The Cromford and High Peak Railway (C&HPR) in Derbyshire, England, was completed in 1831, to carry minerals and goods between the Cromford Canal at Cromford Wharf and the Peak Forest Canal at Whaley Bridge.Origins
The Peak District of Derbyshire has always posed problems for travel, but from 1800 when the Peak Forest Canal was built, an alternative to the long route through the Trent and Mersey Canal was sought, not only for minerals and finished goods to Manchester, but raw cotton for the East Midlands textile industry.
Finally Josias Jessop, the son of William Jessop was asked to survey the route. He, his father and their former partner Benjamin Outram had gained wide experience in building tramways where conditions were unsuitable for canals, and that is what he suggested. Even so, as almost the first long distance line at thirty three miles, it was a bold venture. Moreover, to its summit at Ladmanlow, it would climb a thousand feet from Cromford, making it one of the highest lines ever built in Britain, before or since.
In 1825 the Act of Parliament was obtained for a “railway or tramroad” to be propelled by “stationary or locomotive steam engines,” which was remarkably prescient, considering few people considered steam locomotives to be feasible, and George Stephenson’s Stockton and Darlington Railway was barely open in far-away County Durham.
The first part of the line from Cromford Wharf, on the Cromford Canal, to Hurdlow opened in 1830. From the canal it climbed over a thousand feet in five miles (over 330 m in 8 km), through four inclines ranging from 1 in 14 to 1 in 8 – Cromford, Sheep Pasture, Middleton and Hopton, above Wirksworth.
The line then proceeded up the relatively gentle Hurdlow incline at 1 in 16 . The second half from Hurdlow to Whaley Bridge opened in 1832 descending through four more inclines, the steepest being 1 in 7. The highest part of the line was at Ladmanlow, a height of 1,266 feet (386 m). For comparison, the present day highest summit in England is Ais Gill at 1,169 feet (356 m) on the Settle-Carlisle line.
The railway was laid using so-called “fishbelly” rails supported on stone blocks, as was common in those days, rather than timber sleepers, since it would be powered by horses on the flat sections. On the nine inclined planes, stationary steam engines would be used, apart from the last incline into Whaley Bridge, which was counterbalanced and worked by a horse-gin. The engines, rails and other ironwork were provided by the Butterley Company. It would take around two days to complete the 33 miles (53 km) journey. Luckily it was laid to the Stephenson gauge of 4ft 8½ inch, rather than Outram’s usual 4 ft 2 in.
While its function was to provide a shorter route for Derbyshire coal than the Trent and Mersey Canal, it figured largely in early East Midlands railway schemes because it was seen as offering a path into Manchester for proposed lines from London. However, the unsuitability of cable railways for passengers became clear within a few years.
Across the plateau, since the line had been built on the canal principle of following contours, there were many tight curves, which in later years, were to hamper operations. Not only did the C&HPR have the steepest adhesion worked incline of any line in the country, the 1 in 14 of Hopton, it also had the sharpest curve, 55 yards (50 m) radius through eighty degrees at Gotham.
The line was isolated until 1853 when, in an effort to improve traffic, a connection was made with the Manchester, Buxton, Matlock and Midlands Junction Railway at High Peak Junction just north of Whatstandwell. In 1857 the northern end was connected to the Stockport, Disley and Whaley Bridge Railway. Around this time, the people of Wirksworth were agitating for a line and an incline was built between the two. However, the Midland Railway began surveying a line from Duffield in 1862 and it was never used.
The C&HPR was leased by the London and North Western Railway in 1862, being taken over fully in 1887. By 1890 permission had been obtained to connect the line directly to Buxton by building a new line from Harpur Hill the two or three miles (3–5 km) into the town centre, thus frustrating the Midland Railway’s plans for a route to Manchester.
The old north end of the line from Ladmanlow (a short distance from Harpur Hill) to Whaley Bridge via the Goyt Valley was largely abandoned in 1892, though the track bed is still visible in many places and one incline forms part of a public road.
Then, built by the LNWR, the branch line to Ashbourne was opened in 1899. This utilized the section of the C&HP line from Buxton as far as Parsley Hay, from where a single line ran south to Ashbourne, where it connected with the North Staffordshire Railway. The formation was constructed to allow for double tracking if necessary, but this never happened
The railway’s first steam locomotive arrived in 1841 in the shape of Peak, built by Robert Stephenson and Company. By 1860 the line had six more locomotives gradually displacing the horses. These locomotives were hauled up and down the inclines along with their trains with the cables, which initially had been hemp, replacing the earlier chains, but by then were of steel.
In 1855 an Act of Parliament authorised the carriage of passengers. However the one train per day each ways did little to produce extra revenue and, when a passenger was killed in 1877, the service was discontinued. The line’s prosperity depended on that of the canals it connected but, by the 1830s, they were in decline. This was, to a degree, offset by the increase in the trade for limestone from the quarries.
There were, in fact, very few accidents. In 1857, the Cromford and Sheep Pasture inclines had been merged into one, and in 1888, a brake van parted from the train near the summit. Gathering speed, it was unable to round the curve into Cromford Wharf. It passed over both the canal and the double track railway line, and landed in a field. A catch pit was therefore installed near the bottom. This can still be seen from the A6 with a (more recent) wrecked wagon still in it.
The most serious accident occurred in 1937. The line was fairly level on the approach to the Hopton Incline and it was the custom to gain speed for the uphill gradient. There was a shallow curve immediately before and on this occasion the locomotive spread the track, rolled over and down the embankment with four wagons. The driver was killed and thereafter a speed limit of 40 mph was strictly enforced.
The railway served dozens of small sidings. Towards the Cromford end of the line, between Sheep Pasture Top and Friden there were over 15 sidings, mostly grouped between Sheep Pasture and Longcliffe, primarily serving quarries. One was built in 1883 from Steeplehouse to serve the Middleton Quarry north of Wirksworth. The branch closed in 1967 but the trackbed was later used for the 18 in (457 mm) Steeple Grange Light Railway in 1985.
Towards the Whaley Bridge end of the line, another plethora of sidings lay between Dowlow Halt and Ladmanlow, mostly serving quarries and limeworks. This included some dozen sidings which lay in the short section between Harpur Hill and Old Harpur.
Traffic – by now almost exclusively from local quarries – was slowly decreasing during the Beeching era, the first section of the line being closed in 1963. This was the rope worked 1 in 8 Middleton Incline. The rest of the line was fully closed in spring 1967, including the 1 in 8 Sheep Pasture Incline and the Hopton Incline.