A history of the railways in the Peak District

PUBLISHED: 00:00 15 March 2020

Sheep Pasture Incline on the Cromford & High Peak Railway when it was still operational, 1966/67 Photo: John Evans

Sheep Pasture Incline on the Cromford & High Peak Railway when it was still operational, 1966/67 Photo: John Evans

as caption

Fifty years on, author Christopher Nicholson celebratesa new edition of the book inspired by a lifelong passion

The Vale of Edale. A westbound Class 185 with a Cleethorpes-Manchester Airport train, 2015 Photo: Nigel CapelleThe Vale of Edale. A westbound Class 185 with a Cleethorpes-Manchester Airport train, 2015 Photo: Nigel Capelle

For Peter Barnes and I some lessons at Dronfield Henry Fanshawe School were more interesting than others. French lessons in Room  7 were the best. Not because we were gifted linguists, but because we had a clear view of the steam trains struggling up the gradient through Dronfield station.

And so it began, the story of a book that has taken 50 years to reach its 4th edition this January. Our interest in railways, particularly the ones on our doorstep in the Peak District, was something we had from an early age. It helped that many of the railway encounters in our teens were arranged for groups of like-minded pupils by one of our teachers - the late Roger Redfern, a prolific writer and Derbyshire Life contributor, who was also a railway enthusiast.

As the 1960s went by we noticed firstly that the steam engines disappeared from the trains through Dronfield and the Peak District in general, and then the lines themselves were being closed around us. Walking on the trackbeds and through the tunnels wasn't the same as being lineside as steam engines swept past. We decided that we would write a book to record the history of the lines with which we had grown up, before it was too late. But we never mentioned our project - to anyone.

It started in 1970. A list of chapters was devised and I sent them to the Dalesman Publishing Company. An encouraging response led to an invitation to visit them in Yorkshire. David Joy, their book editor at the time, managed to hide his surprise when a 17-year-old schoolboy turned up not long after passing his driving test! They published a distinctive range of paperbacks on railway topics, and our suggestion fitted in perfectly. We had a year to produce 30,000 words on railways in the Peak District.

A vintage photograph of the Matlock Cable Tramway as it pauses on Bank Road to allow passengers to pose Photo: Glynn Waite CollectionA vintage photograph of the Matlock Cable Tramway as it pauses on Bank Road to allow passengers to pose Photo: Glynn Waite Collection

Each chapter was written separately by one of us, read by the other and any changes to content or style made. The illustrations were all black and white back then (apart from the cover) and we only needed 24 of them. A knowledgeable former railway employee living in Bakewell was very helpful and had a huge collection of really historic and interesting illustrations. A few more from British Railways and other contacts completed the manuscript.

It came out in September 1971 (price 60p!) to the great surprise of all our friends and really nice reviews in local papers and magazines - just as we were both leaving Henry Fanshawe for Higher Education. The publishers told us it was selling really well in the local bookshops, and in 1975 a second edition came out (90p) followed in 1978 by a third (£1.40p). We were amazed.

But then Dalesman Publishing stopped producing railway books to concentrate on their core business of The Dalesman magazine. We were now both in the early stages of our new careers with little time or inclination to do anything about it. That, we thought, would be that - just something unusual to put on our CV's.

British Railways' 'Britain's First All-Electric Main Line' poster, 1955, showing coal and passenger trains passing alongside what is probably Woodhead ReservoirBritish Railways' 'Britain's First All-Electric Main Line' poster, 1955, showing coal and passenger trains passing alongside what is probably Woodhead Reservoir

Skip forward 40 years. Now both retired - I'm in Somerset and Peter is in Derby. Someone asked me about 'that book you wrote while still at school' and a strange thought crossed my mind. If we updated it to include all the changes since 1978 with a bigger selection of images in colour, would it still be an attractive title for a publisher today?

I rang Peter for his thoughts. With some trepidation - he agreed! The first publisher I offered it to (Amberley Publishing in Stroud) snapped it up. It was on again - we had until mid 2019 to deliver the words and 100 images to the publisher. Living so far apart wasn't a problem thanks to the internet. We could exchange chapters and edit them via email, I could collect the images digitally, again via email, and we could phone one another when required.

My computer skills meant I could now draw intricate and colourful maps and diagrams and enhance some of the really historical images we were going to use. Combining this with the quality of contemporary images means we've been able to produce a work of a standard undreamt of in the 1970s.

Each chapter has been rewritten and a couple of new ones added to bring everything up to date. We've tried to document the history of every railway in the Peak District - from their birth to closure and then (in most cases) their rebirth as a long distance footpath. The 'leisure industry' in the Peak District owes a great debt to the Victorian railway engineers. Locations that once echoed to the sound of steam engines working hard on a gradient are now almost silent apart from the crunch of a walker's boot on gravel, the occasional clip-clop of horse riders or a bicycle bell!

The latest 2020 editionThe latest 2020 edition

Will this 4th edition be more successful than the first three? Who knows. But it's been fun recalling that 50 years ago we first put pen to paper to create what seems to have become our life's work. There probably won't be another edition!

Peak District Railways

The first horse-drawn tramways in the Peak District fed canals on its eastern and western flanks. Then in 1825 a standard gauge line climbed over the top of the Peak District on fearsome inclines to connect canals at Cromford and Whaley Bridge. Sheffield and Manchester were linked in 1845 by the first line across the Pennines, which was followed by a gradual infilling of lines connecting towns and villages - some the result of great feats of engineering. At its height the Peak District railway system encompassed a narrow gauge light railway for tourists, cable-hauled inclines, seven of the UK's 20 longest railway tunnels and Britain's first all-electric main line. The birth of British Railways in 1948 and the Beeching axe were the death knell for many of these unique railways. However, thanks to the Peak District National Park and other leisure organisations tracks can still be followed today on foot, bicycle or horseback.

Related articles

Most Read

Comments have been disabled on this article.

Most Read

Latest from the Derbyshire Life and Countryside