a mile or so of travel – a young female runner who looked like she had plenty of miles under her feet but still looked pretty fresh. She was one of the few people I met on the entire trail.

Wheel Seat

Beyond the tunnel is a sight that many visitors to the Peak District will be familiar with. A large industrial complex sits within the park, reminding everyone that this part of the world still has an industrial future as well as past. Great big thundering lorries left the plant every so often, rather than the hard working locos and wagons that would once have serviced these kinds of places.

Derbyshire Dales

Once past a couple of old boys walking an elderly looking dog I set about something I would never have equated with a railway path; Hopton Incline. This 1 in 14 incline was originally serviced by an incline but this was dispensed with in the later years and engines had to haul their loads up the hill I had to tackle by adhesion only, making it the steepest stretch of railway in the UK for that period of time. Having cycled it I can testify to its relative steepness and length and I had the benefit of much better grip with my road tyres.

Engineering Works

I paused to catch my breath at the top, which enabled me to check out the remnants of the engine houses here, together with a couple of cottages that looked as if they might have once been used by railway workers. There was also an excellent signboard here showing how the trains would once have looked as they puffed their way up the hill. I don’t remember these signboards on my last outing but they certainly add extra interest to this most fascinating of routes.

Mininglow Embankment

Although at the top of the hill I still felt myself climbing steadily for quite a long stretch past the incline. Earthworks were fairly few and far between for the next few miles as the line used the contours of the landscape as much as possible to continue its journey north-westwards. I found progress rather slow, partly as a result of me feeling the hills but also just wanting to really take in my surroundings as I pedalled along. Train passengers would not have been able to do this, for the line was freight only for the majority of its life and the short-lived passenger service stopped as long ago as 1874.

Looking Back at Mininglow

Some way past the incline and through a big dank rocky cutting I headed round one of the incredibly sharp curves that would have had locomotive and truck wheels squealing and grinding as they struggled to stay on the rails. At the end of the curve was the site of an old freight yard at Longcliffe, complete with loading bay where the trucks would have been loaded with more stone. Thanks to the interpretation board the scene could still be easily imagined.

Across the Moors

Eventually the industrial plants ran out and I headed across lonely moorland, seemingly a long way from the nearest road. The line was now a lot more level and I could feel the difference as I pedalled on. Progress was a lot quicker now and the features of this extraordinary line were continuing to surprise me. As the line switched from one part of level ground to another, huge embankments built along the principles of dry stone walls carried the line high above the surrounding countryside in places. This was especially apparent at Mininglow, where the route suddenly swung from one side of the valley to the other. The sight of this limestone embankment must have been very harsh on the landscape when it was first built in the 1820s.


Mininglow is now the site of a small pocket car park but was once one of the many shunting yards that characterised this route. In the early days progress along the railway was incredibly slow – it was not unheard of for trucks to take two days to traverse the entire route of 33 miles. It wasn’t immediately clear why this location had a yard, for it wasn’t near any industrial facilities and indeed I was completely surrounded by farmland now.

Level Crossing

A rare piece of tree lined trackbed followed until I got to the famously tight curve at Gotham (no, not that one!). This curve was a radius of 50 metres through eighty degrees and trains struggled to get around it. Indeed any engine with too long of a wheelbase simply couldn’t negotiate this corner and the screech of the wheels must have been unbearable for the farming folk that lived just above this point. No such problem on my bike though and I was grateful for the easy surface of this stretch of the path. The path continued on an embankment high above the surrounding countryside for a short stretch and I took a breather to watch a chap laying a hedge far below me. He looked to be nearly finished but the whole process was a work of art and will hopefully allow the hedge to have a much healthier season ahead.

Newhaven Bridge

A little further on and I came upon Newhaven level crossing. We mere cyclists no longer have right of way here, having to negotiate the large gates blocking the way. In operational days though the train was king and this level crossing could cause some serious delays for motorists unlucky enough to be caught by the gates. Apparently the road rises to a crest on one side of the crossing so the enginemen (who were responsible for shutting the gates by hand) had to keep their wits about them to stop passing traffic.

Friden Works

The dramatic earthworks that had characterised the last couple of miles did not seem to be needed for the next mile or so. I came upon the brickworks at Friden, still functioning although with finished products taken away by road these days and not rail. The former goods yard is now a car park for cyclists and dog-walkers and even on this weekday morning there were a few cars using it. I was more interested in the frieze that has been inlaid into the rear wall of the works facing the trackbed. This shows how they make bricks at the plant in a most novel and informative way.

Friden Works

A little further on and the track passed through a small stretch of woodland, a fairly rare sight on the limestone plateau. The trees had a lovely glow about them as the sun’s strength was really getting up now. In fact the High Peak Trail is particularly good because of the lack of trees, which on some former railway lines cut off the views of the surrounding countryside and mean that the tracks resemble tree lined tunnels.

Stretching Out

The last piece of engineering to encounter on the trail was the Newhaven Tunnel. Although modest in length, the date of completion (1825) is very early compared with most railways. With the sun getting surprisingly hot behind me, I was quite pleased to have the damp shade of the tunnel for a few moments. Not far ahead of the tunnel is Parsley Hay Junction, where the High Peak Trail now meets the Tissington Trail but which would have once been a railway junction with the line heading south towards Ashbourne and Rocester. I would be heading down the line on my next journey, heading back to meet my car in Ashbourne. However, before I did so I pedalled the half mile or so to the site of the former Parsley Hay railway station.

Former Signal

Parsley Hay Station is no longer, but the station area is now occupied by a popular visitor centre, car park and bike hire place. There is a refreshment kiosk her too, but being a weekday in March it wasn’t open (only at weekends during the winter months). There were still a lot of people about, using the picnic area and the bike hire shop seemed to be doing some reasonable trade. I took the opportunity to take a breather myself and admired the view out towards the Chrome and Packhorse Hills and over towards Buxton. It was a fabulous view on a nice calm and relatively still day like today, but it must have been a pretty cold and inhospitable place to wait for a train in years gone by.

Parsley Hay Tunnel

The High Peak Trail officially continues northwards towards Buxton for another 3 miles. I was eager to complete my trip to Ashbourne and didn’t much fancy a further six miles of cycling so I didn’t do this section of route (in fact I never have – must rectify that one day!). Once back at Ashbourne I did go and explore the southern end of the railway, including a couple of the inclines and the former railway junction at Cromford. The sheer daring of the whole enterprise can really be appreciated by exploring this part and the steep valley sides that the railway traversed are delightfully scenic now, with trackbed properly absorbed into the countryside. This part of the line is in stark contrast with the section across the limestone plateau, which in places can be quite bleak. If time allows I may do the whole route one day, but if time is pressing (as it was for me), the section from Middleton Top to Parsley Hay is particularly fascinating and should not be missed.

Parsley Hay Station

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 .
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 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 ). 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?

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.