Sunday, July 03, 2011

A short history of the Peckforton Railway and its locality (real and fictional)

Key: Real historical events are in plain text, added fictional events are in italics.

Before the coming of the railway

In 1904, at the age of 21, Bentley Tollemache succeeded his father, Wilbraham, as the 3rd Baron Tollemache and owner of Peckforton Castle.

 His father had installed electric lighting and central heating into the castle and Bentley turned his attention to the estate. Like his father, he was very forward thinking and had developed a keen interest in engineering as well as being an enthusiastic croquet player, publishing a book on the subject in 1914.

The copper mines at Bickerton had been worked from the 1600s and had yielded sufficient quantities of ore to keep small numbers of men productively engaged from time to time. A comprehensive geological survey was conducted in 1906 which indicated there were substantial reserves of ore yet to be mined. Indeed the report suggested that the Bickerton mines could become the most productive in the British Isles - though how much of this was a marketing ploy is difficult to determine.
 Lord Bentley Tollemache would have been very familiar with the 15 inch gauge miniature railway built for his near neighbour, the Duke of Westminster, at Eaton Hall in 1896.

The Railway
 Being very interested in engineering, Lord Tollemache immediately saw the potential of exploiting the mineral wealth beneath his feet and so immediately bought up the rights to the mine and set about drawing up plans for the construction of a railway to transport the copper ore and most of the spoil. Under the Light Railways Act (1896), Lord Tollemache decided to build a three foot gauge railway just under seven miles in length from Beeston Castle & Tarporley Station on the Crewe to Chester mainline to the hamlet of Bickerton.

There were three intermediate stations - one serving the village of Beeston and Beeston Castle, another roughly half way along the line at Peckforton and the third in the village of Bulkeley. A spur between Bulkeley and Bickerton served the copper mines. 

There were no major engineering works, though the route required cuttings and embankments near Peckforton and Bulkeley. Whilst the railway crossed six minor roads via unmanned level crossings, it was decided that where the line crossed the main road from Whitchurch to Wrexham (the A534) between Bulkeley and Bickerton and on the copper mine spur, the road would be carried across the railway on overbridges constructed from the local sandstone.

The railway was opened for traffic in 1908, with initially two 0-4-0 locomotives (a Hunslet and a Pecket) and a 2-4-0 Barclay. A rake of three coaches was provided by the Pickering company, together with four closed vans, twenty open wagons, four cattle wagons and two guards vans. A diesel mechanical was provided for the mine traffic in 1924 and in 1929, a Manning Wardle 0-6-2 locomotive was added to the roster, following the closure of the Southwold Railway.

Over the years, further good stock was added, mostly bought secondhand from other railways. Additional rolling stock to cater for timber traffic was added in 1924 after much of the Peckforton estate was forested in 1922.

The railway company, under the chairmanship of Lord Tollemache, quickly realised the potential for tourist traffic with visitors taking trips to Beeston Castle and Peckforton Castle, or to take the mineral waters from the wells in the Peckforton Hills. In 1910 a hotel and health spa was built near Peckforton to allow visitors to sample the local mineral waters
 Whilst the copper mine and the railway were never a money spinner, the railway continued a successful existence, thanks largely to the patronage of Lord Tollemache, until the end of the second World War when, in 1945, it ran its last train and the track and rolling stock were scrapped.

Little remains of the line today. The overbridges were demolished when A534 was widened in the 1960s and the narrow gauge station and goods yard were sold off when the mainline station at Beeston was closed in 1966. The site now houses a reclamation yard.

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