Above: This is the only photo I’ve managed to find of a train on the C&HP Railway line as it approaches the Goyt Valley section.

It’s a view across Burbage, southwest of Buxton. It’s just possible to make out Buxton’s famous dome in the far distance.

The Cromford & High Peak Railway – which ran through the Goyt Valley between 1831 and 1892 – was a triumph of Victorian perseverance and ingenuity. Connecting canals at Cromford and Whaley Bridge, the 33 mile line incorporated a number of steep inclines along which trains were hauled using steam-driven cables. The longest and steepest was the Bunsal Incline, which now forms the main route into the valley from the Buxton to Whaley Bridge road.

My favourite Victorian writer on the Goyt Valley, Strephon, started his career on the Midland Railway, and was soon writing articles on railway-related topics. This article was published in the Derbyshire Times in September 1880, and describes a journey on the C&HPR, all the way from Whaley Bridge to Cromford.

Above: The 33 mile route of the Cromford & High Peak Railway connected canals at Cromford and Whaley Bridge.

The line was completed in 1831 but the section from Ladmanlow to Shallcross which ran through the Goyt Valley was closed in 1892 when an easier route was opened.

“No poetry in railways! foolish thought
Of a dull brain to no fine music wrought”

‘Once upon a time’, in the pages of a popular art magazine, the Present Writer, with a presumption that must have been regarded as a literary impertinence by the aesthetic exquisites who are full of Mr. Matthew Arnold’s vague gospel of ‘sweetness and light’, and share Mr. John Ruskin’s honest contempt for ‘kettles on wheels’, endeavoured to depict the romantic side of railways.

He tried to show that a railway – unyielding, noisy, repellent, and dirty – had in its hard reality an intimate connection with poetry, music tenderness, sentiment, and art; that pictures are to be seen in trains; that aching tragedies and diverting comedies are ever to be beheld on busy railway platforms, and at little wayside country stations.

He was wishful to find poetry in points and crossings, sermons in steel rails, songs in sleepers, books in block signal-boxes, tongues in tunnels, and romance in all railway things.

There can be no doubt that the Present Writer ought to have been punished for so flagrant a piece of printed audacity by being suitably maimed in a railway collision, or sent over the Tay Bridge with that awful ‘flash of light’ on that trade December night at the close of I879.

“Prisoner at the Bar” – is reported to have said a famous Justice of the Peace, surer of his genius than his grammar – “Providence has blessed you with health, strength, and fair abilities, instead of which you, go about the country stealing ducks.”

The railway juggernaut has not yet called upon me to pay the sacrifice for my sins, instead of which I find myself at Whaley Bridge, on Saturday, July 10th, 1880, still pursuing the romance of railways, and about to take a trip on the engine over the High Peak Line, a privilege for which I am indebted to the Engineer of the London and North Western Company.

Most tourists in Derbyshire have, I take it, encountered, at some point or another, the acute curves, and the sensational gradients of the Cromford and High Peak Railway, and have wondered what the mysterious track was, how it got there, from whence it started, and to whither it was directed, and were glad to think that their route did not include the adventure of those avenues-like inclines and those sharp bends.

Above: Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the terrain over which the railway ran, there were quite a few accidents. This report from 1890 (click to enlarge) describes the gruesome end of 11-year-old George Wilson, cut in two when playing on the Bunsal Incline.

For the information of these good ladies and gentlemen, the present paper should be prefaced by the remark that the High Peak Railway is purely used for goods and mineral traffic, and that passengers are not conveyed by it, although some years ago the guard was allowed to take a few people between local stations, but an accident occurred which closed the privilege.

Thirty two and a half miles long, this mountain line connects the Cromford Canal and the Midland Railway at Whatstandwell, in Derbyshire, with the Peak Forest Canal and the London and North Western system at Whaley Bridge, in Cheshire.

It was constructed at a cost of £200,000 as a private enterprise; but the undertaking did not prove profitable, and the Line was leased eventually to the London and North Western Railway Company in perpetuity.

This morning l am to traverse the whole extent of the line on the engine, or rather engines, for the railway is divided for working purposes into eight sections, viz: High Peak Junction to Cromford; Summit of Sheep Pasture to Foot of Middleton; Summit of Middleton to foot of Hopton; Summit of Hurdlow to Hurdlow; Hurdlow to Harpur Hill; Harpur Hill to Grinn Branch Junction; Colliery Junction to Bunsall; and Foot of Bunsall to summit of Shallcross.

Some of these names will sound strange to the ear of even the reader who prides himself on his close acquaintance with the Peak district. Off the beaten track, and on the top of the world, they are like hamlets that have got lost among the bills, and need a special exploring party to discover them.

The High Peak Railway, it may be further advanced in the way of preface, is a single line. It is of the same width of gauge, and of the same character of permanent way, as the lines belonging to the London and North Western Company’s ordinary branches.

Like all single lines, the traffic is worked by what in railway parlance is known as the ‘staff system’. The staff is a truncheon painted and lettered specially for the division or line over which it acts as the open sesame. It is suspended on the weather-board of the engine, and no train or engine may enter any section without being in possession of the engine-staff belonging to that section.

The driver cannot start without this staff, which he receives from the official in charge of the staff station; and on arriving at the station to which the staff extends, the talisman is given up to the person conducting that place.

Through or local, ‘up’ or ‘down’, ‘fly’ or ‘slow’, there are twenty two trains a day on the High Peak Railway, and the fastest trains occupy a space of over five hours in performing the entire journey.

All this I candidly concede, my dear Madam, is very dry and uninteresting, and I apologise for having been so tediously technical. The only extenuation I can urge is that the High Peak Railway is in itself a solid fact of such dimensions that a discursive description of it should also be ‘ballasted’ with facts and figures, data and detail, to carry even my special light locomotive safely.

I am at Whaley Bridge this July morning; and before half the world has breakfasted, and while housemaids, drowsy and slovenly, are yawningly lighting the fire to prepare the matutinal meal, the through ‘up’ train to Whaley Bridge is off and away.

Due out at ten minutes past seven o’clock, we are timed to arrive at the Cromford terminus at a quarter past twelve, according to the current time-table which is dated ‘December 1876, and until further notice’; an arrangement which is primitive and simple, and makes one wish that the hours of departure and arrival of all the trains in Bradshaw savoured equally of the unvarying constancy of the Medes and Persians.

One leaves Whaley Bridge, with its factories and colliery gins and slag heaps, without regret. The Goyt, which here divides Cheshire and Derbyshire, is not the clear merry voiceful stream that you, companion of my journey, met on a pleasant occasion at Errwood; but black and poisonous and silent it crawls like a stricken leper between hideous banks.

The first mile or so of the ride is achieved in guard’s brake, and is up the Shallcross gradient, and is worked by an endless chain. Presently we are among the bold features of the Derbyshire moorland hills; and the Goyt on our left is running incorrectly away between banks of lichened rock, coy form, and hanging trees.

A locomotive met us at the summit of the incline, and working tender first, is taking on our train of some twenty wagons: a cargo that is a curious all a podrida of grains, barrels of beer, bags of beans, coal, cans of paint, boxes of tea, and agricultural implements.

To one accustomed to the swift, smooth motionless motion of a Pullman Palace Car, or a Midland bogie carriage, the jerking, jolting, jig-dancing of the engine or the High Peak railway is an experience to remember as a certain specific for the cure of indigestion. The seven o’clock breakfast is already shaken down; and no wonder that Toodles, the stoker, is feeding himself as well as the engine.

Toodles is a grotesque combination of grit and grease, and might have been carved out of a column of coal and then roughly oiled and toned down; while his ‘mate’ the driver, an older man, is suggestive of an impossible partnership between a butcher and a chimney sweep, wearing – as he does – the blue blouse of the one, and the mosaic of soot of the other.

We are now in full swing; and everything about the train strikes me as being mechanically malevolent, discordant, and out of temper. The engine has not the mellow “fluff-fluff,” and the full-voiced, deep-throated “chay-chay” of its superior locomotive brethren, the race horses of the main line. It spits its way along spitefully, and starts with a jerk, and stops with a jump, and goes with an irregular lurch throughout, that is tiring to one who has not acquired his ‘sea-legs’.

The wagons, through not being so closely united in the tightness of ‘coupling’ as they might be, batter away at each other as if each individual truck had quarreled with its partner, and was settling its grievances in blows.

The curves are so sharp and frequent that ever and anon the train seems intent on the study of Euclid’s Elements, and describes every denomination of geometrical outline, the favourite one bring an acute crescent, when the van at the rear of the train comes up at right angles with the engine, just to allow the driver and guard to shake hands, and show that, if the engine is ill-tempered, and the wagons are emphatic in their contempt for each other, they, at least, are friends.

Now the whole train seems bent on going a trip over the low stone walls into the neighbouring moors to the right; then it evinces that it has changed its mind and has a disposition for toppling over to the left. Between rails of woodbine and ivy now; then to the right, the deep wooded shade of Errwood Hall, as the line runs along a terrace of rock high over the wild, green, glen beauty of the Goyt Valley.

Above (click to enlarge): This is the view when approaching the Goyt Valley, down from the Buxton to Whaley Bridge ‘High Hill’ road. Strephron’s trip took him in the opposite direction – up the slope.

The Bunsal Incline was the steepest and longest on the route, and split into two sections, with a small reservoir at the top of each to provide water to the steam-driven pulleys. 

Presently Bunsall is reached. Here the engine leaves us, and the train is pulled in instalments up the steepest gradient of the line, varying from one in seven to one in eight. It is a double one, the first straight, the second on the curve. The operation is a long and tedious one; but at last the whole train is marshalled on the summit.

Another locomotive is waiting to take us on, and I am making friends with the two fresh engine men, greasier and grittier than the last, and am learning to balance myself on another quivering foot-board, as we pant through a wild, bleak, hilly country.

We seem to be moving along the top of the world; there are deep hollows in the hills below; and every variety of peak and rounded knoll. The journey is a scamper across savage and solitary moors. The heather grows to the verge of the line. The rarifled air blows about you like a fresh sea breeze.

The train is the only moving thing in sight, save when a grouse, wild on the wing, rises with a sharp startled cry. Then just as Buxton is seen, with its white houses lying in the hollow, and shining like a pearl in a setting of emerald, a sudden scream from the engine takes the startled air, and darkness shrouds the feeding train.

“Burbage Tunnel,” yells Toodles in my ear, as he opens the fire box and stands like a Salamander in a white dazzling circle of heat. But the wind has hurried away with his words. A thousand echoes are fighting with each other; the wet walls fly past like a rushing river; there is a furious whirlwind of tumult, and a damp chill that might belong to the Styx.

The train, indeed, might be Charon’s boat; and the driver, standing so statuesque and silent in the broad, blinding circle of white light, with his eye strained in earnest watchfulness, and his band fixed with decisive bold on the cold glistening regulator, might be Dante’s infernal ferryman. In the distance, however, there is hope.

A glimpse of light, looking as big as half a crown, widens. It grows larger and larger until, with a wild shriek of exultation from the snorting engine, we emerge from the confined vault, with its darkness and damp and strange unearthly noises, into the glad, blue light and freedom again, and see the windows of Buxton flashing back the sunlight far away below our breezy tableland.

Half-a-mile long, the Burbage tunnel is the only one on the High Peak Railway of any importance, and it is dirty enough and wet enough for them all.

“This Is Ladmanlow,” ventures the driver, shutting off the steam. The information anticipates my query, for there are no name boards on any of the stations to indicate your whereabouts. The stations, indeed, are but sheds; but they sometimes seem to be the only erections within miles of anywhere.

Some little time is now occupied in the operation known as ‘shunting’, the dropping of one wagon off, and the coupling of another on; sending this truck down that siding, and fetching that truck from another. After thus playing at a species of lawn-tennis with the entire train for some time, we rattle along again.

Past Diamond Hill; past the wooded slopes of Solomon’s Temple; past Harpur Hill with the tall, insolent, ugly, ubiquitous chimney which threatens the vision of its Buxton visitor wherever he may be, whether on the top of Corbar, or on the slopes of Axe Edge, at the Cat and Fiddle, or at Fairfield.

And now the landmarks are lost, and we are running with a rattle and roar over the moors on the top of the world. Steeper the gradients, and ‘a caution’ are the curves. The engineman treats his iron-horse as if he were driving a living animal. He knows her faults and her good points. He can tell at what part of the road she wants whip and loose rein, and when he must hold her in with tight hand.

And the iron Bucephalus responds as if sensitive to his will, and the slightest movement of the regulator is as a touch of spur, and makes her spring on like a creature of blood and nerves.

Now a hare starts by the side of the line; now some grouse rise with noisy “cluck cluck”; again a flight of crows, making for some feeding place, is the only sign of life in the lofty loneliness.

Here there are fields on either side of the rough track; but what the unsophisticated eye takes far sheep grazing are really so many obtruding blocks of grey limestone. Hindlow is the next stopping place.

‘Low’ in the Peak district means ‘high’; and the quaint old Derbyshire people describe a residence in there exposed altitudes as ‘living out of doors’. Hurdlow is the succeeding station (‘low’ again, you see); and this is the highest point of the High Peak Line.

To get here there was formerly a third incline, but the gradient has been rendered workable by locomotive. A change of guard, and transfer to a third engine, with driver and fireman who can hold their own it grease and grit with their ebony colleagues. There is no water supply at this depot, and to assuage the Iron Horse’s thirst, water is brought in large tanks from Ladmanlow.

More truck tennis; and then we bump along again; now on a terrace of rocky embankment now in a steep cutting, with the naked lime stone rocks clothed in flounces of green which you can gather as you pass, so scanty is the clearing; now a sharp whistle of warning from the engine to announce our approach to some platelayers, who step aside with pick and shovel just in time as we whisk past in a cloud of steam.

Anon we rush under a bridge carrying a road that seems to lead nowhere; then we pause at a little one-horse, kind of a station called Parsley Hay, which looks just like a wayside shed on an American prairie line.

The guard seems to combine the duties of station-master, shunter, clerk, signalman, porter, and inspector. Indeed he seems to be the only element of existence about the place. One misses that pleasant aspect of life, that intensely human interest, which belongs to English countryside stations. There is an omission of healthy unkempt children to see the train pass through. Nobody gets in or out.

Where is the stout old lady who is always so anxious about her luggage: three boxes, a carpet-bag, and a basket, all with a bit of red flannel tied to the handles? And where is the crimson apoplectic person, with umbrella and carpet-bag, who rushes up to the train just in time to behold it pass away without him?

There are none of those little lyrics, those charming pastorals and delicious idylls, one can always observe on village platforms; where lovers meet lovers, and friends say the sad word farewell; where there are kisses at the carriage doors as honeyed as Eros sucked from the lips of Psyche, and tears as scalding as those which dimmed the eyes of Eurydice when Orpheus was snatched from her side.

There is not even the stumpy church tower to be seen mixed up in trees, and rising above grey old gabled farm buildings, at these High Peak out-of-the-world stations.

Between Friden and Minninglow is the great Goatham Curve, which describes a rectangular square; and then – quick, if you please! – and you will see, on the left hand, the Harboro’ Rocks, with their famous Druidiel stones.

And then after this glory of the rocks, Toodles screws on his brake, and we stop at Bloore’s Siding. Who is Bloore that he should have a siding? He is evidently a man of bricks. But the subject is not one that is likely to throw the world into convulsions of controversy; and the engine is panting away again.

The scenery, truth to tell, has not been specially attractive during the last few miles. There has been none of these poetic vignettes and glowing wood, that make the ride in a Midland carriage from Derby to Marple such a rich railway romance. Rather a monotonous table-land where niggard fields and stubborn heath are ruled off with bleak stone-walls, and the perspective is unbroken save here and there by a clump of storm-rent ragged pines.

At Longcliffe, however, the views are more diversified; and we get in a pleasant country of hill and dale, with glimpses of wood and water, rendered all the more pleasing to the artistic eye by the sudden lighting up of the picture by the sun, which has been sulking behind gray clouds all day.

As Hopton is approached there is some bold rock scenery; and the Limestone cuttings show engineering works of great difficulty. Another engine is harnessed to ours here, and with both brakes screwed down we slide down the incline to Middleton.

To think that I have for a moment allowed myself to charge the High Peak Railway with being unpicturesque! Peccari as the droll general said when he announced to the First Lord his capture of Seinde, a contrary to instructions.

Picturesque enough to make me wish to enchant hither the painters by whom it would be most appreciated, is the view now, with the Black Rocks of Stonnis, pointed over the Matlock Valley, and Barrel Edge rising in serried ranks of pine and fir above them, and the filmy smoke of peaceful Wirksworth rising lazily from the green-wooded hollow beyond.

That Sleepy Hollow is Adam’s Bede’s country; and in the churchyard yonder Dinah Morris awaits the Resurrection bidding. Do you recognise the scene from ‘the preaching’ chapter of George Eliot’s first, freshest, and most famous work?

“In two or three hours’ ride the traveller might exchange a bleak, treeless region, Intersected by lines of cold grey stone, for one where his road wound under the shelter of woods, or up swelling hills…

“High up against the horizon were the huge conical masses of hill, like giant moulds intended to fortify this region of corn and grass against the keen and hungry winds of the north; not distant enough to be clothed in purple mystery, but with sombre greenish rides visibly specked with sheep, whose motion was only revealed by memory, not detected by light; wooed from day to day by the changing hours, but responding with no change in themselves left for ever grim and sullen after the flash of morning, the winged gleams of the April noonday, the parting crimson glory of the ripening summer sun.

And directly below them the eye rested on a more advanced line of hanging woods divided by bright patches of pasture or furrowed crops, and not yet deepening into the uniform leafy curtains of high summer, but still showing the warm tints of the young oak and the tender green of the ash and lime.”

But there is something else to think about besides George Eliot now, oh dreamer. There is the Middleton Incline to go down. The locomotive leaves us; and down below drops the shining tract of steel, its diminishing lines a study of perspective.

The gradient is 1 in 8½; and the train is let down two wagons at a time by a coiled wire rope from a stationary engine. You must be quite prepared to hazard the risk of the run down. Sometimes a wagon does break loose, and it will not stop to be reasoned with, but goes to swift destruction. Ride across the buffer my friend, and be prepared to jump off at once if anything gives way.

The hook is coupled to the wagons. Off we glide. The cable swings and clangs ominously as it strikes the steel rollers, which seem to say “Caution!” in a metallic voice that keeps repeating itself all the way down.

Steeplehouse is the next station; and here the view of the line is beheld as, riding on yet another locomotive, we pass directly under the Black Rocks and see through the green veil of the sunlit wood that vision of Matlock, with the deeperags of the Derwent valley, which is like a piece of sublime theatrical scene-painting from a romantic opera.

There is another of those creepy, dithery inclines, at Sheep Pasture, with a gradient on the curve of one in eight down to Cromford; but one forgets the risk of riding on buffers in the green beauty of the scene, for the rocky cutting through which the line winds is a fern paradise that is a revelation of loveliness.

Another locomotive to take the train to High Peak Junction at Whatstandwel. The unique ‘Oozly bird’* came over to this country, it is well known, in two ships; but to get over the High Peak Line involves at least half-a-dozen locomotives.

No, thank you very much, Toodles. I will not ride down to the Junction. My bones have been sufficiently dissected; and ‘The Greyhound’ at Cromford is eloquent of a refreshing bath, and of a well-cooked dish of plump trout that were rising at flies in the cool Derwent an hour or so ago.

*Note: According to Wikipedia, an Oozlum bird is a legendary Australian creature that can fly up its own backside, disappearing completely, which adds to its rarity. The OED describes it as a mythical bird displaying ridiculous behaviour. I’m guessing Strephon has the latter meaning in mind!

More links…

Click here for more information about the Cromford & High Peak Railway.

And click here to view a walk along the northern section of the route, from Burbage on the outskirts of Buxton, all the way to the canal basin in Whaley Bridge.