The box car with benches slithered quietly along the railway, gently rocking and rolling, bumping and swaying, through majestic verdant countryside passed heavily-uddered cows, one or two of whom gave a dismissive ‘Oh, it’s you again’ turn of the head, and desultory sheep who couldn’t have cared less.
This is what heritage railways is all about. Ecclesbourne Valley Railway in the Derbyshire Dales is loved, cared for largely frills-free. It doesn’t have the majesty of those historic lines with thundering express steam locos and big diesels, it doesn’t need them and it’s all the better without them.
The way the railway is run is just one of the big factors of this relatively newly, rescued line. It is one of the very few that is directly linked, platform-to-platform with a mainline station. Alight at Duffield, cross the bridge and be welcomed by smartly attired, smiling volunteers on the Ecclesbourne Valley Railway platform, where awaits your train.
I, and my bit-of-a-railway-fanatic mate Tim, met at Leicester railway station, travelled to Derby on an Inter City, and stood on the platform watching the dirtiest big diesel (a Class 37, but I’m no expert) spewing out foul-smelling smoke as it hauled a line of pristine new locos – presumably built by Bombardier in Derby – to begin life with South-West Rail. We boarded the immaculately clean, comfortable train to Matlock and alighted at Duffield.
What makes E-V-R so special is its simplicity and lack of pretentiousness. They have steam locos and powerful diesel haulers, but for me, at my age and with my youthful history (dad worked for British Rail, and he and I have sat on a park bench over the buffers of a steam loco going up the Khyber Pass!), there is little better than sitting at the front looking out almost directly on to the track. We sedately rolled along to small stations at Shottle and then Idrigehay before arriving in Wirksworth where there is an obligatory gift shop, but also a carriage serving as a buffet and bar.
Our trip north was on a 1957-built Metropolitan-Cammell Class 101 that last saw passenger service around Darlington and Middlesboro. Not actually built for comfort, but fun in the Dales.
Tim and I trudged up the hill and entered The Red Lion. There were a group of four walkers, young men, probably in their 60s. They had a dog, cunningly disguised as a sheep, which, in Derbyshire, takes courage! The Red Lion is a well-stocked real ale pub – a proper pub – with a friendly welcome.
“Do you do any food?”
“No, but there’s a pantry across the yard and you can bring food back in.”
The ‘pantry’ was a little shack with a short and fascinating menu. We ordered an Indonesian curry and it was delivered to our table in the pub a few minutes later. Delicious doesn’t even get close: it was fabulous, and easily washed down with exceptional beers.
Our return to Duffield was aboard a Derby Lightweight, again built in the 50s, which served Bletchley and Buckingham before ending its ‘paid’ days as a test car.
This was my first ‘out-out’ day for 18 months. The day had begun nervously, but gradually dissipated into confidence. On the mainline trains everyone wore a mask and was spaced out, on the heritage railway, most were masked, but with windows open and acres of space, I felt safe and secure.
Heritage railways come in all shapes and sizes, and each has a uniqueness that usually means a great day out. Ecclesbourne Valley Railway has two big pluses: firstly, it’s accessibility by mainline rail; secondly, the line takes the traveller through some of the most beautiful Derbyshire countryside and terminates in a small town with a long and fascinating history, an arms-round welcome, and at least one top class pub. Then there’s the railway itself and the feeling of being drawn into a family, without the hassle of actual relations.
There are bigger, longer, heritage railways, but Ecclesbourne Heritage Railway offers a handful of peace and relaxation. It is a little bite of countryside, not a plateful of a stupendous past.