By John Kirkbride
IN the mid-1960s when my family and I first moved to Saddleworth (or in my mother’s case back to Saddleworth), I remember going for a walk one summer’s day along the route of the old railway line in Delph.
Though the rails had been removed the sleepers were still in place and the station itself was deserted, dilapidated and falling into disrepair.
It seemed a lonely, eerie sort of place, and my sister was even moved to write a poem about it, for which she received rare praise from her English teacher at school.Only 10 years earlier, Delph Station had been a noisy, bustling terminus for the fabled Delph Donkey.
The station lay at the end of the London and North Western Railway branch line that opened in 1851 to connect Oldham, Greenfield and Delph to the main Huddersfield to Manchester Line.
It seems the Delph branch had been planned from the start, but according to Peter Fox (curator at Saddleworth Museum) the cost of building the main line with its tunnel at Standedge and the splendid viaduct at Brownhill caused the accountants to turn a little green around the gills, and the project was shelved.
However, following pressure from Delph residents and local manufacturer James Lees, the new branch was grudgingly created – though apparently the launch party was a bit of a washout.
The branch left the main cross-country line between Manchester and Huddersfield at Delph Junction above Uppermill and just before it was Moorgate Halt. There was also a halt at Dobcross and from the 1920s an additional intermediate halt serving the well-known Measurements factory on Delph New Road – although trains only stopped here at certain times to deliver and collect the factory’s workers.
Although the line terminated at Delph, there was also a private siding serving Mallalieu’s imposing Bailey Mill which stood next to the station, and which sadly succumbed to a devastating fire in 2016.
It is widely believed that the Delph Donkey acquired its moniker because the original service was a carriage drawn by a horse or donkey. Disappointingly, author Gordon Suggitt has cast a shadow of doubt over this delightful tale by pointing out that the story was never proved, while fellow writer L Goddard suggests that as the branch trains also used the main Manchester to Huddersfield line, horse-drawn trains are unlikely to have been permitted.
The question will probably never be answered, but I know which story I prefer.
Perhaps the most illustrious visitor to travel on the Delph Donkey line did so in June 1960 when the Royal Train carrying HM the Queen Mother between York and Chester stayed overnight on the branch.
The final passenger train ran from Delph to Oldham Clegg Street on April 30, 1955. It was reported that the last service left Clegg Street at 11.10pm carrying more than 500 passengers stuffed into four coaches, with a large crowd – including a donkey – waiting to greet it at Delph.
The very last train to use the line, a goods service from Bailey Mill siding at Delph, ran on December 4, 1963.
Constructed (like Saddleworth Station) in local sandstone, the building at Delph was long, low and imposing, with its platform covered from end to end (Someone must have warned them about the Saddleworth weather!).
No doubt because of its robust construction the station survived, and is currently occupied by Nigel Brooke, with whom, rather fortuitously, I am well acquainted.
I asked him what condition it was in when he first acquired it, and he told me that although the original canopy had been removed some years previously the end of the line was intact, complete with buffers and track as well as a crew accommodation carriage and a small tanker. A longer carriage also remained intact and was connected to the station to provide an entrance.
The building had previously been used as a hydrotherapy clinic and the interior had been completely boarded out, hiding all the original fireplaces and features. During the subsequent restoration, Nigel found a number of interesting artefacts, including enamel signs from old cigarette machines dated 1927.
He also told me something else, related to the contentious Delph Donkey nickname, which did not show up in any of the research for this article.
After the track was removed, footings were dug beneath the line in preparation for the building of a small garage, but what they found was totally unexpected.
Nigel said: “To my surprise, at approximately six foot down a set of sleepers were discovered in a 20-foot excavated section, perfectly spaced and undisturbed, leading me to believe that a much lower track existed before the Delph branch operated on steam.
“It would also appear that a smaller section on the left at the very end of the building pre-dates the main section.”
It is Nigel’s theory that goods being carried by canal may have been transferred to an earlier, pre-steam rail track at Delph, where they might well have been pulled by a horse or donkey, thus giving rise to the name.
With the planned garage never built and the footings filled back in, the sleepers remain to this day beneath the garden area next to the platform.
One other interesting fact is that the old plans and deeds show a public footpath crossing the rail line adjacent to the public walkway that now runs past the Fresca Restaurant.
Nigel told me he was intrigued that people would run the danger of crossing a railway track – that is, until mechanical diggers working on a new housing project near the station revealed an amazing lost secret. It seems that beneath the track is a perfectly constructed arched stone tunnel, or ‘workers subway’, which Nigel had a brief chance to video before it was filled in again within the hour.
According to Nigel the entrance to the tunnel is still intact on the Bailey Mill side, though it’s now covered.
But stories like this do make one wonder what else might be hidden beneath the earth throughout the historic region of Saddleworth.