The Caldon Peak
16th April 1994
In April 1986 I spent a pleasant morning in the vicinity of Cheddleton, home of the North Staffs preservation group. It was connected to the rest of BR by the line from Stoke on Trent to Leek Brook Junction, from which two routes radiate - a direct link to the limestone quarry at Caldon Low, and a trailing connection to the line through Cheddleton to Oakamoor, last remnant of the NSR Churnet Valley line. Our objective that day was a sand train serving the British Industrial Sand sidings at Oakamoor, which we managed to photograph in the superb early spring light at a number of locations. There was no train to Caldon Low that day, however.
A little over two years later the last sand train ran, and about 6 months after that the last stone train. The entire route from Stoke was then mothballed
It came as a great surprise then when the Branch Line Society advertised a railtour to run on 16th April 1994, with Caldon Low as its prime destination. Other highlights were the quarry lines around Buxton. Steve and I jumped at the opportunity!
The Caldon Peak left Crewe, on time, at 9.00am, topped and tailed by the international combination of 37 407 Loch Long and 37 429 Eisteddfod, and headed for Stoke, where we picked up more participants. We seemed to have been dawdling, and were nearly 15 minutes late leaving the latter - somewhat worrying! We neednít have fretted - time was soon made up, and the tour ran more or less to time the rest of the day.
Very cautiously the train made its way through the suburbs of Stoke and climbed towards Leek. Once clear of the built up area, this is a scenic run, and we certainly had plenty time to enjoy it, being allowed nearly two hours in each direction for the run to Caldon Low. It was clear from the state of the vegetation on either side that a rather devastating hedge trimmer (obliterator?) had been used recently. Another feature of interest was the large number of gricers out to photograph the train, though after a while we realised that we were seeing the same ones over and over. Given the speed at which we travelled, the trip could have been chased easily on a push-bike!
A little way out of Stoke, the Caldon Canal comes into view, and we followed it until, nearing Leek Brook Junction, the canal heads off, curiously, to Froghall. A narrow gauge tramway once connected the canal with the quarries around Caldon, its ultimate objective. A branch to Leek leaves the Caldon canal then, oddly, climbs up and over the latter. The canal over canal aqueduct is clearly visible from the train.
The line from Froghall joins just before Leek Brook, its erstwhile traffic still evident from the sand between the rails. A fair amount of signalling was still extant when Steve and I had visited eight years ago. Today only the posts remain, and the signal box is boarded up.
We crept away from the junction and onto the Caldon line, crossing the main road on the high embankment which will be familiar to many who have travelled north through Leek. Soon we were well away from the valley scenery, climbing up onto the high bleak limestone country as we neared Caldon. Considering how long it is since the line lost its passenger service - around sixty years ago - there were still some interesting buildings remaining. (The short link to the quarry at Caldon Low was a branch off the line to Waterhouses, a mile or so distant, where the branch connected with the Leek and Manifold narrow gauge line.)
Passing the trackbed of the line to Waterhouses, we soon came to a stand, before being called on to the last bit of the line in the quarry yard. Unfortunately, it was not possible to de-train, so no photography! I find it hard to understand why able-bodied passengers cannot be allowed to get off, at their own risk. It certainly used to be allowed - as at Warcop, several years ago.
After sufficient time to become frustrated by the chasers who were busy photographing this rather unusual working, we set off again back down the line. Having given due consideration to the length of time it was going to take, I felt a trip to the brake van was called for (Real Ale). Something had to help pass the time! Very palatable it was too. There were actually two brews available - one had a name which seemed to imply falling over, so I went for the other. (I am frequently surprised by the number of people who spend large sums of money to travel, fast asleep, over much of the route of a railtour!)
Eventually, we had worked our way back to Kidsgrove, after pausing to set down at Stoke - a fair number of participants had joined the tour, at full fare, just for the Caldon Low line. We were somewhat encouraged, passing along the line north of Stoke, by the amount of freight traffic that was evident at several points along the route, Shelton steel works being a notable example.
We now followed the electrified line through Macclesfield, where we paused briefly (to pay our respects to the late sage and champion of the friends of the M6?), and on to Manchester Piccadilly. We only needed to go as far as Stockport really, but "operational considerations" meant the extra miles were required.
So we reversed, and headed for Buxton. Our progress was not particularly hurried up the branch - remember the loco at the front had to haul the one at the back. This route is definitely scenic, and always worth a ride. Today we would diverge from the passenger route just short of Buxton station, and head for Hindlow, on the former Ashbourne line.
There is a great deal of railway historical interest around Hindlow - the Cromford and High Peak line passes through the area, and many remains of that curious railway route are visible. Our train eventually came to a stop at the remains of Dowlow halt, whose passenger services ended, along with the Buxton to Ashbourne service, in 1954. Oddly, the platform edge seemed to be relatively modern concrete, still in place under the grass and weeds.
Like all good BLS trips, we now had to "do" the obscure track. Todayís second highest (!!!) involved reversal just half a mile or so to Briggs Sidings (reputedly the highest point on BR in England, at 1267ft), then heading into the quarry, through the loading hopper, and on to the buffer stops almost at the quarry face. Wow! It should be added that a small number of the most dedicated Branch Liners feel they have to be at the front of the train at such points, in order to maximise the route mileage. There was some to-ing and fro-ing before we finally got back to Buxton!
Reversal at Buxton, for the last time on the trip, took place in the freight sidings, in order to gain access to the line through Ashwood Dale, the section which will be familiar to many who have driven along the A6 at this point. This is the route which the Peak Park preservationists wish to use - we passed their new bridge to their recently (temporarily?) abandoned Buxton site.
There are numerous quarries along the stretch to Peak Forest on the old Midland main line - much of railway interest, including industrial locomotives, and some of the new National Power limestone wagons, for the flue gas de-sulphurisation. Soon we left the real interest to head through what remains of Chinley station, and down the line towards Manchester.
We deviated from the direct route to the city centre at Romiley, heading for Hyde junction on the former Woodhead route. This enabled us to diverge at Guide Bridge and aim for Stockport, where we were due to set down.
As we pulled into the latter station, a good number of tour participants got up to leave the train. A roar of laughter went up when it was realised that we had stopped in a line without a platform! One or two brave souls leapt down from the train, before station staff quickly halted this practice. After a little while we pulled away - the train would stop at Cheadle Hulme, and the London service would make an additional stop their for our benefit.
We arrived in Crewe more or less on time, despite the hiccup, just after seven in the evening, with plenty daylight for the drive home. It would perhaps have been nice to have had a leg-stretch stop at some point on the tour, nevertheless it had been a super day out with lots of interest and well worth the £30 fare. Well done BLS!