We are now looking up at the remains of a sizeable quarry, complete with a rusting crane which once loaded the limestone blocks onto trains.
This is a typical Peak District scene. If you follow the High Peak Trail all the way to its northern end, just outside Buxton you will run into some truly vast quarries still in operation. They load directly onto a dedicated ‘mineral line’, just as happened here. Such railways are a much greener option than road transport.
Looking at the map, you may notice the route of the old railway seems to snake around all over the place. It’s quite unlike the normal pattern of straight rail lines we are used to. This is because the engineers who designed the line were not railway builders, they were canal men. In order to make the gradients as easy as possible they followed their habitual method of following the contour lines of the hills.
The whole idea of the line was to link two busy canals – the Cromford Canal, to the east of the plateau, with the Peak Forest Canal to the west. It perfect sense for the very slow movement of water and canal traffic; less so for a railway line, which had to cater for faster and faster steam locomotives. But then the first goods trains were pulled along here by horses, not steam engines.
Plodding horses had no problem coping with the railway’s curves, the tightest on any conventional British line. The metal tracks were laid not on the wooden sleepers we are more familiar with today, but on stone blocks, leaving a smooth central track bed. Sleepers would have been a trip hazard for horses and only came into fashion as steam locomotives took over.
When the line was started, however, the only steam engines were stationary ones on the steep inclines into the Derwent Valley. One can still be seen in action today, preserved at Middleton Top, above Wirksworth. We are going to sample a typical Peak District gradient now, by leaving the line and ascending Minninglow.
Just at the end of the quarry, leave the trail, following the concessionary footpath signs up the hill to the left, over the pastures and all the way to the top.
This trail was originally developed by Simon Corble for the Royal Geographical Society’s Discovering Britain.
Simon Corble is a theatre director, playwright and actor based in Derbyshire’s Peak District, is passionate about the countryside and discovering the hidden secrets of the natural world.
Thanks are also due to Ben Brooksbank and David A Hull for photographs reproduced under Creative Commons Licenses