Narrow Gauge Pleasure

The Leek and Manifold Light Railway

A closed railway of historic interest
2-6-4 E.R. Calthrop
One train but almost all the rolling stock on the line


Derbyshire meets Staffordshire where lowland Britain meets the Highland North in a delightful part of the country where the high limestone plateau is deeply incised by a multitude of river valleys. This area boasts the famous Dove Dale while just to the west is the Manifold Valley, a spectacular limestone gorge which was once home to one of the more unusual British narrow gauge lines. Curiously except when the Manifold is in spate it runs entirely underground from just below Wetton Mill to its confluence with the Hamps; leaving the river bed and bridges high, dry and strangely incongruous.

The rugged nature of the area generally prevented it being drawn into the Victorian railway movement until Buxton was linked to Ashbourne by the LNWR in 1899, even this development left many people living in outlying areas a large distance from the nearest railway. When the light railways act was passed in 1896 the construction of minor railways (of whatever gauge) was made much more cost effective by relieving their promoters of the need to observe much of the regulation which covered more ambitious projects. It was in this more liberated environment that the construction of a light railway from Leek to Hulme End on the upper Manifold was proposed. The line was to be standard gauge from Leek to Waterhouses and then turn northwards into the hills as a narrow gauge line following the Manifold Valley.

The entire line was initially known as the 'Leek Cauldon Low and Hartington Light Railway' but it was decided to give the standard and narrow gauge lines separate identites and the narrow gauge line became the 'Leek and Manifold Light Railway', the company of the same name being established in 1898.


In 1899 the engineer, a Mr Forsyth, died and a replacement had to be found, it was at this point that the seeds of the line's unique character were sewn. The man appointed was Everard R Calthrop, recently returned from the Barsi Light Railway in India where he had applied a systematic and logical approach to narrow gauge design with an insistence on a rigidly imposed axle weight limit of five tons allowing lightweight construction of trackwork and engineering features while simultaneously building the rolling stock to the largest possible size to ensure maximum capacity. Another interesting technical feature of both railways was the introduction of rail inclination (now universal but then a new idea on railways of any gauge) which reduces wear on wheels and rails by tilting the rail a few degrees to make its surface more nearly paralell with that of the tyre.

Construction of the 83/4 mile narrow gauge line commenced in March 1902 with J.B. Earle as resident engineer, Messrs Hutchinson and Co. as principal contractors and E.R. Calthrop overseeing the whole operation. In practice Messrs Hutchinson sub contracted much of the work to Lovett & Co of Wolverhampton so it is this company who actually carried out most of the work.

The railway commenced at the end on junction with the standard gauge line at Waterhouses in the valley of the River Hamps which it followed downstream to Beeston Tor where the Hamps meets the Manifold. From Beeston Tor the Railway essentially followed the river Manifold through Grindon, Wetton and Ecton to Hulme end. Although the whole of the route along the Manifold is spectacularly beautiful the section from Grindon to Wetton is especially outstanding. The railway occupied a wide flat area between towering limestone cliffs surmounted on one side by the Huge gaping mouth of Thor's Cave located high above the valley floor and visible for miles around.


Two transporter wagons
carrying milk tankers

In the area of locomotives and rolling stock the hand of E.R. Calthrop again held sway, he equipped the line with two elegant 2-6-4 locomotives built for the line by Kitsons of Leeds these were substantial machines yet were still constructed within the five ton axle weight limit dictated by Calthrop. The two locos (named E.R. Calthrop and J.B. Earle) were equipped with large cabs and large headlamps giving them a 'colonial' appearance. These locomotives were believed to be strongly influenced by the first batch of Barsi Light Railway locomotives, curiously this dynasty continued with later Barsi machines being based on the Leek and Manifold examples.

Rolling stock on the railway was also unusual, Calthrop insisting that the passenger coaches be as big as the loading gauge permitted, almost as large as their standard gauge equivalents. The layout too was unusual, at least in Britain, with access being via balconies at either end, wild west style! An interesting addition to the rolling stock were a pair of transporter wagons (a further three were added later), it was not unusual to carry narrow gauge wagons on standard gauge transporters but the Leek and Manifold is believed to be the only example in Britain of narrow gauge transporters carrying standard gauge wagons. Each station was equipped with a short standard track end on to the siding so that the standard gauge wagon could be pushed off the transporter onto this track and the train (and transporter) continue on its way. In this way the problems of break of gauge were circumvented as most freight was carried in standard gauge wagons throughout.

Aside from the transporters the railway only operated three other freight vehicles, one bogie van and two low sided bogie wagons. On the occasion of the first train on Monday 27th June 1904 only two coaches and the bogie wagons had been delivered, the wagons were hastily fitted with the wooden seats from all the stations and added to the train!

Operation of the line was entrusted to the North Staffordshire Railway and when the railway opened three trains were run each way on wek days and five on Saturdays and market days, taking 45 minutes to complete the 83/4 mile journey.

Like so many minor railways at the beginning of the century the line eaked out a meagre existance and was never a financial success, freight traffic was severely limited and although passenger traffic was augmented by trippers visiting the superb beauty spots along the route, reciepts from passenger traffic were never sufficient to change this state of affairs. There were brief hopes of extending the line to Buxton but these came to nothing. A brief respite occurred during World War 1 when all railways were run by the government in the national interest, after the war the railway became part of the London Midland and Scottish Railway in the grouping of 1918.


Under the LMSR the Leek and Manifold line was allowed to gradually deteriorate towards ultimate closure, the railway having no interest in maintaining such a minor route. The last trains ran on Saturday 10th March 1934. The valley lay under three inches of snow and those who (like me) have been there in these conditions can vouch for the additional beauty this always delectable spot assumes under these conditions. To those who loved the railway this must have been a cold and melancholy day as the two locomotives clanked their way up and down the valley for the last time. They would revisit there old haunts only in the role of demolition trains dismantling the railway they had served for so long.

Although initially the line and it's equipment were left in situ with the locos well greased against corrosion a few months later a contract was let for demolition of the line and the engines were steamed again to work the demolition trains.

Today the track bed is part footpath and part a very narrow road and it still offers the visitor to this beautiful valley easy access to enjoy its scenic splendour but of the railway little trace remains. I thoroughly recommend a visit to the Manifold Valley, should you get an opportunity to do so. Sadly no band of preservationists exists to bring this railway back to life and I think the railway enthusiast has to accept that this one is lost for ever.

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