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Cromford and High Peak Railway
Cromford Wharf to Whaley Bridge
Derbyshire

In the early 1820s a canal was planned to connect the Cromford Canal at Cromford Wharf with the Whaley Bridge Branch of the Peak Forest Canal at Whaley Bridge, lying on the opposite side of the White Peak to the north west. On the contrary, a junction canal such as the one proposed would have been impracticable across such mountainous terrain, so the idea was dropped and a railway was built instead. Construction of the railway was authorised by Parliament on the 2 May 1825, the Cromford and High Peak Railway Company was incorporated on the 2 May 1825 and the first General Meeting was held on the 26 May 1825. Josias Jessop (1781 - 1826), William Jessop's son, was appointed as the consulting engineer. The estimated cost of building the undertaking was £164,000 but in the event this proved to be a major underestimate. Following Jessop's untimely death in 1826, he was replaced by Thomas Woodhouse who became the resident engineer for its construction.

Cromford lies in the parish of Wirksworth in the County of Derby and Whaley Bridge lay in the County Palatine of Chester but today it is in the County of Derby as a result of boundary changes.

Map of the Cromford and High Peak Railway

This extraordinary standard gauge (4 feet 8½ inches) railway was provided with edge rails from the outset and it was opened in two sections. The first was from Cromford Wharf (later extended to join the Midland Railway at High Peak Junction) to Hurdlow, a distance of 15½ miles, which opened on the 29 May 1830 and the second was from Hurdlow to Whaley Bridge, a distance of 17½ miles, which opened on the 6 July 1831. Its summit level was more than 1,200 feet above sea level.

Most of all, it is remarkable in that it was a railway built in the manner of a canal with inclined planes being substituted for flights of locks, and in all there were nine of these. In order to reduce earthworks along the summit section to a minimum this was built as a very winding contour railway that resulted in numerous tight bends. In some instances the railway almost seemed to double back on itself. Where earthworks were unavoidable, the result was a number of huge embankments and narrow cuttings. A 19th century writer described it as, 'the sky scraping High Peak Railway with its corkscrew curves that seem to have been laid out by a mad Archimedes endeavouring to square the circle.'

The main purpose of the railway was for the transportation of minerals, such as limestone, lime, coal and iron, as well as general goods.

Details of the nine inclined planes are as follows:

Note: The Upper and Lower Bunsall incline planes were combined on the 8 June 1857. Mean gradient 1 in 7.5, 1,100 yards long

It should be noted that, depending upon which company record is referred to, then the gradients do vary slightly from the values given above and over the years some of the gradients were modified, particularly that of the Hopton inclined plane when it was found that locomotives could climb it.

It is known that the Butterley Company built the stationary engine at Middleton Top and in view of this it is probable that this company built all the stationary engines used on this railway. Between 1792 and 1806, this company traded as Benjamin Outram & Company.

The source of power for the Wirksworth Branch inclined plane is rather enigmatic. The 'engine house' consisted of a large stone-built plinth surmounted by a concrete floor, on top of which stood a complex framework of heavy-duty timber. In this respect, it more resembled a horse gin than it did an engine house.

The Cromford and High Peak Railway is celebrated for its many curves and on the summit, between Longcliffe Goods and Friden, there were 21 curves of 110 yards radius or less, three of these being 66 yards, while one, the record holding Gotham Curve, had a radius of only 55 yards, the line turning through 80°.

There were four tunnels, these being located at:

*Hindlow tunnel was a later addition and was double track. It was bored for the London and North Western Railway's, Whaley Bridge - Buxton - Parsley Hay line.

When the railway first opened, waggons were hauled by horses along the more level sections and afterwards by steam locomotives. To begin with, it took about two days to traverse its full length.

Steam locomotives were first introduced in 1833 but it is understood that these were complemented by horse haulage for about another 30 years. Following the introduction of steam locomotives, it was discovered in 1877 that they could tenaciously climb the Hopton inclined plane, which had a gradient of 1 in 14.

An official passenger service was operated on the Cromford and High Peak Railway between 1874 and 1877 and during this period there was one train daily throughout the length of the line, in each direction. This service ceased in 1877 following a passenger being involved in a fatal accident.

Nevertheless, this was not the first passenger service on the railway. It seems that Messrs G Wheatcroft operated the first service under contract and this commenced in May 1833. For the convenience of passengers travelling on the railway, this firm also ran a coach service between Whaley Bridge and Manchester. It is not known when these railway and coach services ceased running. A Trade Directory of 1835 shows that this firm was also a 'Conveyancer by Water'. German Wheatcroft and his sons managed this firm and German was the first Wharfinger (Manager) at Bugsworth Wharf on the Peak Forest Canal when it opened for trade in 1796. Little is known about German but he disappeared from Bugsworth in 1805 to reappear again in 1833 as the operator of a passenger service on the newly opened railway. In circa 1808, a Jerman Wheatcroft was in charge of the inclined plane on the Peak Forest Tramway at Chapel-en-le-Frith. It is possible that Jerman was another member of the same family, rather than it being a difference of spelling. It is likely that German was born at Crich, Derbyshire, and that he was Christened there on the 9 May 1773, his father being Abraham Wheatcroft. He died at Belper, Derbyshire, either in 1841 or 1849.

The railway remained an isolated line until the 21 February 1853 when the Manchester, Buxton, Matlock and Midlands Junction Railway made a connection to it. It was leased to the London and North Western Railway in 1862 and it was fully taken over by them in 1887. Following authorisation to connect the railway directly to Buxton by the construction of a line from Harpur Hill, much of the original northern end of the railway had been abandoned by 1890. This being between Parsley Hay and Harpur Hill and between Bunsall tunnel and Shallcross Yard, above Whaley Bridge, by way of the Goyt Valley. Much of the abandoned track bed is still extant and the two Bunsall inclined planes now form part of a road. The short section from Shallcross Yard to Whaley Bridge, including the inclined plane, remained open until the 9 April 1952.

By the time of the 'Beeching Era', trade from local limestone quarries was decreasing and another section of line closed in 1963, this being the Middleton inclined plane. The section between Middleton and Parsley Hay closed on the 30 April 1967 and this included the Sheep Pasture and Hopton inclined planes, the latter, with its gradient of 1 in 14, being the steepest adhesion stretch of railway line in Britain. The final section, between Friden and Parsley Hay, closed in September 1967.

In 1971, the Planning Board of the Peak District National Park, in collaboration with Derbyshire County Council, bought much of the track bed and used it to create the High Peak Trail. This is now a national route of the National Cycle Network as well as being popular with walkers and horse riders. Part of the trail is also designated as a section of the Pennine Bridleway. The engine house of the Middleton inclined plane at Middleton Top was preserved as a Visitor Centre and the beam engines, once used to haul waggons, are occasionally demonstrated with compressed air. Near Cromford, the railway passed below Black Rocks and this is a popular locality for climbing.

An additional attraction for visitors to the area is the Steeple Grange Light Railway, which is a narrow gauge railway that runs along the track bed of a former branch line of the Cromford and High Peak Railway near Wirksworth. This 18 inch-gauge railway was built in 1985 on part of the former Killer's Branch to Middleton Quarry from Steeple House Junction on the Cromford and High Peak Railway. This line features a 1 in 27 gradient and there are two operational passenger locomotives as well as two works locomotives and others are under restoration. Two extensions to this line are being studied, one is to the National Stone Centre and the other is an extension up the gradient towards Middleton Quarry.

The later (1899) railway line between Ashbourne and Buxton joined the Cromford and High Peak Railway at Parsley Hey and this now forms part of the National Cycle Network and it is known as the Tissington Trail. The heyday of this line was in the 1930s when it was extensively used by ramblers because of its proximity to Dovedale. For a time, there was also a through service between London (Euston) and Buxton via Nuneaton, Uttoxeter and Ashbourne but this was discontinued in the early 1950s.

At Whaley Bridge, it is possible to explore the short inclined plane that brought goods down the hillside and across an iron bridge over the river Goyt to the transhipment shed and wharf at the terminus of the Whaley Bridge Branch of the Peak Forest Canal. It is also possible to see the site of the horse gin that was used to operate the inclined plane.

From Whaley Bridge, it is a one-mile walk along the towpath of the Peak Forest Canal to visit the Ancient Monument of Bugsworth Basin at the terminus of the main line of the canal. This was the interchange between the Peak Forest Tramway and the Peak Forest Canal and nowadays it is possible to explore part of the tramway by walking along the Tramway Trail.

A recent project by English Heritage was to carry out a heritage audit of both the Cromford and High Peak Railway and the Peak Forest Tramway and this took the form of an archaeological survey of each of them. The purpose of this was to gather together a quantity of related information to help forthcoming management decisions about their appropriate preservation and suitable presentation to the public. An ensuing stage of this project will be to work out an overseeing agenda for each route. It is anticipated that this will be integrated with better visitor information about the proper interpretation of remaining features as an aid to the better understanding of their historic context and importance.

Cromford Wharf Sheep Pasture Inclined Plane
Cromford Wharf on the Cromford Canal with the transit sheds on the left, 1950s.

The locomotive is an unidentified Class J94, 0-6-0ST. This class was introduced in 1943 and they were bought from the Ministry of Supply in 1946.
Sheep Pasture inclined plane, 1904.

Class 1P LNWR 2-4-0T 'Chopper' locomotive ascending on the winding rope. The locomotive is using power to assist the stationary engine at the top of the plane. The catchpit between the tracks is a safety device to catch runaway waggons in the event of the rope snapping. Note the Pointsman's cabin on the right at the convergence of the tracks.
Below Black Rocks Hopton Inclined Plane
Class 1P LNWR 2-4-0T 'Chopper' locomotive, BR No. 58092 (formerly LMSR No. 26428), below Black Rocks, June 1960.

This locomotive was built in 1877 for the LNWR and it is seen here hauling a goods train between Sheep Pasture Top and Middleton Bottom.
Class 2F 0-6-0T locomotive LMS No. 7527 (LMS No. 25527, BR No. 58860) ascending Hopton inclined plane, 4 May 1934.

This is an ex-North London Railway locomotive.
Minninglow embankment and bridge Whaley Bridge Inclined Plane
The Minninglow embankment, with a bridge built into it, 1980s. View looking down the Whaley bridge inclined plane, 1950.

This incline was operated by a horse gin (horse capstan or whim) and chain. Its mode of operation never changed until its closure on the 9 April 1952.
Goyt bridge at Whaley Bridge Transit Shed at Whaley bridge
Railway bridge over the river Goyt at Whaley Bridge, 24 March 1979.

View looking downstream towards Goyt Mill. This iron bridge only carried a single track.
The southern end of the Whaley Bridge transit shed at the terminus of the Whaley Bridge Branch of the Peak Forest Canal, c1950.

The canal is in the centre, surrounded by railings.

 

Photographs: Jack Brady Archive Collection