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A Short History of the Ashover Light Railway

A Short History of the Ashover Light Railway

The Ashover originated in Clay Cross Company's desire to access good limestone deposits on its newly acquired Overton estate, in the Amber Valley, for use in its ironworks. To this end it envisaged a short (4 mile) branch from the Midland Railway at Stretton. Probably because it was required to cross land that the Company did not own, the line had to be constructed with statutory authority as a light railway. This had the drawback that it would be required to carry passengers, but presumably this disadvantage was offset by other considerations. Colonel Stephens reportedly became involved as a result of a wartime meeting with the Chairman, General Thomas Jackson, during visits to North Wales. Whatever the circumstances of his involvement, a warm relationship developed with the Jackson Family which continued beyond Stephens' death, and Salford Terrace remained the railway's consulting engineers to the end.

The initial plan for the railway, as authorised in 1919, was a straightforward standard gauge branch line from the Midland main line at Stretton. After a few years, the advantages of a direct rail connection to the Clay Cross works became apparent and the railway assumed the shape of a 'U'; an indirect route of 7 miles that following relatively easier land contours. This led to a change of gauge with the awareness of cheap and readily available quantities of 60cm gauge locomotives, stock and rail from War Department sources. The usual disadvantage of transhipment costs between gauges did not of course occur as most traffic went direct to its final destination. The Acts for the extension of the railway and change of gauge were obtained in 1922.

Stephens was of course very much concerned with the creation of the Light Railway Orders and his active role in construction was summed up by him at the opening ceremony when he said 'General Jackson designed the railway himself' and he (Stephens) 'simply acted as tail to the kite... merely advised on certain matters' with the humorous aside that 'not always was his advice accepted'.

Construction was undertaken by direct labour from the Clay Cross Company under the supervision of Colonel Stephens. Stephens was also responsible for two key appointments. Captain John May came from the Festiniog and Welsh Highland railways. He seems to have been a progressive, popular and energetic Secretary and Manager but left all to soon in mid- 1927 after over-supervision by General Jackson; much of the early enterprise in running the railway went with him. The second appointment was Edward 'Teddy' Skinner who came from the Selsey, and was soon joined by his two sons Harold and Maurice. Teddy Skinner was initially foreman ganger in charge of eight men but, as the line ran down, finally worked alone until he retired in December 1945; thereafter the track had no regular maintenance. Harold was a driver from 1927 and became something of the public face of the railway until leaving in 1947 to return to Sussex.

Stephens almost certainly influenced the choice of rolling stock. He had already bought, well and cheaply, refurbished Baldwin locomotives for the Welsh Highland and Snailbeach District. The first four such locomotives were bought direct by the Company from the Disposals Board of the Ministry of Munitions. These were perhaps not such good buys as Stephens other engines but they were certainly cheap. These were used for construction during which time one was worn out and later used for spares. Two more, this time refurbished, engines were then bought from T W Ward, perhaps on Stephens' recommendation. The key rolling stock was of course standard WD 'D' bogie wagons which were durable and long lasting, and 70 wagons in all were purchased. These wagons also provided the running gear for the 4 passenger carriages bodies provided by the Gloucester Carriage and Wagon Company, and the eight semi-open coach bodies from the 1925 Wembley Exhibition 'Never Stop' railway. The Gloucester coaches were of an excellent standard and, when the service stopped, were found uses around Clay Cross works, and three found their way into preservation. The 'Never-Stop' coaches fell into dereliction after passenger closure and were scrapped during WW1.

Public opening came on April 7th 1925. Goods traffic was, of course, steady from the beginning once the quarries were fully developed, and in 1927 nearly 66,000 tons of goods were carried. Passenger trains were operated from both ends of the line and two trains provided a generous service of around 8 trains a day. Summer passenger traffic proved overwhelmingly popular as the public discovered the natural delights of the scenic valley, and the service required three train sets by 1927.

To enhance the natural beauties of the valley and the attraction of The Butts, a level area at Ashover, General Jackson had an octagonal shaped refreshment room built. Whimsically named 'Where the Rainbow Ends', after a contemporary children's play, it became popular but declined with the railway and closed in WW2. The building being later moved to act as a sports pavilion at Clay Cross.

However, in common with all light railways, year round passenger traffic became very poor as modern buses took away such local traffic as presented itself. One coach, perhaps with an open wagon for milk traffic, rapidly became more than sufficient. Economies were introduced with surplus staff absorbed by the parent company's works. No winter services ran after October 1931 and all regular summer passenger services were discontinued in September 1936. With the closure of Milltown quarry in 1936, mineral tonnage fell to 32,000 tons in 1937. With WW2 the railway struggled on, cannibalising some locomotives to keep going while the whole railway was wearing out. The last steam engine ceased work in 1949 and the line was worked by a small Planet Diesel purchased in mid-1948. The end was in sight, and duly followed on 31st March 1950, shortly after The Butts Quarry had closed.

The railway was torn up during 1950/51 with the exception of a small area round the Fluorspar plant at Millton which hung on for nearly another 20 years until 1969. This was worked by various small diesel locomotives and many of the bogie wagons, all of which were scrapped at its closure. The sole remaining Ashover associated wagon seems to be a fluorspar quarry tub from Milltown Quarry preserved at the Colonel Stephens Railway Museum.

Brian Janes