The Ashover Light Railway
A closed railway of historic interest
The Railway Today
Although the line in it's original form has long gone it is with great pleasure that I
am able to report the activities of the Ashover Light Railway Society. At the
time of writing things are at a very early stage but the Society are actively working to
restore a portion of the line to passenger carrying operation. I am sure we would all like
to support this team in there efforts to restore narrow gauge steam to this corner of
Derbyshire. For more information vist the The Ashover Light
Railway Society web site.
The area around Clay Cross in Derbyshire has been exploited for its mineral wealth for
centuries with records of coal working here as long ago as 1665. The North Midland Railway
was built through the area by George Stephenson and Company in 1837-38 and generated a
demand for coke for it's locomotives, Clay Cross was the ideal location for coke production
and a major industrialisation of the area began with the construction of a colliery and
coking plant capable of supplying all the needs of the railway and giving a surplus for
On George Stephenson's Death in 1848 his son Robert became the majority shareholder in
the Clay Cross industrial complex but he did not retain this position for long and the
company passed into the hands of others eventually becoming the Clay Cross Company Limited
under the control of William Jackson in 1913. At this time the interests of the company
comprised a brickworks, three blast furnaces, a foundry, coke ovens and gas plant, seven
collieries, a limeworks, a limestone quarry and ironstone mines.
The most significant expansion of all (from the light railway enthusiasts point of view)
was the acquisition of the Overton Estate at Ashover in 1919 for its valuable, and largely
unexploited, mineral deposits. Far sighted as ever the Clay Cross Company board realised
that without a railway connection the Overton Estate would not be viable and they secured
agreement to build a rail link across the adjacent Ogston Hall land before completeing the
Purchase for £33,075 on 4th January 1919.
The plans of The Clay Cross Company to build a railway to the Overton Estate would
also give nearby Ashover a rail connection. There had been several other attempts to
connect the town to the rail network, as early as 1802 a route was surveyed by John Nuttal
for a canal to link Chesterfield and Ashover and subsequently amended to suit a railway
rather than a canal by Engineer John Rennie. In 1839 a route for a railway from Ashover
joining the new North Midland Railway near Clay Cross was surveyed but like the 1802
scheme it came to nothing. In 1873 the Midland Railway proposed to build a branch from
Stretton (on the main line between Derby and Chesterfield) not to Ashover but to Alston
Colliery which would also have entered the same general area but the colliery closed and
the ldea was abandoned, again without any construction work being carried out.
Interest in new railways was not restricted to branch lines as two major railway
proposals for the area were made in the shape of the North Staffordshire and Mid Derbyshire
Railway (1898) and the later Mid Derbyshire Railway (1906). Both these schemes were very
ambitious and would have required very large amounts of capital, it is perhaps not
surprising that these too came to nothing. So it fell to the Clay Cross Company as late as
1919 to bring the railway to Ashover as a by product of providing modern transport for
there newly acquired mineral workings on the Overton Estate.
Early plans were for a system comprising three railways, two standard gauge (one of which
would have a junction at Stretton with the Midland Railway) and one, short, narrow gauge
line to Alston Colliery in Ashover. The route for this system was surveyed by none other
than Colonel H.F. Stephens and a Light Railway order granted but even now this was to prove
another false dawn for the railway era in Ashover. In order to save money the Railway was
redesigned as a 2' gauge system throughout running from Clay Cross works via Stretton to
Ashover, it's length of 6 miles 54 chains was much further than the straight line distance
due to the neccesity of running south alongside the Midland Railway for some distance
before turning North West up the picturesque valley of the river Amber.
The task of constructing the railway was put out to tender and two tenders actually
received however it is believed that these must have been in excess of the original
estimates as the Clay Cross company elected to draw on the extensive pool of labour within
the works and construct the line itself.
The Clay Cross company were exceedingly fortunate in starting construction when they
did for at this time a substantial amount of 60cm gauge equipment supplied for use on the
Western front during the First World War was available from the War Stores Disposal Board
and this glut on the market forced sale at very low prices. Accordingly four ex War
department locomotives were acquired, these were four of the huge number of machines built
by the Baldwin Company of Philadelphia for service with the British Army and, although
having little finesse or grace in their design, were solid reliable machines.
|Peggy hard at work on the ALR|
By now General Jackson, one of the directors of the Clay Cross Company, was responsible
for the railway and he replaced the original numbers on the four Baldwins with the names
of his children, Guy, Peggy, Joan and Hummy the latter being short for Humphrey. The locos
were 4-6-0 machines with exceptionally wide side tanks and these turned out to be the cause
of an alarming bad habit these machines displayed. If they were stood on canted track for
any length of time (ie one rail higher than the other, common practise at curves) water
would run from one tank to the other via the balancing pipe and the weight of the heavier
tank could tip the engine off the track, something which occurred several times during
construction of the line.
The four Baldwin locomotives were taken to Clay Cross where they were tested and
overhauled before being put to work, Hummy and Peggy were set to work starting from the
works where a large embankment had to be built while Guy and Joan were stripped for transport
to different points along the line so that work could start from several places at once. At
their appointed place of work the locomotives were re-assembled by the Clay Cross fitters
onto short stretches of track laid for the purpose. It is said that reassembling Joan was
a much longer job than Guy, possibly because she was re-built outside the Royal Oak Inn!
Once construction work was underway it was decided that the Ashover end of the railway
terminated in an inconvenient spot at Salter lane and a further light railway order was
applied for to add an extension to the Butts Quarry which would also give a more convenient
passenger terminus at Ashover Butts. With the granting of this order the powers to build
the Ashover Light Railway as it was finally constructed were in place.
Rolling stock consisted of four coaches built for the railway by the Gloucester Carriage
and Wagon company, these were widely regarded as amongst the most comfortable ever built
for so small a gauge and seated forty people each. For the mineral traffic the company
purchased seventy second hand drop sided bogie wagons.
Construction was completed in time for an Opening Ceremony on 6th April 1925 and the
first day of normal public service the following day.
The total length of the railway was 7 miles 14 chains (or the five railways as the
various light railway orders authorising the line saw it due to the piecemeal way in
which it had been planned). Apart from the short industrialised section at Clay Cross
the line ran through some of the most pleasant rural scenery this part of the country
has to offer, a fact which was not lost on the promoters who avidly sought the tourist
traffic to augment the revenues of the little railway.
Apart from a short goods only extension the railway had its eastern terminus at Clay
Cross and Egstow Station where the passenger could board the train for the Journey to the
scenic delights of Ashover and the Amber Valley. The line first skirted the hill through
which George Stephenson drove the Clay Cross tunnel before following the
route of the
London Midland and Scottish Railway for several miles along the valley of the Smithy Brook.
After heading south past Halts at Chesterfield Road, Holmgate, Springfield, Clay Lane
(close to the Royal Oak, scene of Joan's reconstruction) and Stretton the railway turned
North West into the pretty Amber Valley.
The first station within the Valley of the river Amber was Hurst Lane and from here
the river and railway were never far apart the railway frequently crossing the river by means
of ten small bridges. The passenger then passed through Woolley before arriving at Dalebank,
Milltown and Fallgate in rapid succession at the busy industrial area around Milltown.
Now approaching Ashover itself the train calls at Salter Lane, originally intended to be
the western terminus, before a short run through Ashover to Ashover Butts, the end of the
journey for the passenger although the line continued a short distance to the Butts Quarry
where it served to carry away the limestone for supply as ballast to the LMS railway.
Ashover Butts station was a charming place and the many photographs reflect an atmosphere
which has inspired many modellers to build miniature replicas. As at the Clay Cross Terminus
rather than turning the engine on a truntable the entire train could be
a reversing triangle (much as a motorist does a three point turn) and this triangle was set
in the The Butts Pasture amid the hills surrounding the river Amber. From two points of the
triangle the railway continued to the west to the Butts Quarry and to the east the main line,
on the third point of the triangle stood Ashover Butts Station overlooked by the Church, the
drystone walls and the grazing sheep. Across the railway from the station and overlooking the
Butts Pasture and the reversing Triangle was an unusual Octagonal Cafe building, this wooden
building was provided by the Clay Cross Company having been prefabricated in their works, it
was romantically named 'Where the rainbow ends' and to emphasise the theme was roofed in tiles
of the seven colours of the rainbow.
And so the Ashover Light Railway went on, it fulfilled its original role as mineral carrier
to the Clay Cross Company and its secondary one in opening up the Amber Valley to the populace.
Passenger traffic was heavy enough that eight coaches from the Never Stop Railway at the
British Empire Exhibition at Wembley were acquired to supplement the 'Gloucesters'. Two further
Baldwins were acquired and named after General Jackson's family as dictated by tradition, these
were Bridget and a second Guy, the first having been withdrawn and used as a source of spares
for the rest.
In spite of the prosperity of the early days the ALR had to face the same pressure of
competition from the Omnibus and the Lorry as all the other minor railways and its passenger
revenues declined until, in 1936 the regular passenger service was withdrawn after only eleven
The mineral traffic continued over a deteriorating permananent way and there was even the
odd flourish as a special passenger train ran. The last passenger train was made up of cleaned
goods wagons with temporary seating and was a special excursion of the Birmingham Locomotive
Club on 24th August 1947. The railway only competed with road haulage even in the forties by
reducing maintenece to a minimum and on 5th July 1949 the railway was finally closed locomotives,
track and rolling stock was completely worn out, a fact reflected in the many derailments in the
later years. By the early fifties almost everything had been dismantled for scrap and the
countryside was reclaiming its own so that today almost nothing but memories and photographs
remains of the ALR.