Saturday, 12 March 2011

A 19th Century Engineering Masterpiece

Middleton Top on the High Peak Trail in Derbyshire
The other day my wife and I went for a most enjoyable walk along part of the High Peak Trail near Cromford. The trail follows the line of the old Cromford and High Peak Railway which was considered to be an engineering masterpiece when it was opened in 1831 – not least because it was really part of the nationwide canal system!

In 1794 the Cromford Canal had been opened, primarily to enable limestone, coal and iron ore to be transported from the Derwent and the upper Erewash valleys to the Erewash Canal and hence, via the River Trent and the network of rivers and canals which criss-crossed the southern half of England, to where it could be used in the growing industrialisation of the country. One problem, however, was that the mountains of the Peak District and the southern Pennines prevented any transfer of goods from further south via the Cromford Canal to the north-west of the country. In 1800, however, the Peak Forest Canal, running from Whaley Bridge to Manchester, had been opened primarily to carry limestone from the quarries around Doveholes and it was not long before proposals started to be made to link these two canals.

Eventually it was decided that it would be impossibly expensive to build a canal through such hilly terrain and a railway was proposed instead. The Eastern end would be about a mile south of the Cromford terminus of the Cromford Canal at a height of 277 feet above sea level, while the western end would be at the Whaley Bridge terminus of the Peak Forest Canal at a height of 517 feet. The highest point between these two termini would be 1266 feet above sea level at Ladmanlow, near Buxton. Quite a profile for a railway line!

In 1825 an Act of Parliament approved the construction of the line. Astonishingly, given that Stephenson's pioneering Stockton and Darlington Railway would only open in September of that same year, the Act approved the construction of the Cromford and High Peak Railway for a 'railway or tramroad', to be propelled by 'stationary or locomotive steam engines.'

The line was opened six years later, and initially the wagons were hauled by horses along the flat parts of the line, while powerful fixed steam engines were used to haul them up the nine steep inclines along the thirty-three mile route, ranging from a fearsome 1 in 7 on the descent from Ladmanlow to a more modest 1 in 14 on the final drop into Whaley Bridge. At the Cromford end of the line there were two inclines of 1 in 8 as the line rose up to Middleton Top. The photograph at the head of this blog shows the top of the Middleton Incline, where the steam engine which hauled the trucks up this long steep hill is still in operation for visitors on Bank Holidays and other special days – although the continuous cable that was used to pull the trucks up the incline is no longer connected!

Middleton Top Engine House
Today the old railway line, which finally ceased operation only in 1967, is a popular place for walkers, cyclists and occasional horse-riders. But most of them are probably unaware of the fact that the trail along which they are travelling was once considered to be one of the engineering masterpieces of its day and attracted railway enthusiasts from all over the world to see it in action.

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