Rusty buffer depot
"It's not an ash pit!"
The biggest attractions of our site are of course the Roundhouse, the wide range of current and preserved locomotives on display and of course the turntable itself. We sometimes forget how the site was originally used and we have to rely on old photographs and the memories of the people who were here at the time. I recently had the pleasure of having a guided tour of our yard with Dave Darwin who sorted out a few misconceptions in my mind and explained the purpose of long gone structures whose existence can now only be traced by their foundations. Dave is so full of knowledge that he often gets sidetracked with other facts, which also needed researching. I have put these in blue.
We started off in the mess room. This remains as it used to be, a busy area with tables, chairs, the old first aid room and toilets. The walls decorated with pictures of diesel locomotives and, strangely enough, pictures of aircraft. Apparently buried under the chippings outside the mess room door are the old remnants of a temporary narrow gauge track used in the building of the site. Too much trouble to lift once its use had passed it was covered over and forgotten, maybe for enthusiasts in the future to re-discover.
I donned the obligatory orange Hi-Vis as we were going track-side and looked at the Preparation Pit under the locomotive on the closest track. This was the facility used to maintain engines that could not be accommodated inside the Roundhouse building. These engines included the 9F’s and the huge LMS Beyer-Garratt with its rotating bunker. These steam engines were hungry for coal and often carried two shovels so the driver could lend a hand. The rotating bunker was designed to move the coal towards the fireman but often the access holes didn’t line up creating more of a problem. The pit is not as deep as you might have thought necessary as the huge driving wheels on steam locomotives placed the axles some three feet above ground level. It was thus possible to stand with the parts needing attention at head height. As a working area it was kept clean and empty in the steam days. Dave bemoaned the fact that occasionally steam engines used it as an ash pit today without thinking about who would have to clear it up.
We walked past one of our two water cranes that provided the supply of softened water for the steam locomotives, gravity fed from the water tank on top of our present joiners shop. Similar to our kettles of today, steam locomotives are prone to a buildup of lime scale. The addition of chemicals to hard water helped reduce the scale generated when boiled.
The water softening plant was well offsite and was positioned on a small hill to the south east of the site. Little evidence remains of this due to housing developments but a fleeting glimpse of the building may be seen in a painting in the café area.
If you examine locomotive tenders carefully you can see that the majority of space was used for water, not coal as you might have assumed. Both the Midland Compound and the Butler Henderson locomotives have water scoops under their tenders to top up the water en-route. One pound of coal could turn six pounds of water (0.7 gallons) to steam. Therefore, tender capacity ratios were normally close to 14 tons of coal per 10,000 gallons of water.
Standing beside the remnants of last gas lamp we were able to trace out the position of the ash pit, now filled in with rubble from the old coal stage, the blocked paving section where firemen used to shovel ash from engines when the ash pit wasn’t available and the foundations of the ash-pit man’s hut where he could control the electric hoist to empty the ash skip into the waiting open wagon. The ash was well watered down before lifting to prevent the light ash from blowing everywhere. In spite of this the job of the Ashman was one of the dirtiest in the shed. Dave described the procedure when an engine came into shed. Far better than transcribing it, listen to the description below.
Dave described the layout of the yard during the steam days. Similar to the inside of the roundhouse each track had a name according to its purpose or destination, some were obvious, some less so. The diagram below from our archive collection reflects his description.
We continued up the yard to the location of the original signal box, only a few yards from the present signal box recovered from the Pinxton site. This signal box was positioned to control the signals and points required to send locomotives up the Springwell branch and to control movements within the various sidings in the goods yard and Barrow Hill itself.
Looking to the right we could trace out through the trees and electricity pylons the route of the short head shunt siding which had two purposes. The first was to provide access for coal wagons for the brick works which, until only recently, was a dominant feature alongside our yard. The second use was to provide a run for the tank engines to push the loaded coal wagons up the slope towards the top of the coaling stage. Getting this wrong could spell disaster, too slow and the trucks would not get up the steep slope, too fast and there was the risk of falling off the end of the coal stage track.
Lost forever are the foundations for the weighing facility that was situated beside the machine line. Trucks at the coal loading points, the collieries of Markham and Blackash, were weighed empty and loaded. They were given a weigh bill which detailed how much coal was loaded. On their arrival here they were re-checked to ensure that nothing had been “lost” en-route.
Walking back down the line towards the location of the former Coaling Stage we passed the position of another water crane, long gone. The coaling stage itself has a page all of its own and it is still possible to see the position of the two set of stairs and the main foundations themselves. Obviously the main function of the coal stage was at the high level so I asked what was stored underneath. “Rats and muck” was the answer “nobody went under there”.
As the wind whistled past our ears we looked at the two piles of blocks in the coal stage foundations. These weren’t as I had thought, the last remnants of the coaling stage, but were from road alterations around Chesterfield Market Street. Looking closely we could still see the black asphalt marks from the road surface.
Walking around the side of the Roundhouse we crossed the short track that once had plans for a wheel drop facility although this was never built. All of the land to the right was the position of the old goods yard, now taken by the Deltic Shed and the various commercial workshops, offices and stores. The siding continued down past the building.
We looked upwards to the roof of the Roundhouse. This had been replaced and a lot of the original architectural features from the original grand structure have been lost.
Looking out through the main gates we can see the old canteen building to the left hand side, now used as a commercial garage. To the right was the original position of a cottage and stables.
The track leading out to the right immediately after the gates now forms the access path for oil tankers to deliver to our diesel refueling facility positioned on our access to the main line. This now forms a small but valuable income which helps keep the museum open for us all.
A 'rusty buffer depot' was how Barrow Hill was known. It never had the glamour of dealing with passenger trains yet it provided a service without which coal and goods could not move around the country, keeping the fires lit and the lights on. An illustrated look around the yard might give an insight into 'how things were' in the steam era.
It is easy to judge the decisions taken to dismantle key buildings in the light of its change to a museum but we have to remember that for 50 years the Roundhouse serviced diesel locomotives, preservation was never thought about and if a building was in the way, or in a poor state, it was demolished.
As it was
As it became (and still is)
A rare shot during the change