Finding an attractive and remote rural location where there is a variety of freight and passenger traffic, a signal box controlling semaphore signals and heritage diesel action might sound too good to be true.
But that was what I was able to savour on Thursday (22 October 2020) at Earles Sidings, near the village of Hope in the Peak District, and a junction on the Hope Valley Line for a 1½-mile branch line to the country’s largest cement works.
Taking advantage of a good weather forecast and narrowly beating the imminent lockdown that would have made my journey via Manchester Piccadilly rather tricky, I was keen to see the one mechanically-signalled location on the Hope Valley Line that I had not previously visited.
Last in class DB 66100 “Midland Railway Butterley” passes Earles Sidings with aggregates from Dowlow Briggs Sidings to Toton
Earles Sidings takes its name from the firm G&T Earle which originally founded Hope Cement Works in 1929, having been attracted to the area by its perfect geology, with substantial quantities of limestone and shale located nearby. The works currently produces more than 1.5m tonnes of cement a year, most of which is moved by rail.
A view across to Hope Cement Works with Earles Sidings in the foreground
Apart from its signalling interest, what makes Earles Sidings rather special is the regular appearances there by the two English Electric Type 1 (Class 20) locos that are on hire from Harry Needle Railroad Company (HNRC) to the cement manufacturing company, Breedon.
No. 3 backs on to one of the lines of empty cement tanks which it will attach to the other line alongside and then haul to the cement works
After a brisk 20 minute walk from Hope station to a wonderful vantage point next to a bridge carrying the railway over Bowden Lane, I was in luck when white-liveried Class 20 loco No. 3 (20906) was awaiting its next duty at the end of the works branch line.
Shortly after midday the action began when 66622 arrived with a long train of empty cement tanks from Dewsbury Blue Circle, which it then reversed and shunted into two sections in sidings east of the main yard.
No. 3 then came off the branch line, reassembled the long line of wagons and headed down the branch, while the Class 66 loco remained in the sidings with a classmate, awaiting a loaded train to be brought back from the works.
Northern 195114 passes Earles Sidings with the 11.49 Manchester Piccadilly-Sheffield stopping service (2S84)
Locomotive No. 3 has had a long and varied working life, spanning more than half a century. It was delivered from the EE Vulcan Foundry Works at Newton-le-Willows in January 1968 as D8319 and spent 20 years in Scotland before transfer to Toton in 1988, by which time it had become 20219 under TOPS renumbering.
195025/023 pass signal ES33 with ECS from Sheffield to Longsight TMD
It was soon sold to Hunslet-Barclay at Kilmarnock, along with five classmates, for refurbishment and use on weed-killing trains, when it was renumbered 20906. Next came a move to Direct Rail Services (DRS) in 1998, before 20906 was sold again in February 2005 to current owners HNRC.
Freightliner 66620 approaches Earles Sidings with aggregates from Tunstead Sidings to Radlett Redland Roadstone
Apart from the rare chance to catch some Class 20 action, it is well worth taking a ten-minute walk in a northerly direction from Bowden Lane along a path that runs parallel to the railway and brings you to another fine vantage point at an overbridge on Fulwood Stile Lane.
EMR 158777 passes signal ES32 with the 08.56 Norwich-Liverpool LS (1R74)
This is just beyond the end of the sidings complex and gives you the chance to see trains passing the two down semaphores on the main line, ES33 looking back towards the sidings and ES32 looking north towards Edale.
In addition to the regular diet of freight action, passenger services passing Earles Sidings comprise hourly Manchester-Sheffield stopping services, largely in the hands of new CAF Class 195 units, TPE Cleethorpes-Manchester services (Class 185s), and EMR Liverpool-Norwich workings (Class 153/6/8).
A pair of TPE Class 185s pass the signal box and signal ES2 with the 11.26 Cleethorpes-Manchester Piccadilly (1B77)
The signal box at Earles Sidings is a Midland Railway Type 4e design with a 35-lever frame that was built in 1929 and refurbished in 2005. Besides the down main line semaphores mentioned above, its two in the up direction are home signal ES2 close to the box and section signal ES3 near Hope station (below).
Signal ES3 stands in a delightful but rather inaccessible location!
Two other semaphores to note here are a pair of shunting arms, with ES20 controlling exit from the cement works branch and ES8 alongside down starter ES33, controlling exit from the sidings for down (northbound) freight services.
There has been a lot of talk about upgrading the Hope Valley route, and re-signalling, which had been scheduled for this year, remains a likely option in near future. That would spell a final end to boxes like Earles Sidings, as well as those at Grindleford, Edale and New Mills South Junction featured in my 22 May Hope Valley semaphores blog.