This is the second in a series of posts about wrinkled tin or corrugated iron structures found on Britain’s railways.
For this post I’m returning home to Derbyshire and a fascinating location – Middleton Top – on the uplands above Middleton-by-Wirksworth.
A short history of the Cromford & High Peak Railway
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.
It was an audatious plan, a link between High Peak Junction at 277 feet above sea-level and Whaley Bridge at 517 feet. In the middle it rose to over 1,000 feet at Ladmanlow, however difficulties in ensuring an adequate water supply on the high limestone plateau led to the scheme being dropped.
Proposals were then put forward, and accepted, for building an equally improbable railway that would stretch for 33 miles across upland Derbyshire. It was a railway designed on a canal model, one of contour-hugging levels, with inclined planes replacing the locks.
The Cromford & High Peak Railway Co. was created by Act of Parliament on 2nd May 1825 for the purpose of linking the Cromford Canal with the Peak Forest Canal at Whaley Bridge by rail. This connection was intended to provide a through route from the North and East Midlands to Manchester and the South Lancashire region avoiding the long Trent and Mersey Canal journey.
The proposed line had been surveyed during 1824 by Josias Jessop and when it opened, in two stages, in 1830 and 1831, at just under 34 miles in length; it slightly longer than the Liverpool & Manchester Railway.
Josias Jessop (1781 – 1826), William Jessop’s son, was 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.
The major hurdle that Jessop had needed to overcome was Derbyshire’s bleak High Peak region which rises one thousand feet between the two canals. No locomotives then could climb steeply inclined rails and Jessop’s answer to the problem was to use a series of powered inclined planes linking long, nearly level sections of line suitable for either locomotives or horses.
When seeking to describe the railway’s bold and ingenious design, one nineteenth writer wrote: “The skyscraping High Peak Railway with its corkscrew curves that seem to have been laid out by a mad Archimedes endeavouring to square the circle”.
Jessop’s plan involved steep inclines, up and down which wagons were hauled on chains until the 1850s and then on cables by steam driven winding engines. Initially, horses were relied on to pull the trucks along the flatter part of the route, but steam trains began to replace them from 1833. The line continued to play an integral part in linking the canal systems for a further 20 years, when it was connected to the rapidly expanding railway network, which apart from providing a local service was also used to send limestone all over the country, and to transport minerals, corn, coal and other commodities from one canal to the other.
When the line opened there were no less then nine inclined planes throughout its length, eight employing steam winding engines in distinctive gritstone engine houses to haul wagons up and down. Each incline was equipped with double track to enable wagons to be moved in both directions at the same time as well as being balanced for safety and economy of operation.
The winding engine at Middleton Top was the third one from the beginning of the line at High Peak Wharf on the Cromford Canal. The first two inclines achieved rises of 204 feet and 261 feet and Middleton lifted the line a further 253 feet to nearly 1,000 feet above sea level – and all in the distance of three and a half miles. Two more shallower inclines took the railway to its summit of 1,266 feet (990 feet above Cromford canal) before commencing its descent towards Whaley Bridge. Middleton incline was just over 700 yards long at an angle of 1 in 8¼, similar to the first two.
Of the eight winding engines along the line, two comprised pairs of 10hp beam engines and the other six were pairs of 20hp engines, Middleton being of the larger type.
This incline ceased working in 1963 and, after the closure of the rest of the line by British Railways in 1967, part of the route including Middleton Top engine house was acquired by Derbyshire County Council. The engine was restored by the Middleton Engine Group and the entire area scheduled as an ancient monument, this includes the incline and terminal wheel.
The Corrugated Iron Engine Shed at Middleton Top
As the image at the top of this post shows, the Middleton Top site not only included the main winding house and engineers house, but also a small engine shed housing locomotives tasked with hauling, mainly aggregate freight, along the next level section to Hopton Incline and beyond.
The shed, a sub-shed of Rowsley Depot, was a single track, narrow corrugated iron structure with decorative arched windows on the north-facing elevation – the south facing elevation was felt to be far too exposed to risk putting in windows!
Despite being ruggedly constructed the shed had a turbulent life, as the following images show.
I remember dad telling me that, as a telegraph messenger in the early 60’s, he’d often cadge a lift up the inclines on the rakes of wagons being hauled to the top and then along the levels on one of the locos.
Middleton Top remains a fascinating stop over if you’re in the area.
UPDATE (September 2013): Glenis (see COMMENTS below) very kindly shared the following article on Middleton Top which included a portrait of her grandfather who worked at the engine house.