The Lost Railways of Buxton and the Peak District

Railways of Buxton

Ben Jones has been working at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery for over 20 years and as you can imagine, he has absorbed a lot of local history. Whilst the museum is closed to the public, he and his colleagues have taken the opportunity to shine a light on the more obscure objects in the museum collection and conduct new research. Ben doesn’t claim to be a railway enthusiast and would like to hear from anyone that can broaden his knowledge at [email protected] but here are some fascinating snippets he has gathered so far:

Buxton still benefits from a passenger train to Manchester with stops at the Derbyshire towns of Chapel-en-le-Frith and Whaley Bridge that offer gateways to the national park beyond. However, there was a time when you could catch trains to other local settlements such as Bakewell, Matlock, Cromford, Hartington, Tissington and Ashbourne. Like many other railways nationwide, the lines were eventually closed in favour of “progress” and we can now only imagine what it must have been like to chug through those characteristic hills on a steam-powered locomotive. There are fading vestiges of the lost railways in the landscape if you know where to look. The collections of Buxton Museum and Art Gallery contain further evidence of this golden age of travel.

Like some classic Ealing Studio comedy, Buxton used to have two train stations on opposite sides of the road run by two different companies that arrived within days of each other in 1863, extending existing lines. The London and North Western Railway (LNWR) and the Midland Railway (MR) looked at the town as one of strategic importance. It is said that the drivers and engineers from both companies thought of their trains as superior and this soot-coated rivalry must have been intense, considering that they were in spanner-throwing distance of each other. This frozen moment from the photograph collection shows soldiers marching between the two stations.

There cannot have been much conflict over who had the nicest-looking station, however as they were identical designs by Joseph Paxton, with the characteristic fan-shaped window.  MR’s version closed 104 years later and was subsequently demolished, narrowly avoiding becoming a grade II listed monument, like its twin. The camaraderie of the railway men can be seen in this photograph of the Railways Riflemen’s Club; gentlemen sharing a passion for suits, moustaches and firearms.

As well as those who mourn the passing of the other Paxton window, there are probably an equal amount of people who regret the closure of the catchy-titled Manchester, Buxton, Matlock and Midland Junction Railway which ran across the magnificent Headstone Viaduct in Monsal Dale. The bridge is now part of a walking, cycling and horse-riding trail which you can follow from Blackwell Mill near Buxton to Bakewell, or vice versa. A computer-generated steam train speeds across it in Universal’s 2010 remake of The Wolfman. Buxton Museum cares for this this rendition in watercolour. Local history nuts may wish to know the Iron Age fort of Fin Cop rises inconspicuously in the background.

These items were recently catalogued and photographed by museum volunteer Margaret Atack. There is a luncheon invitation to mark the opening of the Buxton to Ashbourne line, providing us with a very specific date of August 1st 1899. There are also some first and third class tickets, but no second class. What differences did each class of traveller experience I wonder?

Sightseers could journey from the spa resort of Buxton to gawp at the wondrous sight of Dovedale via rail, alighting at Thorpe Cloud Station. Buxton Museum cares for many wondrous objects that have been found in Dovedale, from fossils that are millions of years old to flint tools used by ancient people who once inhabited its caves. The most spectacular is probably the Reynard’s Kitchen Cave hoard; a stash of Iron Age and Roman coins unearthed by a member of the public, on loan from The National Trust.

Thor’s Cave in the Manifold Valley is another archaeological site and destination for a walk. It was not until I stumbled upon this photograph in the collections that I even knew it once had a train station. The Leek and Manifold Valley Light Railway was a short-lived narrow-gauge line that operated between 1904 and 1934. Its purpose was to deliver milk to villages but there was a passenger service, providing access to other beauty spots along the way such as Wetton Mill and Beeston Tor. What a day out that must have been!

Not everyone approved of the industrialisation of Peak District travel. Victorian art critic John Ruskin turned his scrutiny to the railways and made his feelings known:

There was a rocky valley between Buxton and Bakewell, once upon a time. You enterprised a railroad through the valley – you blasted its rocks away, heaped thousands of tons of shale into its lovely stream. The valley is gone, and the Gods with it; and now every fool in Buxton can be in Bakewell in half an hour, and every fool in Bakewell.

This drawing from a sketchbook by 19th century artist Mary Twopenny shows Ruskin’s valley before the railway arrived, complete with travellers on foot, struggling up the hill.

Whatever your opinion on the railways, we hope you will visit Buxton Museum and Art Gallery when it is open to the public again and see the collections for yourself. You could follow the museum on their blog or on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Please kindly note that if you wish to reproduce any of the images in this post, please ask for permission first by emailing [email protected]

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