A walk from Manchester to Sheffield with some memories of the old Woodhead line
2021 marks the 40th anniversary of the demise of the legendary Trans-Pennine Woodhead line. The closure in July 1981 was very controversial at the time, not least because the route had been fully electrified and extensively modernised less than 30 years previously.
In June I spent four days walking along the route. With overnight stops at Glossop and Penistone, it took me three days to get from Manchester to Sheffield. On my last day I caught a train north to Bolton upon Dearne and then walked back to Penistone from Wath. A lot of the time I was hiking along the old track bed itself.
My 2021 journey brought back memories of two trips I made in 1979 first to photograph and then to travel along the line before it was lost.
The history of the Woodhead electrification has been told many times. My own modest attempt is here
Manchester to Hadfield (12 miles)
It has just gone 9:30am on a Tuesday morning in June. I am at Manchester Piccadilly waiting for the next Hadfield-bound train to take me out to Godley. With the country still recovering from the pandemic, the station is not nearly as busy as it should be. I still face a quite a lengthy wait in the queue to buy coffee from Pret-a-manger though.
I sit down and sip my coffee; I look around me. I really like the most recent modernisation of Piccadilly. It seems to have delivered a very modern looking station with lots of natural light, but also retained the atmosphere created by the magnificent Victorian train shed.
The last time I caught a train from here out towards Hadfield was back in 1979. I was with a good school friend who was a fellow railway enthusiast. It was on a weekday during half term, and we had our bikes with us. We had travelled on an early morning service from the Fylde Coast to Manchester Victoria and had cycled across the city.
We were heading out via Hadfield to the Woodhead tunnel to try to photograph the unique Class 76 locomotives. Even in 1979 there were already plenty of rumours that these DC electric engines and even the line they ran on might not be there much longer to appreciate. The whole thing must have seemed quite a worthwhile challenge at the time and looking back now I am very glad we did it.
When the electrification of the Woodhead line was first inaugurated in 1954, this station was still known as Manchester London Road. Back then the DC wires were installed in the northernmost three platforms (1-3) as well as in the two centre roads between Platforms 1 and 2.
When the station was reconfigured (and had its name changed to Piccadilly) in the early 1960s the centre roads were removed in favour of more platforms. The DC lines then became Platforms 1-4.
Between 1954 and 1970 passenger trains hauled by electric locomotives operated from these platforms via Woodhead to Sheffield Victoria and beyond. In the 1950s there were through trains to London Marylebone, but by 1969, except for the daily boat train to Harwich, the service had mostly been reduced to hourly trains to Sheffield.
My own service is eventually shown as leaving from Platform 2 and I head towards the barrier.
My train today is a Class 323 3-car AC electric multiple unit operated by Northern (in its latest DfT-owned incarnation). It is part of the half hourly service that runs all day out to Glossop and Hadfield via Guide Bridge.
Back in 1979, our train to Hadfield was one of the eight Class 506 three carriage DC electric multiple unit trains that had been constructed for the line in 1950. I remember that the 506s, with their creaky wood-lined interiors, felt old even though they had not reached their 30th year in service.
By coincidence, the Class 323 unit I am on today is roughly the same age today as the Class 506s were back in 1979. Yet this 1992-designed train still feels very modern to me. Perhaps that is to do with the way trains are now designed to be refreshed and refurbished throughout their lives.
Ardwick and Ashburys
We depart on time and head out of Piccadilly. At first, we run parallel with the lines to Stockport but soon branch off sharply to the left as we pass through Ardwick station.
As I look through the window, I notice the large number of tracks still left around here. It is an indication of just how busy the line used to be. The old electric gantries still span all the lines but are no longer wired.
Although the line to Hadfield was converted to 25kV AC in 1984, most of the original 1930s-era gantries were left in place and reused with extra insulators for the higher voltage. I find these structures with their distinctive inverse “A” shapes strangely elegant.
Our first stop is at Ashburys and shortly afterwards a line that links south to the Hope Valley branches off to the right. This is part of today’s route between Manchester and Sheffield. The modern railway still struggles to do much better than the 50 minute non-stop times between the two cities that could have been achieved via Woodhead 50 years ago.
Gorton & Fairfield
Next, we pass between the sites of two old locomotive works. On the left was the old Great Central (BR closed it in 1963) works known as Gorton Tank; on the right was the Beyer Peacock factory. Nothing much remains of either place today.
The multiple tracks come down to just two just before Gorton station, but it is still very easy to discern that there used to be four tracks here too. This was once a very busy line.
We skip the next two stations at Gorton and Fairfield (they are served instead by the half-hourly diesel service to Rose Hill Marple), but between them used to be a triangular junction with the “Fairfield loop” line that led around from Manchester Central station and Liverpool.
Reddish electric depot, where the Class 76 locomotives and the Class 506 units were maintained, was located a short way along it. Today most of the old line is a footpath and the depot site is a housing estate.
We arrive at Guide Bridge.
A shadow of its former multi-platformed self, Guide Bridge is still an important junction. Just before the station the line from Stockport, mainly used for freight these days, joins on the right. Just after it the line to Stalybridge, used by Trans-Pennine services to Leeds, branches off to the left.
Guide Bridge was often the first stop for the electric passenger trains from Manchester Piccadilly to Sheffield. It was also the point where passenger or freight trains that had been steam, or diesel hauled around the Fairfield loop from Manchester Central or Liverpool changed to electric traction for the journey across the Pennines.
Back in 1979, Guide Bridge would have been the first place we might have expected to start seeing the Class 76 electric locomotives that we had come to photograph. There might have been several of them around here waiting to take trains east across the Pennines.
The Woodhead Railway Heritage Group are creating a small museum about the line on the eastbound platform at Guide Bridge. They are converting some offices and have built a little fence in front of them. They are displaying a banner with a picture of a Class 76 to advertise the new venture.
We depart from Guide Bridge and slowly start to leave the built-up area of Manchester behind. The line towards Romiley and Rose Hill Marple now leaves us on the right and its first station at Hyde North is clearly visible just after the junction. We soon make our next stop at Flowery Field.
The positions of the stations along this section of line between Guide Bridge and Broadbottom have changed since the line was electrified in the 1950s. Flowery Field is a newish station with wooden platforms and was opened in 1985. Newton for Hyde, the next stop, is an original and dates from 1858.
Then comes Godley, another new station with wooden platforms and opened in 1986. Just further on from here was the original Godley Junction station. It was renamed Godley East in 1986 but closed in 1995. Finally, just a short distance away is Hattersley, yet another new station added in 1978.
I get off at Godley.
I exit the station and begin my walk east. I head off along a footpath with the line to Hadfield visible on the other side of a field of buttercups to my left. After a while I go under an old railway bridge, turn right and then climb to eventually join the formation of the disused railway I have just passed under.
This line was part of the Cheshire Lines network and was used, predominantly for freight, to bypass Manchester. Here it curved in from the west to join the Woodhead line at Godley Junction.
Trains coming off the Woodhead line and changing locomotives here could be heading towards Fiddlers Ferry power station or the Liverpool, and Wigan areas. Today the track bed is occupied by the Trans Pennine Trail, a walking path that stretches 150 miles from Liverpool to Hull.
Just off the path, almost hidden in the bushes but marked by an impressive signboard, are the remains of Godley Turntable. As the sign explains, when the Woodhead line was electrified Godley Junction became an important changeover point. The turntable, which dates from the 1930s, was used to turn steam locomotives that had brought trains from the west.
Hattersley & Broadbottom
I leave the Trans Pennine Trail for now and head south back on my original footpath. Eventually I reach a bridge that carries the A560 high over the line. Here I am rewarded with a great view of the railway as it leaves Hattersley Station in one direction, and curves around towards Broadbottom in the other.
I spend the next half an hour on a pleasant trek through the woods at Hodgefold before emerging at Broadbottom station. This station, opened in 1842, is pleasantly decorated and looks well managed. I cross the line using its footbridge and then head through Broadbottom village itself.
On the left-hand side of the line are some old warehouses. A sign close by advertises the “Broadbottom Heritage Trail” and explains that these buildings were once part of one of the largest goods transport hubs in the country. There were once textile mills around here and the railway brought in raw cotton and coal and took out finished goods.
The road descends and curves down through the village to the River Etherow, but the railway carries on above on the magnificent Broadbottom viaduct. At the point where the viaduct crosses the river, I turn off the road and onto the Trans Pennine Trail. I walk along by the side of the river for a while and then loop back to the railway as it passes under the A626.
Here, I get two more fantastic views. Looking towards Manchester the line is bounded on the left by thick woodland. This is the site of Mottram Yard, once a vast network of sidings and another point where trains heading over the Pennines changed to electric traction.
Looking from the other side of the bridge, I am greeted by my first real views of the Pennine hills in the distance.
From here it is a short walk along Glossop Old Road towards Dinting and what is, after the Woodhead tunnels, probably the most significant piece of engineering on the whole line: Dinting Vale Viaduct (1200 feet long).
I watch a train cross and then wander down to Glossop Brook for a closer look. Like its shorter counterpart at Broadbottom, the viaduct (1844) originally involved wood in its construction and has been modified several times. It was strengthened between 1918 and 1920 with the insertion of extra brick piers to complement the original stone ones.
After crossing the viaduct, the line becomes single track just before it enters Dinting station. This is the point where the short branch line to Glossop meets the main line at a triangular junction. The junction used to be double track throughout and the station itself had 6 platform faces.
Now there is just a single “triangle of track” between Dinting, Glossop, and Hadfield and just two platforms left at Dinting. On the main line, track remains on the old westbound side but is only used by a few trains a day in the rush hours. Almost all trains head to Hadfield via Glossop and call at the platform on the Manchester-Glossop chord at Dinting.
After reversing at Glossop, trains continue to their Hadfield terminus passing through Dinting’s now-removed platforms on the Glossop-Hadfield chord. After terminating at Hadfield, trains return to Manchester the same way, reversing once more at Glossop and then finally stopping at Dinting before heading west over the viaduct.
The current half hourly service pattern calls for a train to Manchester to pass another going in the other direction just after it crosses the viaduct.
I am done with walking for now and I go off to spend a very pleasant afternoon and evening in Glossop.