Walking the Peak Forest Tramway

John Kingston 

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Introduction

Did you know that a railway embankment had a major influence on one of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s battles? Yes, railways are that old. The first locomotive may not have appeared until the 19th century, but goods were being moved by rail from the early 18th century. Typically these were short railways known as “tramways”, built on the side of a hill, with the goods moving down by gravity and the empty wagons being pulled back up by horses.

The Peak Forest Tramway, opened in 1796, was a horse-and-gravity powered railway. It was much longer than most tramways, at a total of 6 miles. A lot of good and bad ideas about railway construction were learned from it. The bad ideas included laying the rails on stones rather than on sleepers (or, to anyone from North America reading this, railroad ties); these ‘sleeper’ stones tended to settle or move in the ground over time, causing rail warping and derailments. The braking system on the trains was also extremely primitive, and fairly dangerous; a young lad would throw an iron hook into the spokes of the wagons’ wheels, thus jamming them and forcing the wagons to skid to a stop. The good ideas included a pulley-chain system to get wagons up and down the steepest section of the route, with the heavy wagons at the top pulling up the empty ones from the bottom; a similar system is used on many cliff railways today. And there were also some odd ideas, such as putting flanges (to stop the wagons derailing sideways) onto the rails rather than onto the wagon wheels. The idea was probably to allow the wagons to be usable off the railway as well as on it, but this system was eventually changed.

Why should you want to see it? Out of an interest in railway history, perhaps. Or perhaps you’re an engineer curious about your predecessors’ work. Or you’re just looking for a walk that has some interesting features. Or maybe you’re an environmentalist and want to see how a post-industrial landscape looks – for make no mistake, the Buxworth canal basin was a hive of primary industry  in the 19th century. At one point, it was the busiest inland port in Britain, and the tramway fed the demand. There’s a working factory still on the tramway, and a couple more nearby, if that interests you.

For more history of the tramway, and a map of the overall route, see http://www.brocross.com/iwps/pages/pft.htm or http://www.pittdixon.go-plus.net/pft/pft.htm. There are also some details at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peak_Forest_Tramway and in the book “Lost Railways of Derbyshire” by Geoffrey Kingscott.  This guide is to help you walk the route of the tramway; it helps you find the different sections, and provides a few details along the way.

One further historical note: when the tramway was built, the terms ‘station’ and ‘train’ had not become part of standard English. The tramway was designed and built by canal engineers, so they referred to stations as ‘wharves’ and trains of wagons as ‘gangs’ of wagons. I have used the old terminology.

Getting There

This guide starts from the lowest end of the tramway, where it meets the Peak Forest Canal at Buxworth. I have divided the tramway into three sections according to accessibility.

Car/Motorcycle

Park at the Navigation Inn, Brookside, Buxworth, SK23 7NE.

Bicycle

Section 1 of the tramway is open to bicycles. For sections 2 and 3, some parts of the tramway can be cycled; otherwise, follow the guidance for pushchairs.

Bus

To get to Buxworth, there is a bus that runs between Buxton, Peak Dale, Chapel-en-le-Frith, Chinley, Buxworth and Whaley Bridge. As Buxworth village is strung out along a couple of roads, ask for the Navigation Inn. The timetable is here; note that there’s no service on Sundays.

Train

Take the train to Chinley (if coming via Sheffield) or Furness Vale or Whaley Bridge (if coming via Stockport, or from Buxton).  The Navigation Inn is a 15-20 minute walk from Furness Vale, slightly further from Whaley Bridge, and 20-30 minutes from Chinley, unless you are lucky enough to coincide with a bus from Chinley or Whaley Bridge.

From Chinley: Head downhill (south) on Station Road and turn right on Lower Lane. Keep going until you have passed under the railway(s) twice in 200 yards. The Navigation Inn is a short distance down the next left turning, at the bottom of the hill.

From Furness Vale: Go downhill (east) from the station. In about 50 yards on your left you’ll see an access point to the canal towpath. Go down to the canal and head south; you’ll find the towpath turns east pretty soon.  Follow it to the basins which form the end of the canal.

From Whaley Bridge:  Walk down to the main road, cross to the east side, then turn left. Go down Canal Street (it’s pretty much straight ahead) and you’ll be at the Whaley Bridge terminus of the canal. The towpath is on the east  (right hand) side. Head north until you reach the eastern branch of the canal, cross the footbridge, then follow the towpath eastwards.

N.B. If you have a pushchair or wheelchair, avoid the Whaley Bridge route, as the footbridge is very narrow. If you find yourself unable to cross the bridge, it is theoretically possibly to follow a steep cobbled path down into Tesco’s car park, follow a short tunnel under the canal, then take an equally steep cobbled path up the other side; this is the route that barge-pulling horses used to cross the canal junction. I say ‘theoretically’ because the tunnel is sometimes flooded and/or partially blocked with debris.

Air (!)

Take the 199 bus from Manchester Airport to Furness Vale, or to Tesco in Whaley Bridge. Or take the train from the airport to Stockport and follow the above directions from there.