Take an ‘armchair journey’ through the Peak District by rail with book's fascinating pictures

Beauty and strategic importance – these are the watchwords of the Hope Valley railway line between Sheffield and Manchester.

Wednesday, 22nd April 2020, 10:03 pm

A trip along the route – particularly on the slower stopping service that calls at pretty villages like Bamford and Edale – allows passengers to revel in some stunning Peak District scenery, while it also remains a busy freight artery, carrying more than 1.5 million tonnes of cement annually from Hope Works, the biggest factory of its kind in Britain.

At the moment the only people using the route are key workers. But enthusiasts can look forward to future excursions by leafing through a new book that offers an 'armchair journey’ across the Pennines.

The 96-page title contains 120 photographs, most of which have never been published before, tracing the line from New Mills and Hayfield in Derbyshire's High Peak to Sheffield, including images of the long-lost stations at Beauchief and Millhouses.

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Millhouses and Ecclesall in 1963.
Millhouses and Ecclesall in 1963.

"It's the direct link between two very big cities," says Vic Mitchell, who co-authored the railway album alongside Keith Smith and founded its publisher, Middleton Press.

"Tourists have enjoyed this journey across the Peak District for many generations."

The route is noteworthy as it involves 'one very long tunnel' at the Sheffield end – the three-and-a-half mile Totley Tunnel, finished in 1893 and still the fourth-longest in the UK – before trains reach the Hope Valley and the River Derwent, says Vic.

"You can't beat that for a view. It is a joyful journey."

Soldiers at Hope station, on an exercise in the Peak District in 1904.

New Mills saw its first trains in 1857, when the Stockport, Disley & Whaley Bridge Railway arrived. Meanwhile, The Dore & Chinley Railway - now the Hope Valley Line - was opened for goods in June 1893 and its passenger stations were opened in May 1894.

Building the Dore & Chinley Railway was immensely challenging, as early engineers were tasked with constructing trackbeds on steep gradients.

"It was a massive construction job," says Vic. "Just the tunnels in themselves - look at the length of them. It was a vast task."

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New Mills station.

The pictures follow rail's evolution from the days of vintage steam trains to modern rolling stock. The controversial 'Pacers', created from units based on bus bodies, even make an appearance.

"It's one of the few main lines that still carries substantial quantities of minerals," says Vic of the Hope Valley's role in the cement industry. “It's a very longstanding arrangement.”

The fact the line is used in such a major way by freight traffic 'absolutely' proves rail's capabilities, he believes. "It is still a very important industrial location."

But passenger services were almost withdrawn following the Beeching review of the 1960s. On appeal, the Hope Valley Line was kept open, with the axe falling instead on the Woodhead Line, which traversed the hills via a more northerly route.

New Mills Central in June 1955.

Vic says rail links are incredibly valuable to communities in the Hope Valley. "They are wonderful places to live with a station in such beautiful surroundings. You've got the best of both worlds."

The line is due to get a long-awaited upgrade starting in 2022, allowing for three fast trains per hour between Manchester and Sheffield, while reopening the lost Woodhead line has been on campaigners' wish lists for decades.

Vic, a retired dentist, is now the sole founding director of the Ffestiniog Railway, the first to be revived in Britain. The narrow-gauge line in North Wales was originally built to carry slate from quarries to the coast - it closed in 1946 but fully reopened in 1982.

"We reopened it in stages and have had an enormous success to the point where it is second only to Caernarfon Castle as a tourist attraction," he says.

The West Sussex-based Middleton Press has produced more than 400 albums in the same style as part of a series called 'Ultimate Railway Encyclopaedia'. There are volumes on Ambergate to Buxton, Buxton to Stockport, and the Woodhead line gets its own album too.

"People like the armchair journey approach," says Vic. "I've run this little publishing business from my home, and I'm pleased to say my family are still able to send out substantial numbers of these albums by Royal Mail, who come and collect them with a sack every day.

Hayfield in 1956.

"The demand has gone up by email orders, but of course the orders have stopped from bookshops."

New Mills to Sheffield and Hayfield is published on April 25, priced £18.95. Copies can be ordered direct from the publisher, with free second class postage. Visit www.middletonpress.co.uk or call 01730 813169.

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Uniformed porters await the arrival of first-class passengers in Sheffield at 'the new Midland Station', which opened in 1870.
Sheffield Midland station in 1979.