Cromford and High Peak Railway

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Coldeaton Cutting on the Tissington Trail

The Cromford and High Peak Railway (C&HPR) was completed in 1831, to carry minerals and goods between the Cromford Canal at Cromford Wharf and the Peak Forest Canal at Whaley Bridge.


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.

One scheme that had been suggested would pass via Tansley, Matlock and Bakewell. In 1810, a prospectus was published for another route via Grindleford, Hope and Edale, but since it could only promise £6,000 a year, in return for an outlay of £500,000, it was received with little enthusiasm. The problem was not only carrying the line over a height of around a thousand feet, but supplying it with water on the dry limestone uplands.

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. 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 still under construction in far-away Newcastle.


The first part of the line from Cromford Wharf, by the Cromford Canal, to Hurdlow opened in 1830. From the canal it climbed over a thousand feet in five miles, 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 railway would be powered by horses on the flat sections and stationary steam engines on the nine inclined planes, 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 mile journey.

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.

Later history

The railways 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.

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, fifty five yards 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.

The final cost was £180,000, more than Jessop's estimate of £155,000, but still much cheaper than a canal. Nevertheless, the line never achieved a profit and 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 1830's, 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.

It 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 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.

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.


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.


In 1971 the Peak Park Planning Board and Derbyshire County Council bought the track bed and turned it into the High Peak Trail - now a national route of the National Cycle Network and popular with walkers, cyclists and horse riders. The Middleton Incline Engine House has also been preserved, and the ancient engine once used to haul loaded wagons up is often demonstrated [1]. Another attraction along the route is the Steeple Grange Light Railway, a narrow gauge railway running along the track bed of a branch line off the C&HPR.

Part of the route is now also designated as part of the Pennine Bridleway.

Near Cromford at the top of the town of Wirksworth, the railway passed under Black Rocks a popular gritstone climbing ground, and gave the name to the 'railway slab', a short tricky 'boulder problem' by the railway track.

The Tissington Trail is now a route of the National Cycle Network, and was formerly the railway line from Ashbourne to Buxton, joins with the C&HPR/High Peak Trail at the hamlet of Parsley Hay. In its heyday in the 1930s this railway line (opened in 1899) was deservedly popular with walkers and ramblers, because it runs near to Dovedale. It also for a time carried a through-service (ie without changing carriages) for passengers from Euston, (via Nuneaton, Uttoxeter and Ashbourne), to Buxton. However it closed in the early 1950s.


Rimmer, A. (1956 & reprints) 'Cromford and High Peak Railway', Locomotion Papers 10, The Oakwood Press, ISBN 0-85361-319-2

External link

See also