Full steam ahead to conserve Peak District moors for years to come

17 October 2018
Equipment on Brown Knoll to build the tunnel and shaft, 1893 - credit Mike Be

In the deep underbelly of vast, open moors in the heart of the Peak District National Park, a fundamental passageway connecting countryside with city is steaming by a notable anniversary this year.

The 125 year old Cowburn Tunnel houses a two mile-long railway line that lies underneath Kinder Scout’s adjacent hill, Brown Knoll. The train track helps to connect city commuters, ferry school children, manoeuvre industrial freight, and acts as a gateway for thousands of people to enjoy the Peak District.

Construction work on the tunnel started in 1888, to connect Chinley with fellow High Peak village, Edale, and extend the railway line between Manchester and Sheffield. The completion of the tunnel five years later was a landmark result to meet the local area’s rail travel demands.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, employees from nearby factories would venture by rail via the Cowburn Tunnel to experience the Peak District on their one day off work per week. Back then though, the iconic moors of the National Park were not as beautiful as they are today.

They were bare and bleak, caused by pollution in the form of acid rain which streamed down on them from the same neighbouring mills that staff would leave every Sunday to ramble across the moorland countryside that they so adored.

Organisations across the Peak District and South Pennines rallied together to help reverse the fortunes of the local moors. In 2003, the Moors for the Future Partnership was officially formed, made up of organisations including the National Trust, RSPB, Environment Agency, Natural England, Pennine Prospects, Yorkshire Water, Severn Trent Water and United Utilities, alongside private land owners, to bring the blanket bog moors back to life after degradation caused by factors including industrial pollution, and wildfires.

Work to restore moorland directly above the Cowburn Tunnel has taken place over the last decade, to ensure it is protected and flourishing for years to come.

Hundreds of bags of heather brash were spread over the eroding blanket bog on Brown Knoll earlier this year. This brash acts a skin to reduce the risk of further loss, provides a microclimate for moorland seeds to grow, and a fungi that helps those seeds to thrive.

Manmade channels used in the past to drain the moors, known as ‘grips,’ will be blocked during the 2018 winter, with materials including wood, stone and heather. This will help to raise the water level and ensure the moors are boggy and wet; to support wildlife, and reduce the risk of flooding in local communities.

Peak District National Trust General Manager, Jon Stewart said: “It is wonderful that a milestone year for the Moors for the Future Partnership coincides with a special anniversary for a part of the Peak District National Park that means so much, to so many people.

“The Partnership’s work on Brown Knoll, with support from the private land owner and all the other partners, is ensuring that the unique habitat is conserved to provide a range of vital benefits to the environment. It also means that the area can continue to be enjoyed for centuries to come, much like our ancestors who used the rail service back in the 20th century to get out and relish in the great outdoors of Britain’s original National Park.”

Mike Bentley was a train driver in the High Peak for 40 years from 1957, and regularly navigated engines through the tunnel. He said: “It was very much 50/50 in terms of the ratio of passenger and freight trains on the Hope Valley line – we’d transport commuters and visitors to and from the big cities, and industrial materials ready for shipping at the Manchester docks.

“The passenger services were as quick as they are today – the 7am train from Chinley would arrive into Sheffield at 7.50am, and we stopped at all stations. I loved working the Hope Valley line; my colleagues would be so aware of their surroundings and really had a vested interest in what was happening around them – they’d say things like ‘that tree over there will be first to blossom in the spring.’”

Mike – who’s been a member of Manchester Locomotive Society since 1994 – added: “For about a week or two around the times of the spring and autumn solstices, because the Hope Valley line lies east to west, the sun would fill the whole entrance to the tunnel on the Edale side as it rose in the mornings, which was a pretty spectacular sight. But during the winter, if the wind was blowing in the easterly direction, you’d get ice the size of small trees hanging down from the tunnel roof! Sometimes, they were so big after the Christmas shutdown, they’d need to be broken off by hand!”

Moors for the Future Partnership is commemorating its 15th anniversary this year, which coincides with the Cowburn Tunnel’s quasquicentennial celebrations.


More from Mike Bentley:

“The Cowburn Tunnel from the Chinley end rose at a gradient of about one in 100 up to the tunnel mouth, then the gradient eased to one in 120, and about two thirds of the way through it levelled out. Just at that point, there was a slot in the roof towards the shaft and the smoke would exhale out; you could always tell where you were at that point because you missed a beat as the chimney went under the vent. That told you that you were just about at the top of the hill – because the crew couldn’t see for smoke!

“The ‘tunnel gangs’ were groups of men who looked after and laid the tracks – known as platelayers; they’d walk the tunnel every day to check everything was in working order. They’d sit and eat their meals in the ‘platelayer’s cabin’ – a very small room that was built into the side of the tunnel’s wall which they’d get to via a stone staircase. I often wondered how they even ate their meals because it must have been so dark and smoky in there.

“The large shaft that is visible on Brown Knoll is 880 feet deep. The tunnel constructers realised that they couldn’t build the shaft to lead directly to the tunnel, because the up draught of air would literally drag a man off his feet. They had to construct a smaller, secondary tunnel to one side of the main tunnel roof, with a slotted area that led smoke out of the main Cowburn passageway – then up the subsequent chute to the open air.”

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