At one time it was possible for trains to travel directly from Nottingham to Manchester without going through Sheffield. Trains laden with Nottinghamshire coal would leave the Sheffield line above between Codnor Park Station and Pye Bridge Ironville and travel through Golden Valley to Ambergate where they would join the London via Derby line to Manchester. Brian Spencer recently took a ride along the remains of this line on a steam train run by the Midland Railway – Butterley Trust.
Nowadays the A38 prevents trains from running all the way to Ambergate, but when the line was open, Ambergate Station was unique, with three-platforms in the shape of a triangle. It was also the junction of three lines, Sheffield to London via Derby, London to Manchester again via Derby and the line from the junction with the Nottingham to Sheffield service. Incidentally this last named junction is still in operation, unlike the now truncated Ecclesbourne Valley Line at Duffield. By using the route through Butterley, trains could go directly towards Manchester without travelling by way of Sheffield. As well as hauling coal, it gave Nottingham people a direct way into the Peak District, especially to their inland favourite, Matlock Bath.
Now that the line has been taken over by the Midland Railway Trust, it allows railway buffs of all shades to enjoy a day of nostalgia, riding in circa 1950 carriages behind a powerful ex-Midland/British Rail Stanier locomotive. Run by volunteers using authentic rolling stock, it allows us mere mortals to appreciate the joys of steam travel – even down to getting a spot of coal grit in our eyes!
We reached Butterley with just enough time to enjoy a cup of tea before joining the 11:00a.m service. The round trip is quite leisurely, taking just over an hour to complete the up and down journey; but as most visitors do, we chose to break the trip half way at Swanwick Junction, joining a later train to complete the ride.
There is something about steam that appeals to everyone young or old. There was even the re-enactment of that famous Southern Region poster of a little boy asking the driver if he was also going on holiday. Few passengers were on board when the locomotive arrived all of a flurry with a good head of steam. Everyone crowded at the end of the platform to watch it roll up and be coupled, before they would drag themselves away to find one of the comfortable seats; just to show how things have changed, there are seats for four on one side of the gangway, sitting round a table and two on the opposite side, still with their table.
The outward journey is up a surprisingly steep incline, through a wooded cutting below what remains of the historic Butterley Ironworks. Pausing briefly at the open space filled by Swanwick Junction and its marshalling yard, the train travels leisurely through attractive open countryside and on by way of Ironville, the village built to house miners and workers in the now long gone local iron foundries. Along the way and on a nearby hilltop a tall stone tower commemorates William Jessop (1745-1814) canal builder and founder of the local coal and iron making industry.
Above Ironville the line is linked to Network Rail’s main line, but trains do not go that far. Here the engine moved from front to back so to speak in order to haul the train on its homeward leg. Even though this is a heritage railway, with only one train at a time on the track, correct procedures must be applied at all times, be it signalling or driving.
We left the train at Swanwick Junction where the vast open space has been used to full advantage in a full-sized train layout. From the platform of a station moved lock stock and barrel from the Midland Mainline at Syston in Leicestershire and then rebuilt at Swanwick, the choice of where to go was bewildering. We chose to go to the right, heading for the main loco sheds in the Matthew Kirtley Building. We went by way of the fully operational signal box just like the one at Matlock Bath where I used to watch my Uncle Charlie work the complex system of levers and inter-station regulating bells. This one was moved into its present location from Kettering.
The Matthew Kirtley Building is named after Midland Railway’s first Mechanical Engineer and houses an exhibition hall featuring the Trust’s main collection of lovingly maintained rolling stock. While it is off limits to visitors, work going on in the workshops at the back of the hall can be watched through the large clear glass windows. Nearby are displays of vintage road transport vehicles and fork lift trucks. It is also possible to ride on the narrow gauge man-carriers that would have once taken miners underground to the coal face of some east midlands colliery.
Two short branch lines enter the complex, one ran up to Butterley Ironworks and the other on the opposite side of the permanent way can still be seen winding its way as it once did, to Swanwick Colliery.
Across the old way into the ironworks, a footpath wends its way through naturalising bushes and trees to the West Shed Experience. Here there is a display operated by the Princess Royal Class Locomotive Trust. Housing a display of lovingly tended rolling stock; when we were there it was 46203 Princess Margaret Rose that had pride of place. Originally it worked express passenger services for the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS), before being withdrawn from service in 1962. It then spent a few years in a Butlin’s holiday camp before being restored to full working order in 1990. It last ran in 1996 and is now awaiting another major overhaul, when the cost is likely to be around £750,000!
Butlin’s feature strongly in the side gallery of West Shed when you can step back in time admiring one of the 21inch miniature locomotives that ran round their holiday camps from 1938 until the 1960s. Another gallery is devoted to locomotive designer and Chief Mechanical Engineer to the LMS Sir William Stanier. It was he who designed the locomotives powerful enough to haul trains up the steep gradients around Monsal Dale and beyond.
Time was passing and we had only visited the main sheds – there was still a model railway layout and the corrugated St Saviour’s Church built in 1898 for the railway village of Westhouses near Alfreton, but with tongues almost on the floor we headed for Johnson’s Buffet and a cuppa plus a bowl of home-made soup.
Bang on the dot of 14:40 the train arrived on its homeward journey. Rather than stop at Butterley it runs as far as the A38 at Hammersmith where the engine in all its glory wheezed its way to the back of the train and, after coupling up once again, took us back to Butterley. Here there was enough time to enjoy playing trains with the huge model railway layout before re-joining the twenty first century traffic.
The Midland Railway – Butterley is a volunteer run trust whose members give up their spare time to relive the way trains ran not all that long ago. There are special events run throughout the year, such as, Teddy Bears Weekends and when we were there, a Sea Side Special – the sea side turned out to be a sandy ‘beach ’at Swanwick Junction, explaining why there were so many buckets and spades on board our train. Grown up train buffs can enjoy things like the Diesel or Vintage Weekends, or maybe learn to drive one of the steam monsters designed by Sir William Stanier.
For further information phone: 01773 570721 or visit the website: