Narrow Gauge Pleasure

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.

Origins

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 sale elsewhere.

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.

Construction

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.

Operation

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 turned using 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.

Closure

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 years.

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.

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