Friday, 19 November 2010

Riding the Cauldon Lowe branch; and some fog!

71000 'Duke of Gloucester' at foggy Froghall running around the train
after hauling us back from Cauldon Lowe.

(As ever, double click on the images to maximise size)

Following last Saturday's visit to the Churnet Valley Railway to see the opening day of passenger services on the Cauldon Lowe Branch (see earlier post on the blog), today I travelled the branch by train. Moorland & City Railways who have re-opened the branch (which last hosted a passenger train in 1935) are holding a celebration Gala from 13th to 28th November, and today was for members of the Churnet Valley Railway.

I became a member last year when the family bought me a 'driver experience' on the railway to celebrate my 60th birthday. I got to drive the big S160 2-8-0 steam locomotive up and down the Churnet Valley Railway from Froghall to Leekbrook and back, and part of the package was a year's membership of the railway which, in view of the railway's exciting developments with Moorland & City, I recently renewed.

It was misty and sunny at home when I left to drive to Froghall this morning, but it became foggy from Bosley, through Leek, down to Froghall, sometimes quite thick fog which didn't thin all day.

Today being a weekday, I was surprised to find Froghall almost as busy as it had been last Saturday. The usual car park for the railway was occupied by a large marquee with trade stands and catering inside, with parking available in car parks on the other side of the river Churnet. Both these big car parks were full by the time I arrived at about 10:00, but I was lucky that someone left as I slowly drove to the exit, and I got their space.

I purchased a 'Day Rover' ticket (£10 for members, £25 for non-members) and planned to catch the second train of the day to do the round trip to Cauldon Lowe and back, leaving at 11:25. At 10:40 a local train comprising a DMU set hauled by the unique Black Five with Stephenson valve gear, appropriately named George Stephenson, set off on a train to Leekbrook and back, but it was almost empty. A long queue was forming for the 11:25 and railway staff seemed not to be allowing people onto the platform, so I went to the front of the queue and asked if that was the case. "You can go onto the platform to use the toilets or the tearoom" came the reply. A cup of tea sounded a nice idea, so through the barrier I went to enjoy a cuppa by a roaring fire in the cosy and surprisingly empty tea room.

At 11:05 Bullied Pacific Eddystone clanked into the station with our train. I drained my cup, wandered out onto the platform, and boarded. The train soon filled up and it was obvious that some in the queue would not get on. Eddystone passed our carriage window as she ran round the train to couple on to the front to haul us north up the valley. At 11:25 with a whistle and hisses of steam, our full train set off leaving probably a quarter of the potential passengers behind still in the queue.

The train called at Consall and Cheddleton, arriving at Leekbrook Junction at 11:55 where it crossed with the earlier train of the day, which was returning to Froghall from Cauldon Lowe. That was hauled by the crimson 8F 8624, and banked in the rear by 71000 Duke of Gloucester. 8F 8624 took the train on to Froghall unassisted, while The Duke ran around our train to couple on at the back to provide banking assistance up the 1 in 40 gradients to Cauldon Lowe.

At Leekbrook the line down to Stoke on Trent could be seen running in from the left. This is still being restored, but if it proceeds at anything like the rate the Cauldon Lowe restoration did, there will soon be another gala opening on the Churnet Valley Railway! The original Churnet Valley line northwards to Leek is long gone, but the track bed was clearly visible and it is intended to once again run trains as far as Leek in the not too distant future. I was in the first coach of the train, and Eddystone's efforts as she hauled the heavy train up the gradient were all too evident, with occasional slipping as she lost her feet on the damp rails in the foggy atmosphere.

As we climbed towards Ipstones summit we came out of the fog into brilliant sunshine with clear blues skies, and many photographers were snapping away by the lineside as we passed. But after the summit the line descended back into the mist at Cauldon Lowe. At this terminus of the branch there is no station, just the sidings that used to be occupied by the trains taking the stone from the Cauldon Lowe quarries out onto the main line at Stoke, and then to destinations beyond. After a short wait here, our train set off back again, hauled by 71000 now at the front, with Eddystone on the back.

71000 was working hard with frequent slipping on the climb back up to Ipstones summit. As we were now at the back of the train following its reversal at Cauldon Lowe, the sound of distant hard work at the front of the train meant the now almost silent Eddystone just behind our coach was having a rest. This was later confirmed to me by 71000's driver when I spoke to him on reaching Froghall; Eddystone had done all the work from Leekbrook to Cauldon Lowe, and The Duke did the honours on the return journey. "There's no point working two big engines hard" he reasoned.

The only place to be; the footplate of the unique 71000 'Duke of Gloucester'

'The Duke' at Froghall after she'd hauled us from Cauldon Lowe, doing all the work. "There's no point working two big engines hard when one can do it" said her driver.

Once more we descended into the fog beyond Ipstones summit, and at Leekbrook we crossed with 8624 again on the next train up to Cauldon Lowe. Eddystone dropped off the back of our train here, and after we departed she would position onto the back of 8624's train to bank it up the gradient to Ipstones summit.

By 14:10 we were back at Froghall. The picture below gives an indication of the crowds present at this gala event, as they admire The Duke after our return trip up the line.

I visited the marquee at Froghall and enjoyed a lovely roast pork bap for lunch, washed down with a pint of superb real ale. I also picked up a copy of the Gala Re-opening brochure and Basil Jeuda's 'The Leek, Caldon & Waterhouses Railway' book. Basil was present, and we had an interesting chat about the modern railway scene compared to that of a few decades ago while he signed my book.

I decided to drive home avoiding Leek, and took the ancient 'Morridge' road that follows the edge of the high ground above Bradnop, Leek, and Tittesworth. Once I started the climb to Morridge, I popped out of the fog into glorious sunshine with breathtaking views of The Roaches, Hen Cloud, and other local hills protruding like islands through the sea of brilliant white vapour filling the valleys.

Hen Cloud and The Roaches rise out of the fog. The 'Post Office tower' on
Sutton Common is in the background

My rather grubby MX5 on Morridge, returning from the Churnet Valley Railway

Another view of Hen Cloud and the Roaches, with Ramshawe Rocks in the foreground.

I sincerely hope that Moorland & City, together with the Churnet Valley Railway, achieve their aim of running stone trains from Cauldon Lowe quarries out onto the main line via Stoke, passenger services from Stoke and Leek to Alton Towers, perhaps sand trains from Oakamoor, and heritage trips along the entire system encompassing Leek, Alton, Cauldon, and Stoke.

A main line connection at Stoke would also open up the possibility of charter trains running onto the M&R / CVR system from all parts of the country.

Here's a link to Moorland & City Railways 'Gala re-opening weekend' website:

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