We are fortunate in having three preserved railways in our part of the North Midlands. Peak Rail, the Midland Railway, Butterley and the Ecclesbourne Valley Railway, follow routes through attractive countryside, but arguably the Ecclesbourne line is through some of the best unspoilt farming countryside in Derbyshire. Part of its route is almost as though it is running through woodland, and there cannot be many places where trains have to slow down behind bouquets of cackling kamikaze pheasants.
Running between Wirksworth and the Midland Main Line at Duffield, the Ecclesbourne Railway was originally the idea of a group of coal mine owners in the Erewash Valley. Around 1856 they wanted a quicker route to take their coal to the textile mills around Manchester, but as the Midland line only went as far as Rowsley, the alternative was to link up with the Cromford and High Peak Railway. This line already ran across the high limestone moors of the Peak District and the intension was to build a line along the Ecclesbourne Valley. The new line would join the Cromford and High Peak, connecting with it at Ravenstor above Wirksworth and its rapidly growing quarries. The only problem was that the last part of the route, via Ravenstor, meant a steep climb up a 1:27 gradient. No doubt this would be possible (and still is), for lightly laden passenger trains to climb up from Wirksworth, but it would create problems for trains loaded with tons of coal. This was soon proved to be impractical and coal continued to move by canal to be off-loaded at High Peak Junction until road traffic took over.
Work began on the 9 miles (14.5km) of track of the Ecclesbourne Valley line from Wirksworth to Duffield with the ceremonial cutting of a sod at Duffield. The line was opened on 1st October 1865, much to the delight of the local businessmen who had thrown their weight behind the Erewash coal owners.
Planning the line was not without its problems, which in turn led to the building of what became known as ‘Travis’ folly’. Up and until 1933 if you had travelled along the line you would have seen a much grassed-over 19 arch viaduct crossing the line. Simply linking fields on either side of the line, it was known officially as Hazelwood Viaduct, but more commonly as ‘Travis’ Folly’. It was built, so folk lore suggests in order for Thomas ‘Canny’ Travis’ cattle to get from one side of the track to the other. The ideal and much cheaper solution would have been to install a level crossing, but the railway company was forced to spend £10,000 building the bridge.
Like all folk tales, the story linking the bridge to ‘Canny’ Travis is not exactly true. As the land over which the line ran was owned by the then 7th Duke of Devonshire, it was his agent who insisted on this expense. The argument was that it was necessary in order to allow Travis’ and a neighbouring tenant’s cattle to reach fields on the opposite side of the line from their farms. By 1933 and with a new duke (the 9th) at the helm, arrangements were made to demolish the hardly used bridge. Much to the delight of the huge crowd that had gathered, a detachment of Royal Engineers blew up the 19arch bridge. It was replaced by the more practical level crossing. Travis, whatever his involvement in this crazy scheme, for the rest of his life took advantage of the railway every day to send his milk to the dairy.
Very much a rural line throughout its existence, it cannot have paid its way purely from the number of passengers it carried. Most, if not all would join the train at Wirksworth in order to go shopping in Derby, or work. What would be profitable was the amount of tonnage carried from the quarries surrounding the end of the line at Wirksworth. As practically all the quarries were separated from the railway by the Wirksworth to Middleton road, all were connected, either by narrow gauge lines, or even, as in the case of Dale Quarry, the massive hole that blighted the town from its situation a matter of less than a quarter of a mile from the town centre; this one was linked to Wirksworth Station’s goods yard through a tunnel by standard gauge. Baileycroft, even closer to the town had a narrow gauge track through another short tunnel. Stonecroft Quarry further up the road had both standard and narrow gauge tracks. The top half of Middlepeak didn’t use the valley line and was joined to the Cromford and High Peak line by standard gauge; however its lower twin did run stone by narrow gauge into the station yard, along with a conveyor built in 1954. Coleshill Quarry half way up the incline sent its stone by trucks on a narrow gauge track.
The sleepy branch line was never going to be a commercial success, passenger use was never going to pay its way. Gradually road transport was taking over from rail, especially affecting the morning milk train. No longer was milk laboriously moved in pails from farm to station, to train, to dairy, but simply pumped into a tanker. Stone was easier to send by road and in any case, many of the quarries around Wirksworth were running out of space; the last stone train left the station in December 1969. Passenger services ended in June 1947 – the excuse being to save coal. From some reason the then owners of the line, LMS, possibly thinking forwards to nationalisation a year later, did not officially withdraw passenger services. They continued to publish a time table, but added the word ‘suspended’, and effectively stopped running passenger trains without the need for a public inquiry. Following nationalisation, British Rail saw no need to alter the status quo, and so the line slowly sank into oblivion.
Gradually the nine miles of track disappeared beneath brambles and sycamore saplings. This was the state of affairs when Wyvern Rail, the eventual owners of the Ecclesbourne Valley Railway took over the running of the line in 2005. Using mostly volunteer labour who hacked their way through jungles of brambles and overgrown trees; ripping up and restoring rotted sleepers and laying new track, had the Ecclesbourne Valley Railway up and running in 2011. At the end of those six years, the railway was ready to give passengers a nostalgic trip back into the way trains ran fifty years ago.
After wandering round the station yard at Wirksworth admiring the collection of rolling stock, some of it undergoing restoration, we found a lovely little miniature railway layout in one of the cabins just off the platform. With time in hand we could enjoy a cup of tea and a piece of cake before joining the diesel run Railcar. Then with a toot and a slight spinning of wheels we were off into the countryside. Over Gorsey Bank level crossing where all the safety procedure held up the one car on its way into town. Fields dotted with ruminating cows flashed by and as we entered a stretch of trees, a covey of pheasants flew up, almost beneath the wheels of our carriage. Not the best of fliers, they tried to commit suicide by flying directly in front of the slowly moving train. Idridgehay was the first station stop as they say on Midland main Line. We could have taken a stroll from this idyllic setting, but stayed on to the next stop at Shottle, where, if we had wanted we could have popped next door to the Railway Inn. Trains no longer stop at Hazelwood after passing the site of Travis’ Folly, but continue as far as Duffield. A stroll along the EVR platform to watch a Virgin train thunder by and then off back to Wirksworth with the added attraction of taking in the 1:27 incline.
Regrettably it is no longer possible to join a train at Wirksworth and get off at Derby. In its wisdom, Railtrack have very firmly closed off the end of the Ecclesbourne line at Duffield. You can see where the points join the branch to the main line, but that is a far as it gets.