Steer for the deep waters only

Robert Day's thoughts on his photography, his writing and his business

A Warship along the Ecclesbourne

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The River Ecclesbourne in Derbyshire is not one of the country’s longer or better-known rivers. It rises in the quarry town of Wirksworth, on the edge of the Peak District, and runs for nine miles south to a confluence with the Derbyshire Derwent at Duffield. Only slightly more than thirty feet across at its widest, there is no sense in which it could be said to be at all navigable; even canoes would have difficulty in its upper reaches. So how could I be going there to see a Warship?

Well, regular readers might guess that there is some sort of railway connection.

During March 2018, for a couple of weeks the Ecclesbourne Valley Railway hosted a visiting Class 42 diesel-hydraulic locomotive, a class known as “Warships”. Although I don’t normally make a point of following vintage diesel locomotives, in this case I made an exception. The story goes back to the nationalisation of the railways in 1948. Britain’s railways had been built by private capital; by 1914, there were some 120 or more separate companies. The First World War left the railways in poor condition; they had been run by the Government during the war specifically for the war effort, and they had been run into the ground with little thought given to essential maintenance. The backlog of work when they were handed back to their private owners was too great for many of them to afford; so the Government forced amalgamation on the railways in the 1921 Railways Act, merging the majority of companies into four. Three of these were new companies; but the fourth was the Great Western Railway, which through effective lobbying not only survived intact, but indeed absorbed many smaller companies and took over the majority of companies in mid- and South Wales. Twenty-five years later, the same process happened in the aftermath of the Second World War; this time, the Labour Government decided on nationalisation as the solution to the railways’ investment problems, creating British Railways (BR). The new BR was organised on a regional basis; and once again, the Great Western survived as a commercial entity in all but name. The new Western Region exercised a remarkable degree of autonomy, commissioning new builds of a number of Great Western locomotives and ordering unique classes of the new diesel locomotives at a time when the 1955 Modernisation Plan was calling for a range of standardised engines, both steam and the new motive power of diesel and electric.

There was some method behind this. The main line to the West was a legacy of Brunel’s obsession with the “atmospheric railway”, which promised the ability to run fast, light trains over steep gradients, powered by creating a partial vacuum in a tube laid between the tracks and propelling a train by means of a cylinder running in that tube, attached to the train through a hinged leather flap valve running the length of the top of the pipe. Having engineered the line for that method of propulsion, Brunel saddled the Great Western and its successors with a problem when the atmospheric railway proved to be a failure. Victorian technology could not make a reliable flap valve that would allow the passage of a train but at the same time seal the vacuum pipe effectively. GW locomotive superintendents oversaw a range of light but powerful locomotives that could maintain line speeds over the line to the West in the steam era; when dieselisation dawned, the Western Region went looking for a unique solution to the same problem. They found it in the form of the diesel-hydraulic locomotive, which offered a far better power-to-weight ratio than the diesel-electrics being adopted on the rest of the system.

They went to West Germany, where this type of locomotive was widespread, and for their light express passenger type arranged for licence production of a British version of the German V200 class, using German engines also built under licence in the UK (by Hawker Siddeley at Ansty in Coventry). In all, 38 locomotives were built in two batches, the first at BR’s Swindon works and the second by North British Locomotive in Glasgow. The class were all named for British warships – hence the class name. They entered service in 1958 and survived until 1971, having been finally declared non-standard in the late 1960s. Two have been preserved.


The one I went to see, D832 Onslaught, was the last engine of the first, Swindon-built,  production batch. It had a connection with Derby, a place they never visited in regular service. After class withdrawal, Onslaught came to the Railway Technical Centre in Derby where it spent a number of years engaged in a variety of research projects. I saw it parked at Derby on a number of occasions during that time but never managed to secure any photographs; so when I heard that it as to visit one of my favourite railways, it became important that I should go to photograph it.


And why is the Ecclesbourne line one of my favourites? Well, I saw it fairly regularly in my youth, and never imagined that I would ever have the opportunity to travel on it.

Although the railway wasn’t built until 1862-67, projects for a railway along the Ecclesbourne valley started much earlier, as a part of the corporate manoeuvring concerning rail links between London and Manchester. The Derby-based Midland Railway were promoting a line through the Peak District, but were blocked by the independent (and grandiosely named) Manchester, Buxton, Matlock and Midlands Junction Railway, which had built the railway along the Derwent valley from Ambergate to Matlock, but who were blocked in their ambition to reach Manchester by the Duke of Devonshire who refused permission for the railway to pass through the Chatsworth estate. There was an earlier railway in the area, the Cromford & High Peak, which was projected in the 1820s as a canal to link the Cromford and Peak Forest canals over the High Peak itself; realising that water supply would be a problem, the engineer, Josias Jessop, decided to make the route into one of these new-fangled railways. However, having been designed as a canal with flights of locks to get up and over the Peak, the C&HP was built as a railway to the same principles – level sections of line followed by inclined planes where wagons were drawn up by a stationary engine. This was never going to be a practical proposal for a serious passenger link (the C&HP did carry passengers in its early years, but the inclined planes – nine of them in all – made progress slow and hazardous) but the Midland saw it as a means of getting their longed-for link with Manchester and so were happy to promote the branch railway to Wirksworth as a first stage in incorporating the C&HP into their inter-city route. Construction actually started on an incline beyond Wirksworth to connect the two lines, but only the first part ever saw trains, and that only for bringing stone out of the Middle Peak quarry.

The Midland’s rival for the Manchester route, the London & North Western Railway (LNWR) then acquired th4e C&HP, putting an end to the Midland’s plan. For a while, they considered driving a tunnel between Wirksworth and Cromford, and building a parallel line to Matlock on the other side of the Derwent to the existing rival line (which the LNWR also had a major shareholding in); but then they were able to acquire that line and use it as a springboard to construct an extension from Matlock to Bakewell and through the Peak to Chinley and Manchester. From that time, the Wirksworth branch became of local interest only, with passenger services and heavy traffic in stone and milk.

The growth in road haulage saw milk trains being replaced with road tankers, with the milk service ending in 1939. The war saw the passenger services severely curtailed; the passenger service was suspended in 1947 and officially ceased in 1949. Limestone traffic continued, though, and it was as a purely freight line that I saw and knew the railway during the 1970s and 80s. The line had also always been used by Derby Locomotive Works as a “running in” venue for new or recently-repaired locomotives; when Derby restored a number of locomotives for the National Collection in the late 1950s, Wirksworth station became the location of a number of official photographs, and for a while, visitors to the transport museums at York and Clapham could buy souvenir postcards of some of the exhibits that were taken there. However, there was continuous pressure for the quarries to transfer their transport operations to the road, and in 1991 a change of ownership of the quarries precipitated the decision to cease rail transport altogether.

But by then, rail privatisation had occurred; and knowing of the proposals, a group of Derby-based railway managers had earmarked the Wirksworth branch as a possible candidate for one of the new kinds of railway, a “community railway”. Accordingly, in 1992 these managers established WyvernRail Limited, with the intention of operating such a service between Wirksworth and Derby using leased diesel units under the “Open Access” management model.  The Railways Act 1993 created the framework that would allow WyvernRail to start the process, but the industry structure the Act created also caused the whole process to slow down to a crawl. The line had been mothballed after 1991 as Wirksworth had been designated a Strategic Freight Site, protecting the whole undertaking for railway use and possible future stone traffic, and making closure of the line extremely difficult.

Changes to the structure of the industry following privatisation meant that for several years during the mid-1990s WyvernRail often experienced difficulty in maintaining a consistent business relationship with the authorities responsible for the line. However, while progress was slow on the ground, the individuals involved maintained informal links with Railtrack because of their background in the rail industry. This enabled them to be granted a Light Railway Order for the line in 1996, and then starting to explore the possibility of leasing or even an outright purchase of the line.

From the Summer of 2000, Railtrack management changed its stance and not only took an interest in the firm’s activities but provided a proactive and imaginative basis for negotiations, including granting the company’s staff and the supporters association’s volunteers access to the line. This approach led to the gradual restoration of the line, accompanied by conversion to a plc and the successful share launch of WyvernRail plc in April 2002. Re-opening of the line started in 2004 and passenger services were reinstated for the length of the line in 2011.

The Ecclesbourne valley is relatively unspoilt and Wirksworth has undergone a renaissance as a town working hard to attract tourists (as, indeed, has my neighbouring home town, Belper). The railway is a pretty professional operation; it aims to provide a service first whilst accommodating and welcoming enthusiasts, but it isn’t trying to achieve superstardom in the heritage railway firmament. I recommend it for an excursion and hope to see them flourish for many years to come.


Written by robertday154

April 5, 2018 at 12:18 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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