Recently it has become almost fashionable for major cities to bring back trams to their streets. Some like say Manchester, have done it with the minimum interruption to normal street traffic. There, it was managed by mainly using defunct railway tracks, but in other places the radical idea of reinventing a long gone system of transport developed into a political shuttlecock.
Mainly because of spiralling costs and also the prospect of snarled-up roads well into the foreseeable future prompted both Nottingham and Edinburgh to drastically amend their individual schemes. Only time will tell especially in Edinburgh, if the apparently chopped-off tracks currently puzzling observant by-standers will eventually continue along the way to their planned termini.
Tramcars developed as a means of mass transport for commuters and shoppers living in the crowded towns and cities expanding to meet the demands of the Industrial Revolution. They filled that need perfectly until motorised transport began to compete for space on the narrow roads laid out in more leisurely times. As a result trams disappeared off the streets at a rapid pace, a pace some forward thinking people thought was too much and too soon. No longer do the behemoths of yesterday clatter and spark along wet cobbled streets, but fortunately many of them were saved from the breaker’s yard and, carefully restored can be seen moving at their stately pace at the foot of Crich Stand. Only Blackpool kept its trams, making them something of a tourist attraction.
The founders of Crich tramway village and museum could not have chosen a more perfect site, both scenically and historically. Set amidst trees on a high ledge overlooking the southern corner of the White Peak where the Derwent carves its majestic way south, the view must be one of the finest in Derbyshire. Historic connections go back to the early days of the railway network. This was when George Stephenson towards the latter part of his career built a network of narrow gauge railways from Cliff Quarry down to lime kilns at Ambergate. It is one of his tracks that now bears the weight of the trams trundling along from the tramway village to its terminus above Wakebridge.
The friendly co-operation of the current quarry owners has allowed a worked out section of quarry floor to be used as a car park. From the entrance kiosk and, armed with our old currency pennies later to be exchanged for as many tram rides as we wanted, we walked the few yards down into the tramway village and so stepped back in time to the 1950s, or earlier.
It is hard to realise that many of the buildings and even the cobbles beneath our feet have seen service in towns around the North Midlands. Now housing a video theatre and historic tram displays, the most imposing building is the sandstone façade of the elegant Georgian Derby Assembly Rooms, salvaged from a disastrous fire in 1963. At its front in what could pass as an Edwardian town centre, Town End as it is now called, is the main tram terminus. Dotted around amongst other last century artefacts are an old rectangular telephone box complete with its still working A & B buttons and a Police Sentry box. To the right is the Eagle Press where hand-set printed leaflets are produced to order, with much hissing and thumping of a beautiful piece of machinery. Next in line is Frederick’s Ice Cream Parlour, then Barnett’s Sweet Shop complete with its jars of sticky offerings, alongside a display of wartime rationed tins of food with their paper-saving half labels. For a good cup of tea there is nothing to beat Rita’s Tea Rooms, a cafe that must surely have once adorned the semi-rural edge of some Midlands town. Below it and offering something stronger than tea is the Red Lion, a pub rescued brick by brick from the Stoke on Trent developers.
There was a tram waiting at Town End as we emerged from Rita’s cafe, so we decided to save the exhibition and workshops until later. This tram turned out to be one of Glasgow Corporation’s 1940s vintage models. Resplendent in its cream and brown livery I must admit to a feeling of insecurity as we reached our wood-slatted seats. My memory of Glasgow trams goes back to the days when I passed through on my way to climbing trips in the Highlands. It seemed to me that each trip was marked by the memory of one of these monsters lying on its side in some Glasgow side street. I mentioned this to the conductor when he came round and much to my amazement he was fully aware of the problem and was quick to assure me that it wasn’t the trams that were faulty, but the fact that many sections of the Glasgow network had bends too tight for the trams then operating.
Parting with our pennies and half pennies, we were given tickets validated by a 1920s ticket punch and were told to hang on to them as they gave us the right to travel on as many trams as we wanted. Clanking and swaying our way up the track, passing beneath the ornate Bowes-Lyon Bridge from Stagenoe Park in Hertfordshire, one of the estates belonging to the Queen Mother’s family, we made our way to the track end above Wakebridge. Trams don’t need to do a three-point turn, the driver simply walks from one end to the other and, after the trolley pole is turned round and reconnected to the over head cable, with the odd spark creating much amusement to young time travellers, the vehicle is ready to start its return journey.
We stopped off at the Glory Mine to visit Peak Historical Mining Society’s excellent display, and then walked through the tree-lined glade opposite to marvel at the array of wood sculptures, such as the massively realistic giant ant; inverted root heads have been turned into yet more green men, or even woodland trolls, goats and a toadstool fairy ring, most if not all the work of Andrew Frost, wood sculptor from Wirksworth.
Back towards the town centre by another short ride, this in the comparative luxury of padded seats on a London tram, we had plenty of time to browse through the Exhibition Halls where there is everything from an early horse tram from Chesterfield; a Dutch tram indicating its direction to Centraal Station took me back to my days working in Amsterdam. Another foreigner is from Prague which somehow managed to dramatically escape from Czechoslovakia in 1968 just as the Russian tanks rolled over the border. Amongst all those marvels, the tram with the strangest history is the 1885 steam tram engine that disappeared after being shipped to Wollongong in Australia, only to resurface back home in Manchester five years later. Another tram with a history is Chesterfield Number 7. Built in 1907 the double-decker was one the first to replace the town’s horse-drawn trams. Surviving a serious fire at the depot, it went on until Chesterfield withdrew its trams in 1927 when it was sold as a holiday home, then a permanent residence. The ingenious owner cut the top deck from the lower, making it into two bedrooms and the separated lower deck serving as kitchen and living room. Rather than see its destruction, the two halves of Chesterfield Number 7 were moved to Crich workshops and rejoined.
Ongoing restoration work by a dedicated team of skilled volunteers in the next shed fascinated me – I can spend all day watching others work; but if it wasn’t for the enthusiasm of these people there would be no museum. Trams often arriving in a sorry state are brought back to life by hard working engineers, and signwriters who restore the exquisite detail of by-gone livery. H.R.H The Duke of Gloucester the museum’s patron takes an active interest in the society’s work, even on one occasion officially opening the Victorian cast-iron gent’s urinal rescued from Reading. It’s not recorded whether he complied with the instruction cast in letters above the trough advising gentlemen to Adjust Their Dress Before Leaving! The toilet is just one of the multitude of artefacts along with vintage trams rescued and restored then put in use on the site.
Awarded the BBC East Midlands ‘Best Day Out’ in 2004, Tramway Village is ideal for, as the award says, a day out visit, or to enjoy one of the special events staged throughout the year.