Sunday, 28 March 2010

Micklehurst Loop Stalybridge - Diggle

Canal at Ashton Under Lyne
Having walked one of the more celebrated railway trails in the UK I turned my attention to a short one that is probably virtually unknown outside the Tame Valley on the eastern side of Manchester.  The Micklehurst Loop was a mostly freight only line that was built to alleviate congestion on the main Manchester to Huddersfield line.  The original plan was to quadruple the existing line but this could not easily be achieved because of the limited space available on the existing line.  Thus a separate line was created on the other side of the Tame Valley between Stalybridge and Diggle.  When I lived in Saddleworth in the early 1990s I was aware of the existence of the route but never really knew anything about it, where it went or why it was built.  In those pre-internet days it wasn’t easy to find out such things!  A good history of the line can be found at http://www.buffetbar.freewebspace.com/shopping_page.html

Start of the Trail

Funnily enough in the days that I lived in the area I never actually tried to retrace the route, although I did walk along the adjacent Huddersfield Narrow Canal a number of times between Stalybridge and my home in Dobcross.  Yet despite its unheralded status on the national network and the fact that passenger services didn’t last beyond the First World War, there is much still left intact on the route to be of interest to the railway walker.  The line itself was approximately six miles in length and left the main line through a tunnel just outside Stalybridge station.  It then crossed the Tame Valley and headed up the eastern side of the valley through Micklehurst, Friezeland, Greenfield and Uppermill before heading through a tunnel to join the main line once again just shy of the former station at Diggle. 
Former Chute

Although the London and North Western Railway did operate passenger services along the line for a few years before the First World War, in those days this was a very sparsely populated area and passenger numbers must have been very light.  Yet, if the railway had stuck around long enough there has been enough development in the area now for a railway service to possibly be viable, even if it is only a Metrolink service rather than a fully fledged mainline service.  Considering therefore that the line hasn’t had any passenger services for getting on for a hundred years, the fact that any of the route remains is remarkable.
Another Look at the Canal

I parked outside Greenfield Station and took the short train journey down the main line to Stalybridge.  This is an hourly service although it does not run on Sundays, so you should take a bus then.  At Stalybridge I headed down towards the canal basin in the first instance to take a look at the restoration work that has taken place since I last came by this way.  The transformation is remarkable.  When I last came this way a large part of the canal through the middle of Stalybridge had long since been filled in.  Luckily the forward thinking Huddersfield Canal Society stepped in and have restored the entire canal from Ashton-Under-Lyne to Huddersfield including Standedge Tunnel, the longest and deepest canal tunnel in the UK which gets the canal over the Pennines.  The section through Stalybridge is now a hub for the town, with a shiny new Tesco and several food and drink establishments overlooking the canal.  It’s a far cry from the run down area that existed less than twenty years ago.  Some idea of the scale of the work can be gathered from the Huddersfield Canal website at http://www.huddersfieldcanal.com/restoration/index.htm
Remains of Engine Shed


I walked along the towpath for half a mile or so before coming to the old trackbed of the Micklehurst Railway, signposted as the Tame Valley Way.  This is about ¼ mile from the station at Stalybridge and once there would have been a viaduct carrying the track across the canal to the old tunnel, but all signs of it have disappeared.  Initially the trackbed is not obviously a railway route, since there are no engineering features for some time.  By the time I got going along this stretch of line, it was afternoon school run time and this part of the path is obviously a popular path for schoolchildren returning home, since I passed many groups along the way.  Having cleared the housing estates that would not have existed when the line was open, the number of people using the route declined quickly until it was just the odd dog walker.  This part of the line was closed last, being left as a stub to service a former power station that was finally closed in the 1970s.
A Reminder of How Long Since The Line Closed

Where I am guessing the first viaduct would once have stood is now a big gap in the trackbed with what looks like some derelict works ahead.  I was forced from the route of the trackbed down onto the adjacent towpath of the canal for the next half a mile or so.  This was hardly a hardship though as this is a particularly enjoyable stretch through woodland and past the rather eerie sight of the old coal chute that once served the power station.  Shortly past the chute I could see that the embankment was in place once again and I was able to regain the trackbed.  This was a fairly forgotten stretch, quite walkable but not part of the official path I suspect.  In the trees I came across a filled in underbridge, which was the first evidence that I was actually on a railway route!
Bridge Parapet

Through the trees I could see some old derelict buildings and upon investigation I was amazed to see that it was an old engine shed and water tank still extant.  Given the amount of standing water around the old structures I am guessing that flooding must have been an ongoing issue even during operational days.  I regained the main path and passed through a very sorry for itself looking bridge, where much of the brickwork was damaged.  The path then passed through a pretty overgrown cutting before coming to the parapets of an old viaduct, long since demolished.  Looking ahead the line of the railway had been substantially re-profiled and was occupied by several industrial units blocking my way for the next half mile or so.  I returned to the canal towpath and had a look at Scout Tunnel, which is quite walkable although a bit dark!  For me it was now in the wrong direction so after a quick look I headed along the towpath towards Mossley and enjoying the surprisingly warm spring sunshine.
Scout Tunnel

In the centre of Mossley I was able to regain the trackbed by the old Micklehurst station.  Amazingly the station masters house still exists, 93 years after the last passenger was picked up from the station!  The remaining part of the station has long gone as it would have once been at the top of the embankment and viaduct, now erased.  From the site of the old station the next couple of miles are perhaps the most satisfying on the whole walk.  The trackbed is particularly well preserved and a number of bridges still remain.  As the track heads north some great views of Mossley Church could be seen through the still bare trees and then the hills and moors around Saddleworth started coming into view.
Approaching Mossley

Eventually I reached the Roaches, once the site of a junction with a light railway built for construction traffic for the Chew Reservoir, now a local beauty spot as well as water supply.  Much of the railway has been obliterated to make room for the road junction here now, with cuttings re-profiled and bridges filled in.  I had to take my life in my hands trying to cross the busy A635 road before regaining the trackbed once again on the other side.  Now the views of industrial heritage/ dereliction had been well and truly replaced by moorland views, with the skyline being dominated by Pots and Pans and the obelisk on top built to commemorate World War One.  Somewhere hereabouts was Friezeland Station although no sign of it now exists; presumably it’s under the road somewhere.  Anyhow, it was a pleasant walk through to Greenfield, which is the only settlement in Saddleworth to still have a station although on the ‘other line’.  Just before the housing the embankment disappeared, although a linear greenspace still exists along the same corridor.  This would once have been filled by a sixteen arch viaduct, which apparently took some blowing up in order to remove it from the landscape.  Judging by the housing that now surrounds the greenspace, the viaduct was a serious impediment to housing development.  At this point the trail is joined by walkers and riders using the Pennine Bridleway (which ironically I also passed on the Monsal Trail a couple of days earlier).
Mossley Station

Rather than head back to my car I continued along the trackbed through to Uppermill village through a linear park known as ‘Higher Arthurs’.  Initially the trackbed was in good condition with overbridges still intact.  However, I soon came upon a bungalow surrounded by high Leylandii hedging, which I guessed was the original site of Uppermill Station.  Further along the trackbed I was surprised to find a new leisure centre and Astroturf pitches, which I don’t remember from when I lived here.  Perhaps they came about as a spin-off from the Commonwealth Games in 2002?  The railway trail continues out of Uppermill for a short distance before coming to the hill at Rylands where the old tunnel would once have driven through.  Now it has been completely blocked and re-landscaped and no sign of it exists.  At this point I left the old line for good, partially due to the failing light and partially as I had a 300 mile drive home ahead of me!  Determined walkers could probably find the northern portal of the Ryefield Tunnel, but for me I had a two mile walk back to my car. 
Approaching Greenfield

I dropped down to cross the main line over a relatively new footbridge (I remember crossing on the level last time I came this way).  From the top of the bridge I could see the old Saddleworth station, which was put up for sale a few years ago (see story at http://property.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/property/buying_and_selling/article2312797.ece) after the same couple had lived in it for over 30 years.  When I lived in the area I always cursed the fact that the station was no longer open as it was just at the bottom of the hill from where I lived and I would not have had to walk the almost two miles to Greenfield.  Still, when the weather is good, such as it was this evening and when there is plenty of time, the walk through to Greenfield is actually very pleasant.  I followed the towpath of the Huddersfield Canal, by-passing the centre of Uppermill.  There have been changes to this stretch of canal also, with the re-opening of the canal across the A635 in a couple of places at each end of Uppermill.  In the days that I lived here the canal was filled in at these points and it was amazing to see these sections restored now and used for boat traffic once again.
Saddleworth Section

Soon after regaining the canal I passed under the very impressive Saddleworth viaduct, a section of the walk to the train station that always gave me a lot of pleasure.  I felt very nostalgic as I walked along and was heartened to see that there were more ducks and canal boats along here than I remembered.  Apart from the annoyance of crossing the A635 south of Uppermill, it was a thoroughly lovely way to end my afternoon’s walking
Uppermill Viaduct

The Micklehurst Loop is not the most famous railway walk, not the most challenging and in places the dereliction of the surroundings can be a bit grim, but it is a fascinating little journey and can easily be done in an afternoon.  Other lines also exist in the area that can also be walked, most notably the Delph Donkey which also used to be a regular trip for me but which I would have to save for another time I am up this way.  Travelling from one end of the walk to the other is nice and easy courtesy of the train service that takes only a few minutes from end to end.  A thoroughly recommended trip.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Monsal Trail

Monsal Viaduct
Attending a conference in Manchester afforded me a couple of rare opportunities to explore an area that was once my back yard many moons ago; the Peak District.  My calendar at home gave me the inspiration for exploring one of the most famous of all rail trails in this country, the remnants of the old Matlock – Buxton line and now known as the Monsal Trail.  My calendar shows an old British Railways poster extolling the virtues of Chee Dale, negotiated by the Monsal Trail.  This railway walk was of course one of the trails explored by Julia Bradbury in her recent series, under the title of the ‘Peak Express’.  When I lived in this part of the country I had explored quite a lot of the walk to the west of Monsal Head, but never before completed the whole 9 mile trail, something I was keen to put right.
Chee Dale

The Monsal Trail is unlike many of the other rail trails in the Peak District in that this is much more geared towards walkers than cyclists.  For the most part this is because much of the trail is not cycle friendly as it has some tricky detours along the River Wye in order to by-pass several tunnels that have been closed for many years due to safety concerns.  However, the character of the trail may change considerably in the next few years as there are plans to re-open the tunnels (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/derbyshire/8383152.stm) and equip them with lighting so as to make the whole trail cycle-friendly (and perhaps make it a more satisfying route generally).
First Bridge

I decided to walk from north-west to south east along the trail (ie from the Buxton end).  There is plenty of parking available in Bakewell, almost at the end of the trail.  Getting to the start of the trail is relatively straightforward, even on a Sunday as I discovered since the Trans Peak bus has an hourly service from Bakewell towards Buxton.  If you decide to take this option take care to get off the bus at the right stop, the nearest point to the trailhead is at the top of the lane near the village of Blackwell.  The end of the trail can then be reached by following the Pennine Bridleway down into Chee Dale.  I was a bit impatient and got off too soon, so ended up walking rather further than I needed to; get off too late and you could find yourself being whisked away towards Chelmorton as the bus doesn’t follow the A6 to Buxton beyond this point.
Chee Dale Viaduct

Anyhow, when I got off the bus I was disappointed to see how gloomy it was – the journey up had mostly been very sunny and I had been quite excited about a sunny trip along the old line.  I had faith that the clouds might blow away, but for now the colour matched the colour of the limestone quarries that dominated the far landscape.  I dropped down the steep valley side and met with the old line near to Topley Pike junction.  Previously a triangle of lines had been shoe-horned into the valley at this point as the spur line to Buxton deviated away from the main line from Matlock to Chinley.  Only one side of the triangle still operates as a railway, used only by quarry trains that take freight away from the nearby Tunstead Quarry.  The whole of the remaining part of the railway forms a massive loop that enables a greater capacity of trains to be employed I suppose and negates the need for turning round.  On previous visits I had seen trains negotiate the tight corner from Great Rocks Dale into Wye Dale, but not today.  The only activity today was associated with the iconic cottages that once served Blackwell Mill (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blackwell_Mill).
Tunnel

Once on the trackbed the engineering necessary to drive the route through this way became immediately evident.  If it were a functioning railway today, many folks would move heaven and earth to make sure it stayed open.  There have been some attempts at re-opening the route but having been closed for more than forty years, it will need a seriously good business case to bring it back to life now.  Fortunately the trackbed’s status is assured as various authorities have safeguarded the route in case the business case should re-emerge.  At least as a walker, it is possible to admire the engineering and daring of the Midland Railway for bringing such a line through this challenging topography.
Dodgy Stepping Stones

After having a look round at the remnants of the railway in Wye Dale I needed to get cracking as by now it was the middle of the afternoon and I had a car parking ticket and more importantly a setting sun that would call time on my outing.  I passed by the old Chee Dale junction, which split the Buxton/ Chinley routes from the south.  When the line was fully functioning the Buxton line was used only by shuttle trains, with passengers travelling from the south having to change at Millers Dale station.  This part of the line is easy walking and Chee Dale is impressive by anyone’s standards, with huge limestone cliffs dominating the valley below.  The surface of the route has considerably improved from my last visit here, with a walker friendly surface instead of the raw ballast that I remember years ago.
Millers Dale

I soon came upon the two short tunnels that the route does pass through.  These are short and straight so although dark in the middle the light from either end is sufficient to enable safe walking.  At the first tunnel I saw a group of volunteers packing up for the day, I imagine after doing conservation work on the route.  I was interested to know how there vehicle had got there.  The mystery was soon solved when the vehicle went through one of the closed tunnels to get back to Millers Dale.  For me, Chee Dale Tunnel was off limits for now and I had to follow the diversionary route along the river instead.
Millers Dale Viaduct

This is an adventure in itself.  The River Wye here is full of energy and the valley floor is extremely tight.  Luckily the dry weather we have had recently meant that the river level was quite low.  If it had been any higher, the section of path that requires stepping stones in the river channel would have been quite impossible.  The route along the river is perhaps one of the best river walks I know; the sound of fast flowing water, the moss covered woods, the rainbow trout doing their best to scratch a living from the river and dippers flying low across the river were all feasts for the senses.  Clambering up and down the rocky sides of the river is not for the faint hearted since there are no handrails or protection from falling in the river.  I am very pleased that no safety measures of this nature have been put into the route, as these would be unsightly and detract considerably from the natural beauty of the valley.
Lime Kiln

Eventually I reunited with the old railway line as it crossed by way of another viaduct close to Millers Dale station.  After all the rock scrambling for the last mile or so it was a bit of a relief to get back to a level trail once again.  The short section from here to Millers Dale is full of interest for the student of industrial archaeology.  Just along from the viaduct I passed by the massive concrete installation that used to be a limekiln.  This processed much of the limestone before it was carted away by freight trains to destinations all over the country.  It now serves only to act as a viewpoint, but not for me today as I was too conscious of the time.  As I continued on the sun made a very welcome appearance.  The clouds were beginning to shift, suggesting that I might get a prolonged period of sunshine after all.  Just along from the limekiln the base of the water tower is still in place, where thirsty steam locomotives would once have been refilled.
Millers Dale Station

Soon the trees parted and the substantial remains of Millers Dale station came into view.  The village of Millers Dale is little more than a hamlet strung out along the road, but the size of the station is still astonishing, even in closure.  It would once have been the junction for the Buxton spur and presumably many of the trains heading to and from Manchester would have stopped here for that very reason.  Although the platforms and some of the buildings are still intact, it is difficult to imagine what a bustling station this must have once have been.  An excellent insight into its past can be found at http://forgottenrelics.co.uk/stations/millersdale.html
Millers Dale Station

Sadly there wasn’t time to linger today, for the sunshine had increased my urgency to continue while it was still bright.  I wanted to be sure that I could reach Monsal Head while it was still in the sky, for the valley bottoms at this time of year don’t see a lot of light.  I crossed the huge viaduct on the other side of the station (there are actually two still in existence but one of them is now closed to walkers) and headed down the trackbed towards Litton Mill.  This proved to be easy walking for a mile or so as I continued along the trackbed on a section I had never previously walked along.  Tantalising glimpses of the surrounding countryside could be seen, including Ravenstor Youth Hostel on the other side of the valley, although for the most part the trees growing on the side of the embankment obscured most of the view.  Eventually I came to Litton Railway Cutting, a site of geological interest caused by the blasting of this engineering feature of the line.  The sides of the cutting are bare of vegetation and are effectively mini limestone cliffs.
Millers Dale Bridges

Just past here and I would be once again leaving the trackbed as the line worked its way through the valley by means of two further tunnels closed to the public.  I dropped down into the hamlet clustered around the once notorious Litton Mill, once the employer/ exploiter of young workers and now housing some very posh apartments (see the full story at http://www.peaklandheritage.org.uk/index.asp?peakkey=21300621) .  The last time I came by this way in the 1990s I hadn’t remembered this being quite as salubrious as it now seems to be, although I did remember the surrounding housing being very charming.  From here I had a pleasant walk along the Wye for a couple of miles.  In contrast to the last diversion this was a nice easy walk, with a flat and nicely surfaced concessionary path.  Don’t even think of doing anything but walk along here though – there were loads of signs outlawing everything else!
Telegraph Pole

After negotiating a couple of meander loops I soon came upon Cressbrook Mill and the wonderfully named Water-Cum-Jolly Dale.  There is a useful little refreshment stop here that I have availed myself of many times but sadly it was closed today.  I took a look at the impressive mill building known as ‘Big Mill’ and built in 1815.  An original mill building still exists next door, dating from the time of Richard Arkwright, the famous mill owner from further down the valley in Cromford.
Cressbrook Mill

By now the sun was disappearing behind the high valley sides and I was getting a little concerned about the time as I still had a few miles left before I would get to Bakewell.  I pressed on, taking the rocky track back up onto the trackbed, now perched on a shelf high above the Wye Valley.  This was on the shadowy side of the valley and conscious of what I perceived to be the gathering gloom my pace quickened considerably.  This was a stretch I had not previously walked along and I was very surprised when I encountered the remains of a station that I had not previously known about.  I guessed that this might have been a railway workers halt, but once I had passed the remains of the platform I came across a sign explaining that this was once Monsal Dale station, built to serve the scattered community in this part of the Wye Valley.  Apparently it was once a popular station with ramblers and probably would still be if it hadn’t been for the Beeching vandalism.  Sadly it looks like this station will never be re-opened even if the line does miraculously come to life once again.  This spot has not been considered as a place for a reinstated station.
Monsal Dale

A little further along the track I came upon the most famous feature of not just this line but perhaps any former rail line in the whole of the UK.  The viaduct over the Wye at Monsal Head is now an iconic structure, but was hugely controversial when it was built in 1863.  Many people thought it destroyed the beauty of the Wye Valley, but now it is hard to think of the view without the viaduct in it!  Once again the trail away from this point is through a blocked tunnel so until it is once again opened walkers have to scramble up to the top of Monsal Head.  There are compensations of course – from the top is the famous view of the viaduct in its surroundings, now seamlessly part of the landscape especially now it doesn’t have trains rumbling over it.
Litton Mill

After the short and breathless climb to the top of Monsal Head I was pleased to see that there was still some sunshine left in the day.  I also realised that most of the best pictures of this view are taken in the morning.  It isn’t easy to get a decent shot with the setting sun as it shines directly across the viaduct in the line of the camera from this point.  The top of Monsal Head is now populated with places to eat and stay, all taking advantage of this iconic Peak District view.  There were plenty of people making use of the facilities too – it was now dinner time and most of the sightseers had had enough for the day.
Monsal Dale Ststion

I pushed on through the village of Little Longstone and picked up the track that would take me back to the old line.  The character of my journey would now change.  From here on the way along the trackbed was clear and I had a straight shot to Bakewell without any obstacles.  The countryside was different too as the line left the confines of the narrow Wye Valley and instead headed out across rolling Peak District countryside.  This wasn’t the originally planned route apparently but was forced on the Midland Railway engineers to follow a permitted route across the Haddon Park estate further south.  This forced the route a little north of the valley to ensure that the line crossed the Haddon Estate through a tunnel and thus out of view of the Duke of Rutland.  Who says that Nimbyism is a recent phenomenon?
Little Longstone Church

After the Wye Valley I wasn’t sure that I would enjoy this section, which I had never previously walked.  However, the open countryside was a lot brighter and I soon realised that with a quick pace I would certainly make it back to Bakewell before darkness fell.  Shortly after regaining the trackbed I came upon the first of three stations remaining.  Great Longstone Station was closed in 1962, some years before the rest of the route and couldn’t have been terribly convenient for passengers, being half a mile from the village.  Apparently for five years after it closed trains used to stop for a nurse who worked at Buxton hospital.  When I passed it was empty and in the process of being renovated.  Considering how long it has been closed it is still in remarkable condition however (see http://www.forgottenrelics.co.uk/stations/gallery/greatlongstone.html for a picture without scaffolding!).
Great Longstone Station

My pace now resembled an express train and about fifteen minutes later I reached Hassop Station, once billed as the stop for Chatsworth House but closed as long ago as 1942.  The buildings are still complete and have in recent years served as a bookshop and café.  All was quiet as I passed though – by now it was well beyond the normal Sunday opening hours.  In common with Monsal Dale station, the studies into re-opening the line have ignored the case for reinstating Hassop.
Hassop Station

Another twenty minutes further on and I finally reached Bakewell, my final destination.  By now it was too gloomy to get many decent pictures although the station itself is in good condition, albeit that the platforms have been filled in.  There is still plenty of railway interest here as not only is the station mostly intact but the goods depot and other railway buildings are also still extant and being used for a variety of businesses.  If re-opened this would probably be the busiest station en-route and would probably be served by all passing trains.
Bakewell Station

The Monsal Trail continues for a short distance south of Bakewell until it reaches the Haddon Estate, when it abruptly stops.  Walkers are not welcome on the Haddon section and on the other side of the estate the trackbed has been taken over by the Peak Rail operation, a heritage line that is seeking to reinstate the whole route back to Buxton (see http://www.peakrail.co.uk/index.htm) .  By now the light was fading fast and I didn’t think there was much to gain from exploring the remaining half mile of route.
Bakewell Station

All in all the Monsal Trail is a hugely enjoyable railway walk and it’s easy to see why this was included in the recent BBC series.  Time was tight for me, which meant that I by-passed some of the relics I would have liked to look at in more detail.  Maybe next time I give it a go the closed tunnels will be re-opened once more?  Although a bit frustrating that they are closed the diversions around the River Wye and up and over Monsal Head are actually hugely enjoyable sections and add considerable variety to the walk.  I have a feeling that when the tunnels are open this will be more cycling focused and this will inevitably affect the character of the route.  If you want to have a look at some pictures of the route in its heyday I found an excellent site at http://www.davidheyscollection.com/page34.htm