Steaming back to Cauldon Lowe

Published: 12:35PM Nov 25th, 2010
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Crowds poured into the Staffordshire Moorlands over the weekend of 13/14 November for the first of three gala events to mark the return of traffic to the long-mothballed Cauldon Lowe branch. In what may be considered a ‘first’ for preservation, the new company which now controls the branch ‘hired’ the adjacent Churnet Valley Railway to run a star-studded line-up of steam trains with stunning success, as a precursor to what may well become a standard gauge ‘heritage’ network, writes Robin Jones.

Steaming back to Cauldon Lowe

LMS 8F 2-8-0 No 8624 nears Cauldon Lowe with the 2.35pm from Kingsley & Froghall. PHIL WATERFIELD

The Churnet Valley Railway had never seen anything like it. While parking around the stations in ‘Little Switzerland’, the gem of a steep valley shared by the railway, the River Churnet and the Caldon Canal, has never been exactly plentiful, by around 10am on Saturday 13 November it was all but non-existent.

November is usually a no-go month for heritage railways, because it is reserved for maintenance between the end of the main summer season and the start of Santa specials. However, this was something special, and certainly out of the ordinary.
The CVR, part of the North Staffordshire Railway route from Leek to Uttoxeter, had for a quarter of a century been little more than a token presence of a handful of items of rolling stock at Cheddleton station on what had become a freight-only branch long ago. Since then, it has blossomed into a superbly-scenic heritage line, running heritage services over the 51/4 miles between the replica station at Kingsley & Froghall and Leekbrook Junction, where, tantalisingly and frustratingly, it joined the mothballed and very overgrown line from Stoke-on-Trent to Cauldon Lowe, a total of 19 miles.

The CVR’s own expansion aim for long had involved neither: it wants to go straight over the junction and establish a presence to the north in Leek, one of the biggest towns in Britain lacking a station.

Along came a new company, Moorland & City Railways, with close links to the CVR. Its powerhouse Greg Wilson is a director of both.

MCR, which was formed in 2009, has the aim not of running a heritage railway, but restoring all the mothballed lines for commercial use. Cauldon Lowe, next to a sprawling Lafarge cement works complex, and the Tarmac limestone quarry, has been retained by Network Rail as a strategic freight site, and talks about switching traffic from road tanker back to rail, a huge benefit for this southernmost part of the White Peak district, are underway.

The Cauldon Lowe branch proper, all eight miles of it from Leekbrook Junction, proved surprisingly easy to bring back into use – work on restoring it began only in April – and once the vegetation was cleared away, it was found to be in far better condition that first thought – hence the three gala weekends in November, the first featuring steam only, the second a mixture of steam and diesel, and the third diesel only. The aim for 2011 is to clear the 11 miles from Leekbrook Junction to the main line connection in Stoke-on-Trent and run the first trains along it.

MCR sees the company’s lease on the lines as opening up a myriad of opportunities. The CVR’s eastern two miles from Kingsley & Froghall to the engine shed at Oakamoor could be extended to serve Alton Towers, with the prospect of special trains from all over Britain running through Leekbrook Junction to access the theme park, one of the country’s top tourist magnets.

When the Stoke-Cauldon Lowe line is not being used for freight or charter trains, CVR trains will be able to run over it under an access agreement with MCR. Who knows – they might even run into Stoke station at some point in the future.

At this point I would like to clear up the confusion over the ambiguous spelling of Cauldon Lowe. Nobody seems to agree here. British Railways had Caldon Low as its spelling, and that is the name displayed at the entrance to the cement works today. There are a variety of local road signs with different spellings, some dropping the ‘e’ in Lowe, others the ‘u’ in Cauldon. Even the ‘bible’ of place name spellings, the Ordnance Survey map, cannot make its mind up – the village of Cauldon Lowe – which unlike neighbouring Cauldon, was not connected to the branch – is marked next to a hill named Caldon Low. MCR has chosen, rightly or wrongly, the name Cauldon Lowe as its title for the branch, and so for consistency, we at Heritage Railway will go with that, unless the alternatives are specifically used, on individual features such as the Lafarge cement works.

For the first of the gala weekends, sponsored by Heritage Railway’s new sister title The Railway Magazine, BR 8P 4-6-2 No 71000 Duke of Gloucester, rebuilt Bulleid West Country light Pacific No 34028 Eddystone, ‘Black Five’ No 44767 George Stephenson and GWR large prairie No 5199 joined home-based red Stanier 8F No 8624. The latter is soon to join the Great Central Railway fleet at Loughborough as exclusively revealed in Heritage Railway issue 143. It will run a succession of public trips from Kingsley & Froghall to Cauldon Lowe, from where about two thirds of a mile of track needs to be relaid to access the cement works – if the talks about commercial operations bear fruit. The express locomotives in action on the Cauldon Lowe branch, operating the trains in top-and-tail mode because of the absence of an operational run-round loop at the far end, were running on a track that has never seen such magnitude of steam power before.

Bizarrely, a theoretical trip between the CVR’s railhead at Oakamoor to the end of the Cauldon Lowe branch involves a train journey of more than 15 miles, yet the two are not even four miles apart as the crow flies. The fact that the lines ‘double back’ on each other meant that the army of photographers, struggling during the gala to find ideal photographic locations on the ‘unknown’ Cauldon Lowe line, would get ready to take their shots when hearing the plaintive whistle of a steam locomotive, only for it to be echoing from the opposite valley and half an hour away! That in itself is somewhat magical.

For the first day, the linesiders were blessed with unexpected amounts of sunshine, as they packed every bridge and vantage point on the Cauldon Lowe branch, the low moorland scenery of which provides a sharp contrast with the limestone gorge of the Churnet Valley. For some it would be rich pickings, particularly catching steam engines hard at work on the 1-in-40 curving gradient from Leekbrook, but so was it for Staffordshire Police, who issued tickets to several for inconsiderate parking along the main A523 between Ashbourne and Leek.

Over the first weekend, more than 2500 people travelled, or rather, packed, the trains. With only 12 coaches available, virtually every seat was taken. There were some complaints that people who had bought the £25 daily rover ticket for unlimited travel could not get on the first train from Kingsley & Froghall, hauled by Duke of Gloucester, and operational problems led to late running. Low water pressure at Kingsley & Froghall meant that locomotives had to use the supply at Cheddleton instead, and a water tanker was also brought in. However, the following day’s timetable ran to clockwork.

Despite the fact that the starting point was Kingsley & Froghall, and CVR stock was used, the events were not CVR galas. The CVR was in effect ‘borrowed’ by MCR for the galas.

A lavish all-colour souvenir guide, which may well become a collectors’ item was on sale at £5 a copy. A huge marquee providing a temporary bar, restaurant and accommodation for trade stands was provided at Kingsley & Froghall, where the half-demolished Thomas Bolton wireworks site helped provide essential parking.
The idea of a line to link Leek to the moorland area to the east was partly brought to fruition in the wake of the Light Railways Act of 1896, which allowed for railways serving sparsely populated rural areas to be constructed to less costly standards, and often with public subsidies. Such lines had to be built and run by an existing railway company so the North Staffordshire Railway was approached. It saw the new line, with its financial support, as an opportunity to provide a line that could move stone from the limestone quarries it leased at Cauldon Lowe.

The branch was authorised on 6 March 1899 with standard gauge from Cheddleton Junction to Waterhouses and the section from Waterhouses to Hulme End, the legendary but long-gone Leek & Manifold Valley Light Railway, to be built as narrow gauge. Work started in 1899 and was expected to last until 1903 but there were huge engineering difficulties as the slopes designed for the earthworks proved to be unstable on the wet ground and had to be re-graded, calling for much more earthmoving than originally planned. The line was completed in summer 1905 and the first limestone trains from Cauldon Quarry ran in December 1909.

Quarry traffic continued to grow and milk traffic was developed, but passenger traffic failed to live up to expectations.

Under LMS control, a steady decline in traffic continued due to changing transport patterns and the depression of the 1930s. Passenger services ended on 30 September 1935 and the Leek & Manifold closed in 1934. By rail nationalisation in 1948 there were only two trains carrying goods and minerals daily on the remaining standard gauge line. In 1963, the Beeching Axe declared the remaining stations to be hopelessly uneconomic. Freight services were withdrawn on 4 May 1964 leaving just mineral services to Cauldon Quarry.

The quarry traffic continued until 1989 and then the track was mothballed, remaining unused apart for some rail enthusiast excursion trains that were run in 1994.

Following a study in 1998 in to the remaining stone reserves at Caldon, the quarry owners submitted a joint planning application to develop a new aggregates storage area and rail loading facility that would bring the line back in to use.  Planning consent was given in October 1999, subject to the relocation of rare plants to a new habitat and their subsequent management, but the project was not taken forward by the applicants and the line remained unused.

In 2009, the opportunity to restart mineral services to Caldon and to link with the existing CVR was the basis of the establishment of MCR.

It is now anticipated that regular freight services will restart in 2012, once the line to Stoke is completed. Incidentally, the section from Stoke to Leekbrook Junction will be upgraded for 60mph running, although the Cauldon Lowe branch has the same 25mph restriction as the CVR.

By laying about one mile of new track from Leekbrook, the line will be able to reconnect Leek with the main line network, meaning passengers can travel from Leek, Cheddleton, Kingsley & Froghall to anywhere in the country via Stoke. A new station will be built at Leek.

Once all of the planned new sections are completed, the combined CVR/MCR will have the longest running line of any heritage railway in the country, taking that mantle off the new 26-mile Welsh Highland Railway, in and, with its links to the main rail network, will be able to bring in locomotives and rolling stock from anywhere in the country.

The first gala brought happy memories flooding back for a local couple who travelled to Cauldon Lowe as passengers as infants before the branch was closed in 1935.

Trevor, 83, grandfather and grandmother both worked for the North Staffordshire Railway Company, said: "I remember red buckets at Bradnop station which were full of sand. "I thought it was to play with, but obviously they were fire buckets.”

Margaret still remembers travelling with her parents from her home in Broomyshaw near Winkhill, to Leek buttermarket every Wednesday to take eggs, poultry and cheese to be sold.

Visitors from the three galas will also be able to share fond memories, while everyone in the heritage sector will be wishing MCR all the luck in its bold but very welcome venture. It cannot be disputed that the progress that has been made in a matter of months in reviving the Cauldon Lowe branch is nothing less than remarkable.

Greg Wilson said that the MCR will be able to run at higher speeds using CVR stock on the Stoke-Leekbrook section: “What other independent railways will be able to offer 60mph running and a 1-in-40 climb?

“There is a recipe here for a very good future.”

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